December 31, 2013

A Year of Tuesdays: 2013's Final Number

I've checked it several times, just to be sure I had counted things right. This year there were five months with five Tuesdays and seven months with four, giving us a total of 53 Tuesdays. I think this can only happen when the year begins and ends on the third day of the week, but I'm really not all that good with science, astronomy, or time.

So now that we've landed on the final Tuesday of the year, it's time to recap the totals for Tuesday's Number, my weekly post on financial fallout - judgments, satisfied judgments, and bankruptcies - where the person owes the money to a hospital, doctor, or other medical provider.

Each week this year, I've presented the numbers without bias. I have no idea what the circumstances are for the folks who end up in these pages of The Post-Standard, whether they're insured, under-insured, or uninsured; or whether they 'self-inflicted' to end up here, by keeping money that should have been paid to their medical provider, for example, or by refusing health insurance when they could have had coverage.

Call me nostalgic or sentimental or silly, but generally I believe in the better nature of most folks and that they'd rather pay their bills than not, that they'd rather take responsibility for themselves than not and that they'd rather avoid making this list if they could. And regardless of the individual dollar amount of the judgment or bankruptcy, I can only imagine the impact on the families. $5000 is a ridiculous amount of money when you don't have much, just as $25,000 is a ridiculous amount of money even if you have some -- it's all relative.  For those handful or so of people who had six-figure filings, regardless of how much money you have, that's a huge ax to have hanging over your head.

That being said, here are the horrible - and I do mean horrible - numbers for the Syracuse area for 2013:
  • 1,279: the combined number of people listed. Some could be duplicates - meaning they could have started out in the judgments section and moved to the satisfied judgment and/or bankruptcy columns. That's an average of about 24 each week.
  • $25,679,738: the total of all judgments filed. These are the ones that are over $5000, which are the only ones that make the paper (except for one week early in the year when it was an all-encompassing list). 
  • $2,447,163: the total of all satisfied judgments. That's less than 10% of all judgments filed.  
  • $1,375,358: the total of all bankruptcies filed where the primary creditor is a medical provider of one kind or another. 
That's a total of $29,466,259, an average of $555,967 each week this year.  Per listing, it's an average of just over $23,000. One more week, and we would have crossed the $30 million mark -- a benchmark I hope we never see.

How does 2013 compare to 2012, when I captured only 24 weeks of data?

  • Average number of listings per week is up by 1 this year
  • Average weekly total is up $70,161 higher this year
  • Average per listing is up $1,763 this year.

Folks, we're going in the wrong direction, aren't we? Until we start seeing the percentage of judgments satisfied go up, we're hurting. Until we see the judgments filed go down, we're hurting. And until we see the health care related bankruptcies disappear, we're hurting.

I see this number in my own backyard and I wonder what it must be for the rest of New York, for the rest of the country. For those families who didn't self-inflict, I have a hard time imagining what it must feel like having that hanging over their heads. And knowing that all of the local hospitals offer some sort of financial assistance programs, and knowing how many government safety net programs there are, I wonder how much worse this really could be.

And I continue to wonder what it will take for us to get out of the kind of mess that causes or allows this to happen. What's broken here, the actual cost of health care? How people make health care choices? Our overall economy? Will the Affordable Care Act, with millions more having some kind of insurance (through private carriers or government programs), make a difference? One can only hope.

We'll see what next year brings -- I've got my spreadsheets ready.

Tuesday's Number: $520,007

Tuesday is the day my local paper, the Syracuse Post-Standard, publishes the weekly business section. In addition to special features, tips from stock experts, budgeting advice and the like, we get the judgment and bankruptcy listings.

As I did for much of last year, I will be tracking health care related filings. I include anything that is clearly a debt owed to a hospital, nursing home, physician or physician group, medical supplier, and so on; I do not include filings by insurance companies, many of which are so diversified it would not be a fair assumption that the filing is related to medical care or health insurance.

This week, there were 30 people listed with new judgments to hospitals, doctors, or other medical providers totaling $475,761.

This week, there were two satisfied judgments to a hospital, doctor, or other medical provider listed, totaling $20,016.

And, this week, there was one health care related bankruptcy, totaling $24,230.  

The paper publishes only those accounts of at least $5,000.

December 30, 2013

A Great Business Model?

I've been thinking about whether we should upgrade our current basic cable (yes, I said basic cable - that's all we have) to something more substantial, such as Dish, DirecTV, or something less basic from our local cable monopoly. I've asked friends for help on Facebook, and am getting some pretty good feedback, mostly from people who are happy with what they have, even if where there are now is not where they started out. 

The more I think I'm going to do some research on it, the more I think I really don't want to. Because I hate the whole concept of how the whole getting-TV-into-my-house business works. Regardless of delivery method, it seems I'm gong to be stuck with a boatload of channels that I will NEVER watch, and don't want to pay for. 

For example, it seems like the retail therapy I do now from my laptop is simply not good enough. Apparently, I need five or ten home shopping networks, 24-hour infomercial channels, 'all jewelry all the time' broadcasts, and a corresponding number of auction networks so that I can do even more than my fair share to help our struggling economy.

And I guess we don't need our Bose sound system anymore - or my bookshelf stereo, or my HD radio either. Might as well just throw those out the window, because no matter how hard I try, it seems I'm going to be stuck with scads of radio channels on my television. Why? Because, clearly, I must want to have my TV on so I can listen to tinny twangers from the 40's, or virgin Viennese violin virtuosos, or terror-inducing tenors, or a bunch of rapacious rappers. Well, hold on a second -- I don't want to have my TV on so I can listen to the radio. I can already do that any of the above-mentioned radio-type devices. 

And, strangely enough, I've never felt the urge to start watching a show on my PC in the basement rec room, pause it and then start it up again when I'm in the second floor bathroom, only to pause it and start it again downstairs in the kitchen where I watch for a moment trying to determine whether I want a glass of chocolate milk, a cold beer, or something else. Then, I stop it one more time, grab my wine and ice cream and head for the home theater room where I can finally sit down, relax, and watch the weather forecast. 

Have you?

What I would really like is to call up some television service deliverer and say to them "I want my local channels, and I want these other 15 channels. And I don't want anything else. How much will that cost?" And if I were to ask that question, after they stopped laughing at me, I'd be told it's not possible.  You need to get these other channels, you need to have at least one hockey channel for every team, and at least four soccer channels, and six watching-waves-crash-against-the-shore channels, and 27 religious and inspirational channels, and movie channels, my poor girl, you simply must have 50 movie channels, you poor pitiful behind the times girl - and the choir of sobbing, hand-wringing customer service reps in the background can only be appeased if I spend my $39.99 or $49.99 or $79.99 or $89.99 or $199.99 per month for the two-year introductory period and get my dishes and boxes and cards and hoppers and DVRs and HGTV....oh wait that's a channel I want, not a delivery method, sorry. 

Oh - and bundle up, sister, because it's cold outside. Heaven forbid you have more than one supplier of TV, phone, and Internet service. Because that's plain un-American. Just ask them. 

Yep -- for some reason, these companies have come up with a business model that says we have to take what they want us to take, and we have to take all of it, even if we have no intention of using most of it - and we have bought into it hook, line, and sinker. 

Can you imagine, just for a moment, if any other company or business did the same thing? 
  • Picture walking into a shoe store and being told that, in order to get the pair of boots you really want, you also need to get three handbags, eight pairs of those nylon shoe-trying-on things, ten pairs of flip-flops and a dozen pairs of stilettos, in sizes that don't fit and colors that are beyond horrid -- a bunch of junk plus twenty-two pairs of shoes you will never wear -- just to get the one pair you want. You gonna buy those boots? 
  • Or going into a grocery store to get milk and bread, because we've got a Nor'easter or an Alberta clipper or lake effect snow heading our way, and being told that you also have to pay for and take home both adult and baby diapers, some weird-looking sushi, gluten-free cookies, blue dye for your hair, anchovies, week-old bagels, unsalted nuts, and off-brand tuna fish packed in oil, because that's what the store wants to sell you. How badly do you want that bread and milk? 
  • Or taking your car to the speedy oil change place, and have to get new tires, a pollution control valve, seat covers, a windshield, a side-view mirror, and cargo-area carpeting, because after all, if you want that speedy oil change, well, you know the drill. 
It's crazy that we fall for this, isn't it?

