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“Are ‘Death Panels’ Coming To Scott Walker’s Wisconsin?”: A Scheme To Make Middle-Class Workers Pay Even More For Health Care

Scott Walker could be on the verge of giving Infowars some great conspiracy theory fodder. A move by Wisconsin’s Group Insurance Board to substantially increase how much state employees pay for their health insurance is drawing unqualified and sharp opposition from labor leaders but could once have drawn criticism from Sarah Palin, as well. That’s because the proposal includes “consultations about end-of-life care, which some called ‘death panels,’” as the Wisconsin State Journal put it.

Death panels?! In the great Badger State? Putting Badger Staters to death? How could this be? One may have asked, as some on the right did during the debate over the Affordable Care Act. But here we are, with the Wisconsin state government overseeing what’s set to be the controversy-free implementation of new policies designed to save the state money through its employees’ end-of-life decisions.

Quick background: The Wisconsin state government is having some tough fiscal times, and Walker’s budget proposal suggested substantial cuts in a number of areas, including to the University of Wisconsin system and to K-12 education. The governor’s budget proposal also called for savings of $81 million on the state employees’ group health insurance program. (Remember that in 2011 the governor oversaw the passage of Act 10, which virtually ended collective bargaining for most of the state’s public sector unions.) But the budget wasn’t too specific about how to save that $81 million. Instead, Walker’s proposal directed the state’s Group Insurance Board to work with Atlanta-based Segal Consulting to figure it out.

The most buzzed-about change, the Wisconsin State Journal reported, will require public sector employees to pay twice as much out of pocket for their health care than they do now. These changes are projected to save the state $85 million over the next two years (Wisconsin passes budgets biennially), and most of the savings “will come from increasing out-of-pocket limits and introducing deductibles for the vast majority of state workers who don’t have them,” according to the paper. Individual employees will have new $250 deductibles, and family deductibles will be $500.

The Group Insurance Board voted for the changes on May 19, and unless the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee moves to require legislative approval for the changes, they will go into effect Jan. 1, 2016, according to Mark Lamkins, communications director for the state’s Department of Employee Trust Funds. The board that approved the changes has 11 members, some of whom are Walker appointees. The majority of the Walker appointees on the board voted in favor.

And the change has labor leaders irate.

“What the group insurance board did today is unconscionable,” said Wisconsin AFSCME executive Marty Beil, according to THOnline. “I’d also call it evil that they’re treating state employees at that level. It’s incredible.”

But Walker’s critics on the left aren’t just going after him for increasing public sector employees’ expenditures for their health care. They’ve also targeted him for a tiny provision the board approved that seeks to save a bit of money through end-of-life care. The memo laying out the cost-cutting health-care proposal doesn’t detail how these changes would work, and the State Journal reported that “[e]nd-of-life care consultations, also called advanced care planning or palliative care, would save $292,500.” That’s hardly a hefty sum. Lamkins said the changes would involve “keeping people out of institutions near the end of life, giving them more opportunities to manage their care-treatment plan.”

He added that the change is designed “to ensure that members facing serious illness and survival of less than six months are informed of care options and are able to make treatment decisions based on their individual values and goals of care.”

Reached for comment, Laurel Patrick, a spokeswoman for the governor, pointed out that the phrase “death panels” is nowhere to be found in any of the health care change proposals. But that hasn’t defused liberal ire about the panel’s move.

That’s because Walker has been one of the most outspoken conservative opponents of the Affordable Care Act.

“When Sarah Palin was trying to derail Obamacare over ‘death panels,’ Scott Walker didn’t say a word defending the need for people to have end-of-life counseling and instead on his first day as governor wasted taxpayer dollars suing the federal government over Obamacare,” said Scot Ross, executive director of One Wisconsin Now. “But wrapped in a scheme that would make cash-strapped middle-class workers in Wisconsin pay even more for health care, Team Walker quietly slides this into the mix. The inclusion of the palliative counseling is critical, but Scott Walker would have saved families a lot of grief if he would have stood up to the Tea Party in 2010 instead of this backdoor deal now.”

Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, voiced support for Walker’s so-called death panels but said he was frustrated the governor didn’t do more to defend the Affordable Care Act.

“The right, using Sarah Palin, shamelessly tried to call simple voluntary end-of-life consultation a ‘death panel’ early in the debate over Obamacare,” he said. “There’s obviously a great irony that the Walker administration would now come forward with an end-of-life consultation provision. I still have to say that it’s good policy, most likely, it’s just incredible hypocrisy for them to come out with that after Walker has been one of the most disingenuous critics of the ACA.”

