Obama Wins Round One of Budget Negotiations

CNN is reporting that the “Fiscal cliff deal is down to wrangling over the details.” While others in the media continue to say that talks are stalled, everything I know about both the economics and the politics of the situation tells me that CNN is right.

At 4:30 this afternoon, CNN updated its story: “Both sides agree the wealthy will pay more, so now fiscal cliff  talks come down to how much Republicans can wring out of the White House in return for giving in on taxes.

“To President Barack Obama, it’s all about first locking in additional revenue from raising taxes on high-income owners, an outcome the GOP has long rejected.”

President Obama had made it clear that negotiations over government spending on safety nets such as Medicare wouldn’t begin until Republicans accepted a higher marginal tax rate for individuals earning over $200,000 and couples earning over $250,000.

The president dug in, and, according to CNN, he has won round one.

“Retiring Republican Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio told CNN on Thursday that he sensed a shift in the House GOP approach during a conference meeting the day before.

“A GOP source told CNN that talks between staff members on both sides resumed Thursday for the first time this week, after Obama and Boehner spoke by phone the day before.”

A Two-Step Approach

It is not clear whether negotiations over so-called “entitlements” will be concluded before the end of the year. But CNN, reports

“All signs point toward a two-step approach sought by newly re-elected Obama — an initial agreement that would extend lower tax rates for income up to $250,000 for families, while letting rates return to higher levels from the Clinton era on income above that threshold.”  That agreement on taxes will be signed and sealed before the end of the year.

“Even conservatives such as Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal acknowledge the obvious — taxes on the wealthy are going up despite opposition by Republicans.

“‘Whatever deal is reached is going to contain elements that are detrimental to our economy,’ Jindal wrote Thursday in an opinion piece published by Politico. ‘Elections have consequences, and the country is going to feel those consequences soon.’”

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Can U.S. Businesses Afford Obamacare?

No doubt you have heard that the Olive Garden, Denny’s and Papa John’s Pizza all are slapping an “Obamacare surcharge” on the price of their products.  They claim they have no choice.

But the news that Americans might pay 50 cents more for a mediocre $10 meal at the Olive Garden is not what bothers me most. Since President Obama was re-elected each of these restaurant chains have announced that they also plan to cut many full-time workers’ hours back to less than 30 hours a week in order to duck the cost of providing health care benefits.. This means that employees who are now working 40 hours a week will have to look for a second job—or find a way to support themselves on less than three-quarters of their current salary.

Michael Tanner, a fellow at the conservative Cato Institute, argues that companies outside the restaurant business also will be forced to down-size. Just a few days ago, Tanner wrote: “While restaurants are especially vulnerable to the cost of Obamcare other business are being hit too. For example, Boston Scientific has announced that it will now lay off up to 1,400 workers and shift some jobs to China. And Dana Holdings, an auto-parts manufacturer with more than 25,000 employees, says it too is exploring ObamaCare-related layoffs.”

Obamacare will  “keep unemployment high,” Tanner claims, because under reform legislation, businesses that have at least 50 employees working over 30 hours a week are expected to offer their workers affordable health insurance. If they choose not to, and more than 30 of their employees qualify for government subsidies to help them purchase their own coverage, the employer must pay a penalty of $3,000 for each worker who receives a subsidy— up to a maximum of $2,000 times the number of the company’s full-time employee minus 30. (The Kaiser Family Foundation offers an excellent graphic explaining the rule.) 

By paying the fine, the employer is, in effect, paying a share of a tax credit that would cost the government anywhere from roughly $1,700 for a single young worker  to over $12,000 to help the average 35-year-old worker who has a spouse, two children, and reports $35,000 in total household income.

Conservatives like Tanner argue that that is unfair, and that small businesses– “the engine of job growth”– will be hit hardest.  

What they  don’t do is look at the math:

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How the Media Covers Health Care

Sometimes health care reporters remind me of the financial journalists who helped hype the bull market of the 1980s and 1990s. I began my career as a journalist at Money magazine, and I remember sitting in an editorial meeting where we talked about an upcoming cover story: “The Ten Best Mutual Funds NOW.”  One intrepid reporter asked: “What if there aren’t ten great mutual funds that you really should invest in right now?”

“Let the fact-checker worry about that,” someone else quipped, referring to the person who would be double-checking the details of the story just before it went to press. Almost everyone sitting around the table laughed.

And Money was generally a pretty responsible magazine that tried to warn investors against the risks of the market. Still, “good news” cover stories sold magazines—just as “breakthrough” medical stories on the local evening news keep viewers from changing the channel.

