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“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” — John 13:34

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May/June 2009

Washington Report to Presbyterians

Mary Jane Patterson

Director of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Washington Office (1976-89)

Mary Jane Patterson, Presbyterian elder, missionary, social worker and public policy advocate, died April 8 in Washington DC. In her years with the PC(USA) she served first as a community developer and consultant on social work for the Presbyterian Church of East Africa in Kenya. Next came assignments with the National Council of Churches Crisis in the Nation Program and the Los Angeles Council of Churches. She became associate director of the PC(USA) Washington Office in 1971 and director in 1976, working in a broad range of domestic and international issues.  She was given the Peaceseeker Award by the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship in 1988 and was designated a PC(USA) Woman of Faith in 1998. 

Mary Jane’s colleagues in the Washington Interreligious Staff Community, where she was a faithful participant during her Washington Office years, cherish the memory of her radiant smile and ready laugh, her wisdom, and the compassion and loyalty she showed to all who knew her. Her office door was always open to her ecumenical colleagues, who benefited greatly from her kindness and pastoral care.

A Reformed Call for Health Reform

by Leslie G. Woods

There is no doubt that the question of reforming the U.S. health care system is prevalent in the minds of politicians in Washington, as well as the media and the average citizen struggling with premiums, deductibles and co-payments. Indeed, the issue of equal, accessible, affordable, high-quality health care for all is not only crucial to solving the economic problems the United States now faces, but it is also the moral imperative of our time.

The costs of health care have skyrocketed in the last few decades, both in real dollars and as a portion of individual income and the national economy. In 2007, the United States spent $2.2 trillion on health expenses. This figure amounted to 16 percent of that year’s gross domestic product and almost doubled that of other developed countries. 

Unfortunately, spending does not necessarily mean quality or extensive coverage.  According to the Census Bureau, 46 million Americans were uninsured in 2007. The Census Bureau measures the number of people who have been without coverage for an entire year or more. A more expansive study underwritten by Families USA found that almost 87 million people did not have health insurance for part of the years 2007 and 2008.

Perhaps the number of uninsured would not seem so daunting if those who have health coverage could rely on consistent, quality care.  Unfortunately, however, within the United States cost and quality of care varies widely. Indeed, when the Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Peter Orszag, testifies on this issue before Congress, he frequently displays a U.S. map of Medicare expenditures, color coded to show high and low costs. The problem is that frequently the high costs do not match up with high quality of care, nor vice versa.

So the question becomes, what can we do to fix this mess? To start with the last problem first, Orszag argues, and many agree, that solving the cost disparity problem, and preventing system waste could save patients and the government hundreds of billions of dollars. On the broader questions of universal access to equal, affordable, quality care, there is less consensus. 

A battle over the components of health care reform has raged on Capitol Hill for months, even though the formal committee procedures to craft the bill started only in late April. The two main issues of contention are whether a reform package should include a “public plan” option, and how to pay for the health care overhaul.  We can only guess at this point on the final outcome to these debates.

On many occasions, including in a speech at Georgetown University on April 14, President Obama has argued that fixing our health system is essential for addressing the economic crisis. For the faith community, and Reformed Christians in particular, the issue is about more than costs, savings, and providing access to health care for “consumers.” The health care industry does not serve “consumers”; it serves “patients,” and more expressly for people of faith, “children of God,” for whom God’s vision of wellness is not bound up by insurance, economic or citizenship status.

According to a 2002 PC(USA) General Assembly statement:

God’s intention of health (shalom), for the earth and its people, and Jesus’ promise of abundant life (health, healing, and restoration to wholeness in body, mind, and spirit) are central dimensions of the faith we profess and the vocation to which we are called as Christians. The health of a society is measured in an important way by the quality of its concern and care for the health of its people.

So, God’s concern for the shalom of all persons, regardless of economic or citizenship status, brings us back to the question of what people in Washington are calling a “public plan.” The 218th General Assembly (2008)

… endorse[d] in principle the provision of single-payer universal health care reform in which health care services are privately provided and publicly financed… as the program that best responds to the moral imperative of the gospel.

The General Assembly’s vision endorses the most expansive version of a “public plan,” and though this solution is an unlikely political conclusion, it is a good vision of how to bring God’s shalom to the many, rather than the privileged few.

Advocates and politicians alike are working to produce a policy solution that will provide coverage to all, while avoiding the political pitfalls of expanding government programs and spending. This effort at compromise will likely produce a solution that will cover many more people than have access to health coverage now, but may fall short of a reformed vision for health and wholeness for all.

Yet the conversations are just beginning and it is too soon to take any effective option off the table. Members of Congress, President Obama, “consumer” groups, insurance companies and medical associations all want a say in what is finally produced by Congress. Advocacy is more important than ever. Congress must know what “real people” think about health care reform. Anecdotal stories of denied, inadequate and foregone coverage will be much more effective in moving the minds and hearts of lawmakers than will statistics and graphs. 

