Satisfaction with ObamaCare tops traditional plans

People who bought coverage through ObamaCare are generally more satisfied than those with other types of insurance, according to a new national survey.

ObamaCare customers rated their satisfaction over the last year as 696 out of 1,000, compared to the 679-point rating by customers with employer-based plans, according to a large survey by the consumer research firm J.D. Power.
Customer satisfaction has increased sharply from ObamaCare’s tumultuous first year.

New enrollees rated their experience at 670 — a significant 55 points higher than the previous year, when ObamaCare exchanges were plagued by website failures.

People were more likely to be satisfied by ObamaCare if they had already enrolled in coverage. They gave even higher marks if they had auto-enrolled in their plans this year, with a rating of 744 out of 1,000.

The J.D. Power study, which surveyed more than 3,000 healthcare customers, offers the first comprehensive look at the Department of Health and Human Services’s (HHS) efforts to improve the customer experience in ObamaCare’s second year.

Under new leadership this year, HHS officials had prioritized a smoother customer experience after the department had botched the launch of the ObamaCare marketplace the year before.

The good news on ObamaCare exchanges comes the same week a national poll found that the number of people who support the healthcare law is now greater than those who oppose the law.

The factors considered by the survey included cost, coverage, customer service and claims processing — with cost making the biggest difference in satisfaction.

Cost is the most influential attribute driving satisfaction among marketplace plan members.

The survey also reveals the varying opinions by customers under different types of ObamaCare marketplaces.

Satisfaction was highest in the 10 states that rely on a partnership with the federal government, which includes Arkansas, Oregon and West Virginia. That rating was 716 out of 1,000.

Federal marketplaces were second-most popular, rated 699, while state-based marketplaces received a 683 rating.

(Excerpted from The Hill 4/23/15)

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Majority of Americans Say Obamacare Should Get Time to Work

It may come as news to Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, but a majority of Americans is not, in his words, dreaming of “repealing every word of Obamacare.”

Fifty-one percent of U.S. adults say that while the Affordable Care Act may still require small changes, “we should see how it works,” according to a new Bloomberg Politics poll. Twelve percent said President Barack Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment should be left alone, 35 percent said it should be repealed, and two percent said they weren’t sure.

 

 

 

The number of Americans who want the law erased has remained fairly consistent over the past five years since Obama signed it. In July 2010, 37 percent said the law should be repealed. Two years later, 34 percent favored repealing the law.

(Excerpted from Bloomberg Politics 4/17/15)

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Missouri chamber once again gets discrimination all wrong

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry is holding an anti-gay-discrimination bill in the Missouri Legislature hostage. The chamber wants legislation that would make it easier to fire employees regardless of sexual orientation.
Not everyone in Missouri’s business community is on the chamber’s side. The St. Louis Regional Chamber and Monsanto Co. are backing a bill that outlaws discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Missouri Non-discrimination Act has had a legislative hearing, which is what passes for progress in the Missouri Legislature. Five years ago it didn’t even get that far.

The Missouri chamber’s monkey wrench has to do with an effort on another bill that seeks to narrow the workplace discrimination law to require workers to prove that discrimination was a “motivating factor” rather than a “contributing factor” in wrongful termination cases.

The legislation would make it nearly impossible for employees who have been discriminated against to bring cases to court.

It would prevent employees from having reasonable legal recourse for sexual or gender identity harassment complaints. The Missouri chamber and the Republicans who control the state House and Senate are trying to pretend that this bill is necessary to improve the state’s business climate.

Rep. Gina Mitten, D-St. Louis, got it right when she told St. Louis Public Radio that the chamber was trying to “basically hijack a bill about discrimination to advocate for something else.”

The St. Louis Regional Chamber and Monsanto understand that making the state’s business climate less friendly to gay employees is not the way to make Missouri more attractive to 21st century businesses. Hart Nelson, lobbyist with the regional chamber, correctly called the bill a “pro-business measure.”

Sexual orientation is not part of Missouri’s human rights’ protection package. Race, creed, color, religion, national origin, sex, ancestry and handicap are.

That means in Missouri, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees can be fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, and denied access to public accommodations and services without a reason.
That’s shameful. State legislators have thwarted efforts to fix it every year for a decade.

