We’re Number One! We’re Number One!

Here in Rhode Island, the littlest state in the nation, we don’t get to say we’re number one very often. But here’s our chance: right now it appears that we’re number one in the country for screwing the public sector worker out of long-term financial security. From the Associated Press:

Despite jeers and the threat of a lawsuit from public workers, Rhode Island lawmakers on Thursday night approved one of the most far-reaching overhauls to a public pension system in the nation.

The proposal is intended to save billions of dollars in future years by backing away from promised benefits to state and municipal workers in the state-run pension plan. Lawmakers called Thursday’s vote one of the most wrenching they’ve had to cast, though the fight may not be over if unions follow through with promised lawsuits.

When I look around the street I live on, which is a modest street in its home values, I see a lot of my neighbors who are going to be impacted by this. The cumulative loss of the additional cost-of-living increase might well cost some of these individuals their homes someday. These are teachers, administrative workers, and security workers for the state, just to name a few.

Treasurer Raimondo’s response for why EngageRI, the organization that supports her agenda, does not need to disclose its financial backers is because pension reform “benefits everyone.” This is just a bald-faced lie. A large percentage of our state’s workers just lost a big piece of long-term income security. They are now going to have to clamp down on spending and save more to fund their own retirements. These are people who will not be able to give to nonprofits or support that local band fundraiser or go out to eat but once in a blue moon to save the extra money.

If we want to benefit everyone, we need to take from those who have too much. The “too much” line in my mind gets drawn when we are talking millions and billions in income and assets. When enough people finally realize what is going on and the top 5% start to pay their share again, we might have enough money to rebuild our country. But by then, we may be too far gone.

Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos

It was morning in America until Barack Obama was elected, right? Dave Johnson at Campaign for America’s Future addresses the collective amnesia.

But here is some reality anyway, even if we’re not supposed to see it. Just ten years ago we were paying off debt at a rate that would have completely paid it all off by now. But under George W. Bush we cut taxes for the rich and more than doubled military spending. We deregulated and stopped enforcing laws. We let the big corporations run rampant. Our federal budget turned from huge surpluses to massive deficits, and Bush said it was “incredibly positive news” because it would lead to a debt crisis they could use to shock people into letting the corporate right privatize and thereby profit.

And then, under and because of Bush, our economy collapsed.

I see the Republicans lacking a leader with the decency to stand against the most crazy superstitions of their right wing– the Birthers, the privatizing profiteers and the Ayn Rand disciples who claim that paying taxes to your own country and local government is the equivalent of rape and slavery– though they’ll keep the clean water, paved roads and Medicare, thank you. If the blinkered and callous statements about the uninsured is any indicator– ‘they can just go to the emergency room’- these people are not only ignorant but happy and complacent in their ignorance.

I see the Democrats lacking the vision and daring to bring a 21st Century New Deal to the American people. They, like the Republicans, are caught in a system where fundraising takes precedence over governing. The Supreme Court decision that money is a form of free speech was one of the worst setbacks to Democracy we have seen in our history. If you want to burn down a house, or level a playing field, or start fresh– look at campaign finance. Our politicians, most of them, are more to be pitied than censured. Save them from selling themselves on the streets!

Our President, Barack Obama, is a decent, smart, principled man. He is leading in a time of crisis. I think he is looking ahead, and what he sees is something neither party will find conducive to their political narratives.

We have seven billion people on this planet. In the developed nations, people are blessed to live to advanced age. This brings us a graying population and new challenges. Medicare is one of the best solutions we have, along with the Veterans Administration, and should not be cut, but strengthened and expanded. However, ‘hands off Medicare’ is not realistic. The salvation of health care is constant assessment of what works and what doesn’t. Barack Obama’s disclosure that his grandmother had a hip replacement that did not gain her health or comfort reflects the uncertainties and hard choices I see every day in elder care. But when I attended Town Hall meetings about health care reform, I found myself staring down some guys who were holding a sign that said, ‘Obama Lies-Grandma Dies’. This is not only a vicious slur against a politician who disclosed a real truth about his actual family–it was a slur against health professionals. I mean, we nurses are all supposedly jonesing for a seat on the ‘death panels’. I wish more of our politicians knew how much hard labor it takes to keep a totally disabled person in comfort and dignity. Many ordinary Americans know, because we are caring for our families.

Health care rationing? We have had it from day one. Health is rationed out to the rich, always has been. Look at the stats. Race being less a mark of heredity than a marker of caste in our very mixed nation– you see that health is distributed unequally. This matches unequal access.

