Stephanie Mencimer

Stephanie Mencimer

Reporter

Stephanie works in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. A Utah native and graduate of a crappy public university not worth mentioning, she has spent the last year hanging out with angry white people who occasionally don tricorne hats and come to lunch meetings heavily armed.

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Stephanie covers legal affairs and domestic policy in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. She is the author of Blocking the Courthouse Door: How the Republican Party and Its Corporate Allies Are Taking Away Your Right to Sue. A contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, a former investigative reporter at the Washington Post, and a senior writer at the Washington City Paper, she was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2004 for a Washington Monthly article about myths surrounding the medical malpractice system. In 2000, she won the Harry Chapin Media award for reporting on poverty and hunger, and her 2010 story in Mother Jones of the collapse of the welfare system in Georgia and elsewhere won a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.

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IRS Complaint Filed Against Jeb Bush's Ed Reform Foundation

| Tue Oct. 15, 2013 6:05 PM EDT
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaking at CPAC 2013

Jeb Bush has long been on the short-list of potential Republican presidential candidates. He was a popular Spanish-speaking governor of a big swing state, Florida, and since leaving office he has focused on education reform through his Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE). The foundation has provided a platform for working on a bipartisan public policy front—and access to potential donors among big companies (including those owned by Fox News Corp.'s Rupert Murdoch) trying to privatize public schools and tap into billions of tax dollars. (See this Mother Jones story for a closer look at the way Bush has used his foundation to break down barriers to the growth of troubled online charter schools.)

This week, as Bush is back in the limelight in Boston kicking off his foundation's annual education reform summit, a New Mexico advocacy group, ProgressNowNM, has filed a complaint with the IRS alleging that Bush's foundation has failed to publicly disclose on its 990 tax forms thousands of dollars it paid to bring public school superintendents, education officials and lawmakers to foundation events where they had private "VIP" meetings with the foundation's for-profit sponsors. Nonprofits are required to disclose payments for public officials' travel and entertainment if it exceeds $1,000. Public records unearthed by the New Mexico group show payments for travel exceeding that amount for several state education officials whose travel wasn't reported on FEE's 990 form.

The complaint alleges that Bush's foundation disguised travel payments for officials as "scholarships" to hide the fact that the nonprofit was basically facilitating lobbying between big corporations and public officials who control local tax dollars. The complaint notes:

The unorthodox manner of these scholarships—and the fact that they are used as a vehicle to meet with for-profit education corporations—further raises suspicions around the Foundation's failure to properly disclose payment of travel expenses in 2010 and 2011. Additionally, it is possible these unreported payments to the government officials may be deemed to provide a private inurement in violation of IRS regulations.

In its complaint, ProgressNowNM notes that New Mexico’s education secretary Hanna Skandera received foundation funds to travel to Washington, DC, to testify before a US House committee on the expansion of "virtual" education in her state. Skandera asked House members to consider providing more flexibility in federal funding to pay for virtual schools. Some of the for-profit providers of those virtual schools—among them the troubled K-12 Inc.—in New Mexico are also donors to FEE. Using tax-exempt funds to subsidize congressional testimony, ProgressNowNM says, is an "apparent violation" of IRS regulations. 

“This tax-exempt organization is serving as a dating service for corporations selling educational products—including virtual schools—to school chiefs responsible for making policies and cutting the checks,” ProgressNowNM's Patrick Davis says in a statement. “Just like [the American Legislative Exchange Council] brought together gun manufacturers with legislators to pass ‘stand your ground’ laws, FEE is using it’s tax-exempt status to hide thousands of dollars it’s using to connect big private education businesses to government policy makers."

FEE did not respond to a request for comment.

*UPDATE: Jaryn Emhof, communications director for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, released a statement Tuesday night responding to the IRS complaint. She said, "It’s not surprising that Progress Now New Mexico, a partisan organization that has a history of opposing education reforms that put students first, would attack efforts to improve the quality of education for children across America...We fully comply with IRS rules when providing policy research and expertise and will continue to do so. This is nothing more than a politically motivated complaint by opponents of education reform."

