Jewish groups exhale after Congress extends Medicaid program

NEW YORK (JTA) — Jewish groups are breathing a sigh of relief after Congress passed a law that saved them $150 million to $200 million. 

President Obama on Aug. 10 signed into law a bill that extends relief provided by the federal government to individual states as part of the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage, a part of the 2008 Federal Recovery economic stimulus package. The measure will pump billions of dollars into organizations that rely on payment from Medicaid.

The FMAP extension, which had been the top priority of the Jewish Federations of North America, is particularly important for Jewish federations and their partner agencies, as nearly $6 billion per year in government aid goes through Medicaid to Jewish hospitals, nursing homes, Jewish Family Services outposts and other social service agencies. 

“Without these funds, states would have certainly cut back on their Medicaid programs, which would have had an adverse impact on how Jewish communal providers deliver needed care to their respective communities,” said William Daroff, the vice president for public policy and director of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Washington office.

As part of the package, states received some $87 billion in aid to help them pay their portions of the total cost for Medicaid. According to the Recovery Act, the money had to be spent by Jan 1. 2011, which posed a problem for states, whose fiscal years run from July 1 through June 30. 

If the money ran out on Jan. 1, 2010, states would have been left with gaping holes in their budgets for the second half of the fiscal year. The law enacted Aug. 10 will extend FMAP until June 30, 2011 and pump another $26 billion into the program, of which $16 billion will be used for Medicaid.

The Jewish Federations of North America, which lobbies for more than $10 billion for Jewish causes each year from the federal government, was among the largest supporters of the FMAP extension. But the extension was particularly critical for groups such as the New York-based Jewish Home Life Care. 

Over the past three years Jewish Home Life Care, which provides skilled in-home care to 9,000 New Yorkers, has had to cut its budget nine times, forcing the $300 million per year operation to excise more than 110 jobs and close two of its outpatient day-care facilities. 

Until last week it was facing another $1.7 million in cuts and would have been among hundreds of Jewish organizations and institutions that would have lost up to $200 million in aggregate, according to JFNA estimates.

"It’s a sigh of relief," said Jewish Home Life Care CEO Audrey Weinn, even though she still faces $400,000 in cuts from other shortfalls. 

Federation officials say the JFNA was one of the 10 major groups, secular and faith-based, that lobbied Congress for the FMAP extension. Among them were Families USA, AFSCME, the First Focus children’s advocacy group, the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging and the Catholic Health Association, according to the JFNA’s assistant director for legislative affairs, Jonathan Westin.

The extension was a lesson in how federation advocacy can work. 

The JFNA, which started its fight for the FMAP extension in January, created background materials and talking points that it distributed to local federations and Jewish community-relations councils which then lobbied their own local congressional representatives. And in June, some 30 lay and professional leaders of the federation system flew into Washington from across the country for intense lobbying with government officials with whom they had strong connections.

“It showed a synergy between our lay and professional leaders,” Westin said. “You had this common bond, and whether you were from a large or small community, it wasn’t just about fighting for Medicaid needs but about delivering needed services for those in need. That is our core mission.”

In Ohio, social service groups would have lost an estimated $513 million without the FMAP extension, according to Joyce Garver, the executive director of Ohio Jewish Communities, the state’s Jewish advocacy group. Jewish groups would have lost about $2 million — a significant amount for a population of about 150,000 Jews.

Garver spent the past several months working with Ohio groups to help them understand what the cuts might mean, and also worked with the state’s leaders to lobby their representatives for the extension. 

“It’s a huge victory, and it is wonderful to work on something and have it end in success,” she said.

The federations are not completely happy with the extension, as Congress is slated to divert funds from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides food stamps for millions of Americans.

The reduction to the food stamp program, however, is not set to go into effect until 2014. Federation officials are gearing up already to fight the reduction. 

“That is four years out, and we will work hard to try to restore those funds,” Westin said. “This was an immediate issue, and this was the combination, for better or for worse, that got the vote.”

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