UJC Now Lobbying for Universal Health Care

By Nathan Guttman

Published July 08, 2009, issue of July 17, 2009.
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One of the largest and most influential Jewish groups has signed on for the first time in support of universal health care in the United States.

United Jewish Communities, an umbrella group for local Jewish federations, pushed its members to lobby over the July 4 weekend for health care reform that would provide universal coverage. In talking points sent out to federation activists, and to members of local Jewish community relations committees, activists were urged to tell their elected officials that “any health care reform effort should ensure that every individual and family has access to qualified medical professionals and providers for their care, regardless of income or other barriers.”

While a number of other Jewish organizations in Washington have long lobbied for universal health care, the federations traditionally viewed health care reform through their own prism, as owners of hospitals and senior care facilities. As such, the federations and their national advocacy efforts historically focused more narrowly on ensuring government funding for these programs, regardless of the issue of universal accessibility to health care.

Last May, though, UJC decided to sign on to a joint statement with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, dedicating both groups to lobbying for universal health care based on the “moral mandate from our Jewish tradition” and on their experience as health care service providers.

“Now people are working together for both causes: universal health care and funding for health care services,” said Hadar Susskind, vice president of public policy and Washington director of the JCPA. Susskind, who was involved in the negotiations that led to signing the joint statement, said, “We see it as a fundamental issue that will make the federation system involved in the broader issue of reforming health care.”

UJC is so important because it represents 157 federations and 400 independent communities that raise and distribute more than $3 billion each year. It is the largest provider of social services in the Jewish community, and as such it is the key organization dealing with government funding for community-based services.

UJC is wading slowly into the waters. William Daroff, UJC’s vice president of public policy, did not acknowledge that the recent lobbying represents a major change, although he did recognize that his mandate has been broadened because of the new cooperation with the JCPA on health care reform.

“I don’t think this is a shift. It is smart politics,” Daroff said. “We want to be inside the tent for these discussions because of their critical importance for the Jewish community.”

During the lobbying weekend, UJC gave local Jewish activists a push to promote current federation programs alongside a broader change that would enable universal health care for Americans. UJC told its lobbyists also to focus on Medicare and Medicaid funding, which are crucial for Jewish nursing homes and old-age facilities.

One potential sticking point for UJC is the Obama administration’s plan to decrease tax deductions on charitable giving for high-income individuals. The change has been proposed as a way of securing funding for an overhaul of the health care system but UJC has argued strenuously against it.

Daroff would not say if the group would part ways with the JCPA on health care if its concerns, mainly those regarding charitable tax deductions, are not met. Current versions of health care legislation do not include the measure, but it is too early in the legislative process to know what the final language will contain.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and a longtime supporter of universal health care, said he believed that all Jewish groups hold strong views on the need for an accessible health care system.

“I’d be surprised if any Jewish group would back off because of any particular interest,” he said.

Saperstein spoke after an interfaith lobbying day July 7, during which leaders of 15 faith groups spoke with legislators and administration officials in support of universal health care. Among the attendees were representatives of many Jewish groups that are actively advocating for passage of health care reform. Saperstein believes that this turnout proves how important the issue is viewed within the community.

“Health care reform will not happen without the political drumbeat for the absolute moral commitment, and the Jewish community is important in determining this moral commitment,” he said.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com

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