Friday, October 16, 2015

What the NYT Doesn't Get about Health Insurance

On Tuesday, the NYT editorial board penned a piece called "How to Keep People in Health Plans" in response to a recent article about people buying insurance plans on the ACA-created exchanges during open enrollment but then later dropping out.

Here's the gist of the original article, by Abby Goodnough:
About 9.9 million people were enrolled in the federal and state marketplaces at the end of June, a drop of about 15 percent from the 11.7 million who the Obama administration said selected plans during the open enrollment period that ended in February.
Though there is no comprehensive data on why people drop or lose their marketplace coverage, enrollment counselors, health care providers and consumers say cost is a factor. In some cases, people lost jobs or their income dropped after they enrolled. Other people signed up for coverage only to decide later that they could not afford it. Still others dropped their insurance after their federal subsidies — intended to help pay premiums — were reduced or eliminated because the government could not verify their incomes or concluded that they were earning more than they had reported on their applications.
In other words, almost 2 million people are dropping their coverage because of difficulty affording it. As the article also notes, there are currently 10.5 million people uninsured--even though we so often get told that the ACA made health care a "right." 
The NYT ed board notes two other reasons for this occurrence:

(1) The fact that many Republican-controlled states have rejected the Medicaid expansion.
For the working poor, layoffs and other household changes can result in big financial setbacks, making it impossible for them to pay even modest monthly premiums. That’s why the health reform law always envisioned having expanded Medicaid coverage to help pick up the tab.

But many Republican-dominated states have refused to expand their Medicaid programs, which would cost them little or nothing through 2016 and not that much more in subsequent years. Under the A.C.A. as interpreted by the Supreme Court, states have the option of expanding Medicaid to provide largely free health care to people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line, or about $33,000 for a family of four, with the federal government paying most of the cost. However, in 20 states that have not expanded Medicaid, poor people are forced to rely on federal subsidies to help them buy private insurance; those subsidies leave many of them exposed to premiums they can’t afford when they lose their jobs or have very little income.
This opens up a clear organizing opportunity for Democrats, but--as Alexander Hertel-Fernandez and Theda Skopcol recently noted in the Democracy Journal--they haven't taken it up:
For example, after helping to push through the Affordable Care Act of 2010, the broad cross-state Health Care for America Now coalition stood down in favor of more limited campaigns to sign people up for benefits and advocate for health-care consumers. For years, the right has treated state-level decisions about building exchanges and Medicaid expansion as major political fights. But the left in general has not recognized that pressing for full health reform implementation in all states presents a huge political opportunity to strengthen citizen faith in government and to further economic and racial equality. Liberals have not pressured legislators or Democratic candidates to talk up health reform the way conservatives incessantly push their politicians to bash Obamacare and block implementation. Strikingly, SiX itself has not made it a top priority to fight for expanded Medicaid in the 20 holdout states, even though these struggles happening right now, from Georgia to Wyoming to Florida to Maine, offer an ideal opportunity to reap political as well as social rewards down the line.
There were several gubernatorial races last year which Democrats lost where they should have campaigned on this much more forcefully. 

But back to the Times...

(2) The fact that the paperwork involved is often confusing, and bureaucracies make this even worse:
One vexing problem is that many people are confused by the various notices telling them what information they need to submit to obtain subsidies. Some 423,000 people in 37 states that use the federal marketplace lost their 2015 coverage because they failed to document their citizenship or immigration status, and 967,000 households had their subsidies recalculated because of discrepancies in their original reports of household income. Often, problems arose because people failed to submit their Social Security numbers.
So what solutions does the New York Times propose? 
(1) Simplified messaging: "The Obama administration has been simplifying its messages to make enrollment easier." However, the necessary paperwork will likely still be burdensome.

(2) Expanding Medicaid: "States that have not expanded Medicaid should do so to help their own low-income citizens, but the Republicans in those states would rather have their residents suffer." See my earlier point about the Medicaid expansion.

