The Los Angeles Times reported 5/7 that big corporations have jumped on the healthcare reform bandwagon. "Abandoning the business lobby's traditional resistance to healthcare reform, a new coalition of 36 major companies plans to launch a political campaign today calling for medical insurance to be expanded to everyone along lines Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) is proposing for California," the Times reported. Schwarzenegger's plan would require all individuals to obtain health insurance, hospitals and doctors to subsidize insurance for the poor, and companies to spend a set amount on employee healthcare. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has a similar proposal in Congress. The newspaper calls big business an unlikely ally of healthcare reform, but Alex Koppelman of Salon.com noted that's not entirely true. Small to mid-size businesses that do not now provide coverage, as the Times notes, still tend to not favor the idea of government-supported universal healthcare. Big business, however, bogged down by the costs of benefits paid to its workers, should be the natural ally of any idea that would involve shifting some of its costs to the government.


FREE-MARKET HEALTH CARE COSTS. As part of the 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill, Republicans also got insurance companies to provide Medicare services by paying them more than Medicare pays directly to doctors under traditional Medicare. Perhaps not surprisingly, the New York Times reported 5/7 that federal officials found the Medicare "Advantage" plan for insurance companies generally does not coordinate care, does not save money for Medicare and has been at the center of marketing abuses. These "private fee-for-service plans" allow patients to go to any doctor or hospital that will provide care on terms set by the insurer. In most cases, no one manages the care. And some patients have found that they have less access to care, because their doctors refuse to take patients in private fee-for-service plans. Moreover, those plans may be more expensive than traditional Medicare for some patients, because the co-payments for some services may be higher. The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission says that the cost to the government is also higher because it pays the private fee-for-service plans, on average, 19% more than the cost of traditional Medicare. Richard S. Foster, chief actuary for Medicare, said "the additional payments to Medicare Advantage plans, above and beyond the costs" of traditional Medicare, were causing higher premiums for all beneficiaries and speeding the depletion of the Hospital Insurance Trust Fund for Medicare.


BANKRUPTCY AVOIDS CLEANUP COSTS. Four companies connected by the EPA to some of America's worst toxic waste sites have escaped more than half a billion dollars in pollution cleanup costs by declaring bankruptcy, potentially passing the tab onto taxpayers, according to a Center for Public Integrity (publicintegrity.org) investigation. The Center learned of the bankruptcies while profiling the EPA's list of 100 companies connected to the 1,623 toxic waste sites included in the Superfund program detailed in its recent release, "Wasting Away: Superfund's Toxic Legacy."

Overall, six companies on the EPA list connected to roughly 120 Superfund sites in 28 states filed for bankruptcy &emdash; Bethlehem Steel Corp.; Dresser Industries, Inc., a Halliburton subsidiary later renamed DII Industries LCC; Eagle-Picher Industries Inc.; Kaiser Aluminum Corp.; Polaroid Corp.; and W.R. Grace & Co. However, the EPA never filed a claim against DII Industries LCC, and another, W.R. Grace & Co., is still in bankruptcy proceedings.

Center analysis of court documents shows that bankruptcy filing saved four of these six companies from owing the federal government about $750 million to clean up their sites. Officials for companies on the EPA list told the center their former entities either went bankrupt and reorganized or sold their assets with no Superfund liabilities attached. The agency may recover "a payment of only pennies on the dollar amount" of its Superfund claims on bankrupt companies, according to the 2005 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. Sometimes, the agency gets nothing at all.


THOMPSON'S 18-YEAR GAP. While pundits wait for former Sen. Fred Thompson to enter the presidential race, David Sirota at workingassetsblog.com (5/2) noted a lapse in a 5/2 New York Times profile that reported, "Mr. Thompson came into the public eye &emdash; and ear, considering his distinctive voice &emdash; in the early 1970s when he served as Republican counsel to the Senate Watergate committee. He then took on some lobbying clients, and was later asked to investigate a parole scandal in Tennessee. That episode led to a book and a movie, Marie, in which Mr. Thompson played himself, kicking off his acting career. Elected to the Senate in 1994 to fill the remaining two years of Al Gore's term after he was elected vice president, Mr. Thompson was seen on Capitol Hill more as an investigator than a legislator." Sirota noted that the Times passed over the 18-year gap between Thompson's work on the Watergate committee and his election to the Senate, a period during which, according to The Politico, Thompson's clients including a British reinsurance company facing billions of dollars in asbestos claims, Canadian-owned cable companies and deposed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, according to government documents and media accounts from his first run for the Senate in 1994. New York Magazine reported that Thompson also worked for General Electric and Westinghouse, pushing for passage of deregulatory legislation that led to the savings-and-loan crisis of the 1980s.


FEDS REFUSED OVERSEAS AID AFTER KATRINA. The Bush administration refused or squandered nearly all of $800 mln in assistance offered by foreign governments offered by foreign governments after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast and New Orleans. The US government rejected offers of medical teams, search-and-rescue units, body bags, bottled water, food, fuel and even specially trained rescue dogs from Poland, according to documents obtained by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), reported by the New Orleans Times Picayune (4/30). Also turned down or stalled by bureaucratic delays were offers of two cruise ships by the Greek government for use as medical facilities and to house workers and displaced residents. Instead the Bush administration contracted to pay Carnival Cruise Lines to provide two large ships at a cost of $249 mln. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told ABC News that the US "frankly is not accustomed to receiving large-scale foreign assistance offers." Melanie Sloan of CREW said the US still does not have a system to process so many simultaneous offers of assistance. "It's been nearly two years since Katrina, and still the government doesn't have a mechanism in place to deal with offers of foreign assistance," she told the Times Picayune.


