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“The Internet Of Every Damn Thing”: Face It, Personal Gadgetry Tied To The Internet Is Selling Data About Your Habits To Businesses

Federal Trade Commission head Edith Ramirez put the matter plainly: “If I’m wearing a fitness band that tracks how many calories I consume, I wouldn’t want to share that data with an insurance company.”

In a study last year, the FTC found that 12 mobile fitness apps shared information with 76 enterprises. Face it; personal gadgetry tied to the Internet is selling data about your habits to businesses — and in ways you have no idea about.

These devices now range from home burglar alerts to apps that turn off the porch light to toothbrushes. As of this year, there will be 25 billion such things.

Hence, the FTC has just suggested some guidelines for neat but sneaky gear. They’re in a new report, titled “Internet of Things: Privacy & Security in a Connected World.”

I’d sort of given up on the privacy part. The choices have become so complex that I apply a simple rule. Anything I absolutely don’t want the world to see, I don’t put online. Period.

My Facebook friends know they will never see a look-what-I-just-bought post. As for my Web surfing, my life is not an open book, but if someone should disclose my interests, I’d be OK. I have an excuse for everything.

The potential problems arise with those very useful apps that need my personal information to do their job. Sure, I want Google Maps to know where I am. And if I had some serious medical condition, I’d want a monitoring device communicating with my doctor. But there’s a dark side: Some evil being could invade this data flow and change the medical settings.

I don’t see why my movie ticket app should always know my whereabouts. Fandango gives us two choices on giving it access to our location. One is “Never,” and the other is “Always. Access to your location will be available even when this app is in the background.”

Fandango thoughtfully provides a five-page privacy policy written in fluent legalese. It includes a discourse on its use of “Pixel Tags,” invisible files on the Web pages you visit. The point is that few consumers wade through these privacy policies, and even fewer have the faintest idea what they’re talking about.

The electric company sends me reports on my energy use and how it compares with that of neighbors. My most virtuous months seem to be those in which I’m not at home. My vacation schedule is unbeknownst to the company, I hope.

The FTC report calls for new rules governing the sort of information Internet-connected devices may collect, how it is used and how secure it is. This is a valiant effort, and I wish the regulators luck. But if hackers can break in to movie stars’ private photo files, what can we realistically do to protect our secret stashes from prying eyes?

Smartphone sensors can already guess a user’s sour mood, aggressive personality, pathetically low level of physical activity, sleeping difficulties and other behavioral patterns. And such snooping is perfectly legal.

In the end, consumers will have to decide: How much is the convenience of turning up the heat at home before leaving the office worth? What drives me nuts is all the thinking and research we have to do in balancing the trade-offs — and the attention that must be paid to various app settings.

The only current solution is to unscrew what you want kept private from the Internet. If you’ve forgotten how to use paper, you can put the information on a device not connected to the Internet — and then trip over the plug. Five minutes spent on some app’s privacy policy may convince you of the wisdom of primitive living.

 

By: Froma Harrop, The National Memo, February 29, 2015

January 29, 2015 Posted by | Federal Trade Commission, Internet, Social Media | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Playtime Is Over For Obamacare’s Foes”: And Still, Republicans Don’t Have A Serious Plan B

Friends of Obamacare, horrified that the Supreme Court has taken a case that could blow up the federal health insurance exchanges, should recalibrate their dread. While the health reforms were safely humming along, there was little political price for demanding their demise. Thanks to the Supreme Court, now there is.

Years of carpet-bombing assaults on Obamacare have left many Americans thinking that they don’t like the Affordable Care Act. But close down the federal exchanges covering 6 million people (so far) in 36 states and they may think otherwise. With a vengeance.

Here are the stakes in King v. Burwell: Should the justices strike down subsidies for coverage in the federal exchanges, only the very sick would hang in. That would be the end of the federal exchanges.

Donald Taylor, a health policy expert at Duke University, likens the Obamacare attackers to a dog chasing a car. “What’s the dog going to do if it catches the car?” he said to me.

Subsidies would be untouched in the 12 or 14 state-run exchanges (depends on how you define them), the majority of which are in blue states. Red-state politicians — oddly the biggest foes of a law that in effect transfers tax dollars from high-income liberal states to poor conservative ones — would have a mess on their hands.

“Some Southern states will be back up to 20 percent uninsured,” Taylor said, “and that doesn’t sound politically stable.”

