Monday, June 29, 2009

Health Care Rally in Washington DC

Washington: Medical insurance companies attract anger like Velcro captures lint. Who, of those clutching tightly to their own health insurance, hasn’t waited while doctors file with some desk jockey for permission to do a medical test? Who hasn’t heard about someone fighting to get out of the tight spot between doctors needing payment and insurance companies stalling? It’s time to clean up some of the health care mess so on June 25th approximately 25,000 American citizens traveled from nearly every state to form an army of citizen lobbyists demanding lives over dollars as the US looks toward health care reform.
Senator Chuck Schumer was opening speaker, seemingly cheerleader, with wildly enthusiastic and mercifully brief comments to the crowd steaming in the sun at Senator’s Park in front of the capitol building. Schumer declared that it’s time to change business as usual in health care. What does Schumer want? A strong public option for health coverage for everyone. Schumer shouted, “The greatest country in the world should have the greatest health care in the world.”
As the New York State Senate is mired in conflict that has business in Albany flailing, it seemed that that people’s voices may actually be heard in Washington. Senators Schumer and Kristen Gillibrand as well as Representative Eric Massa are on board with proposals to bring an aggressive public option to health care in the US.
The most recent polls show that at least 72% of Americans want to have a public option for health care. What’s a public option? Some call it Medicare for all in trying to explain the goal but others call it socialized medicine when trying to protect the status quo.
Why isn’t it socialism? Because the government won’t employ the doctors or own the hospitals but rather hospitals and doctors will be independent as they are now. Because people will have their choice of doctors, clinics and hospitals. Since nothing of the system would be run by the government, there’s nothing of socialism in the plan.

Speakers at the rally from workers to pastors to small business owners said that they hate that insurance companies decide on treatment options. They hate that insurance companies decide who they will insure and set the rates without oversight operating in a near-monopoly situation.
What the House and Senate are looking at are bills that would allow people to opt into a public program similar to Medicad. People could choose to participate the same way that people can choose public or private schools or the public post office or private mail carriers such as UPS or FedEx. In the same way that public and private can co-exist in those business models, public and private health insurance can also fit into the market place.
Possibly shining stars in the language are passages that take the dreaded “pre-existing condition” problem out of the conversation. With the public and private models in competition and with companies no longer being allowed to consider pre-existing health problems in their billing structure citizens should benefit. Another change is that coverage would have to include preventive care.
Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio said that America needs a health care system with a strong public option but that the health insurance industry is claiming that the government can’t do anything right. “If so,” said Brown, “why are they afraid of a public option?”
Brown and Schumer along with Rockefeller, Leahy and dozens of other senators all declare that having an option for public health care would increase competition, lower prices, improve quality and benefit consumers. Massa stepped through the numbers to show how the program could be paid for by shifting money that’s already out there in the health industry – using it to pay doctors and not insurance corporation big wigs.
The public health option is good for the economy – perhaps closer to necessary. Many senators and representatives stated that the economic recovery is hindered by the health care crisis.
Under the current patchwork program nearly 20,000 Americans die every year because they have no health insurance. Worried about expenses, they ignore problems or fail to treat chronic disease and die early. According to the Institute of Medicine, the US is the only wealthy, industrialized nation that does not provide health care for all citizens.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

iLoves iPod

Not long ago iTunes was a foreign concept; the iPod a device of mystery and podcasts of no more importance than a mote of dust among the billions on the computer monitor. No more. The iTunes logo is prominent on my desktop. I’m a regular in the iTunes store and iPod goes where I go. I’ve become a podcast junkie.
Now everyone over 30 has rolled their eyes in contempt and turned away so it’s just us older folk left. Go now - download iTunes. It’s like a Bergren Forum lecture series available 24/7 at home on your computer or anywhere in the world where an iPod may whisper in your ears.
I bought an iPod because when we travel Rick likes to drive with the radio off. I, on the other hand, wish to be aurally entertained.
Emilie encouraged me certain that I would like an iPod and Jay said it was easy to understand. My friend, Susan, said that if she could download podcasts, anyone could. Buoyed with their reassurance and enthusiasm I ordered an iPod - engraved - Elaine Hardman, CEO
ITunes is a free download offered with the Barbie-Doll philosophy which is that people will buy things to go with the free system. Not willing to disappoint I started with the iPod and added a docking station so I could listen in the studio and then needed a case to protect it and finally (or not) new headphones for comfort.
Ready to make nice with this technology I began by ripping the Dixie Chicks. I don’t actually know what ripping is but iTunes asked if it might perform the service when it registered presence of a CD and then it sped through the music. When it finished, the screen showed each song title, length, genre, artist, recording date and the name of the album. It even, as if my musical opinion mattered, allowed me to rank the songs with zero to four stars.
I ripped through every CD in the house including AU Concert Band music that I needed to become fluent with and all the great music from Emilie and Josh’s wedding. With the historic cowboy music Jay found somewhere and lots of old rock tunes it added up to 1270 songs in one day.
Either iTunes or the iPod can sort and play by many criteria and it will just play and play and play without juggling CDs. Who invented this thing and why didn’t they tell me sooner?
After ripping I dove into the iTunes store where it seems that the best stuff they offer is FREE. That’s my kind of store.
Waiting for me now are nearly 558 podcasts (19 days of steady listening) including 13 short lessons in conversational Spanish and countless lessons on technology and science. If I wasn’t born a geek, I have evolved into one.
While walking through Wellsville one week doing errands the Vinyl Café visited my ears. The VC is rather like the Prairie Home Companion but set in Canada and featuring Dave and his friends. In this particular episode Dave acquired and faced his fear of rats and brought one home for the kids after being locked in the trunk of his car with it. I likely looked the fool laughing while picking up toothpaste.
This American Life is often, and deservedly, at the top of the podcast download list. It’s always interesting - so interesting that I donated to the show because it’s just too good to be free.
Podcasts aren’t all fun and games. There are programs about philosophy and debates on moral questions. CBC radio offers Quirks and Quarks as well as Ideas. In the political arena I like Rachel Maddow’s information but not Bill O’Reily’s vicious streak. For balance I listen to Left, Right and Center. For daily living advice there is Stuff You Ought to Know and Stuff Your Mother Taught You. For emotional and human interest there is The Moth - a series of programs with real people telling about themselves or family members. One can download whole books and listen while walking the dog or weeding the garden.
My exercise videos nestle into the 120 gig hard drive along with a photo album, all that music and days worth of podcasts and vodcasts (videos) and yet 80% of the drive is empty, waiting for more - and it all fits in my pocket.
iTunes holds a marvelous world of information and entertainment with podcasts that are like winning the information lottery every day. The computer makes it work, the iPod makes it portable and all kinds of things make it really worth having.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Coup in New York Senate