One option for advocates is to participate in the largest faith-inspired mobilization ever to happen around health care reform, a Week of Prayer for Health Care for All, June 19-26 — including an Interfaith Service of Witness and Prayer in Washington, D.C. on June 24.  For more information, please go to Faithful Reform in Healthcare Web site and click on the “Week of Prayer” icon or call the PC(USA) Washington Office at (202-543) 1126 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              (202-543) 1126      end_of_the_skype_highlighting.

We will follow this issue, and endeavor to keep Presbyterians abreast of developments and crucial moments for action.

Public Education: A National Priority

by Mary Anderson Cooper

Whenever he speaks about restoring the vitality of the U.S. economy, President Obama stresses three key areas that must be reformed in order for the nation to thrive: energy use, health care and education.  These are also topics of great concern to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and will be covered regularly in this and other issues of Washington Report to Presbyterians.

In a speech before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in March, the President said:

America will not remain true to its highest ideals — and America’s place as a global economic leader will be put at risk — unless we not only bring down the crushing cost of health care and transform the way we use energy, but also do a far better job than we have been doing of educating our sons and daughters; unless we give them the knowledge and skills they need in this new and changing world.  For we know that economic progress and educational achievement have always gone hand in hand in America.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)

This program replaced legislation enacted in 1965 as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). ESEA’s purpose was to fund the states to improve the quality of public school education for children in all communities, but especially in areas where poverty and racial discrimination had resulted in poor schooling and rundown facilities. For decades the ESEA helped local school boards operate the public schools with minimal interference from Washington. 

Early in the first George W. Bush administration, Congress and the White House approved significant changes in ESEA and renamed the program No Child Left Behind. NCLB has been controversial since its inception, largely because it imposed substantial burdens on the states without providing adequate funding to meet its requirements, while at the same time threatening states and school districts with withdrawal of the already inadequate funds if they failed to meet the imposed standards. NCLB is now overdue for reauthorization. Congress failed to act on it in 2008 because of disputes with President Bush over his plans to reduce both employment protections for teachers and funding for poorly performing school districts.

As described on the U.S. Department of Education’s website (last updated in 2004), NCLB “is based on stronger accountability for results, more freedom for states and communities, proven education methods, and more choices for parents.” Students in specified grades annually take standardized tests. Schools that do not improve their test scores are required to provide supplemental services to children, such as tutoring.  If they fail to improve for five years, dramatic changes must be made in the way the schools are run, which may include turning them over to states or private companies to operate, conversion into charter schools, or replacing the teachers and staff. 

An April 2009 study by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice in East Lansing, Michigan, concluded that “Overall, there is little or no evidence to suggest that any of these options delivers the promised improvements in academic achievement.” A report by the journal Education Week reported that the number of schools needing improvement increased 28 percent between 2007 and 2008, meaning that they had failed to meet test score improvement goals for two consecutive years.

The Obama Plan

The Administration’s proposal includes improvements in early childhood education, kindergarten through high school, and higher education. The economic stimulus program approved in February made a down payment toward this goal by investing $5 billion to expand access to Early Head Start and Head Start programs for an additional 150,000 pre-schoolers.

Early Childhood Education:  The Obama plan emphasizes the importance of learning from infancy through the start of elementary school by expanding access to affordable and high-quality child care, greatly increasing funding for Head Start and setting a goal of universal pre-school to prepare toddlers for classroom learning.

Kindergarten through High School:  The proposal would reauthorize and reform NCLB, improving its assessment tools, enhancing the quality of education, and supporting schools that need improvement rather than punishing them, as the current law does. It would increase funding for charter schools, establishing evaluation mechanisms to reward those that are successful and closing those that are not. Other features include making math and science education a national priority, investment in strategies to stem the dropout crisis, expanding after-school programs, and improving English-language proficiency, college readiness and opportunities to attend college. Significant resources will be focused on recruiting, training and retraining teachers and rewarding those who excel in the classroom.

Higher Education: The Administration proposal aims to make college more affordable by creating an American Opportunity Tax Credit which would make the first $4,000 of college cost free for nearly all Americans and cover two-thirds of the tuition costs for an average public college or university, making community college tuition free for most students. In exchange for this benefit, students would be required to perform community service.

Students with Disabilities: Special attention will be given to funding and enforcing legislation to protect the rights of such students, and early intervention services will be provided for infants and toddlers in this group, to assure that they are able to receive quality educations.

While many authorities on education hold that NCLB has failed to improve the nation’s schools significantly, that it has focused too heavily on teaching students how to pass the standardized tests rather than on preparing them for further studies, and that it has been chronically under-funded, there is no disputing that NCLB and the research surrounding it have revealed defects in the nation’s public schools. 

As Congress debates reauthorization, there will be ample opportunity to improve NCLB, including provisions from the Obama Administration’s plan and from education experts within and outside of Congress.

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) policy calls for “public schools that will secure an education for all children that develops their capacities to be creative and responsible citizens capable of service both to the community and to the church.”

