Monthly Archives: January, 2006

Lest We Forget…

This morning, as I listened to Sarah McLachlan sing of a “World On Fire� on my way to work, I found myself remembering the horrors of 9/11. It seems that the tragic events of that day (and the ones that followed) will never stray far from my conscious mind. Has anything really been the same since? After subjecting myself to a barrage of remembered feelings and images, I did a little math. Tomorrow, January 28th, will be 1,600 days since September 11th, 2001. In commemoration of this anniversary of sorts and because we have all been touched—and even traumatized—by this tragedy, I direct you to The September 11 Digital Archive which “uses electronic media to collect, preserve, and present the history� of that terrible day. There are lessons to be learned here, lessons our [so-called] leaders would do well to heed.

Slumping into 2006 with Low GDP Growth

Angry Bear’s writer Kash (who has a PhD in macroeconomics) has a post about the unexpectedly poor numbers for Gross Domestic Product growth in the fourth quarter of 2005.

Consumer spending slowed dramatically, to its lowest rate of growth in recent history. Business spending slowed even more dramatically, from a growth rate in the neighborhood of 8-10% over the past 10 quarters to just 3% this quarter – the lowest rate of business spending growth since 2003: Q1.

In fact, the only thing that kept GDP growth positive at all was a massive build-up in inventories – the largest increase in inventories since early 2002. Apparently businesses were caught off guard by the slowdown in demand, and have not yet slowed their production accordingly. Presumably, they will.

With news like this, it begs the question of whether the stock market will hold up, and whether unemployment will rise. Better not buy that big new house yet. In six months there might be some real bargains on the market.

The Cold Shoulder Of The White House

The Bush Administration’s continuing neglect of environmental issues has apparently ticked off the wrong special interest group. No, it’s not Greenpeace. It’s not the Sierra Club. It’s not even Bloggers Against Loggers. It’s the Advocates For Beings Of Frozen Precipitation, a lobbying organization which represents the interests of this country’s snowmen and snowwomen. As reported in The Onion in an article entitled “Nation’s Snowmen March Against Global Warming,� these frozen beings have recently taken to the streets to raise awareness of the threat of global warming and to protest the inadequate measures taken by this nation’s leaders to address such. Recently, several former heads of the Environmental Protection Agency took the Bush Administration to task for its failure to take the issue of global warming seriously enough. Their comments, along with the snowman protest, apparently received a very cool reception at the White House.

Soldier-Made Videos from the War in Iraq

A new blogging site sponsored by PBS and run by journalist Mark Glaser is currently featuring a story about videos of war shot by American soldiers in Iraq and uploaded to the internet.

This is disturbing to me for many reasons, as I detail below in the comment I left on the site:

As a clinical social worker, and blogger, and citizen concerned about the Iraq war and the soldiers there, this gives me the willies. It’s bad enough that so many of our soldiers are coming back with major PTSD, and that the rate of suicide and mental illness for soldiers from this war is extremely high. Now we are adding to this the possibility that people can get videos of combat directly from soldiers. I can see why this would be against the army code of conduct. I can also see how this could make for more traumatized individuals in the world. It seems like, as you remark in the your post, this will mostly lead to further dehumanizing of the enemy. I guess this helps us understand just how sick the mind needs to become in order to fight in war, but other than that, I don’t see the point. Also, are there any precautions to prevent children from watching these videos?

Okay, I just went and watched one — Iraq Fallujah. All I can say is, this is wrong. It’s way too easy to get exposed to something totally heinous. Especially I think we need to have something in place to keep children from being exposed. It’s good that it’s being documented, but where and when these videos are viewable is a big issue that is not at all being addressed here.

To elaborate on my concerns, and I’m a big “freedom of speech” defender, but I’m imagining an ordinary 13-year-old boy deciding he is going to research the Iraq war online, coming across these videos, spending several hours watching them in a state of total shock and engrossment, and consequently starting to feel very depressed, not being able to sleep at night, afraid to tell his parents what he’s done for fear he will get in trouble. It seems to me there should be some stopping points along the way before these videos are made available. Stop One: US Army Intelligence. Stop Two: a page that states that this material may not be suitable for minors and requests evidence that the viewer is not a minor.

The Great Uncounted, by David Jaffe

An article in today’s online edition of The Independent entitled “The life and death of an Iraq veteran who could take no more� relates the tragic tale of Douglas Barber, a U.S. army reservist who served in Iraq in 2003-2004 and was significantly traumatized by the experience. Earlier this month, at the age of 35, Mr. Barber took his own life. Just prior to his death, he posted an article on the Internet in which he reflected on the devastating impact that the war had wrought on he and his fellow soldiers. He had this to say:

My thought today is to help you the reader understand what happens to a soldier when they come home and the sacrifice we continue to make. This war on terror has become a personal war for so many, yet the Bush administration do not want to reveal to America that this is a personal war. They want to run it like a business, and thus they refuse to show the personal sacrifices the soldiers and their families have made for this country.

