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“Hey, Obamacare Complainers”: You Hypocrites, Regular Insurance Has Tons of Glitches Everyday

The nation’s new health-insurance exchanges, the online marketplaces for medical coverage that are an integral part of Obamacare, opened for business last week. Immediately the trouble began. Web pages went blank. Attempts to enroll in coverage were delayed, or altogether stymied, as sites crashed. Critics of the law pounced. “Too many unanswered questions and too many unsolved problems,” said U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah.

Yet there’s another way to see these growing pains: as evidence not of change but of continuity for consumers of health insurance in America. With each misstep, government officials are simply catching up to the  record of headache-inducing frustrations produced by the longstanding private medical insurance system.

Whether you’re one of the 50 percent or so of Americans who already have private health insurance (mostly through an employer, as I do) or one of those who may now turn to the exchanges to buy coverage, the bureaucracy is often maddening. Sure, the Affordable Care Act may seem opaque and unwieldy, but make no mistake: Employer-provided healthcare—which offers plans by the very same companies now on the exchanges—is equally Byzantine. No wonder that only 22 percent of American consumers reported themselves as satisfied with the health care system in a 2012 survey from the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions.

A few weeks ago I had an all-too-typical experience. My insurance company, Anthem Blue Cross, sent me a letter saying, “It has come to our attention that we have been paying for certain . . . drugs that are not covered under your existing benefit plan.” Going forward, the letter added, my doctor would need to prescribe something different or I’d have to start paying for these particular medications myself.

And when would this kick in? According to one part of the letter, January 1, 2014. According to a different part of the letter, right away.

It concluded with the sentence I’ve come to dread most: “If you have any questions or concerns, please call the customer service number on your ID card.”

Bravely, I did. Forty-five minutes later, I had yet to talk to an actual human being. Finally, at the 50-minute mark, a customer-service representative showed up on the line. She was cheerful and peppy. I was not.

The Anthem representative was unable to clarify anything in the letter and asked if she could put me on hold while she did a little research. I said OK, but I made a special plea: to call me back if we somehow got disconnected. Just a week before, on another Anthem call—concerning a paid claim that Anthem said was unpaid—I’d gotten cut off after an hour or so on the phone. She assured me that she’d call me back, if need be.

Ten minutes later, the representative returned to tell me that the answer to when Anthem would stop covering my prescriptions was neither January 1 nor immediately. It was December 1.

Where did this new date suddenly come from? She couldn’t explain. I asked to speak to her supervisor directly. She countered with a classic chess move: I was put on hold for another 15 minutes. Then: “Thank you for calling Anthem Blue Cross. Good-bye.” The line went dead. Checkmate.

Despite my plea and the representative’s promise, no one from the company called me back. I have yet to find the stomach to phone Anthem again.

Sure, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act is hitting some bumps, especially in its early days. But before critics falsely brand these as the inevitable consequence of a “government takeover” of our healthcare system, let’s remember that when it comes to medical coverage, bureaucratic snafus are hardly the province of Obamacare alone.

 

By: Randye Hoder, Contributor, Time Magazine, October 9, 2013

October 12, 2013 Posted by | Affordable Care Act | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Government Is Not Just About Sugar”: The GOP Helps Americans Appreciate The Importance Of Government

There’s a lot of terrible news for Republicans inside the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, but one of the worst bulletins is this: Americans are becoming more appreciative of government.

The poll shows that 52 percent of respondents said that government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people. That figure is up four points since June, and is at the highest level since July of 2008, when it stood at 53 percent.

The economic crisis was building during the summer of 2008, and people were growing increasingly weary of President George W. Bush’s laissez-faire attitude. Barack Obama’s more optimistic vision of government’s possibilities became infectious and helped propel him to victory, but after he took office, the popularity of government, as measured by that question, quickly fell and has been below 50 percent for most of his presidency.

Now it is back up, and Republicans have only themselves to thank. There’s nothing better than shutting down government to remind people of how much they need it. The television footage of shuttered offices and national parks, as well as people who are suffering because of lost wages and federal assistance, has had a significant effect.

