The potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the Obamacare health insurance expansion, has been leading the news for weeks. Here in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker has proposed rolling back our state’s participation in the health law, reducing health benefits for hundreds of thousands of low-income working parents. Why is this a critical concern of Jewish Boston?
Of course, Jewish tradition teaches the value of helping the sick. This is seen as a communal obligation throughout our history. Jewish communities typically established systems to ensure that all had access to health care. Doctors were obliged to reduce their charges for poor patients. Communal subsidies were established when that was insufficient. Moreover, as Rabbi Carl Perkins wrote, a medieval rabbinic authority held that “health care funds are specifically designated for the ‘poor of the world’ and not only for the ‘poor of the city.’ Thus, when it comes to providing health care for the indigent, a community must offer help to all who are in need, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, or nationality.”
But for us, there’s a unique reason to be extra-concerned. Boston-area Jews have a special relationship to the ACA.
Our Jewish community played a critical role in the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO). GBIO is a broad coalition of churches, synagogues, labor and community groups dedicated to advancing social justice. Jewish congregations make up a substantial part of its membership, and play a leadership role in much of its work.
In 2005, GBIO joined the “Affordable Care Today!” or ACT!! Coalition. The ACT!! Coalition was put together by my organization, Health Care For All, to push for comprehensive health reform in Massachusetts. Under the leadership of the Rev. Hurmon Hamilton, then of Roxbury Presbyterian Church, and Rabbi Jonah Pesner, then of Temple Israel in Boston, GBIO testified at hearings, held boisterous rallies, met one-on-one with state officials and legislative leaders, and pushed health reform to the top of the state agenda.
When it looked like the health reform effort was going to end up with weak, compromise legislation, ACT!! decided to pressure state government by gathering signatures to put a strong version of health reform on the state ballot via an initiative petition. GBIO gathered the bulk of the 66,000 signatures required, again with the Jewish community playing a critical role. We warned political leaders that if they didn’t pass a bill that met our standards, we would submit the signatures and force their hand at the ballot.
The tactic worked, and in April 2006, Gov. Mitt Romney signed the bill expanding health coverage in Massachusetts. The Romneycare bill was a huge success, reducing the uninsurance rate here from around 10 percent to under 3 percent.
Our success led President Obama and Congress to use the Massachusetts structure as the model for Obamacare, which passed in 2010. Nationally, the ACA has increased health coverage by over 21 million people, and cut the uninsured rate roughly in half.
So it’s not too much of a stretch to claim that Obamacare traces directly back to the efforts of the Boston Jewish community.
We should all be proud of our efforts. In the years since the law passed, GBIO, along with other local groups like the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action and the New England Jewish Labor Committee, have continued to defend health care rights at both the state and national level. Now we are all resisting efforts to repeal the gains we have made.
For me personally, fighting to advance health care brings together my multiple identities. In addition to working as policy director of Health Care For All since 2003, I’ve worked closely with the Jewish community on health care issues, serving on the JCRC council and assisting other Jewish community efforts. I’m particularly proud that my synagogue, Hillel B’nai Torah in West Roxbury, was the first Jewish group to join GBIO, and remains active. Since my wife, Rabbi Barbara Penzner, serves as their rabbi, we’ve had numerous opportunities to work closely together on health care issues in our complementary roles.
As a social justice activist, as a committed Jew and as a policy wonk, health care has become my issue. It all comes together after Shabbat services, when over kiddush wine and challah I discuss with members of our synagogue community the details of health coverage in Massachusetts. For them, it’s a personal issue, since they get their coverage through the ACA and the Massachusetts coverage programs. And so it’s a personal issue for me, too.
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