Rabbi / Obama Health Care Conference Call

Yesterday morning I was one of 1,000 Rabbis listening in on a conference call with President Obama on the hot button issue of heath care reform. The call was organized by coalition of Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist organizatoins including
The Central Conference of American Rabbis, Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbinical Assembly, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, and coordinated by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Technically speaking I’m not sure I’m “supposed” to write about the call. The intent of the call was less informative on Obama’s position, but more for the Rabbis to explore how to address the health care controversy in their upcoming High Holiday sermons. (In a nice move by Obama’s handler’s he began his health care discussion by referencing unetaneh tokef). Nevertheless there were point which I took away from the call that I feel are worth sharing with the public at large.


Despite the primary focus of the call being health care, Obama introduced his remarks by reiterating his support for Israel, its security, and its democracy. He then reiterated his push for a two-state solution, which he said was in Israel’s best interest. This of course is Obama’s publicly stated opinion, though I’m always confused when one follows praising a democracy with an assumption that he knows what’s better for the people.

  1. Obama is using religious organizations to promote policy – The role of religion in advocating political policy is an area in which I am both interested and concerned. For example the religious Christian right condemns abortion and gay marriage, and effectively interject their religious beliefs into the political public square. On the other hand, Liberal religious groups use their own interpretation of their respective faiths to promote certain social agendas as well. As I understood the intent of the call, the point for Obama was to have community leaders sympathetic to his agenda correct “misinformation” about his health care plan or the larger need for health care reform, in particular for use in their High Holiday sermons. (One Rabbi even asked, “if the President were to address my congretation on the holiest day, what would he say?”) To be sure, most of the Rabbis on the call probably would advocate for substantial health care reform anyway, and I do not know to what extent the President sought out religious leaders or the religious leaders proposed the audience with the President. In either case, I find the blurring of church and state to be disconcerting not only on political grounds (and legal/tax purposes), but also for competency. Rabbis have enough difficulty understanding the nuances and intricacies of their own religion to be promoting specific policies in areas for which they have no expertise.
  2. The “public option” isn’t dead – One of the misconceptions Obama sought to clear up was the idea that he was interested in a government takeover of health care, but providing a marketplace for health care. Though he did not explicitly endorse or push for a public option, he did include it as an option for increasing competition in the marketplace.
  3. Obama’s approach to insurance is fundamentally flawed – This requires some explanation. One of Obama’s positions, stated repeatedly, is that he wants a system where people are not discriminated against for having pre-existing conditions. If he’s truly advocating a marketplace for insurance, this is simply an untenable position. The point of insurance is risk management where one pays a certain amount of money to avoid incurring a financial disaster in the future. Insurance companies, responsible for paying out policies, profit through the pooling of risk i.e the individuals with limited risk pay premiums to cover those with higher risks of the company having to pay. If there is no discrimination for pre-existing conditions, the principle of calculating appropriate risks is eliminated since every participant would be treated as an equal. Worse, if there is no disadvantage to pre-existing conditions, then there is no incentive for the individual to purchase insurance until after the health problem materializes. At that point there is no risk from the purchaser because he knows he needs treatment, but the insurer is forced to burden the entirety of the costs. Based on Obama’s position on pre-existing conditions, I’m forced to conclude that either he really is advocating a government controlled health care (or at least mandating individuals purchasing health care), or he simply doesn’t understand how insurance works.
  4. Stories trumping substance – Not so much of a hiddush here, but the strategy seems to be to use anecdotal evidence of people harmed (or not hepled) by the system to demonstrate its flaws. It’s an effective rhetorical tool and an appeal to our emotions, but the reality is in any large scope system, some will inevitably be left behind.
  5. Medicare is a “wild card” in the debate – By this I mean Medicare has been employed in the discussion as both a positive and negative, often in the same argument. One of my favorites – and here I fully empathize with Obama – are the seniors who protest government involvement in health care while adamantly insisting that their Medicare not be touched. On the other hand Obama used Medicare as an example of governement successfully running a health care initiative with lower costs. However, despite taking up nearly 13% of our Federal Budget, Obama claimed that Medicare will run out of money in 8 years.

Personally I found the entire experience to be enlightening in many ways – I don’t even have time to discuss the “text study” which followed Obama (fascinating on many other levels but you’re free to pursue them here). I’m not sure how or if I will include any of the above into a High Holiday sermon (though I did discuss my take before my prayer class), but I will state briefly that Obama is absolutely right that not only do we need an intelligent civil debate on the issues but that we need to remember that our ultimate concern must always be the overall well-being of our fellow Americans.
Clarification: I’ve received several comments asking what was the response of the listeners to some of Obama’s statements. The call was “listen-only” and we were all on mute except for the select people who were honored with asking Obama the questions. There were only two questions asked, both of which were selected beforehand. There was no opportunity to speak to the president directly.

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