Why It Doesn't Matter If People Aren't Signing Up for Obamacare Yet

| Tue Oct. 8, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Republicans have been insisting for a week now that Obamacare is a failure because immediately following its official debut on October 1, few people actually signed up for subsidized insurance plans through its new health exchanges. "Error message after error message. Failed security standards and 60 hours on website hold for just this one Kansan. It is clear, Obamacare is failing — an embarrassment, particularly for the former Kansas governor who is now in charge of Obamacare," Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) complained on the House floor last week.

But it doesn't really matter whether many people enrolled in Obamacare last week. Healthcare.gov saw 8 million unique visitors in the first four days the exchanges were open. It isn't especially surprising that not all those people managed to get covered on Day 1. The coverage people are seeking isn't even available until January 1. Uninsured Americans have until December 15 to sign up for coverage that starts the first of the year, and another three months to sign up during the open enrollment period that ends March 31. (People can still sign up after March 31 if they have a change in status, such as losing employer-based coverage.) If people weren't able to sign up October 1 or even October 5, that's not the end of the world. It's just the beginning.

Experience shows that getting lots of uninsured people into private health plans and new Medicaid plans is maddeningly difficult and time-consuming. Massachusetts has already done this, after all. In 2006, Gov. Mitt Romney signed into law a health care reform bill that is essentially the model for the Affordable Care Act. Like the ACA, Romneycare expanded the state's Medicaid program and then opened the Massachusetts Health Connector, the prototype of Healthcare.gov, to provide a marketplace where state residents could purchase subsidized individual health insurance plans.

What happened in Massachusetts is pretty much exactly what's happening right now with Obamacare. After the law went into effect in Massachusetts, state offices were totally overwhelmed by the number of people clamoring to sign up for insurance, or what the state's Medicaid director dubbed the "stress of success." Lost paperwork, computer glitches, confusion over who was eligible for what, and not enough staff to handle the workload meant that in those early days, consumers could wait several months after submitting an application to finally get coverage. So many people were trying to enroll in the expanded Medicaid program that the Medicaid agency ended up with a months-long backlog of applications. In the first two months, only 18,000 of more than 200,000 potentially eligible people had successfully signed up through the connector, according to Jonathan Gruber, an MIT professor who helped design the Massachusetts system and served on the Connector board. And all of that happened in a state with only 300,000 or so eligible applicants and without a well-funded opposition trying to derail the law at every turn. 

But guess what? Eventually the kinks got worked out and people got covered. Enrollment opened in October 2006, and by the deadline for getting mandatory coverage, July 1, 2007, the Boston Globe reported, 20,000 more people had signed up for insurance on the exchange than the state had expected—12,000 of them in just the two weeks before the deadline. Total enrollment went from 18,000 in December 2006 to 158,000 a year later, says Gruber. Today, Massachusetts has the lowest rate of uninsured residents in the entire country—less than 4 percent—and polls show that people are generally happy with how everything worked out. The conservative Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation has called the state's health care reform law “a well thought-out piece of legislation.”

The federal exchange is fielding vastly more work than the Massachusetts Health Connector, and if it's having trouble with the workload, that's largely thanks to Republican opponents. The drafters of the ACA never envisioned the federal government running health care marketplaces for most of the country. The ACA was specifically designed to respect the state's rights that Republicans claim to care so much about. It empowered states, which already regulate the sale of insurance, to run the exchanges. Healthcare.gov was supposed to be a backstop for states either too small to run their own or that dropped the ball on setting up their own exchanges. Instead, Republican governors across the country, and mostly in the South, abdicated the job completely. So instead of running a marketplace for a couple of states as planned, Healthcare.gov is having to do the work of 70 percent of them, including big states like Florida, Texas and Virginia (and also, ahem, Kansas). Of course the site was going to have some problems!

The first real measure of how well the system works is still a few months away. Given the human propensity to procrastinate, the surge of actual enrollments will probably come, as it did in Massachusetts, in the week or two before the first coverage deadline on December 15. That's when people will realize that coverage starts within days—not months or years—and start making decisions in earnest. Bronze plan or silver? Blue Cross or Aetna?

