Reaching out...together

Published November 12, 2020

By John Coggin

And a large crowd followed [Jesus] and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.” – Mark 5:24-29
We are approaching the 12-year anniversary of the passage of the American Affordable Care Act (ACA). The ACA was not perfect legislation, but one thing it did well was to offer states the option of expanding Medicaid coverage to millions of hardworking Americans who are making ends meet, but barely. These newly eligible people are our neighbors and our friends, and they keep our economy going. Allowing them to access Medicaid means they can focus on feeding their families without staying up at night worried about the financial implications of getting sick or injured.

Only 12 states have chosen not to expand Medicaid, and North Carolina is one of them. At first, that decision was understandable. Even though the federal government promised to bear the lion’s share of the financial burden, Medicaid expansion’s sustainability and value were both untested. So we waited. 

We waited as other states expanded. We waited to see the benefits…or the fallout. As we waited, something remarkable happened. States that expanded saw decreases in poverty rates, deaths from opioid overdoses, rural hospital closures, and health insurance premiums. And, all of these successes happened while producing net savings for state budgets.

Yet still, we waited. We waited as six rural hospitals closed in North Carolina. We waited as health disparities increased. We waited as the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuring economic crisis forced hundreds of thousands more people into the health insurance coverage gap.
Now, nearly 12 years after the ACA was first introduced, we are still waiting.

In the Christian tradition, one account of Jesus’ life includes the story of a woman who also waited 12 years for care. The translation above uses the word “hemorrhages,” but scholars are not sure what medical condition this word describes, beyond some problem with bleeding. Not only would this be a dangerous condition and difficult to treat in the ancient world, but with a problem involving blood, she would be seen as religiously unclean and a social outcast.

She had been to every doctor she could find. She had gone bankrupt seeking treatment and advice. Twelve years is not an easy wait when you are avoided in the town square and not allowed into your place of worship. Many of us have almost collapsed under a few months of isolation this year, never mind a dozen years. Yet she suffered for 12 years before, out of sheer desperation, she reached out to a wandering carpenter who people said could heal the sick.

When Christians like me read this story, we often jump straight to the healing part, wondering at the power of Christ to make people well. We do not pay enough attention to the strength it took for the woman to reach out one more time, to hope against hope, to allow herself to be disappointed yet again.

I will leave it to people smarter than me to theorize what happened when she touched that cloak, but regardless, I can say the good news of this story is that even at her lowest point, she had the courage to reach out…and when she did, she found healing.

Twelve years after the ACA was introduced, hundreds of thousands of people in North Carolina are still waiting for healing. Expanding Medicaid will not immediately end their suffering like the touch of a cloak. Closing the coverage gap will not magically solve every problem with our broken healthcare system, or turn every hospital balance sheet to the black, or completely shore up the foundations of struggling local economies.

But it is a strong step in the right direction on all these fronts. We know it will provide comfort and access to quality care for sick people. We know it will be a boon to the healthcare sector without being a drag on the state government’s coffers. Most importantly, we know it is something we can do together.

A striking 77% of North Carolinians – rural and urban, conservative and liberal – support closing the coverage gap. Over 200 leaders of businesses, local governments, and faith communities have joined together to call for a state-wide solution. We have powerful allies – both Republican and Democrat – in the General Assembly and the Council of State who are ready to make this happen next year.

After 12 years, many who have been searching for a North Carolina solution to the health insurance coverage gap may be rightfully weary. We have pursued every avenue, talked to every legislator, seen every statistic, and heard every heart-breaking story. Those who are desperate for affordable insurance and are struggling to pay their healthcare bills may not think they have another month left before they collapse under the strain.

Regardless of our individual faiths, I hope we can find strength in the story of the brave woman in Mark’s gospel who refused to admit defeat. A strong coalition has been built through the efforts of Care4Carolina. A diverse group of cross-sector leaders in North Carolina are ready to speak up. And the people of North Carolina, by electing a team of executive and legislative representatives across the political spectrum, are saying that it is finally time for our leaders to work together for the good of all of our people.

Twelve years is a long wait. It may take everything we have to reach out one more time. But we can take comfort and hope in knowing that this time, we will be reaching out….together.
John Coggin is a nonprofit consultant and doctoral student in the Durham University (UK) Department of Theology and Religion. He previously served as the treasurer of Care4Carolina.