Mojo - August 2009

Health Insurance CEOs to Hand Over the Goods

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 3:11 PM EDT

Sometimes you just can't take the watch out of the dog.

From Henry Waxman's latest shop comes this letter, delivered to health insurance company execs, requesting financial disclosures on salary, perks, revenues, and expenditures. It begins:

The Committee on Energy and Commerce is examining executive compensation and other business practices in the health insurance industry.

What a grand idea. And they're not just asking for bundled totals, companies need to aggregate claims, revenue, expenses, and total profits for the following sectors: the self-insured employer market, the insured employer market, the individual market, and all government programs they're part of (like Medicare or Medicaid). Which means analysts will get true cost and revenue data over the past four years according to various types of plans. Oooh, a rich dataset to work with, good news for the good guys.

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Tax Increases to Health Insurance Cos Without Public Option

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 1:51 PM EDT

All of Congress' reform proposals include provisions that would close the healthcare reform money gap by increasing taxes in some way, shape, or form. Some proposals are more progressive (House, Obama) than others (Senate, surprise) but under any scenario the yield will be significant: at least $30 billion in revenue per year, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Of course, these proposals have long been considered, and were crafted with the understanding that public coverage (aka, the unfortunately lingoed 'public option') was part of the endgame. There are plenty of liberals, and moneyed ones at that, who would be willing to forgo some of their deductions or otherwise take a significant tax hit in the name of health care reform. But without a public option those tax dollars go not into the public coffers to fund a program that will increase competition and lower costs in the long run, instead they'll go right to insurance companies. This is something rich liberals, and likely key Dem congressmembers, won't go for. If the public option is indeed just a sliver, then insurance companies, who's stock prices soared Monday after the public option became non-essential, are the real winners in all of this. Not the reform anyone had in mind.

 

Sidenote: An interesting parallel argument from James Pethokoukis over at Reuters: the GOP playbook against health care legislation mirrors the Dems battle against Social Security reform efforts in 2005. Messages both times: Reform would leave the elderly at the mercy of the market, and, hey, there isn't really a problem here.

 

Are the Palins Splitsville? And Other Tabloid News

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 12:30 PM EDT

The tabs this week are full of juicy political “news.” We read them so you don’t have to. From the August 24 editions:

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin is this week’s headliner in the Globe, which reports that she and “first dude” Todd Palin are splitsville due to stress over her political success, daughter Bristol’s illegitimate child, and ongoing rumors that Palin had an affair in the mid-1990s. The Globe claims that Palin is “so fed-up with Todd, 44, that she’s thrown her wedding ring away, booted him from her bed and is planning to move with her kids to Montana, where she is said to have purchased land.”  A Palin spokesperson denies all charges. “No divorce. No affairs. No land in Montana. Nothing! All lies and fabrications," she tells the Globe.  (No links, btw. The tabs are strictly paper products.)

The Star also leads with the Palin marriage crisis, observing that after Palin publicly resigned as governor on July 3, she jumped into a waiting SUV and bolted, leaving husband Todd at the curb. “They left me,” Todd reportedly chuckled—a sign, the Star notes, of things to come.  The Star also provides a handy photo chronology of Palin’s bare hands to back up claims that she threw her wedding ring in Lake Lucille shortly after her resignation speech. A photo dated July 26, from Palin’s swearing in of the new governor, shows she still wasn’t wearing it three weeks later.
 

MoJo's Anti-USNWR College Guide

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 12:00 PM EDT

Today, U.S. News and World Report released its 2010 college rankings. A few things have changed since last year: Harvard now shares first place with Princeton on the magazine's national universities list. And while on last year's liberal arts list Williams and Amherst tied for first place, now Williams is number one and Amherst is number two. Overall, though, the same old usual-suspect schools represented in the top tens.

Another thing that hasn't changed much: relatively low participation in the repuation survey. Inside Higher Ed reports:

U.S. News said that 48 percent of all institutions responded to the reputation survey that can be filled out by presidents, provosts, admissions deans or others and that counts for the largest portion of formula used in the rankings. That's up two percentage points from last year. Among liberal arts institutions, this year's 46 percent participation was also up two points. In both cases, these upticks still don't make up for a lot of lost ground -- just a few years ago the national participation rate was 67 percent.

That drop in participation from a few years back reflects some growing uneasiness with the survey, which accounts for 25 percent of a school's overall score, and as I said yesterday, is not exactly scientific. Which brings me to my next point: The completely unscientific, very first MoJo Mini College Guide. The ten schools on our list are a diverse bunch—public and private; collleges and universities; religious and secular; urban and rural. They may not juke their stats to improve their USNWR rankings, but here's what they do have: good values and good value. See which schools made our cut—and nominate your alma mater for next year's edition—here.

