Tuesday, March 25, 2014

ALEC Blocks Medicaid Expansion

Background.

Foolhardy though it may have been, I set a direction for this blog in 2014 by taking up (or should it be, “taking on?”) the priorities for policy and legislation, according to ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council). I hoped to understand the recommendations and pieces of model legislation and to provide information for readers to evaluate.

As I read, re-read, and research each ALEC-identified priority as listed by The Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch, I struggled to explain complex issues using fewer than 1,500 words. Today’s topic, the Affordable (Health) Care Act is perhaps the most challenging of them all. So many words, in print and on air, have been devoted to this topic, and many of those words have been lies, distortions, and misstatements. Nevertheless, I accept one more challenge and will labor to make the complex comprehensible.

First, a few necessary facts…

The U. S. health care system was and still is in need of an overhaul because
  • We spend 2.5 times more per person than other developed nations.
  • We spend much more in all categories of care, especially for ambulatory care and overhead (administrative costs).
  • Even non-profit hospitals are profitable, in part because hospitals are, like banks and other corporations, merging and thereby creating behemoths against which insurers and patients have little protection. Furthermore, hospitals accept Medicare patients, and Medicare, in spite of complaints and negative narratives, pays well enough to cover the cost and provide some profit. Finally, even if hospitals only receive 35% of what they bill, they will profit from that amount.
  • We cannot expect to live as long as others in developed nations, in part because of our own unhealthy life choices, but also because of the state of health care.
  • And the U. S. health care system is not so much better that Canadians dash over the border for MRIs because the wait-time is too long in their own homes. This is a myth perpetrated by those who do not wish to change a for-profit health care system that excludes millions of Americans.
Second, two specific points about the Affordable Care Act, insurers, and ALEC.
  • Health insurance company representatives were at the table when the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was drafted. They are the reason for a health insurance requirement and fine if consumers choose to go without insurance. The companies’ interest was and is in having a large pool of payers of all ages to absorb the costs of high-risk groups since no one can now be denied insurance for having a pre-existing (and/or expensive) condition. This individual requirement was upheld by the Supreme Court.
  • Before the Supreme Court ruling, the ACA would have made health care available to millions more Americans through Medicaid expansion, but because of the court ruling, 19 states have opted out of the Medicaid expansion provision, and doing so is ALEC-inspired and ALEC-approved.  Indeed, ALEC has an array of resolutions and pieces of model legislation with the express intent of deregulating, decentralizing, and privatizing health care delivery in this nation. Helping ALEC achieve these aims are many pharmaceutical and health insurance companies.
Third, the question: why would ALEC--or anyone, for that matter--oppose Medicaid expansion.

One answer is ideological. Some believe that ours is rapidly becoming a nanny state (inevitably spoken with a derisive tone) consisting of individuals suckling at the government teat. Those believers fear that government should not step in where the free market should rule, that private entrepreneurs and risk-takers can, will, and should perform all services, and if we surrender those services to big government, we will weaken our nation.

Another answer is economic. Many believe that government can never afford to care for all of its citizens and the infrastructure and the common defense and so much more. Furthermore, these believers contend that government should not try to provide for so much because it will overburden citizens in the form of taxes, unnecessary record-keeping, and regulation.

A third answer lies in the federalism versus states’ rights debate that has been waged and rages on year after year. Some claim to believe that states should be supreme and the federal government subservient. Indeed, the Supreme Court seemed to agree by permitting states to opt out of a federal mandate when it weighed the merits and legitimacy of the ACA.

A fourth and final answer is the same one at the heart of all of ALEC’s proposals: capitalism and free markets willing and eager to move public dollars into private coffers. The origins of 401Ks, touted as putting individual money back under individual control instead of into state-run pensions and corporate retirement programs, had the net effect of impoverishing some and seriously undermining individual retirement dreams when Wall Street played with and lost those dollars. Deregulated banks manipulated products, bundled mortgages, and bamboozled regulators wearing blindfolds, so much so that people were forced out of homes at the same time that they lost their jobs while government bailed out those big, negligent spenders.

