Is There a Resistance Movement or Resistance Moment?

Bristol   I definitely don’t want to be standing at the station when the whistle blows that the train is moving out. I have to admit that I have my ears perked up at every sound to try to hear whether it’s the thundering feet of a movement or just the sharp cry of a moment.

I’m too jaded in this work to see Congressional town halls as the birthplace of the next revolution, but I don’t want to be blind to history either, and a snippet of the news like the one that follows makes me sit up straight and stand at total attention:

In fact, some of the most formidable and well-established organizing groups on the left have found themselves scrambling to track all of the local groups sprouting up through social media channels like Facebook and Slack, or in local “huddles” that grew out of the women’s marches across the country the day after the inauguration.

When the people are moving and established organizations and institutions are having to work overtime to catch up with them, that’s a very, very interesting sign. In a time of movement, it may be difficult for this kind of activity and anger to be channeled in the way that these same organizations and institutions are hoping to move the stream. It’s good news though for the 30 million lower income families taking advantage of the Affordable Care Act that there are many of the flags being waved as elected representatives slink home from the Congressional chaos are focusing on saving health care.

There are other signs too. When seasoned organizers report that they expected 200 at a meeting, and 1000 showed up, as my generation said, “you don’t need a weatherman to see which way the wind is blowing.” The Times also reported on other barometers that people were in motion:

Anti-abortion demonstrations in some cities this month were met with much larger crowds of abortion rights supporters. At a widely viewed town-hall-style meeting held by Representative Gus Bilirakis in Florida, a local Republican Party chairman who declared that the health care act set up “death panels” was shouted down by supporters of the law.

And, perhaps more interestingly, an organizer for Planned Parenthood posed the question plainly as she tries to ride this wave of momentum:

“It doesn’t work for organizations to bigfoot strategy; it’s not the way organizing happens now,” said Kelley Robinson, the deputy national organizing director for Planned Parenthood, which is fighting the defunding of its health clinics. “There are bigger ideas coming out of the grass roots than the traditional organizations.”

If she’s right, that’s a call to arms for all of us to get ready to move, because grassroots activity needs formation, planning, resources, and direction in order to win. That’s not bigfoot, that’s soft touch, listening, and work on the ground that takes a moment and helps make a movement and births new organizations and great social change.

When that whistle blows, we have to all be on the train.

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A Good Checklist for Grading an Obamacare Replacement

Greenville   In the chaotic back and forth over what may be about to happen to the Affordable Care Act, it is becoming almost impossible to follow the real issues as the bull passes our knees and rises towards our chin on all sides of the debate. We know something bad is about to happen, but we need a good checklist to measure the extent of the disaster even as we know the pain is likely to be terrible.

Harold Pollack from the University of Chicago and Timothy Jost from Washington and Lee University School of Law did all of us a favor in an op-ed in the Times by listing what they called “seven important questions that Congress must answer before repealing the Affordable Care Act.” Many of their questions are also clearly benchmarks for measuring the minimum standards for equity and justice that should be demanded by all Americans for any so-called replacement coming from Congress.

Here’s their list in brief:

1. How many millions of Americans will lose coverage? They also make the point often lost in the debate that tax credits and deductions are “nearly worthless” to lower income filers who would likely be priced out without direct subsidies.
2. Will people over 55 pay higher health premiums for the same coverage? This is a critical equity and cost issue for senior citizens with fixed incomes. The current Act limits the premium for older Americans to no more than three times that for younger citizens. Speaker Ryan has proposed going five times, which would be a budget buster for seniors.
3. Will the new plan let insurers charge women higher premiums than men while offering them less coverage? Obamacare in a critical reform banned this practice? Will the Republicans attack and penalize women for being women?
4. What other services are likely to be cut? Before Obamacare a third of the market policies did not cover addiction treatment and “nearly 20 percent lacked mental health coverage.” Will Republicans embrace the tragedy and roll this back along with other benefits?
5. Will the new plan let insurers reinstate annual or lifetime limits on coverage? Will Republicans allow a life-threatening illness to bankrupt victims and families while giving insurers a free-ride? We have to ask what insurance is for if there’s no coverage?
6. What will happen to the more than 130 million Americans with pre-existing conditions? This is huge and Congress needs to have the right answer because this was a critical reform of Obamacare and one that was popular enough that Trump even echoed its promise during the campaign.
7. How much more will those with costly illnesses or injuries have to pay in out-of-pocket costs? Costs are now capped at $7150 for individuals and $14,300 for families, and that’s way too much. Current Republican proposals thus far offer no cap to either deductibles, which are already leaving lower income workers outside of coverage in healthcare and service jobs, or cost sharing. You could drive a truck over people unless this loophole is closed.