All is not OK or right for those of us who return home alive and supposedly well. What looks like normalcy and readjustment is only an illusion to be revealed by time and torment. Some soldiers come home missing limbs and other parts of their bodies. Still others will live with permanent scars from horrific events that no one other than those who served will ever understand. We come home from war trying to put our lives back together but some cannot stand the memories and decide that death is better. We kill ourselves because we are so haunted by seeing children killed and whole families wiped out.

Others come home to nothing, families have abandoned them: husbands and wives have left these soldiers, and so have parents. Post-traumatic stress disorder has become the norm amongst these soldiers because they don’t know how to cope with returning to a society that will never understand what they have endured.

Like Douglas Barber, Jeffrey Lucey was similarly traumatized by his tour of duty in Iraq in 2003. He returned home changed by the experience and tortured by memories of what he had seen and done. Last June, he hanged himself in his parents’ home in Massachusetts. He left behind a note in which he said: “I am weak and cannot deal with the pain. It feels as if I lost the most important part of my life that will ever exist.” Jeffrey Lucey was 23 at the time of his death.

As of this writing, more than 2,200 U.S. soldiers have been killed in the Iraqi conflict since the war first began nearly three full years ago. More than 16,000 U.S. soldiers have been wounded in action. (Up-to-date statistics can be found at: http://icasualties.org/oif/.) Not included in any of the official statistics are those, like Douglas Barber and Jeffrey Lucey, who have been psychologically wounded by their wartime experience and, unable to endure the trauma and to receive adequate mental health treatment, have committed suicide. They and others like them, whose numbers will tragically only keep growing, remain the great uncounted casualties of an unnecessary war.

Scalia: The Dirty Hands of Lobbying are On Him

CBS news reports that at the time of Judge Roberts’s swearing in, Judge Scalia was at a plush “legal conference” — a trip paid for by the conservative Federalist Society. From the article:

Scalia spent two nights at the luxury resort lecturing at the legal seminar where ABC News also found him on the tennis court, heading out for a fly-fishing expedition, and socializing with members of the Federalist Society, the conservative activist group that paid for the expenses of his trip.

At a press conference, almost two weeks later, Scalia was not inclined to tell reporters his whereabouts during Roberts’ swearing-in.

“I was out of town with a commitment that I could not break, and that’s what the public information office told you,” he said.

It “doesn’t matter what it was. It was a commitment that I couldn’t break,” Scalia continued when questioned further.

According to the event’s invitation, obtained by ABC News, the Federalist Society promised members who attended the seminar an exclusive and “rare opportunity to spend time, both socially and intellectually” with Scalia.

“I think Justice Scalia should not have gone on that trip for several reasons,” Gillers commented. “They are a group with a decided political-slash-judicial profile.”

One night at the resort, Scalia attended a cocktail reception, sponsored in part by the same lobbying and law firm where convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff once worked. “You know a lot of people would be embarrassed at that. I don’t think Antonin Scalia will be embarrassed,” Gillers continued.

Other Justices Received Gifts

While there are ethics rules in place for lower federal court judges, there is no explicit code of ethics for the nine Supreme Court justices. Some practices have in turn come under scrutiny, such as accepting trips from groups with political and judicial agenda and gifts from private parties who may at some point have business before the court.

Ron Rotunda, a law professor at the George Mason School of Law, author of a textbook on legal ethics and who is himself a member of the Federalist Society, finds no problem with the Supreme Court justices attending events sponsored by the organization. “I’m a member of the Federalist Society, the NAACP, and the justices get invited to both, and I think that’s a good idea,” he said. “The organization doesn’t have litigation before the judge and is unlikely to have litigation before the judge.”

An examination of the Supreme Court disclosure forms by ABC News found that five of the justices have accepted tens of thousand of dollars in country club memberships. And Justice Clarence Thomas has received tens of thousands of dollars in valuable gifts, including an $800 leather jacket from NASCAR, a $1,200 set of tires, a vacation trip by private jet, and a rare Bible valued at $19,000.

“The rules dealing with gifts don’t apply to Justice Thomas because the rules only apply to lower court judges,” Gillers explained. “People give gifts to judges and justices because they have power. And they have power because of their position that they hold in trust. And to suggest that it doesn’t matter, no one will care, seems to me to be whistling in the dark.”

At a Crossroads

Some argue that the Supreme Court justices are setting a bad example for other judges, who have been criticized for accepting free trips to luxury resorts for education seminars.

“I think the judiciary is really at a crossroads right now. There is a multibillion-dollar influence peddling industry in Washington, and it really has the federal judiciary in its sights at this point,” Doug Kendall, director of Community Rights Counsel and author of a study on trips for judges, said.

