Missouri Republican wants to bar health insurance subsidies

While the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on whether premium health care insurance subsidies could be used in states that did not set up their own exchange, one Republican lawmaker told a Missouri Senate panel Wednesday that the state should bar such subsidies on its own.

Congressional action is needed to fully dismantle the Affordable Care Act, but the bill would be a first step, Sen. Bob Onder said. The bill bars insurers in Missouri from accepting subsidies from the federal government, while the Supreme Court is hearing arguments on whether people in every state can get tax subsidies to reduce the cost of health insurance premiums even if their state did not set up an independent health care exchange.

Opponents say that under the language in the federal health overhaul, only people living in states that created their own insurance exchanges qualify for those subsidies. The administration says doing away with the subsidies in roughly three-dozen states would set off a so-called death spiral for the health care law — declining enrollment, a growing proportion of less healthy people and premium increases by insurers.

Representatives from health care insurance companies Aetna and Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield told those gathered at the Senate hearing they opposed the bill because it could create a situation where there were two sets of laws.

Groups who oppose the bill said it would take away health care from middle-class Missouri residents and make it more difficult or impossible for them to find other coverage.

Advocates said 217,000 Missouri residents purchased health care on the exchange with the help of a federal subsidy in 2015 and 70 percent of those residents, or 152,000, would not be able to afford other coverage, according to a RAND study.

“I don’t know how we could call that freedom, taking away preventive care and life saving health care when they need it,” Missouri Health Care For All director Jen Bersdale said.

(Excerpted from daily journal online 3/04/15)

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How did Rex Sinquefield infiltrate Missouri’s tax policy analyses?

If Missouri didn’t possess some singular characteristics, then the involvement of an obscure academic unit in state government would be no big deal.

The University of Missouri’s Economic & Policy Analysis Research Center, or EPARC, would estimate the cost of certain legislative proposals without ruffling feathers. Lawmakers could be expected to objectively weigh the center’s analysis against other pertinent information.

But Missouri is Missouri, where one man looms larger than he should.

Rex Sinquefield, the meddling multimillionaire from St. Louis, has manipulated state government with enormous campaign contributions and self-financed ballot initiatives. Through a web of non-profits and political committees, he has created a vast structure to turn his beliefs and agendas into public policy.

So when we learn that the director of EPARC spent at least three years on Sinquefield’s payroll and has also collected consulting fees from the retired investment banker, yea, that sounds like a big deal.

Joseph Haslag, EPARC’s director and the Kenneth Lay chair in economics (endowed by the late MU graduate and Enron CEO) at MU’s Columbia campus, is also chief economist at Sinquefield’s Show-Me Institute.

He told Star reporter Jason Hancock that EPARC’s fiscal estimates on bills altering the state’s income tax code are a mechanical exercise, a matter of plugging information into a model and coming out with an analysis.

The center has been doing this work since 1972, long before Haslag got involved about 10 years ago.

But, as Hancock’s story notes, “Critics counter that the group’s projections rely on the assumptions that analysts make — in both building the model and interpreting legislation in question.”

Given Sinquefield’s outsized role in Missouri government, and his commitment to getting rid of the state’s income tax, I’d like to know more about how someone so closely tied to him landed a university position that routinely weighs in with estimates on state tax policy. I believe in coincidences, but this doesn’t seem like one.

Haslag’s role matters because the Missouri legislature is loaded with Republicans who very much want to believe projections that they can lower income taxes even more than they have without dire consequences to the state budget. If the projections are wrong, you get Kansas.

EPARC is staffed with economists who have strong academic credentials but also an alarming inclination to work for corporate interests, some of which are trying to shape public policy in Missouri. Haslag has done work for the Missouri Petroleum Markets and Convenience Store Association and for a political action committee formed by the payday lending industry. Another EPARC staffer has received $88,500 in research grants from the Koch Foundation. Others have done work for the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, founded by a former Enron executive with an interest in altering public pension structures.

Missouri has the loosest ethical laws in the nation, so corporate interests already have too much influence in Missouri government, as does Sinquefield. Their influence in evaluating Missouri fiscal policy should be watched very closely.

(Excerpted from Kansas City Star 2/23/15)

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GOP health plan would leave many low-income families behind

The Obama administration announced this week that 11.4 million people signed up for health coverage during the most recent enrollment period, making it ever harder for critics who love to hate the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to hate it. Despite its success, the threats against the ACA loom large, both in the form of the upcoming Supreme Court case challenging the subsidies that have made coverage affordable for so many Americans, and also in the recent healthcare proposal released by Senate Republicans. Both would be a significant step back for low-income families.

Republican Sens. Richard Burr (N.C.) and Orrin Hatch (Utah) and Rep. Fred Upton (Mich.) recently released one such plan that they hope to build upon the ashes of ACA, which they and their conservative colleagues have tried mightily to burn to the ground. Their proposal — the Patient Choice, Affordability, Responsibility and Empowerment Act, or the Patient CARE Act (PCA) — raises more questions than it answers, but it is clear that the plan would be a step backwards for many low-income U.S. families that have benefitted from the ACA.