The Republicans who run Missouri’s Legislature and the business people who give them money should look to Indiana to see what can happen when sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination is legalized. Indiana’s GOP Gov. Mike Pence was forced by the state’s business community and the Indianapolis-based NCAA to do an about face and amend a law which would have allowed for discrimination because of sexual orientation.

Sooner or later, Missouri is going to face the same kind of backlash.

(Excerpted from St. Louis Post Dispatch 4/20/15)

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With ‘welfare reform,’ Legislature attacks Bigfoot

The Missouri Legislature, soaked in conservative mythology, has given final passage to a bill that would punish 9,500 of the state’s most vulnerable citizens, 6,310 of whom are children. Of those kids, 3,400 are under the age of 5.
It is as if they had passed a bill to kill off Bigfoot by feeding him children and single mothers.

In the case of Senate Bill 24, Bigfoot is the cherished conservative myth that hordes of deadbeats have decided to live off welfare instead of getting their lazy butts to work. Some facts:
• This “horde” contains about 3,200 families, most headed by single mothers, 59 percent of whom are white.
• Each family gets an average benefit from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program of $228 a month. This is federal money given to the state in a block grant. It’s been roughly $228 since 1992, when it had 33 percent more buying power.
• Most of these women already have gotten off their butts and gone to work. But a mother of two can’t earn more than $846 a month and still qualify for TANF payments. It takes some doing to get to this part-time job so she and her family can continue this rich lifestyle.
Facts be damned. The Legislature was informed by the Heartland Institute of Chicago, a right-wing think-tank, that Missouri was “last in welfare reform.” So Senate Bill 24 cut the lifetime TANF eligibility from 60 months to 45. Few recipients stay on TANF that long — why would you for $228 a month unless you desperately needed medical care? TANF moms can get Medicaid if they earn $9,000 a year or less.

She can also get food stamps, but thanks to SB 24, she’ll now have to comply with work requirements to qualify, even if she lives where there aren’t many jobs.

If she can find it, she can also get state-subsidized child care for going to work. The state will pay $338 a month for each TANF kid in child care; a mom with two kids in care will be subsidized $676 to save a $282 TANF payment. Genius.

One good thing: This cruelly named “Strengthening Missouri Families Act” requires that this mom will get a chance to meet with caseworker from the Department of Social Services to have all of this explained to her.

Of course, the only special TANF assistance centers are in Jackson County (Kansas City) and Nodaway County (north of St. Joseph). If those aren’t handy, the moms will have to get in line for a caseworkers at their local Family Support Services offices, who — thanks to downsizing — have an average caseload of 1,000 families.

Luckily, the Legislature has a private enterprise solution pending for that. House Bill 985 would turn the verification process over to an outside contractor. The contractor will want to be paid, which means less money available for the poor.
The Republican-dominated Legislature passed SB 24 by veto-proof majorities, but that shouldn’t stop Gov. Jay Nixon from vetoing it and calling them out on their fact-free meanness.

They have singled out the state’s most desperate families for special punishment. The Bigfoot believers are nailing them to the wall.

(Excerpted from St. Louis Post Dispatch 4/20/15)

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You Can Be Fired for Being Gay, and the Missouri Chamber Wants to Keep it That Way

In Missouri, you can be fired simply for being gay– and the Missouri Chamber of Commerce wants to keep it that way. Remember back in February, when a lobbyist for the Chamber equated extending protections to LGBT community members to aliens?

“If you make those changes, you can add anyone to those classes. You can add little green men if you want.”

Yesterday, Ron Calzone, director of conservative think tank Missouri First, made it very clear that they also want to keep it so that Missourians can be fired for being gay:

“I think that I have the God-given freedom to discriminate as a private individual against anyone for any reason I want to.”

Over 1,000 Missouri businesses support Missouri’s Nondiscrimination Act also know as MONA, which would add lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals to the Missouri Human Rights Statute. Monsanto and Express Scripts, some of the largest employers in the state, testified in support of MONA at a hearing on Wednesday.

It’s time for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce to listen to their base and to the public. It’s time for them to be on the right side of history and it’s time to make “fired for being gay” history.

(Excerpted from ;Progress Missouri  4/16/15 )

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Uninsured rate continues to fall – Affordable Care Act

“The uninsured rate among U.S. adults declined to 11.9% for the first quarter of 2015 — down one percentage point from the previous quarter and 5.2 points since the end of 2013, just before the Affordable Care Act went into effect. The uninsured rate is the lowest since Gallup and Healthways began tracking it in 2008.”

Percentage Uninsured in the U.S., by Quarter

“While the uninsured rate has declined across all key demographic groups since the healthcare law fully took effect in January 2014, it has dropped most among lower-income Americans and Hispanics — the groups most likely to lack insurance.”

 

(Excerpted from Wonk Wire 4/13/15)

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Missouri Senate budget plan a crisis in the making for the poor – Sen. Kurt Schaefer of Columbia, the architect of a plan to cut funding to the departments of social services, mental health and health and senior services.

Once again, politicians in Jefferson City are trying to score political points by targeting the poor.

Ignoring an optimistic revenue picture, the Missouri Senate last week passed a budget that singles out social services for dangerous and unnecessary cuts.

“I’m adamant in the fact that we’re going to rein in welfare growth,” declared state Sen. Kurt Schaefer of Columbia, the architect of a plan to cut funding to the departments of social services, mental health and health and senior services.

Schaefer’s actions in office are all geared to promoting his 2016 run for attorney general. And rhetoric about getting tough on “welfare” would no doubt resonate on the campaign trail. But his proposals amount to a callous attack on low-income senior citizens, foster children, Missourians with disabilities and people with mental illnesses.

Instead of allocating money for specific programs, the legislature would give money to the departments in the form of block grants. Together, the three departments would lose $130 million. But because state monies are needed to draw down federal funds for some of the programs, the total loss would be closer to $300 million, officials said.

Services that could be affected include funding for foster care families, support for Missourians with disabilities, energy assistance for low-income families and treatment for abused and neglected children.

There are a host of reasons for the legislature to deep-six this plan. Among them:

▪ Contrary to Schaefer’s assertions that the three targeted departments are flush with money, all three have already cut their operations drastically. The Department of Mental Health, for instance, has absorbed almost $30 million in budget cuts over the last five years.

Cuts to the Department of Social Services have contributed to bureaucratic chaos and a near-breakdown in the processing of applications for Medicaid, food stamps and child care subsidies. In one month in 2014, the department logged 250,000 calls for assistance, and 150,000 of them disconnected because the wait was so long. People have reported filling out applications and receiving no response.

Delays like this leave people without needed medical care or food assistance in times of need. Working parents may have to patch together unsafe child care arrangements. The department is working on the problems and says it is making progress. Further budget cuts will only set back those efforts.

▪ Missouri continues to refuse to expand Medicaid eligibility, thereby turning away millions in federal dollars that could be used to serve mentally ill individuals and other low-income populations. If Schaefer and others really want to reduce the state’s responsibility for “welfare” costs, they would expand the limits and take advantage of federal funds to pay most of the cost.

The proposed cuts, coming on top of the stalemate on Medicaid expansion, reveal the Republican majority’s disregard for low-income working families.

▪ The legislature has done nothing again this session to rein in Missouri’s most insidious form of welfare — the more than half a billion dollars a year that the state forfeits with its runaway tax credit programs.

Tax credits allow recipients to keep tax revenues they would normally return to the state. The programs have become a favorite way for the legislature to award favors. And unlike the money the state spends to protect children, help developmentally disabled citizens lead productive lives and provide summer jobs for low-income teenagers, tax credit programs aren’t subject to annual legislative review or restraint.

Lawmakers know they should curb the unending giveaways to the powerful, but they haven’t mustered the political will.

Instead, they are targeting people who are in no position to protest — like children, elderly Missourians and people struggling with developmental disabilities and mental illness.

These people need and deserve competent and compassionate treatment from their state government. The plan from the Missouri Senate aims to replace that with callous contempt.

