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 and 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 now 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. 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.

November 13, 2013

You've Got to be Kidding Me

William Fitzpatrick, Onondaga County's District Attorney for Life, is apparently getting an eyeful in his role as one of the chairs of New York's Moreland Commission.

In a recent radio interview recapped in the local newspaper, he talked about what he's seeing and how it's making him a believer in public financing of campaigns.
I'm a fiscal conservative. If the money's not there, I'm inclined not to spend it. But in reality, based on what I've learned over the last couple of months, I'm now a proponent of public financing... The savings would ultimately be astronomical in the long run.
Yes, it's true -- some politicians (but not District Attorneys) can be swayed by the ridiculous amount of money available to them from donors, PACs, corporations, unions etc., and it can get expensive prosecuting them and getting the out of office when they break the law. 

The higher cost, of course, is the loss of faith in the system, which leads to dissatisfaction with the process, which leads to low voter turnout, which increases the powers of incumbency, which makes the politicians more attractive to big money donors, and it just goes round and round.  And there's also the bad legislation we get as a result of making the donors happy.

Like Fitzpatrick, I think we have ethical issues in politics and politicians from both on both sides of the aisle. After all, no one has a monopoly on bad acts. But I disagree that public financing is the answer.  My concern, plain and simple, is that I don't trust the politicians to come up with any viable way to enact reasonable public financing laws.  We're talking about restricting their bread and butter, after all. Further, Albany politicians have a proven track record of protecting their interests first, and yours and mine second.  Take redistricting, for example. Or their slow, strolling-through-molasses realization that they're better off without ethically-challenged members in their midst.

Fitzpatrick mentioned that 'crininality' had been found, and that the party 'housekeeping accounts' are being misused, and that LLCs (which allow virtually unlimited contributions) are bad, among other things.  The housekeeping accounts are supposed to be used for non-campaign related things, like voter registration for instance. Common Cause/NY, a non-profit advocacy group, issued a scathing report earlier this year on the housekeeping accounts. It outlines a pretty sorry state of affairs.

The LLCs?  Well, those are set up to help people get around campaign contribution limits.  The candidates, for their part, take the money and then try and convince themselves (and us) that it doesn't mean anything and that you and I are just as important as the big-money LLC donors.  Are you buying that?

My solution is not public funding of elections, typically through some sort of matching fund programs.  My solution limits the money differently:  by allowing contributions only from living, breathing residents of the district in which the candidate is running or was elected.  This solves more issues and doesn't require taxpayer dollars. It also helps restore trust in the process, and eventually I might be at least as important to my elected representative as, say, some powerful downstate Democrat in the Assembly, or some powerful upstate Republican in the senate, or our Sonova Governor, or a union, or some out-of-state billionaire with an agenda.

Back to Fitzpatrick.  He also honed in on how some pols report their campaign account reimbursements. From the article:
There's no specificity at all. We're talking about thousands and in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars on unspecified reimbursements.
We should be able to see how campaign funds are being spent, and I would of course prefer that elected officials or candidates use these contributions on campaign expenses -- you know, advertising, polling, campaign offices and phone banks and whatnot.  To me, it's as important how they spend the money as it is where the money comes from.

I want to see everyone report their expenses. Like Fitz did. In case you missed it, here are some of the ways he has spent his campaign contributions over the course of the past several years:
  • $63,000+ on restaurants and bars
  • $57,000+ on golf-related activities
  • $53,000+ on donations to other people's campaigns or political parties
  • $61,000+ reimbursing himself
I look at those numbers, and (taking a page out of Fitzpatrick's own quote book) I can only ask, "you've got to be kidding me, you're surprised by the behavior you're seeing?

November 12, 2013

Tuesday's Number: $162,573

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 nine people listed with new judgments to hospitals, doctors, or other medical providers totaling $125,484.

This week, there were two satisfied judgments to a hospital, doctor, or other medical provider listed, totaling $37,089.

