By Scott Stearman

Newborns in 10 counties in Mississippi have a shorter life expectancy than newborns in Bangladesh.

Please read that again and let the pain behind the numbers take hold in your heart.

In this richest of nations, we have a beautiful, lush, prosperous state filled with generous, kind and shirt-off-your-back kind of people – and 10 counties compare negatively with one of the poorest of nations on Earth.

This is a moral failure and a human rights atrocity. As William Sloan Coffin said, “Poverty is a tragedy that great wealth makes a sin.”

The same is true of limited access to health care. Possibly, in Bangladesh, one could argue it’s a sad state of tragic poverty. In these very rich United States, it is reprehensible.

The United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being …, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care….”

This expressed right has been adopted in principle, but not in practice in our nation of an ever-expanding list of billionaires.

It seems beyond reason that this is a question of morality. Surely, no one thinks that mothers in 10 counties woke up one day and decided to make bad decisions and destroy their progenies’ prospects.

But this isn’t simply a question of morality, of helping the poor, the underserved, or being a person who acts in empathy. It is also a question of self-interest.

We now know – all too well – that a sneeze in Wuhan can lead to the death of millions across the globe.

Having neighbors with no access, or very limited access, to doctors or hospitals makes us all sick. None of us lives in a hermetically sealed bubble. We breathe the same air, we walk the same streets, we roam the same corridors. Masks have clearly helped, but they only go so far.

The good news is that some progress has been made nationally. The Affordable Care Act’s provisions on Medicaid expansion has empowered the poorest of the poor access to care.

But it is still the case that many states have not chosen to receive this federal assistance, which would be a lifeline for so many. Here are a few facts about Medicaid expansion:

First, the federal government provides 92% of the funding. The state pays the remaining 8%.

Second, under the American Rescue Act, the federal government will provide approximately $600 million to $800 million to states like Mississippi if it expands Medicaid this year.

Third, uncompensated care would be reduced by 40% to 50%, helping save hospitals.

In Mississippi, this expansion would pump more than $1 billion per year into the state economy, increasing state general fund revenues by $200 million a year.

It would create 19,000 jobs and increase personal income in the state by over $600 million. It would save rural hospitals and put the entire state health care system on a solid financial footing.

Because Mississippi has refused to expand Medicaid to this point:

  • Five rural hospitals have closed recently. Another 22 stand in some proximity to bankruptcy.
  • Each year, Mississippi hospitals provide $660 million in uncompensated care.
  • Only 29% of Mississippians are within 45 minutes of an advanced stroke care center.
  • Mississippi ranks 50th in the number of physicians per capita.

Without additional insurance payments, hospitals and health care in rural counties will continue to disappear.

Arkansas, which has a similar population, accepted Medicaid expansion in 2014, and only one rural hospital (with 25 beds) has closed since then.

Mississippi, a state filled with Christians who have neighbors who can scarcely afford to see a doctor, is a place where the majority would need to drive an hour to get to a stroke center in an emergency.

This begs the question, “Why?”

Why is this the case? Why have we allowed so many of our neighbors to so suffer – in a state where so many claim to follow Jesus?

It was Jesus who answered a very simple question, “Who is my neighbor?” with a story about a Samaritan traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho.

He saw a mugged and bleeding man, lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn and then the next day paid for his health care.

In Mississippi, a state filled with good Baptist people, the governor and the legislature has refused repeatedly to expand Medicaid – typically citing fiscal reasons in spite of the fact that the state hospital association has agreed to pick up all of the state’s costs.

So, again, why?

Is the answer related to the same reason the priest and the Levite walked by the man on the road to Jericho? Was it a question of dehumanization?

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” If the man bleeding on the side of the road isn’t even your brother, then walk on.

It seems to me that a few blinders keep us as Americans from seeing the person bleeding on the side of the road – the neighbor we may not know but to whom we have responsibility. And whose health might actually directly affect our own.

So, again, why not?

In a following article, I’ll argue for, and present evidence of, an answer as to “why” we are locked in this human rights atrocity that makes us all sicker.

Photo by Robert Walker from FreeImages

Scott Stearman has served as a pastor in the Christian (Baptist) tradition for three decades. His experience includes congregations in Athens, Greece and Paris, France. Most recently, he has been a pastor in New York City where he represents the Baptist global body at the United Nations (supported by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Baptist World Alliance). He is active in helping to lead NGO committees related to human rights and the freedom of religion and belief, has been active in civil societies advocacy at the High Level Political Forum around the UN’s Agenda 2030 (SDGs), and is a trustee on the board of the Parliament of World Religions.

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