(Excerpted from Kansas City Star 4/13/15)

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It Takes a Party

….there has never been a time in American history when the alleged personal traits of candidates mattered less. As we head into 2016, each party is quite unified on major policy issues — and these unified positions are very far from each other. The huge, substantive gulf between the parties will be reflected in the policy positions of whomever they nominate, and will almost surely be reflected in the actual policies adopted by whoever wins.

For example, any Democrat would, if elected, seek to maintain the basic U.S. social insurance programs — Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — in essentially their current form, while also preserving and extending the Affordable Care Act. Any Republican would seek to destroy Obamacare, make deep cuts in Medicaid, and probably try to convert Medicare into a voucher system.

Any Democrat would retain the tax hikes on high-income Americans that went into effect in 2013, and possibly seek more. Any Republican would try to cut taxes on the wealthy — House Republicans plan to vote next week to repeal the estate tax — while slashing programs that aid low-income families.

Any Democrat would try to preserve the 2010 financial reform, which has recently been looking much more effective than critics suggested. Any Republican would seek to roll it back, eliminating both consumer protection and the extra regulation applied to large, “systemically important” financial institutions.

And any Democrat would try to move forward on climate policy, through executive action if necessary, while any Republican — whether or not he is an outright climate-science denialist — would block efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

How did the parties get this far apart? Political scientists suggest that it has a lot to do with income inequality. As the wealthy grow richer compared with everyone else, their policy preferences have moved to the right — and they have pulled the Republican Party ever further in their direction. Meanwhile, the influence of big money on Democrats has at least eroded a bit, now that Wall Street, furious over regulations and modest tax hikes, has deserted the party en masse. The result is a level of political polarization not seen since the Civil War.

….the differences between the parties are so clear and dramatic that it’s hard to see how anyone who has been paying attention could be undecided even now, or be induced to change his or her mind between now and the election.

(Excerpted from New York Times 4/13/15)

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A New Phase in Anti-Obama Attacks

It is a peculiar, but unmistakable, phenomenon: As Barack Obama’s presidency heads into its twilight, the rage of the Republican establishment toward him is growing louder, angrier and more destructive.

Republican lawmakers in Washington and around the country have been focused on blocking Mr. Obama’s agenda and denigrating him personally since the day he took office in 2009. But even against that backdrop, and even by the dismal standards of political discourse today, the tone of the current attacks is disturbing. So is their evident intent — to undermine not just Mr. Obama’s policies, but his very legitimacy as president.

It is a line of attack that echoes Republicans’ earlier questioning of Mr. Obama’s American citizenship. Those attacks were blatantly racist in their message — reminding people that Mr. Obama was black, suggesting he was African, and planting the equally false idea that he was secretly Muslim. The current offensive is slightly more subtle, but it is impossible to dismiss the notion that race plays a role in it.

Perhaps the most outrageous example of the attack on the president’s legitimacy was a letter signed by 47 Republican senators to the leadership of Iran saying Mr. Obama had no authority to conclude negotiations over Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Try to imagine the outrage from Republicans if a similar group of Democrats had written to the Kremlin in 1986 telling Mikhail Gorbachev that President Ronald Reagan did not have the authority to negotiate a nuclear arms deal at the Reykjavik summit meeting that winter.

There is no functional difference between that example and the Iran talks, except that the congressional Republican caucus does not like Mr. Obama and wants to deny him any policy victory.

On April 3, Colbert King, a Washington Post columnist summarized a series of actions by Republicans attacking the president’s authority in areas that most Americans thought had been settled by the Civil War. Arizona legislators, for example, have been working on a bill that “prohibits this state or any of its political subdivisions from using any personnel or financial resources to enforce, administer or cooperate with an executive order issued by the president of the United States that has not been affirmed by a vote of Congress and signed into law as prescribed by the United States Constitution.”

The bill sounds an awful lot like John C. Calhoun’s secessionist screed of 1828, the South Carolina Exposition and Protest. Laurie Roberts of The Arizona Republic wrote that it was just “one of a series of kooky measures aimed at declaring our independence from federal gun laws, from the Affordable Care Act, from the Environmental Protection Agency, from the Department of Justice, from Barack Obama.”

