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Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Did Romney deny Massachusetts seniors Kosher food?

Mitt Romney stands accused of forcing elderly Jews to eat non-Kosher food (Hat Tip: Memeorandum).
It’s a great campaign line for the former speaker, and the addition about George Soros is a nice touch. The problem is, Romney never actually “eliminated serving kosher food” to Jewish residents at state nursing homes, especially not in the way Gingrich describes.

In 2002, cuts in both federal and state subsidies to assisted living facilities, combined with the rising costs of maintaining the facilities, caused a couple of Massachusetts nursing homes to consider closing their kosher kitchens. It was an unfortunate decision, but there was never actually a concern that kosher residents would be forced to eat non-kosher food – the facilities were weighing several options, including busing in the food from other nursing homes or hiring catering services. The Jewish Advocate reported in January 2003:
[Nursing home owner Genesis ElderCare] decided in November to discontinue operating the Coolidge House’s kosher kitchen due to rising costs and decreased state and federal reimbursements. Management said although the kitchen would close, Coolidge House would continue to provide kosher meals either by serving pre-packaged food, contracting with a caterer to prepare and deliver meals, or bringing food over from the Heritage House, GEC’s nursing home at Cleveland Circle. Coolidge House officials say the kitchen will remain open at least through Passover, which starts in mid-April.
The issue was the nursing home had to maintain the kosher kitchen for everyone living there, even though reportedly just a small percentage of its residents actually kept kosher:
For administrators at the Coolidge House, it comes down to the math: Only 30 percent of the 200 residents are Jewish, they say, and only 8 percent now keep kosher. By preparing meat and dairy foods in the same kitchen, administrators say, they would save about $200,000, or 14 percent of annual dining costs.

“We understand the community’s sensitivities, but this is what we have to do to stay in business,” said Larry Lencz, executive director of Coolidge House. “The bottom line comes down to simple economics and changing demographics.”
Some Jewish community groups opposed the plans to bus in food, and instead requested additional state government funding in 2003 to help the kitchens operate. At the time, Massachusetts was struggling with a budget crisis, and Romney was trying to rein in costs by blocking additional spending. The kosher food bill that he vetoed would have provided an additional $600,000 in funding to nursing homes. Whether you believe he was right or wrong to veto it, this was clearly a position that made Romney appear insensitive to the elderly and Jewish communities.

In the end, the veto was overridden by the Massachusetts state legislature, and the facilities kept their kosher kitchens after all. But Romney’s decision was not, as Gingrich claims, a choice to “eliminate kosher food for elderly Jewish residents under Medicare.”
Well, isn't this fascinating.... Unfortunately, the availability of Kosher food at nursing homes in Massachusetts is an issue about which I know too much, as some of you know from private conversations.

Coolidge House is a facility in the heart of the Jewish community in Brookline, which used to be Kosher and used to be owned by an Orthodox Jew whom I have known for over 50 years. My grandmother spent time there before she passed away in 1990, and both my parents were there in January 2003 when the incident Alana describes happened (Dad broke his hip; Mom could not be on her own by then). The last time I saw Mom conscious was in Coolidge House in 2004. She passed away in 2005; by the time I got there she was in a coma.

What's more interesting is that sometime in 2007 or 2008, Coolidge House not only went non-Kosher but banned Kosher patients from bringing in their own Kosher food. Not only is Coolidge House no longer Kosher, and not only do they not supply Kosher food for people who want it, you cannot bring your own food there. I was in Boston when this policy was announced and the rabbis in the community were horrified.

My Dad lived in an assisted living facility (not Coolidge House) in the center of the Jewish community in Boston from 2008 to 2010. That facility was Kosher when he got there, but six months before they decided they could no longer care for him (justifiably, by the way - he had physically declined too much to belong in assisted living), that place announced one night that it as going non-Kosher but would bring in Kosher food for those who wanted it (I won't get into all the technicalities of why, but I would not eat there anymore even if they gave me a Kosher meal, but I do go back to visit people there when I am in Boston so I do know what's going on). They gave six months of lead time for those who wanted to leave - how many of these people are capable of leaving?

When Dad left there, he went to a place that was not Kosher, and a month and a half later, I came in and arranged for Kosher food to be brought in privately. By then, Dad was becoming less aware (he has Alzheimers), and may not have realized what he was being fed. Today, he is in a Kosher facility and has been for nearly a year now.

Here's the key: In Massachusetts, you have no right to Kosher food (even today). In New York, for example, you have a right to Kosher food even if you're not in a Kosher facility. If what Romney vetoed (and it's not clear to me from the article) was a bill that would have granted a right to Kosher food, that's despicable. There are hundreds of elderly Jews in Massachusetts who are in Medicaid facilities (which means you had to spend them down to get them in) who cannot get Kosher food. That's just plain wrong. If, on the other hand, what he did was to allow facilities to close their Kosher kitchens, but still obligate them to supply Kosher food to those who wanted it, that's nowhere near as objectionable (although it's still not good).

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