Republicans would like for us to think that the ACA has been a dismal failure that has done more harm than good. And it would be fair if you believed that, given the more than 50 times they have voted to repeal the law and their relentless efforts to thwart some of the its most significant provisions. Is it really possible for something that is actually helping people to stoke such intense hatred? Indeed, it is.

What would the PCA mean for everyone who has gained insurance? Well, from starting gate, they would likely need to find new coverage because it would repeal the ACA in its entirety. In doing so, it would eliminate Medicaid expansion, the health exchanges, tax credits and the ACA’s cost-sharing reductions.

According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities — which evaluated the first iteration of this plan in May — that’s just the beginning. Under the PCA, a number of individuals who currently enjoy premium tax credits under the ACA would no longer qualify, including legal immigrants and people with incomes above 300 percent of the federal poverty level (currently individuals with incomes up to 400 percent qualify for tax credits). The older among us could be charged five times as much — or more — than younger people, and their tax credits would be much lower. There are fewer protections for customers with preexisting conditions and patients would likely pay more for deductibles and co-payments. Insurance plans would likely not be required to include the comprehensive host of benefits guaranteed by the ACA.

The plan would likely leave states with inadequate funding for Medicaid, forcing them to increase their own spending or make cutbacks to programs that low-income families rely on. Insurance companies could set annual coverage limits, could lift caps on out-of-pocket expenses and could charge women more than men. States would have the freedom to determine whether or not young people under 26 can get coverage through their parents’ health policies. The new plan would be a rollback, not progress.

In the coming weeks, conservatives will continue to bear down on the ACA, highlighting its failures — both real and contrived — over its successes and trying to convince the American public that we would be better off without it. If they have their way, it will upend a system that is now working for millions and we might very well find ourselves longing for the days of website glitches.

(Excerpted from The Hill 2/23/15)

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The Cost of a Decline in Unions

…as unions wane in American life, it’s also increasingly clear that they were doing a lot of good in sustaining middle class life — especially the private-sector unions that are now dwindling. Most studies suggest that about one-fifth of the increase in economic inequality in America among men in recent decades is the result of the decline in unions. It may be more: A study in the American Sociological Review, using the broadest methodology, estimates that the decline of unions may account for one-third of the rise of inequality among men.

“To understand the rising inequality, you have to understand the devastation in the labor movement,” says Jake Rosenfeld, a labor expert at the University of Washington and the author of “What Unions No Longer Do.”

Take construction workers. A full-time construction worker earns about $10,000 less per year now than in 1973, in today’s dollars, according to Rosenfeld. One reason is probably that the proportion who are unionized has fallen in that period from more than 40 percent to just 14 percent.

“For generations now the labor movement has stood as the most prominent and effective voice for economic justice.”

….unions also lobby for programs like universal prekindergarten that help create broad-based prosperity. They are pushing for a higher national minimum wage, even though that would directly benefit mostly nonunionized workers.

I’ve also changed my mind because, in recent years, the worst abuses by far haven’t been in the union shop but in the corporate suite. One of the things you learn as a journalist is that when there’s no accountability, we humans are capable of tremendous avarice and venality. That’s true of union bosses — and of corporate tycoons. Unions, even flawed ones, can provide checks and balances for flawed corporations.

Many Americans think unions drag down the economy over all, but scholars disagree. American auto unions are often mentioned, but Germany’s car workers have a strong union, and so do Toyota’s in Japan and Kia’s in South Korea.

In Germany, the average autoworker earns about $67 per hour in salary and benefits, compared with $34 in the United States. Yet Germany’s car companies in 2010 produced more than twice as many vehicles as American companies did, and they were highly profitable. It’s too glib to say that the problem in the American sector was just unions.

Or look at American history. The peak years for unions were the 1940s and ’50s, which were also some of the fastest-growing years for the United States ever — and with broadly shared prosperity. Historically, the periods when union membership were highest were those when inequality was least.

Richard B. Freeman, a Harvard labor expert, notes that unions sometimes bring important benefits to industry: They can improve morale, reduce turnover and provide a channel to suggest productivity improvements.

Experts disagree about how this all balances out, but it’s clear that it’s not a major drag. “If you’re looking for big negatives, everybody knows they don’t exist,” Professor Freeman said.

Joseph Stiglitz notes in his book “The Price of Inequality” that when unions were strong in America, productivity and real hourly compensation moved together in manufacturing. But after 1980 (and especially after 2000) the link seemed to break and real wages stagnated.

It may be that as unions weakened, executives sometimes grabbed the gains from productivity. Perhaps that helps explain why chief executives at big companies earned, on average, 20 times as much as the typical worker in 1965, and 296 times as much in 2013, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Lawrence F. Katz, a Harvard labor economist, raises concerns about some aspects of public-sector unions, but he says that in the private sector (where only 7 percent of workers are now unionized): “I think we’ve gone too far in de-unionization.”

