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GOP upset in Mass. raises questions for health reform

WASHINGTON – The election of Scott Brown to replace the late Ted Kennedy in the U.S. Senate has thrown the future of health-care reform into doubt.

With the Republican’s upset victory Tuesday in Massachusetts, Jewish groups backing comprehensive reform must figure out how to respond. One organization said that passing the Senate version of the legislation is the best possible outcome at this point, but others are undecided.

Brown has vowed to be the crucial 41st vote against ending the filibuster on any reform of the U.S. health-care system, dimming the prospects for passage of any kind of conference committee deal between the Senate and House of Representatives. That has led some to suggest that the only hope for health-care reform is if the House passes the Senate bill without amendments, so the Senate does not have to take another vote on the issue.

The associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Mark Pelavin, said that such a step would eliminate important provisions that his group backs in the House legislation — such as the “public option” — but “is something we could live with.”

Pelavin said that while it may not be the best possible outcome, considering the political landscape it would be an “incredibly significant step” in expanding the access to and lowering the cost of health care because it would cover two-thirds of those now without insurance.

Pelavin also said the Senate bill’s controversial language restricting the health-insurance coverage of abortion, which a number of Jewish groups have spoken out against, is “troubling.” But, he added, it’s not nearly as restrictive as the provision in the House version that would not allow anyone receiving federal subsidies to buy a plan covering abortion and would not permit plans on the “insurance exchange” formed by the bill to include abortion coverage.

Sammie Moshenberg, the director of Washington operations at the National Council of Jewish Women, said the Senate language on reproductive rights is still “pretty bad” because it would allow states to decide whether abortion is covered in insurance plans and force women to write a separate check for the portion of their health coverage that covered abortion.

As for the overall legislation, Moshenberg said her organization is waiting to see how the negotiations between the House and Senate play out.

“Obviously the political dynamics on the ground have changed” and congressional leadership is “going to have to develop a strategy,” she said. “It wouldn’t make any sense for us to decide right now.

“There are things in the Senate bill that we like, and things that we don’t like.”

B’nai B’rith International also has concerns about the Senate legislation. The organization believes that the subsidies for middle-income Americans are not large enough. Also, the bill allows insurance companies to charge older consumers up to three times as much as younger customers. The House bill’s “age rating” is 2 to 1.

“It would be very difficult for the aging community” if the House decided to pass the Senate bill as is, said B’nai B’rith’s director of aging policy, Rachel Goldberg. She also expressed concern about the independent commission that the Senate bill would establish to have authority over Medicare and Medicaid spending.

William Daroff, vice president for public policy and head of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America, said his organization would continue to work with the Congress and Senate “in favor of the parts of the legislation we’re supportive of and oppose the parts we’re opposed to.”

The umbrella group Jewish Federations of North America has declined to take a position on the legislation as a whole, instead focusing on its priorities, which include the CLASS Act — a government long-term care insurance program that is included in the Senate bill — as well as increasing coverage for the most vulnerable and protecting Medicare and Medicaid.

Daroff was one of a number of Jewish organizational representatives who suggested that Democrats might still be able to sway a liberal Republican — such as Maine’s Olympia Snowe or Susan Collins — to vote to end a Senate filibuster and thus be able to reopen negotiations with the House.

Whatever the case, Pelavin said his Reform movement constituency is still solidly behind comprehensive reform that makes health care more affordable and accessible.

“I don’t think there’s any diminution in the commitment in our community,” he said.

The Republican Jewish Coalition, though, said in a statement that Brown’s election demonstrated the electorate as a whole has “serious concerns” about Obama’s health-care proposals.

JTA

 
 

Area pols and agencies weigh in on health-care bill

Democratic members of Congress and Jewish organizations around the region lauded the health-care bill signed into law earlier this week, even as Republicans prepared to launch legal challenges.

After watching President Obama sign the legislation into law on Tuesday morning, Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-8), one of the bill’s sponsors, told this paper that the legislation is “a big step forward.”

“The benefits are just outstanding,” he said.

The bill, he said, guarantees that no one can be denied health coverage because of pre-existing conditions. He also cited tax credits to 116,000 families and 15,200 small businesses in his district.

The congressman summed up the bill in a single phrase: “Health security.”

“Those left out [of coverage] with preconditions will no longer be denied,” he said. “That’s a huge change.”

Pascrell lashed out at the bill’s critics who have repeatedly warned that the legislation would lead to health-care rationing or that those satisfied with their current coverage would be forced to abandon it.

“Existing plans are grandfathered under this bill,” he said. “I am tired of the lies and misrepresentations and prejudicial statements.”

Rep. Scott Garrett (R-5), a critic of the bill who was one of 212 to vote against it in Sunday’s House vote, did not return calls or e-mail requests for comment. A statement on his Website blasted the health bill.

“While I appreciate the efforts of the majority to reform our health-care system, it is hard to underestimate what a grave mistake it would be to enact this bill,” he said in the statement. “It would fundamentally alter our citizens’ relationship with their government. It would seriously jeopardize our nation’s long-term prosperity. It would dampen the vitality of our nation’s health-care innovators. It would restrict choice and access to medical care for millions of our nation’s elderly and poor. It would tax hundreds of billions of dollars out of the economy in the midst of one of the most serious economic downturns in our nation’s history. And for all this — for all of these thousands of pages and hundreds of new bureaus, boards, and bureaucracies — it won’t make America any healthier.”

Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9), one of 219 “yes” votes from the House, said in a statement sent to this paper, “This legislation will make a marked improvement in the lives of my constituents and will be a great step forward beyond the present system now causing so much cost, heartache, and tragedy to so many throughout my congressional district, New Jersey, and our entire country.”

