Saturday, August 29, 2009

Brother's keeper on health care?

Perry Flippin relayed some Pulpit Patter he read from a friend's church bulletin. The writer pastors the First Methodist Church in Yoakum. His editorial evolved from the verse in Genesis 4:9 where the Lord God said to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?" Cain's famous reply was "I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?"

From the word "keeper" Pastor Phil explained that in the Hebrew language the word "keeper" means more than "unintended emotional baggage, as in I don't want to be somebody's keeper any more than I want to be kept."

In the Hebrew the word means much more, such as to guard, to watch for, to preserve, protect and be aware of others. This original meaning of the word is much deeper and broader than our English word.

Then the pastor appeared to some to be wandering from a Bible sermon. Pastor Phil wrote concerning the health care insurance debate by asking “Is universal health care a human right?” He said, "I believe it is."

After such a question followed by such a bold answer, I wonder if he is still preaching at that church. I've met and heard from church people (mostly via e-mail) who do not want government to have any say in health care. Without realizing it, these folks want to keep the human right of health care in the hands of the health insurance industry. A monopoly that has become monetarily obese with the way they handle premiums and cancel policies as they please.

I wanted to share this with the church-going, believing Christians who take Bible admonitions seriously. "Love your neighbor as yourself." The Chinese say that with only four words: "Ai Ren Ru Ji." We say it with more words, but has it sunk in enough that we actually put it into practice?

Being a brother/sister to others and caring for them as we care for ourselves is not canceled when it involves finances. People are people, even if some ride a bicycle and others a Cadillac; if some can't help themselves and others overindulge themselves.

Why should health care be less important than keeping our roads paved? Or our police and firemen alert and paid? It is our taxes that do that along with countless other benefits many of us never see. Brother Phil says it is the best interest of everyone to remove financial barriers from access to quality health care.

There is no doubt there is corruption and abuse of power in government. But it is equally true that numbers of the health insurance industry show little efficiency and concern for the health and welfare of the people. The insurance monopoly has spent millions and millions of dollars to defeat the public option proposal. They have not been ethical in their attack by lies and half-truths. Why? Because it would cut into their ungodly profits. It would not put them out of business.

God's concern for Cain is seen in his question. He cared for Able, ill-treated and abused to death, and for Cain, the abusing brother. Possible God hoped a lesson would be learned and Cain would turn over a new leaf and care for, rather than mistreat, the rest of his fellow-humans. We are connected. When one hurts, we all eventually hurt.

Last week when I wrote on the need for a public option, many were in favor. Other e-mail response were negative. One in particular wrote of my daughter's uninsured situation: "I am truly sorry ... However I am beyond appalled that you would exploit this situation to propagate the misinformation of the extreme left's mission to socialize our health care industry. Shame on you."

It is time the health insurance issue was recognized as an American need. It is not a party issue. It is far beyond such petty opinions between politicians looking fearfully how to vote. It is a moral issue. We are all in the same boat. Last Friday, on the Bill Maher TV program, Bill Moyers said: "We [America] are a great crippled giant with self-inflicted wounds..." We have ignored the moral law for outright greed on a national scale. Without a public option there is no reform. Only a weak and worthless law. Some will accept anything or nothing, but half a loaf is not better than a full loaf. Hang in there President Obama until the whole loaf is done, even if it takes decades or years. It took American women 140 years to be allowed to vote. There were no food and drug laws until 1900s. It was 100 years after the Civil War that blacks were treated as full citizens.

I keep wondering, what is it that keeps us from being something greater than we are? Selfishness, egocentricity, xenophobia, the blame game? Rejecting these attitudes can help us find our way to a heritage greater than any this nation has ever known.

See you in church.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Bro, Can You Spare An Idea?


John Steinbeck, one of the 20th century's greatest writers, once said, "Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen of them."

