Monday, December 7, 2009

Should Health Insurers Cover Paying for Prayers?

That's apparently what the Christian Scientists want, and they're pushing to have language added to the health care bills presently being debated in Congress. I hadn't heard about this before today--most of the coverage seems to be on things like "death panels" (de-spun: covering "end of life" counseling services), abortion coverage, and the way the current health care system is really a hunky-dory Candy Land with chocolate waterfalls and fluffy edible cotton candy clouds of goodness where your employer can't yank your choice of plans from you and insurers can't deny you coverage.*

* If you pay attention to any of the flood of rabidly anti-reform US Chamber of Commerce-sponsored ads, you might be fooled into that belief, insisting we'd lose the "guarantees" we already don't have--things like choice of health care plans (which is already limited and can change without notice from your employer and insurer), keeping your current doctors (when your employer changes the plans it offers, or your doctor changes what plans he or she accepts, there's no guarantee you can keep yours as it is--I've had to change before), etc. But this is all fodder for a separate post.

But according to a NY Times blog piece, the same church whose attitudes toward medical care have led to the deaths of children (Google Rita Swan for one infamous example), want the government to lean on private insurers to cover the costs of what boils down to prayer:

The church’s provision says that any insurer offering health insurance on the exchanges that would be created in the health legislation could not discriminate against a health service “on the basis of its religious or spiritual content.” Such content would be defined as medical expenses for which the Internal Revenue Service now allows deductions. The I.R.S. specifically names Christian Science practitioners, who pray for people at a cost of about $20 a day or care for them in nonmedical ways, as deductible expenses.
That's right: apparently, you can currently write off the cost of paying someone to pray for you on your taxes. Now, making a charitable donation to a church is one thing--but writing it off as a medical expense? Why can't I deduct my gym dues, then? After all, a good exercise regimen has proven health benefits, whereas the most thorough study to date found no health benefit to prayer (and was conducted by the religion-oriented Templeton Foundation, which had the guts and honesty to publish the results despite being sorely disappointed in them).

Now, the First Church of Christ, Scientist (aka the Christian Scientists) are pushing to incentivise (read: strong-arm) private insurers into covering the same services. They have tried to dodge the constitutional issue of separation of church and state by excluding any coverage from a potential public insurance option (and that would include any insurance with federal funding, it would seem), as well as offering a broad definition nondiscriminatory "spiritual" care.

Under that definition, perhaps I should be able to write off the cost of admission to national and state parks, my mileage driven to/from nature preserves, and so forth, all as medical expenses (and expect my health insurer to cover them!). Clearly, there are health benefits to getting outside, hiking around, and such--as well as spiritual value; to paraphrase a gentleman Beth encountered in the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge on a Sunday morning several years ago, "THIS is church for me."

I don't think the Christian Science proposal is going to get much traction in Congress (despite its bipartisan support, which included of all people the late Senator Ted Kennedy). But that IRS deduction already exists, which I do find rather shocking. Seems to me the better way to handle this would be to make a donation to your church if so inclined and write that off as a charitable contribution--though then you're stuck with determining the "less the value of goods/services received in return" component of said donation, I suppose. If you value the "medical" benefits of prayer so highly they're your preferred health care treatment, seems that return value might eat into your donation quickly.

What's next? The Catholic church lobbying for the buying of indulgences to be written off on one's 1040 Schedule A?

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