Provision in Health Care Bill Governing Prayer Treatments May Be Unconstitutional

Provision in Health Care Bill Governing Prayer Treatments May Be Unconstitutional

The debate over the health care bill has reached a new level – a spiritual level – with a provision in the health care legislation requiring the consideration of prayer treatments as medical expenses brought to light.

This provision, quietly inserted, in an uncommon show of bipartisanism, by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) with the support of Sen. John Kerry (D-Massachusetts), would require insurers to consider covering Christian Science prayer treatments in order to ensure that no one is discriminated against in seeking “religious and spiritual healthcare.” Critics fear the precedent this could have on the constitutional separation of church and state, as well as whether it would encourage other religious groups to seek insurer reimbursement for their own spiritual healing.

The provision would apply only to insurance policies offered in the version of a bill where consumers would have the option to shop for plans which have met government standards. Two committees in the House have included their measures in the health care overhaul, but it was removed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) after protests from members who said it was unconstitutional. In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) is considering whether to include it in the consolidated bill he will send to the Senate floor.

Dr. Norman Fost, a pediatrician and medical ethicist at the University of Wisconsin, said the measure went against the attempt to reduce health care costs by improving evidence-based medical work. “They want a special exception for people who use unproved treatments, and they also want to get paid for it,” he said. “They want people who use prayer to have it just automatically accepted as a legitimate therapy.”

The Church of Christ, Scientists, more commonly known as the Christian Scientists, have long used paid prayer practitioners, often in place of medical doctors. Members of the church have been convicted in criminal cases where children have died after visiting prayer practitioners instead of medical doctors. Private insurers have been paying for the practice for nearly 90 years, but have recently started insisting on medical care that had proven medical results.

Christian Science prayer sessions are also one of the only religious treatments the Internal Revenue Service considers as tax deductible. Some federal medical insurance programs also already reimburse for prayer treatment.

Phil Davis, a senior Christian Science Church official, rejected criticism of the effectiveness of healing prayer. “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 Church has said it consulted legal experts to help draft legislation which would be constitutional as well as hiring a major Washington lobbying firm to push the provision. Critics believe that the church, founded in Boston in 1879, were vocal constituents in Senator Kerry’s decision to support the provision.

Whitney Smith, a press secretary for the Kerry campaign, said that the bill was “not government mandated expenses for religious services.” Though the Christian Science Church is based in Massachusetts, she said, Kerry was in support of it purely because of its anti-discrimination provisions.