Daley Weekly: Crises and Confrontation

Apologia pro vita sua

Things began getting away from me about two weeks ago and I now am three weeks in arrears. So, a new beginning, a fresh start, and a promise to be a more faithful correspondent.

Two Senior Politicians Forgo the Presidency

The first of course is Joe Biden, who has tossed in the towel. Would have been fun to watch him run. He always brings a sparkle with him whenever he enters a room.  If the D’s keep the White House maybe Secretary of State, but no Presidency.

The second is Paul Ryan, who now appears to be headed into a cul de sac known as the Speakership. Much of Ryan’s hesitation about taking this office must originate from the almost sure bet that a Speaker is unlikely to be President – too much blame for every crazy idea dreamed up by the caucus.  It’s going to be hard to figure how Ryan can get much of anything out of the House because of the obstructionist promises he apparently made to the Tea Bagger faction.

The Grand Bargain at Last

There is news this week that the White House and the House Republican leadership (John Boehner version) have fashioned a plan to fund the federal government for two years. The agreement apparently uses some $80 billion to give a modest lift to the sequester spending caps for both domestic and defense programs. It also will extend the debt lid to March of 2017. Funding would come through standardizing the eligibility rules for the Social Security Disability Insurance program, but it also rescues the Disability Insurance program from the limbo the House placed it in months ago.

The deal also gets funding through some cuts in provider pay in Medicare, and by selling some oil now held in the U.S. Petroleum Reserve. There also are provisions preventing a sharp spike in Medicare premiums. However, it adds a provision that allows folks with student debt to be chased by debt collectors who use robocalls – something currently prohibited. (How do these things get into a deal like this?)

The agreement will last beyond the 2016 election. So it looks like Boehner is going to take some lumps in order to clear the decks for Paul Ryan to save him from having to wrestle with the alligators as he ascends to the Speakership.

What They Have Not Done

They have not renewed the Child Nutrition Programs.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund is still expired.

Infrastructure funding through the Highway Trust Fund is still unresolved.

The “tax extender” package is still pending.

And, God knows, while they are at it, they could enact comprehensive immigration reform, restore the Voting Rights Act, mandate caps on carbon emissions, and pass the Medicare for All single payer plan.

Benghazi

The other big thing in D.C. last week was the prosecution of Hillary Clinton before an investigative committee. After revelations by House Members and committee staff that the whole thing was designed to bring down Hillary, the hearing showed a sense of desperation – at least to get her to look deceitful or confused. After trying everything this side of waterboarding, nada.

Representative Trey Gowdy (R-SC), the Chair of the Committee was especially clear in his assessment of what the hearings had produced:

“I think some of Jimmy Jordan’s questioning — well, when you say new today, we knew some of that already. We knew about the emails. In terms of her testimony? I don’t know that she testified that much differently today than she has the previous times she’s testified.”

This is the product of seventeen months of investigation and the expenditure of nearly $5 million?

Now watch them double down with some kind of report written by a team of science fiction authors coached by the few still living members of Joe McCarthy’s staff.  Doubling down will inevitably raise a question about whether or not they know the correct answer to the question “what’s two times nothing?”

TPP

Apparently the 12-nation negotiation on the big trade pact is finally ready for prime time, but the text is not yet public. For some reason – maybe I am just being stubborn – I have been advising everyone to read it before attacking it. I want the opposition to form around actual provisions in the agreement, not on shifting ideologies and political posturing. Let’s face it – we will have problems with this agreement, given the troubling involvement of corporate interests in the negotiations. But our opposition needs to be factual, on policy grounds, and against the provisions of the pact.  Let’s root our concerns on what actually is there. It won’t be long – D.C. leaks like a sieve.  One leak already out provides new international protections for the patents of pharmaceutical companies. Surely there is more to come.

