Happy Thanksgiving

I’m headed home to see my parents for a few days. Also to eat. In the mean time, some Thanksgiving thoughts.

Are you uninsured? Underinsured? Tell your family about it. Whether you can’t afford insurance, or you have insurance but it keeps not paying for the things you need, or you worry about losing your insurance if your medical expenses get a little too high, or you’re a college student worried that you won’t have insurance if you don’t get a good enough job in June, talk to your family members about your concerns. Make sure they know that someone they love is afraid of what getting sick would mean in our current health care system.

Eat well. And tell us some of your favorite recipes. Unfortunately, my favorite Thanksgiving recipe was for dressing, and ever since I was diagnosed with gluten intolerance seven years ago, I can’t eat that. And my mashed potatoes? Well, I do those by adding ingredients a little bit at a time until they look and taste right, so there’s not really a recipe. But I’m sure some of you have recipes worth sharing.

Think about what “eating well” means, and be healthy. Consumer Reports has some suggestions for how to have a Thanksgiving meal that doesn’t make you feel like you were on a diet, but doesn’t bust your belt, either.

Have a great Thanksgiving.

Shameless

The credit card industry is continuing its run at unseating the health insurance industry from its current title as “most shameless.”

The New York Times’ Haggler column:

Three years ago, the Haggler’s credit card bill seemed to stop showing up in the mail. Another month went by — no bill. The month after that, still nothing. Each month, the Haggler would call the issuer, Bank of America, and pay over the phone, then ask the same question: “Why did you stop sending me a bill?”
We’re still sending you a bill, came the company’s reply each time.

Guess what? The company was right. It just was sending the bill in a restyled envelope, with no trace of “Bank of America.” In other words, it looked like junk mail, and the Haggler kept throwing it away.
Now, the Haggler can’t prove it, but this seemed like a brilliant, low-cost way to pocket a fortune in late fees.

Digby:

The same thing happened to me. The plain brown envelope looked like it was one of those car dealership “checks” that were all the rage before the credit crisis hit. And because I didn’t realize the first month that I hadn’t gotten my bill, it created a black mark on my credit for a late payment which resulted in a cascade of raised rates on several cards.

It was clearly a sneaky trick. Yes, it’s my responsibility to know when my bills are due, but I had been in the habit of putting the bill into the “to pay” file and paying it on the following Monday. It didn’t occur to me that the bill would suddenly come in an envelope with no return address or label on it that didn’t look like a bill and so I tossed it into a junk pile and didn’t look at it right away.

And that’s what people are dealing with all the time as consumers, with their health insurance, their credit cards, their mortgages, their pensions — overwhelming complexity designed to trip them up and cost them money or deny them benefits to which they believed in good faith they were entitled. And its all perfectly legal — or at least there’s no visible accountability for it.

I recently heard of a few variations on this – in one case, a credit card company moved its payment due date up by just a couple of days. If you paid close attention to your bill, or paid early anyway, no problem. But if you had a routine where you paid the bill close to the due date, you’d get hit with a late fee.

They will never police themselves. They will always try to find every loophole in every law to wring a few more bucks out of their customers. The only thing for it is for Congress to legislate and legislate hard against them, then keep a watchful eye and plug up the loopholes as the companies find them.

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Not “Make Work”

At Daily Kos, Devilstower has some advice for President Obama as he prepares for his jobs summit:

1. Drop the word “infrastructure”

I spent years as an enterprise architect. My father did decades more as a city manager. I can tell you that whether you’re talking about database servers or sewer pipe, the word “infrastructure” is the first step in either putting your audience to sleep or making your project seem too abstract to be relevant. If you mean “let’s build highways,” then say “let’s build highways.”

–snip–

5. There’s no such thing as “make work” jobs

Work has consequences that are bigger than the thing being worked on. It doesn’t matter whether it’s cleaning trash along the highway or building rockets for NASA, work itself is a net positive. Besides, what turns out to be important is hard to predict. All those jobs that people complained about as “make work” seventy years ago? Those jobs built things like the gorgeous Timberline Lodge at Mount Hood. The splendid stone bridge at Cumberland Mountain State Park in Tennessee. Beautiful paths, lodges, shelters, cabins, and camping areas at hundreds of state and federal parks — along with more than 3,000 fire towers to watch over those parks. Many of the structures created by the WPA and the CCC have far outlasted contemporary structures built by people doing “real jobs” and have done so elegantly, wonderfully, in a way that’s uniquely and perfectly American.

Meanwhile, Atrios says:

The fierce urgency of sometime next year is really depressing me. I know my views are clouded somewhat by my life in an older urban hellhole, but the list of possible productive infrastructure projects are practically infinite. I’m not talking about make work, I’m talking about real projects from basic maintenance to sewers to pothole filling to the demolishing and reclaiming of property with abandoned buildings etc… etc…

And by way of illustration:

But despite those upgrades, many sewer systems are still frequently overwhelmed, according to a New York Times analysis of environmental data. As a result, sewage is spilling into waterways.

In the last three years alone, more than 9,400 of the nation’s 25,000 sewage systems — including those in major cities — have reported violating the law by dumping untreated or partly treated human waste, chemicals and other hazardous materials into rivers and lakes and elsewhere, according to data from state environmental agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency.

–snip–

As cities have grown rapidly across the nation, many have neglected infrastructure projects and paved over green spaces that once absorbed rainwater. That has contributed to sewage backups into more than 400,000 basements and spills into thousands of streets, according to data collected by state and federal officials. Sometimes, waste has overflowed just upstream from drinking water intake points or near public beaches.

I’m going to go with the view that keeping sewage out of my basement is not “make work” or some boring, abstract notion of infrastructure. How about you?

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Uninsured Patients Twice as Likely to Die in the ER

We’re often told by those who oppose health insurance reform that “everyone has access to health care.” By this, they mean that everyone must be treated in the emergency room. Of course, by the time someone goes to the ER, it’s an EMERGENCY, and often one that might have been prevented with routine care. It’s also going to be an enormous bill for treatment.

As for the outcome, a new study shows that uninsured patients in the ER are twice as likely to die:

Uninsured patients with traumatic injuries, such as car crashes, falls and gunshot wounds, were almost twice as likely to die in the hospital as similarly injured patients with health insurance, according to a troubling new study.

The findings by Harvard University researchers surprised doctors and health experts who have believed emergency room care was equitable.

That this study shocked doctors and researchers should tell us something. People who don’t have insurance do not get quality health care, even in the event of an emergency:

“I’m really surprised,” said Dr. Eric Lavonas of the American College of Emergency Physicians and a doctor at Denver Health Medical Center. “It’s well known that people without health insurance don’t get the same quality of health care in this country, but I would have thought that this group of patients would be the least vulnerable.”

The study was unable to pinpoint why the uninsured are twice as likely to die in the ER, just that this frightening discrepancy exists.

In the study, the overall death rate was 4.7 percent, so most emergency room patients survived their injuries. The commercially insured patients had a death rate of 3.3 percent. The uninsured patients’ death rate was 5.7 percent.

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Cairo to Aswan: Conversations with Egyptian Workers

I just came back to Ohio from a 10 day trip to Egypt with the Solidarity Center of the AFL-CIO. I travelled with two other American union activists, Scott Reynolds from the National AFL-CIO and Liz McElroy from the Philadelphia AFL-CIO. During that time, we met directly with about 300 Egyptian workers and trade union activists, from Cairo in northern Egypt to Aswan, the traditional “opening” of Egypt at the southern end of the Nile. Those ten days were so packed with anger, hope and traffic jams that I feel like I lived a lifetime there. We were welcomed so warmly by the Egyptian workers that we felt like we were a part of their world almost instantly. By the third day, I caught myself feeling annoyed by all of the tourists in my newly adopted country…

Workers in Egypt are doing something truly remarkable. In the face of very tall odds, they are organizing an independent, democratic workers’ movement that has the potential to lift their families out of poverty and spur a new wave of democratic reform in Egypt. Many of the workers scrape by on just a few dollars a day, or less, and at times it seems that all of the institutions of society are stacked against them. The government colludes with corporate interests to keep their wages and benefits low, often skirting or simply ignoring the law. Even their official trade union movement is run by the same government and corporate interests that control the rest of society. Imagine Working America being run by Blanche Lincoln and the CEO of Wal-Mart and you’ve got the right idea. Then again, the idea of powerful political operatives and corporate interests working together to form groups that claim to speak for working people isn’t entirely foreign to us.

When workers attempt to form democratic and independent unions that actually fight for them, they risk arrest, harassment and sometimes torture. It was an enormous privilege to look into their eyes, hear their stories, and share organizing strategies with them. In spite of the oppressive conditions, they are organizing themselves at the grassroots, leading a huge wave of strikes and activism. There have been over 700 strikes a year for the past 2 years, and this year is on track to break 700 as well. If this remarkable surge in grassroots activism continues, we could well be witnessing the birth of a true, independent labor movement in Egypt. That, in turn, could spur broader democratization in Egyptian society and increasing quality of life for workers, as it has so often in other countries, including our own.

I was constantly impressed with the workers that we met. They are articulate, informed and brave. Although the conditions they face are far harsher than those we deal with here, the basic problems are the same: employers often refuse to obey the law, intimidating and harassing workers for attempting to exercise their basic rights. I’ll be sharing some of their stories, and how they relate directly to our own experiences here in Ohio and the U.S., in a series of upcoming posts.

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Foreclosures to Peak…in 2011

That assessment from Jay Brinkmann, chief economist for the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA), noted by Laura here on Friday, came as MBA released a new survey showing mortgage delinquencies reached a record high in the third quarter of this year.

The New York Times reported:

Nearly one in 10 homeowners with mortgages was at least one payment behind in the third quarter, the Mortgage Bankers Association said in its survey. That translates into about five million households. The delinquency figure, and a corresponding rise in the number of those losing their homes to foreclosure, was expected to be bad. Nevertheless, the figures underlined the level of stress on a large segment of the country, a situation that could snuff out the modest recovery in home prices over the last few months and impede any economic rebound.

Unless foreclosure modification efforts begin succeeding on a permanent basis — which many analysts say they think is unlikely — millions more foreclosed homes will come to market.

More ominous yet was this line further down in The Times story:

mortgage bankers expect foreclosures to peak in 2011

In its announcement of the survey, MBA’s Brinkmann said:

Job losses continue to increase and drive up delinquencies and foreclosures because mortgages are paid with paychecks, not percentage point increases in GDP. Over the last year, we have seen the ranks of the unemployed increase by about 5.5 million people, increasing the number of seriously delinquent loans by almost 2 million loans and increasing the rate of new foreclosures from 1.07 percent to 1.42 percent.

The MBA and other bank lobbying groups helped take the teeth out of the Helping Families Save Their Homes Act earlier this year by defeating the so-called “cramdown” provision in the Senate which would have allowed bankruptcy judges to order mortgage restructuring for many struggling homeowners. Bank lobbyists also succeeded in weakening the legislation by making it more difficult to get lenders to agree to mortgage modifications.

So far many who qualify for such modifications just aren’t getting them.

RealtyTrac’s Housing Predictor now has upped their forecast to 10 million foreclosures by
end of 2012:

Housing Predictor forecasts that 10 million homeowners will be foreclosed through 2012 as more mortgage holders are unable to refinance their mortgages because of falling home values or give up at the prospect of holding on to their homes all together.

The increase to 10 million foreclosures represents 2.4 million more homeowners from the 7.6 million forecast in March. These homeowners will have the dream of home ownership taken away. Until lawmakers take more severe action to halt the epidemic it is clear the housing market will not stabilize and the economy will weaken further.

Watching the Center for Responsible Lending’s National Foreclosure Ticker it looks pretty certain that 2009 will set another new record for foreclosures in a year.

According to Bloomberg a housing market recovery has been delayed:

A recovery in U.S. housing will have to wait at least until next year.

The outlook for the home market dimmed this week as residential construction and mortgage applications fell and loan delinquencies reached a record.

“I don’t think the housing crisis is over,” Mark Zandi, chief economist with Moody’s Economy.com, said in a telephone interview. “I think we’re going to see another leg down.”

Reporting on the lag in mortgage fixes, the Center for Responsible Lending says:

Last spring when Congress considered taking stronger measures to stop foreclosures, loan servicers said they could handle the problem themselves—but they’re not delivering.

CRL is urging Congress to act to ensure that current foreclosure-prevention and loan-modification efforts are as effective as possible, and to lift the ban that now prohibits home loan modifications through the courts.

Meanwhile those struggling homeowners who don’t qualify for mortgage fixes now at least have an opportunity to stay in their homes through the expanded Deed for Lease program from Fannie Mae:

Some homeowners facing foreclosure will be able to remain in their property as renters under a new program announced Thursday by Fannie Mae.

The Deed for Lease Program allows qualified homeowners to sign a lease allowing them to remain in their homes in return for agreeing to transfer ownership of the property to the lender. Rent is capped at 31 percent of the homeowner’s gross monthly income.

Leases are signed for 12 months, with the option of renewing on a month-to-month basis afterward. Freddie Mac initiated a similar program in January that allows former homeowners to stay in their homes on a month-to-month basis.

The program is based on the Right-to-Rent proposal(pdf) offered by economist Dean Baker.

Applauding Fannie Mae’s new program as “an important step forward in dealing with the housing crisis”, Baker urged it be offered for a substantially longer period, perhaps five to ten years:

This would give former homeowners real security in their homes. This longer lease period could be made contingent on timely rent payments and proper upkeep and other factors, but families should know that they have the option to remain in their home for a substantial period of time, not just a year.

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Time Warp

Last week, Nicholas Kristof found some more opposition to health care reform.

Critics storm that health care reform is “a cruel hoax and a delusion.” Ads in 100 newspapers thunder that reform would mean “the beginning of socialized medicine.”

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page predicts that the legislation will lead to “deteriorating service.” Business groups warn that Washington bureaucrats will invade “the privacy of the examination room,” that we are on the road to rationed care and that patients will lose the “freedom to choose their own doctor.”