This list of questions is really only the starting point, but any replacement at the least needs to answer these questions correctly to even pretend to be called a national healthcare protection plan. Keep them handy to grade the outcome in the common debate.

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Doctors Can’t Be Trusted About Healthcare

Cancun   Of all of the bad nominations coming our way, the notion of Georgia Congressman Tom Price running the Health and Human Services has the most impact on millions of people because of the impact of his virulent opposition to the Affordable Care Act and the jeopardy it places not only on 30 million beneficiaries there, but also on millions more because of additional threats to Medicare for the elderly and cutbacks in Medicaid for the poor generally. Some hold out a sliver of hope because Price keeps saying that he’s a doctor, and he wants that to mean something along the lines that he cares about peoples’ health. He’s taken the Hippocratic Oath, so he’ll “do no harm.”

James Surowiecki points out in the current New Yorker, that in fact the record of doctors and the American Medical Association has been to oppose virtually every governmental medical program providing health security for Americans for a century now. Doctors organized to oppose universal health care when it came to the ballot in California in 1917 during the First World War, claiming it was a “dangerous device imported from Germany.” The AMA in the 30’s opposed pre-paid medical groups where customers paid a flat fee in exchange for care and was fined for anti-trust violations. The AMA campaigned against the creation of Medicare, and hired Ronald Reagan to go on the air and warn us about so-called “socialized medicine.” The AMA was in the thick of the fight to oppose the Clinton health plan during his first term and only supported Obamacare after the so-called “public option” was off the table.

Ten thousand doctors have already organized in opposition to Price and his plan to scuttle the Affordable Care Act, and though the AMA has endorsed his nomination as a former member of their delegate board and a long-time friend in Congress, there is a schism mounting within the AMA over its stand as harmful to patients. Most hospital associations have been silent over Price’s nomination, but have come out strongly in opposition to the plans to end Obamacare as catastrophic in terms of patient care, hospital closings, job loss, and economic ruin within the healthcare industry. Nurses’ unions have been pretty unanimous in opposing the end of Obamacare.

Price is likely to hide behind the public’s assumption that as a doctor he’s an expert on healthcare. Reading Michael Lewis’ new book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, might take away any notion that doctors should be seen as our modern day priests. Experiments conducted under the influence of work by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky found that fairly simply algorithms outperformed doctors in making diagnoses of many medical conditions, largely because of the unchecked biases of doctors for the way they are used to seeing and working. That’s scary, but true.

And, as Surowiecki points out repeatedly, the AMA is little more than a very effective special interest group, a closed shop union for doctors, if you will, and their own reports indicate repeatedly that their primary purpose is protecting the income security of doctors. Putting money in doctors’ pockets should never be confused with providing basic healthcare for Americans. We don’t need an algorithm to know the facts about that.

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Sorting out Obamacare Problems Now

obamacare-premium-mapAmersfoort   To the degree that the final version of the Affordable Care Act was neither fish nor fowl and represented a compromise between those that hated the entire concept and those that were trying to make the best of whatever slices of the original loaf were left, we all knew that problems were inevitable. Over the last five years we have been treated to regular and confusing reports from the battlefront, but nothing that ever fixes any problems, some of which are normal and predictable in a huge, new program. Without progress many fall out of love with Obamacare, even as more than ten million have enrolled with huge positive health impacts. Now consensus is building that any new president will have to fix the plan in the coming year, though no one seems sure about the fix or how to come to agreement on a cure.

What to do?

Some notions are almost simple-minded. One I saw said the quick fix was essentially a minor tune-up. Raise the amount of the subsidies for lower income families so that they can absorb the higher premium costs, and raise the level of the penalties to force more of the young and able into the program.

I’m all for raising the level of subsidies, if there can be agreement on that from whoever emerges as the new Congress, but raising the level of penalties is not a real solution to anything. The quick fix folks think that the fact that 260 million Americans or covered by healthcare on their jobs means no problems there, but that’s wrong too. Or, at least it isn’t the whole story.

