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“So Much For Reform”: The Only Winners In The Farm Bill Are Farmers And Big Insurance

Late Monday, House and Senate negotiators finalized a bipartisan compromise on the five-year farm bill, a warm-and-fuzzy-sounding Frankenstein-like amalgamation of crop subsidies, food stamps, and various handouts to industries loosely related to agriculture. The 949-page House-Senate compromise, two years in the making, will likely go up for a House vote on Wednesday and a Senate vote next week.

“We’ve got a bill that makes sense, works for farmers and ranchers and consumers and families that need help, and protects our land and water and our wildlife,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, tells Reuters.

Stabenow may be correct that the farm bill will make it to President Obama’s desk — “it’s expected to sail through the House and Senate in the coming days — mostly because lawmakers want to get it over with already,” says The Washington Post‘s Ed O’Keefe. But it’s not exactly great for farmers and families that need help or other consumers.

The bill cuts spending by about $23 billion versus current funding levels, with more than $8 billion of that coming from cuts to food stamps, formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). It amounts to roughly a $90-a-month cut to 850,000 households. That’s far less than the $40 billion in SNAP cuts in the House version, but roughly twice the reduction in the Senate bill.

Another $6 billion comes from combining 23 conservation programs into 13. Other programs being cut include the “Red Meat Safety Research Center.” But the biggest supposed saving — $19 billion — is from ending direct payments to farmers (and some landowners who don’t actually farm), which cost taxpayers about $5 billion a year.

So that sounds like shared sacrifice, right? Not exactly. Most of the money from the direct payments is being shifted to subsidized crop insurance programs. “It’s a classic bait-and-switch proposal to protect farm subsidies,” Vincent H. Smith, a professor of farm economics at Montana State University, tells The New York Times. “They’ve eliminated the politically toxic direct payments program and added the money to a program that will provide farmers with even larger subsidies.”

On the other hand, the farm lobby is lining up behind the package. “The bill is a compromise,” says Ray Gaesser, president of the American Soybean Association. “It ensures the continued success of American agriculture, and we encourage both the House and the Senate to pass it quickly.” The American Farm Bureau Association — the big muscle of the farm lobby, employing 52 Washington lobbyistsurged quick passage of the bill.

The House and Senate conferees also loosened limits on how much individual farmers can receive in subsidies and loans in a given year, to $125,000 per person from $50,000 in the earlier bills. “If what we’ve heard proves true, the deal will result in virtually unlimited farm program payments continuing to inure to the nation’s largest and wealthiest mega-farms,” says Traci Bruckner at Nebraska’s Center for Rural Affairs.

@ChadPergram : Club for Growth on farm bill: It’s a “Christmas Tree” bill where there’s a gift for practically every special interest group out there..

For an in-depth look a the politics of the farm bill, read Molly Ball’s excellent article at The Atlantic. Her thesis is that the big losers here are Republicans, since rural Red State GOP stalwarts are feeling betrayed by the intra-party fighting over the bill between the “more urban, libertarian, ideological strain” of the party represented by the Tea Party and the traditional faction that represents rural and farming interests. But it’s also pretty clear who the winners are: Farmers and insurance companies.

When America’s programs of crop subsidies began during the Great Depression, more than 20 percent of employed workers made their living on farms, earning a third of what Americans pulled in for non-farm work, Ball notes. Now, farmers make up only two percent of the U.S. workforce, and farming households earned $84,400 on average in 2010, 25 percent higher than the national average.

“Farm subsidies are welfare for the well-to-do,” argued the Cato Institute’s Tad DeHaven and Chris Edwards at The Hill. Farmers booked record profits in 2012, despite severe droughts, thanks largely to federally supported crop insurance. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), taxpayers pick up 62 percent of the average farmer’s crop insurance premiums. And the feds pay insurers directly, too, to the tune of $1.3 billion a year.