(3) "Stronger outreach efforts by enrollment counselors might also help people understand what documentation they need to provide." An admission of the burdensome nature of the paperwork required.

(4) "But if people were given more information about the penalties at the start of the enrollment season on Nov. 1, those who can afford to pay premiums might have even greater incentive to enroll." In other words, remind people that you are going to fine them for not having enough money.

#1 and #3 are fine so far as they go, which is not very far. I already spoke about #2. And #4, to me, just underscores the fact that fining people for not having enough money is counter-productive.

What the NYT ed board does not even consider is that there might be fundamental flaws in the design of the Affordable Care Act. The ACA, despite its various strengths, still leaves intact our private, for-profit system.

The best way, then, to "keep people in health plans" would be to provide universal coverage for all via a government-run and financed health insurance plan--expanding Medicare to the whole population. It would eliminate the cost barrier and the excessive paperwork barrier, improving both economic and administrative efficiency.

Making the ACA work better is, of course, an important short-term goal. But Congressional Democrats said that it would just be a "starter home," and we have to hold them to this and aspire to something better. Without universal provision, people will still fall through the cracks.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Facebook Donated More $$$ to Rs than Ds in 2012 and 2014. So Why Was It Allowed to Co-Host the Democratic Debate?

I hadn't actually noticed until Tuesday morning that Facebook was a co-host of the debate with CNN. When I did, I immediately remembered that Mark Zuckerberg has hosted fundraisers for Chris Christie in the past.

That made me curious about Facebook's political donations, so I went over to Open Secrets.
In both the 2012 and 2014 election cycles, as you can see below, Facebook's PAC donated more money to Republicans than to Democrats. (It's too early in the game for next year's election to compare/contrast 2016 numbers yet.)

In the 2014 election cycle, Facebook donated $98,000 to House Democrats and $119,000 to House Republicans. It donated $85,000 to Senate Democrats and $73,500 to Senate Republicans.

Democratic total: $183,000
Republican total: $192,500

Facebook maxed out for 8 Congresspersons, the majority (5) of whom were Republicans:

Note that, for all Facebook's flirtation with caring about climate change, they maxed out for the Republican heading the House Energy Committee, Fred Upton.

In the 2012 election cycle, Facebook donated $54,000 to House Democrats and $78,500 to House Republicans. It donated $71,000 to Senate Democrats and $65,500 to Senate Republicans.

Democratic total: $125,000
Republican total: $144,000

Facebook's largest recipients in the House in the 2012 cycle all received $5,000. A majority (5 out of 9) were Republicans.

This reminds me of when Debbie Wasserman Schultz put Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, who has donated hefty sums to Republicans, on the DNC's post-election "autopsy report."

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Which 26 Democrats Just Voted for a Giveaway to Big Oil?

On Thursday, I wrote about how the House GOP found time amidst their leadership debacle to pass a bill expediting fracking on tribal lands.

In the same vein, yesterday, the House GOP found the time to pass a bill lifting the crude oil export ban.
The bill (H.R. 702) would repeal the Presidential authority to restrict exports of coal, petroleum products, natural gas, or petrochemical feedstocks under section 103 of the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975. The bill also establishes a national policy on oil export restriction, preventing any official of the federal government from imposing or enforcing any restriction on the export of crude oil.

Elizabeth Warren criticized this bill at a recent Senate hearing:
The most obvious effect of lifting the crude oil export ban would be to produce enormous profits for a number of big oil companies...And that is a reason by itself to be skeptical of study after study and expert after expert that have been funded by big oil to try to sell this deal. ... Lifting the ban without thoroughly considering and addressing the potential environmental consequences sounds pretty darn reckless.
Rep. Frank Pallone (NJ-06), the ranking Democrat on the Energy & Commerce, has a thorough debunking of Republican claims about the bill here
The bill is bad for many reasons, one of the most important being the climate impact:
Maximizing U.S. oil production would exacerbate climate change and increase the risks to the land, water and air. According to a recent study, approximately one third of the world's remaining oil reserves and half of the remaining gas reserves should remain untouched over the next 40 years in order to prevent the global average temperature from rising more than 2+ C. An increase in oil production, consistent with unrestricted crude exports, would run counter to U.S. and global efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions and prevent catastrophic climate change.