Many penalty payers are not necessarily just the young and healthy, but also lower waged workers caught in so-called company coverage that ostensibly is offered, but because of the combination of premium cost and exorbitant, almost no-limit deductible charges, means that almost whatever the penalty level might be, it will still be cheaper than paying a premium of 9% of your pay and then having to pay many thousands of dollars in deductibles before you get any real benefit from the so-called insurance. This is really not medical insurance but catastrophe insurance, meaning if you know you need a major operation, maybe you pay. If not, you take your chances and pay the piper. Luckily, it’s taken out of your IRS tax refund, so you can pretend it hurts you less.

A lower waged worker caught in the service industry by these kinds of premium plus high deductible policies would need to be making more than $20 per hour for full-time 40-hour per week work to make it worth taking the insurance rather than paying the penalty. In some healthcare companies where we have contracts, like the service contractor giant ResCare for example, there are literally no takers out of more than 400 workers. I know people who are literally saving up for a CT scan because they don’t have insurance and are paying the penalty, making their health care “cash-on-the-barrel.” The quick, simple fix does nothing for any of these people and pretends that the United States is not dominated now by the service economy and its workforce.

The argument for a public option, a government-funded insurance of last resort, for these workers and others that can offer real competition and leverage to the private insurers makes sense, as Jacob Hacker, the political scientist and health care experts has argued. That’s still not single-payer or any kind of a system that takes private insurers out of the market, but the last years have already established that there’s no free enterprise in this marketplace. There are private insurances still waiting for subsides — $2 billion from the government – and there are regular folks getting subsidies and more that need them who are caught in the bind. Either the government needs to let workers and families caught by corporate insurance gimmicks that technically qualify under the Act, but are worthless in reality, come into the marketplace and get subsidies if qualified, or set up a public option that offers real coverage for this huge segment of the population.

The justice of raising penalties to catch the scofflaws doesn’t work when we still need a lot more mercy or stiff requirements on corporations to provide real insurance coverage.

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Penalties Under the Affordable Care Will Hit Lower Income Workers Hard

tax-penalties-carousel-rappler-20140416New Orleans    The good news in the narrative of Obamacare is that everyone gets covered, there are basic guarantees, and in 60% of the states more people, particularly lower income children, are covered by expanded Medicaid. Those are just the highlights, and they are lifesaving. The controversy continues for conservatives and businesses around the mandates, the fact that all businesses of a certain size are required to provide coverage. In truth, this is largely a fiction. The quieter, more painful, side of the mandates is the fact that everyone is required with some exceptions to embrace the coverage offered and available, and if not are also required to pay a penalty. The penalties were relatively trivial, but are becoming more expensive.

The fictional burden for companies has proven to be Swiss cheese, a drum I’ve admittedly been beating for several years now. Payments for monthly premiums could not be higher than a certain percentage of a worker’s gross payroll, but unlike the Massachusetts model, there were no limits on deductibles and little to none on co-pays. Nursing home chains, janitorial contractors, mental health and home care providers and untold other employers demanded and eagerly received from the insurers bare bones, narrow network plans with deductibles ranging from $4000 to $6500 along with significant increases in co-pays and of course required payment of monthly premiums.

The real cost to employers? Almost nothing in practice, because lower waged workers, making less than $15 or $20 per hour are priced out of such policies both by dollars and common sense. If a nursing home worker is making $10 per hour – and many aren’t! — and works an industry standard 35-hour week while being paid for annual labor about $18,000 in gross wages, and might be facing a $5000 deductible and to be conservative another $1000, she would be losing one-third of her income before she was able to access any benefits from the plan other than the statutory minimums. Why would she enroll in the employer’s plan if she were looking after her own economic self-interest? No reason, and in fact as Local 100  looks at the participation numbers from workers we represent, almost no one is signing except those who anticipate critical or catastrophic care situations like imminent surgery.

The math for the worker in this situation when required to pay penalties, as they are in Arkansas for example, at the 2.5% assessment would be $450. Cheaper to pay the piper than the policy. In Louisiana, Texas, and the other 18 states that did not expand Medicaid, if these workers would have been eligible, and with this income and likely family size, most of them would have been, they are exempted from paying the fine. There are other exemptions, but most are catastrophic in nature as well: homelessness, medical debt, unemployment, and worse.

