The uninsured rate dropped significantly in 2014, to the lowest level in at least seven years, according to a Gallup survey, and Kentucky and Arkansas led the way with double-digit drops in their statewide uninsured rates, thanks largely to Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.

Nationwide, the uninsured rate dropped 3.5 percentage points last year, from 17.3% to 13.8%, the lowest annualized rate across the seven years of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index measurement, Gallup reported, as no state reported a statistically significant increase in the percentage of uninsured in 2014 compared with 2013.

The trend is likely to continue this year, since 55% of those who were uninsured told the pollster they plan to get coverage in 2015 rather than face tax penalties.

“Collectively, the uninsured rate in states that have chosen to expand Medicaid and set up their own state exchanges or partnerships in the health insurance marketplace declined significantly more last year than the rate in states that did not take these steps. The uninsured rate declined 4.8 points in the 21 states that implemented both of these measures, compared with a 2.7-point drop across the 29 states that have implemented only one or neither of these actions,” Gallup reported.

The highest uninsured rates were still in those states whose Republican leaders have refused to accept the federal funds to expand Medicaid to cover 5 mln working poor. In Texas, where new Gov. Greg Abbott (R) bragged about his denial of coverage to 1 mln working Texans, the number of uninsured has dropped 2.6%, but 24.4% of Texans are still uninsured — the highest uninsured rate in the nation. Georgia’s uninsured rate was 19.1%, Mississippi was 18.7% uninsured, Oklahoma was 18.5% uninsured, Florida was 18.3% uninsured, Arizona was 17.5%, Louisiana’s was 17.2% uninsured, Alaska and North Carolina were 16.1% uninsured, Montana was 15.8% uninsured, South Carolina was 15.4% uninsured, Idaho was 15.2% uninsured and Tennessee was 15.1% uninsured. New Mexico and California were 15.3% uninsured, but at least they’re trying.

O’CARE HELPS 32M GET INSURANCE. The Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) has helped 32 mln Americans get insurance coverage through the open enrollment period that ended 2/15, Charles Gaba reported (2/23).

“Now that every state (except for Idaho) has been updated through at least February 15th,” Gaba wrote at acasignups.net, “here, once again, is the complete 2015 ACA enrollment graph, showing the rough breakout of all 32.3 mln people whose current healthcare coverage is either wholly or partly due specifically to the Affordable Care Act.”

Ezra Klein noted at Vox.com (2/23) that Gaba’s counts of Obamacare enrollment have become gospel to reporters trying to follow the law’s progress. “But it’s important to be clear about what this doesn’t mean: that Obamacare has insured 32 mln previously uninsured people. Gaba estimates that “around 19 mln already had some form of insurance coverage. Around 11 mln were uninsured prior to January 2014, and around another 2 mln were uninsured prior to January 2015.”

Klein also noted that the White House is reopening enrollment through April for people who slam into the individual mandate while filing their taxes this year. They can use the special sign-up period if they meet three conditions: They do not currently have health insurance coverage through Healthcare.gov. They confirm that they only learned about the individual mandate penalties while filing their taxes. They attest that they have paid the government whatever fees they might owe for not buying coverage in 2014.

CHICAGO POPULISTS HELP FORCE EMANUEL INTO RUNOFF. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the former investment banker and White House chief of staff who alienated progressives and minorities with his pro-corporate austerity agenda during his first term as mayor, was pushed into a 4/7 runoff with Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (2/24).

Emanuel closed 50 neighborhood schools in mostly African-American and Latino areas, closed mental health clinics, cut library hours and slashed worker pensions while building a $1.7 bln fund for corporate subsidies, which has earned him the nickname “Mayor 1%”. He had a $15 mln war chest, which he also used to attack opponents on the Council, with mixed results. He got 45% in the five-way race, while Garcia finished second with 34%.

Reclaim Chicago, a progressive populist coalition that included National Nurses United and the grassroots organizing group People’s Lobby, backed 18 candidates in City Council races and helped generate an anti-Rahm turnout.

Reclaim Chicago ran on a “People and Planet First Platform,” which the group said “removes big-money and corporate interests from the center of Chicago policymaking and puts the well-being and common good of Chicago residents at the heart of the City Council’s agenda.”

Crain’s Chicago Business described it as “basically an anti-Emanuel agenda, pushing for an elected school board and a $15 hourly minimum wage and against charter schools, corporate subsidies, infrastructure privatization and the use of tax-increment financing.”

Two Reclaim Chicago endorsed challengers won outright: Carlos Rosa defeated incumbent Alderman Rey Colón in the West Side’s 35th Ward. David Moore won an open race in the 17th Ward.