December 24, 2013

Tuesday's Number: $242,561

Tuesday is the day my local paper, the Syracuse Post-Standard, publishes the weekly business section. In addition to special features, tips from stock experts, budgeting advice and the like, we get the judgment and bankruptcy listings.

As I did for much of last year, I will be tracking health care related filings. I include anything that is clearly a debt owed to a hospital, nursing home, physician or physician group, medical supplier, and so on; I do not include filings by insurance companies, many of which are so diversified it would not be a fair assumption that the filing is related to medical care or health insurance.

This week, there were 14 people listed with new judgments to hospitals, doctors, or other medical providers totaling $242,561.

This week, there were no satisfied judgments to a hospital, doctor, or other medical provider listed.

And, this week, there were no health care related bankruptcies.  

The paper publishes only those accounts of at least $5,000.

December 22, 2013

Case Studies: A&F, JCP, and A&E

Abercrombie & Fitch, the allegedly hip store for young people who want to wear lots of layers of clothes in a stylish way and carry around arty-farty shopping bags with pictures of topless or almost topless chiseled pretty people on them, once offered to pay a customer to stop wearing their brand. Yep - don't wear our clothes, said their 'brand senses department': 
We are deeply concerned that Mr Sorrentino's association with our brand could cause significant damage to our image. We understand that the show is for entertainment purposes, but believe this association is contrary to the aspirational nature of our brand, and may be distressing to many of our fans. We have therefore offered a substantial payment to Michael 'The Situation' Sorrentino and the producers of MTV's The Jersey Shore to have the character wear an alternative brand. We have also extended this offer to other members of the cast, and are urgently awaiting a response.
Famously, A&F also ran into trouble with their 'exclusionary practices' which were detailed in a 2006 interview with CEO Mike Jeffries (the comments resurfaced more recently).  When asked about the emotional experience he offers his customers, and how sex plays into that, here's what he said:
It's almost everything. That's why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don't market to anyone other than that. 
Jeffries went on to say this about some potential customers:
In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the no-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids.  We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends.  A lot of people don't belong (in our clothes) and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don't alienate anybody, but you don't excite anybody, either. 
A&F, which offers women's clothes in sizes XS (00-0), S (2-4), M (6-8), and L (10),  and men's pants  ranging in size from 28x30 to 36x34, didn't want to market to fat people, or falling-down-drunk Jersey Shore folks, because they weren't cool.  They couldn't 'vanilla' the brand and become indistinguishable from everyone else.

JCPenney, on the other hand, got into trouble when Ron Johnson, their former CEO, noted in an interview that they had no 'growth platform' and so made a huge marketing change, which included making JCP look very different.  Here are his comments:
We had a business model that didn't have any growth in the future. Every business needs to build off a growth platform...We had a promotional model which had merit but it played its course. We need a new growth platform....The key was we had to have the courage to transform the business. 
He went on to get in trouble with this comment, in a response to getting customers back after the significant drop in sales that resulted from the business transformation:
Come to our stores right now. Our stores are busy. We're gaining that customer back. We know who she is, we talk to her in a variety of ways and it's important to get her back in store. It's even more important to attract new customers. That's the key to this long term, new customers. We had one of the oldest and poorest customers in the industry. We have to over time get a little younger and affluent. What will bring them in is everyday value on products they can't find elsewhere and not losing the older customer as well. We'd love to keep her. 
JCP's CEO knew who his customers were, and the numbers did not compare favorably with competitors like Target, Macy's and Kohl's.  Nearly half were over 55, and only 20% were younger than 35. Looking at income, only 13% earned more than $100,000, and 29% earned less than $35,000.  As a 'growth platform', that doesn't look sustainable, does it?

So what happened for these two retailers, when their CEOs did and said things that ticked off the customer base?  For A&F, people bought their clothes and gave them to homeless people.  Ellen DeGeneres (coincidentally, a JCP spokesperson) mocked them for selling 'doll clothes'.  Sales crumbled, with losses over multiple quarters.  The store is going to start offering clothes in larger sizes and more colors, among other things.

JCP suffered significant losses, as those older, poorer customers boycotted the store; they ditched Johnson as CEO and rehired a former CEO to right the ship.

So, what do these have to do with A&E and the Duck Dynasty drama? On the one hand, the two retail cases may look different; after all, in the case of A&F the representative was defending the brand, and in the JCP case the representative was turning the brand on its head. And, of course the brand representatives were the CEOs.

But what got then in trouble, more than anything, was their words, and the impact those words had on actual or potential customers. Those customers, real or wished-for, got up in arms, and in all sorts of ways complained about the exercise of free speech by the CEOs; they organized, they stormed social media, and yes they denied the brand their hard-earned cash. Heck, I have friends who stopped shopping at JCP for the duration of Johnson's tenure, and I know folks who were very upset with A&F and their short-sighted, narrow-wasted view of 'Authentic American' kids.

In the case of A&E, the 'brand representative' was not the CEO, he was just the star of  A&E's biggest sub-brand. A&E heard from actual or potential customers (the LGBT advocates and yes, the NAACP regarding those happy, non-blues-singing, cotton-picking, pre-welfare black folks) who will organize, who did flood social media with strongly worded messages, who would boycott the brand -- all of the same things that happened to A&F and JCP, as well as yoga-clothing retailer Lululemon; their founder/CEO is now out.

Listen, I'm not a fan of reality shows, that's not a secret. I watch a few of the competition shows, less now that many of them are growing old and tired. But there were American Idol contestants being booted for bad behavior -- not for being bad singers, but because their bad behavior off the show could damage the brand. And frankly, we don't have to look a whole lot further than folks like Mel Gibson or Charlie Sheen to see that, yes, even actors and TV stars suffer consequences from their behaviors, including their exercise of free speech.

A&E, which surprisingly does air shows other than Duck Dynasty, suspended a guy from a show that's currently on hiatus, to think about how or whether to protect its brand, not necessarily the sub-brand of the Robertson family. (Not for nothing, that's kind of like Major League Baseball suspending a pitcher for a certain number of games, and the suspension includes days the pitcher doesn't even play, isn't it?)

The biggest thing that will come of this? An even stronger DD brand, according to at least one crisis manager, which is apparently just fine with the Robertson family; after all, they're already a hundreds-of-million-dollar company what with their marketing of anything and everything Duck. They'll profit either way, frankly. We  may never know whether that conflicts with the Duck Dude's comments about 'the greedy' and their chances on judgment day.

Here's a nice summation of the whole thing, from the LA Times:
In the end, it comes down to freedom.  A&E has the freedom to reckon lost revenue against lost good will and make whatever decision works best for it. (It will be a practical decision more than a moral one.) The Robertsons have every right to do likewise, within the bounds of whatever the lawyers work out. If the show continues, sponsors will make similar calculations.  And, should the show return, you will be free to watch or never to watch, and to protest its ongoing existence or not.
Yep -- it's all about freedom. The Robertsons and other actors (and even politicians like Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal) and corporate CEOs can say what they want; advocacy groups (regardless of their specific positions) can respond. Customers can stick with or walk away from a company, and companies can stick with or walk away from people who actually or potentially damage the brand and/or the bottom line.

I'm fascinated that we don't express the same outrage over all of the situations where similar actions and reactions occur, and I wonder, maybe that's our real, 'authentic American' brand.

December 21, 2013

If I Said What the Duck Dude Said

...I would at the very least be suspended, and probably terminated, from my job.

Why? Because in my 'reality show', I work at the pleasure of my employer, and if I'm casting them in a negative light, they have every right to not keep me around. We have an employee handbook, we have a Code of Ethics, we have a social media policy, the whole nine. And all employees are expected to not only abide by what's in the guidelines, but report situations that we see as potential violations of the Code by other employees.

I have friends and coworkers who think that's unreasonable, that an employer shouldn't have the option of terminating someone 'without cause'. One particular case locally that got us on this discussion was Syracuse University's termination of Bernie Fine, in the midst of as yet unproven allegations of child sex abuse. As the pressure heated up -- with multiple accusers (two of them presumed to be liars, the other two a little more convincing at least in the eyes of our DA for Life Bill Fitzpatrick) the topic of conversation moved away from SU basketball and started to focus on Fine, his case, what head coach Jim Boeheim may have known about the situation, and so on.

The fact that the university had previously investigated the situation and had already decided to stick with Bernie as Boeheim's chief assistant likely contributed to their decision initially to suspend him, and ultimately terminate him. You know the old adage, 'once bitten, twice shy' and I think that was SU's situation.

It's been the same situation for other employers, over the years; after all, political correctness has been around for a long time. Sometimes the issues change, but the outcomes are similar.  Here's a refresher:
  • Juan Williams, who spoke about being scared of Muslims in their garb while on Fox, and was let go by NPR as a result of that and previous line-crossing in violation of his contract. 
  • Helen Thomas, who lost her job as a White House reporter because of anti-Semitic comments 
  • Gilbert Gottfried, for joking a little too soon about the tsunami which cost him the spokes-duck job for Aflac; Shirley Sherrod, former government worker who was dropped for allegedly being biased against white people; and CNN's Rick Sanchez, who went overboard talking about Jews in the television business (you can link to their stories here and here)
  • Howard Cosell, who killed his career with his 'look at that little monkey run' comment years ago
  • Paula "I is what I is" Deen, for using the N-word on one or more occasions
  • Martin Bashir, who resigned from MSNBC after slamming Sarah Palin for ridiculous remarks she had made when exercising her right to free speech. Palin immediately took up the Duck call, no surprise there, appearing on Fox wearing her Duck Dynasty cutie camo.
  • Just yesterday, there was a report that an Air Force general was fired for, among other things, 'rude and brash behavior' and showing up late for a meeting. 
Importantly, these folks were let go for a variety of comments bashing a whole host of populations, and except for the general, they didn't get in trouble while they were working for the company that fired them, suspended them, or 'let them resign'.  And that's the point here.

The Duck Dude is entitled to his opinions, and those opinions apparently should not be surprising to anyone who watches the show, or to A&E, the network that airs it. After all, you can take the boy out of the Louisiana backwoods, but you can't take the Louisiana backwoods out of the boy. The network accepted the risk, obviously, and as with most employers, there are limits, even when cash is pouring into the coffers. When you jeopardize the brand, the business, and the bottom line, employers will act, and they should.

One other thing that's important to note here, on the sponsor thing: WalMart, particularly in their rural stores, is a huge seller of all of the Duck Dynasty spin-off merchandise. I haven't heard yet that they were dropping those items, but I think they have to.

After all, that's what they did to Paula Deen; and isn't what's good for the goose good for the, er, Duck?

December 18, 2013

Oops, I Said it Again

"Happy Holidays".

Twice, today, I think I said it.

Want to know why?  I can assure you, it's not because I'm fighting some 'war on Christmas' or because I'm cooking up some nefarious plot. It's not because I have an agenda.  It's not even because I'm a Democrat.

It's because there are multiple holidays in a very short period of time; not for nothing, Christmas music starts now on the radio in October or early November, so pretty easily we can string together Thanksgiving and Hanukkah and Christmas and Festivus and Kwanzaa and New Years and 'Little Christmas' into one season (called the Shopping Season), and do a 'cover-all' greeting, can't we, without starting World War III?

Honestly, I don't even give it much thought, whether to say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays". Sometimes I even dare to say "have a nice holiday" without specifying which one, leaving it up to the recipient of the greeting to figure it out. But I don't understand why people think I must wish someone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year separately, each a week apart, or crammed together:
GoodtoseeyouhaveaMerryChristmasandaHappyNewYear.  
Seems kind of silly, doesn't it? 

Now, let's be clear, I may say "Happy Holidays" but
  • I put up Christmas decorations, and Christmas trees, not holiday decorations and trees 
  • I go Christmas shopping for gifts, and 'holiday shopping' if I'm getting a bunch of extra groceries
  • I mail Christmas cards not holiday cards
  • I give and receive Christmas presents, not holiday presents 
  • And on Christmas Eve, not holiday Eve, I leave a plate of cookies for Santa and something for the reindeer.
All of those things are fun and seasonal and pretty and traditional and it's wonderful to share them with friends and family, to celebrate memories from days past, and to create new ones going forward.  But to me, none of them are religions activities, even though they are thoroughly 'Christmas' activities. Because I'm not religious, and because there's something particularly unreligious about extreme retail therapy outcomes all wrapped up and shoved under a tree.

And yet, even though I do all of those Christmas-y things, if I see you walking down the street, or at the office, or out at a party, I might offer an all-inclusive "Happy Holidays", instead of "Merry Christmas", and I hope you take it as it's intended.

Because it is not offensive, unless you want to perpetuate an artificial war on Christmas. It's not offensive, unless you have an agenda. It's not offensive, unless you want it to be. It's not offensive, unless you're one of the people who believes that only your beliefs matter, that regardless of what anyone else actually believes, they need to believe and act as you believe and act. 

That's the kind of thinking that gets a Salvation bell-ringer punched by a righteously indignant WalMart bargain hunter, folks. 

Everyone take a deep breath on this, OK?  And oh -- Happy Holidays!

December 17, 2013

Tuesday's Number: $462,977

Tuesday is the day my local paper, the Syracuse Post-Standard, publishes the weekly business section. In addition to special features, tips from stock experts, budgeting advice and the like, we get the judgment and bankruptcy listings.

As I did for much of last year, I will be tracking health care related filings. I include anything that is clearly a debt owed to a hospital, nursing home, physician or physician group, medical supplier, and so on; I do not include filings by insurance companies, many of which are so diversified it would not be a fair assumption that the filing is related to medical care or health insurance.

This week, there were 15 people listed with new judgments to hospitals, doctors, or other medical providers totaling $462,977.

This week, there were no satisfied judgments to a hospital, doctor, or other medical provider listed.

And, this week, there were no health care related bankruptcies.  

The paper publishes only those accounts of at least $5,000.

December 14, 2013

The Sandy Hook Anniversary

Take time today to remember the names of those who were
so senselessly and tragically lost in the
Sandy Hook tragedy:

Charlotte Bacon, 6
Daniel Barden, 7
Rachel Davino, 29
Olivia Engel, 6
Josephine Gay, 7
Ana M Marquez-Green, 6
Dylan Hockey, 6
Dawn Hochsprung, 47
Madeline F Hsu, 6
Catherine V Hubbard, 6
Chase Kowalski, 7
Jesse Lewis, 6
James Mattioli, 6
Grace McDonnell, 7
Anne Marie Murphy, 52
Emilie Parker, 6
Jack Pinto, 6
Noah Pozner, 6
Caroline Previdi, 6
Jessica Rekos, 6
Avielle Richman, 6
Lauren Rousseau, 30
Mary Sherlach, 56
Victoria Soto, 27
Benjamin Wheeler, 6
Allison N Wyatt, 6

If you're interested in learning more about many of the folks whose names you see above, you can visit a new memorial website, mysandyhookfamily.org.