He’s right. This isn’t something you often hear a columnist say, but I’ll say it again: I was wrong. At least in the private sector, we should strengthen unions, not try to eviscerate them.

(Excerpted from New York Times 2/19/15)

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A Supreme Court Gutting of Obamacare Could Affect Over 8 Million

“If the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down tax credits for people buying health insurance on the federal exchange, about 8.2 million Americans in 34 states could lose their coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Most of the people likely to be affected are white, employed, and low- to middle-class. They also are concentrated in a single region of the country: the South.”

“Health insurance rates in those states are expected to rise by as much as 35 percent, which may make coverage unaffordable even for those who don’t qualify for tax credits. Some believe that if the tax credits are disallowed by the Supreme Court, the underpinnings of President Barack Obama’s signature health care law would collapse.”

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“Even people who don’t qualify for the tax credits would be affected by their disappearance.  Because many of the people who receive the credits are relatively healthy, their departure from the insurance pool would lead to a 35 percent increase in premiums, according to the report.  That increase would make coverage unaffordable for about a quarter of the 4.9 million Americans who bought insurance on the federal exchange without a tax credit.


(Excerpted from Wonkwire 2/11/15)

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Missouri Republicans take on some public employee unions in ‘paycheck protection’ bill

For Missouri Republicans, not all unions are created equal.

A House committee on Monday signed off on legislation supporters have christened “paycheck protection” — and detractors call “paycheck deception” — that would require public employees to give permission before union dues are taken from their paychecks.

Just not all public employees.

Teachers, social workers and most other state or local government employees would be required to provide annual written authorization before dues or fees could be deducted from their paychecks.

But unions representing police, firefighters and other first responders would be exempt. The restrictions wouldn’t apply to them.

Critics of the bill say the political calculus is simple: Republicans want to weaken a political nemesis, but they don’t want to pick a potentially difficult fight with cops and firefighters.

It doesn’t hurt, those critics argue, that police and firefighter unions have historically bucked the trend of organized labor supporting Democrats.

“Republicans want to carve out a part of labor, put heavy burdensome regulations on them and hope they have a dramatic loss of membership that ultimately destroys them,” said Clark Brown of the Missouri State Council of Service Employees International Union.

The problem, both Rehder and Lant admit, is the bill wouldn’t pass the Republican-dominated General Assembly if it included police and firefighters.

“Those exclusions have been put in there to make it more palatable,” Lant said, “to make it easier for legislators to support.”

If lawmakers can approve the bill this year, Rehder said, “we can hopefully expand it down the road to include first responders and even private sector workers. I’ve learned that you have to do things in baby steps around here. And that’s what we’re doing.”

Opponents of the bill point out that unlike private sector unions in Missouri, membership in a public employee union is already voluntary. Workers can quit a union at any time.

Requiring an annual written reauthorization would only mean more paperwork and place an unreasonable burden on public employee unions, said Rep. Stephen Webber, a Columbia Democrat.

“This bill is about putting burdensome regulations on groups that the Republican Party doesn’t want to hear speak out,” he said.

There is also fear among opponents that paycheck protection is setting the stage for a fight in subsequent years in Missouri to push for a so-called right-to-work law — the most contentious of disputes between management and unions played out in state legislatures across the nation.

“If they can weaken one portion of labor, that helps them when they go after the rest of labor,” Brown said.

(Excerpted from Kansas City Star 2/9/15)

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GOP’s “pre-existing” lie: How to trick people into thinking you’re “replacing” Obamacare Authors of the “new” GOP healthcare reform plan are lying about its policy for people with pre-existing conditions

Part of the problem for Republicans in proposing and promoting “replacement” plans for the Affordable Care Act is that, given the GOP’s general opposition to regulation and federal spending, anything they propose will necessarily be less generous and less comprehensive than the ACA. This makes the marketing of those plans a bit tricky, especially since some of the ACA’s more popular features are rooted in regulating insurance company behavior and paying out subsidies to make insurance more affordable.

To get around this problem, the authors of the most recent Obamacare “replacement” have hit upon a novel strategy: just lie about what their plan does.

In an Op-Ed for USA Today, Sen. Orrin Hatch, Sen. Richard Burr, and Rep. Fred Upton hype their new healthcare reform framework – which is very similar to the framework Hatch and Burr released last year – as a collection of “specific ideas that could replace Obamacare with more choices and higher quality, while protecting those with pre-existing conditions.” Sounds pretty good, right? Better than Obamacare, even!

Let’s drill down on that “protecting those with pre-existing conditions” bit, since that’s a key part to the success of any healthcare reform proposal. Hatch, Burr, and Upton would completely repeal the ACA, which means they’d get rid of the law’s blanket ban on denying people coverage based on pre-existing conditions. What would protections would they put in place instead? Here’s what their Op-Ed says:

What our plan would not allow is a return to the days before Obamacare when insurance companies turned away patients simply because they were sick.

