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“The Insurance Company Bailout That Republicans Love”: The GOP Has Found A Way To Be Even More Hypocritical Than Before

Remember when Republicans found insurance company bailouts outrageous? Good, because the Republicans don’t.

On Friday, the Obama Administration announced proposed payment rates for Medicare Advantage plans, the private insurance option within Medicare. The federal government pays insurers a fixed fee for each senior they enroll. The program’s goal is to provide seniors with more options and, ideally, foster competition that will lead to better management of care both within the traditional program and for those who get private insruance instead. But, for a long time, experts have said the federal government is actually paying the insurers too much—in other words, more than it costs to provide the same coverage through traditional Medicare.

In the late 1990s, when the program was known as “Medicare+Choice,” the Clinton Administration attempted to rectify this by reducing insurer fees. But experts subsequently found the government was still paying the plans too much, so the Obama Administration and its allies included additional Medicare Advantage cuts in the Affordable Care Act—leaving discretion over the exact rates to the Department of Health and Human Services and its actuaries. On Friday, HHS revealed its calculations for next year’s rates, based in part on projections for how health care spending for the country as a whole is changing.

The payment formula is complicated and even now, with a weekend to digest the announcement, analysts aren’t entirely sure how insurers would react and what that would mean for seniors in the plans. (As Phil Galewitz of Kaiser Health News reports, many independent experts seem to think the effects would be pretty minimal.) But insurers, who say better benefits account for whatever extra funds they get, have warned that cuts of virtually any magnitude will force insurers to offer less generous benefits, charge higher premiums, or withdraw from the program altogether—as some of them did in the late 1990s, following those cuts the Clinton Administration implemented. The insurers are lobbying the administration to use its discretion to reduce the cuts or, ideally, eliminate them altogether. If you live in Washington and have seen those ubiquitous “Seniors are Watching” advertisements on billboards and buses, you have some idea of how strongly the insurers feel about this.

But insurers aren’t the only ones making a fuss. Republicans are too—and they have been for a while. As you may recall, Republicans pounced on the new Medicare Advantage cuts as proof that Obamacare was bad for seniors—in the 2010 midterms and then, again, in the 2012 presidential election. It was pure political gold, since seniors (particularly white seniors) were among those most skeptical of Obama and his health care law in the first place. Of course, House Republicans voted for the very same cuts when Paul Ryan’s budgets had them. But that didn’t stop Republicans from attacking the cuts then—and it’s not stopping them now. “ObamaCare has already caused millions to lose the healthcare plans they liked, and now it is directly harming seniors who rely on the care they have through Medicare Advantage,” Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader, said on Friday. “Our nation’s grandparents should not have to wake up tomorrow worried they no longer can access the care they want because of Obamacare.”

With this latest salvo, however, Republicans have actually found a way to be more hypocritical than before. For the last few weeks, Republicans and their allies have been in high dudgeon about Obamacare’s so-called risk corridor program, in which the federal government will subsidize insurers that take heavy losses for the next three years. Republicans and their allies have decried risk corridors as a “taxpayer bailout” of the insurers. But the policy justification for risk corridors is straightforward and, even to some conservatives, incontrovertible: They will ease the transition to a newly regulated insurance market, so that it’s possible to provide universal coverage through a system of private plans. And unlike the additional Medicare Advantage payments, the risk corridor program might actually end up being a net boon to the taxpayers, since the government also shares in unexpected insurer gains. (The Congressional Budget Office has actually predicted as much, though, as with many such projections, there’s a lot of uncertainty there.)

Maybe Republicans think that’s insufficient reason to pay the Obamacare insurers money—fine. But then how can they simultaneously insist government keep paying higher fees to Medicare insurers, given the case for them is a lot more dubious?

Congressional Democrats haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory over this issue. New York Senator Charles Schumer was among the Democrats who signed a bipartisan letter to HHS, urging the administration not to harm beneficiaries with payment reductions, though the senators stopped short of calling for outright reversal of the cuts. But the current Republican position makes no sense whatsoever, unless the GOP’s real priorities are (a) opposing anything the Obama Administration supports (b) sucking money away from the traditional, government-run Medicare program (c) stopping programs and spending that benefits the non-elderly uninsured. Readers can decide for themselves which of those explanations make the most sense—or whether, perhaps, it’s all of the above.