Once we discover the troubling stuff in this deal, we have to react with force and confidence. The pro-corporation gang has the upper hand given that the anti-Obama Congress gave the President “fast track” authority a couple of months ago. This means that the President submits an unamendable plan that cannot be filibustered.

Social Security

Just to clarify the confusion about inflation in the economy the government has announced that there is so little inflation that Social Security beneficiaries will not receive a cost of living increase in the coming year.

Economics

The Wall Street Journal reports that companies are indicating a serious slowing in the economy. You have to consider the source here a bit, but, if they are correct, consumer spending is falling and the pace of economic activity is going negative for the first time since the recovery began. Time for a little stimulus to get the momentum turning back in the other direction, but don’t expect the Journal to editorialize in favor of higher government spending.

What is wrong here? We built a post-WWII middle class and became the envy of the world. Then we decided to shift the income growth from the middle class to the wealthy. Now we are wondering why the middle class, burdened with student debt, extortionate drug costs, fraudulent foreclosures, stagnant wages, and inexplicable insurance costs, are not buying the latest electronic gadgets built by exploited labor.

The explanation about the economic stagnation is quite simple. Our corporate uber-masters decided that the destruction of the middle class in the U. S. was irrelevant to their wealth accumulation – they could sell their trinkets to the unsuspecting natives in China. Tiny little miscalculation – China decided that they could sell their trinkets to us. Win-Win became loss-loss.

Presidential Campaign  

Both Democrat-for-a-Day Lincoln Chaffee and what’s his name from Virginia have announced that they are suspending their campaigns.  The next Republican Debate is tonight.

Language Access

The Office of Civil rights in the Department of Health and Human Services is working on regulations to implement the civil rights sections of the Affordable Care Act. The Alliance for a Just Society is encouraging everyone to send comments on these rules encouraging HHS to add interpretation in the medical setting for non-English speakers. After all, if you cannot talk to the doctor in a language you both understand, how can you get useful medical care? You can sign a petition here that will be forwarded to HHS.

Muddle East

Here’s some fun news about the land of perpetual conflict. Our FBI has found a group with apparent Russian connections working out of Moldova who have been trying to sell radioactive material to Middle Eastern operatives. Apparently poison gas may not be potent enough.

Jambalaya, Crawfish Pie, File Gumbo

Paul Prudhomme died. Loved his cookbook – Cajun, as in real French stuff, with spice and emphasis. Sorry vegans, but one of my favorite recipes is from Prudhomme’s repertoire – a pork roast layered with veggies sautéed with white, black and cayenne pepper, thyme and dried mustard. He also teaches how to make and use roux. Incomparable gumbos. I once tried to eat in K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, his restaurant in New Orleans, but the line was so long I ended up in an inferior imitation where I had to console myself with strong drink.

Polarization

Report in The Washington Post regarding evidence that the U.S. electorate is not becoming increasingly polarized. This, despite a perception that there is an extreme polarity emerging between the various parties, factions and ideologies. So if the electorate is not polarized, what is going on in Congress? Your trusty reporter has a couple of theories.

First one is that the money is driving extremes. The dark money donors are not passing the cash to the folks who say that they can bring everyone together, rather they seem to be sending it to folks who demand ideological purity and exclaim that they are just a little bit more radical than the next person.

Second, there is a little thing called Gerrymandering. While drawing the district election lines is a partisan art, legislatures have locked some solid factions in place that are representing a significant enough minority to command attention in the Congress. This appears particularly true of the Tea Bagger-bunch in the House who have some 40 or 50 votes and have put an ideological lock on the Majority Caucus.

Third, the proliferation of ideological media voices also increases the perception that polarization is both extreme and critical for access to airtime. Do the folks who watch Fox News ever tune in on MSNBC? Probably not much.

Banks

Did you know that the big banks are getting a 6 percent dividend on the money they invest in the Federal Reserve?  What is the return on the cash you have stuck in your savings account? The total amount that banks receive from the Fed will amount to $17 billion over the next decade. Surely the return you get on your money in your bank is proportionately equal to the cash they get for pretty much doing nothing?

