Mind the gap: Opting Out of Medicaid Expansion Leaves Low-income Families Behind

By Michael Wood, Third and State

Federal health care reform is moving forward thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last year – and it is a great deal for Pennsylvania. Unless the state decides to “opt out,” Medicaid coverage will be expanded to include many Pennsylvanians who are uninsured.

One group that will benefit immediately are parents with incomes up to 133% of the federal poverty level ($25,390 for a family of three). The benefits don’t end there: others who don’t receive health coverage through their work will be able to buy insurance on a competitive health marketplace or exchange – making coverage more affordable.

However, if Governor Corbett prevents the Medicaid expansion, it will create a coverage gap for families between 46% and 100% of poverty, as the chart below shows (click on it for a larger view).

Those families between 46% and 100% of poverty earn too much to qualify for Medicaid (for a family of three, this means earning over $8,781 but less than the federal poverty line of $19,090). These families won’t receive Medicaid coverage, and they won’t receive subsidies to buy health coverage.

We all benefit when more people have health coverage. Let’s make the right decision in Pennsylvania and expand Medicaid coverage.

America’s Uncivil Phone Manners

by WALTER BRASCH

Wednesday, I called the newsrooms of Pennsylvania’s two largest newspapers.

All I got were disembodied voices telling me no one was available and to leave a message.

It was 11 a.m., and I thought someone-anyone!-should have answered their phones. But, with publishers doing their best to “maximize profits” by cutting news coverage and reporters, I figured they either didn’t have anyone capable of answering a phone or figured no one would be calling with any news that day.

So I left a message. It was a routine question, specific for each newspaper and related to verifying information from their papers for a book I was completing.

I left another message the next day. I would have called individual assignment reporters, but unlike the websites of many smaller newspapers, the metros’ websites didn’t have that information. Apparently, they don’t want readers to know who does what at their newspapers.

Nevertheless, no one called back. I wasn’t important enough.

Calls and emails to an agent for an actor, who I was trying to get for a public service announcement for a national organization, a few weeks earlier weren’t returned. Nor were calls and emails to a national talk show host I was trying to secure for a paid speech to a different national non-profit organization.

Nor were several calls and emails to the producers of pretend-folksy “Ellen” ever returned. In that case, I had a “straight-A” student, who was a mass communications major with minors in marketing and dance. She was one of the best students I had ever taught. She wanted to be an intern. You know, the kind who don’t get pay or benefits but get experience. There were jobs available. It took several calls to others who were affiliated with the show just to find out the names of producers or contacts. But no one from the show returned any of my communications, whether by email, letter, or phone calls. Not even to say my advisee wouldn’t be considered.

Celebrities and their companies get thousands of emails and phone calls. To the average citizen that would be overwhelming. But, to corporations, especially those who deal with the public, there should be sufficient funds in an operation that makes millions a year to hire staff to respond to viewer communications.

Most of the smaller media take pride in returning phone calls or responding to letters from readers and viewers. But something must happen when reporters and producers move into the rarified atmosphere of large media.

It’s too bad. Big Media show arrogance to the people, and then spend countless hours wondering why the people don’t trust them.

Unfortunately, the loss of civility isn’t confined to those who are celebrities or part of the Big Media Morass.

A call to a company that installs home generators went to voice mail, and then wasn’t

returned. A call to an individual who advertises that he cleans out gutters and water spouts also wasn’t returned. A call to a university department was answered. The receptionist said the lady “isn’t around.”

“When will she be around?” I asked.

“Don’t know,” came the response.

“Do you think she’ll be available later today?”

“Maybe. You could call back.”

In many cases, the people are left with the belief that others just don’t care. Or, maybe they’re too busy. Or maybe they just forget. Or maybe they’re too busy texting and tweeting to have time to deal with people. Unless, of course, they think we’re at least as important as they are.

Then, they fall all over themselves to talk with us.

Even with these annoyances, most calls are answered; most times, I (and I would hope others) are treated with respect. Most times, receptionists and staff take extra time to try to solve problems.

Nevertheless, more and more we see a loss of civility by people and organizations that may think they’re just too important to deal with the people. For the large corporations and the celebrities that have multi-million dollar budgets, perhaps their PR and marketing efforts should first be focused on dealing with the people rather than splashing us with large-scale media campaigns to convince us that they matter. Failure to do so will leave us believing that they, not us, are the ones who don’t matter.

[Walter Brasch is an award-winning syndicated columnist, author, and former multimedia writer-producer and university professor. His latest book is Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution.]

 

The Hagel Controversy

Conservatives are apoplectic that former Sen. Chuck Hagel has been nominated as Secretary of Defense.  The Republican from Nebraska is a former Vietnam soldier and believes war should be a last resort.  He has had the audacity to say diplomacy should always be used before force and that the Israeli lobby has undue influence in Washington (they do).

