A Palestinian family reacts after Israeli bulldozers demolished their home in the Arab East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina, Feb. 5, 2013. (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Newly elected Israeli Knesset member Yair Lapid (l), leader of the Yesh Atid party, speaks to Naftali Bennett, head of the hard-line national religious party the Jewish Home, during a Feb. 5 reception in Jerusalem marking the opening of the 19th Knesset. (URIEL SINAI/GETTY IMAGES)
Richard Curtiss at work in his Washington Report office. (STAFF PHOTO D. HANLEY)
Then-Vice President Dick Cheney (l) and Likud chairman Benyamin Netanyahu, out of office at the time and serving as the official Israeli opposition leader, at a March 23, 2008 breakfast meeting at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. (PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III (r) shares candies with Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) chief Murad Ebrahim during a Feb. 11 visit to the rebels’ stronghold in Sultan Kudarat on the island of Mindanao. (KARLOS MANLUPIG/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Emad Burnat views his five broken cameras in his documentary of the same name. (PHOTO COURTESY KINO LORBER)
Islam in America
Muslim American Leaders, Physicians Join Effort to Reform Health Care
By Delinda C. Hanley
“The United States has been trying to bring universal health to its citizens for more than 60 years,” Dr. Agha Saeed, chairman of the American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Elections (AMT), told attendees at a Capitol Hill briefing on Sept. 15. He and other representatives from major national Islamic organizations hosted a citizens’ hearing at which health care experts and legislators discussed health care reform.
This issue is vital to all Americans, Dr. Saeed noted, but Muslim Americans are particularly suited to participate in this dialogue. There are seven million Muslims in America, many of them highly educated and politically savvy. In fact, Dr. Saeed said, 95 percent of eligible Muslim-American voters turned out in the last election. And of the 800,000 medical doctors in America, more than 60,000 are Muslim.
Dr. Khalique Zahir, president of the Islamic Medical Association of North America (IMANA), explained why the health care status quo in the United States is untenable. “There are nearly 50 million uninsured and 25 million under-insured Americans,” he said. “Did you know that 75 percent of those with medical bankruptcy had health insurance? Two-thirds of all health care is spent on the richest 10 percent of Americans. We spend more on health care than any other nation,” he pointed out, “yet Americans are not any healthier.”
Dr. Zahir went on to say that physicians order unnecessary tests in order to protect themselves from being sued, and doctors spend from $6,800 to $274,268 per year on medical malpractice insurance premiums. With that kind of overhead cost, he explained, doctors can’t afford to work in the poorest areas, where they are most needed. Medical students graduating in 2005 from George Washington University left with, on average, $155,000 of debt. In 2020, Dr. Zahir warned, there will be a shortage of 140,000 doctors in this country.
Muslim doctors provide generous amounts of free medical care for indigent patients, including expensive and complicated surgeries for poor or uninsured patients. A number of IMANA doctors donate free or reduced cost medical services in 28 health clinics around the country. At their conference in Washington, DC last July 4, IMANA doctors held an informative symposium on how to establish more free clinics.
Dr. Zahid Imran, who testified on behalf of the Association of Pakistani Physicians of North America (APPNA), said it pains him to hear criticism of universal health care. “As a psychiatrist in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, many of my patients hear voices,” he said. “But they don’t have a voice. We’re their voice...
“One out of three people in Kentucky is uninsured, and more than two-thirds of Kentucky’s uninsured are in working families,” Dr. Imran said. Health care reform won’t put physicians out of business, as some critics warn. “Most of us went to school for altruistic reasons, we want to help people,” he noted. As it stands now, insurance companies rather than doctors are making medical decisions. The people wearing pinstripes, not white coats, are adding unnecessary costs to health care.
Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) joked that he isn’t a doctor, but lately he seems to be playing one on TV. He grew serious when he said, “I think of universal health care as a moral imperative. I believe it is a civil right in a democratic society, along with the right to education and peace. Without health all other rights can’t be enjoyed....
“We are responsible for each other,” Kucinich said. “Are we not our brother and sister’s keeper, or is it survival of the fittest in this country, based on the ability to pay for health care? All religions have a variation of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; love your neighbor. Are we loving each other if we deny our brothers and sisters health care?
“On the health care issue Muslims have the opportunity to reach out to people of all faiths,” Kucinich observed. “This is a teachable moment for Muslims, whose every greeting has peace in it. Get involved in the current debate,” he urged.
Rep. Andre Carson (D-IN), the second Muslim after Keith Ellison (D-MN) elected to serve in the U.S. Congress, agreed. He called for Muslim physicians to be active “in building an America we can all be proud of.” He also advised, “They won’t do anything about Gaza, Pakistan, and other places that concern you. You are masters of this subject, health care. You have friends on Capitol Hill, but you have to engage us. Open our doors and educate us.”
Filling in for Ellison, who was ill, his staffer Assad Akhter explained how the health care bill is passing through committees. “Town hall meetings this summer galvanized extremists on both sides of the debate,” he said, “but average Americans don’t understand the issues. There are actually people who believe the mercy killing myths and who fear that older Americans will be left without health care. But most members of Congress are old themselves—they wouldn’t forget senior citizens,” he admonished. He, too, called for Muslims to become engaged in the health care debate.
Dr. Esam Omeish, chief of surgery at Inova Alexandria Hospital in Virginia, described patients he’s treated who have neither jobs nor health care and who now face death because they had no access to preventative care. He described a young mother he’d treated with early symptoms of cancer. She returned two years later with advanced breast cancer. When Dr. Omeish asked her why she hadn’t sought health care in the interim, she explained that she had lost her job.
Khizer Husain, Washington liaison for the American Muslim Health Professionals (AMHP) Task Force on Health Affordability, described some of the 25 free clinics run by Muslim volunteers which are serving the economically disadvantaged. Only 5 percent of the clinics’ patients are Muslim, he noted, and the staff does not proselytize. The University Muslim Medical Association (UMMA), launched in 1996 and located in the heart of south central Los Angeles, is one of the oldest free Muslim health care clinics. Husain pointed out that 80 percent of the uninsured in Los Angeles have jobs.
The waiting room was nearly full on Sept. 24 at the Muslim Community Center Medical Clinic in Silver Spring, MD. More than 28 volunteer physicians (including its founder, Dr. Asif Qadri) and 75 other volunteers take care of any patient who enters their door. When this reporter asked patient Nelly BermÃºdez if she were Muslim, Dr. Qadri admonished, “That is a question we never ask our patients. We also don’t ask to see their social security number.”
Muslim clinics operate on tight budgets, relying heavily on donated equipment and volunteer physicians, many of whom are first-generation American Muslims who are driven by a desire to give back to the country that welcomed them as immigrants. American-born Muslims are equally dedicated to serving the only country they have ever known.
The Capitol Hill briefing concluded with an agreement that Muslim leaders, including the many doctors they represent, would do their best to help President Barack Obama reform health care. Nihad Awad, director of the Council on American Islamic Relations, called for the launch of an interfaith initiative. He suggested the Muslim community reawaken America’s moral imperative of caring for one another.
Health care is a human right, American Muslim leaders concluded, and the best available technology and most advanced care should be available to every person, regardless of financial circumstances, medical insurance status, or ability to pay.
Most developed nations provide free health care to their citizens. Even Israel, which accepts more than $3 billion yearly in aid from American taxpayers, has national health care available to its Jewish citizens.
Delinda C. Hanley is news editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.