Also part of the MoJo Mini College Guide: The first annual Hellraiser Awards honor the year’s best feats of student activism. These cool jobs don't require a piece of sheepskin—but do pay the bills. And speaking of cold hard cash, turns out there’s a scholarship out there for every kind of student, from hard-core Trekkies to duct tape artists.
 

Blackwater's Black Op

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 11:53 AM EDT

Is that what those silencers were for? The big news today is that the CIA outsourced a program to assassinate Al Qaeda operatives—the program Leon Panetta was in such a hurry to brief the congressional intel committees on—to Blackwater. The program was never fully operational, but when it was brought to the attention of Panetta in June, CIA officials were proposing to take this operation to the next level and begin training assassination teams, the Washington Post reported in July. Panetta promptly shut the program down. According the New York Times' Mark Mazzetti, who broke the story of Blackwater's involvement, the private security company's role in the program "was a major reason" that Panetta "became alarmed" and proceeded directly to the Hill to come clean.

At this point, Blackwater's precise role in the abandoned assassination program is a bit hazy—and it's likely to remain that way since the operation never actually got off the ground. Mazzetti reports that the company "helped the spy agency with planning, training and surveillance" and says "it is unclear whether the C.I.A. had planned to use the contractors to actually capture or kill Qaeda operatives." The Post, which advanced the story a bit further today, reports that Blackwater was in fact "given operational responsibility for targeting terrorist commanders and was awarded millions of dollars for training and weaponry."

The enormous oversight and accountability implications of outsourcing this type of covert op to the private sector are evident, so why would CIA officials even entertain this notion in the first place? The answer is buried in the Post story: apparently it had everything to do with Blackwater's revolving door relationship with the CIA (among other government agencies).

The program was initially managed by the CIA's counterterrorism center, but its functions were partly transferred to Blackwater when key officials from the center retired from the CIA and went to work for the private contractor.

What Health Reform Could Look Like

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 11:00 AM EDT

As I have written previously, the most likely upshot of the health care debate is for Congress to adopt some version of health care "exchanges" based on the FEHBP, the Federal Employees Health Benefits program. Some people are calling the FEHBP a "public option," but that's not what it is. In fact, it doesn't even contain a public option. The whole reason it might be acceptable to conservatives is that it keeps the private insurance system intact. As described by Physicians for a National Health Program, FEHBP "is actually a mix of private health insurance plans that carry the same problems of private plans generally: administrative waste, restrictions on health care providers, inequities and inadequate cost controls."

In fact, the FEHBP was proposed back in the 1980s as an alternative to Teddy Kennedy’s universal health insurance campaign. That proposal, as Stephanie Mencimer wrote here last week, came from none other than the Heritage Foundation. So its credentials are spotless, or ought to be spotless in the eyes of mainstream and rightwing Republicans. Not even Dick Armey’s gang of patriots, agitating at town hall meetings, could call Heritage a socialist institution.

The FEHBP does require private insurance plans to meet certain standards, which could represent some small improvement over the present system, provided it survives as part of the final health reform plan. But the best plans offered under FEHBP aren't cheap, requiring steep contributions from the employee--so it also preserves the present system of unequal care depending on income.

You can get a glimpse of the best-case scenario that might result from a reform based on the FEHBP, in this exchange between Washington Post business writer Steven Pearlstein and a government employee living in Maryland who belongs to the Federal Health Plan:

Federal employee: I have a choice among many possible insurance plans. I have chosen one of the more expensive ones (I pay a little over 30% of the premiums) and have been very pleased thus far with the range of doctors that I can access and especially the speed with which my claims are processed. I recently called to ask if a procedure had been pre-approved and was informed within just a few seconds that my plan did not require pre-approval for that procedure. It is clear that the computers at the other end are online and the people answering questions are well-trained. Last year a scheduler at a testing center nearly cried with relief when she heard what my insurance plan was.

I presume that I get this excellent service in part because if I had a bad experience, I could switch to another provider during the open plan period. Unlike a person working for a private employer with a choice of perhaps two or three plans both from the same provider, who would have to appeal to the deaf ears of the employer's HR department, my choice is meaningful. I might have to wait out 13 months in a plan I didn't like, but that is it. No worries about pre-existing conditions, or qualifying for coverage or anything.

So, could this model actually work for the uninsured pool of people? Could the government demand that the insurance companies offer the same plans available to federal employees to the pool of uninsured or not let them participate in the program? Could it just be negotiated that way since the potential pool is so large and the premiums will be subsidized for some? Could non-profit cooperatives have the clout to get this?