The solution for Republicans would be a plan B. But they don’t have a serious plan B.

Republicans do have a proposal of sorts, composed early last year by three senators — Richard Burr of North Carolina, Orrin Hatch of Utah and now-retired Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. But it was written mainly as a political document with which to hit Obamacare over the head during the 2016 campaign — not as a ready-to-plug-in substitute.

Let’s look at the Republican plan that we aren’t supposed to examine too closely.

For starters, it would empower private insurers to play a bigger role in the relationship between you and your doctor — encouraging them to shrink the network of doctors and hospitals you may visit. So much for “choice.”

It also would cut government subsidies for many working stiffs who earn too much to claim poverty but too little to afford decent private coverage. And it would enable insurers to charge older people far more for their insurance. Obamacare lets them charge three times as much. The Republican plan would let them charge five times as much.

Gone would be the minimal coverage standards. That means the insurers could more easily deny payment for services that Obamacare considers basic. For all these gifts to private insurers, the industry actually prefers Obamacare because its subsidies create many more customers for their products.

The Republican replacement plan (as written so far) contains lots of other controversial elements pretty much ignored because few have taken it seriously. For example, it would tax employer-sponsored health benefits. (Obamacare’s “Cadillac tax” on luxurious coverage does some of that, for which it continues to take a beating.)

A group of conservative economists, led by Douglas Holtz-Eakin, has scored the Burr-Hatch-Coburn plan and claims that it would cut deficits by $1 trillion. These are reputable economists, Taylor says, but the text they were working with was “incredibly vague” on where the cap on the taxes would be put.

“The score is a number, and the text on which they did the score was ambiguous,” he said. “It shows just how hard this is.”

So now Obamacare won’t be the only piñata in town.

The Supreme Court will take up King v. Burwell in March. We do live in interesting times.

 

By: Froma Harrop, The National Memo, January 8, 2015

January 9, 2015 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Health Exchanges, Republicans | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“When Will They Ever Learn?”: Republicans Finally File Lawsuit Against Obama – And Stand To Gain Almost Nothing

Back in June, House Republicans announced, with deep regret yet great fanfare, that they were going to sue Barack Obama over his tyrannical usurpation of power. The suit was never actually filed; two lawyers the House had hired ended up quitting, and it looked as if it would fade away.

Then this week Republicans announced that they had found another lawyer to take the case, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, who says he’s a liberal but has become an intense critic of the Obama administration. Just four days later, the lawsuit has finally been filed:

House Republicans filed a long-threatened lawsuit Friday against the Obama administration over unilateral actions on the health care law that they say are abuses of the president’s executive authority.

The lawsuit — filed against the secretaries of the Health and Human Services and Treasury Departments — focuses on two crucial aspects of the way the administration has put the Affordable Care Act into effect.

The suit accuses the Obama administration of unlawfully postponing a requirement that larger employers offer health coverage to their full-time employees or pay penalties. (Larger companies are defined as those with 50 or more employees.)

In July 2013, the administration deferred that requirement until 2015. Seven months later,the administration announced a further delay, until 2016, for employers with 50 to 99 employees.

The suit also challenges what it says is President Obama‘s unlawful giveaway of roughly $175 billion to insurance companies under the law. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the administration will pay that amount to the companies over the next 10 years, though the funds have not been appropriated by Congress. The lawsuit argues that it is an unlawful transfer of funds.

Call me cynical, but I can’t help but think that the newfound urgency to move ahead with the suit has something to do with President Obama’s immigration order. If conservative Republicans aren’t satisfied with whatever confrontation their leaders manage to create with Obama over immigration, John Boehner can say, “Don’t forget, we’re suing him!”

But what do Republicans get if they win this suit? Not much more than a symbolic victory. The actual complaints in the suit were always strange — they’re suing Obama for delaying the employer mandate, a provision they despise. If they won, he’d be forced to speed up implementation of the mandate, even as Republicans are pressing to eliminate it altogether. And by the time the suit winds its way through the courts, the issue will probably be moot. The mandate for employers with over 100 workers goes into effect in January (though they are only required to cover 70 percent of their employees, and almost all companies of that size already provided coverage even before the law was passed). And the mandate for the mid-size companies goes into effect in a year. By the time the case is heard by a high court, the remedy it’s seeking will probably have already taken place.

