Jewish groups join national debate on health-care reform
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Jewish groups join national debate on health-care reform

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Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9) answers questions on health-care reform at an Aug. 13 town hall meeting at Hackensack High School attended by 750 people. Carrie GiddIns

Legislators and lobbyists working to push through President Obama’s health-care reforms have sought out the faith community as a voice of moral urgency.

Indeed, the contentious debate over health-care reform facing the country appears to have united Jewish advocacy organizations. While individuals within the Jewish community may not universally accept Obama’s push for reform, the Jewish organizational world is mostly unified in support, said Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella group for the nation’s Jewish Community Relations Councils.

“Social justice is a Jewish imperative,” said Nancy Ratzan, president of the National Council for Jewish Women, during a telephone interview on Monday. “Access to basic health care for everyone, I think, is understood today as a fundamental social-justice issue. The Jewish community is very engaged and very inspired by this opportunity to change policy to ensure that kind of justice for everybody, so it’s not just those who can afford it.”

NCJW has voiced its support for the public health-care option, a part of the reform proposals that has elicited accusations of socialism from its detractors. Under the proposal, a government health plan would be available in an open exchange with private insurance companies. The idea, say supporters, is to increase competition among providers while giving customers access to the best rates. Opponents charge that private companies would not be able to compete with a government-backed plan and the exchange would damage competition.

“The purpose of this reform bill is essentially to try to reduce those costs for everyone,” said New Jersey’s Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6) during a conference call with reporters last month. The health exchange, he added, “becomes like a large group plan and there’s competition. We expect the costs of premiums to go down overall.”

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National Council of Jewish Women president Nancy Ratzan

In a move that angered the more liberal members of his party earlier this week, Obama began to back away from the public option, saying it is not the centerpiece of his reform package and compromise is possible.

NCJW’s goal in promoting reform is to ensure affordability and accessibility to health care for everybody, Ratzan said, pointing out that the high cost of health care makes it inaccessible to many people, including a large percentage of women and single mothers. Those who do not receive coverage through their employers often do not have viable options, she added.

“We still believe that the public option is a critical and strong piece of reform that is needed to ensure one of the fundamental purposes of this reform – to ensure accessibility and affordability and inclusion,” Ratzan said. “We believe the public option provides that balance and that access.”

JCPA’s Gutow praised the public option as a means of increasing competition among insurance companies but added that it is too early for advocacy groups to make it a centerpiece of their work. JCPA’s goal is to see a plan of action that makes health care affordable and accessible, he said. Whether the public health exchange that Pallone touted last month makes it into the final package will not determine JCPA’s support, Gutow said.

“It’s a great option but it’s not the only option,” he said.

As The Jewish Standard went to press on Wednesday, Obama was scheduled to address thousands of members of various religious communities during a conference call organized by a coalition of faith groups called 40 Days for Health Reform. Among the sponsoring organizations were the Jewish Council on Public Affairs and the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

Katie Paris, a member of Faith in Public Life, one of the organizations behind Wednesday’s conference call, said the faith community has an important role to play in promoting reform.

“Unlike a lobby group in Washington, clergy are real local leaders,” she said. “We want to put the focus back on real people, real leaders. They’re on the front line of this crisis.”

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Katie Paris is a member of Faith in Public Life, one of the organizations behind Wednesday’s conference call with President Obama and members of America’s religious communities.

In his d’var Torah this past Shabbat, Rabbi Neal Borovitz of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge lamented the disrespectful behavior displayed at recent congressional forums around the country to promote reform. He stressed the importance of respectful communication with elected officials, even when in disagreement.

Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9), who could not be reached for comment, completed a series of town hall meetings around the area last week. Attendees told the Standard Rothman faced heckling, insults, and accusations during the 10 meetings, which altogether drew more than 3,500 people.

In a future sermon, Borovitz wrote in an e-mail to the Standard, he plans to speak on the need to ensure that any legislation that comes out of the current debate establishes health care as a right of every citizen and that all Americans have the right and responsibility to make their own health-care decisions.

“The responsibility of a community to care for the sick and the autonomy of individuals to make their own decisions are both Jewish values that I believe it is my right and responsibility as a rabbi to teach and promote,” Borovitz wrote.

The Reform movement has made health-care reform one of its central issues in recent years. During the movement’s biennial convention in 2007, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said, “We live in a country with a pitifully inadequate health insurance system that causes horrors every day so tragic that they could rip the heart out of a stone.”

