Jewish Groups Siding with Obama on Health Care Reform

By Eric Fingerhut (JTA)

Published July 01, 2009.
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As the health care reform debate heats up, Jewish organizations are siding with the Obama administration on several key points, including the creation of a government-run public insurance option and pushing for measures that would help the rapidly aging Jewish community.

Obama says he backs a public option as vital to expanding access to health care and controlling costs. Many Republicans vehemently oppose the idea, saying it would distort the private marketplace and potentially put insurance companies out of business.

Several major Jewish organizations – including the United Jewish Communities, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and B’nai B’rith International – favor the public option and have embraced the White House’s general focus on adopting a comprehensive plan that provides affordable and accessible coverage for all Americans, especially those with low incomes.

Health care reform “is such a core issue – a huge, huge priority in the Jewish community,” said Hadar Susskind, the Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a public policy umbrella group bringing together the synagogue movements, several national organizations and local Jewish communities across North America.

In addition to weighing in on general principles, the JCPA and the United Jewish Communities, the North American arm of the federation system, are focusing their efforts on the CLASS (Community Living Assistance Services and Supports) Act, which would set up a government-run disability insurance system for adults with long-term health care needs.

The voluntary program – participants can opt out if they wish – would require a small contribution each month throughout a person’s working life. After five years of enrollment, participants would be eligible to receive up to $3,000 a month for home, community or institutional care if they are judged to be unable to perform certain “activities of daily living,” such as cooking or bathing.

The program is particularly important for the Jewish community because “Jews are the fastest aging segment of the population in North America due to our low reproductive rates and high access to public health and education throughout our lifetimes,” said Jonathan Westin, assistant director of legislative affairs at UJC, which with the JCPA has made the bill a priority.

With the government’s low-income Medicaid health insurance program already strained by tight state budgets and the elderly’s Medicare program in danger because of the financial pressure brought by the large and aging baby boomer generation, Westin said the CLASS Act is “vital.”

The measure already is part of the version of reform legislation sponsored by U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), but not of other health reform bills circulating in the Senate and House of Representatives. Activists say their biggest challenge is getting the CLASS Act into those other packages or whatever final bill emerges on Capitol Hill.

Their case for CLASS was bolstered significantly last week when the Congressional Budget Office’s “scoring” of the legislation found that it would provide a $60 billion savings over 10 years – certainly a selling point for inclusion in a package that eventually court cost more than $1 trillion.

UJC and JCPA have joined on the health care issue, last week sending out a Healthcare Reform Action Toolkit with talking points and sample letters to Congress that activists can use when meeting with their members of Congress over the July 4 recess.

Other Jewish groups are supportive of legislation like the CLASS Act, but are concentrating their efforts primarily on general principles for achieving universal coverage.

“Our most important goal is trying to focus the moral and values dimension of this debate,” said Mark Pelavin, the associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

While paying for reform is a crucial part of the debate, Pelavin said, the debate “can’t only be about money and numbers.” He said there is “tremendous passion” for reform among his movement’s members, noting that the issue combines the “fundamental Jewish social justice value” of “providing health care to every citizen” with an awareness that the health care system has “deep flaws.”

B’nai B’rith’s director of senior advocacy, Rachel Goldberg, said her organization is paying special attention to whether insurers will be allowed to use age as a factor in pricing and providing coverage.

“We want to make sure 50- to 65-year-olds have access to real coverage and real health care,” she said.

Jewish groups are backing the much-talked-about public option, calling it an important part of any reform, but don’t want to draw any lines in the sand.

For example, Pelavin noted that the Reform movement has long supported a single payer system. But he didn’t completely rule out supporting a bill without a public option, saying, “We’d have to look at how the whole thing came together.”

The Religious Action Center also has been active in building faith-based coalitions promoting reform. Last week, the group was one of about 40 religiously affiliated groups to take part in an “Interfaith Service of Witness and Prayer for Health Care for All” in Washington, with the center’s director, Rabbi David Saperstein, a featured speaker.

Next week, the Reform organization is teaming with the United Methodist Church to convene religious leaders for a summit on health reform, bringing 25 denominational leaders to Washington to lobby.

In addition to backing certain principles and programs, Jewish groups also are monitoring how the administration and Congress plan to pay for health reform. Many Jewish groups have expressed concern or are opposing one way Obama has said he wants to raise the funds – lowering the deduction that high-income taxpayers receive for charitable contributions.

With multiple legislative options circulating and Obama letting Capitol Hill take the lead in writing legislation, it remains unclear what may end up in the final bill. But UJC and JCPA say they are concerned by some proposals that have been floated to finance reform, including a possible freeze of Medicare reimbursement rates for nursing homes, home health care services, hospices and hospitals, and a proposal to alter the tax-exempt status for certain charitable institutions.

Susskind noted that people sometimes “make a very artificial distinction between advocacy on the broad social agenda and advocacy on the funding issue.” But those “funding streams are really important” and allow certain hospitals and nursing homes to function.

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