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Lack of health insurance called a growing woe

Interfaith Breakfast speakers say the situation is urgent

Lack of health insurance isn't just a problem for the homeless, but also for the near-homeless and even for some middle-class Americans, a Salt Lake community activist said Friday morning at an Interfaith Breakfast in Memory Grove.

Pamela J. Atkinson, speaking to more than 40 Salt Lake religious leaders and others, said the uninsured problem has doubled in recent years with 41 million Americans affected, including 335,000 Utahns and some 75,000 Utah children.

"What does it mean to go without health coverage?" she asked. "It means to get sicker and die earlier."

She said Utahns without medical coverage can be your neighbors, because some middle-class workers make a choice about priorities and gamble not to pay for health insurance.

"Medical bills are a leading cause of bankruptcy," Atkinson said, involved in more than half the cases.

She also stressed there's a difference between access and coverage.

"This is an urgent situation."

Jan Saeed, Interfaith Roundtable chairwoman, said, "All people are children of God and we're responsible to take care of all of them.

"We are stronger when we work together."

Saeed said the issue of health care is very complex.

She also said the fact that Elizabeth Smart and her kidnappers lived in our midst and many people who met them months ago didn't ask enough questions exemplifies that we may not care enough about the homeless and strangers in general.

Elder Alexander Morrison, emeritus general authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Most Rev. George H. Niederauer, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake, offered the opening and closing prayers at the breakfast.

The event, co-sponsored by the Interfaith Roundtable of Salt Lake and a variety of groups, concluded "Cover the Uninsured Week."

The prayer breakfast was one of hundreds of similar events being held around the nation this week, as religious and political leaders come together to underscore their belief that health care should be accessible and affordable for every citizen.

During a press conference by phone on Tuesday with reporters from across the country, Eileen W. Lindner of the National Council of Churches said few major social changes have taken place "without the moral authority, participation and leadership of the religious community."

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said the issue is critical enough that a diverse group of religious groups with vastly different political agendas are united in addressing the problem. "It's just inexcusable for people to go without basic health care because they don't have health insurance.

"The role of the faith community is to call the nation to be their brothers' keeper. This is an unacceptable level of pain and suffering."

Raising the political stakes must be a priority among religious leaders seeking to put the issue high on the agenda for debate during the upcoming presidential election, Land said.

"Far more people who are insured feel a sense of crisis" now than they did during the last election because their health insurance premiums have skyrocketed.

Bishop George McKinney of the Church of God in Christ said people of color are disproportionately affected by lack of access to basic health care. One in five African-Americans and one-third of Hispanics are uninsured, he said, compared to 10 percent of white non-Hispanics.

In Salt Lake City, proclamations by government leaders, a town hall meeting, health fairs and a business and labor meeting preceded the Interfaith Roundtable.

Contributing: Carrie MooreE-MAIL: