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Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

Thanks to President Trump, One Million Americans Will Lose Their Health Insurance

Posted by NYPIRG on October 16, 2017 at 11:34 am
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We live in a representative democracy.  We elect our representatives to go to national, state or local office to represent our interests and solve problems.  Of course, not all problems can be solved and the policy triage of what gets attention and what doesn’t is the decision of the representative based on what his or her constituents want or need.

For years, a huge problem in America was the rapid increase in the numbers of people without health care coverage.  In the 1960s, the nation developed Medicare, health insurance for those over the age of 65 and Medicaid, health insurance for the poor.

In the 1990s, the President and the Congress expanded coverage to help cover all those under the age of 18.  Yet, despite the fact that near-universal coverage existed for those under the age of 18, those over the age of 65, and the poor, the number of Americans without coverage continued to swell, peaking at about 50 million eight years ago.

For the rest of the advanced nations of the world, it was inconceivable that such a situation existed.  Western Europe, Canada, Japan and others have health care coverage for all of their citizens.  As a result, despite spending far more on health care than any other nation on Earth, the United States had more uninsured, incredibly uneven health care quality, and a mediocre life expectancy compared with other developed, wealthy nations.

It was a problem.

Former President Obama and the Congress agreed to legislation to attempt to address that problem.  The solution that they came up with had a modest impact on the spiraling cost of health care, but did cut in half the number of Americans that lacked health insurance.

You could argue with their solution – one which essentially expanded the number of Medicaid-eligible Americans and offered subsidies to help others purchase health insurance – was inadequate to the task, but no one could argue that they did not try.

For years, Republicans argued that they could do it better.  They argued that if they were granted control of the White House and the Congress, they would repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with something better.  We now know that their pledge was pure fiction.  They had no plan to replace the ACA with anything.  All they wanted to do was repeal.

While the majority of the House of Representatives was quite willing to take away coverage from tens of millions of Americans, leaving millions without coverage was something that some Republicans in the Senate could not agree to.  Combined with unanimous Democratic opposition, the effort to repeal the law and take away health insurance coverage from over 20 million Americans ground to a halt.

President Trump, who as a candidate consistently said that he would fix the health insurance system and make it better, has now decided to just make it all worse.  In a stunningly callous series of decisions, the President to doing all he can to deny health insurance for primarily low and moderate income Americans – individuals who currently have coverage will now lose it.

Last week, the President acted to eliminate subsidies to health insurance companies that help pay out-of-pocket costs of low-income people.  His decision came on the heels of his plans to make sweeping changes in the nation’s insurance system, including sales of cheaper policies with fewer benefits and fewer protections for consumers.

Without the subsidies, insurance markets could quickly unravel. Insurers have said they will need much higher premiums, probably 20 percent higher, if the subsidies were ended.

Part of the President’s rationale was that he believed that such payments were illegal, but he has offered no alternative to cover those who will soon be desperately in need of coverage.

And that’s not what elected officials are supposed to do.  They are supposed to make a good effort to solve problems.  They should allocate the nation’s limited resources where needed and apply the best evidence to develop policy solutions.

To strip away people’s health insurance coverage with no alternative is indefensible and will cost an estimated one million Americans dearly.  Without coverage, sick people delay care, which can lead to even more devastating health consequences.  And those serious illnesses can cost those individuals and their families their financial security as well.

Many people will suffer unnecessarily due to the President’s decisions and from the actions of those in Congress who are doing all they can to take away people’s health insurance.   Our elected representatives should care about people, not use them as fodder in the nation’s political wars.

 

The U.S. Supreme Court Takes Up Gerrymandering

Posted by NYPIRG on October 9, 2017 at 10:29 am
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Last week the U.S. Supreme Court began its look into the widespread practice of gerrymandering.  Gerrymandering is the manipulation of political boundaries (for the state legislature, for example) to favor one party.

The practice is now widespread and is designed to pack as many supportive voters together in one district, while diluting the political power of voters who are enrolled in a different political party.  In this way, political party map makers choose their voters, instead of voters choosing their elected officials.

New district lines are drawn at least every ten years in response to population changes identified in the U.S. Census.  The changes in the population require a reapportionment of members of the U.S. House of Representatives.  The House has 435 members and they must be redistributed in districts of exactly the same populations.

