By Molly Toth
The Fourth of July can be a bittersweet holiday for many. It can conjure up memories of fireworks and cookouts, blazing summer heat, candy gathered from parade routes. It’s a time to remember our country’s founding principles—things like equality, freedom, democracy. It can also be a stark reminder of how far we are from those ideals and how greatly so many among us suffer in what we were told is the land of opportunity.
I am a Christian Unitarian. The foundational text of my faith is a simple one: Matthew 25, wherein Jesus says, “When I was hungry, you gave me something to eat, and when I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink. When I was a stranger, you welcomed me, and when I was naked, you gave me clothes to wear. When I was sick, you took care of me, and when I was in jail, you visited me. … Truly, I say to you, whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Today, as in Jesus’ time, the vulnerable are those who hunger and thirst, those who are bereft of hope and freedom, those who are sick and cast out. Our call to care for them is no different than it was millennia ago.
On this particular Fourth of July weekend, the call could not be louder. We are in a struggle for equitable health care for all, a struggle for the very soul of our country.
My state legislature recently passed a bill repealing Medicaid expansion. Our governor calls himself a “compassionate conservative” and refers often to his Christian faith. We do not know whether he will veto this bill. On the national level, legislators are returning home after unveiling an unprecedently vicious attack on the sick and will hear not only from the people who will be most affected by the proposed health care legislation but by those who care for them and care about them.
My brother was 22 years old when he had an aortic aneurysm and spent 17 days in the hospital. What is it like to come so close to losing someone so young? It is shocking, heartbreaking, terrifying. And as my brother lay in bed with 18 tubes snaking in and out of his body, my only thought was, How will we pay for this? My brother was uninsured while he finished his undergrad work, unable to stay on our father’s insurance after Dad retired from his job as a Teamster driver.
In the United States, if you’re fortunate, God, grace, and luck align from time to time. My brother was treated at a Catholic hospital by one of the area’s best heart surgeons, who just happened to be scrubbing up when my brother came into the emergency room. He had a wonderful nurse who signed him up for Medicaid, which our state’s governor had the good sense to expand in 2013.
The Medicaid expansion saved my brother’s life. Today, he is healthy, happy, and poised to do great things. It also saved him, and my entire family, from financial ruin.
I see the life-giving effects of the Medicaid expansion on the women with whom I work every day in my job at a local nonprofit. We provide permanent supportive housing for women who have been chronically homeless or are at-risk of becoming homeless and who have a disability, including having survived domestic violence. These women come to us hungry. They come to us tired. Through the Medicaid expansion, they gain coverage, see doctors (many of them for the first time in decades), find counseling to deal with trauma and addiction, and they find peace. I work in northeast Ohio, in the epicenter of the opioid crisis, where in one month this year we had over 180 overdoses and 29 deaths—nearly a death a day. The Medicaid expansion and the inclusion of substance abuse screenings and mental health treatment as essential benefits in the Affordable Care Act are saving the lives of our most vulnerable.
Sometimes “the least of these” can be the person sitting next to you in the pew on Sunday, or the neighbors next door. My church is in an urban neighborhood of a city hit particularly hard by deindustrialization, white flight, and disinvestment. Many of our congregants piece together work with multiple part-time jobs and have no guaranteed health insurance benefits. Many people from group homes and shelters worship with us each week. The Affordable Care Act, while imperfect, has given them a fighting chance.
In this Fourth of July week, we can fight for our values by letting our representatives know that we will not turn our backs on “the least of these.” God, grace, and luck need a push from all of us to make a better world possible.
Molly Toth is an Advocacy Coordinator for a northeast Ohio nonprofit, where she works on policy and programming to improve the lives of women and working people.