First, some Good News:
Raising the Bar: Barney Frank Permanently Bans Staff From Communicating With Aide-Turned-Lobbyist – House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) has instituted a permanent ban on committee staff communication with Peter Roberson, an aide who left the panel for K Street after playing a lead role in crafting derivatives legislation.
By law, Roberson is banned from communicating with staff for one year, but Frank said in a statement that period of time is insufficient. “I am therefore instructing the staff of the Financial Services Committee to have no contact whatsoever with Mr. Roberson on any matters involving financial regulation for as long as I am in charge of that Committee staff,” said Frank.
Raising the Bar: President Obama Announces New Fuel Efficiency Standards – The Obama administration set tougher gas mileage standards for new cars and trucks Thursday, spurring the next generation of fuel-sipping gas-electric hybrids, efficient engines and electric cars.
The heads of the Transportation Department and the Environmental Protection Agency signed final rules setting fuel efficiency standards for model years 2012-2016, with a goal of achieving by 2016 the equivalent of 35.5 miles per gallon combined for cars and trucks, an increase of nearly 10 mpg over current standards set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The EPA set a tailpipe emissions standard of 250 grams (8.75 ounces) of carbon dioxide per mile for vehicles sold in 2016, equal to what would be emitted by vehicles meeting the mileage standard.
Dave McCurdy, who leads the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group representing 11 automakers, said the program “makes sense for consumers, for government policymakers and for automakers.”
And now, the Bad Deeds:
Senator Lincoln Hypocrisy on Health Care Reform Support In an attempt to court the Obama voters she’s repelled throughout the past year, Lincoln is running ads on African-American radio in Arkansas claiming she “stood with our president to pass healthcare reform.” The ad continues: “Even though the Tea Party and insurance companies attacked Blanche Lincoln, she never abandoned our president, nor you.”
Seriously, this is the person who stood on the floor of the Senate and promised a filibuster with Republicans if the public option wasn’t stripped out. This is the same person who voted against the reconciliation health care reform package. And she’s going to talk about “never abandoning” Obama?
Republican IRS Expansion Claims ‘Wildly Inaccurate’ – With April 15 approaching, conservative hysteria about an alleged hidden cost of health care reform — a small army of new IRS agents — is gaining traction.
This wildly inaccurate claim started as an inflated, partisan assertion that 16,500 new IRS employees might be required to administer the new law. That devolved quickly into a claim, made by some Republican lawmakers, that 16,500 IRS “agents” would be required. Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas even claimed in a televised interview that all 16,500 would be carrying guns. None of those claims is true.
The IRS’ main job under the new law isn’t to enforce penalties. Its first task is to inform many small-business owners of a new tax credit that the new law grants them — starting this year — which will pay up to 35 percent of the employer’s contribution toward their workers’ health insurance. And in 2014 the IRS will also be administering additional subsidies — in the form of refundable tax credits — to help millions of low- and middle-income individuals buy health insurance.
That claim appears to have originated with a report released by Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee, stretching the rough estimates of Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf as far as possible and then basing the final number on a series of false assumptions.
Republican Leadership’s Favorite Kind of Business – Club Thunderbolt is the strangest place in Detroit to get a lap dance. It’s located in the back room of an old house in an east side neighborhood of working class bungalows. There’s no cover charge. Customers can order different strippers out of the company catalog — a photo album full of seedy-looking Polaroids.
Everything about Club Thunderbolt is surreal. The front room has several tall mirrors lined up against the walls, behind the easy chairs. The curtains are drawn tight. Ashtrays overflow with stubbed-out cigarettes. The walls are yellowed from years of smoking. It’s dark, dank and creepy.
Weirdest of all are the framed certificates on the wall from the Republican Congressional Committee’s Business Advisory Council, naming Thunderbolt as an honorary co-chair and lauding his business acumen. One is signed by Newt Gingrich, the other by Tom DeLay.
Conservative ‘C Street House’ Residents Face Ethics Complaints For Below-Market Rent – The bevy of conservative members of Congress who’ve resided at the notorious “C Street House” may have violated Congressional gift rules by accepting steeply-discounted lodging, new ethics complaints allege.
The watchdog organization CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington) filed complaints Thursday charging Republican Sens. Sam Brownback (Kan.), Tom Coburn (Okla.), Jim DeMint (S.C.) and John Ensign (Nev.), as well as Reps. Mike Doyle (D-Penn.), Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) and Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), with accepting “improper gifts” from C Street in the form of way-below-market rent.
