Meet The Senator Who Stands Between New Yorkers And Universal Health Care

by and

ALBANY — Thanks to Tuesday’s special election in Harlem, Democrats now have the numerical majority and therefore the power to pass legislation in the New York State Senate, holding 32 out of its 63 seats. Thirty-one of those senators have pledged support to the New York Health Act, a bill that would end the private insurance industry in the state and create a single-payer system, where higher taxes on the wealthiest would fund the largest change in the state’s social compact in decades. All New Yorkers, regardless of income, would have access to free health care, just as Congress ramps up to the biggest cut to Medicaid funding in its history. New York is one vote shy, and yet, as a day spent in Albany would reveal, very far from single-payer health care becoming a reality.

That one vote is represented by State Senator Simcha Felder, of Borough Park, Brooklyn. Felder has carved out quite a niche for himself in Albany: Even though he came to office as a Democrat, he currently caucuses with the Republicans, handing them power in the state senate in exchange for ample resources for his heavily Orthodox district.

The Village Voice has been reaching out to Felder, the pivotal vote on the New York Health Act. Where does he stand on the bill? As a member of the senate’s health committee, surely he has an opinion.

Felder’s district has seen a surge in Medicaid enrollees under the Affordable Care Act, which expanded Medicaid eligibility requirements to 138 percent of the federal poverty level ($33,948 for a family of four). Between 2012, before the Medicaid expansion, and 2014, the last year that data is available, Felder’s district saw an increase of more than 25,000 enrollees in Medicaid. This isn’t counting enrollees in the state’s Essential Plan, which provides New Yorkers with income up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level with coverage for free or $20 a month, depending on their income. The Medicaid expansion, as well as the subsidies that make the Essential Plan possible, would be eliminated as part of the American Health Care Act, which the House of Representatives passed earlier this month.

For two weeks, the Voice called Felder’s office at least a dozen times, and each time his staff insisted they would “get back to us” if we left our number. We decided to drive up I-87 to Albany and find Felder ourselves, to try to get some sort of comment — to find out whether he was undecided, opposed, or in favor. Anything on the record would have been appreciated.

Felder remained mostly on the senate floor on Monday afternoon, speaking with aides while seated on the Republican side of the chamber. Visits to his nearby office ended with “no comment” from his aides, who said they would speak to the senator about our questions. The Voice resumed its vigil of the senate floor, hoping to talk to Felder about his position during a break in the session. Perhaps Felder had been alerted to our presence — when the break came, he quickly left the senate floor and retreated to his office. When we knocked, we were told he was unavailable.

“I would say I love slush, every flavor. What people criticize as slush is the engine that allows government to help in areas which would never ever get the help,” Felder told the Jewish Star in 2010, explaining his political philosophy. Felder’s alliance with senate Republicans has allowed him to steer money toward support for private yeshivas as well as torpedo New York City’s bag tax.

During the course of a week in Albany, however, a lot of things can change. On Wednesday afternoon, Felder released a bombshell letter, imploring the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference, eight Democrats who also collaborate with the Republicans, to rejoin the Democrats. If they did, Felder wrote, he would consider rejoining the Democrats, handing them the power in the state senate.

This development is vastly important in regard to the New York Health Act, which passed the assembly in 2015 and 2016 but died in the state senate’s health committee, where Republican chairman Kemp Hannon has never let the bill be discussed or voted on by its members. (Hannon declined to comment for this article.)

Were Democrats to regain control of Albany, with the help of Felder, the health committee would be chaired by a Democrat, giving the bill a chance to be discussed and amended by the senate — even if Felder doesn’t commit a vote to it quite yet. Given the scope of the law, and the sudden viability of its passage, the bill is expected to come under far more scrutiny than it has before, when it mostly served as a litmus test for how far to the left a Democrat stood.

The possible shake-up in Albany comes at a time when major decisions will soon have to be made by the notoriously dysfunctional state government as budget cuts loom from Washington. Yesterday’s Congressional Budget Office score on the American Health Care Act predicted that 23 million more people would be uninsured because of the bill, as it slashes Medicaid funding and cuts back on subsidies in the insurance market.  

New York relies on $53 billion a year in federal funding to keep up its expansive Medicaid rolls. Whether the AHCA passes the Senate this year or not, surely the state will see a major funding gap appear shortly. New York will need to find a way to keep its citizens healthy, or it will find declining health outcomes dragging the economy down. Single payer would be a solution, and the state assembly and almost half of the state senate agrees. It would most likely double the state’s entire budget, and seriously alter the state’s tax brackets. But it would be an answer to a crisis that will only compound if not addressed. The Republicans currently in control of the state senate have voiced skepticism and dismay at the proposed cuts in Medicaid funding coming out of Washington, but they have not pushed forward any proposals for how to deal with them.

For Felder’s part, his office has repeatedly said that if we left our number, someone would try to call us back. In hindsight, it seems they were pretty busy this week! It appears like all of New York is waiting on a call from Simcha Felder.