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Adding prayer services to healthcare bill

by Brad A. Greenberg

November 16, 2009 | 2:32 pm

It seems most the coverage of the healthcare-reform bill has focused on the abortion amendment hailed as a “major pro-life victory.” But this provision, mentions by the Los Angeles Times, is worth giving a second glance:

The measure would put Christian Science prayer treatments—which substitute for or supplement medical treatments—on the same footing as clinical medicine. While not mentioning the church by name, it would prohibit discrimination against “religious and spiritual healthcare.”

It would have a minor effect on the overall cost of the bill—Christian Science is a small church, and the prayer treatments can cost as little as $20 a day. But it has nevertheless stirred an intense controversy over the constitutional separation of church and state, and the possibility that other churches might seek reimbursements for so-called spiritual healing.

Phil Davis, a senior Christian Science Church official, said prayer treatment was an effective alternative to conventional healthcare.

“We are making the case for this, believing there is a connection between healthcare and spirituality,” said Davis, who distributed 11,000 letters last week to Senate officials urging support for the measure.

“We think this is an important aspect of the solution, when you are talking about not only keeping the cost down, but finding effective healthcare,” he said.

The provision would apply only to insurance policies offered on a proposed exchange where consumers could shop for plans that meet standards set by the government.

But critics say the measure could have a broader effect, conferring new status and medical legitimacy on practices that lie outside the realm of science.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a group of atheists and agnostics that promotes separation of church and state, said the opportunity to receive payment for spiritual care could encourage other groups to seek similar status.

“This would be an absolute invitation to organize,” Gaylor said.

The Times seems to suggest that this would be a problem. Maybe it would be, but I like what Michael McConnell, who heads the Stanford University Constitutional Law Center, had to say:

“as long as patients are the ones who choose, and religious choices are given no legal preference or advantage, the proposals would appear to be consistent with constitutional standards.”

Regardless, it’s not clear whether this provision will make it through the Senate, which is now working on its version of the healthcare reform bill passed by the House.

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