Three Reclaim Chicago endorsed challengers forced Emanuel allies into run off elections: Tim Meegan will take on Emanuel appointee Deb Mell in the 33rd Ward. Tara Stamps will take on Emma Mitts in the 37th Ward, and Amy Crawford will take on James Cappleman in the 46th Ward.

“In the handful of races where Reclaim Chicago candidates lost, these candidates fought hard and ran strong races. We are committed to working with them to strength the base of leaders ready to challenge corporate power in city hall,” the group said.

Chicago voters also overwhelming voted yes for an elected school board and public funding of municipal elections.

Five incumbents endorsed by Reclaim Chicago were re-elected: Aldermen Leslie Hairston (5), Roderick Sawyer (6), Ricardo Munoz (22), Scott Waguespack (32) and Nicholas Sposato (38). Alderman John Arena (45) will face a rematch of the run off election he won 4 years ago.

Dianne Daleiden was outspent 30 to 1, but garnered 41% of the vote against Emanuel’s floor leader Patrick O’Connor in the 40th Ward. Maureen Sullivan finished third but was instrumental in forcing Patrick Daley Thompson, a machine candidate and the grandson and nephew of former mayors Richard J. Daley and Richard M. Daley, into a runoff with John K. Kozlar, a law student in the 11th Ward (Bridgeport).

The Reclaim Chicago coalition first surfaced in the March 2014 Democratic primary and helped Rep. Christian Mitchell, D-Chicago, withstand a strong challenge from a teachers union-backed candidate. It also helped Will Guzzardi unseat Northwest Side state Rep. Toni Berrios, daughter of Democratic Party powerhouse Joe Berrios, the Cook County assessor.

Garcia entered the race after Chicago Teacher Union President Karen Lewis, who had all but declared her candidacy, abruptly withdrew in October 2014 after she was diagnosed with a serious illness.

WYDEN CALLS TRADE HEARING ‘PREMATURE.’ A top Senate Democrat called the scheduling of a trade hearing “premature” because there is no agreement on how to proceed on trade promotion authority (TPA) or the broader agenda of a proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership to reduce trade barriers for 12 Pacific nations. 

A spokesman for Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee, said (2/20) that there is still work to be done on incorporating provisions on transparency and other concerns in any fast-track bipartisan legislation. 

“There is no agreement on trade promotion authority, or other aspects of the legislative trade agenda more broadly,” said Wyden spokesman Keith Chu in a statement reported by The Hill. 

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) on 2/20 announced that he would hold a hearing on 2/26 to examine how Congress can help advance the nation’s trade agenda.

Supporters of fast-track like Hatch and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have argued, along with the Obama administration, that the trade powers give Congress a greater say in shaping trade agreements — though it requires Congress to give the trade deal an up-or-down vote within a limited time.

But a broad swath of House, and some Senate, Democrats along with labor, environmental and religious groups have come out in force against TPA over concerns that the new trade deals will lead to US job and wage losses and the loss of national sovereignty to multinational corporations.

REPUBS SLASH UNIVERSITY SPENDING. Republican governors seem to be competing to see who can force the deepest cuts in higher education. In February, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) proposed a 2016 budget with a 31.5%, or $387 mln, reduction in funding for public universities. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker (R)’s 2015-2017 budget would shrink state funding by 13%, or $300 mln over two years, the largest reduction in the state’s history.

Tuition increases aren’t on the table in either state, meaning universities would have to make up the difference through layoffs and cuts to programs on campus. It’s unlikely administrators will take salary cuts to close the budget gap, so instead, officials predict, lower-level employees on campus will likely be targeted for job cuts.

“All institutions of higher ed are very, very people heavy,” professor Jennifer Delaney of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign told Maxwell Tani of HuffingtonPost.com. “The bulk of our budgets go to people, so a cut of this magnitude would certainly impact [staff].”

Small schools in both states would also face serious challenges. Though large universities like the University of Wisconsin-Madison will probably see a greater percentage drop in funding, small universities don’t have deep reserves or as many alternate sources of revenue such as grants and sponsorships.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) also has proposed $300 mln in cuts in Louisiana. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) wants at least a $75 mln cut to higher ed, and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) is aiming to cut $45 mln from K-12 schools and higher education combined.

Suzy Khimm noted at MSNBC.com (2/10) that In Wisconsin, Walker has targeted higher education funds to make up for a $650 mln budget gap that the state is facing after Republicans pushed through $2 bln in tax cuts. Walker, in fact, proposes further property tax cuts in his latest budget, further reducing revenue to the state coffers.