Under our proposal, no patient could be denied coverage based on a pre-existing condition. We create a new “continuous coverage protection,” and if you change your job and buy a plan on your own, we would provide protections so you could not be denied coverage or be forced to pay a higher premium because of a pre-existing condition.

This is a lie. The Hatch-Burr-Upton plan absolutely does allow for insurers to deny coverage to or discriminate against people who are already sick. “Continuous coverage protection” means that in order to shield yourself from insurance company discrimination, you have to continuously maintain your insurance coverage. Their plan sets up a one-time-only open enrollment plan for people with pre-existing conditions to buy coverage at normal rates. After that, you have to keep that coverage going without significant interruption. If your coverage lapses for a month or two because you lost your job or something, you’re once again thrown to the mercies of medical underwriting.

Here’s the relevant section from the actual Hatch-Burr-Upton plan, which smoothly transitions from asserting that “no one can be denied coverage” to explaining precisely how you can be denied coverage:

Under our plan, no one can be denied coverage based on a pre-existing condition. To help consumers with preexisting conditions, our proposal would create a new “continuous coverage” protection. Under this new protection, individuals moving from one health plan to another—regardless of whether it was in the individual, small group, or large employer markets—could not be medically unwritten and denied a plan based on a preexisting condition if they were continuously enrolled in a health plan. This new consumer protection helps incentivize responsible behaviors by encouraging consumers to keep their health coverage.

Their Op-Ed promoting the plan just left all that out and made it seem like Obamacare’s ironclad protection against discriminating based on pre-existing conditions would continue in a different form under the new Republican scheme. It won’t. A lesser version of it would be put in place that restores, at some level, the insurance industry’s ability to refuse to sell you insurance. But coming right out and saying that is a political nonstarter, so they just told a little lie and hoped no one would notice.

(Excerpted from Salon 2/5/15)

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Is America at War With Radical Islam? Critics insist that Obama’s reluctance to say so robs the struggle of moral clarity, but such attacks reflect a muddled understanding of the fight.

If there’s one thing top Republicans know, it’s that America can’t defeat terrorism unless we call it by its real name. There are several problems here. Even if one believed that calling the enemy “radical Islam” were a good idea, it would hardly explain how to defeat it. Yet the Republicans slamming Obama for his linguistic failures mostly stop there. After he chastised the President in Iowa for not saying “radical Islam,” Ted Cruz’s only policy suggestions were that Obama should have attended the anti-terror rally in Paris and that Americans who join ISIS should lose their citizenship. On Fox, Giuliani mentioned the Paris rally too, and then fell back on platitudes like “you know what you do with bullies? You go right in their face!”

In reality, denouncing “radical Islam” offers little guidance for America’s actual policy dilemmas. How does calling the enemy by its “real name” help determine whether the United States should take a harder or softer line toward the government in Baghdad? We need its help to retake central Iraq from ISIS, but its Shia sectarianism drives Sunnis into ISIS’ arms. Or how would this linguistic pivot help determine whether the best way to weaken ISIS in Syria is by backing Bashar Assad or seeking his ouster?

After 9/11, hawks backed up their aggressive rhetoric with aggressive policies. At their behest, America invaded and occupied two Muslim countries. Today, by contrast, with land invasions effectively off the table, the rhetoric has become largely an end in itself. What Republicans are really declaring war on is “political correctness.” They’re sure that liberal sensitivities about Islam are hindering the moral clarity America needs to win. Just don’t ask them how.

But it’s worse than that. Because far from providing the moral clarity Republicans demand, saying America is at war with “radical Islam” actually undermines it. How can a term provide clarity when it’s never clearly defined? If America is at war with “radical Islam,” does that include Saudi Arabia, a key US ally that for decades has both practiced and exported a radically illiberal Wahhabi creed? Does it include Iran, a semi-theocracy that has sponsored “radical Islamic” terror against the US but is our de facto ally against ISIS? Does it include Muslim Brotherhood parties like the one that briefly held power in Egypt, which run in democratic elections but want a government based on Islamic law? Listening to some GOP rhetoric, you might think the answer is yes. But to suggest the US is at “war” with key allies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt strips the term of any real meaning.

ISIS and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are actual organizations. Reasonable people can delineate where they begin and end, and thus craft specific strategies for fighting them. Good luck doing that with “radical Islam.”

As so often happens in today’s GOP, the Republicans demanding a war against “radical Islam” are working off a false analogy with the Cold War. Since Ronald Reagan’s “moral clarity” against communism supposedly toppled the Soviet Union, America must now do the same with “radical Islam.”

But, in fact, the United States was most successful when it did not see its enemy as “communism.” It was the belief that America must battle communism itself that led the Kennedy and Johnson administrations into a war against a communist regime in North Vietnam that posed no real threat to American security. The US fared far better when it limited its focus to one specific regime, the Soviet Union, and made alliances with other communist governments in order to weaken it. In the late 1940s, the Truman administration worked with communist Yugoslavia to undermine Soviet control of Eastern Europe. And under Richard Nixon, Washington cozied up to Beijing, which despite being even more ideologically zealous than Moscow, helped the US contain Soviet power. Reagan, for all his anti-communist rhetoric, maintained America’s de facto partnership with China because his real target was the USSR.