Everyone is talking about inequality. Politicians, economists, and columnists on all sides of the spectrum make the point about jobs increasing but wages remaining stagnant, so the paradoxical impact of this healthcare conundrum is that the pain will worsen for lower income workers with largely frozen wages. In a ton of states not only will these workers not get raises, but they will pay in this example a fee out of their tax returns collected by the IRS.

For the nursing home worker we have used as an example, a $450 penalty under the Affordable Care Act is equal to twenty-five cents per hour in lost wages. In states throughout the South with strapped budgets and reduced reimbursements for such workers, they would need to win a 2.5% wage increase just to stay even, and without a union that’s not going to happen, and in all likelihood even with a union that’s going to be rare. Such a worker, and there will be millions of them, will wake up in 2016, 2017, and find themselves in a situation where they are in a double bind with a smaller paycheck and still no healthcare coverage thanks to the miserly offering of their employer and the loopholes that allow farcical coverage to mask as real insurance.

This is a huge problem, and it is not going to end well.

 

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Congress is the Undercard, the Real Fight for Healthcare is Still Corporate

imrs.phpNew Orleans   Recently the House of Representatives voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act for something like the 62nd time. They have now almost banned Obamacare from being funded as many times as they have barred ACORN! The more you understand about the continued tug of war behind the scene with employers, hospitals, drug companies, doctors, and insurance companies, the more you realize the political machinations on the front pages are window dressing, just part of the puppet show as the pols are pulled back and forth, up and down by the big players. Not to mix too many metaphors, but they are the weak under-card in this fight, while the heavyweights are the companies punching back and forth for advantage.

Of course we have the scandalous way that some drug companies are trying to play arbitrage with people’s health and hike the prices of rare drugs through the roof, regardless of the body count, not caring about anything other than making Wall Street happy. This situation is so grotesque that Congress may be forced to do something about it. We also have 800 pound gorilla setting on the examining table and continuing to pose the most serious problem, increasingly noticed, but left unattended, and that is the persistent problem that employers did not play fair on Obamacare and have largely squeezed through the loopholes, providing coverage in name only with deductibles, co-payments, and monthly bills all collectively so high that millions of lower waged workers are having to embrace the fines, because actual health coverage on offer is financially out of their reach and unreasonable.

A story in Modern Healthcare about the insurance companies’ tug of war was also depressing and enlightening particularly because the companies continue to play such a huge, daunting role in the exchanges, pricing, and coverage. CMS, the Obamacare administrator, is trying to nail down regulations for 2017, understanding that they need to lock as many backdoors as possible before the Obamas pack out of the White House. They proposed a rule that would require any health insurers to require all insurer networks “to include hospitals and doctors within certain travel times or distances from members. There would also be minimum provider-to-member ratios for some medical specialties. The CMS wanted to make sure consumers had access to enough healthcare providers as more insurers moved to narrow-network products.”

And, that’s when everything hit the fan. The CMS is basically trying to make sure that those who buy into care get a standard package across the country to meet their health needs. The insurers and some of their buddies in the state insurance commission offices, who are most frequently their captive audiences, in some states are crying like stuck pigs. They claim they want to tailor the networks to each state rather than have a federal cookie cutter approach, but the real deal is likely just making a deal that makes the big insurers they are used to currying happier to do business with them. Many hospitals and doctor groups line up with CMS on this one rather than being hammered even harder by the insurance bullies. According to Modern Healthcare some of them even advocate that “the CMS…go a step further and build network standards for appointment wait times.”

Meanwhile hospitals and doctors have their own issues. Doctors employed by hospitals in Oregon have even organized a union because of rough handling by the hospitals. Hospitals are being scored by CMS for service, recovery, and billing and some of the outfits that can’t make the mark are squealing about the scores rather than trying to do better on the tests. Meanwhile hospital requirements for providing affordable care to justify their tax exemptions, enjoyed by many, are still resisting and avoiding any accountability.

My best advice is to not take your eye off of the healthcare fight. It’s a long way from over yet, and any notion that we won, has been gone since the early rounds.

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Please enjoy Since You Been Gone by The Heavy.  Thanks to KABF.

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