But I think using ‘rationing’ as a scare word veils the truth. We have to decide how much of our national wealth will go to health care rather than other legitimate needs, such as education and infrastructure. Throwing money at Grandma will make some medical providers rich, but won’t necessarily make her healthier or happier. We have to fund research that will question accepted treatments and judge the outcomes so that we can avoid wasting money on dead ends– treatments that are painful and do more harm than good. A national health program like Medicare will always be ‘hands on’.

Another reality we are facing is peak oil. ‘Drill Baby, Drill’ gets harder when we run out of areas where rich people won’t be inconvenienced. Worldwide the demand for fossil fuels is getting harder to fill without political and environmental damage. George Bush famously said that history doesn’t matter, because we’ll all be dead. Others believe in The Rapture. The vast majority of us, though, do think about what we will leave to our children. We can’t honestly promise an endless future of increasing consumption because physics doesn’t work that way. So what do we do? This ‘austerity’ will be working its way up from the people who are ‘used to it’ sooner rather than later. If we care about the future we have to invest in damage control today.

I hope that President Obama will get out of the middle of the road. As a former presidential candidate, Fred Harris, said, ‘The middle of the road has nothing but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.’

If Barack Obama is, as I believe, a good president in bad times, he needs our vocal support for his best ideas. If he is, as some of his critics say, just another politician– then we have to hold his feet to the fire.

Some are saying that a President Romney would galvanize the opposition and swing the pendulum to a new resurgence of the left. As I recollect the Reagan years, it doesn’t necessarily work that way. And after eight years of George Bush we are darn tired of holding signs in the rain and snow.

The time to organize is now. I’m not surrendering, and I’m not staying home on election day. The Bush administration drilled holes in the ship of state before handing it over, disaster capitalism has salvage profiteers ready. This is a mess, but if you blame the last two years of President Obama, you have to forget the previous eight when George Bush turned peace and surplus into war and deficit. That being said, it’s President Obama’s watch now. Our president and party need to offer the American people a New Deal.

Toxic Debt Ceiling Collapses on US Elderly

AARP released a statement about the newly passed legislation on the debt ceiling. While in the first two paragraphs, it’s clear they are trying to be nice, by the third paragraph, they are getting down to business about what is wrong with this legislation. From the statement:

“We are relieved that Congress has acted on a bipartisan agreement to address the debt ceiling and prevent default to ensure that seniors will continue to receive their Social Security checks and have access to health care. We are also gratified that after hearing from millions of AARP members, the President and Congress did not cut Social Security, Medicare and long-term care in the first round of deficit reduction.

“Going forward, we are pleased that Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare benefits are protected if the so-called “super committee” fails to reach an agreement later this fall, but we will remain vigilant in our efforts to protect the health and retirement security of seniors and future retirees. We are concerned that a fast-track committee process will deny Americans a voice in the discussion about critical tax, health and retirement issues. We also are concerned about the potential use of a trigger that would arbitrarily cut provider payments under Medicare, which could unfairly shift costs to seniors.

“Seniors have worked their entire lives to achieve a level of health and economic security in retirement. As the deficit debate continues, AARP will continue to impress upon Congress the need to protect Medicare and Social Security from harmful cuts. With the compounded effect of loss of retirement savings and home equity, high unemployment and rising health care costs, cuts to the benefits seniors have earned could undermine the standard of living of not just those with limited incomes, but middle class seniors who have median incomes of only $18,500.

“AARP will continue to raise the voices of millions of Americans who rely on their Social Security and Medicare benefits and oppose benefit cuts for deficit reduction. Americans want a broader conversation around health and economic security, not one focused solely on deficit reduction.

“AARP believes that the American public deserves a seat at the table in any forum, including the newly created super committee, that discusses potential changes to these critical programs. We believe that our nation’s leaders should work together to strengthen health and retirement security for current and future generations.”

Who is going to be on this “Super Committee”? Is this “Super Committee” going to supplant Congress? How many seats on the Super Committee are going to be reserved for the already-super-influential corporations?

Great News for RICLAPP and Upcoming Event with Elizabeth Roberts

Great news for the Rhode Island Center for Law and Public Policy — they have received a $2,000 grant from the City of Cranston to support their legal services clinics at the Cranston Senior Center. RICLAPP is also holding an event on accessing medicaid with panelists including Elizabeth Roberts and Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian:

Are You Or A Loved One Confused About the Medicaid System?

