Earlier this month, the Senate Finance Committee adopted a long-overdue health insurance reform bill, the America’s Healthy Future Act. It was a watershed vote that brings the United States closer to accessible, affordable, universal health care, but it was also only one step on the winding and still uncertain legislative path to the Oval Office and the president’s signature on a final reform package. For the sake of our democracy and the well-being of our country and its citizens, the American Jewish community cannot stand on the sidelines of this debate.
Why should this issue matter to us? As Jews, we are taught to care for justice – and a system that leaves millions uninsured and millions more underinsured is far from just. Our tradition teaches that an individual human life is of infinite value, and yet one American dies every 12 minutes – 45,000 each year – because of lack of health insurance and restricted access to the care they need. Maimonides, a revered Jewish scholar, listed health care first on his list of the 10 most important communal services that a moral city had to offer to its residents (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot IV: 23), and yet in the United States, more than 900,000 people are projected to endure medical bankruptcy this year because they are burdened by the cost of care.
These teachings of our tradition convey enduring values that speak across the centuries to us today. Millions of uninsured and underinsured Americans in need of basic health care are forced to go to emergency rooms instead of doctors’ offices or clinics, and health-care costs are skyrocketing at alarming rates, threatening the financial well-being of families and the long-term stability of our nation’s economy. In the face of this crisis, a remarkable assembly of doctors, hospitals, labor unions, businesses, insurance companies, drug companies, members of Congress, administration officials and people of faith have come together, working as one to bring about the fundamental and comprehensive health insurance reform our country so desperately needs.
Some ask whether we can we afford the repairs that reformers seek. The more pertinent question is whether we can afford to maintain our broken system. If we remain on the path we’ve been following, 10 years from now health-care spending is expected to reach 20 percent of GDP. Even as the wealthiest nation on earth, we cannot afford that kind of burden, and we should not place it upon our children and grandchildren. This means not only bankruptcy for millions of us; it means bankruptcy for the nation.
The different health insurance reform bills working their way through the House and Senate have brought us closer to addressing these many problems than we have been in decades. The bill adopted by the Senate Finance Committee on Oct. 13 passed after months of negotiations and ultimately with the support of Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine. America’s Healthy Future Act requires most Americans to buy insurance coverage and offers a health-care “exchange” designed to spur competition and reduce costs. Unfortunately, it fails to include a “public option,” which would allow a government-run insurance plan to compete with the private market. In August, the House Energy and Commerce Committee passed America’s Affordable Health Choices Act, which requires all Americans to have insurance individually or through an employer, helps low-income individuals afford coverage, and includes a public option. These bills will now have to be combined with other proposals, including that of the Senate HELP Committee, and must ultimately be negotiated into a package to be approved by a majority of members of Congress and agreed to by the White House.
Jewish tradition teaches that providing health care is not just an obligation for the doctor, but for the community as a whole. So too, passing health insurance reform is not just an obligation for members of Congress. It is the responsibility of each of us to demand reform that is comprehensive in the services it covers, expands insurance to the millions of Americans currently lacking coverage, protects low-income and vulnerable populations, promises quality affordable care, and rests on a financially sustainable foundation.
There are thousands of minute details to be considered, and hundreds of reasons that any bill that emerges will be imperfect. But there are, at a minimum, 90 million reasons why reform is essential. Ninety million – the number of Americans who went without insurance at some point last year. In the coming weeks, Congress has the opportunity to pass strong, comprehensive health-care reform that offers expanded coverage, protects the vulnerable among us, and provides affordable high-quality care. This is the time. This is the moment when we need to come together to enact real health reform that guarantees access to quality affordable health coverage to all.