Jewish community can’t wait for health care reform



One of the most important lessons that Judaism teaches us is to “not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” Our neighbors are bleeding and dying under the current health care system, and when human life hangs in the balance, it is time to put aside politics.

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Too many people in our country, our state, and even within the St. Louis Jewish community are struggling under our broken health care system. Some of their stories we know; others have suffered in silence for many years. Congress has spent close to a year developing comprehensive health reform legislation. Now we need the House of Representatives to finish the task by passing the health reform bill approved by the Senate in December. This bill makes major strides toward righting some of the most egregious wrongs in our current system.

The Senate bill would significantly reform the health insurance industry. It would end the deplorable practice of canceling or denying health insurance to people with pre-existing conditions, which often means that the people who most need health insurance can’t get it. In some cases, these denials border on ridiculous, such as when Rabbi Stephanie Alexander, currently a member of United Hebrew, was denied health insurance because of her seasonal allergies. The situation would almost be humorous, except that the out-of-pocket cost now prevents her from taking one of her prescription medicines.

The Jewish community has not been exempt from the recession, which has cost thousands of people their jobs – and their health insurance. Temple Emanuel member Ronald Miller lost his health insurance after he was laid off; his former employer later decided to cancel health benefits, eliminating the availability of COBRA. Due to his diabetes, health insurance would cost him over $1,300 a month — far more than he can afford. Instead, he faces paying over $100 for every bottle of insulin.

The Senate bill would make it easier to navigate the private health insurance market, would limit insurance companies’ ability to charge outrageous premiums, and would offer subsidies to moderate income families who need assistance affording health insurance.

The Senate bill would also eliminate the notorious “doughnut hole” in Medicare Part D. This would make a tremendous difference to seniors and others in our community who are burdened by astronomical prescription drug costs each month – people like Jim and Merle Willis, members of Shaare Emeth. Jim says, “The high cost of Merle’s transplant medications leads us to run into thousands and thousands of dollars of out-of-pocket costs each year beginning around April, and the medications become almost impossible to afford.”

In addition, the Senate bill contains a desperately-needed increase in Medicaid eligibility. Today, to qualify for Medicaid in Missouri, you must have a disability or be a parent making less than $300 a month for a family of three. The health reform bill passed by the Senate would make Medicaid accessible to all who truly need it.

The people hurting under the current health care system are members of our community. They are not “those people” on the other side of town — although they critically need health reform too. These are people who work, live and worship with us and who are falling through the gaping cracks in our broken system. The Senate health reform bill would offer them a critical lifeline.

Our current health insurance system is putting a strain on our neighbors, and also on our community institutions. Our congregations, like many others, face double digit increases every year in the cost of health insurance for our clergy and employees. Once a year, our Temple leadership faces an impossible choice: do we cut the health insurance benefits offered to our employees, or do we take money out of our programming budgets to cover the increased cost of insurance?

The smaller the congregation, the more they struggle under the current health system.

In fact, some very small congregations are finding it difficult to hire a rabbi at all. These congregations are too small to offer a group health plan, in many cases making it unaffordable for the congregation to provide health insurance for the rabbi and his/her family. Our society needs a system that allows us to care for those who care for us, including provisions to help small businesses afford insurance for their employees.

Over the past week, we have been greatly disturbed by suggestions that Congress scale back the health reform being considered. The urgent need for health reform has not abated for suffering families, and we must not waver in our commitment to fixing the broken system that keeps them suffering. We need House leaders to stand up for what is right and pass the Senate health reform bill. Elected officials must also give high priority to additional legislation that will continue to improve our health care system.

The Jewish community in St. Louis and across the country has a proud history of speaking out on matters of moral urgency. Health reform is one of those matters. Let’s raise our collective voices and call on our U.S. Representatives to pass the Senate health reform bill and then work for further improvements. When our neighbors are bleeding, reform cannot wait.