The author of "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Of Mice and Men," and many other fiction classics, has it right about ideas. If I come across an idea it is dumb luck and can lead to even better ones. Ever so often when I stumble onto what I think is a great column, a portion of the masses of readers disagree.

I have not given up on producing the Great American Novel just yet. Every would-be writer has had a fling at that idea. Fiction demands more imagination than I can muster.

Ideas do not grow on trees nor in a cluttered up mind. That may be where my trouble lies as a "columnist." My mind is muddled up with a fruitless orchard.

Take today for example. I am in the waiting room of the eye doctor. My wife is seeing the ophthalmologist. The fellow next to me is going on about needing a haircut. I agreed but kept it to myself. I guess the idea of a haircut reminded him of a 1970s long-haired male teenager. The kid wanted a car real bad. He was always hinting for a car one way or another. The boy's dad tells him if he'd quit smoking weed, go to church and get a haircut, he might consider getting him a car.

That reminded me of Nurse Lounette and her family's holiday trip from Hong Kong, where they worked, to Singapore. One of their teenage boys wore his blond hair good and stringy long. At the immigration desk they were informed the boy gets a haircut if he wants to visit Singapore. What does he do? He gets back on the plane to Hong Kong and home. He preferred his hair to an exciting holiday in Malaysia and Singapore. Hair was sacred back in those days.

Getting back to my fellow-waiting-for-his-wife and his hair story, he said a few months later the boy came to his father and announced he no longer smoked anything, was reading his Bible and had been going to church. But you have not cut your hair, the father told him. The boy looked stunned. Well, forget it the boy said. Even a new car was not worth having his golden locks sheared to a decent appearance.

These hair stories from out of the past certainly prove Mark Twain was correct when he said, "Always do right - this will gratify some and astonish the rest." Back then long-haired boys felt gifted, the rest of us were astonished how much it meant to them.

Sometimes my creative juices fairly amaze me ("creative juices" is a worn out cliché; which is a chestnut of an oxymoron). The ideas flow as my mind leaps like a monkey from tree to tree. Ideas sprouting as I swing and sway from tree to tree. If a tree is too far for my rope, I'm left dangling between brilliant ideas, dazzling plots or award-winning column ideas. Most times the result is nothing more than mental fatigue. Take an Advil and start over tomorrow.

The next day, the will to write has flown the coop. Steinbeck's rabbits are all gone. There is no desire to open up the computer. The temptation to skip a day without writing is powerful. Take a day off, enjoy life a bit. Then you remember the wise man once said: opportunity may knock only once, but temptation leans on the doorbell.

Nothing is accomplished by putting it off. I have done that enough times to be an expert. I have been putting off finishing a short story for eight years. I keep going back to it in hopes it is better than when I left it. The physical exercise I have been putting off caught up with me this week. For over an hour I have not moved in my chair in the waiting room, trying to read "The Family" by Jeff Sharlet. I had no idea my left leg was as sound asleep baby in a cradle.

I got up to meet my wife as she came out of the doctor's office and immediately my left leg refused to listen to any command from my brain to move. It was almost as if it were no longer a part of me. If you ever want a room full of folks to get up from their seats at once, just collapse to the floor like I did at that moment. Nothing was broken this time.

I say, this time no furniture was broken, because the last time we were there a week or so ago, the waiting room was full again and I eased down on a glass-topped coffee table but the ease was more than the little table could take. I crashed through it and sat embarrassed on the floor, that happened to break my fall. Everybody jumped to their feet and all the staff stuck their heads out the doors. I told the nurses to put the glass on our bill.

My wife laughed at me all the way home. I've always felt her sense of humor a bit strange. She went on to suggest on the next doctor's visit I wait in the car. All that to say I have no ideas for a column this week.