“In 2012, the Corn Belt’s unprecedented drought led to an insurance payout of $18 billion in crop indemnities — $14 billion of it taxpayer-funded,” Ball adds. “The insurance companies, in what should have been a terrible year for them, made a profit.” This has created a strange coalition that includes Cato and the conservative Heritage Foundation plus liberal groups like the EGW. They disagree on food stamps, she says, but “left and right alike charge that programs billed as a safety net to protect farmers from the vicissitudes of nature are instead an increasingly cushy hammock.”

The outlook is mixed for consumers. Efforts to stabilize or boost prices for farmers isn’t great for shoppers in the short run — a program to limit sugar imports and domestic production is designed to keep sugar prices artificially high. But new rules will force meat packagers to say where the animal was raised and slaughtered, a boon to label-watchers.

And in the long run, as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the Farm Bureau’s annual meeting last week, the one percent of Americans who grow the nation’s food supply “ought to be celebrated.” Their toil lets the rest of the country pursue other work, he said. “The country ought to be reminded of it, and every farmer in this country should be valued, appreciated, and thanked.”

I like farmers and am glad when rural America gets the tools it needs to survive. But the Farm Bureau and other members of the farm lobby appears to have gotten their money’s worth in this Congress. On the other hand, it’s called the farm bill — so it’s not exactly a breach of truth in advertising.

 

By: Peter Weber, The Week, January 28, 2014

February 2, 2014 Posted by | Agriculture, SNAP | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Exploiting Consumers”: Republican Obamacare “Fix” Is Junk, Just Like The Junk Insurance Plans It Protects

In an effort to cynically score political points, the Republicans have taken up the cause of people who have received health insurance “cancellation” notices. The problem is that the Republicans aren’t helping these people, they are exploiting them. They’re peddling a “fix” that will stick consumers with lousy insurance policies, put the insurance companies back in charge of our health care and deceive people who deserve a straight answer about what’s going on with their health coverage.

If you’re one of the people who received a notice, it’s unsettling and confusing to say the least — and you don’t need a political party to play politics with your life. You need to know the truth and learn the available options.

People are receiving cancellation notices because they were sold health insurance policies that provide bare-bones coverage and expose them to financial ruin if they get sick or injured. Insurance companies sold these plans knowing full well that consumers could not keep them after the Affordable Care Act (ACA) standards are fully implemented on Jan. 1. The insurance companies didn’t tell their clients that they couldn’t keep the plans they sold them, and they certainly didn’t tell them that the plans were junk. Now the Republicans want to allow the industry to continue to sell these policies for another year in the name of letting people keep the plans “they like.” This is hypocrisy and politics at its worst, not to mention terrible policy.

There are roughly 15 million Americans who buy health plans in the individual market, and they represent 5 percent of people with private insurance. About half of them got cancellation notices, which naturally leaves people anxious to find out what they’ll do next year.

Instead of passing a law allowing insurers to keep selling bad policies that provide little for their premium money, we should tell people what their coverage options are and how much better they’ll do under the ACA. Because the enrollment web site HealthCare.gov has yet to work properly, most folks don’t realize they will save money and get better insurance if they shop in the new insurance marketplaces and take advantage of generous instant tax credits that will drastically cut their premiums.

People can save a lot of money when they buy their insurance through the online marketplaces: Seventeen million people will qualify for tax credits to reduce the cost of their insurance. As many as 7 million people may have no premium costs at all. Six of 10 uninsured Americans will pay $100 or less in monthly premiums. While it sucks to get canceled, the vast majority of those folks will see that getting coverage through the ACA marketplaces is a better deal.

The GOP-led legislation is bad public policy. It will disrupt the insurance market and make things worse now and in the future. You can’t mend our broken health insurance system if millions of people can opt out of participating in it. That’s how we got into this mess in the first place.