Arizona Gov. Ducey’s budget also preserves major business tax cuts that the state had passed in 2011, despite calls by Democrats to reverse some of them to help address the state’s $1.5 bln shortfall.

Jindal blamed Louisana’s budget woes on the steep, unexpected decline in oil prices in recent months. But others point out that the state’s fiscal woes far predate the crash in oil prices — with some, such as fellow Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter, accusing Jindal of exacerbating the problem by recklessly expanding tax breaks.

Kansas, meanwhile, has been in fiscal disarray after Brownback pushed through massive tax cuts, creating a huge budget shortfall and even leading the state to be downgraded by ratings agencies. While he’s proposed some tax increases, Brownback is also relying on the education cuts to help make up the gap.

In North Carolina, an advisory panel of the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors has recommended closing three academic centers, including the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at Chapel Hill; North Carolina Central University’s Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change; and East Carolina University’s Center for Biodiversity. In those cases, the New York Times reported (2/20), “It’s clearly not about cost-saving; it’s about political philosophy and the right-wing takeover of North Carolina state government,” said Chris Fitzsimon, director of NC Policy Watch, a liberal group. “And this is one of the biggest remaining pieces that they’re trying to exert their control over.”

As state support has dwindled, public colleges and universities have shifted the burden to students and their families. In 2012, money collected from tuition exceeded state funding for public colleges nationwide for the very first time, according to a January report from the Government Accountability Office.

Nationwide, higher education funding still hasn’t returned to pre-recession levels in terms of spending per capita. Funding increased 7% overall last year, but it remained about 23% below 2008 levels, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

Per-student funding in Arizona, Louisiana, and South Carolina is down by more than 40% since the start of the recession, CBPP reported. Louisiana is among the eight states that continued to cut funding over the last year.

FEINGOLD EYES SENATE REMATCH. Former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) seems to be preparing for a rematch against Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who defeated him in 2010. Feingold has been serving as the special envoy to the Great Lakes region in Africa for the US State Department.

Sources close to Feingold told Daniel Strauss at TalkingPointsMemo.com (2/23) that the former Democratic senator and liberal favorite has begun telling people about his interest.

In what was expected to be his final speech as envoy (2/24), he left what might be a clue to his intentions when he thanked “my once, current, and I hope, future chief of staff Mary Irvine,” according to Roll Call. Irvine worked for Feingold throughout his tenure in the Senate and later with the State Department.

Both Democratic and Republican operatives in Wisconsin are already getting used to the idea of a Johnson-Feingold rematch, Strauss noted. Mike Tate, the chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party told National Journal that Feingold is “the strongest candidate to take on Ron Johnson in 2016.”

National Journal reported that Johnson, who was elected in the tea party wave of 2010, has approximately $600,000 in the bank for his re-election campaign. He’s one of the most conservative members of the Senate and a Public Policy Polling survey in 2014 found that Johnson had 34% job approval rating among Wisconsinites, while 36% disapproved of him and 30% don’t feel they have a strong enough opinion about him to make a determination. In a head-to-head matchup, the poll found Feingold beating Johnson 47% to 41%.

Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) has also been mentioned as a potential candidate against Johnson but that same PPP poll from April found Johnson leading Kind 41% to 39%, with another 20% undecided.

TED STRICKLAND PLANS SENATE CHALLENGE. Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D) announced (2/25) that he will challenge Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) in a race Democrats badly want to win.

Jeff Singer noted at DailyKos.com (2/25) that Strickland has a reputation as a great campaigner who lost a close race in 2010 to John Kasich in a hellish year for Democrats. Strickland also is a proven vote-getter in rural eastern Ohio, an area that has turned against Dems in recent cycles.

Cincinnati Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld (D) has been raising real money for the race and may decide to take his chances on the former governor in the primary, but Buckeye State Democrats told Roll Call that they expect him to drop out.

Sittenfeld might consider a run against US Rep. Steve Chabot (R) in the 1st Congressional District. The Cincinnati-area seat was redrawn to protect Chabot, but at 52-46 Romney, Singer noted, it’s not out of reach for Democrats in a good year.

BANKING COULD GO POSTAL. Millions of Americans are being ripped off by payday lenders and check cashing stores, and the US Postal Service could put a stop to it. Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union, says that offering basic banking services at post offices is a win-win for the public and postal workers.

According to an article at In These Times (2/13), Thom Hartmann noted (2/20) that about one out of four US households either have no checking account, or have to rely heavily on non-bank services like check-cashing stores. Because they are priced out of regular banking services, or they’re living in so-called “banking deserts,” these households pay thousands of dollars every year in exorbitant fees and interest.

