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A Jewish case for health reform

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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.

Mark J. Pelavin is the associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
The views in opinion pieces and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jewish Standard. The comments posted on this Website are solely the opinions of the posters. Libelous or obscene comments will be removed.
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Stay tuned for the return of comments

jim kelly posted 26 Oct 2009 at 06:59 PM

here is a story - unlike most about health care - that really comes from compassion and the faith that we CAN do this, and SHOULD do this.  LET’S do this and improve on it over the coming years.  My grandparents were jews that just in the nick of time escaped nazi germany, my grandmother (oma) told me a story about how a black woman would share her lunch with her because she had nothing to eat.  We are all in this together, it is time to care about our fellow man MORE.

Julian Lieb posted 26 Oct 2009 at 07:15 PM

Innovation that radically improves the quality of care, thus reducng utilization, is the only solution. One such innovation: Lieb,J.“Defeating cancer with antidepressants.“ecancermedicalscience DOI.10.3332/eCMS.2008.88. Such innovations, however, would seem to have legions of foes, and few friends.

Gordon posted 26 Oct 2009 at 07:24 PM

Obviously, someone hasn’t done the math.
Total U.S. government spending = 3 trillion.
Total U.S. medical spending = 2 trillion.
Therefore, in order for U.S. government to provide health care to everyone, it must absorb an industry almost as big as the entire U.S. government itself.
They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Well, good intentions will require the government to DOUBLE or possibly TRIPLE (,due to the government’s LEGENDARY inefficiency,) taxes.

Nor has someone done their homework.
Justice and compassion have no basis nor place in reform judaism. Reform judaism is about personal choice rather than groupthink. Justice, which is reliant upon a group consensus of morality, runs completely contrary to notions of personal choice. It is the antithesis of reform judaism.

WALTER d'uLL posted 26 Oct 2009 at 07:37 PM


WALTER d'uLL posted 26 Oct 2009 at 07:44 PM

1:24 comment reflects the totally intelligent way of looking at the plan. (please restore, flagged by mistake) 3 trillion, 2 trillion.

Dr Gary Marder posted 28 Oct 2009 at 07:39 AM

As a practicing Physician and Orthodox jew,I wholeheartedly agree with Michael Thau.Too many liberal philosophical jews have hurt the conservative ,industriuos and hard working jew whose philosophy of G-d helps those who help themselves is otherwise said in vain.Doctors can no longer work for peanuts and unappreciative patients .Patients who only care that they recieve the best care at the expense of the sweat and frustration of Physicians who must deal with HMO’s ,lawyers and unappreciative patients that ALL have cell phones but can’t or won’t pay their $5 copay.

Add to the above Doctors who risk their lives with AIDS patients ,hepatitis patients and the list goes on and on.As Hillel said"If I am not for myself who will be for me ”

Cowdogs posted 28 Oct 2009 at 08:48 PM

Jews also teach intelligence and history.  Look around to other countries that have nationalized health care and enslaved providers to see the miserable failures.

Wake up and reject this crap.

nicolas w garcia posted 28 Oct 2009 at 09:10 PM

I grew up in a military family. We all had free health care from the base commander to the lowest ranking airman.  When we needed to see the doctor my mother or father drove us to sick bay and we were seen within minutes of arrival. We all had this and every family is better off because of it. It goes on today with my mother age 75 still able to see her base doctor or off base diabetes doctor. I know what it is like to live under this system where all in a community have health care and it is far better than what I know today as an airline pilot. The care was more efficient and equal to our community. The amazing thing was how low my fathers was. He took home about $350 per month in the early 60s yet we never thought of medical bankruptcy. If we had a major illness as some of our friends had, it was cared for.
My father died in a VA hospital in Tucson, Arizona in 1997. He died in recovery after a quadruple bypass after a heart attack. His last letter was to thank his Air Force medical staff on such a fine job for caring for him.  We loved this system and if it is anything like the Obama remake of our health coverage, I am for it.  And one day in the future we will look back at this as we did public education and realize we did a good thing but can always do better.

Cowdogs posted 28 Oct 2009 at 09:22 PM

Growing up in a military family must have been an honor.  However, someone along the line made a decision to “enter you” into the military life.  The operative term is “made a decision”, which imparts choice.  That which is being discussed involves no choice by the people who will be subjugated by it.

Again, look around to countries that, by political force, have imposed this upon their citizens.  Not pretty.

Robert Lahasky posted 31 Oct 2009 at 04:16 AM

As a Jewish Physician, I also agree that the current health care system would benefit from significant reform.  Unfortunately, the reforms offered by the current administration and supported by this article are NOT what we need.  They do not lower health care costs, increase access to care or improve the quality of health care that millions of Americans receive.  The current bills in Congress are not about improving care - but rather are simply an attempt to expand government control over the economy and over your life. 