Other residents past and present did not make the list — most notably trail-hiking Gov. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), who lived in the C Street House while in Congress and helped make the place famous by seeking counseling there in the wake of his affair.
According to reports cited in the CREW complaints, the members of Congress residing at C Street pay $950 per month for rent and housekeeping, versus a minimum of $1,700 per month for nearby one-bedroom apartments, $2,400 per month for adjacent hotels or $4,000 for corporate housing. The CREW data piggybacks in part on similar charges filed earlier this week against the house itself by a clergy group, which complained to the IRS that C Street was improperly using its privileged tax status.
Tax Troubles for C Street Residents
Dispelling the Lies: What Health Reform Actually Means for Seniors – A lot of seniors are worried about what will happen to their Medicare coverage now that health reform has passed. The rumors and lies are abundant. Here’s what health reform means for you if you are over 65 years of age.
1.) The Medicare program will be stronger not weaker – Health reform will put a lot more resources into making the Medicare program more efficient. The new head of Medicare (to be appointed shortly) is a physician who is a national leader in quality improvement. He is expected to help Medicare providers focus on doing better not just doing more.
2.) You can keep your same doctor and your same health plan – Health reform doesn’t change the basic structure of Medicare. The same physicians and hospitals who treat Medicare patients now will likely treat them in the future. And if Medicare can pay doctors faster and better, it is more likely they will continue to treat Medicare patients.
3.) You will actually have improved benefits – Preventive services without a co-pay and help with the cost of your prescription drugs.
The Medicare prescription drug program (or Part D as it is called) will also be improved. If you take several prescription drugs, you probably already know about the “donut hole” — that’s the popular term for a gap in coverage between what Medicare pays for your drugs and what you have to pay yourself. This very complicated program often hits seniors unexpectedly when they go into the pharmacy to get a drug and find out they have to pay 100% of the cost themselves.
A third of all Medicare beneficiaries fall into the donut hole each year (where they have to pay 100% of their drug costs), and don’t climb out gain until they have spent $3,610 of their own money.
Not only do seniors in the donut hole have to pay all the costs of their drugs themselves, but 15% stop taking their drugs because they can’t afford them, and over half of those don’t resume those drugs even when Medicare starts paying again. So, while the donut hole was designed to save Medicare money, it has had the unintended consequence of causing seniors a lot of anxiety, loss of substantial income, and potentially making their diseases worse by forcing them to choose among food, rent and the drugs they need to stay healthy.
But there is good news. Health reform will help seniors with these drug costs. This year, 2010, seniors falling into the donut hole will receive a $250 rebate from the government, and starting next year there will be a 50% discount on brand name drugs, which will ramp up to a 75% discount on brand and generic drugs by 2020, eventually closing the donut hole gap completely.
Another benefit to seniors is that the popular Medicare Advantage plans (Part C), which are HMOs or PPOs offered by private insurance companies, will be required to spend at least 85% of their revenue on actual medical services, not profits or overhead. And while some worry that the cuts in payment to Medicare Advantage will result in cuts to their benefits, seniors have an advantage over the under 65 population. The Medicare program guarantees a certain level of benefits and the program oversees and regulates premium increases and rigorously reviews marketing materials to be sure that plans explain in plain English what they are covering and what they are not.
In addition, the cuts in payment to Medicare Advantage are cuts in the “overpayments” that these programs have been enjoying for the past several years. These requirements for Medicare Advantage to play on a more fair playing field will raise $132 billion over 10 years. MA plans MUST provide all the basic services that Medicare covers. That’s what you should keep your eye on.
The new health reform law promises the following:
Sec. 3202. Benefit protection and simplification. Prohibits Medicare Advantage plans from charging beneficiaries cost sharing for covered services that is greater than what is charged under the traditional fee-for-service program. Requires plans that provide extra benefits to give priority to cost sharing reductions, wellness and preventive care, and then benefits not covered under Medicare.
All of this is not to say that seniors can sit back and rest on the fact that they have Medicare and will be able to keep it. While health reform is helping to save Medicare, seniors need to keep active and vigilant to be sure that these reforms play out the way they are advertised. Every senior knows about AARP but there are other senior organizations that keep track of these issues as well — this website contains links to many organizations that track changes and offer ways to get politically involved. And here’s a good website with answers to the many questions about the impact of health reform on Medicare.
The one source of information that seniors should not depend on is the random mass email being distributed from some “supposed” expert — the retired constitutional lawyer or the occasional physician spokesman — these folks may sound like they know what they are talking about, but too often they have an axe to grind and are misinformed about the real facts of health reform.