So did the 2008-2009 recession and its aftermath. More people came into the government’s orbit, seeking assistance or benefiting from stimulus money, including much of the automobile industry. The poll showed that nearly a third of respondents said their family was personally affected by the current shutdown, compared to only 18 percent during the shutdowns of 1995 and 1996. The budget crisis has even made health care reform substantially more popular than it was just a few weeks ago.

This is one of the great existential fears of the right, of course, and is one of the few things uniting the various ideological wings of the Republican Party. Mitt Romney complained about the 47 percent of Americans who were “dependent on government,” and Senator Ted Cruz recently accused Mr. Obama of trying to get Americans “addicted to the sugar” of his health care law.

But this week, Americans know that government isn’t just about sugar. It’s a necessary part of their lives, and Americans expect it to be there when the private sector lets them down, as it did during the recession and as it has done on health care for so many years. Now as the Republicans’ abysmal new approval ratings show, voters are also gaining a clearer picture of precisely who in Washington is letting them down.

 

By: David Firestone, Editors Blog, The New York Times, October 11, 2013

October 12, 2013 Posted by | Federal Government, GOP | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Dealing With Default”: Let’s Hope We Don’t Find Out What Will Happen If We Hit The Debt Ceiling

So Republicans may have decided to raise the debt ceiling without conditions attached — the details still aren’t clear. Maybe that’s the end of that particular extortion tactic, but maybe not, because, at best, we’re only looking at a very short-term extension. The threat of hitting the ceiling remains, especially if the politics of the shutdown continue to go against the G.O.P.

So what are the choices if we do hit the ceiling? As you might guess, they’re all bad, so the question is which bad choice would do the least harm.

Now, the administration insists that there are no choices, that if we hit the debt limit the U.S. government will go into general default. Many people, even those sympathetic to the administration, suspect that this is simply what officials have to say at this point, that they can’t give Republicans any excuse to downplay the seriousness of what they’re doing. But suppose that it’s true. What would a general default look like?

A report last year from the Treasury Department suggested that hitting the debt ceiling would lead to a “delayed payment regime”: bills, including bills for interest due on federal debt, would be paid in the order received, as cash became available. Since the bills coming in each day would exceed cash receipts, this would mean falling further and further behind. And this could create an immediate financial crisis, because U.S. debt — heretofore considered the ultimate safe asset — would be reclassified as an asset in default, possibly forcing financial institutions to sell off their U.S. bonds and seek other forms of collateral.

That’s a scary prospect. So many people — especially, but not only, Republican-leaning economists — have suggested that the Treasury Department could instead “prioritize”: It could pay off bonds in full, so that the whole burden of the cash shortage fell on other things. And by “other things,” we largely mean Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, which account for the majority of federal spending other than defense and interest.

Some advocates of prioritization seem to believe that everything will be O.K. as long as we keep making our interest payments. Let me give four reasons they’re wrong.

First, the U.S. government would still be going into default, failing to meet its legal obligations to pay. You may say that things like Social Security checks aren’t the same as interest due on bonds because Congress can’t repudiate debt, but it can, if it chooses, pass a law reducing benefits. But Congress hasn’t passed such a law, and until or unless it does, Social Security benefits have the same inviolable legal status as payments to investors.

Second, prioritizing interest payments would reinforce the terrible precedent we set after the 2008 crisis, when Wall Street was bailed out but distressed workers and homeowners got little or nothing. We would, once again, be signaling that the financial industry gets special treatment because it can threaten to shut down the economy if it doesn’t.

Third, the spending cuts would create great hardship if they go on for any length of time. Think Medicare recipients turned away from hospitals because the government isn’t paying claims.

Finally, while prioritizing might avoid an immediate financial crisis, it would still have devastating economic effects. We’d be looking at an immediate spending cut roughly comparable to the plunge in housing investment after the bubble burst, a plunge that was the most important cause of the Great Recession of 2007-9. That by itself would surely be enough to push us into recession.

And it wouldn’t end there. As the U.S. economy went into recession, tax receipts would fall sharply, and the government, unable to borrow, would be forced into a second round of spending cuts, worsening the economic downturn, reducing receipts even more, and so on. So even if we avoid a Lehman Brothers-style financial meltdown, we could still be looking at a slump worse than the Great Recession.

So are there any other choices? Many legal experts think there is another option: One way or another, the president could simply choose to defy Congress and ignore the debt ceiling.