Health care costs can and should be lowered by adopting tort reform (something the Democratic leaders in Congress refuse because it is not supported by the trial lawyers), by allowing insurance companies to sell across state lines to expand the risk pool, by allowing small companies to band together to buy insurance and by altering the “pre-existing” clause in insurance contracts.  Unfortunately, these simple measures don’t allow anyone to ‘control’ the system, so they are not supported by the Administration!

Isn’t it time that we, as Jews concerned about doing what is right for ourselves and for our fellow human beings, start examining the facts.  Mr. Pelavin has my respect.  He does excellent work following his heart at the Religion Action Center, but he is dead wrong on this topic.  His “facts” are in error (like 45,000 people die each year from lack of health insurance).  No one gets turned away from an ER if they require care, regardless of ability to pay.  If we as Jews want to be serious players in this fight, we must stop blindly supporting one political party and start evaluating all the information so we can make intelligent decisions for ourselves and our children. Only then can we truely help to “repair the world.”

lucy posted 15 Nov 2009 at 06:15 PM

why is passover important to jewish people?


Remembering Regina Jonas

Conversion to Judaism is very much in the news today — and for all the wrong reasons. But at the moment, my interest is not in the history of conversion itself, but in the way that it is read into next week’s Torah reading, parashat Lekh Lekha (Genesis 12-17).

The Torah reading opens with God commanding Abraham to set forth on a journey to a place unknown. Abraham sets forth with his wife Sarah, his nephew, all their possessions, and “the souls that they had made in Haran.”

How does someone “make” souls? The midrashic collection Genesis Rabbah, compiled some time in the fifth through eighth centuries, interprets this strange clause as referring to converts. Why did the text say “made” instead of “converted”? To demonstrate that converting someone to Judaism is like creating that person anew. But why the plural? Doesn’t it really mean that he, Abraham, had made or converted those souls? No. Abraham converted the men; Sarah converted the women (Genesis Rabbah 39:14).



Cold hearts and sub-Saharan Jews

I remember vividly how moved and inspired I was as a child when — at a very early stage of my Jewish education — I was introduced to the sage Hillel and his own youthful entrée to Jewish scholarship.

Hillel went on to become a renowned scholar, a beloved and oft-quoted national leader, and the founder of an important rabbinic dynasty. The brief story — my first “Talmud lesson” — is familiar. Working as a poor woodchopper, Hillel would devote half of his meager earnings to daily necessities. The other half he spent on the fee required for admission to the bet midrash — the Babylonian academy where Torah was taught by the great Shemaiah and Avtalyon. One winter Friday (during the month of Tevet, the Talmud records) he was without sufficient means to enter the citadel of learning. He was turned away. Undeterred, he climbed atop the roof, to listen to the lesson through a skylight. There he stayed until Shabbat morning, when he was found covered by three cubits of snow. “The snow came down from Heaven,” the text (Yoma 35B) says lyrically. (Even in my New England childhood, that daunting volume of snow fired my imagination!)



Scandals in the rabbinate

In the wake of the recent, highly publicized mikvah scandal, I wonder what possesses men and women who have dedicated themselves to the perpetuation of Judaism and its values to abandon those values.

Often enough this occurs in the domain of sexual wrongdoing, but there also are recorded instances of such ethical offenses as the misuse of discretionary funds for personal or family needs, and criminal activities including the embezzlement of synagogue or Jewish organizational assets. The parties involved often have sterling records of service to the Jewish community and are well-respected as clergy in their denominations and then suddenly all hell breaks loose regarding a discovered transgression that is not a mere peccadillo. Why does this happen?




Speaking about the unspeakable


A view from the pew

The recent debates over the so-called Jewish State basic law was the catalyst, though not necessarily the true cause, for the collapse of Israel’s coalition government.

What was this debate really about? As a Chanukah gift to ourselves, I suggest that each of us do a Google search of the following list of internationally recognized legal documents: the Balfour Declaration; UN Resolution 181, dated November 29, 1947; the Israeli declaration of independence; and UN Resolution 242, dated September 1967.

Each of these internationally recognized legal documents are proof that for nearly a century, the international community has affirmed and re-affirmed the right of the Jewish people to re-establish ourselves as an independent Jewish state in the land of Israel. You will note as well that over that same century, the Jewish community in the land of Israel and in the diaspora has affirmed our responsibility to recognize the political and religious rights of non-Jewish residents of the pre-1948 community and of the equality under law of all citizens of Israel.



Divided we fall — united we may stand

As I look out on the world from my vantage point in relatively safe and protected Teaneck, I am often reminded of these lines by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…”

Here, in the United States, we seem less united than at any time since the Civil War. In much of the Arab world internal sectarianisms and a return to tribalism seem to hold sway. Within the Jewish world we seem to have splintered into ever smaller, more closely defined, exclusive and exclusionary fragments. Even in Teaneck, we are deeply factionalized.


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