To learn more about initiatives aimed at preventing the causes of gun violence, please visit www2.sandyhookpromise.org

If you're so inclined, some of the families have asked for random acts of kindness today, as a way to honor the memories of their loved ones. 

And don't forget Nancy Lanza, 52, who also lost her life that day.

Thanks.

December 13, 2013

Blame the parents? Punish the parents

When you're 16, steal some beer, get absurdly drunk with your friends, then get behind the wheel and kill four people and seriously injure the aforementioned friends, do you blame your parents?  And if you manage to convince someone that it WAS your parents and your wealthy, no-consequences-apply upbringing that caused you to behave with reckless abandon, do you thank your parents, or do you just ignore them with abandon, as you do everything else?

News feeds are blowing up with this tale out of Texas, where everything is bigger, apparently including the balls of kids and parents and lawyers and judges.  Here's Ethan Crouch, the innocent looking
Photo captured from Raw Story
beer-stealing, heavy drinking, Valium popping, drunken driving   killer who, according to his attorney, grew up with mean, manipulative, buy-your-way-out-of-trouble parents and so never learned how to say "I'm sorry" or how to behave in polite society.

Poor Ethan. Three hours after the accident, his blood alcohol level was still three times the legal limit. According to reports,
Couch was going 70 miles per hour in his father's Ford F-350 pickup in a 40-mph zone when he lost control and started a deadly chain of collisions that claimed the lives of 24 year old Breanna Mitchell, whose car had broken down on the side of the road; Hollie Boyles and her 21 year old daughter Shelby, who lived nearby and come outside to help Mitchell; and Brian Jennings, a youth pastor who was also playing the role of good Samaritan.
According to the psychologist who's known Poor Ethan since this past June (having begun treating him shortly after the accident), he didn't have any friends, he didn't know what high school he went to, or where he went to church.  He had essentially raised himself, his mother showering him with presents, his father a man who didn't "have relationships, he takes hostages" and there was a nasty divorce.  Intellectually, the psychologist said, Poor Ethan was 18; emotionally though, he was only twelve.

Poor Ethan. The kinder, gentler judge he had, the woman who decided not to send him to jail for 20 years as requested by the prosecution but instead to probation for ten years, believed what she was told by the defense and the psychologist, and thinks that intensive inpatient therapy is the answer. And 'Take Hostages' Daddy is willing to fork over $450K a year for the privilege of sending Poor Ethan across the country to California for treatment.

I guess it's only fair, since for a long time folks have been blaming bad behavior of poor people on their upbringing and lack of economic 'benefits' like the kind Poor Ethan had to deal with, and we've blamed the bad behavior of young men on them being raised by single moms, with no strong father figure in the picture, that we come full circle and now blame rich parents for the horrendous behavior of their kids.

But if we're going to blame Mommy and Daddy for Poor Ethan's behavior, why don't we punish them?  If they're responsible, make them pay for their ruined child's actions. Not the $450K to send Poor Ethan to camp in Cali. Let's make them pay in a way that is less pleasant for them. Clearly, throwing the kid away doesn't seem to be a big deal -- that's what they've already done if we believe the psychologist, defense attorney, and the judge.

First, let's find a place for Poor Ethan and his pathetic parents somewhere in Texas, preferably affiliated with the criminal justice system, where the survivors, the families of the victims, can keep an eye on them, and can visit them any time they want, day or night, and ask them what the hell they were thinking. Shout at them, or scream at them, or just sit and stare at them.  What the families do is up to them; that the parents and Poor Ethan are available for the activity is what's important.

Have all three of them attend this intensive, inpatient therapy that is supposedly going to be the answer to making the 'spoiled brat' a productive member of society.

Let's take away a boatload or ten of Daddy's money, and set up long term, ridiculously well funded accounts for the families of the four who were murdered; for the victim now left blinking incredulously at his sad fate; for all the other passengers in the truck; for the church left without its pastor; and for the school system that apparently so miserably failed Poor Ethan that he doesn't even know its name, so that they can figure out how never to let a child like this fall through the cracks again..

Let's make Mommy and Daddy perform 2000 hours of community service, together, during each of the ten years of Poor Ethan's probation. Yes, they must do the service together, so they can learn what they should have been doing as parents all those years when they were messing with Poor Ethan.

And, since if Poor Ethan fails to abide by the letter of the probation, he will end up in jail; to be fair, and just, so should Mommy and Daddy.

Oh, and Poor Ethan, who never learned how to say I'm Sorry, maybe this'll help:
I'm sorry, so sorry, that I was such a fool I didn't know love could be so cruel oh, oh, oh, oh, uh-oh, oh yes. You tell me mistakes are part of being young, but that don't right the wrong that's been done. 
 Poor Ethan.

December 11, 2013

Wage Wars

By a show of hands, how many of you are conflicted about the latest wage wars?  I'm not talking about CEO pay compared to employee pay, I'm talking about the minimum wage protests that are occurring at Walmarts and fast food restaurants across the country. Bueller? Anyone?

I readily raise my hand on this one.

In case you missed it, protests were organized last week by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and other labor groups. Much of the effort has been pushed towards this magical $15 hourly federal minimum wage, the thinking being that at that level, a person is making a living wage - over $31,000 annually for a full time job, compared to about half that at today's minimum.

Am I the only one that doesn't agree with the assumption (presumption?) that minimum wage earners are predominantly full time workers who need to make a 'living wage' in order to support themselves and their families?

Well, no. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2012, here are your minimum wage employees:

  • workers under age 25 make up about half of all minimum-wage workers
  • about 21% of teenagers and about 5% of whites, blacks, and Hispanics who are paid hourly earn the federal minimum wage or less (which is legal in certain situations). 
  • part-time workers are much more likely to earn minimum wages than are full-timers, and 
  • so are never married people, and those without high school diplomas.

But, again according to the BLS data, the percentage of all hourly-paid workers who earn minimum wage in 2012 was 4.7%, down from 5.2% in 2011; these are nowhere near the high percentages that were seen back in the 1970's. (And, not for nothing, at least at one of the events in my neck of the woods, the protesters were not current minimum wage workers, but looked rather more like aging liberals who conceivably could have worked for minimum wage back in the day when that percentage was way up there.)

Another reason I'm conflicted is I don't understand how we can double the minimum wage without making corresponding changes in the wages paid to everyone else.  Here's an example from the local job listings; many of them don't include salary info, but I did find this ad which did:
Location: Syracuse NY Hourly $11 - $15 
Always seeking candidates with experience in Accounts Payable, Accounts Receivable, Bookkeeping, Reconciliation and Payroll. Qualified candidates must have 2+ years of experience. Strong attention to detail, great organizational skills, computer proficiency including strong data entry skills and MS Word and Excel. Knowledge of specific accounting software a plus (QuickBooks, etc.). Pay DOE and level of skills. 
So, pretend you're working at the high end of the range in that ad, making $15 per hour with a corresponding set of skills/education/training, and suddenly you're on equal footing with a minimum wage worker.  If the work you were doing yesterday was worth about twice minimum wage, wouldn't it be worth about twice minimum wage today and tomorrow and the next day, even if some unions protested and politicians listened and randomly decided to double the minimum wage? Wouldn't you expect your employer to double your wage?

And wouldn't the same be true for the wages of the person earning $18 per hour? $20 per hour? $45 per hour? I don't think it really matters what the non-minimum wage salary is, it's hard not to think it should be doubled if the minimum wage is doubled. It's also hard not to think what it would do to our economy if suddenly wages doubled and prices went up accordingly to support them.

Another concern  -- call me crazy -- is that I don't trust politicians to make a change and do it logically. Why?  Well, let's look at New York, my home state. The minimum wage here will increase to $8 for 2014, and then move to $8.75 for 2015, and finally to $9 for 2016.  Sounds good, right?

