A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Rev. Donald Gillett: Elimination of vision, dental benefits runs contrary to the teachings of Jesus

Scripture tells us that God is the Great Physician. The Gospels provide story after story of Jesus’ healing ministry on earth. The apostles continued this ministry in the world, bringing not just spiritual good news, but physical wellbeing to the poor and oppressed. These are the examples that we in the Christian faith are called to follow, and other faith traditions have similar requirements to address the good of the whole person. It is this deep-seeded value that is offended by the recent decision to end dental and vision coverage for one in ten Kentuckians.

These small but key health benefits could mean the difference for low-income Kentuckians between an inconvenient trip to the dentist or a stroke or heart attack; an hour in the optometrist’s chair or a lifetime of diabetes or blindness. Oral health is health! Vision health is health! To revoke our neighbors’ ability to receive this care is to reject the inherent dignity we each carry as part of God’s creation.

Belief in the inherent dignity of each person and commitment to policies that reflect this dignity drove the Poor People’s Campaign a National Call for Moral Revival and the Kentucky Council of Churches back to the Capitol over and over this summer. As we continue pursuing a just commonwealth, our faith compels us now to speak out against cruel health care cuts. These choices are deeply at odds with our faith, as illustrated by one of the fundamental principles of the Poor People’s Campaign A National Call for Moral Revival:

“We believe that people should not live in or die from poverty in the richest nation ever to exist. Blaming the poor and claiming that the United States does not have an abundance of resources to overcome poverty are false narratives used to perpetuate economic exploitation, exclusion, and deep inequality.”

A recent federal court ruling against proposed barriers to health coverage (known as Kentucky’s 1115 Medicaid waiver) expounded on this point well. It plainly said that the purpose of Medicaid is to provide medical assistance and that under the law there is no such thing as the undeserving poor, there is only our neighbor who deserves care. The ruling did not in any way compel the state to revoke dental and vision coverage. That was the state’s choice and a cruel one which runs contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

Rather than devising new ways of taking health care away from Kentuckians, our leaders ought to be focused on making care more accessible and affordable. There are examples all across the country of neighborly care: Alaska is lowering premiums through reinsurance, New Jersey is protecting its citizens by rejecting junk short-term insurance plans, Texas has ensured no one gets hit with a surprise, expensive out-of-network bill and in places like New Mexico advocates are moving to allow anyone to buy-in to Medicaid coverage. These are the kinds of conversations we should be having. Instead, we’re left to question the moral leadership of those who just stripped poor people of their vision and dental care.

It is possible that stripping these benefits is just a prelude to a far more catastrophic decision by our state’s leaders. In January, when the governor’s barriers to coverage were given an initial green light, he filed an executive order which amounted to a threat: take away my waiver and I’ll take away our Medicaid expansion. Now that the court has halted his waiver, half a million Kentuckians – mainly the working poor but also parents and the homeless – could be left without the ability to get care. We would be thrown back to the days when a cough or a strange rash felt like an existential threat. This is not who we are, nor whom God created us to be together.

Every time I pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” I hope and strive for a world that reflects God’s goodness and wholeness. Every time I put money in the collection plate, I trust that it will meet a need. But prayer and charity only go so far when laws are erected that steal the dignity of our people. To have shalom is to have all of our needs met in peace with one another. Providing care for the sick and wounded is a vital part of that order, which is why I urge our state’s leaders to make dental and vision care, and indeed all forms of care, a permanent part of Kentucky.

The Reverend Dr. Donald K. Gillett, II, serves as the Senior Pastor at East Second Street Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Lexington and as the Executive Director of the Kentucky Council of Churches.

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