Jewish Groups Wrestle Health Care Reform Octopus


As Democratic health care reform efforts falter in Congress in the face of ferocious industry lobbying and a media blitz by conservative opponents, Jewish organizations that advocate strong reform efforts are having a hard time knowing exactly what to lobby for.

“It’s like an octopus — there are so many different pieces of it, and there is so much movement,” said Nancy Ratzan, president of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), a group that has made health reform a priority. “The pieces keep moving and changing. It’s a difficult environment.”

House and Senate Democrats are working on separate bills, and the exact language of each is changing daily, making reform a frustrating moving target for supporters.

For most Jewish groups involved in the fight, a “public” component — a government insurance program in addition to private insurers that would cover many of those who now lack health insurance — is a critical element of any reform plan.

But this week there were reports that Senate Democrats are on the verge of removing the public component from their plan. There are also major differences about how to fund plans that could cost more than $1 trillion over 10 years and require politically toxic tax increases.

House Democrats had wanted a floor vote before the summer recess, but that goal now seems unachievable, and many health reform advocates — and the Obama administration — are now just hoping for congressional action before the end of the year.

NCJW, a women’s group, is keeping a particularly close eye on issues involving access to health care for all women and children, and on ensuring access to reproductive health services — a major target of conservatives, who claim the Democratic plans would promote abortion.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) is emphasizing “making sure the public option is part of any final plan,” said the group’s vice president and Washington director, Hadar Susskind. “We are very focused on getting rid of economic, racial and gender disparities in access to health care.”
But like NCJW, the JCPA is not supporting a particular bill at this point.

Ditto United Jewish Communities (UJC), which is particularly concerned about elements of health care reform that will affect hundreds of Jewish health care agencies around the country.

B’nai B’rith International leaders, arguing that the current health care system “just isn’t working,” are emphasizing reform elements dealing with the elderly and with prescription drugs.

Some congressional offices have complained about a lack of public activism on the issue — including activism from Jewish groups — but Jewish activists here say reform in today’s climate is proving an elusive target.