Not so fast, my friends, not so fast. This is New York, after all.

To make the wage requirement more palatable to businesses, there's a 'minimum wage reimbursement credit' that we taxpayers will have to pay, in order to allow businesses to offer the higher base wages. From the Bloomberg Businessweek article:
Employers would be compensated at a rate of 75 cents an hour per employee when the minimum wage rises to $8 beginning next year, an election year.  Employers would get $1.31 an hour for workers paid minimum wage when it rises to $8.75 in 2015. When the minimum wage raises to $9 in 2016, employers would be subsidized $1.35 an hour for three years. 
So, to recap:  the NY State legislature, with the support of our Sonofa Governor Andrew Cuomo, increased the minimum wage but are making regular Janes and Joes pay for it, not just in the reimbursement credit, as they so delicately call it, but almost certainly in the higher prices that goods and services will cost once the minimum wage goes up. Do you wonder why I'm cynical? And conflicted?

Do I believe the minimum wage should be increased? Sure. The benefits, including the potential for folks to get out of safety net programs and instead be more economically productive members of society, are probably worth it.  And after all, if we are wiling increase other programs on a fairly regular basis (Social Security, for example, has an inflation multiplier), we should be willing to have regular, reasonable increases in the minimum wage.

Oh -- one more thing: there is no requirement for businesses to pay only the minimum wage. They are free to pay hourly employees what they like as long as it's at least the applicable federal minimum or state minimum, whichever is higher. Some businesses do, some don't, but ultimately they have the choice - and they'll likely base that choice on a combination of their business needs, their social compass, and our buying habits.

Maybe we should think about that the next time we the pull into a drive-through to grab something off the dollar menu.

December 10, 2013

Tuesday's Number: $426,319

Tuesday is the day my local paper, the Syracuse Post-Standard, publishes the weekly business section. In addition to special features, tips from stock experts, budgeting advice and the like, we get the judgment and bankruptcy listings.

As I did for much of last year, I will be tracking health care related filings. I include anything that is clearly a debt owed to a hospital, nursing home, physician or physician group, medical supplier, and so on; I do not include filings by insurance companies, many of which are so diversified it would not be a fair assumption that the filing is related to medical care or health insurance.

This week, there were 25 people listed with new judgments to hospitals, doctors, or other medical providers totaling $395,641.

This week, there were no satisfied judgments to a hospital, doctor, or other medical provider listed.

And, this week, there were two health care related bankruptcies, totaling $30,678.  

The paper publishes only those accounts of at least $5,000.

December 3, 2013

Tuesday's Number: $431,726

Tuesday is the day my local paper, the Syracuse Post-Standard, publishes the weekly business section. In addition to special features, tips from stock experts, budgeting advice and the like, we get the judgment and bankruptcy listings.

As I did for much of last year, I will be tracking health care related filings. I include anything that is clearly a debt owed to a hospital, nursing home, physician or physician group, medical supplier, and so on; I do not include filings by insurance companies, many of which are so diversified it would not be a fair assumption that the filing is related to medical care or health insurance.

This week, there were 24 people listed with new judgments to hospitals, doctors, or other medical providers totaling $431,726.

This week, there were no satisfied judgments to a hospital, doctor, or other medical provider listed.

And, this week, there were no health care related bankruptcies.  

The paper publishes only those accounts of at least $5,000.

December 1, 2013

Knock Knock. Who's There? The Joker

No, not that Joker, these three jokers. (Hey - I think I just made a Trifecta post here).

First, there's this joker, the birther Rev. James David Manning, who thinks that Barack Obama had his love child's baby mama killed.

That's right: POTUS has a love child, apparently conceived when he made an emergency visit to a dental clinic in Connecticut in 2011 when a pistachio had lodged in his tooth. Clearly that was a ruse; the real purpose was to have sex with dental assistant Miriam Carey, the woman who was tragically killed in October after a chase through the streets of DC. At least some of  that information is according to the Russians.  

Importantly, Carey's family is not engaged with Reverend Birther on this. According to attorney Eric Sanders,
There is no suggestion, nor has there ever been any suggestion by the Carey family that President Obama is the child's father.
Now there's probably not much we can do about the Russians and their intelligence, and there's probably not much we can do about Rev. Manning's intelligence or commitment to his cause, which is ostensibly to have the people of Harlem turn to Jesus and change their lives. And there's nothing wrong with that.

We can wonder, (and I certainly do) if his ATLAH World Ministries is receiving tax breaks as a church for their highly political evangelical missions, such as these:
You can preach the gospel, and you can preach it with passion and confusion and righteousness, but you can't preach politics and get a tax break for doing it. And that's true for both sides of the pulpit. 

Then there's this joker, a former governor of Florida who stepped up to his computer and tossed out a tweet about the US embassy to The Vatican. Here's what he said:




Now, we all know when politicians tweet, sometimes things can get messy.  As with this tweet of Jeb's, when there are facts out there that contradict what you're saying. 

See, the Obama administration is not closing our embassy to the Vatican; it's being moved to our embassy compound, into a building purchased by the State Department under Jeb's brother's administration, where it will not only be more secure, but in a 'very distinguished' building instead of a nondescript house, and where the government will save $1.4M a year.  No staff are being cut. No prestige is being cut -- there will be complete separation between the embassies, including separate entrances. It's all good, right? 

Well, no. Of course not.

Jeb was not the only one complaining about this, there were others -- in fact there was so much noise about it that the State Department had an open conference call with the press to discuss it. Here's the intro to the call (emphasis added):
Hi. Good evening, everyone and thanks for joining us on such relatively short notice. As many of you have seen or participated in, there's been a number of stories, blog postings over the last few days about the State Department relocating the US Embassy to the Holy See.  So we thought it would be worthwhile to invite all of you to talk to a senior State Department Official...a little bit about the move and then answer some of your questions.
I don't know how many news outlets attended the call; only the Catholic News Service and the Religious News Service are on record as having asked questions.  Everyone else either was satisfied with the information provided, or else they were only concerned with stirring the pot and didn't attend or chose not to report the facts. Jeb Bush has not yet tweeted a correction. 

And speaking of corrections, I wonder if we'll hear from Dubya on this?  Friday morning his daughter Jenna Bush Hager was co-hosting part of the Today Show; in a segment about her dad's Christmas ornament, Jenna misspoke when she noted Dubya's inspiration for painting. She got a text from her father with the correction - it was Winston Churchill, not Woodrow Wilson, as Jenna had said. 

Maybe he'll step in and set his brother straight.

And lastthis joker on Fox, Jenna Lee, who continued to put forth the message about the non-existent death panels in the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  Lee took a filibuster story and turned it into an ACA 'death panel' story -- even as another Fox reporter correctly explained what the alleged death panel, the Independent Payment Advisory Board, or IPAB. is charged with: slowing the growth in Medicare spending.

Here's some info:
Beginning with fiscal 2015, if Medicare is projected to grow too quickly, IPAB will make binding recommendations to reduce spending.  Those recommendations will be sent to Capitol Hill at the beginning of the year, and if Congress doesn't like them, it must pass alternative cuts -- of the same size - by August. A super majority of the Senate (at least two-thirds of those present) can also vote to amend the IPAB recommendations. If Congress fails to act, the secretary of health and human services is required to implement the cuts.
Wow.  A group of folks are to make recommendations to reduce spending and send them to Congress; if Congress does nothing, the recommendations will go into effect?  Seems like the only bad thing here is the 'if Congress fails to act' part, right? Kinda puts the burden on the do-nothings to do something, and we know how well that's working for us, right? Seems like the death knell rings for them, not us.

We want government spending to be reduced. We want to slow the growth in health care spending. We want to reduce entitlements.  I mean, that's what the Republicans tell us all the time. So why the heck are they so up in arms about the IPAB?  And why does Fox insist on making this a bad thing?

