As Josh Shapiro starts his new assignment on a team of state lawmakers advising President Obama’s health care reform initiative, the state representative from the Philadelphia area credits his Jewish upbringing for shaping his views on the issue.
“I think my background helps inform a lot of my goals in public service,” the Montgomery County Democrat said. “Certainly, our teaching of tikkun olam really challenges us to meet this health care need in our country.”
But Jewish tradition doesn’t necessarily dictate Jews take one position over another.
“I think it says we have a responsibility to our fellow man and woman to improve their opportunities and lot in life,” he said, “and one of the best ways to do that is to fix our health system, so it works for everyone.”
Jewish opinions on how to fix health care in America, or if it even needs fixing, run the gamut of positions.
Organizationally, many Jewish groups, including the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the National Council of Jewish Women, have come out strongly for health care reform, while other organizations, such as the Orthodox Union, have yet to take a position in the debate.
Many Jews say the United States should take a lesson or two from other countries, and not just Canada and United Kingdom, whose national health care models are held up as examples, but also Israel, which has a hybrid system of public and private care.
Whether there really is something called “the Jewish position” on health care is very much open to debate, but many rabbis agree Jewish teachings require care to be made available to all who need it.
“The Jewish position would be you’re always obligated to help the patient regardless of the ability to pay,” said Rabbi Aaron Kagan, rosh kollel of the Kollel Jewish Learning Center.
Rabbi Walter Jacob, rabbi emeritus of Rodef Shalom Congregation, said he’s begun work on a paper dealing with the halachic approach to health care, which he plans to present next year at the Freehof Institute for Progressive Jewish Law.
“This is something in which I think most rabbis would be very much in favor of: completely universal health care,” he said.
His colleague at Rodef Shalom, Rabbi Aaron Bisno, said Judaism doesn’t require its adherents to support single payer, over private insurers, but does impose a responsibility to provide care.
“Judaism has long maintained that a society can be judged by how we treat the most vulnerable among us,” said Bisno, who worked on the health care issue while a legislative aide at the Religious Action Center in 1994. “Aware that so many millions of our citizens are currently uninsured and don’t have access to adequate health care, the members of the Jewish community have a responsibility to do all we can to insure that health care is available to all.”
The Israeli health care system differs in significant ways from the American system, and Israeli health care experts say the United States should at least study their system.
Dr. Bruce Rosen, director of the Smokler Center for Health Policy Research, Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute in Jerusalem, said in an Israel Project-sponsored teleconference with American reporters last week that the Israeli health care system has positive aspects:
• It uses electronic medical records extensively while the U.S. providers still rely heavily on paper records;
• All Israelis are insured and the country’s four insurers must accept all who provide;
• The system is more community health oriented than medically oriented.
But the system contains controversial elements as well:
• It is sustained through taxes, which many American lawmakers would oppose;
• The government plays a major role in prioritizing the medical technology made available in the country;
• And the government still owns half the hospital beds available in the Jewish state.
Dr. Alex Leventhal, director of the Department of International Relations, Israel Ministry of Health, said no nation’s health plan can be superimposed upon another country.
Neither should proposed changes be too disruptive. Speaking at the same teleconference as Rosen, Leventhal said a nation’s health care system “should develop in an evolutionary way, not a revolutionary way.”
Shapiro, an early supporter of Obama during the presidential campaign, is one of 32 state legislators nationwide named to help the president reform health care. The group, named the White House Team of State Legislators for Health Reform, has been asked to solicit input from constituent groups on health care reform and report back to the White House with feedback as the administration works to craft health care reform.
Shapiro is holding public meetings on the issue in Philadelphia and Harrisburg. He said he will be soliciting input from Pittsburghers as well, but may not hold an actual meeting here due to budget constraints.
He said the team has already met with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Nancy-Ann Deparle, director of the White House Office of Health Reform.
At the time, “I focused my comments on the need to bring primary care physicians and OBGYNs to Pennsylvania,” Shapiro said. “When you look at the demographics, 48 percent of the physicians and OBGYNS are set to retire in the next eight years, and just 7 percent of our doctors are under the age of 35. We need to be looking to the future to make sure we have an adequate number of physicians available to meet the needs of Pennsylvanians.”
Shapiro says he favors some form of public health option to “drive down costs and improve access.”
He said he would deliver feedback from Pennsylvanians at the team’s next meeting.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)