Further, the drilling boom has outpaced the building of infrastructure necessary to control methane leaks from oil and gas wells leading to increased emissions of this potent greenhouse gas. The energy sector--including sources like natural gas and petroleum systems--is the largest source of U.S. methane emissions, accounting for 263.5 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent in 2013. The lack of infrastructure to capture the co-produced methane, combined with low natural gas prices, often makes it cheaper for industry to burn the gas rather than capture and process it. So an increase in oil production--for purposes of exportation--would likely result in significant increases in
uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions.
The final vote was 261 to 159
6 Republicans joined Democrats in voting against it:

Mike Fitzpatrick (PA-08)
Walter Jones (NC-03)
Frank LoBiondo (NJ-02)
Pat Meehan (PA-07)
Tom Rice (SC-07)
Chris Smith (NJ-04)

And 26 Democrats joined Republicans in voting for it:

Brad Ashford (NE-02)
Sanford Bishop (GA-02)
Tony Cardenas (CA-29)
Lacy Clay (MO-01)
Jim Cooper (TN-05)
Jim Costa (CA-16)
Henry Cuellar (TX-28)
Gwen Graham (FL-02)
Jim Himes (CT-04)
Ruben Hinojosa (TX-15)
Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18)
Ann Kirkpatrick (AZ-01)
Dan Lipinski (IL-03)
Michelle Lujan Grisham (NM-01)
Sean Maloney (NY-18)
Beto O’Rourke (TX-16)
Ed Perlmutter (CO-07)
Collin Peterson (MN-07)
Cedric Richmond (LA-02)
Tim Ryan (OH-13)
Kurt Schrader (OR-05)
David Scott (GA-13)
Albio Sires (NJ-08)
Bennie Thompson (MS-02)
Marc Veasey (TX-33)
Filemona Vela (TX-34)

Friday, October 9, 2015

Which 11 Democrats Just Voted to Expedite Fracking on Tribal Lands?

House Republicans were in disarray today, but they still found time to do one of the things they love most: gut environmental regulations.

Today, that came in the form of the Native American Energy Act:
H.R. 538 seeks to foster energy development on Native American tribal lands by authorizing expedited review and consideration of energy projects or appraisals, which in turn will lead to less environmental protection, public involvement, and regulatory oversight. H.R. 538 would deem an appraisal approved if the Department of the Interior fails to respond within sixty days.

H.R. 538 will also amend the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to limit review of an environmental impact statement for projects on Native American tribal lands to only tribal members and individuals residing within an undefined “affected area.” The language in H.R. 538 is so broadly written that there are no specifics on what an affected area would include and this provision could potentially apply to additional projects such as mining contracts, proposed water development projects, construction of solid waste facilities, construction of tribal casinos, and non-tribal partner projects that are located on Indian lands.  
H.R. 538 weakens environmental justice protections by making it extremely difficult for members of the public to challenge energy projects by preventing the recovery of attorney’s fees for their claims and potentially making the plaintiff responsible for the defendant’s attorney fees and costs.
Lastly, H.R. 538 contains a provision that would exempt tribal land from the Department of the Interior’s regulations on hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”
It passed 254 to 173

One Republican--Frank LoBiondo (NJ-02)--voted against it.

11 Democrats voted for it:

Brad Ashford (NE-02)
Sanford Bishop (GA-02)
Corrine Brown (FL-05)
Jim Cooper (TN-05)
Jim Costa (CA-16)
Henry Cuellar (TX-28)
Gene Green (TX-29)
Ann Kirkpatrick (AZ-01)
Collin Peterson (MN-07)
Kurt Schrader (OR-05)
Filemon Vela (TX-34)

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Homebuyers Assistance Act Will Not Help Homebuyers, But These 64 Dems Still Voted for It.