I do get confused on this stuff sometimes, but one thing I'm sure of -- there's no shortage of jokers in the deck.

November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving 1978

Yesterday I was talking to a friend at work about Thanksgiving, and she outlined her schedule for the weekend: pick up daughter at college Tuesday night, pick up daughter's boyfriend at college on Wednesday, take boyfriend back on Friday, take daughter back on Sunday. The kids go to the same school; he's on the basketball team, so he has to be on campus longer before the break and sooner after Thanksgiving. The daughter has to be off campus all weekend. Given the weather that's heading our way from two directions, I'm hoping all of her trips back and forth to Buffalo are uneventful.

When we were talking, I jokingly suggested that The Boy take the bus, and it made me remember one year where I did exactly that, took the bus to spend Thanksgiving with my boyfriend's family.

Ah, the memories. I was 19, he was 25. I had dropped out of college and was working in Syracuse. He had graduated from the same college a couple of years before I got there, and was working in Painted Post, down in Steuben County. I was small town, Methodist, 'teacher-middle-class'.  His family was wealthy, Jewish, New Jersey real estate business.  He and I were very much alike, but his family and mine were worlds apart.

I remember being dropped at the bus station, and wondering if I was doing the right thing, not being home for Thanksgiving. I remember getting a small floral arrangement, a peace offering for his mother. And holding it on the bus from Syracuse to Jersey, trying hard not to spill it (it spilled).  And it seemed so puny once I handed it over to her.

I remember agonizing over what to wear, what to bring, what on earth to say, and hoping that his folks were 'normal' like I knew normal to be. Oh, how I hoped. 

I thought his dad was nice, his mother scary; his brother was a hoot. I remember being exceptionally grateful that 'the kids' were allowed to be kids and not required to spend inordinate amounts of time with the 'rents.

I remember the house, with a great (giant!) room in the center, parents wing off to one side, kids wing off to the other. In the middle of the great room was a pool table, I think, which was transformed into a glorious dining room table, absolutely gorgeous.  There were high school kids who helped serve, clear, clean up. It was all very tasteful and frightening to me. I think I might have said ten words at dinner. I remember an art opening for his aunt, a painter. And cousins I would never see again.

I was happy to be home, when the weekend was over - not happy to leave him, but happy to be home.

We didn't make it as a couple -- not because of that Thanksgiving - but many years later, we reconnected, and still are in touch. We talked about that weekend once, and I mentioned how I had thought his Dad liked me and his mother didn't. He told me with a chuckle that his father liked everyone, so that didn't mean much, and that his mother didn't dislike me specifically, it was just that like many moms, no one was good enough. (My mom thought he wasn't the right one for me, either, naturally.  Apparently, the moms were right).

This Thanksgiving story is not really about the bus trip and the whirlwind  fish-out-of-water weekend in New Jersey: it's about coming of age, leaving the family for the first time on a holiday, taking the step towards independence.

It's about coming home, and finding comfort in the familiar, which helps us get through the unfamiliar. It's about memories, and how they grow softer sometimes, and fonder, as time passes.

I have much to be thankful for - all the things I mentioned last year and more, including memories of holidays past - and hope you do as well.

Happy Thanksgiving.



November 26, 2013

Tuesday's Number: $193,194

Tuesday is the day my local paper, the Syracuse Post-Standard, publishes the weekly business section. In addition to special features, tips from stock experts, budgeting advice and the like, we get the judgment and bankruptcy listings.

As I did for much of last year, I will be tracking health care related filings. I include anything that is clearly a debt owed to a hospital, nursing home, physician or physician group, medical supplier, and so on; I do not include filings by insurance companies, many of which are so diversified it would not be a fair assumption that the filing is related to medical care or health insurance.

This week, there were 11 people listed with new judgments to hospitals, doctors, or other medical providers totaling $187,189.

This week, there were no satisfied judgments to a hospital, doctor, or other medical provider listed.

And, this week, there was one healthcare related bankruptcy, totaling $6,005.  

The paper publishes only those accounts of at least $5,000.

November 24, 2013

Another Word for Filibuster

Filibuster (noun): Tactic of delaying action on a bill by talking long enough to wear down the majority in order to win concessions or force withdrawal of the bill. The tactic is normally employed by a group that cannot muster enough votes to defeat a bill by vote. Filibustering is possible in the U.S. Senate because Senate rules allow unlimited debate on a bill. A filibuster may be carried out by a group or a single member, and the speech need not be related to the bill under discussion. Calling for a vote to limit debate (cloture)—which requires 60 votes, the votes of three-fifths of the entire membership, in the U.S. Senate—or holding around-the-clock sessions to tire the speakers are measures used to defeat filibusters.
Let's be honest: filibusters happen regardless of what party is in the minority and which president is in office. They happen for personal reasons, political reasons, and sometimes even to try and make a point that needs making.  Both parties have used it to block nominations and legislation, and both profess to want to use it as the last option.  But even Republicans (when they are in the majority) believe that a President is entitled to his nominees.

The current Senate has basically been paralyzed on most things, not just on judicial nominations, which was the straw that broke poor Harry Reid's back last week and caused him to use the 'nuclear option' and change the rules of the Senate and the filibuster. 

Now, I'm not going to talk about  how many filibusters there were in the Dubya administration compared to how many there have been in the Obama administration. Contrary to some (OK, many), I don't get my jollies complaining about past administrations or whose fault our mess is, I want the mess fixed and equal credit for that is fine with me, as is equal blame.

But I think more than others this Senate has allowed the mere threat of a filibuster to prevent anything from getting done -- the majority Dems don't even make the Republicans work for it. They refuse to even bring votes to the floor because they assume (or are confident) they don't have 60 votes to shut down a filibuster, and instead keep their tails firmly between their legs, hunker down in their caucus and try to figure out what not to vote on next. 

Meanwhile, all the Republicans (other than  Ted Cruz, the Texas Canadian, and Rand Paul, the "I say I'm certified, you say I'm not, let's call the whole thing off"' Kentucky eye doctor) sit back smugly on their side of the aisle and count their blessings that they don't even have to shout Aye or Nay, much less get out of their chairs and actually stand for something,

You know what the problem is, right?  It's not the filibuster, or the changes to it. It's the lack of leadership.

We have a huge leadership gap in the White House, a point I made the other day, talking about how badly Barack Obama had botched the Affordable Care Act -- not the website, the entire program - because he failed to lead. 

We have the same leadership gap in the both houses of Congress too, clearly. That was made obvious by the Republican  reaction to Reid's move. While some are apoplectic about Harry Reid's audacity, more are giddy with excitement at the thought of what they can do if by some miracle they regain the majority.

And the leadership gap has been made obvious by the government shutdown. And the fiscal cliff. And 40 some-odd votes to repeal the ACA, except the parts that people like.We'll see it again and again, on the next pressing fiscal deadline in January, and on immigration, and on environmental issues, and energy policy, and foreign policy, and tax reform, and Second Amendment issues, and pretty much anything of importance.

We don't have problems naming post offices, but boy, don't even try to make a dent on anything of consequence.

And sadly we have a similar leadership gap at the State level, where gerrymandering to achieve or maintain party majorities rather than honor natural constituencies, changes in voting laws designed specifically to limit our most important right, not encourage it, and middle of the night votes on controversial issues are the norm, not the exception.

The filibuster is a symptom, not a cause. The answer to most leadership crises is not to change the rules, it's people finding backbones to do things that are unpleasant, or getting those who are self-interested out of the way to make room for people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and do the hard work we need.

