Monday :: Dec 26, 2005

Loosing LIPS and Sinking SHIIPs

by pessimist

I have to tell you that the LIPS in the title is something I made up. It stands for Low Income Personal Security. You can think of it as the plan the Republican Party has for the 99 percenters who aren't a part of the Topper Cla$$. The idea is that they walk away from any real or implied social contract and leave all of us on our own financially. We would be completely responsible for everything from the basic necessities to health care and our retirements, all to be paid for out of our own pockets as we work our lives away.

Our wrong-wing friends claim to have just the solution to this dilemma! We are to take 10% of our ever-diminishing income and stash it away in some magic black investment box, and hope that these economic geniuses don't cause another 1929 and wipe everything out. We'll just ignore all of those inconvenient and ever-rising costs of living, and just find something else to do without, like food. Man can live on Ramen (R) noodles alone, can't he? Sure, and in the process, makes the family of the current Empress of Japan all the richer!

But I digress.

It would mean the end of the consumer economy, but we are rapidly being priced out of that anyway.

Our so-called government can do nothing to help the common man, but they are at the ready when it comes to doling out financial assistance to the Santa Clara life 'forms':

Companies will get federal windfalls to keep drug plans for retirees

Once the new Medicare prescription drug program goes live Jan. 1, some employers will receive a federal, tax-free windfall - in most cases worth millions - for doing absolutely nothing.

The subsidy is meant to give employers an incentive not to drop their existing drug coverage and foist their retirees onto the backs of federal taxpayers. But like everything, that, too, has a price:

An estimated $71 billion in tax-free subsidies is projected to be paid to employers over the next 10 years.

"It's YOUR Money!" as King George loves to proclaim. You just don't get to decide how it gets spent!

Republicans to Poor: “Freeze to Death”
by Stephen Crockett, Co-host, Democratic Talk Radio

The Republican 'War on the Poor' approach to government is disgusting when contrasted with their strong push for tax cuts for the very wealthiest of the wealthy. They find huge amounts of money to fund tax breaks for giant corporations and no-bid contracts awarded to politically connected companies.

Republican efforts to cut the huge budget deficits created by their tax policies, the unjustified Iraq War and the growing national security state created after 9-11 should not be at the cost of the lives or health of poor Americans. Poor citizens do not give huge campaign contributions to Republican politicians like oil industry executives and oil industry political action committees.

Home heating costs are up around 40 percent to 70 percent over last year depending on the type of heating used. Republicans in Congress cut home heating assistance funding to poor Americans by around $200 million. Democrats were seeking $5 billion. Republicans approved $2 billion. Oil companies have huge excess profits that could be taxed to fund the program. Republicans in Congress have effectively blocked any attempt to tax these excess oil industry profits to help poor Americans from freezing to death.

These same Republican politicians are supporting cuts in food assistance and health care programs for poor Americans. The results will eventually be the same for some fellow American citizens. They will die earlier and have more unhealthy lives. Is this what America should be doing this Christmas?

The poor tend to vote more Democratic than Republican over economic issues. Freezing to death voters who might support opposing political parties might be good politics but is both un-American and un-Christian. The Republicans in Congress should be kinder to their less fortunate American citizens and try to follow the Christian admonishment to help the poor.

The Republican Party has been relying on Christian voters to stay in power while not following core Christian teaching about the treatment of the poor. We should ask ourselves “what would Jesus do.” This Christian believes that Christ would help feed, cloth and keep warm the poor.

And maybe tend to the sick? As I recall it, there are many reports in the Bible - I understand that some of you Red State-type Chri$tian$ have heard of it - which tend to support that contention in addition to the others just cited by Crockett.

Paul Krugman weighs in on the topic of health care:

Health care seems to be heading back to the top of the political agenda, and not a moment too soon. Employer-based health insurance is unraveling, Medicaid is under severe pressure, and vast Medicare costs loom on the horizon. Something must be done. But to get health reform right, we'll have to overcome wrongheaded ideas as well as powerful special interests.

Their latest big idea is health savings accounts, which are supposed to induce "cost sharing" - that is, individuals will rely less on insurance, pay a larger share of their medical costs out of pocket and make their own decisions about care. In practice, the health savings accounts created by the 2003 Medicare law will serve primarily as tax shelters for the wealthy. A well-known experiment with alternative health insurance schemes, carried out by the RAND Corporation, found that when individuals pay a higher share of medical costs out of pocket, they cut back on necessary as well as unnecessary health spending. So cost-sharing, like H.M.O.'s, is a detour from real health care reform.

During the 1990's it seemed, briefly, as if private H.M.O.'s could play that role. But then there was a public backlash. It turns out that even in America, with its faith in the free market, people don't trust for-profit corporations to make decisions about their health.

Moreover, the high-technology nature of modern medical spending has given rise to a powerful medical-industrial complex that seeks to influence doctors' decisions. Let's hope that extreme cases like the one reported in The Times a few months ago, in which surgeons systematically used the devices of companies that paid them consulting fees, are exceptions. Still, the drug companies in particular spend more marketing their products to doctors than they do developing those products in the first place. They wouldn't do that if doctors were immune to persuasion.

