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There are just a few weeks until the Mar. 31 deadline for sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, and many are still unhappy with the idea of mandatory healthcare.
Earlier this week, the House passed a bill allowing individuals to opt out of mandatory health insurance by writing “sincerely held religious beliefs” on their tax return, along with a sworn statement explaining their objection.
The Equitable Access to Care and Health Act (EACH) was sponsored by Republican U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock of Illinois and heavily lobbied by the Christian Science church.
Although there was strong support from both sides of the aisle, some Democrats argued that allowing people to opt out of the bill could cost American taxpayers when uninsured individuals turn up in the emergency room after accidents or other emergencies.
Other opponents, including Rita Swan of the children’s healthcare advocacy group Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty (CHILD), who is a former Christian Scientist herself, are concerned the bill will encourage Christian Science parents and members of other religious sects to not seek medical treatment for their children, which could cost them their lives.
Congressman Schock joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss the religious exemption bill that he hopes will make it through the Senate.
On his reasoning for sponsoring the bill
“I take my oath of office very seriously, and that oath is to protect and defend the Constitution, which guarantees the practice of religion to its citizens. And we don’t just protect the majority religious view in our country. We protect even the most minority religious belief, even if it’s just a single American citizen. In the case of Christian Scientists, they represent tens of thousands of constituents of mine in Illinois. We have one of the only Christian Scientist universities in the country in Illinois, Principia College. But there are Christian Scientists that live all over the country, and they believe in the power of healing. They do not participate in the traditional health care delivery system as we know it here in our country. And so, on April 1 of this year, they have a choice that they are going to have to make, which is continue to practice their faith or violate their religious conscience to avoid attacks by the federal government. And that’s really not in keeping with the promise made in our founding documents and the oath of office that we all take as members of Congress, to protect and defend religious liberty.”
On comparison to Massachusetts’ health law exemption
“Since 2006, since the law in Massachusetts was enacted, only 6,000 Bay Staters have taken the exemption. So in relative terms, it’s actually a small number in the overall millions of people that live in Massachusetts and have benefited from your health care law. And at the end of the day, regardless of the number, how big or how small, what’s important, first and foremost, in our Constitution and our founding documents, is people’s ability to practice their religious beliefs. This law ensures that.”
On the possibility of people exploiting the exemption
“If at some point they decide they want to enter the traditional health care system, they want to show up at the emergency room for care, they want to go to a primary care physician for preventative care — then, there’s this stiff financial penalty that’s put in place, similar to the Massachusetts law, so that if somebody is trying to skirt the system and not buy health care, and then seeks medical attention, then they have to pay back taxes, back fees and a stiff financial penalty for doing so.”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. The House voted again today to delay the requirement that individuals buy insurance by March 31st. The Senate isn't likely to agree. So some members of Congress are scrambling ahead of the deadline to pass a bill exempting people opposed to medical care on religious grounds.
The Affordable Care Act already exempts the Amish and Mennonites, but a bill passed in the House this week also exempts, for instance, Christian Scientists with sincerely held religious beliefs. People who have to state that on their tax returns, and that prompted Representative Henry Waxman to take to the floor during debate to ask how would that be checked?
REPRESENTATIVE HENRY WAXMAN: This is impossibly difficult to enforce, and frankly it is not a role we want the IRS to take on. If the IRS chose to define sincerely held religious beliefs broadly, HR1814 could allow essentially anyone opposed to the Affordable Care Act to opt out of coverage.
YOUNG: The group CHILD or Children's Health Care is a Legal Duty also worries that children will not be insured because of the exemption. Illinois Congressman Aaron Schock is the House bill's sponsor. He joins us now. Congressman, welcome.
REPRESENTATIVE AARON SCHOCK: Thank you, Robin, it's great to be with you.
YOUNG: And what was your personal interest in this bill? Are you Christian Scientist, or do you hold these beliefs?
SCHOCK: You know, I'm not, but I take my oath of office very seriously, and that oath is to protect and defend the Constitution, which guarantees the practice of religion to its citizens. And we don't just protect the majority religious view in our country. We protect even the most minority religious belief, even if it's just a single American citizen.
In the case of Christian Scientists, they represent tens of thousands of constituents of mine in Illinois. We have one of the only Christian Scientist universities in the country in Illinois, Principia College. But there are Christian Scientists that live all over the country, and they believe in the power of healing. They do not participate in the traditional health care delivery system as we know it here in our country.
And so they have a choice that they are going to have to make, which is continue to practice their faith or violate their religious conscience to avoid attacks by the federal government.
YOUNG: Well, there's some precedent for this thinking here in Massachusetts. Former Governor Mitt Romney had a similar exemption in this state's mandatory health care, of course which started years ago. It allowed individuals to opt out for religious reasons. And in this state, over 6,000, 6,500 people claimed a religious exemption.