A perfect summation of  what we face today, and have been facing throughout the Obama administration (and before) was included in the recommendation of the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles gang (officially the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform). Their recommendations were ignored (surprise, surprise), but in my opinion, one of the most important statements included in their 2010 report was not a recommendation, it was this plea for sanity:
In the weeks and months to come, countless advocacy groups and special interests will try mightily through expensive, dramatic, and heart-wrenching media assaults to exempt themselves from shared sacrifice and common purpose.  The national interest, not special interests, must prevail.  We urge leaders and citizens with principled concerns about any of our recommendations to follow what we call the Becerra Rule: Don't shoot down an idea without offering a better idea in its place.
Advocacy groups. Special interests. Media assaults. Sadly, we're all very familiar with those.  Wouldn't it be great if we could have the same familiarity with leadership? Compromise? Shared sacrifice?

Campaign finance reform, term limits, and people actually caring enough to vote will be our salvation.

The rest of it, well it's just a bunch of politicians full-of-bluster.

November 22, 2013

Remembering Fifty Years Ago Today

Where was I fifty years ago today, when JFK was assassinated?

My guess was that I was in a kindergarten classroom in Barrington, RI (given that I was only five years old). I called my Mom to confirm that, and she pointed out that I would have been at the baby sitter's, given the time of day. My brothers would have been in school, but not me. 

I remember where Mom was that day, though. Just a year younger than Jackie Kennedy, she was in a kindergarten classroom that day too - teaching in a Catholic school -- and got a knock on the door from one of the nuns who told her that JFK had been shot. Completely shocked, Mom had to go back to her class as if nothing had happened, because she didn't want to alarm the kids and because, at least back in the day, news like this was delivered to youngsters by parents, not by teachers.

When the second knock on the door came, this time the nun letting her know that Kennedy had not survived, it was even harder to maintain composure in front of the kids, because the school echoed with the sound of prayer. Everyone in the building - all the students except the youngest, all of the nuns and teachers and other employees - were praying out loud. It remains to this day one of her most vivid memories.

(Note to people looking for work: the fact that Mom, born and raised and to this day a practicing Methodist, was teaching in a Catholic school is topped only by the fact that when she was younger, she worked summers at a Jewish camp. When you need a job, you take a job.)

We were living in Rhode Island back in the early 60's because Dad was getting his Masters so he could become a teacher and stop having to uproot the family every time Goodyear decided to transfer him to another store. And so, he too was in a classroom that day, as a student teacher, talking about history as history was being made.

What I find interesting about remembering is how much I 'remember' things not because they're etched in my individual memories, but because they're in our collective memories. When Mom and I were talking this morning, I could clearly remember having heard the story before about the hallways echoing with prayer, and can remember Dad having talked about where he was that awful day.  And when I see people posting on social media or talking on the news about where they were fifty years ago, as has been the case over the past couple of weeks, I clearly 'remember' the day JFK was shot as if it was my own memory.

What's also interesting is how much we collectively focus on the "where were you when...?" question (WWYW?), as if we must remember where we were, or somehow be seen as less interested, or worse, less interesting, if we can't. I seem to recall a time when the question was about the event itself, not so much on where a person was when they heard about it, but I can't remember for sure.

I remember where I was the day of the space shuttle Challenger disaster, but I couldn't tell you when that happened. I remember where I was on 9/11, who I was talking to and why. I remember Bobby Kennedy being shot, and where he was when that happened, but not where I was. Sadly, it seems I don't recall the other WWYW? events of my lifetime off the top of my head, much less the answer to the pressing question.

Fortunately, everyone's collective memories of all these events sort of wrap their arms around me, protect and support and comfort me, both when I do have personal recollections and when I don't.

Where was I fifty years ago today?  At the baby sitter's. Where were you?

November 21, 2013

Sidebar: This Mess, this Mess

Updates, tangents, or absurdities related to my post on Sunday about the President's handling of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

(1) Politico noted that the Obama administration is now carefully using references to the ACA instead of calling it Obamacare, a clearly derogatory term used to slam the legislation.  The article points out there are a couple reasons why Dems are now focusing on calling the bill by name.
Calling it the Affordable Care Act has advantages for Democrats seeking to defend health care reform while still criticizing the bungled White House rollout. The phrase polls better than Obamacare -- and people have responded more positively on the law's benefits when they haven't been told they come from Obamacare.
I had previously called out the difference in poll numbers, having seen this reported on a few occasions. And I'm pleased that the administration has finally figured out not to slam their own product. It's likely too late, but at least they're trying.

(2) Did you see this conversation on Fox the other day, where Elisabeth Hasselbeck, Stuart Varney and others did a segment about UnitedHealthcare's decision to cut doctors from its Medicare Advantage program - which of course is an outcome of the ACA and therefore the President's fault and a broken promise. First, here's Varney:
That leaves hundreds of thousands of patients without the doctor that they've had for many many years. We don't know how many thousands have been dropped, but thousands have been dropped. What about their patients? What about the people who used to have this doctor now no longer have this doctor? Broken promise.
And then Hasselbeck:
And many of those people are women who are expecting babies an who may just have a real relationship with their physician and want to see the same doctor deliver possibly their second child. And they are not left in the dark in a time that they're feeling quite vulnerable.
Now, I'm not going to harp on Hasselbeck for not understanding that a Medicare Advantage program is not likely to have a lot of pregnant women on their plans.  One can only assume that she thought Varney said Medicaid. But then that couldn't be right, could it? Because that would mean Hasselbeck was supporting people on Medicaid having additional children, and if that was the case, then clearly Earth had shifted on its axis.

 Back to the segment, where there were so many things wrong, it's hard to capture them all.
  • United started contacting doctors more than a month ago, so this is not breaking news.
  • Varney acts as if they have no idea how many 'thousands' of doctors are being cut; however, a simple web search would have given Varney the same info I found: that United plans on trimming its provider network by 10 - 15% by the end of 2014. Since they had a graphic on the clip showing 350K providers in United's Medicare Advantage program, the math is not hard.
  • One of the talking heads refers to Medicare Advantage as a 'supplemental' plan, and Varney agrees. Except that it's not, it's a plan where a private insurer acts as the government does in a traditional Medicare plan.  Supplemental plans are completely different.
  • They also talk about AARP having a 'competing' plan, completely missing the point that AARP's Medicare Advantage plan is insured through United.
So,why is United cutting their provider network? As reported last month in the Hartford Courant, the Fairfield County Medical Society had this information on their website:
Claiming the information is proprietary, UHC would not share with the Fairfield County Medical Association the criteria the insurer used in deciding which physicians would be eliminated...UHC acknowledged its decision whom to deselect was based on quality, physician panel size, and cost of the physician provider to the insurer among other items.
Whether you believe the statements about quality and the physician panel as reasons for United's actions, you can certainly believe the reference to cost. Now, I don't watch Fox much, but I'm surprised they're complaining about a big business making cost-cutting moves to improve the bottom line. Isn't that what business is supposed to do? I think any other time, they'd be thrilled about this kind of activity - except when it gives them a chance to slam the President, of course.

(3) And speaking of slamming the President, Fox also has a habit of having people on their shows who blame 'Obamacare' for something, but a few questions later, it's clear there are other issues, or maybe no issues at all. Such was the case of the Texas car wash owner who sold his business for "myriad reasons" many of which were fault of Texas regulations, not the ACA, but blamed Obamacare and so made it to the big time on Megyn Kelly's show. And it was true with some of the guests on another Fox show, also debunked.

Seems like Fox News needs Fox Mulder: the truth is out there, indeed.

November 19, 2013

Tuesday's Number: $654,912

Tuesday is the day my local paper, the Syracuse Post-Standard, publishes the weekly business section. In addition to special features, tips from stock experts, budgeting advice and the like, we get the judgment and bankruptcy listings. 

As I did for much of last year, I will be tracking health care related filings. I include anything that is clearly a debt owed to a hospital, nursing home, physician or physician group, medical supplier, and so on; I do not include filings by insurance companies, many of which are so diversified it would not be a fair assumption that the filing is related to medical care or health insurance. 