In addition, state lawmakers must redesign political boundaries within the state for their legislative bodies to reflect population changes, known as redistricting.

The next Census is scheduled for 2020 and new district lines in New York must be in place for the 2022 elections.

The case before the Court is one related to the district maps of the Wisconsin Assembly.  Republicans took full control of Wisconsin’s government in the 2010 elections and used their power to draw maps that greatly favor them.  The plaintiffs argue that the districts were drawn to be so heavily Republican that they violated the constitutional rights of Democratic voters.  A three-judge appellate federal court panel agreed with the plaintiffs and now the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether the lower court got the ruling right.

Wisconsin is a state in which support for the major political parties are often close.  In 2012 — a year when Democratic President Barack Obama easily won Wisconsin — Democrats received nearly 52% of the vote in Assembly races, yet took just 39 of the chamber’s 99 seats (40%).

In last year’s election, Republican Donald Trump squeaked out a win over Democrat Hillary Clinton, but the Republicans expanded their control of the Wisconsin Assembly by taking 64 of the 99 seats.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case and the schism among the judges was clear.  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg questioned “If you can stack a legislature in this way, what incentive is there for a voter to exercise his vote?  Whether it’s a Democratic district or a Republican district, the result — using this map, the result is preordained in most of the districts.”

Chief Justice John Roberts argued that it is a state responsibility and that most legislatures have been the ones to determine how legislative lines are drawn. The Court’s involvement would dramatically change things, he said.

“The whole point is you’re taking these issues away from democracy and you’re throwing them into the courts.” If the plaintiffs succeed, the Supreme Court will have to decide whether to redraw maps that favored one political party over the other. It’s likely, Roberts warned, that the public will view the court’s rulings as partisan.

Perhaps the most incisive question came from Justice Sonia Sotomayor who asked the Wisconsin state attorneys “Could you tell me what the value is to democracy from political gerrymandering?  How does that help our system of government?”

How the Court rules could also have a broad national impact.  If Wisconsin’s maps are thrown out, states will have to follow new rules when they draw congressional and legislative districts, limiting their abilities to give edges to either party.

Plaintiffs proposed a new test to determine whether maps were unfairly one-sided.  It counts “wasted votes” — that is, any votes beyond those needed to elect a candidate — to determine the “efficiency gap” of a map.  Their plan essentially argues that districts should have closer party enrollments to make them more reflective of the population and more competitive.

New York’s legislative maps were incredibly rigged after the last redistricting – in ways to help Republicans keep control of the Senate despite shrinking party enrollment and further solidify Democratic control of the Assembly.  The Court’s decision could change all of that.

Of course, there is no way to know now how the Court will rule.  All eyes are on Justice Kennedy who may well be the deciding vote.  But if changes occur, it could drastically impact elections across America and may finally end New York’s system of rigged elections.

The Beginning of the End of the Combustion Engine

Posted by NYPIRG on October 2, 2017 at 10:51 am
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Despite the nonsense that Americans hear from their national elected leaders, climate change is the single biggest policy challenge we face.  There is no doubt that the planet is heating up and that human activities are the primary driver of global warming.  The burning of fossil fuels, coal, oil and gas, are the most significant culprits in those human activities.

Scientists have known that the planet is heating up – even scientists working for oil companies have known that – for decades.  And what is increasingly clear from independent analyses is that the fossil fuel industries have done all they can to undermine the science behind climate change and to use their considerable political clout to install sympathetic lawmakers in key positions of government.

And that effort has largely succeeded in the U.S., but the science keeps building and the impacts of a rapidly warming planet become more and more obvious.  So obvious that other nations are responding with environmental and public health programs to respond to the mounting climate change crisis.

Experts are deeply concerned that we may soon hit a “tipping point” after which little can be done to minimize the accelerating damage caused by global warming.  As a result, the world’s experts are arguing that fossil fuels should be kept in the ground; not developed for burning.

That analysis is what fuels citizen efforts to stop the mining practice known as hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – and to oppose investments in new infrastructure projects to deliver fossil fuels for use, since those projects must operate for years in order to pay off the costs of such building.

Advocates have been pushing for public investments in energy efficiency programs and renewable sources of power, like solar and wind.

