by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

You go to a luncheon, and someone starts passing the hat for some poor soul who has been diagnosed with cancer and doesn’t have the medical insurance to pay for treatment. You go into the Break Time to pay for your gas and coffee and see another donation jar for some kid whose family lacks health insurance but needs a lifesaving operation.

You can’t ignore the pleas because you know these families will soon be in bankruptcy in a last-ditch effort to save their loved one. And in the back of your mind you always wonder whether that will be you someday.

Like most people, I am getting sick and tired of the fact that we have the most technologically advanced civilization ever but can’t figure out how to provide health insurance to all Americans.

Inaction by the private sector and public officials is causing some organizations to sidestep the insurance industry entirely to create a single-payer system for catastrophic health-care coverage. Biblical health insurance, as it is called, refers to a simple cooperative system of health-care coverage run by religious organizations. Taking their lead from Galatians 6:2, to “bear one another’s burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ,” Samaritan Ministries is one of several groups to offer this type of service.

Samaritan Ministries is careful to say it doesn’t offer insurance but rather a newsletter subscription. Subscriptions are $248 per month for a family, $154 per month for single parents and $105 per month for a single person. Instead of sending your subscription fee to the Samaritan Ministries, however, each month the newsletter will direct you to send your payment to a particular subscriber who has a medical bill that needs to be paid.

Likewise, if you have a medical bill you can’t pay, the Samaritans will direct enough subscribers to you so that your bills will be covered. You are allowed to “publish” up to $100,000 of medical expenses per person, per incident, with no yearly or lifetime limit. There is a $300 deductible per incident, and the organization doesn’t cover preventive care, cosmetic surgery and expenses caused by “self-destructive actions” such as drug abuse, rock-climbing, etc.

By directing the payments from the subscribers to the families in need on a month-by-month basis, organizations such as the Samaritan Ministries are able to provide catastrophic health-care coverage for thousands of people. As with all such cooperatives, once the number of members reaches a critical mass, the program is self-sustaining, and costs go down.

Such basic coverage should be universally available to all Americans for a reasonable fee. In other words, we should start treating health care like a public utility. Public utility companies – whether run by the local government, a cooperative or a for-profit corporation – provide our water, sewer, trash collection, telephone and power systems. Why not our health care?

Consider telephone service. Even with deregulation, you can get basic telephone service no matter where you live for a reasonable flat fee. If you live in the country, the telephone company will lose money stringing the phone line all the way to your house just to collect $30 a month. However, it will more than make up that loss by providing service in the city, where homes are close together and cheaper to connect with cable.

If you want high-speed service from your telephone company, you have to pay more. Sometimes a lot more.

Health care should work the same way. You should be able to get a basic level of service for a reasonable fee, no matter where you are located in the economic landscape or your current condition. If you want to have access to advanced services – heart transplants, cosmetic surgery, etc. – you should have to pay more for it.

The main reason we don’t treat health care like a public utility is that the insurance, health-care and drug companies won’t allow it for fear of cutting into their profits. We can’t let this stop us any longer. The time has come to stop passing the hat, put away the donation jar and connect all Americans to the health-care utility.