The issue of accepting paid trips found its way into the confirmation hearing for now Chief Justice John Roberts.

“So I’d like to know, Judge Roberts, if confirmed, whether you will use your power as chief justice to set a high ethical tone,” Senator Russell Feingold, D-Wis., asked.

In reply, Roberts said, “Well, I don’t think special interests should be allowed to lobby federal judges. Stated that way, I think the answer is clear.”

Roberts, Scalia and Thomas declined comment and requests for interviews by ABC News. A spokesman for the Federalist Society also declined to comment.

While Judge Roberts asserted that judges should not be lobbied, doesn’t attending a conference that is paid for by a special interest group qualify as lobbying? And doesn’t attending a swanky cocktail party sponsored by Jack Abramoff’s firm while at this conference qualify as lobbying? I’m not really seeing the gray area here.

Just Waiting for the Day When this Happens to Me

Or not. Anyway, it’s an exciting moment in the blogworld when a top-notch blogger like Ezra Klein gets bought up by a publication like The LA Weekly. It means that the corporate powers-that-be are giving up trying to blithely ignore the blogosphere and are now actively attempting to co-opt it. It’s a win-win situation for everyone, right? It looks like it, in this case.

Checking in with our Rhode Island Senate Candidates

Here’s Matt Brown’s latest blog entry: Watch My New Ad! In it, he mainly shows off his cute newborn daughter. How sweet. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do much for my understanding of his public policy priorities. It also says to me, once again, that politics is a man’s world, for surely it would be the end of any woman candidate for any office, should she get on TV and show off her newborn.

The latest from the Laffey camp: week after week of righteous indignation over the supposed abomination of pork spending, as if this is the be-all and end-all crisis of our modern times. In fact, the pork funding Rhode Island received accounted for 3% of its $1.876 billion total allocation for 2005. This is called the great Republican talent for making a mountain out of a molehill and getting the public to focus on small problems while effectively diverting attention away from big problems — the war in Iraq, the terrible state of our health care system, the skyrocketing national debt.

(Sorry, no link to Laffey. The code on his site holds you prisoner, not letting you return to where you came from, an internet-surfing practice to which I am opposed.)

And here is Sheldon Whitehouse: having meetings on the medicare benefit with seniors in elderly housing; writing critically in his blog about the Medicare changes, citing timely sources such as Paul Krugman in The New York Times. Here is a candidate paying attention to one of the most real and pressing issue of our country: the health of our citizens, particularly the elderly.

If you’re not elderly, perhaps you are saying, oh that Sheldon, he’s just pandering to a voting block. What does it matter to me if the elderly have health care or not? To which I respond: if your parents are receiving medicare, or if you have family members who are mentally ill or cognitively impaired, these benefits affect you. They mean that the pressure is not on you to buy your mother her prescriptions because she can’t afford them, or to help your sibling or your uncle with his spending money because he spent every last dime on his medication this month.

It is disingenuous at best for Republicans like Laffey to say that we should shrink government, without acknowledging how government programs directly impact the ability of this nation to maintain a solid middle class. Laffey himself has mentally ill family members, a fact he has called attention to in the past. Does he imagine somehow that he has not benefited indirectly from the care they receive?

Straight Talk from Nader on Real Lobbying Reform

You have to hand it to Ralph Nader for being able to lay down the law and suggest what our elected representatives should be proposing to curb government corruption.

The Abramoff scandal has spurred one of the episodic “reform” moments on Capitol Hill.

Republicans and Democrats are competing to offer ethics reform packages that ignore entirely their past entanglement in the very activities they now seek to regulate or eliminate.

Not all of these reforms are toothless, and if enacted and enforced, some may, perhaps, reduce the scale and scope of corruption that has reached a zenith in the Congress.

But there is far too little attention being devoted to what exactly is provided in exchange for the favors that lobbyists bestow on members of Congress.

Those gifts — the campaign contributions, the airplane rides, the visits to resorts disguised as speech opportunities — are not really gifts as such. They are more like investments (or quasi-bribes). And they are investments that pay back beyond the dreams of the greediest Wall Street prospector, in the form of corporate welfare: grants and direct subsidies, government giveaways, bailouts, tax subsidies, loopholes and other escapes, below-market loans and loan guarantees, export and overseas marketing assistance, pork for defense, transportation and other companies, regulatory removals, immunities from civil justice liability, and a host of other government-provided benefits.

To take one example of note: the Washington Post reported on December 31 how Jack Abramoff helped arrange the payment of half a million dollars from textile firms in the Mariana Islands in the Pacific, to a front group controlled by Tom DeLay. In exchange, they “solicited and received Rep. DeLay’s public commitment to block legislation that would boost their labor costs, according to Abramoff associates,” the Post reported. Textiles made in the Mariana Islands may be labeled “Made in the USA,” the factories there are exempt from U.S. labor law, and working conditions are appalling.