Allowing inferior insurance plans to exist alongside quality ACA policies will destroy the economic foundation of the law — the idea that financial risk must be spread and shared — and give our health care back to the insurance companies. Nothing could be worse for the health and the pocketbooks of everyday Americans.

For example, the Republican proposal would prompt younger, healthier people to opt out of enrolling in the marketplace plans, meaning the ACA policies will cover mostly older and sicker people who are more costly to insure. As a result, marketplace premiums would spike and millions of Americans would lose out on health coverage they can afford. People would be denied insurance or charged sharply higher premiums because of their medical history. Consumers would be at the mercy of the health insurance companies. That’s not why we enacted health reform. America reformed our health insurance system so everyone could have insurance with real benefits — not benefits that are only revealed to be phony in the middle of a medical crisis. We did it based on the simple principle that we all do better when we all do better.

The Republican bill would be a disaster for consumers. As we learned during the drive to pass the ACA, junk policies cause nothing but trouble. There are millions of stories of bankruptcy filings, homes and jobs lost, college educations abandoned and dreams deferred because someone with fake insurance got sick and was overwhelmed by medical bills. We can’t go back to those days.

The GOP is using overhyped cancellation stories as a pretext to destroy the ACA, a law they have attacked with a single-minded fervor never before seen in American politics. When the Republicans’ bill, H.R. 3350, reaches the floor, it will be the House GOP’s 46th vote to repeal Obamacare.

Any fixes to the Affordable Care Act should be judged by whether they help people and improve the law. The Republican-led proposal does neither.

 

By: Ethan Rome, HCAN Blog, November 14, 2013

December 2, 2013 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Republicans | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“When In Doubt, Go Shopping”: The Affordable Care Act Puts People, Not Insurers, First

It’s pretty straightforward: A major reason we have 50 million uninsured people in the United States is that insurance companies do not see individuals as a profitable market.

The recent uproar over canceled health insurance plans not only highlights the insurance industry’s out-of-hand dismissal of this market, but also reinforces why there is a need for the new health reforms under the Affordable Care Act .

Consumers have reason to be angry but they should be angry at the insurers, not the health care law. Connecticut’s Insurance Commissioner, Thomas B. Leonardi, announced Monday that of the approximate 27,000 insurance policy cancellation notices which have gone out only 9,000 of them were because plans were not in compliance with the health care law. The new law forbids insurers to deny or drop coverage when people get sick or have a pre-existing condition such as hypertension, diabetes or obesity. Consumers will gain those protections in 2014 whether they buy through the insurance exchange called Access Health CT or on their own.

Mr. Leonardi’s comments highlight the fact that it has been a customary practice of insurers to send their policyholders notifications that a particular plan will no longer be available or there’s been a change in benefits. Only one-third of the policies being canceled in Connecticut were plans that did not have protection under the law’s grandfather clause and did not meet the benefit standards or the consumer protections required by the law. The other two-thirds were discontinued as part of the insurance companies’ business-as-usual practices.

Historically, the health insurance industry has made its fortune by denying coverage to sick people, decreasing benefits and jacking up prices. Insurers do not see the individual market as profitable unless they continue to shift risk onto consumers through high deductible plans and unless they can raise rates on their customers as they age and develop health problems to the point they can no longer afford health insurance. That’s why they’re getting out. The Affordable Care Act is stopping this bait and switch approach.

Understandably, the cancellation notices came as a jolt for policyholders, especially because the reasons behind them were not made clear. Furthermore, insurers failed to do the right thing and inform their policyholders that other coverage options are now available to them under the new health care law.

Fortunately for consumers though, President Barack Obama‘s decision to give insurance companies another year to continue their substandard health plans carried the proviso that they must inform their customers of the new coverage opportunities under the health care law.

It’s too bad the commotion over the cancellations happened to coincide with the rocky rollout of the new health insurance exchange website. But consumers would do well to keep their eyes on the big picture, beyond the political grandstanding and partisan bickering. Websites can be fixed. Health care reform is about improving the quality of coverage benefits and offering more choice and affordability through the health insurance exchanges. That’s what Connecticut is trying to do.