In fact, individuals without regular banking pay out more money in fees and service charges than our federal government spends on all our domestic food aid, Hartmann noted. With 30,000 offices and outlets, the Postal Service already has the perfect infrastructure to provide public banking, and expanding services would help protect postal workers’ jobs.

Since 2006, when the poison-pill legislation forced USPS to pre-fund 75 years of retirement benefits at a cost of more than $5 bln a year, the postal workforce shrunk by about 200,000 workers. And, since that time, credit problems, poverty, and location have locked millions of Americans out of our regular banking system.

A US Postal Bank could solve both of these problems in one fell swoop, and provide us an alternative to too-big-to-fail corporate banks. The APWU is calling on the postmaster general to take up this idea, and it’s backed by dozens of other unions and community groups. Even prominent lawmakers like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) support the idea of reviving postal banking. The US Post Office Department operated a postal savings system from 1911 to 1967.

ALASKA LEGALIZES POT. Alaska became the third state to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, effective 2/24. Alaska follows Colorado and Washington state in relaxing the prohibition. D.C. voters approved legalization of marijuana, but their Republican overlords in Congress have threatened to override that local option.

State and local governments in Alaska will have to regulate commercial marijuana sales, but as of 2/24 it is legal for anyone 21 and older to possess, transport and display up to 1 ounce of marijuana and accompanying accessories, such as a pipe, and to consume it in private. It’s also legal to possess, grow, process and transport up to six marijuana plants, three of which may be flowering, the Alaska Dispatch News reported (2/24).

Vermont may be the first legislature to legalize marijuana, Politico reported (2/17). If the Vermont legislature passes the marijuana legalization bill, it would be the first state to legalize marijuana through the legislature.

Steve Benen of MaddowBlog.com noted (2/24) that federal drug laws have not changed, and these state experiments are permitted, in effect, because Att’y Gen. Eric Holder and the Obama administration have endorsed them. “A change in administrations in 2017 could, in theory, jeopardize these state initiatives,” Benen noted.

Meanwhile, a study found that marijuana is far safer than alcohol, tobacco and multiple other illicit substances, researchers say, and strict, legal regulation of cannabis might be a more reasonable approach than current prohibitions.

The report published in Scientific Reports, an online open access journal from the publishers of Nature, compares the lethality of the recreational use of 10 common drugs, including marijuana, alcohol, tobacco, heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, methamphetamine, diazepam, amphetamine and methadone.

Researchers found that marijuana has the lowest risk of mortality and is safer than the commonly used alcohol and tobacco as well as the rest of the drugs in the study. They determined the risk of mortality by comparing the lethal dose of each substance with a commonly used amount of each substance.

Marijuana is not harmless, Matt Ferner noted at HuffingtonPost.com (2/24), as excessive use can lead to respiratory discomfort, although the drug itself has not been linked to lung damage. Studies have also shown cannabis can be addictive, however much less addictive than alcohol and even less than caffeine.

Among people prone to the development of psychosis, research has shown that smoking pot can lead to an earlier onset of psychosis among those prone to the disorder. And there’s understandable concern about adolescent marijuana use and its effects on the developing brain.

Still, Ferner noted, there have been no documented deaths as a result of marijuana overdose. According to a 1988 ruling from the DEA, a marijuana user would have to consume 20,000 to 40,000 times the amount of THC in a joint to be at risk of a fatal dose.

VATICAN TAKES ON BIG PHARMA. The Vatican called for reform of laws to keep life-saving drugs accessible to poor people. According to Vatican Radio, Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi, the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, spoke at a UN Forum dedicated to making medicines more affordable and accessible for people in poorer nations (2/18). In his address, Tomasi argued that there are many obstacles that keep poor people from purchasing drugs, but called out one issue as particularly devastating: the abuse of intellectual property laws by pharmaceutical companies.

The Vatican’s statement helps add a moral heft to intellectual property disputes that have raged for some time — including domestic debates over how long drug companies should be able to hold exclusive rights over “biologics,” a powerful — but expensive — new medical treatment that can be used to treat diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, breast cancer, and possibly even Parkinson’s disease. President Barack Obama and others wanted to restrict the market “exclusivity window” — or how long drug companies retain control over medical patents for biologics — to 7 years, pharmaceutical lobbyists prevailed and pushed the period to 12 years in the Affordable Care Act.

The controversy continued, however, and in 2011 the Obama administration proposed reducing the exclusivity window to 7 years, which would result in $3.5 bln in savings over 10 years to federal health programs and get cheaper drugs into the hands of more people more quickly. But pharmaceutical companies have fought hard to retain control over their patents for as long as possible: in 2013, groups such as the AARP noticed that pharmaceutical companies were vying to write the 12-year market exclusivity period into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade deal. Doing so would effectively cement the window into national law, and significantly hamper efforts to reduce it to 7 years or lower.