Today, the House voted on the so-called Homebuyers Assistance Act. Does it help homebuyers? Of course not.

What it does, however, is delay a rule from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau:
H.R. 3192 would delay, until February 1, 2016, enforcement of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (CFPB) integrated rule regarding disclosures that mortgage lenders must provide to homebuyers in an effort to make them simpler and more consumer friendly.  The CFPB’s new rule known as the Truth in Lending Act – RESPA Integrated Disclosure (TRID), became effective on October 3, 2015.  The CFPB was directed as a part of Dodd-Frank to make documentation available in a timely manner so homeowners would be able understand and weigh the terms and conditions of their mortgage.
As Maxine Waters (CA-43) and Carolyn Maloney (NY-12)--the top ranking Democrats on the Financial Services Committee--explained in the committee mark-up, the bill is a mix of the unnecessary and the harmful:
Clarifying and combining the required disclosure forms for the Truth in Lending Act and the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act has been a shared goal of the mortgage lending industry and consumer advocates for many years. The Dodd-Frank Act required the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to use its expertise to solve this problem, and create a unified form that would work for consumers and the industry. Everybody agrees that the CFPB has succeeded in that goal.
When the CFPB promulgated its Ability-to-Repay rule and defined the terms of Qualified Mortgages, CFPB Director Cordray assured the industry, and especially smaller banks and lenders, that the Bureau would not aggressively enforce technical mistakes, and that they would strongly consider good-faith efforts to comply with the new rules before bringing any actions.
Similarly, in the implementation of the new disclosures, Director Cordray has made many comments to assuage industry concerns. He has assured lenders, service providers and Congress that good faith efforts to comply with the new rules will be an important consideration under the enforcement regime for several months into next year. The Bureau has also extended the deadline for implementation by two months in order to provide industry with a chance to modify its compliance operations. The CFPB's website also has numerous materials to assist small businesses in training their employees and adopting new compliance practices. The Bureau has indicated in every way possible that it intends to work cooperatively with industry to meet the shared goal of adopting shorter, simpler, easier to understand disclosures for mortgages.
For these reasons, it is unnecessary for Congress to micromanage the CFPB's supervision and enforcement decisions, which is one of the goals of this bill.
H.R. 3192 would also have a detrimental impact on American homebuyers. The Truth in Lending Act provides borrowers an opportunity for recourse through the courts if a lender acts in bad faith and fails to disclose or obscures important information to the borrower. These rights are crucial for protecting consumers that likely are making one of the biggest financial commitments of their lives: buying a home. This bill would eliminate that right for all borrowers during the hold harmless period. Stripping back this consumer protection could have a profound impact on consumer safety, mortgage applications, and the broader economy.
The Truth in Lending Act already provides limited liability for disclosure related violations and allows lenders to cure errors made in good faith. While most lenders are acting in the best interests of the borrower, there are a small number of bad actors who can have an enormously costly impact on their victims. A small but important amount of private litigation is brought under TILA protections in these cases, which promotes trust in the mortgage lending system.
Removing these important protections for all loans originated in the proposed period could discourage all borrowers, potentially stalling the nascent recovery in housing markets.
Obama has already expressed an intention to veto the bill. 
Despite that, it passed 303 to to 121, with 64 Democrats joining the GOP.