Republicans defend this sort of action by accusing Mr. Obama of acting like a king and citing executive actions he has taken — on immigration and pollution among other things. That’s nonsense. The same Republicans had no objection when President George W. Bush used his executive authority to authorize the torture of terrorism suspects and tap the phones of American citizens. It is not executive orders the Republicans object to; it is Mr. Obama’s policies, and Mr. Obama.

The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, who declared war on the new president in 2009 as minority leader and used the filibuster to paralyze the Senate, essentially told foreign governments to ignore the carbon-emission goals Mr. Obama was trying to set by international agreement. Because climate-change deniers in Congress and in some states oppose the effort, setting those goals is pointless, Mr. McConnell pronounced last month.

If this insurrection is driven by something other than a blend of ideological extremism and personal animosity, it is not clear what that might be. But it is ugly, it deepens mistrust of government and it harms the office of the president, not just Mr. Obama.

(Excerpted from New York Times 4/11/15)

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Missouri’s legislature has stonewalled Medicaid expansion for 3 years and the consequences are starting to come into focus.

Missouri’s legislature has stonewalled Medicaid expansion for 3 years and the consequences are starting to come into focus.
Our neighbors, who are doctors, nurses, social workers, and janitors, have lost their jobs. Three hospitals have closed.
In the past two months, Barnes Jewish hospital has been forced to bail out two health care institutions: Mineral Area Regional Medical Center and, most recently the St. Louis Regional Psychiatric Stabilization Center (PSC) because the Missouri legislature has failed to expand Medicaid. Here’s what Rich Liekweg, an executive vice president of BJC HealthCare, had to say about coming to PSC’s rescue:

“Eighteen months ago we realized that unless there was going to be Medicaid expansion in the state of Missouri, PSC as we know it was not going to be a viable entity.”

“If PSC had closed, then there would be no avenue for those emergency rooms to transfer those patients out, and they’d have very long lengths of stay in the emergency room.”

Hospitals are designed to provide care to people, not clean up the mess of legislative inaction.

Legislative failure to expand Medicaid (a bipartisan issue) hurts Missourians, hospitals and ultimately our communities. Several studies have documented that Medicaid expansion will save the state money, create access to affordable healthcare for 300,000 uninsured Missourians, spur job creation and decrease hospitals’ uncompensated care costs.

The consequences of inaction are real. But Missouri legislators have the opportunity to reverse this by expanding Medicaid for our neighbors, our hospitals, and our communities

(Excerpted from Progress Missouri 4/9/15)

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Webber announces Senate bid

Rep. Stephen Webber (D-Columbia), announced this morning that he is running for State Senate District 19 in 2016 to replace termed candidate for attorney general and Senate Appropriations Chairman Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R-Columbia).

Webber is the senior Democrat from Boone County. He is an attorney a former Marine Corps Sergeant who served in combat abroad.

“As a State Representative my goal is clear; work with anyone, regardless of party, who wants to improve our community,” said Webber in a written statement. “I’ve reached across the aisle to try to make college more affordable, increase job training, support middle-class families, and ensure access to healthcare at no cost to taxpayers. As a State Senator I will continue to work with anyone who wants to make Mid-Missouri a great place to live.”

Webber’s announcement and new campaign website laud his Boone County roots. He is an alumnus of Hickman High School in Columbia and the University of Missouri School of Law.

“Mid-Missouri can lead our state, creating the next generation of engineers, scientist, farmers, teachers, and technicians,” continued Webber’s statement. “We can become the best in the world at developing new industries in fields such as material science, agriculture, and nuclear medicine, all creating family-supporting jobs. Not at some far off time, not later, but right now.”

Webber’s announcement came with over 140 endorsements from local business owners, community leaders, elected officials and state office holders. The list of endorsers can be found at http://www.votewebber.com/endorsements/.

The official campaign kickoff for Webber’s run will be on June 18th at Shakespeare’s South in Columbia.

(Excerpted from Missouri Times 4/9/15)

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Nixon calls for Missouri lawmakers to stem proposed budget reductions

Governor Jay Nixon (D) is calling on the legislature to reject a Senate plan to change how three state agencies that deal with health and welfare programs are funded, and cut $130-million from them.