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

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

November 11, 2013

New York: We're Betting On You

Last Tuesday, New Yorkers overwhelmingly approved perhaps the most ridiculously worded, most biased proposal ever to appear on our ballot:
The proposed amendment to section 9 of article 1 of the Constitution would allow the Legislature to authorize up to seven casinos in New York State for the legislated purposes of promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools, and permitting local governments to lower property taxes through revenues generated.
The promise from our leaders in Albany, the gaming industry, trade unions, business organizations, and local government officials, if the proposal passed? $430 million dollars to counties annually, from the $1 billion in annual revenue that we'll get from those casinos, and 10,000 jobs - well, it was too tasty for folks to pass up.

The four new casinos would be in the Catskills, the Southern Tier, and in the Albany area. After seven years, three casinos could be built in New York City. None would be in my neck of the woods, due to the exclusive rights that the Oneida Nation has to protect their investment in Turning Stone.  Similarly, Western New York will not get a casino either, because the Seneca Nation has the rights to our cash out there, through their properties in Buffalo, Niagara Falls, and Salamanca. Those exclusivity deals were negotiated earlier this year by our Sonova Governor, Andrew Cuomo.

The Oneidas will pay the state some $50M each year (25% will go to local jurisdictions) and will make cigarettes about as costly at reservation-owned stores as they are at non-Native stores, and will make a one-time payment of $11M to Madison County as settlement of tax claims.  The deal with the Senecas would give the state $135M per year, and included some immediate payments that had been held up in disputes over the compact.  A third deal, with the St. Regis Mohawks, keeps new casinos out of the North Country.

A breakdown of the vote, as illustrated in this article by Michelle Breidenbach in the Post Standard, shows where the opposition to the measure came from:
  • Ten counties in Western New York - Seneca gambling territory - voted no by between 50 -59%. Niagara and Monroe county results were 'undetermined' at the time the article was published; however according to the unofficial results, both are leaning no but by very small margins - less than 500 votes in Monroe, and only 250 votes in Niagara. 
  • Here in Central New York, four counties - Madison, Onondaga, Otsego and Tompkins - voted the proposal down; Oneida county was still up in the air but is leaning towards approval, albeit by only 401 votes. 
  • In the capital area, Albany, Schenectady, Saratoga and Warren counties all said no. Rensselear was leaning yes, by just over 700 votes, while Washington was saying no, by only 65 votes.
  • Further north, Hamilton county (118 votes) and Lewis county (369) were also leaning no.
The yes votes were generally strongest where casinos will eventually be built. Along the NY-Pennsylvania border, Chemung, Broome and Tioga counties voted 60% or more in favor; in the Catskills, the same was true in Sullivan, Duchess, Orange, and Putnam counties; other counties in both areas were supportive, but by a lesser percentage. Clinton County, way up north, also voted strongly yes, as did NYC and Long Island.

So the promise has been offered, and accepted by the people. Now we just need to know the details.  This report notes that some big players are interested in building our new palaces of job growth, school aid, and lower property taxes, and that construction should start  in 2014.  The open question is, who goes first?

The legislature apparently didn't include a local veto, but did require that anyone looking to grab a license needs to gain public support - so that seems easier for the Southern Tier or the Catskills to be first up, given the opposition in the Albany area.  If I were a betting woman, I'd bet on the Catskills.

But if construction is only starting next year, will it be 2015 before we're going to start getting our piece of the pie?  And what are local jurisdictions supposed to do in the meantime, wait for some other economic development magic wand to bring them good luck?

Oh wait -- maybe they can take some taxpayer dollars to a racino slot machine or one of the Native American casinos, and try their luck.

November 8, 2013

Goodbye, trans fats

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced yesterday that it is looking to have 'partially hydrogenated oils' (PHOs) classified as food additives, meaning they couldn't be used in food without authorization from the FDA.  PHOs, according to the FDA's press release, are the primary dietary source of trans fats in food.  Having the PHOs classified as a food additive would mean those wishing to use them would need to meet a pretty heavy burden of proof of benefit to get approval, so if approved this new policy could pretty much eliminate trans fats.