 

By: Jonathan Cohn, The New Republic, Fenbruary 24, 2014

February 25, 2014 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Medicare, Republicans | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Contrary To Popular Belief”: In Real Life, Higher Minimum Wage Doesn’t Kill Jobs

Economists and government officials endlessly speculate on the impact of raising the $7.25 federal minimum wage.

Most recently, a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said that raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour might cut employment by 500,000 workers. That is balanced by the projection that higher pay could also boost about 900,000 people out of poverty.

But some places in the U.S. already have real-life experience with raising their minimum wage.

Washington state, for example, has the nation’s highest rate, $9.32 an hour. Despite dire predictions that increases would cripple job growth and boost unemployment, this isn’t what happened.

At 6.6 percent, the unemployment rate in December was a click below the U.S. average, 6.7 percent, and the state’s job creation is sturdy, 16th in the nation, according to a report by Stateline, the news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

In Seattle, where metropolitan-area unemployment is 5.3 percent, that $9.32 sounds so yesterday. The mayor and city council are practically in a race to see who can move faster and with more gusto to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Safe bet: They will make a move by summer. Seattle could then surpass San Francisco, another city that fancies its role as a laboratory. The City by the Bay’s minimum wage is the highest (not counting airport workers), at $10.74 an hour, and officials are discussing a new rate of about $15.

While Seattle and San Francisco are unrepresentative of the nation, they have helped pressure their states to raise their minimum wages. Fifteen years ago, Washington voters approved an initiative giving the lowest-paid workers a raise almost every year, with increases now tied to inflation. Those increases produced the highest U.S. rate, although California could lap that in 2016 when it hits $10 an hour. Washington governor Jay Inslee and Democratic legislators have been pushing to raise the statewide amount to almost $11 or $12 an hour, but that now seems unlikely this year.

Critics of the voter-approved increase in Washington said it would harm the economy and cause businesses to flee to lower-wage states, such as neighboring Idaho, where the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. That didn’t happen, as the experience of Washington counties bordering Idaho show.

At the Olive Garden in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, the spaghetti and meatballs are about $1.70 cheaper than at the Olive Garden about a half-hour away in Spokane, Washington. That may be explained by Idaho’s lower minimum wage, taxes, land costs or something else. A restaurant spokeswoman would only cite vague costs of products and of doing business in various locations. Whatever it is hasn’t stopped Olive Garden from operating two restaurants in the Spokane area.

Bruce Beckett, government affairs director of the Washington Restaurant Association, said he wasn’t aware of any restaurants bailing out of Spokane for Idaho. He said he had heard anecdotes about local restaurateurs buying cheaper supplies in Idaho — fairly small potatoes.

Two bakeries moved across the border a few years ago, said Robin Toth of Greater Spokane Incorporated, a Chamber of Commerce and economic-development organization, but she said those businesses cited Washington’s taxes, not its higher minimum wage, as the reason for doing so.

Yes, but what about businesses that can be based anywhere?

The Spokane chamber group had heard of one telemarketing company that had considered an operation in Spokane, then chose El Paso, Texas, instead. The company mentioned the higher minimum wage.

To be fair, it is difficult to measure what didn’t happen: the businesses that didn’t locate in the state, the job growth that vanished, the young people who missed opportunities. There is fear that adults are taking some jobs from teenagers. The state teenage unemployment rate is about 30.6 percent, compared with a national figure of 22.9 percent.

But over the years, states have raised the minimum wage above the federal level without major harm.

A study at the University of California at Berkeley compared hundreds of pairs of adjacent counties in states with differing minimum-wage rates and concluded that a higher minimum wage didn’t significantly affect employment.

“We found in these cross-border comparisons that employment did not decline on the higher wage side of the border,’’ said Michael Reich, one of three authors.

The research found that employers in places in the U.S. where the minimum wage was higher, as in eastern Washington, had an easier time recruiting and retaining workers, said Reich, who directs Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment.

“As a result, they saved on hiring and turnover costs, as well as the costs of not being able to fill all their vacancies,” he said. “Increased labor supply, together with small price increases in restaurants, could explain why we did not find employment moving to lower wage areas, such as in western Idaho.’’

Minimum-wage workers are younger, often single, perhaps working two jobs in leisure, hospitality, food preparation and serving. A single individual working full time and being paid Washington’s minimum wage earns more than the federal poverty level.

That changes if the earner is supporting a family. Maybe Seattle’s ascent into $15 territory — along with a few other cities — will eventually give Washington and other states the political will to follow this path. There is little real-life evidence to discourage them.