As for the other of the suit’s complaints, on cost-sharing subsidies, if Republicans are successful in killing them it would mean that poor people would have to pay more in copays and deductibles. But unlike the subsidies in three dozen states that are at issue in the King v. Burwell lawsuit, which the Supreme Court recently agreed to hear, this provision isn’t critical to the law’s basic functioning. So apart from the satisfaction some Republicans might receive from making life harder for the working poor, even if they win this lawsuit they won’t have dealt the ACA a serious blow.

Legal experts who have looked at this suit haven’t found much merit in it, particularly on the claim about the employer mandate. Federal agencies frequently delay the implementation of far-reaching regulations while practical problems are worked out. But even if they prevail, all Republicans stand to gain is the ability to say that they beat Barack Obama in court. Which may be more than nothing, but it isn’t much more than that.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect; The Plum Line, The Washington Post, November 21, 2014

November 23, 2014 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, House Republicans, John Boehner | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Veterans And Zombies”: The Hype Behind The Health Care Scandal

You’ve surely heard about the scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs. A number of veterans found themselves waiting a long time for care, some of them died before they were seen, and some of the agency’s employees falsified records to cover up the extent of the problem. It’s a real scandal; some heads have already rolled, but there’s surely more to clean up.

But the goings-on at Veterans Affairs shouldn’t cause us to lose sight of a much bigger scandal: the almost surreal inefficiency and injustice of the American health care system as a whole. And it’s important to understand that the Veterans Affairs scandal, while real, is being hyped out of proportion by people whose real goal is to block reform of the larger system.

The essential, undeniable fact about American health care is how incredibly expensive it is — twice as costly per capita as the French system, two-and-a-half times as expensive as the British system. You might expect all that money to buy results, but the United States actually ranks low on basic measures of performance; we have low life expectancy and high infant mortality, and despite all that spending many people can’t get health care when they need it. What’s more, Americans seem to realize that they’re getting a bad deal: Surveys show a much smaller percentage of the population satisfied with the health system in America than in other countries.

And, in America, medical costs often cause financial distress to an extent that doesn’t happen in any other advanced nation.

How and why does health care in the United States manage to perform so badly? There have been many studies of the issue, identifying factors that range from high administrative costs, to high drug prices, to excessive testing. The details are fairly complicated, but if you had to identify a common theme behind America’s poor performance, it would be that we suffer from an excess of money-driven medicine. Vast amounts of costly paperwork are generated by for-profit insurers always looking for ways to deny payment; high spending on procedures of dubious medical efficacy is driven by the efforts of for-profit hospitals and providers to generate more revenue; high drug costs are driven by pharmaceutical companies who spend more on advertising and marketing than they do on research.

Other advanced countries don’t suffer from comparable problems because private gain is less of an issue. Outside the U.S., the government generally provides health insurance directly, or ensures that it’s available from tightly regulated nonprofit insurers; often, many hospitals are publicly owned, and many doctors are public employees.

As you might guess, conservatives don’t like the observation that American health care performs worse than other countries’ systems because it relies too much on the private sector and the profit motive. So whenever someone points out the obvious, there is a chorus of denial, of attempts to claim that America does, too, offer better care. It turns out, however, that such claims invariably end up relying on zombie arguments — that is, arguments that have been proved wrong, should be dead, but keep shambling along because they serve a political purpose.

Which brings us to veterans’ care. The system run by the Department of Veterans Affairs is not like the rest of American health care. It is, if you like, an island of socialized medicine, a miniature version of Britain’s National Health Service, in a privatized sea. And until the scandal broke, all indications were that it worked very well, providing high-quality care at low cost.

No wonder, then, that right-wingers have seized on the scandal, viewing it as — to quote Dr. Ben Carson, a rising conservative star — “a gift from God.”

So here’s what you need to know: It’s still true that Veterans Affairs provides excellent care, at low cost. Those waiting lists arise partly because so many veterans want care, but Congress has provided neither clear guidelines on who is entitled to coverage, nor sufficient resources to cover all applicants. And, yes, some officials appear to have responded to incentives to reduce waiting times by falsifying data.

Yet, on average, veterans don’t appear to wait longer for care than other Americans. And does anyone doubt that many Americans have died while waiting for approval from private insurers?

A scandal is a scandal, and wrongdoing must be punished. But beware of people trying to use the veterans’ care scandal to derail health reform.