This first appeared in print Aug. 28 in the Brownwood Bulletin, Texas. Then it was on my Houston Chronicle blog and Monday, Akug 31 in the San Angelo Standard-Times of the city of San Angelo, Texas. Others around the world probably picked it up and have used and enjoyed it. -- Britt Towery, retired minister and writer lives in San Angelo. He welcomes ideas via e-mail:
For more of his tales visit

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Reform the Health Insurance Industry


It took me a year of searching to find a medical neurologist in Tom Green County that would agree to see my uninsured 45-year old daughter.

She had her first epileptic seizure while working in the kitchen of a public school north of San Antonio. She badly sprained her wrist as she fell to the floor that day. Her school health insurance paid for that emergency hospital visit. When it was evident doctors would not release her to return to work, she was given sick leave and had insurance for three months.

Still unable to work, the school dropped the insurance. There were other seizures and the bills and pills increased. Being recently widowed and with a 10-year old boy in special ed, the darkness made its home in her house.

Living in San Angelo, we found it very difficult to be of much help to here 200 miles away. She moved to San Angelo and the search was on for some medical help. I was informed by a certain hospital staff member that there might be a neurologist in Brownwood, and maybe in Midland, that would see uninsured patients. This same official informed me there were no San Angelo neurologists seeing the uninsured.

Calls were made to Brownwood and a neurologist agreed to see her. But the travel expense and charges were beyond us. We found the same problem in Midland.

I will jump ahead to say we finally found a San Angelo neurologist that would in faith, take on the challenge. But only after I assured his office we would pay cash as long as we had it. Had they inspected my bank account they might have had second thoughts.

This year the guidance of a fine neurologist and his staff and the medications (Shannon Prescriptions Assistance Program) have certainly helped her condition.

A recent national survey estimates that 12.6 million non-elderly adults (like our daughter) have tried to purchase health insurance but because of a pre-existing condition, or dropped coverage due to illness, insurance was out of the question. (Without reform, projections suggest the12.6 million number will rise to about 72 million in 2040.)

Besides these problems, Americans are paying more for health coverage due to health insurance premiums having nearly doubled since 2000 (A rate three times faster than wages). It does not take a math wizard to figure out that a full-time minimum wage job individual makes health insurance out of reach for them.

Insurance of all kinds is generally a good thing to have. The insurance industry has created millions of millionaires and not a few billionaires, many of them honest, caring people. But when insurance CEOs can take millions in bonus and more when they retire, the lock on the hen house is broken.

The national press informs us that half of all personal bankruptcies are partly due to rising medical expenses. Some have called it "Heartbreak in the Heartland."

The average small businessman or woman finds it more and more difficult to meet payrolls because of the health coverage policy increase. In the last nine years small businesses offering insurance overage dropped from 68% to 59%.

I know my Uncle Louis and his little grocery store could not stay open with the Wal-Marts, etc., and would certainly folded if faced with today's industry of health insurance providers. If no reform comes from Congress the insurance industry will continue to pave the road to the poor house.

A lady who works for the insurance industry began the myth that doctor-patient-family consultation encourages early death for old folks. Consultation with a dying patient or the family is something every doctor probably is already doing, without being paid extra for it. And it certainly does not encourage "euthanasia," as Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley has said. (I watched his "town hall" meeting on C-Span and could not believe anyone so incoherent and stumbling could be a senator.) Many families need to face the reality of death and who better to know the situation than the patient and doctor?

Medicare is safe and sound and will not die because of reforms. Another myth has health insurance reform affecting veterans' access to care. Not so. Veteran's care is increased in the reforms.

Reform will make prescription drugs more affordable for seniors. If you have insurance, you are not forced to drop it. Reform will expand choices, not eliminate them. Lounette Templeton assured me of that. She is one old nurse you can trust (not as in old age, she's just a good old girl, as in "good old boys").

The government will not touch your bank account. That absurd myth must have come from offices high up in some profit-making health care facility. I read that myself in the yet-to-be-passed reforms.

Reforms will not allow Insurance companies to refuse renewal because someone gets sick. Plus, they cannot raise the policy cost when they learn of your illness.

