Editor's note: A wide coalition of religious groups, including the National Council of Churches, the Southern Baptist Convention, the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and the Islamic Society of North America joined together this week to promote Cover the Uninsured Week. More than 650 interfaith events are taking place throughout the country from March 10 through March 16. Below, two sponsors of the week explain why health insurance should be a priority for religious groups.

Forty-one million is a big number. Forty-one million people is equal to the combined population of New York, New Jersey, Iowa, New Mexico, Colorado and Oregon. In terms more personal to us, 41 million is two and a half times the number of Southern Baptists in the United States. It is two out of every three Catholics in America. It is one out of every three Christians of any type in the United States. It is also the number of Americans who don't have health insurance of any kind, public or private.

At least eight and a half million of the uninsured are children, or one out of every eight children in the United States. Picture 340,000 classrooms full of children who might not be able to see a doctor when they are hurt or sick, who do not get preventive check-ups to keep them healthy, who suffer untreated ear infections, eyesight problems, and other undiagnosed health problems that hinder their learning.

For the most part the uninsured are not the unemployed. In fact, eight out of ten are in working families. They work, but they are not offered health coverage through their employer or they cannot afford the premiums. And they are not eligible for public programs such as Medicaid or one of the State Children's Health Insurance Programs. These uninsured Americans live sicker and die younger because they are forced to go without the medical care they need. Uninsured adults and children are less likely to receive preventive care, such as annual checkups and tests that could indicate serious illnesses. As a result, many treatable illnesses, such as diabetes and cancer, are not discovered until it is too late. Uninsured women with breast cancer are 49 percent more likely to die than women with breast cancer who have insurance.

Consider Betsy Rotzler. Throughout the summer of 1996, Betsy had not been feeling well. Just a few years prior, she certainly would have seen a doctor. But the family had been without health insurance for three years since her husband Gary was laid off from a corporate management job. He now worked several low-wage jobs, but none offered health insurance or paid enough for Gary to purchase it. Although Betsy continued to feel sick, she wouldn't schedule a doctor visit that the family could not afford. Finally, in October 1996, Betsy got a free medical exam at a local clinic. The doctors knew right away that something was very wrong-Betsy had advanced inflammatory breast cancer. Three weeks later she was admitted to the hospital, but it was too late. Betsy slipped into a coma and died less than five days later at age 36, leaving behind a grieving husband and three children ages 9, 13, and 17.

Comforting the sick and dying and bereaved is part of the ministry to which we are called. In those hard, hard times, we offer the truest words of solace and comfort that we know, trusting in a God of inestimable love and care. But there is no word of truth we can offer that excuses the needless suffering of uninsured Americans. There is no faithful justification for basic health care being available to some, while others go without. The God of life whom we worship calls us to seek the health and well-being of all of God's people, and to serve them with justice and compassion.

There are, to be sure, fundamentally different approaches to solving the problem of uninsured Americans. We represent faith communities that have profound differences in theology, clear differences on social concerns, and substantial differences on policy solutions. But those differences are transcended by a shared concern for the human suffering and profound injustice of the plight of uninsured Americans. Betsy's heart-broken mother said, "When you're uninsured, you just have to hope to God that you and your family do not get sick." We can do more than just hope and pray for the uninsured like Betsy. We must also act. And so we stand together at this time, urging people of faith, of justice and compassion, to join us in a call for care, to join us in our determination to Cover the Uninsured.

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