That plan would lump most of the funding for the departments of Health and Senior Services, Social Services, and Mental Health, together, reduce by 4 to 6 percent the new appropriation to each of those agencies, and then give those agencies flexibility to decide how to divide their funding among their programs. It was proposed by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer (R-Columbia) who said it would slow the steady year-to-year growth of the budgets for those agencies, who he said haven’t been spending all the money allotted them.

Governor Nixon said proposed reduction to those agencies, when combined with federal dollars, would amount to a $300-million dollar reduction in their appropriation.

Nixon called the proposed reduction “draconian,” and told reporters Friday he is revealing a plan meant to make those cuts unnecessary.

“Revenues have come in above initial projections and the legislature has passed tax amnesty [legislation], that will provide even more dollars to support state services. As a result, we can provide additional funding to public education while also protecting vital services for vulnerable Missourians,” Nixon told reporters Friday.

(Excerpted from Missouri Net 4/10/15)

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Without Medicaid Missourians dying

The General Assembly’s refusal to expand Medicaid leaves Teresa Jackson, 37, an 18-year Warrensburg resident, with astronomical medical bills compared to her income.

Without being able to afford a doctor, Jackson said she goes often to the emergency room. Emergency room visits might be avoided if Missouri Medicaid expanded, she said Saturday.

Missourians grow sick and die for lack of Medicaid expansion, Martha Stevens of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, Columbia, said.

“The estimate is that 700 people die every year in Missouri because they’re going without health care,” she said.
A joint study by City University of New York and Harvard University found the failure to expand Medicaid in Missouri and other opt-out states will mean from 7,000 to 17,000 deaths per year. National estimates include 712,000 more people diagnosed for depression, 241,000 more people suffering catastrophic medical expenses, such as those Jackson has amassed, and 423,500 fewer people receiving diabetic medication.

Jackson said Medicaid covers her three sons living at home – ages 15, 5 and 8 months – but not her. She makes a few hundred dollars per month as an in-home health service provider for four clients.

“I cook for them, do laundry and clean the house, and make it so they can stay at home as long as possible,” she said. “I’m not a nurse, but I would like to pass my ‘meds’ for this job.”

Jackson said her hand-to-mouth existence is tough. “I was in the homeless shelter twice in the last three years,” she said. “It’s a struggle, but I always make it, because when God shuts one window he opens another.”

Between her part-time job and child support, Jackson said, her income is about $1,500 per month. The income is supplemented by government programs that include income-based housing, food stamps and support from Warrensburg School District that benefits children. What is not covered is Jackson’s health care bills, because she makes too much money. “The government includes my child support (as income),” Jackson said. The money to support her children puts her out of range for Medicaid.
“I’m in the gap,” she said. Illness and debt plague her, she said. “I get staph infections a lot, and so that’s where I’m racking up my hospital bills, because I go straight to the emergency room and get an antibiotic,” Jackson said. “My medical bills are pretty high. It’s probably $50,000, maybe a little more. …

“I just live paycheck to paycheck, so I can’t really make any payments on it.”

Rural Missouri has much to gain if lawmakers expand Medicaid, Stevens said. “Of the 300,000 Missourians who fall into this gap, over 50 percent of them live in rural Missouri, so they have the most to gain by having access to health care,” she said. “If we expanded Medicaid, we’d have more hospitals and the hospitals’ infrastructure would be more robust in rural communities.”

“Our eligibility standards were dropped dramatically and as a result, since then, it’s very hard to qualify for Medicaid under Missouri law,” Stevens said. “A mom that has two children, who is working two or three part-time jobs, if she makes more than $300 a month, that’s deemed too much for Medicaid to get health insurance in Missouri – too much! …

“But it’s not enough to get the subsidies in the private marketplace. It’s so stingy. These are hardworking families.”
Knowing the facts makes lawmakers’ rejection of Medicaid a difficult pill to swallow, she said.

“Their communities and their constituents are going to be impacted the most,” Stevens said. “We’re frustrated, but we also believe in this cause. There are over 1,000 organizations in Missouri that support Medicaid expansion and we have to keep fighting for it.”