 

By: Joni Balter, The National Memo, February 24, 2014

February 25, 2014 Posted by | Jobs, Minimum Wage | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“GOP’s ‘Damaged-Goods’ Primary”: Why Christie And Walker Are Staring Each Other Down

You’ve got to hand it to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker: He’s enduring his current political troubles defiantly, even going on the offensive this weekend by tweaking New Jersey’s embattled Gov. Chris Christie over Bridgegate. Christie’s troubles are “just beginning,” Walker slyly told reporters at a Republican Governors Association event this weekend, while his own, he claims, are behind him. “A Democrat district attorney looked at it and he’s done. It’s done.” Christie, by contrast, has “ the legislature which is not on his side politically, and they’ll probably drag it out for some time.”

In other words: Scott Walker to big GOP establishment donors: “I’m your guy!”

Typically, though, Walker took his claims a little too far: While one investigation into campaign law violations is closed – after six Walker aides and associates were convicted – another is ongoing. And Walker made a big mistake when he tried to feed his “it’s old news” line about his troubles to Fox News’ Chris Wallace. Wallace shot back: “Because of this dump of 25,000 documents, it’s new news to a lot of the people in the state and it’s been big news in local papers in Wisconsin.” (It was actually 27,000 documents, and they showed, among other things, that Walker’s aides set up a secret email system so campaign workers and Walker’s county employees could coordinate their work.)

Then Wallace set to grilling Walker about details, but it turns out Walker doesn’t do details:

WALLACE: In one email that was released this week, your then chief of staff Thomas Nardelli, let’s put this up on the screen, writes campaign and county workers that you wanted to hold daily conference calls, “to review events of the day or of a previous or future day so we can better coordinate sound timely responses,” and in another e-mail county administrative director Cynthia Archer suggests that colleagues should use a private e-mail account. “I use this private account quite a bit to communicate with SKW,” that’s you, “and Nardelli, the former chief of staff.” Question: if county workers were doing nothing wrong, why should they be using a private e-mail account?

WALKER: Well, but that’s exactly to my point. You had a Democratic district attorney spend almost three years looking at every single one of those communications, interviewing people, talking to people and closed the case.

WALLACE: Did you have your own private e-mail account?

WALKER: It’s one of those where I point out district attorney has reviewed every single one of these issues.

WALLACE: But sir, you’re not answering my question.

WALKER: No, because I’m not going to get into 27,000 different pieces of information.

Maybe Walker can be forgiven for thinking his deflection would be accepted in the friendly confines of Fox, but his dodges were so artless they offended Wallace. Beltway pundits may have declared Walker’s troubles a “snooze,” but Chris Wallace wasn’t snoozing on Sunday.

Still, Walker had a better weekend than his 2016 rival Chris Christie. Although the New Jersey governor has ignored the suggestion that he step down as chair of the Republican Governors Association until his bridge troubles are resolved, he kept an unusually low profile as the nation’s governors gathered in Washington this weekend. He only appeared at a couple of official events, seeming “uncharacteristically quite and reserved,” according to Time magazine, and he ditched the media the whole weekend, as he has since his two-hour pity party/press conference over a month ago.

Christie didn’t attend either Sunday night’s White House dinner or Monday’s meeting with the president. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was slated to lead the Republican delegation visiting Obama as well as the closing press conference. Jindal’s own 2016 hopes have been dashed by his unpopularity in Louisiana, but maybe that’s a sign of Bobbymentum.

So far I’d have to say that Walker is surviving his scandal with more aplomb than Christie, but it’s not over. That other John Doe investigation, into whether Walker’s recall campaign illegally coordinated with outside right-wing groups that flooded the state with money, continues. Reporters and Democratic operatives continue to delve into those 27,000 documents released last week. Walker is brazenly asserting that voters have no right to know more about his staff’s secret email system or other oddities in the new emails, including the racism of his top aides. He seems to think that “unindicted” is the same as “unscathed.” But most people have higher standards than that for their governor and their president.

When even Fox News doesn’t accept that Walker’s troubles are “old news,” that’s bad news for Scott Walker 2016.

