A coalition of Jewish organizations has organized thousands of calls, letters, vigils and meetings on Capitol Hill in an effort to convince senators to vote down the Senate Republicans’ health care bill aimed at repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act.
The Senate’s health care bill is a “dramatic, reckless step backward in the history of the American health care system,” the 16 organizations said in a June 27 letter sent to all 100 senators.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism delivered the letter one day before organizing a 23-hour vigil in front of the Senate building with 25 other faith-based organizations.
“Jewish tradition emphasizes caring for the sick and lifting up the most vulnerable in our society,” Barbara Weinstein, associate director at the Religious Action Center, said in an email. “The Senate health care bill would likely cause 22 million people to lose their coverage, most dramatically harming low-income Americans, children, people with disabilities and the elderly.”
The Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017 is the Republican-controlled Senate’s proposed legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, former President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law. Before the Better Care Act was introduced, it was heavily criticized for the secrecy in which it was drafted. Led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), it was written by a dozen Republican male senators without input from women or Democrats, opponents of the bill said.
Since being unveiled June 22, the bill has been criticized for its cuts to Medicaid, the government health care program that largely covers the country’s most vulnerable populations and allowing states to redefine what constitutes “essential health benefits.”
Under the Affordable Care Act, insurers are required to cover certain “essential health benefits” such as prescription drugs and maternity and newborn care.
In contrast, the Senate’s bill would let states determine what benefits are “essential” and allow states to grant waivers to insurers so they are not required to cover some benefits. This means coverage could be skimpier overall, critics say.
As a result of the letter, Weinstein discussed the health care bill with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who was “receptive to the concerns” of the Reform Jewish movement, she said.
Portman is a key vote for McConnell, who can only afford to lose two Republican senators’ votes and still pass the Better Care Act.
Under Republican Gov. John Kasich, Ohio expanded Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act, providing 682,900 adults with coverage as a result, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
Seniors urged to call senators
The idea of cutting back on Medicaid and providing less coverage is “uniquely short-sighted,” said Mark Olshan, director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. “The numbers are going the opposite way,” Olshan said, citing a population of 77 million aging baby boomers.
He argued the cuts to Medicaid will hurt the elderly because Medicaid payments fund more than half of the nursing homes in the country, a statistic that was repeated by several people interviewed for this story. A 2015 study by Truven Health Analytics found about 60 percent nursing home residents are covered by Medicaid.
B’nai B’rith is a national sponsor of subsidized Jewish housing for seniors. The organization has been encouraging those seniors, who number about 10,000, to call their senators.
Advocates from B’nai B’rith met with staffers from Sen. Bill Cassidy’s (R-La.) office on June 22, only three hours after McConnell revealed his bill. Olshan said the staffers heard the organization’s concerns but said the senator had not yet developed a position.
Cassidy’s position now appears to be a no. Facing voters at a Baton Rouge town hall this month, Cassidy declared the current draft of the health care bill “dead.” He also pushed back against President Donald Trump’s suggestion to pass a “repeal only” bill, calling it “a non-starter,” The Advocate, a Louisiana-based newspaper, reported on July 9.
As it stands, Medicaid is an entitlement program, meaning that everyone who qualifies is guaranteed coverage, with the states and the federal government funding the costs.
Under the Better Care Act, the federal government would give each state a lump sum, regardless of how many people are eligible, which proponents argue would make the program more fiscally efficient.
But opponents say it would leave the states struggling to cover everyone who is eligible.
Another organization urging their members to contact senators is the National Council of Jewish Women.
“We have a fundamental opposition to any cuts to Medicaid,” because of how it affects pregnant women, said Legislative Associate Carly Manes. Nearly half of all births in the United States are covered by Medicaid, according to a 2013 study published by Women’s Health Issues.
Manes said her organization has been providing its 90,000-person network with phone numbers to senators’ offices and alerting them to local rallies.
The National Council of Jewish Women is also working with the Protect Our Care coalition, made up of 120 organizations representing consumers, patients and providers opposing the Senate’s health care bill. The coalition is organized by the national nonprofit organization Families USA, which advocates on health care issues. That coalition has been urging members to tweet their Congress members and share graphics on social media. It sent its own letter to McConnell and Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) in May urging them to reject the cuts to Medicaid that are in the House’s American Health Care Act, which passed the House on May 4.
Objection ‘starts at inception’
Jewish Women International’s objection to the health care bill “starts at its inception,” said its CEO Lori Weinstein.
“The fact that this was a secret endeavor, by a small number of senators, exclusive of women’s representation and the lack of transparency is deeply troubling to all of us,” she said.
Weinstein’s organization, like others, has been fighting the bill by encouraging its network of 25,000 to take action through its “3, 2, 1” weekly email blast. The email contains basic steps anyone can take to voice an opinion about the bill, such as going to town halls and calling members of Congress.
“We have to make sure young women understand that their health care is at risk and our older members understand what is at risk for women over 50,” Weinstein said.
Beyond meeting with legislators, the organizations are also trying to sway public opinion. Bend the Arc, an organization focused on advocacy from a Jewish perspective, is appealing to the public’s moral conscience.
“If you are cutting taxes for billionaires and paying for that by reducing care to the most vulnerable in society,” said Jonathan Lipman, the group’s chief strategy officer, “that is morally bankrupt.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition declined to comment on the language of the Better Care Act because Congress was still revising the bill at press time, said Congressional Affairs Director Noah Silverman.
The Republican Jewish Coalition does support “the objective of repealing and replacing Obamacare with a law that provides better healthcare for the American people,” he said.
The Orthodox Union had no comment about the health care bill.
Asked what revisions would lead to the Religious Action Center supporting the bill, Barbara Weinstein, the organization’s associate director, said “the proposed legislation is fundamentally at odds with our core values.”
Other organizations that signed the June 27 letter include American Conference of Cantors, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Hadassah, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Jewish Federations of North America, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, North American Federation of Temple Youth, Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies, Rabbinical Assembly, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, Union for Reform Judaism and Women of Reform Judaism. n