Nader goes on to detail the types of “favors” that need to be outlawed in order to make it possible for government to extricate itself from corporate influence. His suggestions are ones that would actually have “teeth,” unlike the watered-down proposals forthcoming this week from Democrats.

Medicare Changes Hurt Elderly and Mentally Ill

As a clinical social worker, I can’t tell you how frightened I am for mentally ill and elderly people across the country. Because of the changes in Medicare effective January 1, 2006, many elderly and severely mentally ill people are not getting their medications due to confusion over their benefits or inability to pay the new co-pays. The New York Times described the dire situation in Florida, where the state has not stepped in to supply people with their medications, as some other states have. From the article:

At Dayspring Village, in the northeast corner of Florida near Jacksonville, the 80 residents depend heavily on medications. They line up for their medicines three times a day. Members of the staff, standing at a counter, dispense the pills through a window that looks like the ticket booth at a movie theater.

Most of the residents are on Medicare, because they have disabilities, and Medicaid, because they have low incomes. Before Jan. 1, the state’s Medicaid program covered their drugs at no charge. Since then, the residents have been covered by a private insurance company under contract to Medicare.

For the first time, residents of Dayspring Village found this month that they were being charged co-payments for their drugs, typically $3 for each prescription. The residents take an average of eight or nine drugs, so the co-payments can take a large share of their cash allowance, which is $54 a month.

Even after the insurer agreed to relax “prior authorization” requirements for a month, it was charging high co-payments for some drugs – $52 apiece for Abilify, an anti-psychotic medicine, and Depakote, a mood stabilizer used in treating bipolar disorder.

Similarly, from The Detroit News:

While Medicaid offers top-rate prescription coverage that includes virtually every kind of psychiatric medication, Medicare coverage is more limited, they say.

And although federal guidelines direct insurers administering Medicare benefits to cover most psychiatric drugs, many plans have restrictions that did not exist under Medicaid, such as limits on how much a patient can take or how drugs can be mixed.

While insurers are supposed to cover most drugs, an analysis by the psychiatric society’s Gross found some psychiatric medications aren’t covered by some plans.

Gross also found that some plans regularly change their approved drug list, causing problems for people who picked their plans based on their specific medication needs.Then there’s the confusion among patients and pharmacists.

Many patients don’t know about, or don’t understand, the changes in their coverage. They may show up at a pharmacy believing they still have Medicaid, when in fact they’re covered by Medicare.

When that happens, it’s up to the pharmacists to determine what coverage the patient has. While druggists have spent months trying to understand the plan, some still aren’t clear about the Medicaid/Medicare issue, mental health advocates say.

Even pharmacists have had problems accessing information over the phone and through the Internet site that allows them to enroll people in a Medicare prescription plan. “Instead of just having to deal with, understand, learn the ins-and-outs of Medicaid in Michigan, you’ve got to look at dozens of private plans and learn what’s available and how it’s available,” said Mark Reinstein, president of the Mental Health Association of Michigan. “It’s a very daunting task for anyone, let alone someone who might have a mental health issue.”

And from The Providence Journal:

Elizabeth V. Earls, president of the Rhode Island Council of Community Mental Health Organizations, said that clients have been charged incorrect copayments, that pharmacists have been unable to access information about them, and that the federal government has deducted premiums from their Social Security checks, even though indigent people don’t have to pay premiums.

“In four to six weeks,” Earls predicted, “we’re going to see a huge surge in hospitalizations. . . . It is scary.”

At the South Shore Mental Health Center in Wakefield, Kathy Garlick, senior manager of the mobile treatment team, encountered a mentally ill man who just went two days without taking his heart medication.

“This is a man who had a heart attack a month ago,” Garlick said. “He went into the pharmacy on his own over the weekend.” Told he had to pay for the drugs, he replied that he didn’t have the money and walked out. The staff at the mental-health center learned about this yesterday. By the end of the day, they hadn’t figured out why he wasn’t in the system — but the pharmacy had agreed to provide a week’s worth of medication.

Garlick estimates that three-quarters of her clients have encountered difficulties getting their medications.

One was a woman who had received her Medicare drug card, and was actually in the system — but she needed preauthorization for her dosage of the antipsychotic drug Zyprexa. “I spent four hours on the phone,” Garlick said. “I kept track.” Eventually she obtained the necessary form, while the pharmacy gave the patient five days of drugs.

Luckily here in Rhode Island, the Governor did the prudent thing and reinstated the old Medicaid system for people until the new system appears to be able to function properly. Other states like Florida and Michigan have not done that, resulting in even bigger problems for their elderly and mentally ill residents.

Something needs to be done. The government that created this new system needs to step up to the plate and amend it so that it can function, before innocent people are made to suffer further disastrous consequences.

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