by David Holzel
Bipartisan legislation introduced in Congress last week to give additional support to elderly Holocaust survivors has raised the sense of urgency about the needs of this frail population, but faces a long road to passage.
The Responding to the Urgent Needs of Survivors of the Holocaust, or RUSH Act, introduced May 21 in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, would add survivors to a priority list for social services outlined in the Older Americans Act, including nutrition services, mental health counseling and home modifications.
It would name a staffer to oversee the provision of such services, which would include kosher meals and improved transportation.
The goal is to allow survivors to remain at home as long as possible, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who introduced the House bill with Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), told WJW.
“For me, it’s a moral imperative that they can age in place,” Wasserman Schultz said.
Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) introduced the bill in the U.S. Senate.
There are an estimated 120,000 survivors living in the U.S. today, at an average age of 80, Wasserman Schultz said. Two-thirds of them live alone and three out of five are women.
Some 200 survivors live in the Greater Washington area.
Also sponsoring the bill in the House are Reps. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), Brad Schneider (D-Ill.), Dave Joyce (R-Ohio) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.); and in the Senate, Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).
At a time when a divided Congress can’t agree on its budgetary priorities, Wasserman Schultz believes the RUSH Act can win bipartisan support.
“This is not about spending more money. It’s about prioritizing the money we already spend,” she said.
William Daroff, director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America, which worked with the lawmakers to advance the bill, said the legislation “creates a preference in the Older Americans Act for Holocaust survivors to receive necessary services. When local agencies make determinations on what agencies and programs they will fund, this creates a preference. It will add a few points to the equation” in favor of survivors.
Wasserman Schultz and Ros-Lehtinen have been advocating for such legislation since 2010. Last year, they and their Senate colleagues sponsored a similar bill.
“The bill last year was a sense of Congress,” Daroff said. “This one would change the law. It moves the concept forward.”
“We’re going to build bipartisan support this year,” including from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) “in getting it to the floor this year,” Wasserman Schultz said.
She and her allies are pursuing a two-pronged strategy. One is to include the RUSH Act within the reauthorization of the Older Americans Act; the other is to pursue it as separate legislation.
“We’re taking multiple passes here,” she said. “Time is of the essence.”
While the benefits of the legislation would be tangible, they won’t solve the financial problems of local Jewish agencies that serve Holocaust survivors. The Washington-area Jewish Social Service Agency has been working to close a $500,000 annual deficit that is expected to last a decade.
The deficit was caused by survivors reaching an age when they need critical and more expensive support, and by a reclassification of who is a survivor that expanded the population under the agency’s responsibility.
“The bill … provides no additional services to survivors,” said Shane Rock, director of operations for JSSA’s senior services. “It will not solve the lack of resource problems in serving survivors.”
JTA contributed to this article