The neocons who lied us into the Iraq War remain angry at him for not supporting their headlong rush for bloodlust.  It turns out that Chuck Hagel was correct about Iraq, a war of choice in which perhaps 100,000+ Iraqis died and the Middle East destabilized.  In the process America went bankrupt, thousands of GI’s came home without limbs and too many in pine boxes.  All this and those same neocons refused to pay for the $3 trillion cost of the conflict and now are opposing efforts to pay the bill.

We are judged by the integrity (or lack thereof) of those who oppose us.  As much as I oppose appointing yet another Republican to this post this says much about who Chuck Hagel is and why he’s qualified.

Corbett Privatizes the Lottery

Gov. Gasbag privatized the state lottery yesterday awarding a contract to a foreign firm.  Camelot Global Services PA LLC is the new operator of a lottery which had the lowest overhead in America.  Privatizing government services always results in higher costs because you are then inserting a profit margin where none existed.  Government services are designed to promote the general welfare and are done for the public good.  Businesses are required, by law, to not work for the public good but for the enrichment of their owners or shareholders.  That is a vast difference and often leads to corruption and mismanagement of public services.

I already buy most of my lottery tickets out of state and definitely will now that a foreign company I don’t trust will be running the Pennsylvania Lottery.  I’m not much of a gambler and my lottery tickets are minimum purchases for Powerball which I buy predominantly in either Maryland or Delaware.  Both of those states allow lottery winners to remain anonymous so they get my business.

It Really Is Just About Football

Penn State Football remains the tail which wags the dog at the University.  The dominance of the football culture was the downfall of the institution and nothing much has changed $26 million later.  Joe Paterno is dead but his ghost lives on and it haunts a once great university.  Alumni and PSU insiders have never “gotten” that the nation is disgusted with the “football first” culture and how it led to the sexual molestation of boys in campus football facilities by a former coach.  It still doesn’t grasped how the cover up by top officials has resulted in a massive loss of support and confidence in Penn State.  It’s all still about football.

We saw it twice this past week.  First when coach Bill O’Brien essentially extorted a $1.3 million bonus to not coach the Philadelphia Eagles.  He denied that a wealthy alumnus (who owns a professional sports franchise) gave him the money as a gift but perception is reality and the perception here is that he grabbed a wad of cash to do what he was hired to do.

Granted I developed a deep respect for the new head coach when he held together and built upon a difficult situation.  The football team was in dire need of a change and he brought the right stuff.  Until he sold out last week.  He lost whatever respect he had earned in one fell swoop.

Then Tom Corbett sued the NCAA over those football sanctions citing losses of revenues from university related sportswear and trinkets.  That was his basis for establishing flimsy legal standing to bring the lawsuit in federal court.  The state would lose business produced by the Penn State football program.  So it’s all about football again.  What happened to the victims?  Does anyone at Penn State care about them?  Isn’t it time alumni focused on the kids and not the players?  So should the Governor.  Penn State will never put this scandal behind it until it puts football in perspective.

Giffords Launches Gun Control Effort

Former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, shot in the head two years ago today, has launched a new effort for common sense gun safety legislation with her husband Astronaut Mark Kelly.  There have been eleven more mass shootings since she and 18 others, six fatally, were shot at a shopping center.  We went to war when 3,300 Americans were killed on 9/11 and instituted invasive searches of all air travelers after one failed shoe bombing incident yet we refuse to do anything after 30,000 Americans die from gun violence every year.

Fifteen of us protested outside a gun show Sunday in Leesport, PA.  Several gun owners stopped to engage us in discussions and most proved to be delusional.  One responsible gun owner said he keeps his locked up, has had extensive training and so forth but, in my experience, he’s the exception.  I’ve seen too many reckless gun owners and hunters.  I saw three gun owners openly laughing at us as they drove past.  What about 30,000 gun deaths a year do they find humorous?  I held a sign saying “guns kill kids.”  What was so funny about Newtown?

It is far past time for comprehensive gun legislation.  We need a permanent director for ATF and adequate funding for the agency.  We must fund adequate mental health care and put mental health on an equal funding basis with physical health.  All gun purchasers should undergo background checks and gun owners should be responsible in the same way as vehicle owners:  prove you’re competent and carry liability insurance.  Gun manufacturers should be subject to liability lawsuits along with irresponsible gun owners.  Large capacity ammunition clips and assault rifles should be banned once again.

Gun owners must be required to keep their weapons locked in gun safes with ammunition stored separately.  Gun dealers should be required to keep inventories and be subject to surprise, multiple inspections.  The gun show loophole must be closed:  80% of all guns used in crimes are bought at gun shows.  Lost and stolen guns must be reported to police so gun traffickers can be tracked and prosecuted.  Gun nuts are fond of the talking point that if we take guns away only criminals will have them.  At the same time they oppose efforts to enact these common sense laws to keep guns from criminals.