 

By: Joan Walsh, Editor at Large, Salon, February 24, 2014

February 25, 2014 Posted by | Chris Christie, Scott Walker | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Platinum-Level Citizenship”: Highly-Religious Christians’ Battle To Change The Very Nature Of The First Amendment

Ask a conservative Christian about the President of the United States, and you’re likely to hear that Barack Obama has been waging a “war on religion” since pretty much the moment he took office in 2009. As laughable as the assertion may be, there’s little doubt that many have come to believe it, spurred on of course by opportunistic politicians and right-wing talk show hosts whose stock in trade is the creation of fear and resentment. In response, those conservative Christians have mounted a little war of their own, fought in the courts and state legislatures. The enemies include not just the Obama administration but gay people, women who want control of their own bodies, and an evolving modern morality that has left them behind.

In the process, they have made a rather spectacular claim, though not explicitly. What they seek is nothing short of a different definition of American citizenship granted only to highly religious people, and highly religious Christians in particular. They are demanding that our laws stake out for them a kind of Citizenship Platinum, allowing them an exemption from any law or obligation they’d prefer to disregard. They would refashion the First Amendment in their image.

Last week saw a number of new developments in the effort to create this elevated status for religious people, as bills seeking to enshrine discrimination against gay couples moved forward in two states. A bill in Kansas would explicitly allow both businesses and government to discriminate against gay couples in pretty much any way they wanted. A movie theater could turn gay couples away at the door, or a paramedic could refuse to treat a gay person having a heart attack, and they’d be immune from prosecution or lawsuits. After passing the Kansas state house overwhelmingly, the bill died in the state senate, in a brief (though likely temporary) moment of sanity.

A bill in Arizona did better, passing both houses, and it now awaits Governor Jan Brewer’s signature. This one was written more broadly, without the direct focus on gay couples, but its effects would be the same. It grants to any person, organization or corporation a nearly unlimited right to assert their “sincerely held” religious beliefs as a shield against lawsuits for discrimination.

Similar bills are pending in a number of conservative states; this won’t be the last we hear of them. And the Supreme Court will soon hear the case of Hobby Lobby, the retail chain that would like to be exempt from some of the requirements of the Affordable Care Act because its owners are Christians, and therefore they should be able to select the provisions they’ll abide by and not bother with those they find religiously objectionable.

The implications couldn’t be clearer. Let’s consider the put-upon Christian florists of Arizona, who might be subjected to the unspeakable horror of taking a gay couple’s money. What if one of those florists decided that since being born again through Christ is the one and only path to heaven, selling flowers to Jews or Muslims or Catholics would violate his deeply felt religious beliefs? Would he then be free to put up a sign in his window saying, “We only serve Protestants here”? According to the Arizona law, he would, regardless of what that pesky Civil Rights Act says. Or what if the owner of an accounting firm decided that since his religion places men above women, all his female employees will be paid half of what he pays male employees for doing the same job? It’s his religious belief, after all.

Anyone could say that almost any belief they have springs directly from their faith and their reading of scripture, and the state would be required to abide by it. Your faith tells you not to obey laws against discrimination? Well, maybe mine tells me that paying taxes is an offense to God. And my neighbor is a biblical literalist, so when his teenage son mouthed off to him, he arranged for the boy to be stoned to death, just like the Lord instructs quite clearly in Deuteronomy 18 and Leviticus 20. Surely we can’t convict him of murder, since he was only following his sincere religious beliefs.

You might say, well, those beliefs are ridiculous. Maybe they are. And maybe I find your opinions about gay people ridiculous. But up until now, neither one of us has had to have our own liberty compromised because of what the other believed, because we defined the First Amendment’s free exercise clause through religious practice. The government can’t tell you how to worship your god, and it can’t do things that make it difficult for you to worship as you’d like.

But now, conservatives are pushing a much broader conception of religious freedom, one that extends beyond religious practice to virtually anything a religious person does. But it’s when you take your religious practices outside of your own faith, your own beliefs, and your own practice and start applying them to other people that you lose the special privileges that religion is accorded. As an old saying has it, my right to swing my fist ends precisely where your nose begins.

Any Christians who want to can believe that gay people are sinful and wicked, or that gay marriage is a terrible thing. What they can’t do is use those beliefs as a get-out-of-jail-free card that gives them permission to break the law or escape civil liability when they harm other people.

Up until now, the distinction between religious practice and the things religious people do when they enter the secular world has worked pretty well. Anti-discrimination laws don’t mean that a rabbi has to conduct a wedding for two Baptists. Religious organizations can hire only people of their own faith. But once you enter into other realms, like commerce, you have to obey the laws that govern those realms.

If we grant religious people the kind of elevated citizenship conservatives are now demanding, where the special consideration given to religious practice is extended to anything a religious person does, the results could be truly staggering. Why stop at commerce? If things like employment law and anti-discrimination laws don’t apply to religious people, what about zoning laws, or laws on domestic abuse, or laws in any other realm?