DRUG IMPORT PILL MAY POISON INCUMBENTS. 15 Republicans up for reelection in 2008 voted for an amendment that effectively kills a popular bill to allow consumers to buy prescription drugs from abroad at a significant savings over domestic prices. On a 49-40 vote, the Senate required the administration to certify the safety and effectiveness of imported drugs before they can be imported, a requirement that officials have said they cannot meet. The vote neutralized a second amendment, passed on a voice vote, that would legalize the importation of prescription drugs manufactured in Canada, Australia, Europe, Japan and New Zealand. R's up for election who supported Sen. Thad Cochran's "poison-pill" amendment included Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Thad Cochran (Miss.), Norm Coleman (Minn.), John Cornyn (Texas), Liddy Dole (N.C.), Pete Domenici (N.M.), Mike Enzi (Wyo.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Chuck Hagel (Neb.), Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Pat Roberts (Kan.), Ted Stevens (Alaska), John Sununu (N.H.) and John Warner (Va.). Jonathan Singer of MyDD.com noted that Coleman and Sununu are generally listed among the handful of Republicans most vulnerable this cycle, and others &emdash; including Dole, Domenici, Warner and McConnell &emdash; could be vulnerable. A New York Times/CBS News poll in February found that 77% of Americans &emdash; including 78% of Republicans &emdash; favor Congress changing the law to allow Americans to buy lower cost prescription drugs imported from Canada. Fifteen Dems also voted for the Cochran amendment: Baucus (Mont.), Bayh (Ind.), Cantwell (Wash), Carper (Del.), Kennedy (Mass.) Salazar (Colo.), Kerry (Mass.), Landrieu (La.), Lautenberg (N.J.), Lincoln (Ark), Menendez (N.J.), Mikulski (Md.), Murray (Wash.), Nelson (Neb.), Rockefeller (W.V.). It's possible that some voted for the amendment to move the bill, hoping the amendment will get stripped in negotiations with the House, but this would be a good time to contact your senator if he or she strayed.


AL-QAEDA ENDORSES BUSH SURGE. In a new videotape released 5/5 al-Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri expresses opposition to the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and says he wants 200,000-300,000 US troops killed before the America pulls out. Zawahiri says Congress' proposed Iraq timetable is evidence of American "failure and frustration," but adds, "This bill will deprive us of the opportunity to destroy the American forces which we have caught in a historic trap." On Fox News, host Chris Wallace, trying to spin the Zawahiri tape, repeatedly said Zawahiri "says the Democrats' troop pull-out bill is proof of a US defeat," but never mentioned the fact that Zawahiri also advocated Bush's strategy of staying the course in Iraq, ThinkProgress.org noted (5/6).


'DON'T ASK, DON'T REMEMBER.' Petty Officer 2nd Class Jason Knight says the US Navy knew he was gay, discharged him after he admitted his homosexuality in 2005, then recalled him last year to serve in the Middle East. ABC News reported 5/7 that the Navy disputes that Knight was ever officially known by the Pentagon to be openly gay, so there was nothing odd about his being re-called last summer. But Knight, 23, who received a promotion during his service in a customs battalion in Kuwait, notes that the Navy continued to deduct $350 from his monthly pay to repay the $13,000 bonus he received when he enlisted in April 2001. He is supposed to be discharged again on May 28.


FRENCH RIGHT STILL LEFT? The victory of Nicolas Sarkozy is being depicted in the US as a right turn for France and a crackdown on its notoriously long vacations (25 days mandatory, compared with an average of 8.9 days after one year in the US), but populist economist Max Sawicky noted 5/7 at PajamasMedia.com that Sarkozy actually campaigned on a commitment to allow for tax-free, voluntary overtime. "This is not the same thing as cutting a fringe benefit like paid leave," Sawicky noted, adding that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported that French worker productivity actually is slightly higher than American.

Mark Weisbrot wrote in a 4/30 column before the runoff election that if France makes a historic shift to the right in this election, it will be largely due to economic misinformation. "The general theme that has propelled Sarkozy into the lead is that the French economy is somehow 'stuck' and needs to be reformed to be more like ours. It is also widely believed that France needs to be made more 'competitive' in the global economy, since competition is tougher now in a more globalized world," he wrote. But productivity is as high or higher in France as it is in the US. France appears to have a high unemployment rate among young people because in France, proportionately more young males are not in the labor force, because more are in school, and young people in France are not expected to work part time while they are in school, as they do in the US. If you look at the number of unemployed divided by the population in the age group 15-24, the US comes in at 8.3% and France at 8.6%. "Both countries have a serious unemployment problem among youth, and in both countries it is highly concentrated among racial/ethnic minorities. But the problem is not much worse in France than it is in the United States," Weisbrot wrote.


JUDGE HALTS GE ALFALFA. A Federal judge (5/3) ruled that the USDA's 2005 approval of Monsanto's genetically engineered (GE) "Roundup Ready" alfalfa was illegal and ordered a halt on any further planting of the GE seed until it conducts a complete environmental impact statement on the GE crop. US Judge Charles Breyer in San Francisco accepted the Center for Food Safety's arguments in their lawsuit that the crop could harm the environment and contaminate natural alfalfa. The ruling also ordered USDA to make the location of these plots "publicly available as soon as practicable" so that growers of organic and conventional alfalfa "can test their own crops to determine if there has been contamination." See centerforfoodsafety.org.

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2007

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