But what about cars?  In the United States, nearly 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are generated in the transportation sector (just behind generating electricity), with light duty vehicles producing 60 percent of the sectors greenhouse gases.  In New York, auto and truck emissions are almost double the climate-warming emissions of producing electricity.

Everyone knows this, and countries are starting to act.  China, the world’s largest car market, has been reported by Bloomberg News to be working on a plan to ban the production and sale of vehicles powered only by fossil fuels.  India, France, Britain and Norway have announced their intent to stop the sale of gas and diesel fueled cars.  Germany is considering a plan.  Austria, Denmark, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, Portugal, Korea and Spain have set official targets for electric car sales. The United States doesn’t have a federal policy, but at least eight states have set goals.

One of those states, California, is one of the largest economies in the world, sixth.  And now there are reports that California is considering joining the growing list of nations.

According to recent reports, the head of California’s Air Resources Board recently suggested the state could move to eventually replace vehicles running on combustion engines in the nation’s largest auto market with electric cars or those running on other renewable energy.  The state has long been a front-runner in setting ambitious future targets for auto makers including sale of zero-emission vehicles.

Cars and trucks represent California’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions by far.  In 2015, on-road transportation produced 34 percent of the state’s total emissions, according to the air board’s data.  A full ban on fossil-fuel vehicles in California, which represents 12 percent of all auto sales in the United States, particularly with similar actions in other nations like China and India, would force the auto industry to dump gas and diesel powered cars.

New York State, which prides itself on responding to the climate change crisis, and a major economic force in its own right, should act too.

Of course, it’s ridiculous that states have to act in this way.  A national government relying on the best available science and speaking truthfully to the public would have acted already.  But these are anything but normal times.

Thus, states must act.  California is under the hood looking at its plans to eliminate fossil fuels cars from its roads.  New York should follow suit.

U.S. Senate Makes Another Run at Taking Health Insurance Away From Millions of Americans

Posted by NYPIRG on September 25, 2017 at 8:14 am
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If you promised to do something, but you found out that if you fulfilled your promise tens of millions of people would be hurt, and some may die, would you do it?

That’s the question facing the U.S. Senate Republicans right now.

For years, Republicans across the nation have pledged to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act.  Their promise was a cynical one since they never developed a replacement. Instead, they pandered to their supporters with a promise that was empty.

But they did promise.

Now, Republicans control both Houses of the Congress and the White House.  For their supporters, it is time to deliver on that promise.

But since the pledge was never serious and merely intended to throw “red meat” to a partisan base, the Republican Congressional leadership never had to contemplate the consequences of their failure to develop a meaningful alternative to the Affordable Care Act.

When members of the House of Representatives voted to advance their “repeal and replace” plan, they did so without holding public hearings and without allowing the independent Congressional Budget Office time to analyze their replacement program.

They dramatically limited independent analysis for one reason – they knew that their plan would hurt tens of millions of Americans.  And when the Congressional Budget Office issued its review – after the Republican House members had approved it – the impact became clear: over 20 million Americans would lose their health care coverage.

And losing health care coverage can be devastating: if someone gets sick and has no coverage, they can become deathly ill; and if their family tries to pay for care, they could become bankrupt.

House Republicans knew this, but didn’t care.  A promise was a promise, no matter if it cost people their health, their income, or their lives.

On the Senate side, a similar plan was offered.  It too would have stripped away health insurance from tens of millions of Americans.  It too would have led to needless illnesses, financial ruin, and early deaths that would have resulted from its plan.

But the Senate is a different place. The majority cannot easily steamroll their legislation through.  So the Republican leadership changed the rules to allow their so-called replacement to be considered – again with minimum public input – but the plan failed.  Republicans have a small majority in the Senate and a few members thought that a promise that would hurt millions of people was a bad promise to have made, and worse to fulfill.

Now the Senate Republican leadership is once again trying to advance a plan to strip health insurance away from millions.  This time, there is additional pressure – from wealthy campaign donors.  According to the New York Times, a wealthy Dallas businessman said he had formed a “loose-knit coalition of donors who warned senior Republicans — including Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader — that contributions would dry up if Congress did not overhaul the tax code and repeal the Affordable Care Act.”

Why would rich campaign contributors want to strip away benefits from lower income people?  We can only guess that it’s part of some ideology. But we should expect our public officials to stand up to those pressures.