Have you figured out the punchline yet?

Those quotes, familiar as they seem, were actually from the 1960s, when the reform being debated was Medicare.

Indeed, these same arguments we hear today against health reform were used even earlier, to attack President Franklin Roosevelt’s call for Social Security. It was denounced as a socialist program that would compete with private insurers and add to Americans’ tax burden so as to kill jobs.

So apparently, a strong public health insurance option would lead to gloom, doom, and the enduring popularity of Medicare and Social Security.

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Remainders

It’s Friday, I’m trying to finish my other work before the week ends…but there’s all this interesting stuff to read. I recommend you read it. Depending on your own work situation, of course.

  • Foreclosures aren’t going to peak until 2011? This is not good.
  • Oh…this is also very depressing.

    At least one in two children in 17 small counties in the United States is living in poverty, according to a U.S. Census survey measuring income and poverty in small areas and school districts.

  • If you’re confused by the whole how often to get a mammogram thing (I sure am), what with contradictory recommendations, the New York Times has a helpful explanation.
  • Somewhat happier:

    Building green could add hundreds of billions of dollars to the economy, according to a new report released by the United States Green Building Council.

    The study, conducted by consultants Booz Allen Hamilton, predicts that over the next four years, green building practices will create 7.9 million jobs and contribute $554 billion to the gross domestic product of the United States.

  • More on green jobs.
  • More promising news. (Via Balloon Juice)

    Ohio’s attorney general sued Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s and Fitch Ratings on Friday, asserting that they provided misleading credit ratings that led to hundreds of millions of dollars in losses for state funds.

    The official, Richard Cordray, filed the lawsuit in United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio on behalf of five Ohio funds that assert they lost more than $457 million because of “false and misleading ratings” of mortgage-backed securities by the ratings agencies.

Up or Down

In 2005, Senate Republicans threatened to carry out the “nuclear option” of abolishing the filibuster, because Senate Democrats had blocked 10 of the federal appeals court judges George W. Bush had nominated, while allowing 35 to be confirmed. This was intolerable obstructionism, Republicans charged, and everything brought up deserved an “up or down” vote.

In 2003-2004 there had been 49 filibusters; in 2005-2006, there were 54. In 2007-2008, there were 104.

And we all know what’s happening now. Any important legislation “has” to get 60 votes. Although until recently, the filibuster was an extraordinary measure, today it’s taken for granted. Nobody questions that this is the way things are.

But an HCAN poll shows that people—at least in Nebraska, Louisiana, and Arkansas—do question if this is the way things should be.

The poll described the motion to proceed, for example, and asked respondents, “In the Senate, before a bill can be voted on, there must be a vote to allow it to be debated. Regardless of whether you support or oppose the health insurance reform plan itself, do you believe that it should be debated on the floor of the Senate?”

Support was overwhelming in all three conservative “red” states — 88% of Nebraskans, 82% of Louisianans, and 84% of Arkansans all agreed that health care reform should be debated. (It makes one wonder how voters in, say, Maine might feel if they knew that both of their “moderate” Republican senators are opposed to even letting the bill comes to the floor for a debate.)

The poll then asked about cloture: “Once a bill has been debated in the Senate, senators must then vote on whether to allow the bill itself to be voted on. Regardless of whether you support or oppose the health insurance reform plan, do you believe that senators should allow it to be voted on?”

The numbers weren’t quite as strong, but again, support was largely one-sided — 80% of Nebraskans, 77% of Louisianans, and 77% of Arkansans agreed that senators should let health care reform come up for a vote.

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An Early Gift for Christmas 2010?

Here’s another nice piece of regulation on credit cards: gift cards.

The Fed proposed banning any fees for the first year and limiting gift card issuers to one fee a month if the card was not used for at least a year. It also requires clear disclosure to consumers about penalties.

–snip–

The rules would also prohibit the cards from expiring before five years had passed from the date the card was issued or five years from the date additional funds were added to the card. The rules would be not be put in place until August 2010.

Who will it affect?

Gift cards issued by banks, malls and credit card companies are more likely to have expiration dates and tack on annoying activation, maintenance, inactivity and transaction fees, according to the National Retail Federation. Some bank-issued gift cards even charge a fee for simply checking the balance, the retail group reports.

The consumers who will spend a total of nearly $4 billion buying general purchase gift cards — those not connected to a specific retailer — pay $4 to $7 for the cards. Some of the card issuers have the audacity to add monthly fees as high as $4.95 if a card is not used six months after purchase. In September, American Express announced it was eliminating monthly fees on all of its gift cards, including those already purchased and stashed away in consumers’ wallets and purses.

Of course, since the new rules won’t go into effect until August, who it won’t affect is shoppers this holiday season. Still, it’s good to keep watching these ways of bilking people out of their money get reined in inch by inch.