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CLERGY DISCUSS HEALTH REFORM

Civility marks a forum that includes religious leaders from various faiths.

Eileen Jacobs of Clearwater drew applause and cheers as she pointed out Friday morning that one of the nation's largest health insurers took in a $5 billion profit this year and asked, "Why are we so afraid of government? ... The government is us."

Her husband, O'Neal Jacobs, 87, is a World War II veteran who receives health benefits from the Veterans Affairs Department, including $4,400 worth of eye medicine each month. She pointed out that the VA system is one of the best.

When people say, "'get government out of my health care', I am appalled," she said.

Eileen Jacobs, 80, was not alone in her pleas. The passions were overflowing Friday morning during a public forum that included about eight clergy from different faith traditions, who came together to discuss health care reform.

In the brightly lit sanctuary of the Unity Church on Nursery Road, nearly 100 people gathered from throughout the Tampa Bay area to discuss the often-divisive issue.

For the most part, it was done in a peaceful, loving way, thanks to the gentle prodding of the Rev. Leddy Hammock, her long red hair flowing as she delicately took the microphone from one woman after she raised her voice.

An ongoing issue that has spurred much contention and even outrage at similar town-hall meetings throughout the country took on a different approach Friday.

The various faith leaders came together to encourage people to have open discussion about the issue but not to forget about things like compassion and morality.

"We were a little nervous about opening it up to people, but something told us that we needed to," said the Rev. Abhi Janamanchi of the Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater, which co-hosted the forum with Hammock's Unity Church of Clearwater. "The stories that followed were very powerful."

He said the goal was threefold: to urge people to respect the democratic process and respect each other's opinions; to engage in the process, including contacting their elected representatives; and to remind people that we have a moral obligation to speak up for those without health care.

"In this crisis, we have an unprecedented opportunity" to create a fair system, he said.

Although the three bills currently proposed in Congress may not be ideal, and a 1,100-page document is difficult to decipher, we have a moral imperative to listen to all sides of the issue and to have compassion for those who do not have health insurance, Janamanchi said.

The Rev. Phyllis Hunt, senior minister of the Metropolitan Community Church of Tampa, said a person's position can be determined based on whether they have adequate health care coverage. Those against change have insurance, for example.

"It doesn't really matter who's paying for it when you have coverage," she said. "It does matter when you don't."

The Rev. Glad McCurtain, pastor of St. John's Episcopal Church in Clearwater, said the faith community has to remind politicians that it's "more than dollars and cents."

"Let us get to those people who are making those decisions," she said.

Aviz Merchant, a leader with the Islamic Community Center in Oldsmar, said we have an obligation to look after the sick and the elderly. "What's happened to our nation that we're shouting and yelling at each other?" he asked, referring to the town hall meetings in the news recently. "We need sensible dialogue. ... We are all brothers to each and sisters to each other."

Lesley Marino of Clearwater spoke about her daughter's medical care - she's had 80 surgeries and is now on Medicaid because she exhausted her health benefits. Her husband is on VA benefits.

Marino, who is currently uninsured, said she opposes the current legislation, and believes there are some big issues that should be looked at first - frivolous malpractice lawsuits, drug companies overcharging for medication, insurance fraud and the health insurance companies' lack of regulation. "If we look at mandating that," she said, "I think it will be better than insuring everybody."

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