Gary Schwitzer, an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota, recently published a provocative piece about how the media covers health care in the American Editor. Schwitzer begins his piece by asking his reader to “Imagine a reporter filing a story from the Detroit Auto Show. She writes about one car maker’s hot new model as if it is the best thing since the ’57 Corvette. But in the excitement over the chrome and style, she doesn’t mention the cost of the new model, doesn’t compare it with other manufacturers’ offerings in the same class, and doesn’t mention anything about performance (fuel efficiency, handling, braking, safety issues, etc.)

“An editor would certainly raise questions about this kind of puffery.

“But over on the health care beat,” Schwitzer observes, “the majority of stories on new products, procedures, treatments and tests are published without including comparable information. Claims that would never be accepted unchallenged from a politician are accepted unquestioningly from physicians and researchers and company spokespersons.”

Schwitzer, who publishes HealthNewsReview.org, a website that grades health care news stories for accuracy, balance, and completeness, has evidence to back up his claim.  Below I’ve re-posted some of his data on some 400 stories from almost 60 major news organizations (available at his website) to demonstrate how many health care stories “provide a kid-in-the-candy-store portrayal of the health care system that leaves readers with the impression that most products or procedures in health care are amazing, harmless and without a price tag”:

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How Wall Street Reacts to Fraud in Our Health Care Industry

This appeared on Bloomberg News today:

“WellCare Shares Jump After Analyst Calls Fraud Probe `Limited’

Nov. 20 (Bloomberg) – WellCare Health Plans Inc., the U.S. health insurer under investigation for possible government overpayments, rose the most in two weeks in New York trading after an analyst upgraded the company.

“The analyst, Carl McDonald of CIBC World Markets in New York, called the probe ‘limited’ and raised his rating of WellCare to ‘sector outperform-speculative’ from ‘sector perform.’ WellCare rose $2.38, or 6.8 percent, to $37.39 at 9:40 a.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading after touching $38.14.

“A U.S. government raid of WellCare’s Tampa, Florida, headquarters on Oct. 24 yielded thousands of records, including papers pulled from a shredder bin and files on offshore bank accounts, according to court filings. McDonald said the filings suggest the probe is focused on Florida’s Medicaid program for the poor.

“’It’s possible that the Florida Medicaid investigation spreads into other areas, but the document seems to rule out widespread, systemic fraud,’ the analyst said in a note to clients today.”

Bloomberg also reveals that: “The agents seized records from the desks of Chief Executive Officer Todd Farha and Chief Financial Officer Paul Behrens, according to the court records. From Behrens’ desk, agents grabbed a document called the ‘Stairway to Heaven Plan,’ according to the inventory.

“Also taken were wire transfers, tax returns, bank accounts in the Grand Cayman Islands, a calendar of political visitors and contributions, and phone lists. One seized document was labeled ‘Re: Possible Kickback,’ according to the court records”.

Yet none of this seems to bother the analyst who upgraded the stock or the many investors who followed his upgrade–pushing the share price up 6.8 percent this morning.  The analyst predicts that “that WellCare [will] settle, pay a fine, but remain in all its businesses, rather than being put out of business.”

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When Women and African-Americans Receive Better Care Than White Men

Last week a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association documented yet another case of discrimination in American medicine. It turns out that blacks and women suffering from heart disease are much less likely than white men suffering from a comparable level of disease to have a defibrillator (a cutting-edge device that uses a jolt of electricity to shock an erratically beating heart back to a normal rhythm) implanted in their hearts.

But as Merrill Goozner points out at GoozNews:  "Guess what? They may be the lucky ones, at least when it comes to implantable cardioverter-defibrillators (ICDS) . . ."

The study showed no benefit for the white men who received the implant. Below, Merrill’s analysis, plus his comment (from a separate post) on the need for more and better research into the effectiveness of new drugs and devices:

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If We Mandate Insurance, Should 20-Somethings Pay Less?

Should insurers be able to offer less expensive policies to the young and healthy? Or should they be required to offer the same benefits to everyone at the same price?

In states where insurance is mandated, should twenty-somethings get a break? In a post on Health Care Policy and Marketplace Blog Robert Laszewski addresses these questions. He begins by focusing on a report  just released by the health insurance trade association (AHIP). The study looks at state health insurance reforms of the 1990s that tried to eliminate discrimination by insisting that insurers must sell “individual” policies to people who are not covered by an employer or another group without discriminating on the basis of health, age or gender. According to the AHIP, these reforms have had some “unintended consequences.”

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