Barbara Weinstein, legislative director of the movement’s Religious Action Center, said the movement has been encouraging its congregations across the country to get involved in the debate. Many people still have misconceptions about the proposals in Washington, she said, stressing the need for more education.

“Our main focus is ensuring that we get health-care reform that provides the health-care coverage that all Americans need and deserve and that we are not the only Western democracy that doesn’t make sure all its citizens have access to health insurance,” she said.

“The role the faith community plays is bringing the moral imperative to get this done,” she added. “It is no longer acceptable to have 90 million Americans without health insurance.”

According to Rabbi Randall Mark of Cong. Shomrei Torah in Wayne, who is president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, health-care reform has been on the agenda of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly and the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis. A 2002 R.A. resolution called for the government to increase funding for health care for the poor and to expand programs for children’s benefits. In 2008, the R.A. called on the government to set up an affordable health-care system for all Americans.

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Barbara Weinstein is the legislative director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of North America’s federation system, has made the incorporation of long-term care within health-care reform one of its top priorities. Included among the proposals is the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports Act, a provision in the reform bill currently in the Senate that would create a voluntary disability insurance program for adults with long-term needs and alleviate pressure on the Medicaid program. According to the legislation, eligible enrollees who need assistance performing common daily activities – such as dressing, bathing, and eating – would receive cash benefits to pay for support services in a community setting.

“We feel that the CLASS Act initiative will put in motion a program that our communities feel would be a monumental first step in how they are going to care for the baby boomer generation and beyond,” said Jonathan Westin, UJC’s assistant director of Legislative Affairs.

The act was included in the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee legislation, one of two Senate health-care bills under discussion. The second Senate bill, which will be reported out of the Finance Committee, has not yet been introduced. Recently, the House added the CLASS Act to its legislation. Westin credited New Jersey’s State Association of Jewish Federations and its members for taking an active role with UJC in ensuring that the legislation is included.

“We’re going to stay focused on that as our priority,” said Jacob Toporek, executive director of the State Association. “There’s a good consensus within the Jewish community for [the legislation.]”

Toporek and Westin both noted that the legislation received a positive reception from the Congressional Budget Office. The CBO last month estimated that the CLASS Act would reduce the health-care overhaul by $59 billion from 2010 to 2019.

Hadassah, which is a member of several coalitions promoting reform, is taking a wait-and-see attitude on the reform bills now in Washington. While two bills are waiting in committee in the House, political observers expect the bill under review by the Senate’s Committee on Finance to play a major part of any reform.

“Everybody in Washington is waiting for the Senate finance committee bill,” said Marla Gilson, director of Hadassah’s Washington Action Office. “That’s the bill that’s really going to drive this train.”

She noted that Obama’s appearance last weekend in Montana was not a coincidence. Montana is the home of Sen. Max Baucus, chair of the Senate Committee on Finance.

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U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett

During a meeting last month with Obama, Gilson said she brought up Israel’s health-care system, which she said has had a successful national health insurance plan for its entire existence. She pointed to Israel’s high life expectancy and the low per capita costs of the system. A member of Obama’s staff, she said, asked her for more information following the meeting.

“Because Hadassah established the public health system in Israel before the establishment of the state, because we have that expertise and that interest, we’ve been trying to show that Israel is a good role model for the United States,” she said.

While Congress is in recess, the president’s legislative allies have been holding town hall forums across the country. While all members of Congress recognize the need for health-care reform, the president’s plans have received icy receptions from many in the Republican Party.

“There’s certainly a need for a reform of the system, I don’t think anybody at all would ever dispute that,” Rep. Scott Garrett told the Standard last month during a phone interview. “The question is how to achieve that and how to achieve that in a way that you do not come up with any unintended consequences.”

Such consequences, according to Garrett, include fewer opportunities for people in their health-care choices – when selecting doctors and other providers, for example – and the creation of medical rationing because of a shortage of physicians to meet the demand from large numbers of newly insured patients. Another danger, Garrett suggested, is that people may lose their health care through their employers.

Obama’s health-care plan has “real fundamental problems,” Garrett said, adding that it is “more of the same of what we’ve had.”

On the other side of the aisle, proponents of the president’s push for reform have chastised detractors.

“Americans all across the country are participating in the debate on how best to reform our broken health care system,” Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said in a statement to the Standard on Wednesday. “I am disappointed by the use of misinformation by some to put politics ahead of progress, but remain confident that Congress and the president will enact changes that ensure everyone will have access to quality, affordable, and stable health care.”

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