It’s doubtful, of course, that any of this will be a problem for Walker’s 2016 ambitions. Nobody ever did poorly with Iowa Republican caucus-goers because critics on the left were too noisy. But the debate highlights one of the tricky aspects of running for president as a governor: that the tiniest provisions in uncontroversial policies can easily become flashpoints for controversy.

 

By: Betsy Woodruff, The Daily Beast, May 21, 2015

May 22, 2015 Posted by | Death Panels, Public Employees, Scott Walker | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Charles Koch’s Affront To MLK”: How A Right-Wing Tycoon Got Horribly Confused

You’ve got to hand it to Charles Koch: The man doesn’t want for self-confidence. The Kochs and their allies are taking a page from Sen. Rand Paul and trying to dress up their free-market, anti-union, welfare-slashing 21st century feudalism as the answer to persistent African-American unemployment even as the economy recovers under President Obama.

Unbelievably, Koch invokes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as an ally in a stunning USA Today Op-Ed, “How to really turn the economy around,” which is essentially an argument for deregulating business, slashing welfare programs and forcing low-wage work on the poor in the name of the ennobling power of employment.

With laughable Koch paternalism, he shares life lessons from his father, Fred, an oil industry magnate and John Birch Society founder: “When I was growing up, my father had me spend my free time working at unpleasant jobs,” Koch tells us. “Most Americans understand that taking a job and sticking with it, no matter how unpleasant or low-paying, is a vital step toward the American dream.”

Not only does Koch fail to mention that he was the son of a very wealthy man when he worked those “unpleasant jobs,” he cites Dr. King as someone who agrees with him that “there are no dead end jobs.” (The Kochs, by the way, also fund “educational” groups that oppose the minimum wage.)

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper,” Koch quotes King, “he should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’”

This from a man who himself joined the John Birch Society in the mid-1960s, while it was targeting King as a “communist.”

Koch is right about one thing: King was indeed a great admirer of street sweepers. In fact, he was murdered visiting Memphis to fight for the right of city sanitation workers to join a union. Invoking King on behalf of his low-wage, union-busting, anti-minimum wage agenda is despicable, but Koch apparently thinks his money can buy him anything, including the right to claim King’s legacy.

He’s wrong. King died, by the way, while supporting AFSCME, the union representing the Memphis sanitation workers. AFSCME honored Dr. King by making the painful yet correct decision to end a partnership with the United Negro College Fund after UNCF accepted $25 million from the Kochs to establish a “Koch Scholars” program for black students. UNCF head Dr. Michael Lomax also dignified the annual Koch Summit, which plots its right-wing, free-market strategy, in June, alongside Republican senators and right-wing think tankers.

Along with their UNCF donation, which the Kochs widely publicized, Charles Koch’s Op-Ed represents a new front in their public relations battle. Neither their billions in wealth nor their trademark political stealth have served to insulate them from criticism and scorn. When asked about the Koch brothers, a recent George Washington University poll found that most people surveyed hadn’t heard of them, but 25 percent had negative feelings vs. 13 percent who had positive feelings. That’s bad news for a duo who have tried to keep their political activities undercover.

They apparently believe that funding African-American Koch scholars and invoking Dr. King can convince black voters they’re not the enemy. But quoting King on the dignity of street sweepers while forgetting – or never knowing – that he died while fighting for their right to unionize is at best boneheaded, at worst disrespectful. It won’t convince many Koch doubters.

Charles Koch’s billions can’t buy King’s legacy or King’s blessing for his radical far-right agenda, which opposes everything King stood for. But he probably can afford better ghostwriters.

 

By: Joan Walsh, Editor in Chief, Salon, August 7, 2014

August 8, 2014 Posted by | Jobs, Koch Brothers, Martin Luther King Jr | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Crossing A Constitutional Line”: Will The Supreme Court Let Florida Drug-Test All Its Government Employees?

It might seem reasonable that Florida’s governor Rick Scott wants to ensure all state agencies are drug-free workplaces; after all, why would you want your taxpayer money going to support the habit of some stoned, slothful bureaucrat? But what is the state really asking for when it demands that each public servant pee in a cup?

When Governor Scott issued an executive order for mandatory drug testing across the state’s entire public workforce in March 2011, the political logic seemed straightforward: “the State, as an employer, has an obligation to maintain discipline, health, and safety in the workplace.” But underlying that seeming moral obligation are some questionable social assumptions. What does a positive test mean when your economic fate hinges on the result? What kind of “discipline” is maintained by subjugating bodily privacy in the name of “public safety”?

Today the Supreme Court is weighing the constitutional question the policy has evoked: When your boss is the state, can the “drug-free workplace” be a Fourth Amendment free zone?

The Supreme Court is considering whether to take up Scott v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council (AFSCME) 79, to review whether the state can legitimately administer “drug testing in the absence of reasonable suspicion of drug use,” based on the state’s interest in ensuring a drug-free workplace for 85,000 state employees and applicants for state jobs.