A World Free of Nuclear Weapons

by Catherine Gordon

“We seek the total elimination one day of nuclear weapons from the face of the earth.” - President Ronald Reagan, 1985

“It is becoming clearer that nuclear weapons are no longer a means of achieving security; in fact, with every passing year they make our security more precarious.”  - Mikhail Gorbachev (President of the Soviet Union, 1988-91), January 2007

On April 5, in a speech made in Prague, President Obama pledged “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” His support for the elimination of nuclear weapons marks a re-orientation of U.S. nuclear policy to emphasize international cooperation and comprehensive arms control agreements.

The fear of nuclear weapons being acquired by more and more countries led to the establishment 40 years ago of a series of agreements to limit their spread.The Non-Proliferation Treaty is the foundation for these agreements.  Non-nuclear states who are signatories to the treaty must permanently renounce nuclear weapons; and the original nuclear weapons states who are also signatories — Great Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — must pursue the road to complete disarmament. Currently, 189 countries have signed the treaty.

The non-proliferation system is under stress. In recent years, the United States has suggested restarting nuclear testing and sought to build new nuclear production facilities and weapons. This has seriously harmed our credibility in efforts to prevent Iran, North Korea and other countries from acquiring such weapons.

In 2007 and 2008 a bipartisan group of U.S. luminaries including former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), proposed the practical steps that would need to take place to achieve a nuclear weapons free world. 

The group stated that:

The accelerating spread of nuclear weapons, nuclear know-how and nuclear material has brought us to a nuclear tipping point. We face a very real possibility that the deadliest weapons ever invented could fall into dangerous hands.

Steps toward a Nuclear Free World

While eliminating nuclear weapons will not be easy, the United States can take steps in the right direction by eliminating existing stockpiles of these weapons, ending the testing and development of new nuclear warheads, and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.

The Obama Administration has pledged in recent weeks to do just that.  The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia expires in December.  It is the cornerstone of efforts to reduce nuclear weapons and limits the number of nuclear warheads and other strategic weapons that each country can maintain, has reduced both the U.S. and Russian arsenals by between 30 and 40 percent and has helped prevent a U.S.-Russia arms race. President Obama has pledged to reduce existing stockpiles and create a follow-on to the START treaty. Ninety-five percent of the existing 20,000 nuclear weapons belong to Russia or the United States.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prohibits all nuclear test explosions, was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1996. Currently, 179 nations including the United States have signed the treaty and 144 have ratified it, but the United states and eight other key nations must ratify it in order for it to become law. The administration has promised to pursue US ratification of the treaty aggressively. Ratifying the CTBT would be a major advance in rebuilding the network of arms control agreements that have deteriorated in recent years.

An additional step toward a nuclear free world is strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by pledging along with the major nuclear powers to adhere to their disarmament obligations under that Treaty. At the same time, the United States must work with the international community to curtail efforts to produce material for nuclear weapons.  President Obama, in his recent speech on nuclear weapons, stated that: 

We will strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a basis for cooperation.  The basic bargain is sound:  countries with nuclear weapons will move toward disarmament; countries without nuclear weapons will not acquire them; and all countries can access peaceful nuclear energy.

While there is major promise in the pledges made by the new administration, in order to achieve these goals Congress will need to support these priorities.  It is important that you urge your Members of Congress to support steps to achieve a nuclear free world. Below are talking points you may want to use.

Talking Points

  • The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia expires in December 2009, adding urgency to the negotiation and ratification of a new agreement to achieve deep, verifiable reductions to both countries’ arsenals. With the Cold War over and more than 20,000 nuclear weapons in the world today, the risk of accidental launches or theft is great.
  • We can help prevent new nuclear weapons states by negotiating a new treaty that verifiably ends the production of fissile materials.
  • By taking concrete steps to reduce our nuclear arsenal, the US can set an example for other countries and strengthen the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
  • The United States must work with the international community to prevent nuclear terrorism by securing loose nuclear material.  Congress should provide funding to ensure that programs
    to secure this material succeed.
  • The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty enhances global and U.S. security by blocking new nuclear threats from emerging. Without the ability to test nuclear weapons, a country cannot proof test new warhead designs and engage in arms races by building more capable nuclear arsenals.
  • The goal of a nuclear weapons-free world and steps toward it has bipartisan support from statesmen like former Secretaries of State Kissinger and Shultz, former Senator Nunn, and former Defense Secretary Perry.

General Assembly Guidance

The 1977 General Assembly called for an end to nuclear testing.  Other Assemblies voiced support for the Non-Proliferation Treaty (1971) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (1992). 

In 1981, the General Assembly endorsed the “Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race” that sought a mutual freeze on the testing, production and deployment of nuclear weapons and of missiles and new aircraft designed primarily to deliver nuclear weapons.

Save The Date

Ecumenical Advocacy Days 2010
March 19-22, Washington D.C.

Confirmed speakers include Bishop Minerva Carcaño, United Methodist Church, Desert Southwest Conference; the Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, general minister and president, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); and Sister Helen Prejean, Roman Catholic anti-death penalty activist.