Friday’s announcement by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy that the state would not extend poor quality policies through 2014 re-emphasizes Connecticut’s commitment to making sure its residents have access to plans that will provide quality comprehensive care. The state also announced that it was pushing back the date people had to sign up by for coverage that begins Jan. 1. Now residents have until Dec. 22, giving them an additional week to weigh the options on Access Health CT, the state’s health insurance exchange, and to find a plan that fits their families’ needs.

According to Access Health CT, in the first month, more than 300,000 Connecticut consumers checked out their options on the Website, almost 40,000 calls have been answered through the call center and more than 13,000 Connecticut residents are now enrolled.

Clearly, consumers here are getting the message: When in doubt, go shopping.

 

By: Frances G. Padilla, President of Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut, Op-Ed Columnist, The Hartford Courant, November 22, 2013

November 25, 2013 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Health Insurance Companies | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Purposeful Lying”: Time To Investigate Those Health Insurance Company Letters

As a follow-up to this post, I want to talk about the thing that spawns some of these phony Obamacare victim stories: the letters that insurers are sending to people in the individual market. People all over the country are getting these letters, which say “We’re cancelling your current policy because of the new health-care law. Here’s another policy you can get for much more money.” Reporters are doing stories about these people and their terrifying letters without bothering to check what other insurance options are available to them.

There’s something fishy going on here, not just from the reporters, but from the insurance companies. It’s time somebody did a detailed investigation of these letters to find out just what they’re telling their customers. Because they could have told them, “As a result of the new health-care law, your plan, StrawberryCare, has now been changed to include more benefits. The premium is going up, just as your premium has gone up every year since forever.” But instead, they’re just eliminating those plans entirely and offering people new plans. If the woman I discussed from that NBC story is any indication, what the insurance company is offering is something much more expensive, even though they might have something cheaper available. They may be taking the opportunity to try to shunt people into higher-priced plans. It’s as though you get a letter from your car dealer saying, “That 2010 Toyota Corolla you’re leasing has been recalled. We can supply you with a Toyota Avalon for twice the price.” They’re not telling you that you can also get a 2013 Toyota Corolla for something like what you’re paying now.

I’m not sure that’s what’s happening, and it may be happening only with some insurers but not others. But with hundreds of thousands of these letters going out and frightening people into thinking they have no choice but to sign up for a much more expensive plan, it’s definitely something someone should look into. Like, say, giant news organizations with lots of money and resources.

Now, it should be said that when President Obama said during the debate over the Affordable Care Act in Congress that if you like your health coverage you can keep it, he was only half right. The reason he repeated it so many times was that he and his advisors firmly believed that one of the main reasons Bill Clinton’s health-care reform failed was that it changed things too much for too many, and people fear change. In Clinton’s plan, pretty much everybody not on Medicare or Medicaid would have had to go into a new insurance plan. That those plans might be better than what they had didn’t matter; the idea frightened people. So the Obama administration took pains to emphasize that the government would not require anyone to change their insurance. That didn’t mean they were guaranteeing that no insurance company would ever make changes to anyone’s plan, because insurance companies do that all the time. But the law wouldn’t mandate that, say, you leave Aetna and join Blue Cross.

The more complex reality is that because the law imposed new requirements on insurers for what they have to cover and what they can charge, the insurers were inevitably going to make changes to their existing plans in response. And yes, that means many people’s insurance is going to change. In most cases it will change for the better, and the effect all this is going to have on premiums is yet to be seen. But it sure looks like insurance companies are trying to make sure anyone who’s displeased aims their ire at the government, and if they can get people to buy a more expensive product along the way, they’ll be happy to do that.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, October 29, 2013

October 30, 2013 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Health Insurance Companies, Obamacare | , , , , | Leave a comment

“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

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