Obviously, the United States need not be ideologically agnostic. American presidents should say they believe liberal democracy is morally superior to Islamic theocracy, just as it was preferable to fascism and communism. But that’s a far cry from declaring war on every regime based upon an -ism we don’t like. For much of the cold war, the United States battled the Soviet Union but not communist China. In the 1940s, the United States went to war against Germany, Italy and Japan but not fascist Spain. And today, the United States is at war with those “radical Muslim” organizations that actively seek to kill Americans while allying ourselves with other “radical Muslim” regimes that don’t. Why is that so hard for Ted Cruz to understand?

 (Excerpted from The Atlantic 2/5/15)

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Need an Abortion in Missouri? Republicans Want You to Watch a Documentary First

The Missouri Legislature is attempting a feat that even Hollywood hasn’t been able to accomplish: produce a must-see abortion movie.
Only in this case, “must-see” is literal. If House Bill 124 passes, women in Missouri must watch a documentary created by the state health department with information about abortion 72 hours before they can access the procedure.

The new proposal, sponsored by Desloge Republican representative Linda Black, would add a third method of mansplaining abortion methods and risks to patients. Physicians are already required by Missouri law to explain abortion procedures verbally and in writing.

Representative Stacey Newman, one of the three representatives who voted against the bill and a longstanding pro-choice advocate, said the bill creates yet another needless obstacle that shames women out of their decision to terminate a pregnancy. Last year, the legislature instituted a 72-hour waiting period for abortions, giving Missouri some of the harshest abortion restrictions in the country, by overriding a veto from Governor Jay Nixon.

“Women already have to wait three days after a first consultation to get their procedure done,” said Rep. Stacey Newman to KOMU (Channel 8). “This is just another barrier between a woman and her ability to receive a legal medical procedure. It’s unnecessary and does nothing to help women and women’s health.”

It’s already distinctly difficult to get an abortion in Missouri. The state’s only abortion clinic is in St. Louis’ Central West End, and Missouri’s 72-hour abortion waiting period does not allow exceptions for rape or incest.

(excerpted from River Front Times 2/4/15)

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Missouri Groups With Secret Donors to lobby against any expansion of Medicaid in Missouri and to promote restrictions on the political activities of public-employee unions

As Missouri legislators roam the state Capitol, they frequently run into familiar lobbyists. More and more, though, these lobbyists are working for groups financed by unfamiliar donors. In fact, their identity is secret.

Such groups are nonprofits officially known as 501C4s, a designation that refers to a provision of the IRS’ tax code. Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2010 known as “Citizens United,” these organizations can get involved in politics in favor or opposition of candidates, just like political action committees.

But 501C4s don’t have to report their donors or file detailed reports on their spending, as PACs must do. The one caveat in protecting their nonprofit status is that 501C4s must spend at least 51 percent of their money on issues or other “social welfare’’ matters– not campaigns.

Among the state’s newest 501C4s is the Missouri Century Foundation, a fiscally conservative group that was founded by several of the state’s best-known Republican consultants.

The chairman is Gregg Keller, a St. Louis native who previously was executive director of the D.C.-based American Conservative Union. Keller had worked for Mitt Romney during his first 2008 presidential campaign and has served for several Missouri politicians, most notably former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo.

Talent’s former spokesman Rich Chrismer is the foundation’s communications director. Other key posts are held by Jim Gwinner, Mike Hafner and Holly Gogel – all respected conservatives with strong credentials.

The Missouri Century Foundation’s key mission over the next several months will be to lobby against any expansion of Medicaid in Missouri and to promote restrictions on the political activities of public-employee unions.

(Excerpted from St. Louis Public Radio 2/4/15)

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Legislation is detrimental to Missouri workers

Missouri House Speaker John Diehl wants to make so-called worker freedom a key emphasis for the Legislature by passing right-to-work and “paycheck protection” bills. This legislation has nothing to do with workers’ rights or workers’ protection. Actually, these bills attack both. They undermine the ability of workers to have a voice and to organize opposition to the out-of-state, well-heeled efforts of extremists and the 1 percent.

This legislation does not benefit workers or improve the state’s economy; rather, where they are implemented, they decrease wages, benefits and safety in the workplace. They don’t create jobs or guarantee jobs but make it easier for employers to keep their labor costs depressed.

Working Missourians have experienced the brunt of the recession. Wages have stayed stagnant or decreased while corporations are raking in enormous profits and sit on mountains of cash that allow their CEO’s pay to increase dramatically. This anti-worker legislation intends to keep the same process in place to the detriment of Missouri’s workers, their families and our community.

Let’s end this once and for all. Support working families. Oppose right-to-work and paycheck protection.

