Senator Lindsey Graham spoke at a Bar Mitzvah I attended on a recent Shabbos. After his welcoming remarks to the congregation, the rabbi asked the senator a few prepared questions about his position on Israel, Iran’s nuclear capabilities, white supremacy, China, North Korea, and more. When the formal service ended, people were invited to ask the senator questions in a smaller setting.
Graham came across as an ardent supporter of Israel – a position that many in the audience support, as do I. As I listened, I wondered, was I the only person living in fear about the senator’s own actions in America when it comes to health care? After all, anyone’s health status can take a turn for the unexpected, at any time. As can their financial situation. And without good health and access to affordable care when it’s needed, nothing else matters. And let’s not forget the most basic of Jewish values of Bikur Cholim, referring to the mitzvah of visiting the sick and giving aid to needy. Isn’t that what Judaism is all about?
According to the National Census Bureau, one in five Americans had a disability in 2010. I am one of them. I was born two months premature and without part of my right leg. I spent nearly the first two months of my life in the NICU. I have worn a prosthetic limb for my entire life. Still, I have been an athlete, a ski racer who once trained for the US Paralympic Ski Team, a speaker, a journalist, a volunteer, a wife and a parent.
I tried to ask the Senator a question, but was not chosen. As he departed, however, I shook his hand and thanked him for his support of Israel. I grabbed my chance to talk about health care, telling him about being born without a limb. I shared my concern about the GOP bill he coauthored to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and asked him to explain his position. He looked me up and down, noticing my artificial limb. He said not to worry and said that as someone with a pre-existing condition I’d still get my disability benefits.
My heart dropped.
He assumed I was a recipient of disability benefits, based purely on my appearance and the description of my birth. I am not, though who knows what the future holds. I asked why he would assume such a thing, when in fact I was asking about health policies impacting millions of Americans living today, those yet to be born and those yet to have a pre-existing condition diagnosed.
He lied to me when he said I should not worry. How can I not worry, when his new bill to repeal the ACA will cost me and millions of others dearly.According to the CBO, under this proposed plan, premiums will be raised to unaffordable levels. Had I been born under his plan I would not have lived. Lifetime caps on health care would have been hit before I even left the hospital.
In the moment I had, I couldn’t tell him about my history as a journalist with NBC News, my work regarding inclusion and diversity or the impact of health care on my family.
I asked if I could get in touch later and he gestured to his handler. I shook her hand and asked for her card so I could follow up. As it turned out, she wasn’t a policy person, she was a fundraising consultant. Fundraising? This was a Shabbos guest at a synagogue. Maybe I am missing something, but on Shabbos? (That’s another story for another time.) Maybe I should not have assumed the senator’s handler was a congressional staffer, just as the senator should not have assumed I receive disability benefits because I wear an artificial limb. I could have been his next big donor.
Senator Graham seemed charming, and well-versed in issues dear to the Jewish community. But, his assumption about me and his lie telling me not to worry came like a punch to the gut. People don’t receive disability benefits without good reason. Nor do they choose to live with disability. According to government data, disabled beneficiaries aged 18–64 account for 4.6 percent of the population aged 18–64 in the United States. The Jewish community is around 2 percent of the population according to Graham on Shabbos. What I don’t understand is how people can be ardent supporters of someone purely based on their stance with Israel when that person’s stance on human beings goes against basic Jewish values? I am not a Jewish scholar, I am just a Jewish mother. I believe in Tikkun Olam, healing the world one act of goodness at a time. When we support someone who will hurt other human beings in the name of supporting Israel doesn’t that go against healing the world?
I stand up for the rights of people with disabilities because life without proper health care will cause real pain and suffering. Without affordable health care, many people and their families couldn’t have jobs, contribute to the economy and live life to the fullest. Some won’t be able to live at all. Then how will any of us support Israel?
Senator John McCain’s announcement Friday that he opposes the Graham-Cassidy ACA repeal is a promising development. But the next steps for the Affordable Care Act are still on the agenda in Congress, and Graham has not publicly changed has stated aim of repealing the ACA in the coming week. This cannot happen. Americans must join together to ensure health care for people with disabilities and with pre-existing conditions. Humanity is at stake. Equal rights in health care are about our collective rights as Americans, as Jews and as human beings. I can only hope my moment with Senator Graham made an impression. Senator Graham lied to me when he told me not to worry. I am worried and you should be too.
Tami Luchow is a Diversity and Inclusion Speaker and Consultant and is the Founder of Care for Life and Limb, which is dedicated to helping those with disabilities navigate health care.