Behind the Headlines: Jewish Groups Cautiously Enter Fray Amid Last Push for Health Care Reform

When leaders of Health Security Express, a newly formed grass-roots advocacy group, recently lobbied Jewish groups and others to sign on to a new ad campaign supporting President Clinton’s health care reform, participants at the meeting burst into laughter.

Some joked, “Which one?” while others professed, “It’s dead.”

In the end, at least two Jewish groups agreed to sign on to the campaign to support universal health care coverage for all Americans.

The pledge by American Jewish Congress and the National Council of Jewish Women to participate in the campaign — which will include a bus caravan around the country later this summer — marks a shift in strategy and intensified action in the Jewish community as health care reform enters the home stretch.

Other Jewish organizations also have weighed in on health care reform in varying degrees.

But they all agree on one thing: this has been an agonizing and frustrating debate.

Privately, some in the Jewish community suggest they dropped the ball by not acting sooner.

Others fear lost opportunities may translate into a weak final product.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has spearheaded the administration’s efforts to overhaul the health care system, criticized Jewish organizations and others at a meeting last week for their conditional support for health care reform.

In a speech described by one Jewish participant as “fiery,” Clinton chided the groups for backing specific health care issues rather than the president’s overall plan.

She said she was “disappointed because of your ‘You support us, but’ position,” according to some individuals who attended the meeting.

NOT LACK OF INTEREST. BUT LACK OF AGREEMENT

Since President Clinton unveiled his Health Care Security Act nine months ago, the Jewish community has voiced support for major aspects of his effort without specifically endorsing the president’s proposal.

Responding to Clinton’s charge, an official of one Jewish organization acknowledged that this organization, like other Jewish groups, is focused on specific issues.

“It’s not for lack of interest,” this official said. “It’s for lack of agreement. We focus on what we can.”

Many Jewish groups have issued statements supporting the principle of universal coverage and long-term health benefits.

But they have been unable to develop a consensus on the means and financing for such a Plan.

Jewish leaders attribute the lukewarm effort on the part of the organized Jewish community to a diverse membership and to the constantly moving goal posts of the health care debate.

“It’s hard to be forceful on an issue when someone is changing the program on you that week,” said Steve Gutow, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “You can’t support a plan in flux,” he said.

That view was echoed by Karen Senter, codirector for domestic concerns at the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, which issued a call for health care reform in this year’s Joint Program Plan.

“The bills have been changing daily and we have been unable to see where to push,” Senter said. “Until now it was difficult to know where to weigh in.”

Despite their uncertainty, many representatives of Jewish groups emphasized that health care reform is “absolutely” a Jewish issue.

“As citizens of the United States, health care is a quality-of-life issue and reforms will affect all, including Jews,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

“Health care is a historical as well as contemporary concern to Jews,” said Martin Hochbaum, director of the American Jewish Congress Commission on National Affairs.

“Not only has the Jewish community prided itself on social action issues, but according to Jewish philosophy, health care is a sacred obligation,” Hochbaum said.

He was paraphrasing similar sentiments expressed by the 12th-century rabbinic authority, Moses Maimonides.

Among the groups speaking out on health care reform are AJCongress and the National Council of Jewish Women.

WILL PARTICIPATE IN BUS CARAVANS

Both groups are supporting the Health Security Express effort and will participate in the group’s bus caravans that will crisscross the country later this summer.

NCJW’s main concern has been the inclusion of reproductive rights in any health care reform plan.

The RAC, although not an official sponsor of the caravan effort, has begun to contact synagogues across the country asking them to participate in the bus tour, according to Saperstein.

The Council of Jewish Federations, B’nai B’rith International and NJCRAC have issued general statements and position papers urging health care reform.

These groups generally support universal coverage, benefits for long-term care, and family planning, including abortion.

The American Jewish Committee, though supportive of universal coverage, has chosen not to actively engage in the debate.

The reason is the group’s diverse membership, AJCommittee officials said.

Diana Aviv, CJF’s Washington director, acknowledged that her organization entered the debate “fairly late because of the complexity of the issue and the complexity of our constituency.”

As CJF maps out its strategies, Aviv said, “the scope of our activities right now are focused on the question of universal coverage.”

With a major push on in Congress now as lawmakers attempt to pass legislation by the middle of August, Jewish organizational leaders are preparing to support specific measures as bills begin to move toward floor debate in the House and the Senate.

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