A friend, in the business of processing insurance claims, said how amazed he was in the many and varied excuses insurance companies have for not paying a claim. This is a personal call for fairness and honesty. Reform brings us part-way toward humane treatment for all.

"Health reform is a test of whether this country can function once again as a civil society -- whether we can trust ourselves to embrace the big, important changes that require everyone to give up something in order to make everyone better off." (The Washington Post)

We will not have health reform until health care is a not-for-profit undertaking again. It worked years ago and can work again.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The right to bear modern arms?

17th Century "Arms"and the 21st Century Versions.
What does the phrase in the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution mean? "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

This phrase has resulted in diverse interpretations and opinions. Sometimes the debate turns into a shouting match where nothing is clear and little understood. The Founding Fathers could never have imagined today's arms with such tremendous firepower.

Daily we read of trauma-induced soldiers' sad encounters; family arguments ending in tragedy; those whose minds trip them up over lost of a boy friend; fanatics and their "causes"; kids playing with a loaded gun.

Those capable of helping head off such episodes are too few. There are not enough social workers, psychologists, pastors, counselors or perceptive friends to intercede. Many paid and non-paid people man the suicide hot lines, and give time and energy to prevent such horrors, are to be commended. Prevention is paramount.

Outgunned police find it next to impossible to enforce the law when facing mobs, gangs or thieves who have anti-aircraft caliber machine guns. Guns, far more than poisons, knives, axes, piano wire or rope, continues as the top murder choice by the sick, insane or angered party.

What was in the minds of the 18th century Founders who unselfishly gave of their wealth and property to assure their descendents a better life in this New World? True, there where hostile Indians; slaves wanted to be free; Frenchmen in Canada wanted some of the action; Loyalists wanted the colony back. Hunting game was important as well. So a Turkish Ottoman matchlock musket was very useful.

How could these founders of this country 200 years ago have any idea what the people and nation would look like in the 21st century? They knew German or Italian flintlock pistols. There was the French percussion flintlock. Muzzle-loading muskets were primarily an infantry weapon. Using a rod, the musket was loaded with a lead ball, wrapped in paper or linen and backed with gunpowder. Loading and unloading a musket was a very slow process.

The Second Amendment's 27 words are easy to read. Today it takes hundreds of words to interpret the original meaning. Basically it says citizens have a right to protect themselves. This was such an ordinary thing to do, many did not see the sense in making it law. It is normal to love, defend and protect our home and nation from the violence of thieves, run-away slaves or Indians. Even oppression from foreign powers. But it says nothing about using those arms against our government. No matter how bad things may appear to folks on the fringe, problems are solved by votes, not bullets.

This idea of protection was evident before the colonist formed the United States. President Thomas Jefferson is often quoted as writing that "no free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms." The Constitution makes it plain we are to defend this rare and precious new-found liberty and freedom.

Then comes the sticky part, What kind of Militia is called for? The law says a "well regulated" Militia. It was the intention that the new federal government would do the regulating, training and direction. Militias were not formed to go against the government, but protect it.

Can you imagine 21st century farmers and urbanites grabbing their weapon and rushing out in the streets to save the nation from being overthrown. The 18th century citizen had a gun and used it for hunting and against horse thieves and Indian raids. Now that the war with England had been won, the Constitution made sure that guns would not be taken away from the citizens. Today's militia is not today's National Guard. If it were our guns should be stored in the National Guard armory and checked out when the government saw need for a Militia.

There is no way under the sun the writers of the Constitution could envision how powerful firearms would evolve after 1799, any more than we can guess what will be the situation in West Texas in the year 2399.

Why is the National Rifle Association so intimidated when anyone merely suggests discussion about military-type assault weapons? They inform us that their freedoms are being infringed. Such guns, along with pistols, etc., are of no use in hunting, yet the NRA is so insecure they fear that banning assault weapons is just the first step toward taking all the guns away from them and all gun collectors.