Or do I only get service this good because the Senators and the Representatives are in the same plan that I am (or at least their staff are) and the insurance companies treat us better so they don't make the powerful people who share our plans angry?

Steven Pearlstein: The Federal Health Plan provides the model for the so-called exchanges that are at the center of the Democrats' health reform proposal. Everyone who buys insurance through the exchange would basically have the kind of choices you do, and be able to move around from plan to plan in a way creates an ongoing competition among the plans, not only on the issue of price but quality of service and depth of network, etc. That is the kind of competition that will improve the whole system and, to a degree, help to bring down cost growth.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 20, 2009

Thu Aug. 20, 2009 7:05 AM EDT

Afghan National Police officers, Afghan National Army soldiers and U.S. Army 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment Soldiers patrol on foot July 27 to speak with village leaders in Deh Chopan district, Zabul province. (Photo courtesy army.mil.)

Need to Read, August 20, 2009

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 4:00 AM EDT

Things you may have missed from around the web yesterday:

The most outrageous lies told about foreign health care.

McCain's voting record: not so maverick-y anymore.

Max Baucus does not like those people with "YouTubes" at health care town halls.

Did Mozart die of strep throat?

Novak, Corn, and Plamegate.

Are seniors really defecting from AARP to a conservative alternative?

Charlie Crist is a rare example of a green GOP governor—but for how long

Religious conservatives experience a conversion to Harry Potter fandom.

David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, is on twitter, and so are my colleagues Daniel Schulman, Nick Baumann, and our editors-in-chief, Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein. You can follow me here. (The magazine's main account is @motherjones.)

Families of Hikers Detained in Iran Speak Out

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 12:46 AM EDT

The families of Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal, and Sarah Shourd, the three Americans detained in Iran after accidentally crossing the border while hiking in Kurdistan, are breaking their silence: After more than two weeks of keeping a low profile, they've launched a www.freethehikers.orgwebsite and are doing media interviews to push for consular access to their loved ones. (Catch them on Good Morning America and NBC this morning between 7 and 8 am EDT—we'll post video later on, if available). The Iranian government has confirmed that Bauer (whose Mother Jones investigation on corruption in Iraq was just published), Shourd, and Fattal are being held in Tehran, but has refused to grant Swiss diplomats, who handle US affairs in Iran, the right to visit them. The families' full statement is after the jump; there's also a Facebook group supporting the hikers and a Twitter hashtag (#ssj).

Will U.S. Back Bogus Afghan Elections?

| Wed Aug. 19, 2009 5:16 PM EDT

The fact that tomorrow's presidential election in Afghanistan will be mired in corruption, fraud, and backroom dealing is all but certain, writes The Nation's Ann Jones, author of Kabul In Winter and an incisive voice on all things Afghan. The more pressing question, she says, is this: Will the U.S., in the name of demonstrating Afghanistan's "progress" toward democracy, validate the election and deem it "credible"?

If it does (and it very likely might), tomorrow will be a sad day for democracy. According to Jones, here are just a few of the reaosns why progress will be the last thing this election represents: 

Stacking the Deck: All the members of the so-called Independent Election Commission were appointed by President Karzai, and they've never disguised their allegiance to him. So the initial vetting process for candidates eliminated some promising challengers and spared old cronies, including the war criminals the process was meant to screen out.

Backroom Deals: One after another, potential and declared candidates have bowed out to back Karzai. Word leaks out about which ministries they've been promised. Karzai buys the support of local leaders running for provincial offices, using (illegally) all the perks of office, from airplanes to free airtime on national TV, to help his friends and himself. One of his deals brought him Hazara support in exchange for the notorious Shia Personal Status Law, enforcing a wife's sexual servitude in violation of the Afghan Constitution.

Voter Fraud: In May in Ghazni, $200 would buy 200 blank registration cards, but lots of people, including minors, already had plenty. Men were able to get a bunch by handing in a list of women for whom they will vote by proxy. Since no central registry exists, verification is impossible. A recent report places the number of voter registration cards distributed (not including fakes) at 17 million, almost twice the estimated number of eligible voters in the country.

Juan Cole points out that 33 polling stations in Ghazni province won't be open tomorrow because of poor security, and that the Taliban are confiscating voting cards house by house. And, of course, there are those letters and warnings from the Taliban. The ones that say they'll attack and even kill anyone who votes.

Election gaming might even extend to the Americans. Reports have emerged in the run-up to the election that the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, might be brokering a backroom deal to install Ashraf Ghani, the more Westernized presidential candidate who's currently running in third, as an executive in the Karzai administration if Ghani agrees to drop out and back Karzai in the election. Time has likely run out for that deal, however.