More guns equals more violence, more death.  Nations which restrict gun ownership have but  a fraction of the murders and suicides we have from guns.  Every statistic shows that more guns equals more deaths, more mass shootings.  The isolated examples where a gun owner is saved by virtue of their weapon pale in numbers to those killed by their own guns.  Having a gun in your home makes one far less safe than homes without them.  These are facts, cold hard facts we’ll press into your feeble brain instead of from your cold, dead hands.

After Newtown I have one question for the gun nuts:  how many more innocent children have to die before we act?

PA Revenue Strong Midway Through Year; Tax Cut Could Have Big Impact

By Michael Wood, Third and State

With a strong December showing, the commonwealth now has a General Fund revenue surplus of $171 million (1.4% above estimate) for the first half of the 2012-13 fiscal year, double the Corbett administration’s revised estimate for the entire fiscal year. The strong December collections exceeded estimate by $112 million (or 4.8%).

The increased revenue is a good sign of a modestly recovering national economy and a brightening of the state’s fiscal picture going into the 2013-14 budget season. This is a nice change from previous years when midyear shortfalls triggered cuts to state services.

In December, personal income, corporate, and realty transfer taxes exceeded revenue targets by 10.1%, with sales, inheritance and other taxes (on cigarettes, alcohol, and table games) falling short of expectations by 2.8%.  

A similar picture exists over the first half of 2012-13 — corporate, personal income and realty transfer tax collections are a combined 5% higher than expected, while sales, inheritance, and other taxes have fallen 2.4% short of budget estimates.

One area of concern is that sales tax collections (the state’s second largest tax source) are $125 million, or 2.7%, lower than projected. It is not clear the reason for this as vehicle sales and consumer spending have been increasing. Perhaps the new tax collections from some online retailers may not be as large as anticipated.

Compared to last year, collections are $583 million, or 5%, higher, with corporate ($254 million) and personal income tax ($186 million) collections making up most of the increase in 2012-13.

A few caveats going forward:

  • Roughly 60% of the state’s General Fund revenue comes in during the second half of the fiscal year so a bad month or two of collections in the second half could cut or wipe out the state’s modest surplus.
     
  • To date, actual tax collections have been closer to the Independent Fiscal Office (IFO)’s projections than those of the Department of Revenue. Total General Fund collections are only $12 million higher than the IFO’s quarterly projections, and $171 million greater than Corbett administration estimates. There is cause for concern because the IFO projects $240 million less in revenue than the administration in the second half of 2012-13, with lower estimates for personal income, sales and corporate tax payments. While corporate taxes are currently $244 million (or 19.9%) higher than estimate, likely due to higher-than-expected quarterly estimated payments, the commonwealth could see smaller “final” tax year 2012 payments in March and April 2013.

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  • Additionally, the capital stock and franchise rate was cut again January 1 from 1.89 mills to 0.89 mills, meaning future quarterly payments could be smaller. As this business tax goes away — without any revenue source set to replace it — total corporate collections will likely shrink compared to previous years. This cutting away of the state’s revenue base will make it harder in the future to pay for education for our children, care for our seniors, and protection of our environment.

News & Notes January 3, 2013

This is our first News and Notes of 2013.  I wish everyone a Happy New Year.

The 113th Congress was sworn in today and new Pennsylvania members Keith Rothfus and Matt Cartwright were sworn in to office.  The previous Congress was the most ineffectual in history and this one bears a striking resemblance.

Former State Rep. Joe Brennan is headed to jail for DUI and wife beating.  A judge sentenced him to between 90 days and 2 years.  He lost his seat over the incident and may as well use the time to dry out.  He’s had an obvious drinking problem for some time.

Marriage equality began in Maryland on the first and many couples began hitching up.  You can now get legally wed in Delaware, Maryland, New York and DC but not in Pennsylvania.

Brian Sims, the first openly gay lawmaker elected to the state legislature was sworn into office Tuesday.  Rep. Daryl Metcalfe has already submitted his perennial bill outlawing marriage equality.

The first bill introduced in Congress wasn’t about gun control, immigration reform, renewing the lapsed Violence Against Women Act, a farm bill or Hurricane Sandy Relief.  It was Rep. Bachmann’s bill to repeal Obamacare.  Republicans have already wasted 32 votes on this windmill tilting.

Hillary Clinton was discharged from a hospital after four days of treatment for a blood clot.  This apparently was the result of the non-existent (according to Faux News) concussion she faked in order to avoid testifying to Congress about Benghazi.  Yes, she faked a life threatening situation just to avoid a few ridiculous witch hunt queries.  Fox should be ashamed for accusing her of faking such a serious injury (said from someone who suffered six moderate to severe concussions).