This week, there were 29 people listed with new judgments to hospitals, doctors, or other medical providers totaling $627,939.  

This week, there were three satisfied judgments to a hospital, doctor, or other medical provider listed, totaling $17,428. 

And, this week, there was one health care related bankruptcy, totaling $9,545.   

The paper publishes only those accounts of at least $5,000.

November 17, 2013

This Mess, this Mess: Obamacare

The other day, I got this email from President Obama. Yeah, we're buds, me and Barack.
Susan, I want to cut through the noise and talk with you directly about where we're headed in the fight for change.  That's why I'm getting on the phone with OFA supporters this Monday.  I have just over three years left as president -- and there's a lot left on my to-do list.  That's why I want to talk with you.  You're the ones putting in the time and effort to achieve real progress, and fighting to make the agenda Americans voted for last fall a reality. I know we all care about what we can get done together these next few years, so let's talk about how to make it happen.
Wow, I chuckled, he wants to talk to me personally? About the future? I think if he's going to try and make anything of his next three years, he has to learn some hard lessons about the first three, particularly from the Affordable Care Act (ACA), don't you agree?

First, a very important disclaimer: I work for a health insurance company that is in the middle of implementing the ACA, but I have no direct involvement in the implementation. And, I unequivocally do not speak for my company in this or any other post on this blog or in other social media. All opinions expressed by me are mine.

OK.  Let's talk about This Mess, This Mess (and yes, if you're channeling Faith Hill, you're on the right track).  Here's what I want to tell President Obama.

Mr. President, you have let the ACA slip through your fingers, certainly since you signed the bill in March 2010, but I believe you let it go even before then, when the most memorable phrase coming out of the days leading up to the bill-signing belonged not to you, but to Nancy Pelosi. Everyone remembers those unforgettable sixteen words:
But we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what's in it...
You and your administration did a horrible job responding to that statement, which became the rallying cry for the opposition.  You and your administration have done a horrible job of educating people about the bill; you have done a crappy job promoting it as a solution for many of the millions of uninsured who would rather have insurance than not; and worst of all, you have basically done nothing - NOTHING - to 'bend the curve' on the public narrative. You have relied on others to do these critical jobs for you - and that includes both professional fact checkers and investigative reporters, and little people like me who have at least been trying on your behalf to do just that - bend the curve.

First and foremost, you let the bill become 'Obamacare', you did not make the conversation focus on The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Every time someone said 'Obamacare' in an interview with you or with anyone in your administration, the response should have included the words 'Affordable Care Act' or one of the two closely associated acronyms, PPACA or ACA.  

I mean, think about it. What business would let their most important product be known by a derogatory term, and not say anything about it? And sometimes use the derogatory term themselves, when talking about their own product?  You did that, Mr. President.

Or, name a business would stand idly by while their competition spent over $50M  slamming their most important product?  I think anyone would be hard-pressed to name one, don't you?  But you did that, Mr. President. You let the House of Representatives vote dozens and dozens of times to repeal the ACA, and spend my money doing it - and basically said nothing. That's unforgivable.

Second, you and your administration took the blame for everything whether it's actually in the bill or not, by offering barely a third-rate defense against the stuff that's been thrown at you. Need some examples?

Sarah Palin's death panels. The bill does not make granny stand before a panel of nameless bureaucrats to ask for health care services. It does not require or allow a lottery to determine who gets to live and who must die. What the bill does provide is coverage for conversations about end of life care and treatment, so that the doctors know what their patients want. What the bill does allow is evidence-based decisions on medical care which, by the way, all insurance companies currently do today through their utilization review programs, medical policy development, etc. What the bill does promote and reward is quality of care and outcomes, which is another thing that insurance companies - and Medicare - do today. Why wouldn't you come out and say that, and throw your support behind these ideas?

Employers cutting hours or changing programs. The ACA does not require companies to cut hours, hire part-time workers, change to high-deductible health plans (which pre-date the ACA, by the way), cut coverage for spouses of employees, lose their grandfather status, or anything of that nature.  Many of those changes are occurring because of our lingering economic situation, or as normal moves by businesses to try and control health care costs, or because insurance companies continue to innovate to meet a changing marketplace.  As with our tax law, labor laws, environmental laws, and such, there are ways to make changes that are good for business but bad for people. The ACA is no different. Why wouldn't you just come out and say that, and support what your program actually does?

House Republican 'uncertainty'. In all of the discussion leading up to the 40 or so votes by the House to repeal the ACA, the key word has been 'uncertainty'; it has become the mantra of John Boehner's shaky tenure as House Speaker.  Before the bill was passed, it posed too much uncertainty for business because they didn't know what would be in it. Once it got passed, it posed too much uncertainty because they hadn't read it. Once they read it, it posed too much uncertainty because they didn't know what it meant. As the bill's provisions got implemented, it posed too much uncertainty for some other convoluted reason. Why wouldn't you just come out and ask Speaker Boehner when there would be certainty?  And ask them why they wasted $50,000,000 of taxpayer money trying to prove a point, and what they would offer instead? There's certainly certainty in that question.

If you like your health plan/like your doctor, you can keep your health plan/keep your doctor. You and I know you said this dozens of times, because it got a good reaction from the crowd when you did. But you and I also know what you really meant, and that what you really meant is only now being expressed fully:
If your current insurance coverage offers you the minimum protections all Americans deserve -- hospitalization, preventative care and the like -- and does not artificially limit your coverage based on an arbitrary dollar figure, and doesn't penalize you if you have a pre-existing condition, you can keep your current plan. And if your insurance company doesn't change their participating provider list, you can keep your current doctors too.
But if you have crappy coverage, with its only redeeming feature being a low premium, you're going to have to change to something better. Because you deserve better than what you have today.
But you didn't come right out and say that, did you?  Nope, not until way too late, and by then the  the horses named BadPollNumbers, Negativity and LackofTrust were long out of the gate.  Like all politicians, you live and die by your sound bites. I think we know which side of that 'death panel' this one is on.

Third, you let a website ruin your program. Healthcare.gov and the ACA are not actually the same thing, but for all practical intents and purposes, they are now -- and you're not managing this at all well. 

I tried the website, even though I have insurance through my employer, because I wanted to know what all the shouting was about.  Did you do that, Mr. President, before it went live? Or after?

And before it went live, did anyone tell you that it wasn't going to work, or did they say everything was fine and things are ready to go? Are people afraid to tell you bad news? Or do you simply not care about the details? Regardless of which of those is the case, the person who needed to be front and center on October 1st, and regularly since then, was not Kathleen Sibelius, it was not Jay Carney, it was not anyone in Congress - it was you.

You need to get engaged, get involved, get it fixed. Period. And please, don't do that by changing the rules for states and insurance companies like mine, who have spent countless dollars trying to implement this as designed, in good faith.

The answer is not 'Go Backwards', Mr. President. The answer is 'Get a Backbone' and move forward.

Finally, you have allowed this to become a political conversation rather than a health insurance conversation.  You're not running for re-election, so you can pretty much say what you like (or not, as I've made apparent here).  And I know there are Democrats in the Senate and House who might want to run again, and they are scared as they watch your poll numbers and their own crash and the ACA unravel.

But the bottom line is, the ACA is not about political careers, it's about health insurance and health care. Because of term limits, you are in a unique position to make that point. And yes, you're going to anger members of your own party, and the other party will go bonkers, and media darlings will have a field day with you. But, ask yourself what's more important:
  • Politicians or health insurance?
  • Media coverage, or medical coverage?
  • Morally bankrupt political figures, or truly bankrupt Americans who cannot afford their medical bills?
  • Vulnerable politicians, or vulnerable Americans?
  • Affording politicians another chance, or the Affordable Care Act?
Start leading on this, Mr. President, and then maybe we can talk about your future. Oh - and don't call me Susan.