Jewish Journal

Jewish Prescription For Health Care Ills

by Nancy Sokoler Steiner

Posted on Jan. 16, 2003 at 7:00 pm

Is our national health care system beyond cure? Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Dr. Alexandra M. Levine, medical director of the USC/Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and Hospital, believe that the Jewish community can take a role in advancing remedies for our nation's health care ills.

The two will share their perspectives during Caring for Our Nation: Jews and America's Health Care Crisis presentation on Sunday, Jan. 19, sponsored by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health and USC's Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life.

Saperstein, who represents the national Reform Jewish movement to Congress and the Bush administration, was elected as the first chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom that was created by Congress. An attorney and the co-author of "Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice: Tough Moral Choices of Our Time" (UAHC, 1999), Saperstein spoke with The Journal about health care challenges facing our country and the Jewish response to this issue.

Jewish Journal: How is health care a Jewish issue?

David Saperstein: Jewish values mandate that every society has a decent health care system and that access to health care is a fundamental right of all people. This is also a Jewish issue to the extent that a disproportionate number of people involved in health care provision are Jewish.

Additionally, it has an impact because the Jewish community has the oldest median age of any community in America. This impacts Jewish social service agencies that are funded by our federations and private charities that administer to the needs of our community. Issues like Medicare reform, prescription drugs, long-term disability, Alzheimers -- these are all problems that disproportionately affect the Jewish community.

I would add that there are issues of concern relating to bioethics, genetic research and cloning. [The Reform Action Committee is] playing a very active role working on legislation that will prevent genetic discrimination and insure privacy of genetic information. This issue is especially important for the Jewish community, given that we display specific genetic tendencies.

JJ: How would you characterize the nation's health crisis?

DS: We are the wealthiest nation in the world, with the best doctors, best hospitals and best medical care for those who can afford it. Yet of all the developed countries in the world, we have the highest number of people who are uninsured and the highest per capita cost for providing medical care.

This has created a crisis that affects nearly every aspect of our society. Our country has an enormous stake in trying to significantly improve the health care system.

JJ: With such challenges as spiraling health care costs, nursing shortages, growing numbers of uninsured and aging baby boomers, how do we begin to address this seemingly vast and complex issue?

DS: There are two different approaches. One is to create a universal health care system, either along the lines of a single-payer system or a mix of different kinds of funding approaches akin to the Clinton proposal.

The  second is to do it incrementally, which would likely begin by building on successful parts of Medicare, Medicaid and SCHIP [State Children's Health Insurance Program], which provides coverage for 3.5 million children who otherwise would have slipped through the cracks....

Whether an incremental or universal approach is taken, the most important thing is to begin to take steps to address the problem, rather than continuing to turn a blind eye toward it.

JJ: Here in Los Angeles, the county faces an estimated $700 million deficit. We are seeing closures of county clinics, emergency rooms and hospitals and an uninsured rate of 31 percent. How does Los Angeles stand in relation to the rest of the nation?

DS: The problems of Los Angeles are a microcosm of the problems nationwide. While the national uninsured rate is lower than that in Los Angeles, it is still unconscionably high. There are currently 41 million uninsured in the United States.

The hospital and ER [emergency room] closures are due to a number of factors. First, you can't provide basic health care for the uninsured in emergency rooms without significantly straining and overwhelming the capacity of hospitals to function.... So addressing primary health care and providing basic health care to the uninsured outside the hospital structure remains a central challenge.

In addition, we need a coordinated program between the federal government and the state government to begin to put resources into inner-city hospitals. Finally, we need to deal with the macro issues. Because if the entire system is strained, the most vulnerable components -- such as urban centers -- will feel it first and most extensively.

JJ: What can we as individuals and as Jews be doing to improve the situation?

DS: Our synagogues can strengthen their bikur cholim [visiting the sick] programs to support the people in our communities who are ill.

And while we're strengthening the volunteer segment of our work, we need to be dealing with policy issues. The Jewish community has a long history of playing the lead role in coalitions that have helped transform America into a fairer, more compassionate society....

The Jewish community needs to be at the forefront of efforts to develop sensible health care reform that can address these challenges. I'm hopeful this conference will generate some consensus regarding things that our community can do to play a lead role in moving the process of reform along.

The free program will be held Jan. 19 from 3-5 p.m. at Stephen S. Wise Temple, 15500 Stephen S. Wise Drive, Los Angeles.  For more information,  call (213) 740-3405.

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