Let these two examples stand as sufficient evidence that hands in the pockets of citizens often empties them, and times they are not achangin’. More collapses, more downturns, more crises are on the horizon--not as the result of government overreach, but as a result of government agreeing to accept a hands-off mandate. Regulation has proved to serve the nation’s interests very well.

Fourth, Refusing to Expand Medicaid Undermines the ACA and Hurts Citizens

ALEC’s resolutions and pieces of model legislation related to health care effectively blocked the social safety net and consumer protections that the bill could have, might have delivered. According to Wendell Potter, a former health care industry insider and ALEC attendee, ALEC has succeeded with four of its five goals. These are:
  • “Keeping single-payer proposals off the table;
  • Ensuring that the final bill contain a clause requiring all Americans not eligible for an existing federal program to buy coverage from a private insurance company;
  • Preventing the new law from establishing a government-run plan (the 'public option') that would compete with private insurers; [and]
  • Making sure that the reform law is implemented primarily at the state level, to keep the federal government from assuming any significant new oversight of private insurers’ business practices.”
Achieving these aims has the net effect of discriminating disproportionately against minority and poor people.  In other words, the first health care reform offered in more than three decades with funding mechanisms attached will not remedy the health care crisis for approximately 5.4 million Americans. Instead ALEC and its pharmaceutical and health care members continue to fight for every dollar in profit even though the bill was designed to secure profit for them.

Finally,

When the aim is to insure profit at the expense of human life and quality of life, then the aim must be redirected. We need altruism so that all citizens have equal opportunities to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Dark Money in Politics: ALEC's Way

ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) is well organized. One of its subgroups is the EEA (Energy, Environment, and Agriculture) Task Force with the declared mission of insuring as unregulated a marketplace as possible in the Libertarian belief that regulation and big government destroy prosperity and profit. EEA members cling to this ideology in spite of compelling evidence to the contrary. The EEA’s ideology has led to a long list of model legislation, none of which serves individual men and women, the greater good, or the nation. 

For example, the EEA wishes to remove the federal government’s authority over seed with a model bill titled ”Pre-emption of Local Agriculture Act." The argument in support of the bill begins with the assumption that any regulation endangers a State’s abilities to thrive and grow so this bill would allow states to regulate or not, without regard to a federal mandate or law or policy.

In addition, ALEC has crafted and adopted Chemical Policy Principles from which legislation and resolutions flow. The first of these principles declares that chemicals in consumer products pose a very low risk to human health, and the Task Force uses life expectancy and the rate of cancer as proof. Such a position is antithetical to history and experience. In 2014 alone, this blog has noted numerous incidences of harm to humans, notably harms resulting from consumer products, a few involving chemicals. Furthermore, both Europe and the United States have regulated chemicals in consumer products by limiting the quantity or banning certain chemicals, all in the name of the public welfare.

We continue to use flame retardants on furniture and clothing because Corporate America has sold legislators on its efficacy even though decades of research and a recent HBO documentary, Toxic Hot Seat, advise us not to do so. We continue to find lead paint, toxic to children, in homes across the land because paint companies added it to their paints even though its harmful effects were known as early as the 1920s. More recently, Subway announced that it will no longer add a plastic used to make yoga mats to its freshly made bread recipes because consumers protested its use, allowed by the FDA to strengthen the loaf and shelf life of grain products even though when baked, the resulting tranformation of the plastic is carcinogenic.

We know also that First Responders and New Yorkers were assured that their air was safe, but it wasn’t. Widespread disease occurred among the First Responders. West Virginia’s citizens were told their water was safe before they were told it was not.  Widespread disease is likely among West Virginia’s citizens. In fact, cancer rates are rising with the World Health Organization predicting a 70% increase in the next decades. The increase results from an aging population and living conditions, including the air we breathe, the food we ingest, the water we drink, and things we contact. Even though we have better medicines to prolong life after contracting a cancer, its cost is unacceptable for it can lead to financial ruin in the U. S., early death in other nations without aggressive medicines available, pain, and suffering.

In other words, the optimistic spin given to the use of chemicals by the EEA Task Force simply does not merit our full faith. Both history and experience inform us that chemicals may first appear to save lives, extend shelf life, increase harvests, facilitate transporting fresh produce longer distances, and so much more, but over time, we come to know the harmful side effects of progress. We learn that living may not be better with chemicals.

