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 several years 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.

Time Of The Preacher: Obama's New Spiritual Guide

UPDATE: The White House shot down the Time magazine report noted below that President Barack Obama and Michelle have picked the chapel at Camp David as the church for their family. Press secretary Robert Gibbs said, "There have been no formal decisions about joining a church."

Washington has been buzzing for months about where the Obama family will finally lay down some local church roots. Various congregations have been quietly lobbying, but it looks like the president is going to follow in his predecessor's footsteps and make Camp David's Evergreen Church his spiritual home, Time reports today. No doubt DC's black churches are crushed, but Evergreen apparently offered the Obamas a modicum of privacy that the city churches did not. But Evergreen also has another major draw: It's current chaplain is none other than Lt. Carey Cash, the great-nephew of the late, great music star Johnny Cash.

As Time's Amy Sullivan notes, Obama couldn't get much farther from his former controversial minister Jeremiah Wright than he could with Cash. The younger Cash, 38, did a tour of Iraq with a Marine battalion and, like his famous uncle, is a southern Baptist. (Evergreen, though, is a nondenominational church that caters to Camp David's military personnel.) The Navy rotates chaplains through the church every three years, so Cash's arrival in January was just a coincidence. But if he has any of his uncle's charisma, the Obamas are no doubt in for a treat. Johnny Cash was a gospel singer at heart and was considered something of a preacher himself, after all. He was even close to religious icon Billy Graham, who once made a cameo appearance in one Cash's songs. "The Preacher Said "Jesus Said'" anyone?

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Doctors Boo Obama

As a rule, people don’t boo Barack Obama, the first rock star president. But on Monday, that’s exactly what happened. On a charm offensive in support of his health care reform efforts, Obama addressed the American Medical Association, the nation’s largest physician lobby. The doctors in the audience booed him for revealing that he didn’t support the group’s pet cause—caps on damages in medical malpractice lawsuits. Nonetheless, he did win some applause by adopting the doctors’ language and referring to the “defensive medicine” that is supposedly driving up health care costs.

In a carefully parsed speech, he said, “Some doctors may feel the need to order more tests and treatments to avoid being legally vulnerable. That’s a real issue. And while I’m not advocating caps on malpractice awards which I believe can be unfair to people who’ve been wrongfully harmed, I do think we need to explore a range of ideas about how to put patient safety first, let doctors focus on practicing medicine, and encourage broader use of evidence-based guidelines. That’s how we can scale back the excessive defensive medicine reinforcing our current system of more treatment rather than better care.”

It was a cagey move. In throwing the docs a bone, Obama embraced one of their most cherished arguments: that “defensive medicine” is driving up health care costs. But this bone doesn’t have much meat on it. Defensive medicine is doctors’ favorite anti-lawsuit argument. It goes something like this: The mere threat of malpractice lawsuits drives physicians to overprescribe expensive tests and procedures, ergo, making it harder for malpractice victims to sue would bring down health care costs. 

Obama Promotes Malpractice Myth

The New York Times reports this morning that President Obama is considering burning his trial lawyer allies to get health care reform passed. That is, he said he would support restrictions on medical malpractice lawsuits because he believes it would help reduce health care costs. If Obama really believes cutting lawsuits would save money, he's not as smart as I thought. Doctors have been making this argument for years, as did President George W. Bush, whose administration claimed restricting lawsuits would cut health care costs by $108 billion a year. But there isn't a lick of data to support these claims. The Congressional Budget Office took a look at Bush's assertions and found in 2004 that reducing lawsuit-related costs by 25 or 30 percent would result in only a tiny .4 percent reduction in health care costs. The CBO concluded that the benefits of reducing lawsuits were vastly overblown.

Lawsuits are a natural biproduct of incompetent doctors, who are the source of an inordinate amount of expensive medicine. I've written about this extensively here and here, but just to recap: Preventable medical errors cost the country about $20 billion a year. A tiny number of bad doctors account for the vast majority of malpractice suits. If Obama wants to contain lawsuits and save money, he should propose putting those guys out to pasture. Of course, Obama's lawsuit proposal is designed to court the American Medical Association, which has never seen a bad doctor it couldn't love. Any proposal to weed the incompetents out of the medical profession would probably be a deal breaker.

UPDATE: During his speech on Monday before the AMA convention, Obama talked about cutting back on medical malpractice lawsuits without placing caps on malpractice awards--drawing boos from the crowd. From his prepared speech:

Now, I recognize that it will be hard to make some of these changes [in the health care system] if doctors feel like they are constantly looking over their shoulder for fear of lawsuits. Some doctors may feel the need to order more tests and treatments to avoid being legally vulnerable. That’s a real issue. And while I’m not advocating caps on malpractice awards which I believe can be unfair to people who’ve been wrongfully harmed, I do think we need to explore a range of ideas about how to put patient safety first, let doctors focus on practicing medicine, and encourage broader use of evidence-based guidelines. That’s how we can scale back the excessive defensive medicine reinforcing our current system of more treatment rather than better care.

Why Would Anyone Buy A Volt?

Perhaps it really is time to just let GM die. Today's Washington Post story on the next generation Toyota Prius explains how Japanese automakers are putting their money into better hybrids, giving the Prius a bigger trunk, more power and even better mileage at 50 mpg. By contrast, GM is banking its future--and billions of taxpayer dollars--on the Chevy Volt. If the Volt is GM's future, we're in big trouble.

The new electric car, due out next year, will only be able to go 40 miles--40 miles!--without recharging, meaning a Volt wouldn't get me from my house to Bagel City and back on a Saturday morning. To get around this problem, the Volt has a back-up gas tank that will stretch the car's usefulness another 400 miles at 50 mpg. In an age of 100-plus mile commutes, lots of people would presumably drive primarily on the gas tank (after all, the only charging station they're likely to find is one in their own garage). Meanwhile, the savings achieved are relatively small. The Volt needs 80 cents worth of electricity to go the same distance as a Prius with $1.50 worth of gas in the tank. But here's the rub: At $40,000, the Volt costs almost twice as much as a Prius, a difference that all but obliterates any savings at the pump. Does the Obama administration really, truly believe that GM can transform itself with this car?

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