Here are the 64:

Pete Aguilar (CA-31)
Brad Ashford (NE-02)
Ami Bera (CA-07)
Don Beyer (VA-08)
Earl Blumenauer (OR-03)
Brendan Boyle (PA-13)
Julia Brownley (CA-26)
Cheri Bustos (IL-17)
Tony Cardenas (CA-29)
John Carney (DE-AL)
Gerry Connolly (VA-11)
Jim Cooper (TN-05)
Jim Costa (CA-16)
Joe Courtney (CT-02)
Henry Cuellar (TX-28)
Pete DeFazio (OR-04)
John Delaney (MD-06)
Suzan DelBene (WA-01)
Elizabeth Esty (CT-05)
Bill Foster (IL-11)
John Garamendi (CA-03)
Gwen Graham (FL-02)
Janice Hahn (CA-44)
Denny Heck (WA-10)
Jim Himes (CT-04)
Bill Keating (MA-09)
Dan Kildee (MI-05)
Derek Kilmer (WA-06)
Ron Kind (WI-03)
Ann Kirkpatrick (AZ-01)
Annie Kuster (NH-02)
Rick Larsen (WA-02)
Dan Lipinski (IL-03)
David Loebsack (IA-02)
Alan Lowenthal (CA-47)
Michelle Lujan Grisham (NM-01)
Ben Ray Luján (NM-03)
Sean Maloney (NY-18)
Patrick Murphy (FL-18)
Richard Neal (MA-01)
Rick Nolan (MN-08)
Donald Norcross (NJ-01)
Beto O’Rourke (TX-16)
Ed Perlmutter (CO-07)
Scott Peters (CA-52)
Collin Peterson (MN-07)
Chellie Pingree (ME-01)
Jared Polis (CO-02)
Mike Quigley (IL-05)
Kathleen Rice (NY-04)
Dutch Ruppersberger (MD-02)
Tim Ryan (OH-13)
Adam Schiff (CA-28)
Kurt Schrader (OR-05)
David Scott (GA-13)
Brad Sherman (CA-30)
Albio Sires (NJ-08)
Mark Takai (HI-01)
Dina Titus (NV-01)
Norma Torres (CA-35)
Niki Tsongas (MA-03)
Juan Vargas (CA-51)
Marc Veasey (TX-33)
Tim Walz (MN-01)

There's Always More Money for War according to These 21 Senate Democrats

Last Friday, the House voted 270 to 156 to pass the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act. 146 House Democrats followed the party leadership in voting against it, while 37 defected and voted for it.

Yesterday, the Senate took a cloture vote on the bill.

Before looking at the vote, let me just quote myself from last week:
The US has the largest military budget in the world. It is larger than those of the next nine countries combined.
The Pentagon is also notoriously wasteful and has consistently avoided a federal audit.
There are roughly 800 US military bases in foreign countries despite the fact that the US faces no existential threats.
But, to Congress, the military always needs more money.
Congressional Republicans, who have no problem with sequestration cuts on social programs, hate sequestration cuts on the Pentagon. So, as a trick to get around them, they put $89.2 billion in the unaccountable slush fund called Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO). This is on top of the already bloated base budget of $515 billion.
The FY16 NDAA, of course, also imposes more unnecessary restrictions on releasing/transferring prisoners out of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility, further entrenching a moral and constitutional abomination that undermines US security abroad.
Obama has said that he plans to veto it, but he has always said that with the NDAA and never has.

However, if the final vote looks like the cloture vote (as it likely will), then his veto would be overriden anyway.

The cloture motion on the NDAA passed 73 to 26. All Republicans, with the exception of Rand Paul (R-KY), voted for it. 21 Democrats joined them, and 26 Democrats voted against it.

Here are the 21 members of the Democratic caucus who joined the GOP:

Michael Bennet (D-CO)
Richard Blumenthal (D-CT)
Maria Cantwell (D-WA)
Bob Casey (D-PA)
Joe Donnelly (D-IN)
Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)
Martin Heinrich (D-NM)
Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND)
Tim Kaine (D-VA)
Angus King (I-ME)
Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)
Claire McCaskill (D-MO)
Bob Menendez (D-NJ)
Chris Murphy (D-CT)
Patty Murray (D-WA)
Gary Peters (D-MI)
Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH)
Debbie Stabenow (D-MI)
Jon Tester (D-MT)
Tom Udall (D-NM)
Mark Warner (D-VA)

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

27 Senate Dems Call for Increasing Humanitarian Support for Syria, Welcoming More Refugees

Yesterday, Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), along with 26 other Senate Democrats, called on Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-MS) and Vice Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), as well as U.S. Senate Foreign Relations State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Subcommittee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-VT) to immediately consider emergency funding to provide humanitarian relief to Syrian refugees and to increase the capacity for refugee admissions.