And here’s the thing: Health reform is working. Too many Americans still lack good insurance, and hence lack access to health care and protection from high medical costs — but not as many as last year, and next year should be better still. Health costs are still far too high, but their growth has slowed dramatically. We’re moving in the right direction, and we shouldn’t let the zombies get in our way.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, June 19, 2014

June 23, 2014 Posted by | Health Care Costs, Health Reform, Veterans Administration | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Why So Many Are Clueless”: Shameful Coverage Of Obamacare’s Real Impacts

If you read my column last week about a Senate hearing that showed how Obamacare has affected Americans, you might have wondered if I was in the same room with reporters who presumably covered the event.

The disparity goes a long way toward explaining why so many of us are clueless about the actual impact the law is having on our lives.

The title of the May 21 Senate Commerce Committee hearing: “Delivering Better Health Care Value to Consumers: The First Three Years of the Medical Loss Ratio.” I was one of four witnesses talking about the part  of the law that requires health insurers to issue rebates to policyholders if they spend more than 20 percent of premiums  on non-medical expenses, including profits — the so-called Medical Loss Ratio.

Prior to the passage of the law, insurance company executives — who consider what they spend on medical care to be a loss — were in many cases devoting up to half of premiums they collected to pay for advertising and other administrative functions and to reward executives and shareholders.

As I wrote last week, consumers have saved at least $3 billion since the provision of the law that mandates insurers must spend at least 80 percent of our premiums on medical care went into effect in 2011.

The hearing wasn’t just about numbers, however. Katherine Fernandez, a small business owner from Houston, testified about how the MLR provision and other aspects of the law have enabled her family to pay less for far more comprehensive coverage than was possible in the past.

She told the committee that because both her husband and son had pre-existing conditions, the only policies available to them pre-Obamacare would not cover any medical care pertaining to those maladies. And even then the policies had both high premiums and high deductibles. She said that during the 14 years prior to the law’s passage, her family paid more than $100,000 in premiums for what she described as bare-bones coverage. And the premiums went up sharply every year — 165 percent between 2000 and 2003 alone.

She said she was elated when the Affordable Care Act passed. “No more pre-existing condition clauses … and insurance companies had to refund some of what we paid if they didn’t spend enough. What reasonable ideas.”

If you read the accounts of the hearing in The Washington Post, USA Today, Politico or CBS News — the only news outlets I could find that provided any coverage — you would not have read anything about the $3 billion consumers have saved as a result of the MLR provision or how the law has benefited the Fernandez family.

The focus of all those stories was a brief exchange toward the end of the hearing between Committee Chair Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, and GOP Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin about whether the color of President Obama’s skin might explain why some people are opposed to the law.

Rockefeller suggested race might be a factor, which provoked a spirited denial from Johnson. Politico’s only hint about the hearing’s actual subject was this: “His (Rockefeller’s) critiques of the GOP again came in a sparsely attended committee hearing, this time during an analysis of health-care spending.”

The only one of these pieces that even mentioned “medical loss ratio” was the CBS story, and it, too, was primarily about the exchange between Rockefeller and Johnson. In the USA Today article, which apparently was based on a National Journal transcript, the only hint of a hearing was in the very last sentence:  “Rockefeller then veered into another topic before adjourning the hearing.”

That other topic, of course, was the medical loss ratio.

The Washington Post likewise found medical loss ratio of no interest. Its story, too, was about the back-and-forth between Rockefeller and Johnson during what the reporter dismissed as “an otherwise sleepy committee hearing.”

Granted, it is challenging to substantively cover the Affordable Care Act. The U.S. health care system is dizzyingly complex, and so is the law. It’s far easier to write about constant political sparring than to take the time to educate readers about what’s actually in the law and how it affects people. It’s not a heavy lift to review a transcript and write the kind of “he said, she said” — in this case the “he said, he said” — coverage that passes for journalism.

There are a lot of reasons why Americans don’t know how the law affects them or why they believe things about Obamcare that aren’t true. The Democrats have done a lousy job of explaining it. And more than $400 million has been spent by opponents attacking it — 15 times as much as has been spent by supporters. But one of the biggest reasons is the failure of many in the media to provide anything other than the most superficial coverage. As a former reporter who used to cover hearings on the Hill, I consider that shameful.

 

By: Wendell Potter, The Center For Public Integrity, June 2, 2014

June 6, 2014 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Media, Reporters | , , , , , | 1 Comment

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