(excerpted from St. Louis Post Dispatch 2/1/15)

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Obama’s budget contains the most aggressive move yet to fight high drug prices

On Monday, the Obama administration proposed taking a major step towards bringing prices down for expensive specialty medications.

In its budget, the White House calls for Medicare’s prescription drug program to negotiate on prices for “high-cost drugs” and biologics, a complex and expensive class of drugs that is just starting to get competition from generics in the United States. “The administration is is deeply concerned with the rapidly growing prices of specialty and brand name drugs,” the budget reads.

The Department of Veterans Affairs and state Medicaid programs get mandated discounts on these drugs, but Medicare was forbidden by the 2003 law creating its prescription drug program to negotiate on price. For years, liberals have been pushing to give Medicare that authority, which would make the United States more like the rest of the world.

Drug companies and Republican lawmakers have regularlypushed back against the idea of price controls in Medicare Part D.

  (Excerpted from Washington Post 2/2/15)

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Republicans Have a Science Problem

“The vaccination controversy is a twist on an old problem for the Republican Party: how to approach matters that have largely been settled among scientists but are not widely accepted by conservatives.”

“It is a dance Republican candidates often do when they hedge their answers about whether evolution should be taught in schools. It is what makes the fight over global warming such a liability for their party, and what led last year to a widely criticized response to the Ebola scare.”

(excerpted from Political Wire 2/3/15)

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How new corporate “amnesty” plan could doom the economy

For over a decade, corporations have hoarded profits overseas, basically blackmailing the country into letting them return the money to the United States at a lower tax rate.

The first “repatriation tax holiday” occurred in 2004. The United States, unique among developed nations in taxing foreign corporate profits, only collects the tax when those funds are repatriated into the country. In 2004, Congress allowed corporations to bring that money home at a 5.25 percent rate, well below the 35 percent standard.

Supporters said the tax amnesty would spur corporate investment and economic growth. But a 2009 report from the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations showed that the top 15 companies benefiting from the holiday cut over 20,000 jobs and lowered investment in subsequent years. Most of the repatriated money went to shareholders in dividends or stock buybacks, or to executives in compensation packages.

Once corporations figured out they could successfully lobby for amnesty, they spun more and more of their profits off as “overseas” gains. Multinationals made liberal use of tax havens, and used accounting gimmicks like patent licensing or on-paper changes of their corporate headquarters through “inversions” to move profits into subsidiaries in low-tax countries. By the end of 2013, corporations had more than $2 trillion stashed overseas.

Essentially, these corporations made a bet that they could game the tax code, and use their power and influence to secure amnesty after the fact. It took longer for Congress to comply with their desires. But the stars seem aligned this year.

(Excerpted from Salon 2/2/15)

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Proposal exempts banks from Missouri consumer protection law

Exempting financial institutions from a Missouri law governing advertising, merchandising and related lawsuits would leave individuals little recourse if they are mistreated, a state consumer protection official told lawmakers Monday.

The bill would exempt banks, credit unions and other lenders from civil lawsuits or action by the attorney general under the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act. The financial institutions say the exemption is needed to address a recent increase in lawsuits against them.

But Joe Bindbeutel, director of the attorney general’s consumer protection division, told a House committee that the change would mean banks would have little reason to work with his office to resolve consumer complaints. That would mean consumers would have little recourse if their home was unlawfully foreclosed on or car improperly repossessed, he said.

“Our goal is to see individual consumers get restitution,” he said. “Most of the people that complain to us do not have access to other restitutions.”

The law prohibits fraud, deceptive advertising and omissions of fact in selling any merchandise and lays out a civil course of action for individuals when they are financially harmed. It also authorizes the state attorney general to take action against financial institutions if a state regulator refers a complaint to the office.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Tony Dugger, R-Hartville, creates a specific exemption for banks, credit unions and other financial institutions from both private civil and class actions and legal enforcement by the attorney general.

(Excerpted from Southeastern Missourian 1/26/15)

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Missouri businesses seek to curb cities’ powers on minimum wage, discrimination

Business groups are aligned behind an effort to challenge the power of local governments to set their own rules on a variety of things, from discrimination law to the minimum wage. And they expect a warm reception in the Missouri General Assembly.

The effort is being greeted with howls from city leaders. It’s hypocritical, they say, for a legislature that complains about the federal government foisting one-size-fits-all policies on the state to do the same thing to local governments.

Kansas City Mayor Sly James “deeply believes that states should not be in the business of telling cities how to run themselves,” said his chief of staff, Joni Wickham.

The chamber is focused on a three-pronged agenda. It wants to ban local governments from implementing discrimination laws that are stricter than the state’s. It wants to prohibit cities from boosting their minimum wage. And it wants to ban cities from mandating benefits such as vacation or sick leave.

The legislation may also take aim at other local ordinances, such as one recently passed in Columbia prohibiting private employers from asking about a job applicant’s criminal history or conducting background checks before making a conditional job offer.