Scott’s Supreme Court petition attempts to revive the issue following a series of lower-court defeats. AFSCME, representing tens of thousands of public servants, filed a legal challenge in May 2011 contending that the testing violated Fourth Amendment protections from unreasonable searches, and that the state had offered no real safety-related reason for such a broad testing requirement. The union argues in its brief, “allowing the state to define its interests at such a high level of generality would create an exception that swallows the rule.”

The federal district court ruled in 2012 that the executive order was an unconstitutional violation of workers’ privacy and the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed that decision. However, while the state has since suspended the policy (and a similar statute passed by the legislature has also been halted), it has been remanded to the lower court for further litigation to rework the mandate. The administration is now trying to revamp the mandate to apply to a narrower set of jobs—mirroring existing policies targeted to safety-related positions, like corrections officers.

The Supreme Court will conference on whether to take up the case or just let the lower-court sausage-making proceed. For now, the main outcome is the Eleventh Circuit’s decision that the original order was unacceptably broad, amounting to, in the words of the court, “a drug testing policy of far greater scope than any ever sanctioned by the Supreme Court or by any of the courts of appeals.”

Labor advocates don’t necessarily object to drug test policies for certain jobs based on specific work-related safety concerns. Rather, AFSCME objects to the sweeping mandate of drug testing the whole workforce and prospective future employees, screening the bodies of school bus drivers and museum ticket vendors alike, for anything from a meth habit to an occasional joint.

In its defense of the policy, the state points out that drug testing is already common in private sector workplaces. But civil libertarians note that the state, unlike a private firm, is bound by Fourth Amendment restrictions on unreasonable government searches.

On top of its crusade for a drug-free state payroll, Florida has also sought to clean up its welfare rolls with a policy of mandatory drug testing for welfare applicants. The law, enacted by the legislature in 2011, was ultimately struck down in federal court. But it also sparked a national outrage (and some notable satire), because it invoked the classic Reaganite trope of public aid recipients as undeserving miscreants looking to “game the system.” The stereotype has historically been reflected in the image of black “welfare queen,” or more recently, in the underworked, overpaid state bureaucrat. Nationwide, lawmakers have glommed onto this convenient political logic of drug-screening people involved with public assistance programs, with recent proposals for mandatory testing in Texas, Pennsylvania, Washington and other states.

Whether the urinalysis dragnet targets people seeking government support or those delivering public services, the presumptions underlying mandatory testing feed into the oppressive stigma of being tied to the public system, which in turn stokes public mistrust and backlash against government itself.

Shalini Goel Agarwal, an ACLU of Florida attorney who is working on the case, says that for welfare recipients, blanket drug-testing reflects “an assumption that if they’re relying on public benefits, must be because those folks are at fault in some way, it’s because they’re using drugs…. The facts don’t seem to bear out the stereotype, but there is this kind of villainization that’s going on.”

But despite Scott’s arbitrary drug-test mandate, Agarwal says, “The Fourth Amendment applies just as surely to poor people and just as surely to state employees as it does to anybody else.”

Historically, drug testing in both public and private workplaces has been controversial, not only because of its physical intrusiveness, but because it is often just inaccurate. Civil liberties groups point out the risk of botched results and false positives. Moreover, arbitrary surveillance of workers’ behavior through invasive tests can have a toxic impact on the workplace social environment.

In some cases, the data debunks the political rhetoric it was supposed to bolster. Advocates cite research data on welfare applicants suggesting that impoverished people actually live pretty clean: only about 2.5 percent of the applicants tested had positive results, compared to a rate of about 9 percent for the general population. Similarly, testing of employees and applicants at the state Departments of Transportation, Juvenile Justice, and Corrections showed positive results ranging from less than one percent to about 2.5 percent.

But whatever the data say, labor advocates argue that the state has crossed a constitutional line in both privacy and labor rights in its workplaces.

Many of the legal challenges to drug-test policies, Agarwal notes, have been led by unions, because “individual employees are scared to come forward, they’re scared for their own job security, they’re scared what’s going to happen to them and their families, and so they don’t come forward. And the only way effectively to get at this issue and to challenge the employers head on is to do it through the union.”

While labor has effectively resisted Florida’s effort to track drug use in its workforce, the draconian testing policy has exposed the government’s problem with data abuse. The behavioral policing of workers and the poor tells us little about their social values, but reveals much about how supposed “public safety” interests at the center of power can become a tool for invading bodily privacy at the social margins.

 

By: Michelle Chen, The Nation, April 18, 2014

April 21, 2014 Posted by | Constitution, Rick Scott | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

   

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