Well the fun may be over. One of the plans being considered to pump money into the Highway Trust Fund to pay for infrastructure projects would cut this rate from 6 percent to 1.5 percent. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) has already told the banks that this will be a part of the plan. Bank lobbyists are blanketing the Hill trying to kill this thing, but they may be in trouble.

Coral is the New White

When you pick through the list of designer colors for your apartment’s new paint job, coral is one of your options. That honey hued little paint sample soon may be passé.  The corals are turning white. The extreme El Niño in the Pacific is challenging them so much that they are forced to reject their hospitality as symbiotic hosts, slough away the parasites that give them their color, and turn a ghostly white. Then a bunch of them die.

I saw one of the Koch boys on TV the other day. The reporter asked him about the idea that he was just trying to buy power. He answered that he was trying to reduce the power of the government. And he smiled when he said it. This must be an important theme for Koch’s petroleum companies, the fourteenth largest polluter in the country. No government and they can pollute at will.

It is getting pretty difficult to witness this sort of crap. I have children and grandchildren.

But, just to add to the concern, Scientific American is reporting that Exxon Mobile knew about climate change as early as 1977 but persisted in deliberately spreading misinformation about the problem anyway.

I do not know what denial mechanism inside them lets these people ignore the evidence of the fires burning their farms or the seawater lapping at the lawns of their costal mansions, but ignorance is no longer an excuse. We have to begin regarding their assault on the rest of us as premeditated.

Schedule

The Congress will be in session until November 20, that should be plenty of time for a whole bunch of crises and confrontations.

 

Bill Daley, National Legislative Director

Payup New York! Livestream on Minimum Wage

Pay Up CoverHow much does it take to make ends meet? Nationally, a single adult needs $16.87 an hour, and in New York they need $19.90 – just to meet basic needs and an occasional minor emergency. The federal minimum wage of $7.25 and New York’s minimum wage of $8.75 fall far short.

A minimum wage worker in New York would have to work 91 hours a week just to get by, and 93 hours a week nationally.

Join the Alliance for a Just Society for a briefing on our latest report, “Pay Up! Long Hours and Low Pay Leave Workers at a Loss,” and a discussion on why it is critical that we abolish the tipped minimum wage and raise the wage floor to at least $15. Media, organizers, and activists will find out more about what it really takes to move beyond living paycheck-to-paycheck.

The livestream of our event will begin today at 11am (Eastern), on this page.

Pay Up! Long Hours and Low Pay Leave Workers at a Loss

In recent years, a number of cities have raised their minimum wage to $15 an hour, which is significantly above federal and state minimum wages. These changes have prompted debate around the country regarding what constitutes an adequate minimum. This report contributes to that conversation by providing living wage figures, finding that current minimum wage rates are far too low to meet individuals’ and families’ needs.

Pay Up CoverBy Allyson Fredericksen

Pay Up! Report (pdf)

How many hours does a minimum wage worker have to put in to make ends meet?

Our table has the answer for all 50 states.

Pay Up! $15 in Not A Living Wage in Most of the Country

Throughout the nation, the call for a $15 minimum wage is rightfully gaining momentum and – if enacted – would lift millions of low-wage workers from struggle to stability. While detractors suggest the wage is too high, a new report by the Alliance for a Just Society released today shows that $15 is really a modest demand.

The report, “Pay Up! Long Hours and Low Pay Leave Workers at a Loss” reveals that the minimum wage in many states is half the pay a single adult needs to cover basics like housing, food, utilities, and transportation.

Nationally, the living wage for a single adult ranges from $14.26 an hour in Arkansas to $21.44 in Hawaii.

At $7.25 an hour, the current federal minimum wage, workers would have to put in up to 110 hours a week (as is the case in Hawaii) to cover the basic costs of living for just one person.

