Sending Mixed Messages to Congress: Mennonite Involvement in Proposed National Health Care Reform, 1992-1994

Article excerpt

  Abstract: In the early 1990s, comprehensive health care reform
  dominated the national political agenda in the United States. When
  Mennonites became actively involved in this endeavor, however, they
  struggled to present a unified and clear message to Congress.
  Specifically, Mennonite Mutual Aid and the Washington Office of
  Mennonite Central Committee found themselves advocating for
  strikingly dissimilar legislative solutions, despite the fact that
  they agreed in principle on the primary goals of universal coverage
  and cost containment, among others. After recounting the details of
  national health care reform and the divergent positions of MMA and
  the Washington Office, this paper suggests that the conflicting
  approaches of these two organizations can be best understood by
  exploring the natural tension between representing the self-interests
  of Mennonites as a group, and representing aspects of Mennonite
  theology by advocating on behalf of the poor and uninsured.


In late February of 1994, LeAnne Zook, an intern from Mennonite Central Committee's Washington Office, traveled to the capital office of Rep. James Greenwood, Republican of Pennsylvania. Congressman Greenwood represented Bucks County, home to many Mennonites. Two representatives from other religious lobbying groups accompanied Zook, all participants in the Interreligious Health Care Access Campaign. While analyzing various proposals for health care reform the previous year, the campaign had given its support to the American Health Security Act, also known as the "single-payer" proposal, which pledged to provide universal health care coverage as well as substantial cost savings to the American public. The group was visiting Greenwood's office to voice their support for that proposal.

Near the end of the brief half-hour meeting Susan Cobb, an aide to Greenwood, informed the visitors that Greenwood's office had already heard from the Mennonites' representative, a lobbyist hired by Mennonite Mutual Aid, or MMA. Cobb reported, "They [Mennonites] are not interested in universal coverage; they simply want to be exempt from health care reform." (1) At this point, Zook tried to explain to Cobb that there was continuing dialogue within the Mennonite Church over health care reform, and that the Washington Office was "very concerned about the plight of those currently without adequate health care." (2) She also clarified that MMA did not represent all Mennonites, and that both MMA and the Washington Office were in agreement on the principle of universal coverage. (3) According to one source, Zook stated plainly, "We want you to realize that MMA does not speak for the Mennonite Church. They're just an insurance agency with their own agenda." (4) Cobb replied that they had been informed by MMA (ostensibly speaking for the Mennonite Church) that "the Mennonites are opposed to comprehensive reform like the American Health Security Act," and that more generally, "the Mennonites are against single-payer." (5) Frustrated by these inconsistent reports and unclear about MMA's role as a representative of Mennonites, Greenwood contacted MMA and asked for greater clarity about what Mennonites wanted. He wondered why Mennonites--as a relatively small group with limited representation on Capitol Hill--were seemingly unable to present a unified opinion on health care reform. (6) According to the notes of Karl Shelly, a Washington Office legislative associate, Greenwood clarified his own position as "philosophically opposed to comprehensive reform." (7) He also stated that he did not view universal coverage as the ultimate goal of MMA's lobbying effort. Until he received "an official [Mennonite] statement from someone in a real position to make it," Greenwood refused to consider supporting MMA's position on health care reform. (8)

Greenwood's confusion was understandable. While MMA had indeed promoted universal coverage as one of four "Guiding Principles for Responding to the Health Care Crisis," its involvement on Capitol Hill had focused primarily on seeking an amendment to the proposed Health Security Act (H. …