If only a handful of people have successfully enrolled by then, it won't be just conservatives who are freaking out.

Now the Government Shutdown Is Stopping Blood Drives

| Thu Oct. 3, 2013 12:49 PM EDT

Here's how the government shutdown may literally be killing people: by causing blood shortages.

For all the scorn heaped on government employees, some people forget that the faceless bureaucrats who populate Washington are often, in fact, a bunch of do-gooders—people who genuinely believe in the notion of public service. As such, they contribute to the public good in a lot of ways that are taken for granted, like their immense contribution to local blood banks. Thirty-eight percent of the population is eligible to give blood, but only 5 percent actually does so. A lot of that 5 percent apparently works for the federal government. Thanks to the shutdown, in just two days, four federal agency blood drives scheduled by one DC-area health care system have been canceled. The regional Red Cross has had to cancel six others in the Washington region.

Inova Blood Donor Services projects that the cancelations will result in its projected loss of 300 donations that would have helped 900 patients in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. Inova's donated blood collections supply 24 hospitals, which bank much of the blood for inevitable disasters or, say, terrorist attacks. The Red Cross is suffering from similar disruptions, projecting the loss of 229 donations, each of which could potentially save up to three lives. A single major trauma event can easily deplete a hospital's entire blood store. The longer the shutdown goes on, the worse the situation is likely to get.

Rebecca Manarchuck, marketing director for Inova Blood Donor Services, says the Washington area supplies were already low, thanks to reduced collection rates that historically happen in the summertime. The shutdown is only compounding the shortage. Blood drives are carefully scheduled and planned well in advance. Doing them at government offices requires a host of logistical arrangements because of tight security and other considerations, meaning that rescheduling the drives for a later date won't be an easy task. And even then, donated blood can't even be used until three days after it's given to allow time for all the screening tests, resulting in some lag time before it can be given to patients in need.

Inova is attempting to make up for the loss by encouraging people to donate blood at their three centers in Virginia. (The Red Cross is also encouraging people to donate at local chapters.) Members of Congress are encouraged to make an appointment here and here

Snail-Mail Health Insurance Campaign Gets Overwhelming Response in Arkansas

| Wed Oct. 2, 2013 12:27 PM EDT

Direct mail is a staple of dying print magazines and donation-seeking nonprofits. Such campaigns generally rely on sending enormous quantities of junk mail in the hopes of getting maybe a 3 percent return on the effort. So when the Arkansas Department of Human Services recently sent out 132,000 one-page letters to uninsured, low-income folks in the state offering them free health insurance through Arkansas's new privatized Medicaid program (a red-state version of expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act), tea partiers in the legislature derided the effort as a waste of time and money. 

But as a sign of how desperate people are for affordable health care, the department ended up getting more than 55,000 responses to the snail-mail campaign—an unheard of 40 percent return. The Arkansas Times reported that not only did all those people want to enroll in the health care plan, but the outreach effort identified more than 2,500 kids who were eligible for traditional Medicaid but weren't enrolled. They are now signed up.

The state is fortunate that direct mail is working out so well, as other efforts to let people know about their new health insurance options are being sabotaged by Tea Party GOP state legislators. Backed by the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, these elected officials are still trying to prevent the state's human services department from using $4.5 million in federal funds to advertise the offerings of Arkansas's new insurance exchange, where starting this week, people can sign up for subsidized private health plans.

AFP, whose affiliate has been buying creepy ads telling young people not to get health insurance, has been lobbying hard to keep the state from advertising the new insurance offerings available under the Affordable Care Act, complaining mightily that "Arkansans are being forced to pay for advertising that tries to convince the state to give-in-to Obamacare." They fret that the federal funds will pay for ads in such places as—gasp!—the Arkansas Times and generate irritating pop-up ads on social media, search engines, and sites like Pandora radio. But pop-up ads can't hold a candle to the irritations of being uninsured. It's clear that, as the direct mail effort proved, AFP is mostly afraid that once people know they can get insurance, they're going to take it, and happily.

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