For decades we've been lectured on the evils of big government and the glories of the private sector. Despite the failure of the attempt to control costs with H.M.O.'s, conservatives continue to believe that the magic of the private sector will provide the answer. (There must be a pony in there somewhere.)

Yet health reform is a job for the public sector, which already pays most of the bills directly or indirectly and sooner or later will have to make key decisions about medical treatment. Eventually, we'll have to accept the fact that there's no magic in the private sector, and that health care - including the decision about what treatment is provided - is a public responsibility.

But, as we head back to our first linked article, there certainly appears to be a different interpretation of what constitutes a 'public' responsibility:

"There was concern in Washington that within this law that there was nothing to keep employers from just terminating their benefits outright," says Michelle Kitchman Strollo, a senior analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit health policy group. "The thought was in order to keep the law within the $399 billion estimated price tag, it would have to rely on those people who currently have employer-based benefits."

According to a recent survey by the Kaiser Foundation, 79 percent of employers said they have no intention of dropping their drug coverage in the first year. But among those keeping their coverage and taking the subsidy, 50 percent said they expect they'll drop the benefit by 2010.

"This (subsidy) is like trying to keep the Titanic afloat by sending out one row boat," says Jon Oberlander, an expert in Medicare and a professor of public health policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "You may have stopped it in the short run, but over the long run there's no doubt that people are going to drop their retiree health benefits."

That the subsidy is tax-free is attractive for many employers. It can translate a payment of $600 or $700 per employee into a bottom-line value of as much as $1,000. Still, over time, many employers may find that the subsidy no longer outweighs the savings from eliminating drug coverage from their retiree benefits. As startup kinks get worked out, employers might become more comfortable with sending their retirees out into the Medicare wild.

But for now, that doesn't appear to be happening, says Carla Obiol, deputy commissioner of the Seniors' Health Insurance and Information Program, a division of the North Carolina Department of Insurance. The SHIIP, for short, is the state's primary call center for people who have questions about Medicare. While they've been overwhelmed with ringing phones the last few weeks, so far, Obiol says, few callers have said their drug coverage is being canceled. "The concern that employers would drop people is not happening now," she says. "The big fear is that that could change over time. The subsidy could just be a Band-Aid."

You mean like the new Medicare Drug Plan?

Experts at Odds on Strength of Medicare Drug Plan Enrollments

Seniors are signing up for the new Medicare prescription benefit at a strong pace, the government said today. More than 21 million seniors and disabled people will get help with their prescription coverage when the benefit takes effect on Jan. 1, Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt told reporters. "This is a very strong start," he added.

[B]ut some independent experts said a closer look at the data revealed that many beneficiaries remain on the sidelines. "They have gotten the easy half," said James Firman, president of the National Council on the Aging, whose group has mobilized volunteers to enlist seniors. "This is the half that we could kind of count on."

"Nearly 20 million of the 21 million people already had drug coverage," Robert M. Hayes, president of the New York-based Medicare Rights Center, said in a statement. "The voluntary enrollment rate compares miserably with the rate achieved in the 11-month period when Medicare was originally launched in 1966. Nearly all eligible Americans signed up for the program back then."

[M]ore than 90% of those beneficiaries already have drug coverage through former employers, the Medicaid program, or military and federal retirement systems, federal officials acknowledged. Most did not need to change their drug coverage, and may not even realize that Medicare will be subsidizing a part.

Some activists called the government's pronouncements on the figures 'misleading'. Only about 1 million beneficiaries have actually signed up for one of the hundreds of private drug plans around the country that offer the new Medicare drug coverage. "It is difficult to claim success based on these numbers," said health economist Jack Rodgers of PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. "What the numbers show is that people who have to do something to enroll in the benefit are not enrolling. The jury is still out."

High enrollment is critical to the success of the complicated program, which will use private insurance plans to deliver a benefit subsidized by the government at a cost of $700 billion a year. The larger the number of seniors taking the coverage, the higher the likelihood that insurers will stay in the program. And a large pool also helps to hold down costs. Out of a total of 43 million Medicare beneficiaries, the government hopes that 28 million to 30 million will enroll by the end of 2006. To meet its enrollment goals, the government is going to have to keep signing up an average of about 1 million beneficiaries a month, Firman explained. "That's the number we should be watching the next couple of months," he said. "The question is, can they keep that pace?"

Personally, I doubt it. Their track record in everything that doesn't involve cooking the numbers is miserable, especially as the ramifications of their actions becomes more known across the political spectrum.

The Baby Boomers are beginning to turn 60 next week. Let's hope that they abandon the false god of Reaganomics that they adopted in their forties and return to their former activist selves, even if it is in their own self-interests that this action is taken. There is no other way to ensure that our Golden Years are really golden as we were promised all of our lives. We need to revive the Grey Panthers' idealism and take back the power that rightfully belongs to us.

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