Taking on the drug industry and overhauling a global intellectual property system is a tall order, and the Catholic Church certainly can’t change things overnight on its own. Still, the Vatican and Pope Francis have shown themselves highly capable of impacting domestic and international health policy in the past — Catholics were crucial players on both sides of the debate over the ACA, for instance. More importantly, with more than more than 5,000 Catholic-owned hospitals and 18,000 health dispensaries spread across the globe, the Church is as well positioned as anyone to address health issues on an international scale. (Jack Jenkins, ThinkProgress.org, 2/24)

REPUBS AND THEIR STENOGRAPHERS TURN 72 DAYS INTO TWO FULL YEARS. Charles Pierce notes at Esquire.com (2/25) that once again, politics has disappointed Ron Fournier of the National Journal. “Who’s at fault for the looming Homeland Security Department shutdown?” he asks. “Everyone in power.”

Then Fournier adds: “President Obama and Democratic congressional leaders punted on immigration reform while controlling the White House and Congress in 2009 and 2010. Choosing politics over the policy, they wanted immigration as a point of attack against the GOP in the 2010 midterm elections.”

Pierce inquires, “How many times do we have to hit the hoary myth of how the president ‘controlled the White House and Congress’ with a shovel before it stays in the unmarked grave it deserves?”

In fact, Democrats didn’t have 60 votes in the Senate to overcome Republican filibusters until the Minnesota Supreme Court rejected Sen. Norm Coleman (R)’s appeal of the election results (6/30/09) and Al Franken’s victory finally was certified. So Obama had a nominal 60 votes in the Senate from 7/7/09, when Franken was sworn in, to 8/25/09, when Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) died, and from 9/25/09, when Paul Kirk was named to succeed Kennedy, to 2/4/10, when Scott Brown (R) defeated Martha Coakley (D) for the unexpired term. But for most of those five months, Kennedy and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.V.) were gravely ill and unable to make it to the Senate. Dems actually had a filibuster-proof majority for only 72 days in 2009-10, Andy Cohen calculated for the San Diego Free Press (9/11/12). And that assumes that balky “Blue Dog” conservative Dems who were in that magic 60 would vote with Obama.

CLIMATE DENIERS’ FAVORITE SCIENTIST TOOK MONEY FROM FOSSIL FUELERS. One of the world’s most prominent climate researchers publishing scientific papers that doubt humanity’s role in climate change has received at least $1.2 mln from the fossil fuel industry to fund his research and salary, according to documents revealed.

Wei-Hock Soon (known mainly as “Willie”) is aerospace engineer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and has written papers on how the sun’s role in the Earth’s climate outshines the warming impact of humans burning fossil fuels. His papers have cast doubt on how hot the last century really was, whether polar bears are negatively impacted by a warming Arctic, and concluded the sun plays a larger role in climate change than greenhouse gas emissions. He has said that mainstream climate scientists and those concerned by the causes and impacts of human-caused climate change are “out of their minds.”

Soon received hundreds of thousands of dollars each from ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute, coal utility Southern Company, the Charles G. Koch Foundation, and other right-wing groups, according to documents obtained by Greenpeace and the Climate Investigations Center, and spotlighted by the New York Times (2/21). Over the last decade, Soon failed to disclose this funding in at least 11 of his scientific papers, likely violating ethical guidelines in eight of those cases, Ryan Koronowski noted at ThinkProgress.org (2/22).

SANDY HOOK WAS FUNDRAISING BONANZA FOR NRA. In the wake of the shooting of 20 children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Conn., in December 2012, the National Rifle Association pushed the message that only guns could protect people from dangerous situations and spread rumors that the government was using a background checks bill to secretly track gun owners. The efforts worked — not only was federal background check legislation defeated, but gun sales increased and the NRA’s revenue increased by almost $100 mln, Kira Lerner reported at ThinkProgress.org (2/23),

According to recently released financial documents, the NRA grossed almost $348 mln in revenue in 2013, up close to $92 mln from the group’s 2012 revenue of $256 mln. In the first year following one of the deadliest shootings in US history, the organization’s contributions and grants increased by $10 mln and program service revenue shot up by $68 mln from the year prior.

In the first 18 days after the shooting, the NRA gained more than 100,000 new members. Firearms sales also soared in the weeks after the shooting. In the first year, the manufacturer of the firearm used by Adam Lanza in Newtown said its sales rose as much as 36%.

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2015


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