Last week, President Barack Obama announced he’ll grant at least six weeks of paid leave to federal employees after the birth or adoption of a child. And in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, he called on Congress to require companies to give workers up to seven days of paid sick leave a year.

He’s also encouraging state and local governments to pass their own paid leave requirements if Congress fails to act.

The idea is sure to be greeted with hostility in Jefferson City, where Senate leaders listed “pushing back against the federal government” among their top legislative priorities for the year.

With minimum wage and paid sick leave ordinances gaining momentum nationally, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Restaurant Association, the American Legislative Exchange Council and other groups have ramped up efforts to resist workplace regulations.

The Missouri chamber has historically opposed efforts to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s Human Rights Act alongside things such as race, gender and age. They’ve argued doing so would open businesses up to litigation.

A.J. Bockelman, executive director of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group Promo, says the Chamber’s efforts position it against a rising tide of public support for gay rights.

Same-sex marriage is now legal in 36 states, and court rulings have allowed same-sex couples to marry in St. Louis and Jackson County. Yet under Missouri law a person can be fired from a job, evicted from an apartment or kicked out of a public place just for being gay.

The chamber’s proposed legislation also puts it at odds with some of its biggest members, Bockelman said. St. Louis-based Monsanto Co., for example, has offered same-sex domestic partner benefits for more than 10 years and brags that it was named one of the “Best Places to Work for LGBT Equality” by the national gay-rights group Human Rights Campaign. The same types of benefits are offered by Kansas City-area companies like Cerner Corp., Burns & McDonnell and Sprint Corp.

(Excerpted from Kansas City Star 1/20/15)

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Hating Good Government

It’s now official: 2014 was the warmest year on record. You might expect this to be a politically important milestone. After all, climate change deniers have long used the blip of 1998 — an unusually hot year, mainly due to an upwelling of warm water in the Pacific — to claim that the planet has stopped warming. This claim involves a complete misunderstanding of how one goes about identifying underlying trends. (Hint: Don’t cherry-pick your observations.) But now even that bogus argument has collapsed. So will the deniers now concede that climate change is real?

Of course not. Evidence doesn’t matter for the “debate” over climate policy, where I put scare quotes around “debate” because, given the obvious irrelevance of logic and evidence, it’s not really a debate in any normal sense. And this situation is by no means unique. Indeed, at this point it’s hard to think of a major policy dispute where facts actually do matter; it’s unshakable dogma, across the board. And the real question is why.

Before I get into that, let me remind you of some other news that won’t matter.

First, consider the Kansas experiment. Back in 2012 Sam Brownback, the state’s right-wing governor, went all in on supply-side economics: He drastically cut taxes, assuring everyone that the resulting boom would make up for the initial loss in revenues. Unfortunately for his constituents, his experiment has been a resounding failure. The economy of Kansas, far from booming, has lagged the economies of neighboring states, and Kansas is now in fiscal crisis.

So will we see conservatives scaling back their claims about the magical efficacy of tax cuts as a form of economic stimulus? Of course not. If evidence mattered, supply-side economics would have faded into obscurity decades ago. Instead, it has only strengthened its grip on the Republican Party.

Meanwhile, the news on health reform keeps coming in, and it keeps being more favorable than even the supporters expected. We already knew that the number of Americans without insurance is dropping fast, even as the growth in health care costs moderates. Now we have evidence that the number of Americans experiencing financial distress due to medical expenses is also dropping fast.

All this is utterly at odds with dire predictions that reform would lead to declining coverage and soaring costs. So will we see any of the people claiming that Obamacare is doomed to utter failure revising their position? You know the answer.

And the list goes on. On issues that range from monetary policy to the control of infectious disease, a big chunk of America’s body politic holds views that are completely at odds with, and completely unmovable by, actual experience. And no matter the issue, it’s the same chunk. If you’ve gotten involved in any of these debates, you know that these people aren’t happy warriors; they’re red-faced angry, with special rage directed at know-it-alls who snootily point out that the facts don’t support their position.

The question, as I said at the beginning, is why. Why the dogmatism? Why the rage? And why do these issues go together, with the set of people insisting that climate change is a hoax pretty much the same as the set of people insisting that any attempt at providing universal health insurance must lead to disaster and tyranny?

Well, it strikes me that the immovable position in each of these cases is bound up with rejecting any role for government that serves the public interest. If you don’t want the government to impose controls or fees on polluters, you want to deny that there is any reason to limit emissions. If you don’t want the combination of regulation, mandates and subsidies that is needed to extend coverage to the uninsured, you want to deny that expanding coverage is even possible. And claims about the magical powers of tax cuts are often little more than a mask for the real agenda of crippling government by starving it of revenue.

And why this hatred of government in the public interest? Well, the political scientist Corey Robin argues that most self-proclaimed conservatives are actually reactionaries. That is, they’re defenders of traditional hierarchy — the kind of hierarchy that is threatened by any expansion of government, even (or perhaps especially) when that expansion makes the lives of ordinary citizens better and more secure. I’m partial to that story, partly because it helps explain why climate science and health economics inspire so much rage.