Still, ALEC wishes to convene a conference to advocate for restricting the federal government's reach in regulating seed, for exporting more natural gas, using hydraulic fracturing to extract rich reserves of natural gas deep within the earth, and building long stretches of pipeline. Such a conference would not be open to anyone or even televised. It would be for members, especially legislators who would carry the message to their State houses and to Congress.

Al Griffin Photography
So what, you may ask? Legislators meet with constituents, statesmen, lobbyists, experts, campaign donors, and colleagues daily. How else will government gather information to make the best decisions? How else will the public and private sectors intersect?

But the truth is that ALEC-sponsored meetings are not simple exchanges of information. ALEC meetings function as quid pro quo; in other words, one thing in exchange for another. Just as a large campaign donor might reasonably expect something in return for his investment in a candidate, including but not limited to appointments to seats of influence and power such as ambassadorships, newly created positions within the Port Authority,  and sleepovers in the White House Lincoln bedroom.

Billionaire Tom Perkins has even pronounced an updated quid pro quo: one million dollars in taxes equals one million votes. Perkins reveals that a pay to play scheme should even extend to the Constitutional privilege to vote--as if lots of folks lining up to vote are, in fact, not taxpayers.  But Perkins’ notion is not far from ALEC’s practice. Legislators are compensated for their time with industry-paid trips to investigate issues of interest to ALEC. The Keystone XL pipeline is one.


So be wary, voters. If ALEC invites your legislator to an ALEC Academy, watch for model legislation to be introduced and count on it not being in your best interest. Regulators and regulation exist for the public good, and the federal government serves all citizens, no matter where they live.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

ALEC Seeks Profit at the Expense of Efficient Energy Delivery


Stating the Obvious.

I am not a fan of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Its agenda is not in the best interests of consumers and citizens. It serves Corporate America as a 2012 list of its private sector members reveals. It also serves legislators with tentacles wrapped inside State governments as well as federal-level politicians and elected representatives.

I do not object to the existence of ALEC. It has a right to exist and to pitch its point of view. What I object to is its disdain for the common good by and for the people in favor of a jaundiced and biased self-serving agenda by and for Capitalist America. The full set of model legislation advocated and disseminated by and for ALEC proves how little it cares for citizens and consumers.  I’ve been considering these pieces of legislation one by one. Today’s is a perfect example. But first, a bit of background.

Background Relevant to ALEC’s Net Metering Resolution.

Energy producers, from those who extract raw product from below the surface of the earth to those who capture the power of the wind or sun, must have hardware equal to the task and staff sufficient to meet demand. Energy delivery systems also require extensive technology, networks, and manpower to insure that men and women worldwide have heat to cook disease from foods and to create medicines. But our energy hunger far exceeds these two most basic uses for it. People in more developed regions, even those sparsely populated, enjoy much more through energy: they have light by which to work and learn, the comforts of temperature control, and an array of appliances and communication devices to make their lives less labor intensive. All of these benefits have costs. No one, especially this writer, doubts that production and delivery factors contribute to the cost of energy, but recovery for those costs are built-in to the charges assessed. Just take a close look at your energy bills. Basic charges are routine and are for the costs of purchasing the fuel, delivering it, maintaining the infrastructure that delivers it, and administering the accounts. Few would begrudge the producers and deliverers that charge.

Background: Net Metering.

A late 20th century innovation designed to encourage alternative energy sources and conserve our precious, finite resources includes net metering, a program which rewards those who generate power from the sun. They may earn credits or receive payment for any excess energy made available to other energy users. In other words, if consumers install solar panels and generate more energy than they consume, they may share it with modest returns coming to them. 

ALEC Resolves to Bypass and/or Further Assess Consumers in Favor of Industry and Energy-Producers.

As noted above, few would argue that energy producers and suppliers have a need to recover their costs. After all, someone or some group built the infrastructure, and we all share in its costs. The roads upon which we drive are paid for and maintained with taxes and/or tolls. Sidewalks that surround our homes are paid for by contractors and developers when a neighborhood is first built, the cost often passed on to home buyers and later, to cities that maintain those walkways for the ease and safety of us all with tax revenue. Sewer lines, gas lines, water lines, power grids, cell towers, lights--indeed, all the amenities of living are shared costs either through taxes or fees, most regulated by municipal, state or federal governments.

