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Did Romney Eliminate Kosher Nursing Home Food as Governor?

During the weekend, the New York Post reported that Mitt Romney vetoed a bill to help fund kosher food at Massachusetts nursing homes in 2003. Newt Gingrich, who happens to be courting Jewish and elderly voters in Florida, immediately jumped on the story – and got it very, very wrong in the process:

“[Romney] eliminated serving kosher food for elderly Jewish residents under Medicare,” Gingrich said. “I did not know this, it just came out yesterday. The more we dig in, I understand why George Soros in Europe yesterday said it makes no difference if it’s Romney or Obama, we can live with either one.”

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.” First of all, it was a choice made by the nursing homes themselves, not the Massachusetts government. Second, it was never actually going to prevent kosher residents from accessing kosher food. And third, Romney’s decision wouldn’t have cut anything – he simply vetoed additional funds, keeping funding at the status quo during a budget crisis year. Which means Gingrich’s comments have little basis in reality.