The spectacular New York State Capitol building stands glorious and stately. It’s a building to be proud of but civic prides stops at the magnificent doors. Inside the halls feel slimy with the corruption of “pay to play”.

As of January, Republicans had 40 consecutive years of majority in the NY Senate during which New York’s “Empire State” image decayed. Democrats took over in January and several bills to benefit the general public made it into committees, a discussion series that was meant to culminate with a celebration of democracy – public hearings that would send bills to Assembly and Senate floors.

On Monday the Assembly Standing Committee on Insurance and the Senate Standing Committee on Judiciary met publically. On Tuesday, buses from around the state were set to bring citizen groups to several more hearings when legislative directives supported by up to 70% of the state’s voters were expected to be passed to the full floor with probability that they would become laws.

Now forget that for-the-people stuff. Instead, a Florida billionaire strode the Capitol’s halls making arrangements with New York’s legislators, an entourage of suits jogging in his money-power wake.

Tom Golisano, founder of Paychex, a NY business worth billions, said that New York’s tax system was too high and he moved to Florida. Even though he moved, he reportedly poured money into legislative campaigns to change the leadership in the Senate where Republicans have led the agenda and created tax codes for decades.

According to the Buffalo News, Golisano was dissatisfied with tax rates and with the staffing of the Senate’s Buffalo office so, reportedly, Golisano tugged on his financial ropes to bring politicians to his way of thinking leading to a coup in the New York Senate.

Golisano was photographed with Pedro Espada and Hiram Monserrate who announced they would caucus with the Republicans. Why is this a big deal? There are 30 Republican and 32 Democratic senators - a majority margin of 2. With Espada and Monserrate crossing the aisle to the Republican side, the majority structure flipped. The majority party chooses who will chair each committee and those chairs choose what legislation to consider and what to send to the shredder. The majority party can kill bills by simply not allowing them to come to the floor.

It is also no small matter that the majority party draws the lines for legislative districts, a deed regularly done with regard not to community lines but to party lines thereby ensuring the reelection of the majority party (gerrymandering). Republicans have controlled those lines for the last 70 years.

Changing the majority meant changing all committee chairs and cancelling all the hearings scheduled for this week “for the people.”

According to officials of Citizen Action NY, corporate lobbyists outside the Senate Chamber cheered as the Republicans declared control of the Senate on Monday. Republican control likely signaled job security for them with the “Pay to Play” culture in Albany for lobbyists and bad deals for millions of work-a-day people.
The busloads of citizens took their meeting rooms in a spirit of anger rather than excitement over being involved in the political process. About 100 people from Citizen Action NY protested outside the office of Pedro Espada just after Golisano exited.

News crews from all major stations filmed the group and recorded statements, both prepared and impassioned off-the-cuff, while the majority of citizens stood behind them holding placards and wearing tape over their mouths to illustrate that the voices of the people have been cut from the process. After the statements, they tore the tape off and chanted “Golisano pays, Pedro plays.”

Citizen Action of NY then occupied the office of Hiram Monserrate until he met with them. Monserrate, while he has personal legal problems outside the legislature, had worked with several citizen and labor groups to sponsor the legislative measures that were to have been ushered out of committee that day. Monserrate told Citizen Action NY that he would work with the Democratic Party to try to find a resolution to the stalemate and on Wednesday he refused to caucus with Republicans instead meeting with Democratic senators.