Al Griffin Photography
Electric companies are not exempt. They pass on the costs of  building, maintaining, and overseeing production and delivery (hereafter referred to as overhead) to us in the form of a basic charge. However, ALEC argues that net metering (see below: Updating Net Metering Policies Resolution) unfairly rewards small solar energy producers with an incentive to produce energy without requiring those small producers to share in the overhead costs.

Tax Breaks and Incentives for Energy Producers and Delivery.

In a nation that embraces hard work and rugged individualism with commensurate reward for the one’s labor, ALEC’s argument might persuade until one remembers that energy producers and deliverers receive subsidies, tax breaks, and/or incentives, but, with the Net Metering resolution, would deny those financial incentives to small producers while retaining financial incentives for Big Business. In fact, the cost to produce a barrel of oil is significantly offset by tax breaks. Hydroelectric power such as that provided by Hoover Dam was made possible with government funds; i.e., tax money. Incentives to build and develop wind energy just expired, in part because they were so successful. Wind energy has grown exponentially due to government incentives. In addition, low-interest, long-term loans brought electricity to rural areas where the cost of establishing an infrastructure proved too high for most electric companies. With government intervention and support, rural areas now enjoy electric service.  In summary, as these statements with links prove, energy producers and deliverers work hand in hand with government through subsidized loans, tax breaks, or direct incentives to bring us energy and to succeed. These producers and deliverers do not bear the full cost alone nor do they refuse financial incentives, yet they would deny that incentive to small solar energy producers because, as they claim (see model resolution below), energy is so vital that its production and delivery must be coordinated. Such a claim cannot stand because producers and deliverers continue to remain separate.

In conclusion.

Our nation indeed needs a coordinated effort to update energy delivery. One proposal is for a smart grid, but the needs to meet future demands safely and economically are extensive and multifaceted. Only one centralized group can and should oversee such work: government. With the use of incentives, tax breaks, and direct payments, private and public contractors can meet our needs, but no one, small or large, should be preferred or excluded. All should share the burden of bringing our nation to increased prosperity and efficiency. That burden will be placed upon the shoulders of tax payers and consumers with each entitled to enjoy the benefits of helping our nation be good stewards for tomorrow whether that benefit is in the form of net metering or clean air or just the satisfaction of having done the right thing for the greatest number of people.

*********************************************************************************

Updating Net Metering Policies Resolution

WHEREAS, the U.S. electric grid delivers a product essential to all Americans; and

WHEREAS, electricity runs our economy—it powers our homes, businesses, industries, and the smart technologies and innovations that enhance our quality of life; and 

WHEREAS, the electric power industry is leading the transformation to make the grid more flexible and more resilient to meet the growing demands of our digital society; and 

WHEREAS, the electric power industry directly employs more than 500,000 American workers and is the nation’s most capital-intensive industry, investing more than $90 billion per year, on average, in capital expenditures, including investments in transmission and distribution infrastructure; and 

WHEREAS, ALEC’s Electricity Transmission Principles assert that the electricity transmission system must be “coordinated in a manner that satisfies current needs and future growth, and that provides energy consumers with the necessary levels of system security, overall reliability, and access to the most economic and diverse sources of electricity”; and 

WHEREAS, there is growing interest among customers to self-serve with on-site rooftop solar panels; and 

WHEREAS, there is growing interest among renewable energy service providers in installing rooftop solar panels and other small-scale, on-site distributed generation (DG) systems; and 

WHEREAS, it is recognized that when these rooftop solar and other DG systems first came to market years ago, many states approved a billing plan called net metering that provided a subsidy to distributed generators to encourage their introduction; and 

WHEREAS, some states now have net metering policies that credit rooftop solar or other DG customers for any excess electricity that they generate and sell using the grid and require utilities to buy this power at the full retail rate; and 

WHEREAS, the full retail rate of electricity often includes the fixed costs of the poles, wires, meters, advanced technologies, and other infrastructure that make the electric grid safe, reliable, and able to accommodate solar panels and other DG systems; and 