Trans fats, in case you didn't know, are the things that make certain foods taste good. What kinds of food? Well, let's see: crackers, cookies, frozen pies, other baked goods, microwave popcorn and other snacks, frozen pizza, creamers, refrigerated dough products, ready-to-use frosting, vegetable shortening, margarine... there's some good, convenient, tasty stuff there in the list which could contain trans fat. I admit to enjoying many of the items on the list. Sadly, as much as they make things yummy, the pesky trans fats actually can raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol. 

Trans fat content has been included on food labels for several years, and consumption has decreased over time, by almost 80% in the past decade, because of increased education, the labeling, local restrictions (such as those in New York City), and actions by the food industry to reduce trans fats in foods or the oils used to cook them.  For example, many of the more prominent restaurant chains have already eliminated trans fats; for some smaller restaurants and stores, it might be harder and more costly to make the transition.

Ultimately, the hope is that further restrictions on PHOs and trans fats will help save lives. As FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg notes,
The FDA's action today is an important step toward protecting more Americans from the potential dangers of trans fat.  Further reduction in the amount of trans fact in the American diet could prevent an additional 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year - a critical step in the protection of Americans' health.
The projected benefits of this change may not seem huge in the overall scheme of things, but every little bit helps. There should also be some reduction in health care costs, which can have implications beyond those directly affected.

As with most government regulations, there's a comment period, during which interested parties can chime in.  Already, some in the industry are starting the conversation.  For example, the Giant Eagle grocery store chain, with stores in the Pittsburgh and Cleveland areas, issued a statement noting that they diligently to ensure that our stores follow all relevant Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules and regulations.  We are aware of today's FDA announcement regarding their preliminary determination that partially hydrogenated oils are not "generally recognized as safe" or "GRAS" for use in food, and are awaiting further detail from the FDA before reviewing the potential impact on our locations during the coming years. (emphasis added)
The FDA and the food industry need to be reasonable about implementation, should this proposal go forward.  For example, it could be a 'from this day forward' rule, so that nothing new can have trans fats, but food already on the shelves could be allowed to be sold for a certain period of time. Another alternative would  be some kind of buy-back period, where the FDA could purchase inventory to get it off the shelves, and keep manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers from losing everything on these currently legal products.  On the industry side, aggressive efforts could be made to speed up the transition.

I hope the comment period gives people on both sides a chance to come up with a viable plan. Kudos to those who have fought for this for so long; and kudos as well as to the food industry for the progress they've already made, willing or unwillingly, to get these fats out of their products.  

November 5, 2013

Tuesday's Number: $189,394

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 12 people listed with new judgments to hospitals, doctors, or other medical providers totaling $189,394.   

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

And, this week, there were no healthcare related bankruptcies.    

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

November 4, 2013

The Election Eve Post, 2013

It's that time again - the night before the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. That means it's Election Eve, and time for me to once again encourage you to vote.

Now, I know that we don't have a Presidential race this year, or a governor's race in New York, or a senatorial race, or even a House race this time around. (Note that there is a local boy, Syracuse's own Terry McAuliffe, leading the race for governor of Virginia, but we can't vote for him. We really can't.)

The race for Mayor here in Syracuse is pretty much a forgone conclusion; the R's didn't even put up a viable candidate; after fooling around earlier this year with placeholders, they finally gave up. We do have some choices for County Legislature and Common Council, as well as a few other local seats.

And we have six propositions on the back of the ballot. That's right - propositions are on the back, vs. being on top with our old voting machines.  We've got economic development um, I mean, casino gambling. We've got special benefits for veterans, sewage plant funding, a couple of issues to solve in the Adirondacks, and eliminating the age restriction on some (but not all) NY judges. 

There's much to think about, even though the excitement of a big race is missing - so don't let that turn you off from making your voice heard.