For the rest of the week there were protests in Buffalo, Rochester and Albany and negotiations among lawyers for both parties. As of Friday, the legality of the coup remains under discussion, government work has halted and those who hoped that clean elections would come to New York are once more disappointed.

On Monday, Hiram Monserrate returned to the Democratic Caucus resulting in a 31-31 tie thus sending the decision of leadership to the courts.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Senate Hearing in Rochester

ROCHESTER Our state's government operates behind closed doors in hushed halls where people focus on money. Committee meetings are as muted as a gray cat in the fog. At least, they were.

Senator Joseph Addabbo now chairs the Senate Committee on Elections and he opened his committee doors so wide that every citizen in New York can find a chair. Right now in New York money is the primary determinant of who is elected and what laws are passed. Bills in Addabbos’s committee may change that.

Addabbo has offered a series of hearings across the state, most recently at Nazareth College in Rochester where he found over 80 people and heard 27 presentations. Addabbo complimented attendees saying that this was the largest turnout the committee has experienced.

The room was filled with people fired up over a plan to revamp NY's system of funding political campaigns. For years citizens have been knocking on closed doors in Albany, shouting about the pay-to-play political system that serves special interests groups over constituents. Mario Cuomo proposed changes nearly 30 years ago only for things to get worse.

New York is recognized as having the most dysfunctional state government and that puts us low on a depressed stage. Lobbyists in Albany outnumber legislators. Hands that give out campaign cash come back after elections to lean heavily on the shoulders of legislators creating a system where money buys campaigns and campaigns pay up by passing tailored legislation.

Addabbo opened his committee to constituents for comments on several bills on electoral matters that have been long stewing in the legislative pot. He brought the discussion on the road breaking tradition with senatorial secrecy.

At the hearing people repeatedly called for Clean Money/Clean Elections, the long-running campaign for public financing of elections. Before you roll yours eyes over the use of public money understand that the states using public financing (Arizona and Maine) have seen the cost of running government decrease because legislators don’t seek funding from special interest groups; they don’t make thousands of calls for donations; they don’t duck out of legislative sessions to chase contributions. What they do is talk with constituents, define problems and work out solutions.

Most of the 80 people in Rochester were private citizens. One, Stewart Berger, asked that the laws create a program that is simple, comprehensive and fair.

Basically, proposals are that potential candidates would collect some number of token donations - $5 to $250 - from natural persons. (Natural persons are living, voting people rather than legal persons which are corporations. Corporations were granted personhood in an 1886 Supreme Court ruling.) When potential candidates collect the required number of donations, they qualify for public funding in an amount specified for that office. Larger districts would allot more money.

With donations coming only from natural persons, corporate influence would be reduced significantly.

Blair Horner, representing NYPIRG, presented Abbaddo with large written testimonial which he summed by stating that New York has inadequate disclosure laws and what laws exist are poorly enforced. Three things are needed. 1. Public financing for elections. 2. Lower contribution limits. 3. Aggressive enforcement of campaign contribution limits and an independent enforcement agency that is well staffed and funded.

Horner continued, “I’m optimistic this year. The Governor, Senate majority leader and the Assembly leader all say that it’s time for campaign finance reform. This creates a window of opportunity and it’s important to jump through that window.”

Nathan Jassic, from Binghamton, asked that NY break the link between money and elections. Jassic was echoed by Paula Hanser and Ed Scutt who spoke about the influence of money on recent bills and voter turnout. A Zogby poll indicated that 58% of New Yorkers feel that legislators listen to contributors and not constituents while voter studies show 80% of the states have better voter participation than NY.

Sam Fedele from Rochester said that there can be no progress on any issue until the problem of money is solved. “A business weighs each action on the value to its bottom line. A corporation is not moral or patriotic. When it makes a political donation, it wants a financial return.”

Thomas Ferrarese from the Monroe County Board of Elections spoke against changes saying that we should be proud of the system in New York State. He cited Help America Vote Act as a hastily written law that did not make elections safer or easier for voters. He suggested that NY increase penalties for abuse of campaign funds and institute a multi-tiered system so that those running for small, local offices would have less accounting and reporting demanded of them than those running for statewide offices.

Jon Greenbaum, representing Metro Justice of Rochester, made 4 requests. Candidates need enough funding to launch a reasonable campaign. They need extra rounds of funding to counter spending by wealthy candidates. He cited that the cost of elections in Arizona decreased significantly since extra round grants were added saying that wealthy candidates learned they can’t outspend the system. Greenbaum pressed for a donation limit of $100 but said that $250 might work. He asked that to qualify for public money people should have to do something serious, something difficult but not impossible for the ordinary person.

Senator Abbaddo asked Greenbaum to read the committee's proposal for bundling contributions and to give feedback on the measure.

Time and time again citizens brought up redistricting asking that it be based on population and not on the political party registration. There were also repeated complaints about out-of-district corporations pushing money into congressional races. People want that outside money out of their political lives. While it seems like a fairy tale to hope that NY could lessen the influence of money in politics, it might be possible this year.

If you care about the issue call Senator Young at 518-455-3563 or 1-800-707-0058. Put your voice behind keeping things as they are or ask her to support changes in campaign finance.