The numbers are more disturbing when a worker is also supporting children – even with two parents working full time.

“A wage that keeps families trapped in poverty and despair, no matter how hard or how many hours they work, is a national crisis,” said Jill Reese, associate director of the Alliance for a Just Society.

“We know that it’s not unheard of in our country that someone is working full time and is still homeless – this is unacceptable,” Reese said.

The study calculates a living wage for a single adult in all 50 states, then reports the stunning number of hours a minimum wage employee must work in each state, Washington D.C., and nationally, to make a living.

“The answer to low wages is not expecting people to work a ridiculous number of hours, or to make severe cutbacks in basic necessities,” said Allyson Fredericksen, report author and policy analyst at the Alliance for a Just Society.

“Instead, the answer is to pay workers enough to ensure that full-time employment provides some measure of financial stability. Our research shows that’s twice the current minimum wage in many states,” said Fredericksen.

In Washington D.C. workers paid minimum wage have to work 83 hours a week to make ends meet for one person. In New York it’s 91 hours a week, and in Virginia it’s 103 hours.

Even in states like California, with a relatively high minimum wage at $9 an hour, workers there would still have to clock 86 hours a week to equal a living wage.

Pay Up!” is part of The Job Gap Economic Prosperity Series research by the Alliance for a Just Society. The Alliance has produced the reports since 1999.

The full report is available here: Pay Up! Report (pdf)

Additional information is available on the report website: www. thejobgap.org

Alliance for a Just Society is a national policy, research, and organizing network that focuses on health, racial, and economic justice.

 

Let’s Block Too-Big-To-Fail Insurance Mergers

By LeeAnn Hall and Wendell Potter

This article was originally published in Roll Call.

If you thought too-big-to-fail banks were dangerous, watch out for too-big-to-fail health insurance companies.

This summer, the country’s top insurers announced a spate of merger plans, lighting up the business pages nationwide. Health insurance giant Anthem unveiled its intention to absorb competitor Cigna, while Aetna put in a bid for Humana — mergers that, if approved, will cut the country’s big insurers down from five to just three. Add to these proposals Centene’s plan to scoop up Health Net, and it looks like a feeding frenzy.

The bad news is that we’re the bait.

On Sept. 29, the House Judiciary Committee brought company CEOs into a hearing on the deals. There, committee members raised questions not only about competition, but also about the impact of such mergers on both affordability and quality of care.

Meanwhile, the health insurance companies have put their PR in high gear.

In prepared testimony, Anthem CEO Joseph Swedish claimed the merger is about “complementary platforms” and “better value.” But this kind of lingo can’t hide what the proposals are really about: They are not about making quality care more affordable, but about amassing profits in an industry where companies such as Anthem boast profits of $2.5 billion or more a year.

We certainly shouldn’t buy the argument that bigger-than-ever health insurance companies will make our health insurance better or more affordable. If insurance giants grow even larger, we can expect premiums to rise — not go down. Take the example of UnitedHealth’s purchase of Nevada’s Sierra Health Group, triggering premium increases 13.7 percent greater than they would have been without the merger.

There’s also the risk that insurers will squeeze more doctors, hospitals and other providers out of their networks, adding extra hassles and costs for patients. This danger is even higher for those living in low-income communities or rural areas where it’s already hard to find doctors.

As the Sierra example shows, there’s nothing new about insurance company mergers. Anthem attained “megaplan” status 11 years ago when it snapped up WellPoint.

As a result, in many of our cities and towns, a small group of insurers — or even just one — has a real grip on the market. A recent American Medical Association report found a high concentration of insurance markets in 72 percent of metropolitan areas studied, with a single insurer claiming 30 percent of more of market share in 90 of these areas.

Yet, neither the House nor the Senate has a say in these deals. That’s why we need the Department of Justice and our state watchdogs — whether attorneys general or insurance regulators — to take action against these proposals.