The bill also earned praise from area Jewish organizations, including Jewish Family Services, which frequently serve clients without any insurance coverage.

“We work with a lot of people who have no insurance whatsoever,” said Lisa Fedder, executive director of JFS of Bergen and North Hudson in Teaneck. “The fact that more people will be able to be insured and get the services they need is a great opportunity.”

The bill will have a large impact on people who lost their jobs during the economic crisis and are still struggling to make ends meet, as well as those working for small businesses that had begun to stop paying for their employees’ health care, Fedder said.

“It’s not a perfect bill, but I think it’s a great beginning,” said Leah Kaufman, executive director of JFS of North Jersey in Wayne.

Kaufman has seen many clients who have no insurance and no steady income put off doctor’s visits to avoid racking up bills. This legislation, she said, would provide them with the coverage they need. She also praised the bill’s inclusion of children up to age 26 on their parents’ policies as helpful, since many recent college graduates are struggling to find work.

“There are so many people out there who can’t get medical care because they don’t have coverage and can now get that kind of care,” she said.

Rabbi Neal Borovitz, spiritual leader of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge and a member of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, called the new legislation the best possible for now.

“I don’t think it answers all of the issues facing us, but it’s an improvement,” he said. “To me, we can’t aim for perfection. We have to always try to look for the best possible solution. This health-care bill is the best possible that could be achieved at this moment in time.”

Jacob Toporek, executive director of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations, which represents in Trenton the Garden State’s 12 federations, praised the bill’s inclusion of the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports Act.

“From that perspective,” Toporek said, the bill is “a major plus for the Jewish community.”

The CLASS Act is a provision 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. The Jewish Federations of North America had lobbied for the act’s inclusion in the health bill.

“How better to practice tikkun olam than by providing these people who are in need with the ability to get mended?” Toporek said.

“Clearly it pleases all of us as professionals that more people will be covered under health-care coverage,” said Charles Berkowitz, executive vice president of The Jewish Home at Rockleigh. “There are people who will be able to get great coverage now that couldn’t before.”

For more about the bill see Groups pushed health reform, but some keeping quiet on bill.

 
 

JCRC to host legislative gathering

State and national officials will gather in Paramus next week to hear the concerns of the local Jewish community at UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s annual legislative gathering.

Sponsored by the federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council, the legislative gathering is an opportunity for New Jersey officials to talk directly to Jewish communal leaders and vice versa, said JCRC director Joy Kurland.

“It’s keeping the dialogue and communication open,” she said. “It’s part of our government affairs and public policy work, enhancing relationships with government officials.”

This year’s meeting, to be held at UJA-NNJ’s Paramus headquarters Tuesday evening, will address the New Jersey fiscal year 2011 budget, Iran divestment efforts in the state, U.S.-Israel relations, economic recovery, and health-care reform.

“We want to hear about the effects of the state budget and what impact it might have on our communities,” Kurland said. “It’s things like that, that are helpful to our Jewish community leadership to be able to become educated and knowledgeable.”

New Jersey began divesting its pension funds from Iran in 2008 and Kurland would like to hear the legislators address where that process stands. With regard to health-care reform, Kurland would like an update on how President Obama’s health-care legislation is being implemented in New Jersey and what effects it will have on UJA’s constituents. As for the budget, Gov. Christie’s fiscal proposals for 2011 included cuts to several school programs and other initiatives that could affect the work of the federation or its subsidiary agencies.

The meeting, which is closed to the public, will include members of JCRC boards and committees, the federation’s executive boards, and rabbinical leaders. Expected to attend from the state arena are Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), Sen. Bob Gordon (D-38), Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36), Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-37), Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37), Assemblyman Robert Schroeder (D-39), Assemblywoman Elease Evans (D-35), Sen. Gerald Cardinale (D-39), and Bergen County Freeholder Elizabeth Calabrese. U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett’s director of outreach, Matthew Barnes, is also expected.

U.S. Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, and Gov. Christie do not plan to attend, while JCRC is still reaching out to Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9), a former JCRC chair, and Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-8).

Weinberg has attended the gathering every year since its inception.

“It’s educating. It’s enlightening,” she said. “We’re able to tell UJA [what we’re doing] and they’re in turn able to tell us [what they’re focusing on].”

Schaer has also attended the meetings since the beginning.

“Legislative gatherings — and specifically the UJA gathering — provide a formalized and necessary framework for communication so that in this case, legislators representing their various districts can work closely to understand the priorities and concerns of the Jewish community,” he said. “As the coordinating body for many Jewish institutions, the UJA is a vital institution in terms of reflecting those concerns to the legislators.”

The Jewish Council for Special Needs held a meeting with legislators on May 4 and JCSN chair Sharyn Gallatin credited last year’s legislative gathering for creating connections with area officials.

Gallatin presented her cause at last year’s legislative gathering and caught Weinberg’s attention. They arranged a follow-up meeting, which resulted in Weinberg’s participation in a legislative meeting earlier this month addressing the need for a Department of Disabilities in Bergen County.

“This was a result of this meeting last year where Sharyn was able to see what we did, make the contacts, and see JCRC as the facilitator of going to a deeper level,” Kurland said. “It was really highly successful.”

Kurland is head of the regional Community Relations Council, an agency of UJA-NNJ, United Jewish Communities of Metrowest in Essex and Morris counties, and Central Federation in Union and Warren Counties. While CRCs across the country hold legislative gatherings, the federations in the regional group don’t have similar meetings of the magnitude of UJA-NNJ’s.

“We would like to replicate it,” Kurland said.

 
 
 
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