Wouldn’t this be breaking the law? Maybe, maybe not — opinions differ. But not making good on federal obligations is also breaking the law. And if House Republicans are pushing the president into a situation where he must break the law no matter what he does, why not choose the version that hurts America least?

There would, of course, be an uproar, and probably many legal challenges — although if I were a Republican, I’d worry about, in effect, filing suit to stop the government from paying seniors’ hospital bills. Still, as I said, there are no good choices here.

So what will happen if and when we hit the debt ceiling? Let’s hope we don’t find out.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, the New York Times, October 10, 2013

October 12, 2013 Posted by | Debt Ceiling, Default | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Meet The New Republican Party”: GOP Leaders Recommit To Same Old Far-Right Culture War

Earlier this year, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus accepted the fact that his party’s social conservatism had alienated many young voters, women, and moderates. The party would still adhere to its platform, Priebus said in March, “but it doesn’t mean that we divide and subtract people from our party…. I don’t believe we need to act like Old Testament heretics.”

At the time, this seemed quite sensible. Understanding the Republican Party’s unpopularity is a multi-faceted dynamic, but its economic failures and extremist tactics are only part of the larger problem. The GOP’s support for a far-right culture-war agenda — anti-contraception, anti-gay, anti-reproductive rights, anti-Planned Parenthood — has taken a toll, too.

This support has manifested itself in Republicans’ legislative priorities — the House GOP has been preoccupied this year with votes on abortion and birth control — but it’s not limited to Capitol Hill.

Marriage, abortion and religious liberty are the top cultural topics to be addressed at this weekend’s Values Voter Summit.

Conservative political issues will be a major part of the presentations, but the social-cultural issues “are what define us as an organization,” said retired Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin of the Family Research Council (FRC), a main sponsor of the annual conference, which is now in its eighth year.

Right Wing Watch highlighted some of the fringe extremists who’ll play prominent roles at the right-wing conference, but the key takeaway is simple: Republican leaders will join these fringe extremists as if they’re mainstream.

Looking over the list of confirmed speakers at the Values Voter Summit, we see several sitting Republican U.S. senators (Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Tim Scott, and Marco Rubio), and many more sitting Republican U.S. House members (Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma, Louie Gohmert of Texas, Jim Jordan of Ohio, Steve Scalise of Louisiana, and Scott Turner of Texas).

The list of confirmed speakers also includes House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who was on his party’s national presidential ticket less than a year ago.

And why are these guests important? Because it’s a reminder that no matter how much damage the Republican Party’s culture war does to the GOP’s reputation, they just can’t help themselves. The religious right movement may not be the powerhouse it once was — remember when the Christian Coalition was a major force in American politics? — but it still is a significant part of the GOP base, even if it helps drive mainstream voters away.

Indeed, for Republicans eyeing national office, this has become something of a rite of passage — if you want to compete for the GOP’s presidential nomination, you’ll have to suck up to the party’s theocratic wing.

A group of longtime Christian conservative activists are holding a private meeting Thursday in Washington to hear informal presentations from two of the most talked-about potential Republican presidential candidates: Senators Ted Cruz of Texas, and Rand Paul of Kentucky.

The gathering is being held in conjunction with the Family Research Council’s Values Voters conference, an annual gathering of Christian conservatives in Washington, but it is not an official part of that event. Rather, it is being staged by a loosely-organized group of Republican leaders that call themselves “Conservatives of Faith.”

The hosts include Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council, the former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, the conservative talk show host Janet Parshall and Richard Viguerie, the direct mail pioneer, along with a handful of others from the conservative movement. [Robert Fischer, a South Dakota-based conservative organizer] is the group’s chief organizer.

Meet the new Republican Party. When it comes to social conservatism, it’s entirely indistinguishable from the old Republican Party.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, October 11, 2013

October 12, 2013 Posted by | GOP, Republicans | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Engine Of American Inequality”: The Consequences Of A Free Wheeling, Unchecked Financial Industry

The past three decades have been a period of explosive growth for Wall Street and the financial industry. Meanwhile, a tiny slice of the population has claimed an ever-bigger share of this country’s economic rewards. The highest-earning one percent of Americans collected roughly 20 percent of total income last year; the top .01 percent not enough people to fill a football stadiumhad 5.5 percent of the income.