Halting the mergers would be consistent with the Affordable Care Act, which gives us the tools to change the terms of competition among health insurance companies. Before the ACA, insurers competed for “good risk” — meaning covering people who were young and healthy and dumping anyone with higher health care needs. Now they can’t turn you down or charge you more for a pre-existing condition. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not still driven by the quest for profits and will try to bend or mold the rules to bolster those profits.

Health Insurance Is Great – Navigators Needed to Help People Use It

This spring, Adriann Barboa and her colleagues at Strong Families New Mexico went on a five-county tour, fanning out across the state to share findings from the Breaking Barriers study they’d conducted on progress under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

The report is part of a ten-state series by the Alliance for a Just Society.

“In all the towns we went to, many people said it was great to finally have insurance, but they didn’t know how to use it,” Barboa said.

“The Breaking Barriers report recommends using navigators to help people understand what a primary care provider is, what preventive care is, and how to get those services using their insurance,” Barboa said. “Across the five counties people pointed to that recommendation and said ‘That’s what we need.'”

Since passage of the ACA, the United States has seen a record decline in the uninsured rate. In 2013, more than 13 percent of people in the country were uninsured. By 2014, that figure had dropped to 10.4 percent.

These gains were achieved thanks to the ACA’s Medicaid expansion and subsidies for coverage through state and federal marketplaces. The new law made millions of people eligible for health coverage when they’d been shut out in the past.

But, even with these changes, it took real people to get so many new enrollees through the door – these are the navigators mentioned by Barboa.

In the first open enrollment period alone, navigators and other enrollment assisters helped more than 10 million people apply for coverage. These navigators provided information about plans, assisted people with forms, helped them submit documents, and showed them how to make their payments.

This help was – and continues to be – key to the ACA’s success, which is why the federal Department of Health and Human Services is increasing its investment in navigator programs.

We all know how apt the term “navigator” is, since the process of enrolling in health insurance is so complicated. But those complications don’t end once you’re signed up for insurance and have sent off your first premium payment. Using health insurance can be very confusing, too.

Many of us have had questions about our coverage. How do I select a doctor or other practitioner from my health plan’s list of providers? What kind of care comes free of additional costs, and when may I be charged out-of-pocket payments – and how much will those payments be? How do I find out what services or prescriptions are covered? If I’m denied a service, what are my rights to challenge that denial?

These questions are hard enough when you’ve had health insurance your whole life. It’s that much harder if you’re getting coverage for the first time. In that case, you’re entering a new world of formal terminology, provider lists, and paperwork.

That’s why navigator-type programs should be there for us after we enroll, too.

Without an effort to make sure coverage translates into care, we run the risk of missing out on the promise of health reform – which, we should remember, is about transforming our health sector so people can get the care they need. Enrolling all those millions of formerly uninsured people is just the first step.

As the Alliance for a Just Society’s recent Breaking Barriers reports show, many people – especially people of color and low-income people – still aren’t getting into the doctor’s office even after they have coverage.

Some community-based organizations provide good models for how an integrated assistance program can help people move into coverage and then turn that coverage into care.

The Community Service Society of New York (CSSNY) provides one such model. Drawing on funding from New York State, CSSNY has established an innovative coverage-to-care approach – using both a navigator network and a community health advocates program – that helps people obtain coverage and put their coverage to use.

A New Yorker needing help can call CSSNY’s toll-free helpline, where advocates connect people to enrollment assistance, answer questions about coverage, or help troubleshoot insurance issues (such as coverage denials or billing problems). Using a hub-and-spoke structure, CSSNY also works with a broad, statewide network of community group and small business groups, offering help in almost 200 languages.

We need more programs like this one if we hope to truly transform our health care system and make it work for everyone. We need to make sure a person’s insurance card is worth much more than the plastic it’s printed on. Good coverage-to-care navigator programs are key to achieving that goal.