The supporters of these laws, and of Hobby Lobby, argue that religious people shouldn’t have to put aside their beliefs when they act in the secular world. “It’s alien to me that a business owner can’t reflect his faith in his business,” said one Republican Arizona legislator. But when your business puts you in contact with people who don’t share your faith, putting aside your religion is precisely what you have to do, if “reflecting” that religion means violating the law.

For many years, conservatives would argue that they didn’t really object to equal rights for gay people, they were just against “special rights.” In practice, what they meant by “special rights” were things like the right not to be fired from your job or evicted from your home because of your sexuality, rights that weren’t special at all. But today, religious conservatives are demanding truly special rights for themselves. They want one set of laws that applies to everyone else, and another set that applies only to the religious. Or more precisely, they want religious people—but no one else—to be able to pick and choose which laws apply to them, and which they’d prefer to ignore. That’s a twisted version of the liberty the First Amendment was supposed to guarantee.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prsopect, February 24, 2014

February 25, 2014 Posted by | Conservatives, Discrimination, Religion | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“No One Cares About Crazy People”: Documents Reveal Scott Walker’s Racist, Offensive Staff

A day before Republican Scott Walker was elected governor of Wisconsin, law enforcement authorities served search warrants at his office in Milwaukee (where he served as county executive), his campaign office and the houses of his top aides.

After assuming office in 2011, Walker pushed through his conservative platform, which included limiting public sector unions and implementing broad tax cuts. As Walker’s policies gained him national attention from the Republican Party, questions about his campaign were pushed to the back burner.

Until now.

On Wednesday, the first documents giving context to the investigation into Governor Walker were made public. They haven’t explicitly linked Walker to illegal activities, but they have provided a behind-the-scenes look at the offensive conduct of the governor’s staff.

Perhaps most shockingly, the documents show that Walker staffers traded emails making fun of horrific conditions at the Milwaukee County Mental Health Facility. News reports at the time showed workers there filed false claims to hide mistakes, and let a patient with a history of violence and sexual assault move around the facility unsupervised. Staffers weren’t worried this would hurt Walker in the polls, however. “[N]o one cares about crazy people,” one staffer wrote to another.

The mentally ill weren’t the only minority group used as a punchline by Walker’s aides.

Kelly Rindfleisch, Walker’s former deputy chief of staff, received an email that compared welfare recipients to dogs. The paradoxically ungrammatical email explained that dogs should be allowed to receive welfare because they are “mixed in color, unemployed, lazy, can’t speak English and have no frigging clue who the r [sic] Daddys [sic] are.” Rindfleisch responded: “That’s so hilarious and so true.”

Other top aides to Walker also shared their offensive sentiments.

Thomas Nardelli, Walker’s former chief of staff, forwarded a chain email that makes light of a “nightmare.” In the nightmare, someone wakes up to discover he is “black, Jewish, disabled, HIV positive, and gay.” The joke ends when the person in the nightmare realizes he is a Democrat — the worst affliction of those described in the email.

Ironically, Scott Walker was concerned about county employees with a “varied lifestyle.”  A doctor who was previously an underwear model received scrutiny from Walker’s administration, for example.

The doctor, who worked at the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division, had her past career as a thong model discovered after Nardelli “MySpaced” her. Nardelli wrote to Walker that it was recently discovered the doctor “has a checkered past and has done some modeling work.” Nardelli continued: “It isn’t pornographic, but it is quite suggestive (I’m told — I don’t know her name). He [sic] apparently models thongs and wasn’t forthright in sharing that with staff prior to her hire as an hourly paid MD.”

“Get rid of the MD asap,” Walker wrote back.

And finally, the emails suggest that Walker knew his staff was breaking the law during his gubernatorial campaign. An investigator for the Milwaukee County district attorney testified before a secret hearing that email evidence proves Walker knew staff members were using personal computers and a secret WiFi network, while being paid by the county.

They set up the secret network so they could work on their personal laptops to plan his campaign for governor — all while being paid by taxpayers as staffers to the county executive.

Cynthia Archer, Walker’s administration director, said in an email that she uses her “private account quite a bit to communicate with SKW [Scott Walker] and Nardelli.”

 

By: Ben Feuerherd, The National Memo, February 21, 2014

February 25, 2014 Posted by | Mental Health, Racism, Scott Walker | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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