SCHOCK: Only 6,000 Bay Staters have taken the exemption. So in relative terms, it's actually a small number. What's important first and foremost in our Constitution and our founding documents is people's ability to practice their religious beliefs. This law ensures that. And it's why the bill was voted on by acclamation. It had 216 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives, which is unprecedented.
And the Senate companion is sponsored by the likes of Kelly Ayotte, by Senator Durbin, by Senator Schultz of Alaska, Senator Bernie Sanders. It's certainly not a conservative group. It's a pretty broad section of the House and of the Senate, both recognizing that regardless of our belief of the underlying bill of the Affordable Care Act, at the end of the day we want to make sure we uphold people's ability to practice their religion.
YOUNG: But how does your bill ensure that people won't take advantage of your exemption as a way to get out of health care coverage?
SCHOCK: If at some point they decide they want to enter the traditional health care system, they want to show up at the emergency room for care, they want to go to a primary care physician for preventative care, then there's a stiff financial penalty. They have to pay back taxes, back fees and a stiff financial penalty for doing so.
YOUNG: As I read it, it looks as if there are only a few things that people can do. Optometry is one, they can get glasses; chiropracty for some reason is in there. But there are a few things that people can do and still opt out of insurance coverage in your bill.
SCHOCK: Right. That means that they can seek that coverage on their own, basically meaning they can pay out of pocket. But it goes so far to say if you show up in the emergency room, and you have exempted yourself from the Affordable Care Act, and you attempt to pay for emergency room services with cash, you will obligated under the Affordable Care Act to pay the penalties, fines and back taxes.
So you cannot access traditional health care in any sense under this provision and not be held accountable under the Affordable Care Act. So it's why - look, this is a big, overwhelming, bipartisan support. Henry Waxman, his concerns were not so grave that he actually voted against the bill.
YOUNG: Well, let's go to some of those concerns because they go directly to what you were saying. Both Congressman Waxman and Levin said that as you just described, it is not always how it works. Very often, people who don't have coverage based on their religious faith end up in the emergency room through an accident, for instance. They're not able to speak with anyone, and they are given emergency medical care, which is paid for by the taxpayer.
And then there's the other question, and let's raise this. As you well know, the organization CHILD, which is concerned about children of parents who don't opt for medical care, the group's president is a former Christian Scientist whose child died because she said she followed church teachings and didn't treat the child. She says parents like her may not comprehend the risk they're taking with their child's life if they believe the government is endorsing their actions through legislation like yours, and further that churches could use laws like yours, religious exemption laws, as evidence that legislators, the government, agree with them, that things like Christian Science can heal disease as effectively as medical care.
What do you say to those two concerns, one that these people often have care paid for by taxpayers anyway, and two that your law would seem to be endorsing their choice?
SCHOCK: Well, that would make my law unconstitutional. Rather, the current law is unconstitutional. Our Constitution says that Congress shall make no laws either supporting or opposing religious practice. And as it's currently written, we have a law that opposes certain religious practice, and that is why the Congress overwhelmingly needs to change the underlying Affordable Care Act.
I'm not interested in getting into a debate about which religion is good and bad, which religious beliefs I support or don't support. I don't believe that's the role of Congress. And so I think that's a very dangerous slope for us to go down to legislate, and so for me to advocate for a law that would make it illegal for someone to practice their Christian Scientist faith I think is un-American.
YOUNG: Well, and people like Rita Swan of the group CHILD, they don't see it as a question of religious belief, they see it as child endangerment. I'm looking at just a couple of cases from members of the Church of the First Born, a church that also endorses faith healing. Two sets of parents had children die because they didn't treat them, in one case for appendicitis and in another case for diabetes.
One set of parents, the Rossiters, was arrested on charges of manslaughter. Rita Swan, again from CHILD, her point is that legislation like yours would seem to be endorsing what she sees as not a religious belief but child endangerment.
SCHOCK: I don't know what to say other than I disagree. The State of Massachusetts has seen the need to pass a similar law. There has not been a great upheaval in that state. I would hardly claim the state of Massachusetts or its legislature is a conservative, right-wing group. And if the Massachusetts lawmakers saw it fit to protect and defend Christian Scientists' right to practice their religion in the state of Massachusetts, I would hope to think that the rest of us in 49 states would be able to do the same.
YOUNG: That's Illinois Congressman Aaron Schock. He sponsored the Equitable Access to Care and Health Act. You can find out more at hereandnow.org. Congressman Schock, thanks so much for speaking with us.
SCHOCK: Thank you, you have a good day.
YOUNG: You, too.
And next week we'll speak with Rita Swan. Again, her child died because at the time she was following Christian Science teachings. She opposes the exemption for the sincerely religious because of children. Your thoughts, we've love to hear them. Weigh in at hereandnow.org.
You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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