Some of the 30 representatives of United Methodist general agencies, health systems, academic institutions, and local churches who participated in the US Health Forum on October 4, 2013, in Memphis, TN. Photo: Linda Unger.
By Linda Unger*
October 9, 2013—“What does it mean to promote really healthy communities?” asked General Board of Global Ministries General Secretary Thomas Kemper at the opening of the US Health Forum last week in Memphis, Tennessee. His words laid out the challenge the gathering had been convened to engage.
Over the course of the single-day event held at Methodist University Hospital, some 30 representatives of United Methodist general agencies, health systems, academic institutions, and local churches would consider their roles in the effective promotion of good health across the United States.
“This time, this era is a unique opportunity to come together, to build on our strengths, and to connect the dots,” said Niels French, of the Faith & Health Division of Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare, a seven-hospital, not-for-profit United Methodist health system based in Memphis.
“There is experience and knowledge in our church, and this meeting is a chance to bring it together,” echoed Shannon Trilli, director of Global Health for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), a program unit of Global Ministries.
“Despite the challenges, we can do something about health care,” she said.
The forum provided an initial opportunity to share models of health promotion; define stakeholders, assets, and gaps in the United Methodist health system; and affirm the theological imperative underlying the work in this field. It was conceived as a place for conversation, discussion, and sharing, and as a first step toward working together more effectively.
Held on October 4, the meeting was cosponsored by Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare and UMCOR, each with long experience in health-care delivery to vulnerable communities in the United States and abroad. Both institutions share a commitment to community-based primary health care.
Since 2005, Methodist LeBonheur has developed a model of faith community partnership, the Congregational Health Network, that has come to be known as the “Memphis model.” Through it, the hospital enters into covenant relationship with local congregations that promise to watch over the health of parish and community members and to accompany those at particular risk.
Bobby Baker, director of Faith Community Partnerships for Methodist LeBonheur, explained that the model was designed together with local pastors and that it contemplates “education, prevention, in-patient care, and after-care.”
The hospital, he said, provides “navigators, who are full-time members and employees. The idea is to create relationship, build a bridge that goes both ways,” from the hospital to the community and back again in the interest of preventing illness and promoting health.
UMCOR’s work in support of parish or faith community nurses is in natural synergy with this model, and there was interest in both UMCOR and Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare in exploring effective ways of building on their respective experience and working more effectively together.
UMCOR also brought to the table in Memphis its long experience in community-based primary health care around the world, particularly in Africa, where networks of community health workers help stem the tide of preventable diseases.
Affordable Care Act
The backdrop for the meeting was the advancement of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which, on October 1, entered a new phase with the opening of the Health Insurance Marketplace.
“If the Affordable Care Act hadn’t happened, we might not be having this meeting,” said Patricia Magyar, UMCOR’s executive secretary for Domestic (US) Health. “It is changing the whole conversation about health care.”
The biggest shift is the new emphasis the ACA places on prevention and community involvement in the promotion of good health—a focus that is not new to the United Methodist health system and UMCOR. “Our agency has always had a community-based care focus,” Magyar said.
The Rev. Kenneth S. Robinson, a medical doctor and the pastor of St. Andrew AME Church in Memphis, quoted Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius regarding the significance of preventive measures.
“According to one study, if people got just five preventive services when they needed them—colorectal and breast cancer screening, flu vaccines, counseling to help them stop smoking, and regular aspirin use—we would save 100,000 lives each and every year,” Robinson said, citing Sebelius.
He said that while today, only one in four adults has had the lifesaving screenings, the ACA makes it possible for more people to access them by making preventive services free of charge and not subject to insurance co-pays.
Robinson explained other aspects of the ACA that put health care within reach of millions who were marginalized without it, but, he cautioned, people still need to learn how to access this care. Changing health status and outcomes, he said, “requires the involvement of the whole community and of leadership across multiple sectors of our community.”
The United Methodist connection—and other faith and community organizations can play an active part in building healthier communities by taking advantage of the opportunities the Affordable Care Act provides and doing five things: advocate, inform, enroll, engage, and heal, Robinson said.
In the end, it comes back to Kemper’s original question to the gathering: “What does it mean to promote really healthy communities?”
Or, said another way, as theologian Kendra Hotz of Rhodes College offered, “How do we [as an organization] contribute to a social network that lets people live beautiful lives?”
What is needed, she suggested, is to “stop thinking of health as a commodity, as goods that can be traded and exchanged and counted, and think of ‘the good,’ ‘the beautiful,’ the presence of God in our midst… How can we think of ourselves in more interconnected ways and of all of us as belonging to God?”
Your gift to Global Health, UMCOR Advance #3021770, will help UMCOR continue the conversation on advancing good health in the United States and abroad and to build on long experience of community-based care.
*Linda Unger is senior writer for the General Board of Global Ministries.