Saturday, November 18, 2017

Trump Incompetence Might Strengthen the ACA

For all that Republicans complain about the Affordable Care Act it has been tremendously successful in increasing the percentage of Americans covered by health insurance of one sort or another. In those states, unlike Texas, that took the Medicaid expansion funds offered very few are left without access to quality healthcare. Every year more people have learned about the availability of insurance coverage at affordable rates and signup rates continue to climb.

This year we have a Republican president who is determined to undermine the law of the land and has taken measures intended to reduce the number of Americans with health insurance. Trump has reduced the time period of open enrollment in half, to just 6 weeks, ending December 15. Possibly worse, he’s cut funding for advertising of open enrollment by 90% leaving groups that assist people in selecting and signing up for affordable, subsidized plans scrambling for ways to overcome the barriers.

A couple of weeks ago, in an attempt to overcome the lack of promotion, a small group of Democrats knocked on nearly 400 doors in Seguin handing out flyers and explaining that help is available through CentroMed and other providers both in and near Seguin. We want everyone to know that they can call one central phone number, 210-977-7997, or visit the coalition website to make an appointment.

One of the great things about the Enroll SA coalition is even if the applicant isn’t eligible for subsidized health insurance through the Affordable Care Act the enrollment staff will check eligibility for other forms of assistance including Medicaid, CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) or low cost care at community clinics.

While some of Trumps efforts to undermine the Affordable Care Act may very well have the intended effect his incompetence and that of his staff may also work against him. His executive order ending payments to insurance companies called cost-sharing reduction (CSR) subsidies. They are paid directly to insurers, and they provide financial assistance for individuals who make between 100 and 250 percent of the poverty line. Cut those subsidies off, and insurers will try to make up the difference by raising premiums. In a report on the likely effects of cutting off the subsidies earlier this year, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that premiums would be about 20 percent higher for typical plans purchased under the law.

But the joke is on Trump, as the premium hikes won't directly affect most low-income people, because Obamacare's subsidies increase with premiums, insulating those individuals from higher costs. Instead, this move is likely to raise premiums for people who earn too much to qualify for subsidies under Obamacare, the people who have already been hit hardest by the law's price hikes.

There are some reports of insurers offering plans with premiums in the range of $0-10 for those who are eligible for subsidies so if a member of your family or your friend isn’t currently insured be sure to let them know that now might be the best time of all to apply for coverage. Give them the phone number 210-977-7997, or help them visit the coalition website to make an appointment. The great folks at CentroMed on County Line Road in New Braunfels as well as some organizations right here in Seguin can help anyone find out how to get covered.

Published in the Seguin Gazette - November 17, 2017

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Tax Breaks for Billionaires Bad for You and Me

If Republicans have their way on the tax plan they’ve proposed you and I will end up subsidizing tax breaks for billionaires. The bill eliminates deductions that you and I use when we suffer major losses like fires and floods or medical costs due to life threatening illness in order to drop the corporate tax rate from 35% to 20%.

Teachers in Texas are already underpaid, schools are underfunded and this terrible tax plan takes away the deduction teachers can now take for supplies they purchase for their classrooms out of their own money.

Texans hospitalized for life threatening illnesses like cancer, heart attacks or severe infections will be further harmed by losing the deduction for major medical expenses.

The Republican tax plan hurts struggling students and recent college graduates by eliminating the student loan interest deduction. Current rules allow borrowers paying off education loans can deduct up to $2,500 of interest paid on student loans.

The Republican proposal hurts families with four or more children doing away with the dependent exemption, which provides $4,050 for each qualifying dependent and replacing it with a child tax credit to $1,600. They are also calling for a new $300 credit for each parent and non-child dependent, but this tax break will expire by the end of 2022.

What’s worse is that even with all that and more passing the bill would cause the federal deficit to increase by $1.5 trillion because they can’t eliminate enough deductions to pay for the huge tax breaks being offered to big business. Unlike the extra $300 child tax credit the corporate tax break doesn’t expire.

Big business is raking in record profits, they don’t need a tax break. Republicans claim that if businesses get a tax break they’ll raise wages and salaries but it didn’t work for Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s, or under Bush in the early 2000’s, and it didn’t work in Kansas this decade where Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax cuts did so much harm to the economy the Republican state legislature had to override him in order to restore services.

This tax plan does nothing to raise wages and will in fact harm the economy by taking money out of the hands of people who will spend it and putting in the hands of those who already have so much they’ll save it. The only way to expand the economy and raise wages is to increase demand and this tax plan does exactly the opposite.