Yet, weak-kneed Senators have advanced a new plan, one that not only takes away coverage from tens of millions of Americans, but is also considered unworkable by experts.  The plan is so flawed and cruel that Republican opposition from governors and a small group of U.S. Senators may doom it.

Why should Americans have to experience this spectacle?  How can a nation which currently spends far more than any nation on its health care, yet has mediocre health outcomes and millions of people still without health insurance – have as its top domestic debate plans to make things worse?  All because elected officials have not been interested in telling the truth.

“Repeal and replace” is a fraud.  It appears that all some donors, activists and the Congressional leadership want is repeal.  They don’t seem to care about who gets hurt.

Consumers’ Finances at Risk

Posted by NYPIRG on September 18, 2017 at 10:29 am
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Recently, it was revealed that Equifax, one of the big three credit reporting agencies, had been hacked, potentially compromising the data of 143 million Americans, which is more than 40 percent of the entire U.S. population.

The stolen data includes names, Social Security numbers, birthdates, addresses and some driver’s license numbers. One fraud expert told the New York Times, “On a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of risk to consumers, this is a 10.”

The major credit bureaus—Equifax, TransUnion and Experian—compile the financial and personal data on consumers from creditors and other sources, create profiles on borrowing and repayment histories, and sell the data to banks, credit card companies and other businesses.  Their business model is based on collecting our financial data—typically without our permission.

This is not the first time the credit agency has been hacked; hackers gained access to Equifax’s system twice before, prompting questions of why security was not improved to prevent a third attack.

But not only is the hack a serious financial threat to consumers, the actions of Equifax itself are disturbing:

  • It’s been reported that Equifax took six weeks to disclose the hack. The company says it discovered the breach, which it reports began in mid-May, on July 29.  However, the public disclosure of the hack occurred in early September, a full six weeks after the fact, which left consumers at risk without knowing it.
  • Bloomberg News reported that three Equifax executives sold shares in the company after it discovered the hack but before its public disclosure. Those three reportedly collected $1.8 million from the sales. The sales were made on August 1 and 2, the third and fourth days after the breach was discovered. Equifax says the executives were unaware of the breach at the time of their sales – but one of the executives is the Number 2 at Equifax. If he wasn’t told of the theft of data within days of the company’s discovery, that’s a big problem.  Predictably, once Equifax publicly disclosed the hack, its stock shares tumbled 13 percent.

It’s pretty clear that Equifax should also answer why it took so long to alert the public about the breach.  Equifax discovered the breach on July 29, leaving people vulnerable to new account identity theft for over a month while it conducted its investigation.  That’s a problem — people should have been alerted sooner and been given clear explanations about their options.

In New York, Attorney General Schneiderman has announced his own investigation and offered consumers tangible steps that they should take to protect themselves.  Here’s his advice:

  • To check whether your information was compromised, you can go to a website set up by Equifax.
  • Check your credit reportsfrom Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion by visiting annualcreditreport.com. This is a free service.  Accounts or activity that you do not recognize could indicate identity theft.
  • Consider placing a credit freeze on your files. It will not prevent a thief from using any of your existing accounts, but a credit freeze makes it harder for someone to open a new account in your name.
  • Monitor your existing credit card and bank accounts closely for unauthorized charges. Call the credit card company or bank immediately about any charges you do not recognize.
  • Since Social Security numbers were affected, there is risk of tax fraud. Tax identity theft happens when someone uses your Social Security number to get a tax refund or a job. Consider filing your taxes early and pay close attention to correspondence from the IRS.

Since this isn’t the first hack of Equifax, and it isn’t even the biggest cyber attack – that distinction goes to Yahoo.com – it’s shocking how lax the company has been.  Equifax, and the other credit bureaus, make money by collecting our personal data without our permission.  You would hope that they would have the most aggressive anti-hacking programs in the world.

Clearly, that’s not the case.

Equifax and other credit bureaus are long overdue for more oversight from regulators and lawmakers.  Consumers will have to monitor their credit activity for a long time.  And voters should demand actions from federal and state regulators.  At a minimum, Americans should expect that all credit reporting companies offer free credit freezes; and, for consumers who choose not to freeze their credit report, unlimited credit monitoring — not just for one year.  After all, there’s no expiration date on when thieves can use stolen personal information.