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Caring About Health

THE push for a better health- care system in America is needed for personal and economic reasons. At 14 percent of GNP and rising, the system costs too much. Families have lost nest eggs to pay for care, and fear and stress over inadequate or costly care is itself unhealthy.

The president's health-care effort is unprecedented in this country. It is hoped a better system can be found.

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Actually, reform may offer an opportunity to think more profoundly about health itself. What Americans want is health care. Yet many also want, inherently, more than this. There is a thirst for something deeper, more true, more caring, more just, more alive. What is given too little attention is the connection between a more spiritual sense of health and the daily life of both individuals and the larger community. Studies show that hospital patients respond faster to doctors and nurses who establish a ``home'' environment. Students learn better under teachers that they feel care about them.

Nor is it reaching too far to think in such terms about the health of the nation. As more talk is given to moving past ``politics as usual,'' more consideration should be given to the moral dimension involved. Health is not devoid of moral content. When government is conducted in an atmosphere of cynicism, disregard, or avarice - surely this affects the general health of that government, its policies, and perhaps even those working in it.

One cannot refer to the nation's health and ignore problems of integrity and indifference. Hillary Rodham Clinton, chief mover of the health-care package, spoke this spring of a ``politics of meaning.'' While the concept might have been introduced too abruptly, there is merit in its attempt to confront certain underlying trends of alienation and despair in American life. Moral values, the breakup of the family, crime, and the problems associated with a materialistic culture should not, Mrs. Clinton says, be issues raised by the political right alone. They are, in a sense, health issues.

Surely at this time in a country as diverse as the United States there is room for broader thinking and different approaches to health and health care. Yale law professor Stephen Carter, in his recent book, ``The Culture of Disbelief,'' which President Clinton recommended in August, argues that deeply held moral and spiritual convictions must not be excluded from public life and policy because they are ``religious.'' The separation of church and state was never meant to exclude faith, Carter argues. Rather it was intended to protect churches as ``independent sources of power'' crucial to the health of the democracy. That moral and spiritual values are excluded from serious discussion trivializes those elements most able to bring a healthy renewal in American life, he says.

Health is not a narrow issue; expanding medical costs and reliance on technology for life support may force deeper questions about it. Many in medical research and ethics, and in religious faiths, have done so for years. Better health, and a larger understanding of health, is so needed.

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