Does health-care reform have a prayer?

medicine prayerThat's not a rhetorical question, but a literal one explored in a Washington Post story by William Wan entitled, "Christian Scientists seek reimbursement for prayers." The first five grafs gently ease the reader into the story, introducing pay-for-pray legislative proposals that are, frankly, news to me:

The calls come in at all hours: patients reporting broken bones, violent coughs, deep depression.

Prue Lewis listens as they explain their symptoms. Then Lewis -- a thin, frail-looking woman from Columbia Heights -- simply says, "I'll go to work right away." She hangs up, organizes her thoughts and begins treating her clients' ailments the best way she knows how: She prays.

This is health care in the world of Christian Science, where the sick eschew conventional medicine and turn to God for healing. Christian Scientists call it "spiritual health care," and it is a practice they are battling to insert into the health-care legislation being hammered out in Congress.

Leaders of the Church of Christ, Scientist, are pushing a proposal that would help patients pay someone like Lewis for prayer by having insurers reimburse the $20 to $40 cost.

The provision was stripped from the bill the House passed this month, and church leaders are trying to get it inserted into the Senate version. And the church has powerful allies there, including Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who represents the state where the church is based, and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who said the provision would "ensure that health-care reform law does not discriminate against any religion."

Wan's story does a good job of examining the intersection of private piety and public policy by letting Christian Scientists duke it out with the tireless and ever-quotable Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Here's what I think would have made this a better story: a sentence (or a few) summarizing scientific research into the medical efficacy of prayer. We know that various constituencies are going to line up on predictable sides of the medical pay-for-pray debate. But is there any objective answer to the question of whether this kind of prayer "works"?

One can find many media reports slicing and dicing the results of a major 2006 study of 1,802 heart surgery patients published in the American Heart Journal that concluded:

Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from CABG (coronary artery bypass graft), but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications.

Wan had his hands full with religion and legislation, so it's understandable that he didn't want to add science to the mix. But making this a three-way debate between church, state and lab would have added an important dimension to an article that in other respects brings this issue to life so well.

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