For time immemorial, the doctors have played an indispensable part in Jewish life. We know that when Maimonides wasn’t changing the world as a philosopher and Torah scholar, he was renowned as one of the great doctors. And we are even taught all the way back in the Book of Exodus, that if two people get into a fight and one gets injured, the aggressor must pay “for the idleness and the cure,” (Exodus 21:19) interpreted as compensation for lost work time and for medical fees.
The Shulchan Arukh, the main code of Jewish law, uses this as the basis for recognizing the medical profession, and it adds that “it is a religious duty” for a physician to save the life of someone in need. At the same time, the obligation to carry out this crucial task comes with the highest degree of responsibility. The legal code goes on:
If the physician withholds [treatment] he is regarded as one who sheds blood; and even if there is someone else who can heal him. (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 336)
With this in mind, we have no choice but to consider what we witness in our world today, in which medical costs skyrocket as public health does not substantially improve.
“The grip of financial self-interest in US health care is becoming a stranglehold, with dangerous and pervasive consequences,” Dr. Donald M. Berwick recently wrote for the Journal of the American Medical Association. “No sector of US health care is immune from the immoderate pursuit of profit, neither drug companies, nor insurers, nor hospitals, nor investors, nor physician practices.”
In our society, our problem is not the refusal of doctors to see patients, but a health-care apparatus that sucks more and more money out of patients, insurance companies and government agencies for the purpose of padding the profits of companies — companies that rely on the fact that yes, as the Jewish tradition teaches, the value of health care is just about priceless. Yet knowing they can charge exorbitantly, companies involved cause a large percentage of people across the country to suffer when they’re supposed to be in the business of healing.
Relying on data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, Berwick writes that, “a total of 41% of US adults, 100 million people, bear medical debts. One of every 8 individuals owes more than $10 000. In Massachusetts, 46% of adults say they skip needed care because of costs. As of 2021, 58% of all debt collections in the US are for medical bills.” And the culprit he identifies is the endless need for companies to make more money.
McKinsey & Company estimates that, in 2021, the health-care industry made $558 billion in profits, with profits expected to increase to almost $700 billion by 2025.
To be sure, those who make the crucial investments on our health-care system have a right to benefit from it, and experts doing the work of saving lives should be rewarded. And yet, at some point we must recognize the moral priority of treating sick individuals humanely, in a way that will not leave them lastingly financially devastated.
In a country in which we’ve been blessed with just about everything we could ask for, we must remember what the Jewish tradition teaches and know that it is unacceptable to leave patients untreated, or drowning in medical debt.
With our cherished Jewish values in mind, we should continue to be on the front lines of advocating for universal health coverage — and for establishing a collective responsibility to cover the costs necessary for everyone to get the care they need while burdening no one with unmanageable expenses.
We must, as a country, make the conscious effort to choose life and healing over death and debt.