S.F. expands health care plan after Shaar Zahav push

Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco was transformed — at least briefly — into City Hall last week when it was the site of a major announcement about the city’s universal health care plan.

The progressive Reform synagogue was a perfect place for the June 18 announcement, since its members played a significant role in the city’s decision to expand the plan, called Healthy San Francisco.

S.F. Supervisor Bevan Dufty and Dr. Mitch Katz, director of the city’s Department of Public Health, met with community members at Sha’ar Zahav to announce the agreement to expand HSF and a plan for setting a final date when the program will become available to all.

The expanded program will include people earning up to five times the federal poverty level (currently $10,400 for one person) by February 2009, with plans to open the program completely after lower-income households have had the chance to enroll.

Sha’ar Zahav members saw a need for more inclusive health care after the initial HSF plan was passed unanimously by the board in 2006.

So they got the ball rolling by working with the San Francisco Organizing Project, a grassroots coalition of religious congregations and schools working to influence public policy.

After that, SFOP went on to lobby S.F. supervisors, but it all started with a local organizing committee’s listening campaign with members at Sha’ar Zahav.

“We talked about expanding HSF with members who weren’t allowed in because they make a little too much,” said Jonathan Crosby, a member of the organizing committee. “So we were pushing to get more inclusion and open it up, or at least [for the city] to let us know when they will.”

Dufty, who has attended services at Sha’ar Zahav for years, serves on the budget committee for the Department of Public Health, and he played a key role in getting the expansion plan passed.

“There was some uncertainty about a fray at the board [of supervisors],” Dufty said. “I expressed my strong support and became the eighth vote — that makes it veto proof.”

He was quick to credit Sha’ar Zahav as well.

“Sha’ar Zahav played an important role in keeping the expansion plan going so we can get to people at upper levels,” Dufty said. “Sha’ar Zahav has been really focused on expansion of health care in San Francisco and recognizing that a lot of people have been struggling [to get coverage].”

HSF was initiated by Supervisor Tom Ammiano and grew out of Mayor Gavin Newsom’s 2005 State of the City pledge to provide universal health care access to the city’s estimated 82,000 uninsured. Dufty said the plan is getting money from employers as well as the state, which will provide the city with $73 million in federal health care funds over three years to help pay for the program.

“The program itself is really focused on prevention, so down the road we’re going to save money,” added Dufty.

Crosby said congregants had been feeling disempowered — until the meeting at which the expansion was announced.

“There was an energy and electricity. A lot of audience members felt involved,” said Crosby.

Working with SFOP, he added, “allows people to come together and work on one problem and make a change. There’s a lot of talk about tikkun olam — this is a way to actually do that. You can affect changes and I believe we had a big part in affecting this.

“It ties back to a lot of Jewish values about making things better.”