My particular take on the Second Amendment suggests everyone can own a musket, but nothing else. Maybe a single-shot BB gun. (But mothers agree they can put your eye out.) Whatever a hunter needs legally to enjoy his chosen hobby should not be infringed. There might even be a place for those who like target practice, but not targets with the human form. After practice, leave the pistola at the range under lock and key.

This is not likely to solve any arguments. Those will go on until the end of time, or end of America, which ever comes first.

Remembering Hiroshima

The city of Hiroshima, Japan, gained instant world-wide attention on August 6, 1945, when it was all but demolished by a bomb few knew existed, the atomic bomb. The United States dropped the first atomic bomb ever used in warfare that day. (The flash of the explosion is said to have been seen as far away as Shanghai, China.)

It was an event that stunned the world, destroyed the city on Honshu, Japan's largest island, and introduced what some call the Nuclear Age. As bad as it was, it hurried the end of World War II against the Empire of Japan.

The bomb, delivered by B-29s, had been ironically nicknamed "Little Boy" when "Big Devil" would have been more descriptive. On August 9, a second nuclear bombing took place over Nagasaki. This bomb had been nicknamed "Fat Boy." The weird custom of naming bombs reveals how war bends the mind and spirit of those who take part. The enemy is not viewed as human, but something to be killed or humiliated.

Earlier President Harry Truman issued an ultimatum to the Japanese, but it was ignored by the emperor and the war party.

The two bombs killed as many as 140,000 in Hiroshima and 80,000 in Nagasaki. Roughly half of these deaths were on the days of the bombing. Many died later from shock, trauma and the awful radiation burns, followed by cancer deaths, malnutrition and illness. The majority were civilians. (The total devastation was still far below what Japan poured out on China and Southeast Asia from 1930 to 1945.)

It did not take many days for the Empire of Japan to see what they were up against. Reality brought the nation to its knees. On August 15, Japan surrendered. The actual signing was September 2, officially ending Japan's plan to rule all of Asia and become a world power. Germany had surrendered on May 7, ending the war in Europe.

Japan, following occupation by American forces, started all over with a new constitution and policy forbidding Japan from nuclear armament and non-nuclear principles. (If only the rest of the world's nations had done the same. Now, 64 years into the Nuclear Age, life as we know it will always hang by a thin thread of ultimate and possible annihilation atom by atom.)

Many are the books and articles, documentaries and films made around the events of August, 1945. None is better than John Hersey's 1946 book "Hiroshima." John Hersey was born in 1914 in Tianjin, China, to missionary parents and lived there his first dozen years. He was for a time Sinclair Lewis's secretary and a journalist.

Out of his own life and experience he was able to tell the Hiroshima story through the lives of six people and what they experienced that day. He does not preach, nor give any historical or political analysis. As one reviewer of the book says, he tells the story from the oft-neglected human or civilian side.

The story was written for the New Yorker Magazine, but due to the interest the article took over the entire edition that month.

Through the six survivors Hersey gives a human and moving picture of that day and the following weeks. One was a Jesuit Priest who had been a long resident in Japan. The others were Japanese: a widowed seamstress, two doctors, a Methodist minister and a young woman clerk at the tin works.

One of the doctors was the only doctor in the hospital unhurt. He thought only his hospital had been hit. Hersey writes, "... while outside, all over Hiroshima, maimed and dying citizens turn their unsteady steps toward the red cross hospital to begin an invasion."

Some present day critics do not think the book is dramatic or forceful enough. Have we become too enamored with war movies and hair-raising tales to realize what real horror and total devastation are like? Hersey's tone and uncluttered presentation needs to be read by a new generation.

The scene of that horror has become a spiritual center of the peace movement. The Peace Memorial Park there is dedicated to those killed in the raid. The Atomic Bomb Dome is the only ruin left and the only building to survive the blast.