WHEREAS, when net-metered customers are credited for the full retail cost of electricity, they effectively avoid paying the grid costs, and these costs for maintaining the grid then are shifted to those customers without rooftop solar or other DG systems through higher utility bills; and  

WHEREAS, the use of rooftop solar and other DG systems now has become more widespread, and many states are reviewing their net metering polices; and 

WHEREAS, there have been several recent public policy developments, such as a National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners resolution, a Southern States Energy Board resolution, development of Critical Consumer Issues Forum policy principles, and even state regulatory proceedings, that recognize the need for proper allocation of costs to support customers use of the electric power grid; and 

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the American Legislative Exchange Council encourages state policymakers to recognize the value the electric grid delivers to all and to: 

1. Update net metering policies to require that everyone who uses the grid helps pay to maintain it and to keep it operating reliably at all times; 

2. Create a fixed grid charge or other rate mechanisms that recover grid costs from DG systems to ensure that costs are transparent to the customer; and 

3. Ensure electric rates are fair and affordable for all customers and that all customers have safe and reliable electricity. 

Adopted by the Energy, Environment & Agriculture Task Force on December 6, 2013.

Approved by the ALEC Board of Directors on January 9, 2014.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

ALEC Seeks to Gut the EPA

People with a grasp of history remember times when Nature belied man's best efforts to hold it in check. In Ireland, potato crops rotted in the ground making it impossible for the Irish to pay their English landlords. In the U. S. Heartland, fields were overworked, leaving crop yields too low to repay bank loans, farms vulnerable to corporate takeovers, and families without resources. On both sides of the Atlantic, thousands died when stewardship and profit-motives collided.

Today, the Western world enjoys networks of energy to feed a voracious appetite, and for our hunger, we have leaked tons of oil into the oceans. We tell ourselves the waters seem vast; they’ll recover with little sacrifice required from us.

We’ve also made places on land and waters once pure quite toxic. In 2013, an Arkansas neighborhood woke to sludge and fumes. They now sleep with the certain knowledge that their property values have plummeted and their futures may be fraught with health hazards. West Virginia citizens now lack water safe enough for baths much less drink, and fracking (natural gas extraction) has jeopardized water tables in states across the nation. Lead and zinc mines have required people to abandon their hometowns, and chemical waste dumped into Love Canal cost homeowners their dream community as well as their health.

People of faith advocate stewardship, not just of the church but of the Earth itself, not as takers but as keepers of the garden. Scientists, too, advocate good stewardship, and it goes by many names, including regulations to reduce and rein in global warming, climate change, or global climate disruption. Air pollution, carbon emissions, greenhouse gases, water pollution, soil pollution, and toxic sites are the result of man’s hand on the environment with 97% of qualified scientists in agreement. But we needed and still need a coalition of public servants to oversee regulations, to investigate, and administrate. We call these people employees of the Environmental Protection Agency.

How then can there be a political debate about the need for regulation, for an agency to serve us as duly appointed regulators? As Woodward and Bernstein learned from Deep Throat, the answer is follow the money. Who or what has the most to gain by spinning another narrative, sowing doubt, and backing elected officials who will carry the water?

Photo by Al Griffin

The answer is corporate interests. The cost of doing business goes up if we, through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ask owners and Boards of Directors to answer to the quality of life now and in the future instead of only to stockholders. For this reason, ALEC, a coalition of businesses, hopes to gut the oversight powers of the EPA.

An eye on bottom lines and dividends is, however, an afflicted point of view. If we exhaust all resources, including human and water and air and soil and fuels, then we risk not being able to do business at all. If business demands minimal regulation and pushes back against oversight, then we risk not only the quality of life, but life itself.

Consider all the prior posts about ALEC. Consider what ALEC’s agenda is, not just for 2014, but years past and future. Quality of life, consisting of the opportunity to be a contributing member of society--healthy, free, and happy--is not a priority for ALEC. ALEC wishes to deny us knowledge about where our food comes from, a public education conceived and delivered by educated experts with experience in classrooms, a citizen’s day in court, a child’s right to privacy, and environmental protections. Each of the pieces of model legislation is not in the best interests of a greater good—only in the interests of a few self-selected and self-absorbed individuals. Eschew them.