The GOP has gleefully jumped on media reports about Americans having their health insurance plans nixed because of Obamacare. "Obama lied. My health plan died," conservative blogger Michelle Malkin wrote in September, referring to President Barack Obama's promise that people who liked their health insurance plans could keep them. But how many Americans' health plans would receive some form of cancellation notice if GOP hardliners got their wish and repealed Obamacare? Probably at least 137 million.
Last month, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Heimeshoff v. Hartford Life & Accident Insurance Co. and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., a case brought by Julie Heimeshoff, a Walmart employee who sued the company and its insurance provider in 2010 for refusing to pay her disability benefits. Heimeshoff worked at Walmart for nearly 20 years, most recently as a public relations manager. About 10 years ago, she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, lupus, and other chronic pain problems, and in June 2005, the pain became so severe that she had to stop working. Heimeshoff applied for disability benefits and, after a long internal review, her claim was denied. She sued over the denial of benefits less than three years later. That was within the statute of limitations—or so she thought.
When Heimeshoff started working for Walmart, she signed a contract saying that if she were ever denied disability benefits, she could only sue the company for wrongful denial of benefits if she did so within three years of filing her disability claim. But the US government and consumer lawyers say that Walmart's contract is bunk, because established law stipulates that the clock doesn't start ticking on those three years until an employee's claim for benefits is improperly denied. A ruling in Walmart's favor could make it more difficult for millions of workers—not just people who work for Walmart—to obtain disability benefits.
Walmart's argument is "crazy," Arthur Bryant, executive director of the public interest law firm Public Justice, wrote earlier in October. He explained that "every first-year law student learns that statutes of limitations, which set a time limit on how long a person has to sue, don't start running—can't start running, as a matter of common sense—until a person suffers a wrong and could actually file a case in court."
It's "a fundamental rule of law, establishedby the Supreme Court…that has been in place for two centuries," says Matt Wessler, the attorney who argued on behalf of Heimeshoff before the high court. "The only way this can change is where Congress itself says so…Walmart is nevertheless trying to change it itself."
Banks hate the push-out rule…because this provision will forbid them from trading certain derivatives (which are complicated financial instruments with values derived from underlying variables, such as crop prices or interest rates). Under this rule, banks will have to move these risky trades into separate non-bank affiliates that aren't insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and are less likely to receive government bailouts. The bill would smother the push-out rule in its crib by permitting banks to use government-insured deposits to bet on a wider range of these risky derivatives.
The New York Times reported in May that draft bill language written by Citigroup lobbyists was "reflected in more than 70 lines of the House committee’s 85-line bill." Mother Jones was the first to publish the document showing that Citigroup wrote the legislation.
Obamacare is kind of like the Wizard of Oz, says a Texas congressman.
On Wednesday, Department of Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius testified before the House energy and commerce committee regarding problems with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Here are the highlights, both factual and theatrical:
1. Sebelius says she's responsible for healthcare.gov's failures. At a similar congressional hearing last week on the failures of the federal exchange website, contractors that built the digital infrastructure blamed HHS leadership, but not Sebelius herself. "Hold me accountable," she said Wednesday. "I'm responsible." But Rep. Greg Harper (R-Miss.) pressed Sebelius to place blame squarely on President Barack Obama. "No sir, we are responsible," Sebelius answered. Harper kept pushing. Sebelius finally retorted: "You clearly—whatever. Yes, he is the president. He is responsible for government programs."
2. Why some Americans may be losing coverage: It's complicated. GOP members on the committee emphasized the president's long-standing promise that "If you have a plan you like, you can keep it," and then argued that many Americans are now seeing their insurance plans canceled. But as Sebelius further explained, if you had a plan that you liked before the Affordable Care Act passed, you can keep it, because it was grandfathered in. If your insurance company changed the plan after the law went into effect, however, it is no longer exempted and has to comply with new protections offered under the Affordable Care Act, such as the prohibition against dropping a patient once he's sick, or charging a woman more because she's a woman. Plans that don't comply must be canceled—but as Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) pointed out, that's a good thing, because such plans don't provide adequate coverage anyway. "The notion that people are being turned way from an affordable plan the provides good quality care is preposterous," he said.
Since then, those Dems must have had a change of heart. On Tuesday, nearly all of them flip-flopped, and voted against a House bill that would have undermined the same safeguards the letter opposed.
Here's some background, which was covered in our August report: The Department of Labor, which oversees the law that sets minimum standards for many retirement plans, is considering a rule that would simply require retirement investment advisers to act in the best interest of their customers. The letter, which was signed by 28 out of the 43 members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC)—a group of lawmakers that advocates for low-income people and minorities—and four other Democratic lawmakers, sought to delay and weaken the rule. Consumer advocates and government officials argued the rule could provide much need protection for small investors:
The current law doesn't do enough to prevent unscrupulous investment brokers from parking Americans' hard-earned cash in high-fee investments that benefit themselves, even if it's not in their customers' best interests, argues Barbara Roper, director of investor protection at the Consumer Federation of America...
"This rule is about protecting people from conflicts of interest," says Phyllis Borzi, the Department of Labor's assistant secretary for employee benefits security, who is spearheading the push for a stronger investment adviser rule. "Those conflicts harm everyone who is doing the right thing and trying to save."
The bill that passed the House on Tuesday by a largely party-line vote would, just as the letter urged, also have delayed and weakened the rule. But negative attention to the lobbyist's letter (our scoop was noted by MSNBC's Chris Hayes, among others) may have helped change some of the Democrats' minds.
Only two of the letter-signers voted with Wall Street: Reps. Gwen Moore (D-Wisc.) and Jim Costa (D-Calif.). A short time ago, the letter and other sources suggested at least 60 Democrats would support the bill; in the final tally, only 30 supported it. This was a "shockingly bad vote for Wall Street," one House staffer said.
Even though the vast majority of its signatories voted against the bill, the lobbyist-written letter was still being used to win over Democrats in the last hours. According to an email reviewed by Mother Jones, Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Florida), who co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), circulated it to Democratic staffers just before the vote Tuesday, as evidence of Democratic support for the bill.
Despite the House bill's passage, the investment industry's chances of delaying the rule through legislative action are slim: the Democratic-controlled Senate is unlikely to pass the measure, and the White House is also opposed. And on Tuesday, Wall Street found out that its influence among House Democrats wasn't as strong as they'd once thought.