Explaining how lawmakers can ignore the need is difficult, Stevens said. “There are a lot of people who don’t want to see the Affordable Care Act be successful and Medicaid expansion is part of the Affordable Care Act. I do think it’s political,” she said.

Jackson said what matters to her is that not having health care hurts. “It’s sad and scary. I don’t know what to expect,” she said. “I don’t get my hopes up.”

(Excerpted from Daily Star Journel 4/06/15)

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Another legislative solution in search of a real world problem

Rep. Rick Brattin (R-Harrisonville) has another legislative solution in search of a real world problem.
Brattin has proposed legislation to severely limit what type of food Missourians who receive food assistance may purchase. HB 813 would ban the purchase with food stamps of “cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood or steak.”

If HB 813 becomes law, the state’s 930,000 food stamp recipients, many of whom are disabled and/or elderly, will be banned by law from purchasing a can of tuna.

The myth is Missourians who receive food assistance are eating sumptuous meals, like many of our state legislators who dine out on the lobbyists’ dime.

The reality is that a household of one can qualify for up to $194 dollars a month, or fewer than $7 dollars day, as part of SNAP. That’s not steak and lobster money, that’s canned tuna and ramen noodles money.

Even Brattin admits that the bill’s language is flawed.

Oh, I think everyone is pretty clear that the intent of this bill is to shame and humiliate poor people.
If Rep. Brattin truly wants to improve the health of Missourians he should support Medicaid expansion and urge his colleagues to as well.

(Excerpted from Progress Missouri 4/06/15)

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Republican-dominated legislature cut benefits for the poor, not for themselves

Talk about having your priorities upside down in the Missouri General Assembly.

Legislative leaders wrapped up the first half of their session celebrating bills that could potentially cancel welfare benefits for more than 20,000 of the state’s poorest citizens, two-thirds of them children.

But lawmakers have made no progress on limiting handouts for themselves in the form of campaign contributions and lobbyist gifts.

To be sure, Missouri’s administration of its Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program could use some upgrading, but not in the way the Republican-dominated legislature is going about it.

The state hasn’t updated its income guidelines since 1993. A single mother with two children — the most common profile for a TANF family in Missouri — can earn no more than $846 a month to receive $292 in cash assistance. That actually provides a disincentive to work; even a minimum wage job can cause a family to lose assistance.

And Missouri spends only 4 percent of its federal TANF grant on helping low-income parents be successful in the workplace. The national average is 8 percent.

The House and Senate must reconcile differences between bills they have passed, but both reduce the number of months someone can receive assistance — the House version to as low as two and a half years over a lifetime. The federal ceiling, which Missouri currently follows, is five years over a lifetime.

The House bill also has harsh sanctions for parents who don’t meet beefed-up work requirements. Failure to find a job or other approved activity within 10 weeks would cause someone’s family to lose assistance.

Overall, though, the attempt at welfare reform is an overreaction, in part prompted by out-of-state groups that push their agendas on state legislatures.

Most Missouri recipients receive benefits for less than 24 months in a lifetime. The legislature is primarily targeting the people with the greatest problems, like emotional difficulties and caretaking responsibilities.

Meanwhile, lawmakers continue to block expansion of Medicaid eligibility for thousands of Missourians who work for low wages. Though states that have complied with the expanded limits called for in the Affordable Care Act are reporting positive health and economic gains, Missouri’s elected officials refuse to even allow the issue to be debated.

That means about 300,000 person remain in a coverage gap. They make too much to meet Missouri’s current Medicaid eligibility threshold —19 percent of the federal poverty level. But they make too little to qualify for subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. For lawmakers to leave their people in a vacuum is unconscionable.

As for ethics reform, the Senate has passed a bill that requires lawmakers to wait for two years after leaving office before becoming lobbyists.

It does nothing, however, to limit the amount of gifts a legislator can receive from lobbyists, or how much in campaign contributions a candidate can receive from a single donor.

Based on the amount of time lawmakers have spent on the welfare bill, you’d think money going out to TANF recipients is a major problem. It isn’t. But special interest money pouring in to enrich lawmakers is polluting democracy in Missouri.

That’s a very real problem, and one that legislators haven’t yet summoned the will to address.

(Exceprted from Kansas City Star 3/29/15)

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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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