They Helped Get State Health Reform Passed; Now Interfaith Group Takes On Care Costs

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GBIO members play a game to help clarify their thinking about health care costs
GBIO members play a game to help clarify their thinking about health care costs

WBUR's Martha Bebinger reports:

Get ready for the next hot religious campaign in Boston: rising health care costs. Yes, the group that chanted, prayed and sang their way to passage of the state's health coverage law says it's time to rein in health care spending.

Greater Boston Interfaith Organization launched a campaign yesterday. WBURs' Martha Bebinger listened in and joined us Monday morning with a review of the first team meeting.

Bob Oakes: How important is it that this group is getting involved in the debate about rising health care costs?

Martha Bebinger: GBIO was very active in lobbying for the state's health coverage law. My eardrums are still feeling the effects of the singing, chanting and praying that bounced off those marble State House walls, and they, along with Health Care for All and a few other health care advocacy groups, have decided to make sure consumers have a say in the debate about health care spending.

Why does the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization see this as a religious issue?

They see it as a social justice issue. Rising health care costs are eating into personal incomes of their members. Employers say they can't hire more people or give adequate raises because so much of their profits, if they have any, are going towards higher health care premiums. And municipal and state services are being cut because spending on health care is increasing at three to four or more times the rate of inflation.

Even if there are compelling reasons, there's a huge difference between supporting coverage for the uninsured and rallying members to hold down health care spending. What are they going to chant? What will the buttons and bumper stickers say?

Right, hard to imagine "Just say no to Fee for Service" or "Where did you get your MRI?" Health Care for All is pushing the message, "Better Quality Care Costs Less." Even that's a hard message to absorb because it runs counter to the way many of us think about health care.

But GBIO and Health Care for All have done this before. The first round of team leaders that gathered Sunday was fairly split about how hard it will be to translate the grassroots organizing they've done on other issues to slowing the growth of health care costs.

"There's a great need for people to deal with this on a personal level... to help congregants as well as to help the larger community, there's a great appetite for that," said Karen Anne Zion, with the First Church in Cambridge.

But Debbie Wengrovitz, with Temple Isaiah in Lexington, said this will be a tough issue.

"I think it is hard. You can look around and see there are a lot of smart people who've worked on this for a long time and are still having problems," Wengrovitz said.

What will this campaign look like? How will GBIO help people understand this issue and persuade them to get involved?

They'll be building a team of leaders who will take the information back to their congregation. First step is to educate this team, in briefings and conversations with health care leaders.

They're also asking members to wrestle with what it would mean to spend less on health care. On Sunday, in small groups, these congregation leaders were given a role: primary care doctor, employer, uninsured — 10 different roles. They had to decide, with limited money, which services to include and what to leave out of a health care plan. Here's the moment when they are sitting around a table, staring at this wheel that shows what they've included and what they left out. We hear first from the facilitator, Barbara Berke:

"Who's worried about the future now?" Berke asks.

"I have an elderly parent, we're taking care of him at home and now we don't have the resources to do that," says Chuck Koplik.

I'm worried about pharmacy because I'm diabetic...not what I would give up, it's what other people would give up," says Michele Mitsumori.

Mitsumori sums up the problem: it's what other people can give up, not me. You heard Koplik worried about losing home health care hours for his elderly parent. These discussions can get a little tense, even when people are role playing. In real life, the conversations about how to limit care are explosive.

We'd all like to think that if we start spending money more efficiently we won't see our health care expenses double in the next 10 years, as they are projected to do, but we'll probably face some restrictions or limits, and part of this campaign is helping people start to think about what they value most in health care.

What's the goal? Is GBIO backing a particular approach or piece of legislation?

Not yet. GBIO is aiming to have a focus or a set of principles by April. If Gov. Patrick presents legislation, as he's expected to do early next year, there will of course be pressure on consumer groups, doctors, hospitals, everyone in health care to weigh in, but for now GBIO's goal is to make sure patients or consumers are ready to be part of this debate.

What other groups in the Boston area are mobilizing members around this issue?

Health Care for All has just started its Campaign for Better Care and has a handful of members. They may team up with GBIO. These two groups were in the same coalition that pushed for passage of the health coverage law in 2006.

Employers are very worried about this issue. Most are not backing a particular approach and have not joined any larger group. So we're in the early stages of what may or may not become a movement to tackle health care spending, but to see GBIO and Health Care for All lay the groundwork for a grassroots campaign that will bring consumers into the discussion, as they and a larger coalition did with the health coverage law, is significant.

This program aired on December 6, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.