Every day somewhere in the United States a bridge collapses forcing people to use a longer route. Every day many new potholes open up damaging tires and suspensions. Every day all over America millions of drivers sit in stop and go traffic costing them time and money. All these problems also cost business in lost efficiency and therefore profits. Instead of giving big business and billionaires more tax breaks we ought to be spending money on repairing our roads, replacing aging bridges, building new schools and replacing other city infrastructure like water and sewer lines many of which are so old they leak or are unsafe.

If we spend our money on replacing infrastructure both citizens and businesses benefit. Putting people to work will raise demand for workers and give those workers money to spend in store creating demand for yet more workers. That increase in demand for workers is what will cause wages and salaries to rise and improve the lives of all of us not just the billionaires.

Published in the Seguin Gazette - November 10, 2017

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Opioid Crisis Versus Other Vices

The media and our politicians have recently made a lot of noise about the horrors of prescription opioid addiction. They quote alarming sounding statistics like 34,000 people in the U.S. died from prescription drug overdoses in 2016. What they fail to do is put the issue in perspective by comparing death rates caused by various other vices in which Americans partake.

Consider this; last year 480,000 Americans died due to smoking tobacco. That’s more than 12 times the number who died taking prescription drugs yet we no longer hear much about government efforts to convince people to stop smoking. The really alarming statistic though is that 41,000 people died from second hand smoke, those folks didn’t have the nasty habit but lived or worked with someone who did and lost their lives because of it. On average smokers die 10 years earlier than non-smokers. About 15% of Americans still smoke but the rate has been falling gradually for the last 50 years.

Smoking tobacco isn’t the only socially acceptable vice that kills more than prescription drugs, obesity or being significantly overweight also kills far more than drug use at a rate of 300,000 Americans per year. While tobacco use has been falling, obesity has been rising for the last 30 years and today nearly 38% of Americans are obese.

Then of course there is the real drug of choice, alcohol, which kills 88,000 Americans every year. Last year more than 10,000 of those deaths were in automobile accidents of which 8,400 were not the drunk driver. Alcohol related deaths are also on the rise with nearly one in seven Americans or 32 million people struggling with a serious alcohol problem last year. That’s more than the population of Texas.

After all those preventable but socially acceptable causes of death we get to opioids. In 2016 more than 20,000 Americans died of overdoes involving prescription opioids. That’s less than one fourth of those from alcohol related causes. It’s half as many as those killed by second hand smoke.

For more than 40 years the country has fought a war on drugs as President Nixon famously labeled it and we still have drug abuse and deaths due to overdoses. We have an entire federal agency and every local police department in the country focusing resources on drug users and their suppliers.

Based on recent history I foresee further tightening of regulations and enforcement making it even harder for people with serious chronic pain like arthritis and fibromyalgia to get the small doses of morphine that make their lives tolerable.

Why do our leaders ignore the positive results of the efforts to get people to stop smoking that have succeeded without recourse to armed officers arresting people on the street? Why do our leaders appear to ignore the far greater scourge of alcohol abuse which has no criminal penalties unless the user is caught driving while intoxicated? Why aren’t we as a nation focusing on the far greater number of deaths and long term health problems caused by obesity? Why is drug use treated more vigorously than other more dangerous vices?

 Published in the Seguin Gazette November 3, 2017

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Trump Tweets Cover for a Host of Sins

I don’t for one moment believe that Trump’s Twitter rants are calculated measures designed to cause the public’s eye to watch one hand while his other hand he attempts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act with executive orders, but they do have that effect. His controversial and often insulting lies eat up news cycles to such a degree that both his actions and those of Congress seem to be ignored all too often.

The heartless remarks Trump made while on a phone call with the widow of one of the four United States soldiers killed in Niger have succeeded in stopping most major media sources from asking; what are U.S. troops doing in Niger? Even Congress doesn’t know according to elected officials from both parties.

Among the other damage Trump’s tweets and outrageous behavior have masked are the failure of the Republican controlled Congress to renew funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) which along with their proposed budget which makes severe cuts to Medicaid would leave millions of Texas children without any form of health insurance. This means that tens of thousands of Texas children won’t get the health care they need to do well in school which will penalize them in their future earnings.

Secretary of Education Betsy De Vos is rolling back guidance to colleges and universities regarding handling sexual assault allegations which were created to protect young women who far too frequently suffer more punishment than the perpetrators.

Former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price was run out of the administration for using tax payer funds to pay for charter flights to various speaking engagements. Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin got a slap on the wrist for doing the same thing to the tune of over $800,000.

Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke is working to eliminate some national monuments and shrink others. He advocates giving big mining and fossil fuel companies access to the lands rather then the public. He has also spent thousands of dollars of public money on charter flights that he could have made on regularly scheduled airlines for a few hundred dollars. Now there’s word that friends and campaign contributors of Zinke have been awarded a $300 million dollar contract to rebuild the power grid in Puerto Rico even though the their company consists of only two people and the company has no experience with such a large scale project.

Our former governor and now Secretary of Energy, Rick Perry, has also carelessly used $56,000 in taxpayer money to pay for charter flights that could have been made on scheduled airlines for far less. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has done the same and like Perry and Zinke is under investigation by the inspector generals of their respective agencies.

The members of the Trump administration have exhibited the same callousness and disregard for the public as Trump has and there is no end in sight to the greed, corruption and abuse of the American people. I hope that in the future the news media will spend less time with shocking headlines over Trump’s latest tweet and more on holding him and his appointees accountable to the people they pledged to serve.

Published in the Seguin Gazette October 27, 2017

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Saving Our Democracy

Early this month a group of America’s top political scientists gathered at Yale University to answer to discuss whether or not American democracy in decline and should we be worried? The near unanimous conclusion was: American democracy is eroding on multiple fronts — socially, culturally, and economically.

Breakdowns in social cohesion, the rise of tribalism, the erosion of democratic norms such as a commitment to rule of law, and a loss of faith in the electoral and economic systems as clear signs of democratic erosion are the symptoms these students of politics offered as support for their conclusions.

While none of the scholars claim we’re near collapse they did say we need to work hard to solve America’s many problems soon. America’s institutions are where democracy has proven most resilient according to the researchers. For now, our system of checks and balances is working: the courts are checking the executive branch, the press remains free, and Congress is generally fulfilling its role as an equal branch.

According to Nancy Bermeo, a politics professor at Princeton and Harvard, democracies don’t merely collapse, as that “implies a process devoid of will.” Democracies die because of deliberate decisions made by human beings.

Most often, the people in power become disconnected from their fellow citizens, seeing themselves as a class unto themselves. They develop promote and pass policies that benefit themselves and their benefactors to the detriment of the rest of society. Over time the citizenry becomes angry and divided tearing society apart.

In the past when this has occurred in the United States we’ve managed to elect leaders who pulled us back from the brink using what you might call class compromise. Teddy Roosevelt became known for trust busting, breaking up monopolies that enriched the few at the cost of the many. His nephew Franklin Delano Roosevelt later was considered a traitor to his class as the wealthy patrician instituted policies and rules that cut into the profits of his wealthy peers in order to recover from the economic collapse caused by financial speculation.

Democracy takes a lot of work much like a marriage; both parties must make an effort to be fair and faithful. I’m not talking about the government or the political parties; I’m referring to the electorate, the citizens. When things were going reasonably well many in this country felt comfortable disengaging from our government forgot the importance of participation and engagement. Today the United States is among the industrialized nations with the lowest average voter turnout. In 2016 Texas was 46th lowest turnout in the nation at 55%. Some parts of Seguin were in the 30% range.

Civic engagement is critical to maintaining our democracy and it starts with little things like knowing who your city councilmember is and how to contact them. We should all remember that local and state government are actually more influential to most people’s daily lives than the president or congress because they make the rules we live by every day.

Political theorists refer to the “social compact,” an implicit agreement among members of society to participate in a system that benefits everyone. Such an agreement only succeeds when we the people demand that our leaders act in our interests and not those of the wealthy donor class.

We must hold our elected officials accountable for their actions; sometimes it just takes phone calls from enough constituents to get their attention. In other cases it’s at the ballot box. Neither of those things will happen with a disengaged electorate which doesn’t even bother to stay informed about what their elected officials are doing.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Comparing Democrat and Republican Tax and Budget Proposals

Congressional Republicans have released some of the details of their proposed rewrite of the federal tax code, and the Texas Association of Realtors responded with a study showing the vast majority of homeowners in this state would pay more taxes if the current proposals are passed into law. The realtors’ study also shows the Republican plan would cost Texas more than 22,000 jobs and $3.4 billion in economic activity, mostly due to the distribution of tax breaks being weighted to the top 5%.

Republicans are also promoting a budget that cuts Medicaid by $110 billion a year. Remember that a substantial fraction of Medicaid covers costs for about two thirds of nursing home residents. That means many of us could end up with our aging and ill parents and in-laws living with us. Are you ready for that?

In addition to those cuts the Republican proposal calls for $47 billion a year in Medicare cuts and raising the eligibility age from 65 to 67. While the proposal doesn’t say exactly how those cuts will manifest themselves they are guaranteed to come out of the pockets of retirees who depend on it for their healthcare. As to raising the eligibility age well that just means higher private insurance costs and industry profits as those of use reaching that again see our premiums rising rate of illness with age. Employer based insurance coverage will also cost more small companies with older employees.