Here is the text of the letter:
Dear Chairman Cochran, Vice Chairwoman Mikulski, Subcommittee Chairman Graham, and Subcommittee Ranking Member Leahy:
Since the disturbing image of a 3-year old Syrian refugee captured the attention of the American people, thousands more children have been forced to flee with their families to escape the horrific violence of the Syrian civil war. The United States has always been a beacon of hope for those fleeing persecution and violence, and we cannot simply sit on the sidelines as this humanitarian disaster continues to unfold.
While acknowledging the United States is the largest contributor to the global humanitarian response, we can and must do more to address the plight of Syrian refugees. We therefore urge the Appropriations Committee to immediately consider emergency funding for a two-pronged strategy to provide immediate humanitarian relief and increase the capacity for refugee admissions to the United States. We welcome Secretary Kerry’s announcement that the United States will raise the overall cap on refugee admissions from 70,000 to 100,000 over the next two years, but the announcement will be meaningful only if Congress provides the necessary resources.
First, we support additional assistance to the organizations aiding Syrian refugees in the region. The World Food Program has once again run out of money to feed millions of refugees who live outside the camps, and the UNHCR appeal for 2015 is still only 37% funded. UNHCR and implementing partners such as Save the Children, Mercy Corps, Oxfam, and other local NGO’s are working around the clock to provide food, shelter, medical care and education to refugee families, but these basic services are at dire risk unless the United States and our partners fill the funding gaps.

Second, we support funding to significantly increase the number of refugees screened and admitted into the United States, with priority given to vulnerable populations such as religious minorities, women with children, and victims of torture. The United States has a long tradition of providing safe haven to refugees fleeing from tyranny, violence and persecution. We welcomed approximately 200,000 refugees from the Balkan Wars, 700,000 refugees from Cuba, and more than 700,000 refugees from Vietnam. Compared with these historic numbers, we can do better than 10,000 slots for Syrian families. As always, security considerations remain paramount. All refugee applicants must continue to undergo extensive background checks and vetting of their biographic and biometric data against a broad array of U.S. law enforcement and counterterrorism databases.
The brutality and callousness of ISIL and the Assad regime are fully responsible for this humanitarian crisis. Ultimately the Syrian civil war must end. But until that time, we can take the measures proposed above to have an immediate, yet lasting, impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of Syrians – including those who will be needed to rebuild their country.
Thank you for our consideration. We look forward to working with you to assert American leadership in addressing this humanitarian crisis.
Although I disagree with the way the letter absolves the US of any blame for the humanitarian crisis in the penultimate paragraph, I commend the ultimate intent of the letter.

Here are the other 26 senators:

Tammy Baldwin (D-WI)
Cory Booker (D-NJ)
Barbara Boxer (D-CA)
Richard Blumenthal (D-CT)
Sherrod Brown (D-OH)
Maria Cantwell (D-WA)
Ben Cardin (D-MD)
Chris Coons (D-DE)
Dick Durbin (D-IL)
Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)
Al Franken (D-MN)
Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)
Martin Heinrich (D-NM)
Mazie Hirono (D-HI)
Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)
Ed Markey (D-MA)
Bob Menendez (D-NJ)
Jeff Merkley (D-OR)
Gary Peters (D-MI)
Jack Reed (D-RI)
Brian Schatz (D-HI)
Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH)
Debbie Stabenow (D-MI)
Tom Udall (D-NM)
Elizabeth Warren (D-WA)
Ron Wyden (D-OR)