Whether this is the right explanation or not, the fact is that we’re living in a political era in which facts don’t matter. This doesn’t mean that those of us who care about evidence should stop seeking it out. But we should be realistic in our expectations, and not expect even the most decisive evidence to make much difference.

(Excerpted from New York Times 1/19/15)

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State of the Union Address

My only agenda for the next two years is the same as the one I’ve had since the day I swore an oath on the steps of this Capitol — to do what I believe is best for America. If you share the broad vision I outlined tonight, I ask you to join me in the work at hand. If you disagree with parts of it, I hope you’ll at least work with me where you do agree. And I commit to every Republican here tonight that I will not only seek out your ideas, I will seek to work with you to make this country stronger. (Applause.)

Because I want this chamber, I want this city to reflect the truth — that for all our blind spots and shortcomings, we are a people with the strength and generosity of spirit to bridge divides, to unite in common effort, to help our neighbors, whether down the street or on the other side of the world.

I want our actions to tell every child in every neighborhood, your life matters, and we are committed to improving your life chances as committed as we are to working on behalf of our own kids. (Applause.) I want future generations to know that we are a people who see our differences as a great gift, that we’re a people who value the dignity and worth of every citizen — man and woman, young and old, black and white, Latino, Asian, immigrant, Native American, gay, straight, Americans with mental illness or physical disability. Everybody matters. I want them to grow up in a country that shows the world what we still know to be true: that we are still more than a collection of red states and blue states; that we are the United States of America. (Applause.)

I want them to grow up in a country where a young mom can sit down and write a letter to her President with a story that sums up these past six years: “It’s amazing what you can bounce back from when you have to…we are a strong, tight-knit family who’s made it through some very, very hard times.”

My fellow Americans, we, too, are a strong, tight-knit family. We, too, have made it through some hard times. Fifteen years into this new century, we have picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and begun again the work of remaking America. We have laid a new foundation. A brighter future is ours to write. Let’s begin this new chapter together — and let’s start the work right now.

For a complete transcript of the State of the Union Address click here

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Schaefer and Haahr Push to Have Public Universities Subsidize Anti-Gay Discrimination

State Sen. Kurt Schaefer of Columbia has filed a bill that would allow religous groups on college campuses to discriminate while enjoying all the benefits of being subsidized by public funds through the university. Schaefer’s bill mirrors State Rep. Elijah Haahr’s HB 104, a bill that prohibits universities from “burdening” any religious organization with the expectation of not discriminating against members of the public even though that organization is being subsidized by the public.

Sadly, these anti-gay discrmination bills aren’t new.

Over the past ten years, many Christian groups, such as the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Christian Legal Society, have tried to challenge these policies on various campuses by requiring that candidates for officer positions not identify as gay, because homosexuality is against their religious beliefs. When campuses then revoke their privileges, they claim that it’s a violation of their religious freedom, but so far, courts have upheld universities’ “all-comers” policies — as in, all who come must be free to participate equally.

And when the United States Supreme Court looked into current ‘all comers’ policies in 2010, it found that they are fine.
Christian Legal Society v. Martinez

Holding: A public college does not violate the First Amendment by refusing to officially recognize a student organization unless it allows all students to join the group, even if that all comers policy requires a religious organization to admit gay students who do not adhere to the group’s core beliefs.

There’s only one issue truly in play here: whether anti-gay student groups can force public universities to subsidize their discriminatory behavior. The answer today is the same one the Supreme Court gave in 2010: Absolutely not.

In a recent interview, Stephanie Perkins, Deputy Director of PROMO, summed up what’s at stake.
“Religious freedom is a fundamental part of Missouri, and we value our religious beliefs,” said Stephanie Perkins, Deputy Director of PROMO, Missouri’s statewide LGBT advocacy organization. ”But those beliefs don’t allow us to discriminate against others in a student group.”

“Freedom means for everyone, and no student should be turned away from opportunities to succeed and expand their university experience on campus just because of who they are,” said Perkins.
It’s pretty simple, really.

(Excerpted from Progress Missouri 1/15/15)

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The Rise in Health Care Coverage and Affordability Since Health Reform Took Effect

New results from the Commonwealth Fund Biennial Health Insurance Survey, 2014, indicate that the Affordable Care Act’s subsidized insurance options and consumer protections reduced the number of uninsured working-age adults from an estimated 37 million people, or 20 percent of the population, in 2010 to 29 million, or 16 percent, by the second half of 2014. Conducted from July to December 2014, for the first time since it began in 2001, the survey finds declines in the number of people who report cost-related access problems and medical-related financial difficulties. The number of adults who did not get needed health care because of cost declined from 80 million people, or 43 percent, in 2012 to 66 million, or 36 percent, in 2014. The number of adults who reported problems paying their medical bills declined from an estimated 75 million people in 2012 to 64 million people in 2014.


(Excerpted from Commonwealth Fund 1/15/15)

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