These proposals haven’t gone unchallenged, Democrats in Congress have offered “The People’s Budget”. Where Republicans would cut the healthcare for seniors and reduce the number of people eligible for Medicare/Medicaid Democrats would expand Medicare by offering the Public Option which would allow every American to buy their insurance from Medicare if they can’t find a better deal on the private insurance market.

The Democrats proposed budget permits the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to negotiate cheaper drug prices with pharmaceutical companies. This will significantly lower the price of prescription drugs for seniors and save Medicare $429 billion. The People’s Budget also combats monopolies held by drug companies and the use of patent settlements to block generic drug competition for a growing number of branded drugs. The People’s Budget ensures Americans have access to affordable prescription drugs.

The Democrats proposal would eliminate the preference for investment income over labor income which allows a hedge fund manager to earn the same amount as salaried employee and yet allow them to pay a lower tax rate. Currently, the tax code gives preferential treatment to income from investments, long-term capital gains, and qualified dividends. The People's Budget ensures the rich pay their fair share by creating new tax brackets for millionaires and billionaires. It preserves existing marginal tax rates for middle-class families while restoring Clinton-era tax rates on annual incomes above $250,000. For annual incomes above $1 million, it would adopt new progressive tax rates topping out at 49% for $1 billion and over.

While the Republican budget cuts billions from public education spending The People's Budget provides universal access to quality pre-k programs, which will expand social mobility by helping low-income and at-risk students read and write at the same rates as their peers. It would also provide $41 billion a year to eliminate undergraduate tuition and fees at public colleges and universities.

Even with the cuts proposed by congressional Republicans their budget would increase the deficit $200 billion each year because they also increase tax breaks for big corporations and the 400 or so wealthiest families in the nation. This is the era of Borrow and Spend Republicans.

Friday, October 6, 2017

John Kuempel Touts Distractions From Real Issues

Recently our state representative John Kuempel mailed out a flyer touting he presumably considers accomplishments from the recently completed 2017 legislative session. In this piece of tax payer funded propaganda Kuempel expounds on the value of SB 263 which substantially lowers the cost of handgun license as assisting lower income folks in their quest to take advantage of their Second Amendment rights. I won’t argue the meaning of the Second Amendment or its value in a modern society. Instead I would ask if reducing the fee by over $100 leaves other tax payers subsidizing the cost of administering the licensing program? If it doesn’t, then why were we being gouged by the state in the first place?

On “Election Integrity” Kuempel claims that the smattering of marginal issues addressed in several house ethics related bills is somehow meaningful reform. In reality one of the bills he touts, SB 5 which is another attempt by the legislature to pass a voter ID bill was immediately challenged in court where U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos found it was passed with discriminatory intent and is therefore invalid. The legislature made no attempt to deal with redistricting even though both the state House map and the Congressional district maps have both been found to have been drawn with discriminatory intent. There was a bill filed which would have taken the entire redistricting process out of the hands of the state legislature and put in the hands of every day people but Republicans couldn’t even be bothered to give it a hearing.

Public Education has been considered a top priority of the state since it was enshrined in the state constitution in 1845. Once again Kuempel and his Republican colleagues gave it short shrift. Admittedly they did right by shoring up the retired teachers’ health care plan known as TRS Care but the pittance the provided for educating our precious children barely covers the increase in enrollment across the state. Once again many districts across the state will fund their public schools on the back of property taxes. The problem is that no all districts have the same average taxable real estate values so kids in low taxable value districts don’t get the best teachers or facilities.

Kuempel’s pro-birth stance belies the fact that the legislature placed an undue burden on women whose pregnancies fail by forcing them to pay for burial or cremation services instead of disposing of the remains the same way as an amputated foot or arm. The same bill no forces women to purchase separate coverage for abortions that were once covered by their regular health plans. Regardless of how you feel about abortions most Americans understand that there are some medical circumstances involving either the health of the mother or the viability of the fetus where the only safe thing to do is to abort and now those mothers who haven’t recognized the need for a separate policy will be forced to pay for the procedure out of pocket.

All the purported advances in Kuempel’s missive simply distract from his failure to actually do something to improve the lives of his constituents or in some cases made them worse off. Texan’s whose homes suffered damage in the recent hurricane and haven’t filed a claim with their insurer yet lose some of their rights to compensation due to legislation he voted for. Texas has the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world and no substantive action was taken to address it. I don’t think John Kuempel has much to be proud of, do you?

Published in the Seguin Gazette, September 29, 2017