Could there be a connection here? Could our booming financial sector, which now generates an astonishing 30 percent of all corporate profits (more than double the figure of thirty years ago), help explain America’s rapid ascent to the highest level of economic inequality since the eve of the Great Depression, and the highest of any of the world’s rich nations? A growing number of economists and other authorities think the first trend may have more than a little something to do with the second.

The economic and political establishments long ago settled on a theory of rising inequality: technology and globalization, they told us, were carving a rift through the American labor force between those with and without the right kind of education and know-how. This idea was criticized from the start for ignoring a formidable corporate campaign to rewrite the rules of the U.S. economy at workers’ expense, and over time it has increasingly failed to account for the reality of who is getting ahead and who is falling behind.

In his 1991 book “The Work of Nations,” former (then future) Labor Secretary Robert Reich embraced a version of the “skills-gap” story. But in his recent film “Inequality for All,” Reich has more to say about discrepancies of power than of skill.

The longer this trend continues, in fact, the more it resembles the Occupy Movement’s picture of a soaring 1 percent and a lagging 99 percent. Out of every dollar of income growth between 1976 and 2007, the richest one percent of U.S. households collected 58 cents; and after taking a big hit in the financial crisis, they were soon back on track, capturing an extraordinary 95 percent of all the income gains between 2009 and 2012. To put it more plainly, since the beginning of the current economic “recovery,” the top 1 percent (who make upwards of $400,000 a year in household income) are pretty much the only ones who have recovered.

Within that small subset of Americans, executives, traders, fund managers and others associated with the financial sector loom large, comprising about a seventh of the one-percenters and accounting for about one fourth of their income gains over the past thirty-plus years. That’s not counting the many lawyers and consultants with financial sector clientele, or the growing number of executives of nonfinancial companies who seem to make most of their money these days through stock options and short-term financial plays. Together, corporate executives and financial sector employees account for well over half the post-1980 income growth of the top 1 percent and more than two-thirds of the even more remarkable gains of the top 0.1 percent.

Pinpointing the causes of an economic trend is a hard business. But there is global as well as historical evidence for a link between financial sector expansion and rising inequality. Studies of rich and relatively poor nations alike suggest that inequality goes up when societies tie their fortunes to a free-wheeling financial industry and the easy flow of global capital. There is also substantial research to suggest that much of the financial sector’s recent growth has come by extracting wealth from other areas of the economy, not by spurring innovation and opportunity for the society at large.

Several recent studies trace the industry’s pay-and-profit surge mostly to its success in the political and regulatory arenas. See, for example, this paper by Thomas Philippon and Ariell Reshef of New York University and the University of Virginia, who attribute between 30 and 50 percent of the financial sector’s recent gains to economic “rents.” That’s basically a polite way of describing the ability of many of today’s financial heavyweights to use their market clout, their inside knowledge and various explicit and implicit taxpayer subsidies to make money out of thin air.

Banking and finance were not always a road to fabulous riches in this country. As recently as the early 1980s – and throughout much of the 20th century – there was almost no pay differential between financial and non-financial professionals. Today, by contrast, financial workers make about 1.83 times as much as other white-collar workers. You’d have to go back to the Roaring Twenties, at the tail end of America’s original Gilded Age, to find another period when financial sector incomes and profits reached such conspicuous heights. That should tell us something.

In any case, these are pivotal questions for the country – and unavoidable questions for those seeking a path toward what President Obama has been calling a “middle-out” rather than a top-down economy. Broad prosperity, the president says, calls for greater public investment in education, infrastructure and other long-term needs, and for higher taxes on the wealthy to help pay for such things. That may be a worthy agenda. It has certainly proved to be a politically difficult agenda. But in a country that has let its financial sector become an engine of inequality, more will be required.

If we believe in our founding ideal of America as a land where children should start off on roughly the same footing regardless of history or ancestry, we will all have to screw up our courage and refocus on (among other challenges) the unfinished work of making sure we have a financial economy that serves the real economy, not the other way around.

 

By: Jim Lardner, U. S. News and World Report, October 11, 2013

October 12, 2013 Posted by | Economic Inequality, Financial Institutions, Wall Street | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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