Don't vote because I say it's important, vote because it IS important. As I do every year, I offer the following motivation, in case you need it: 
After some thought, “I have come to the conclusion that politics are too serious a matter to be left to the politicians.” (1) Actually “The idea of an election is much more interesting to me than the election itself…the act of voting is in itself the defining moment.” (2) And why is it that “When the political columnists say ‘every thinking man’ they mean themselves, and when candidates appeal to ‘every intelligent voter’ they mean everyone who is going to vote for them”? (3) 
We know it’s true that “Bad officials are elected by good citizens who didn’t vote” (4), and that “A citizen of American will cross the ocean to fight for democracy, but won’t cross the street to vote in a national election.” (5) Do we still not realize, after all these years, that “lower voter participation is a silent threat to our democracy… it under-represents young people, the poor, the disabled, those with little education, minorities and you and me”? (6) 
After all, “the vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men” (7) and “to make democracy work, we must be a nation of participants, not just observers. One who does not vote has no right to complain.” (8) And complain we do, after every election, when the wrong guy wins. If only people who actually voted complained, it’d likely be a lot less noisy. 
Some folks may not vote because they don’t know how to pick the right person. There are a couple different schools of thought on that. On the one hand, some might think that “politics is the art of the possible” (9) while others may subscribe to the thinking that “politics is not the art of the possible, it consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable. And it is true that, the great thing about democracy is that it gives every voter the chance to do something stupid.” (10) Said another way, a “Vote (is) the instrument and symbol of a freeman’s power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.” (11) But that’s OK – “personally, I believe that our American system works as long as you participate in it. You must vote and make your voice heard; otherwise you will be left out.” (12) 
It’s generally true that if you “ask a man which way he’s going to vote and he’ll probably tell you. Ask him, however, why – and vagueness is all.” (13) But voting’s really easy; and “all voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong.” (14) And just about everyone likes to play a game every now and then, right? 
The bottom line is, “voting is simply a way of determining which side is the stronger without putting it to the test of fighting;” (15) “voting is a civic sacrament;” (16) and “the future of this republic is in the hands of the American voter.” (17) If all of that seems like too much pressure, you have an out: “Vote for the man who promises least. He’ll be the least disappointing.” (18) 
Please, vote. It really does matter, this year and every year. If you need information on where to vote, or other assistance, visit or contact your local Board of Elections.

(Thanks to these folks for their words of wisdom: 1 - Charles DeGaulle; 2 – Jeff Melvoin; 3 – Franklin P Adams; 4 and 13 – Andrew Lack; 5 - Bill Vaughan; 6 - Nancy Neuman; 7 - Lyndon B Johnson; 8 - Louis L’Amour; 9 – Otto Von Bismarck; 10 – Art Spander; 11 – Ambrose Bierce; 12 - Mari-Luci Jaramillo; 14 – Henry David Thoreau; 15 – H.L. Mencken; 16—Theodore Hesburgh; 17 – Dwight D. Eisenhower; 18 – Bernard Baruch)

November 3, 2013

The Update Desk: Parking Scofflaws

Seven months ago, I did an update on the decision by the City of Syracuse to hire a private contractor to track and 'boot' the cars of parking scofflaws.

The Syracuse Common Council had just approved a contract with PayLock, a New Jersey company that had been providing the boots all along, to try and track down cars owned by the some 20,000 or so scofflaws.  Any thought of offering an amnesty program, something which had been suggested by Councilor Jake Barrett, had been turned down.

From June 20th through September 30th, PayLock booted over 1000 cars which led to payment of over $360,000 in fines, according to a recent article. That's about triple the booting and about double the fines compared to last year, when the work was handled by the Syracuse Police Department.  And as I noted in the prior posts, the SPD has more important things to do than boot cars (on overtime, no less). Another local media report says PayLock is averaging about a boot an hour, using their system of scanners to identify bootable vehicles, and a computer to confirm that the outstanding tickets have not been paid.

I hope that folks within the city government and, frankly, local businesses, continue to look for similar opportunities to save taxpayers money and increase revenues for our financially-challenged city.