Come Gather Useful Information and Have Your Questions Answered at the Senior Seminar

Understanding Medicaid and the New Global Waiver

Date: April 14, 2010

Time: 12:30 – 2:30

Place: Pilgrim Senior Center

27 Pilgrim Parkway

Warwick, RI 02888

Panel of Experts:

Elizabeth Roberts, Lieutenant Governor

Scott Avedisian, Mayor of Warwick

Corinne Calise Russo, Director of the RI Department of Elderly Affairs

Kathleen Connell, State Director of AARP

Light Refreshments Will Be Served

It’s nice to be part of an organization that is having so much success at bringing important events to the community. I hope you will join us on April 14th for the event at the Pilgrim Senior Center.

Real Health Care Stories from RICLAPP’s Geoff Schoos

Geoff Schoos, columnist for the Cranston Herald and President of the Rhode Island Center for Law and Public Policy sends along some great information on what it’s like to be low-income and insured in the United States:

In the midst of the health care “debate,” the lives of real people often get ignored or summarily discarded. Clearly, during the August of our discontent, allegations and accusations were made only to instill fear and further political agendas. This has been repeatedly demonstrated through the conduct of some participants at Town Hall meetings and the statements by such “leaders” as Sarah Palin.

Palin’s widely publicized term “death panels” inflamed the fear felt by many of our elder citizens. It was a lie then and continues to be a lie today. Making the lie worse is the fact that people promoting it know that it’s a lie. The reason for the lie, aside from instilling fear, is to distract attention from real proposals to address a real public policy problem. However distracting, lies must be addressed. Thus my August 19 column in the Cranston Herald.

On September 3, Beacon Communications published an op-ed piece from Professor Victor Morawski. I won’t even attempt to describe this particular slander. I’ll let the Professor speak for himself.

As this slander was published on my birthday, and as a contributor to Beacon Publications, I refused to let this op-ed piece stand unchallenged. Thus, this was published on September 10.

Last Wednesday, President Obama addressed both chambers of Congress and the American people to outline his principles and goals for national health insurance. As we all know, the toxicity of the last months has seeped into the most sacred of our institutions when South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson loudly called President Obama a liar.

The next day, ABC6 called my office to elicit a response on the whole health care debate. We met at noon on the Warwick City Hall steps for a 15 minute interview. Although we spoke of many health reform topics such as private option, competition, expanded access and various economic benefits that reform can have, the focus was on the venomous discussion of health care.

One hour after the taping of that interview, I met a new client. He came to me with a variety of issues, mostly concerning his economic situation. As we delved into his issue, I asked about his expenses. He and his wife are senior citizens. The have only their monthly social security on which to live. They reside in subsidized housing.

At the conclusion of our initial interview, it became apparent that the cost of their health care consumed a significant amount of their monthly income. When the rent is paid, their disposable monthly income is approximately $ 690 per month. Out of that amount, they pay another $ 96.40 for their Plan B Medicare coverage. Additionally, they pay another $ 35.00 per month for Medigap insurance.

Since both suffer from serious medical conditions, they pay approximately $ 50.00 on co-payments for doctor’s visits. In order to control the costs of co-pays, they schedule doctor visits so that they have no more than two per month. For example, the wife, who suffers from cancer, must schedule appointments with the radiologist and the oncologist so that they don’t coincide on the same month. Otherwise, the husband, who suffers from heart disease, would need to reschedule his visit to the cardiologist. Somewhere in the mix they have to schedule visits to their primary care physicians.

Add to the above is their payment for mostly generic prescription medications. Add $ 50.00 per month in co-pays. The total payments for health related expenses, without any dire emergency situation, amount to $ 231.40. That’s out of a disposable income of about $ 690.00 per month. Put another way, that comes to 33.5% spent on health care. And that’s a normal month after juggling their access to health services in order to keep costs down.

While this isn’t the worst case I’ve seen over the last year, it is representative of what too many of our neighbors are going through. And they’re lucky. Although they do have access to health care, albeit limited, they are better off than the 11% of our fellow Rhode Islanders who have no health insurance at all.

Thus, as the discussion, evaluation, and debate on health care takes place over the next few months, we would all do well to remember those like my clients and the thousands locally and the millions nationally who share their predicament. In the end, when the sound and the fury have subsided, when the sloganeering has ended, and when the smoke has cleared, this is about the real lives of real people who through no fault of their own, struggle to survive in an increasingly complex and uncaring system.