As I mentioned above the Violence Against Women Act expired with the new year.  Now women lack basic legal protections because Republicans didn’t believe women in same sex relationships, Native American women and others also deserved protection.  Shame.

I’d like to play poker with Barack Obama.  The man folds even when holding all the aces.  After going over the fiscal cliff Republicans faced all of the blame because the country understood they were holding tax cuts for the middle class hostage for continued cuts for the richest 1%.  No GOP Congressman or Senator with any sanity was going to risk being labeled this way (though some did vote against the final bill and will be).  The President held all the cards and still completed a bad deal.  Included are tax breaks for Goldman Sachs (surprise, surprise), NASCAR and other special interests.

Trans Ocean, one of the corporations responsible for the Gulf oil spill disaster paid a federal fine of $1.4 billion today.  Eleven workers died due to its negligence.  This was a drop in the bucket for a multi-national company.  If corporations are legally persons they should have gotten the death penalty for killing 11 workers.

A Swiss bank pled guilty to aiding the tax evasion efforts of rich Americans.  Wegelin & Co. hid more than $1.2 billion from the IRS and paid a fine of $74 million.  Just another cost of doing business.

Former UFCW Local 1776 head Wendell Young III passed away this week.  Our thoughts and condolences go out to his family.

Delaware Senator Chris Coons delivered this speech defending our privacy rights:

The FISA Act passed.

The 9 craziest things Fox News said last year according to one source.  Only 9???

What to Make of the Fiscal Cliff Deal?

By Sharon Ward, Third and State

Tell us what you think about the Fiscal Cliff deal. Take our two-question survey.

The agreement reached by President Obama and Congress on January 1 was both historic and disappointing – and it leaves much unsettled. The urgency of the Fiscal Cliff has dissipated, but significant threats remain to federal funding for state and local services as well as refundable tax credits for low-income working families, Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security.

There is much to dislike in this agreement. It makes permanent most of the Bush era tax cuts, ensuring that income from dividends and capital gains will be taxed at a lower rate than income from work. It makes permanent the estate tax but locks in a tax rate that creates a huge windfall for the top 0.3% of households. Sequestration cuts – the automatic spending cuts that members of both parties hated and the President said would not occur – have been postponed for two months, with three-quarters of FFY 2013 cuts ($85.6 billion) and $109 billion in annual cuts after that still in law through 2022. The President’s line in the sand on raising tax rates for the top 2% of earners got pushed way back, with top rates kicking in at $400,000 for an individual and $450,000 for a couple. A low-wage earner might need 20 years to make that much.

The agreement is at the same time extraordinary. Eighty-five Republican members of Congress voted with their Democratic counterparts to raise taxes on wealthy Americans – no small feat in a Congress defined (some might say dominated) by its Tea Party members, Grover Norquist, and fealty to the no-tax pledge. Even toward the end, the House of Representatives stood firm in its defense of tax cuts, failing to muster enough votes for Speaker John Boehner’s “Plan B,” which included significant spending cuts and limited tax hikes to millionaires and billionaires.

On the plus side, the agreement abandoned the plan for “chained CPI,” a new measure of inflation that would have reduced future cost-of-living increases for Social Security, veterans’ benefits and other critical benefits. There were no additional spending cuts. The family tax credit programs – including the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit – were protected, and improvements made to those credits were extended for five years. Emergency unemployment insurance benefits were extended for laid-off workers who would have faced a significant immediate threat if we went over the cliff.

So what happened? The framework for the debate has always been the same: a grand bargain that would achieve a deficit reduction target of $4 trillion through a combination of cuts and new revenue. 

The President took what could be considered a realistic path – pressing for tax cuts for the middle class and tax hikes for the top 2% who could most afford it (and have done the best over the past decade). He largely succeeded, and while that is a significant victory, it does not raise enough revenue to stabilize the nation’s debt. This will end up putting significant pressure on the spending side of the ledger.

Already much of the press on the agreement is calling for significant new cuts, without acknowledging the $1 trillion in cuts already agreed to in the Budget Control Act of 2011. Plus, the President has lost the leverage of the Fiscal Cliff deadline.

The next fight will take place over the next two months when Congress will have to act to raise the debt ceiling, probably in February. Sequestration cuts will be announced on March 1 and scheduled to begin on March 27, the date that the continuing resolution governing current year spending expires. 

The President acknowledged that the debate is not over in his January 2 press conference and made two strong statements; that the vote on the debt ceiling should not be tangled up in the larger deficit reduction plan, and that new spending cuts have to be matched one for one with new revenue. Still, few are optimistic that Congress will take a reasoned, balanced approach to resolve the remaining issues, as The New York Times notes:

In the weeks to come, Republicans will use not just the debt-ceiling threat, but also the $100 billion across-the-board cuts known as the sequester, delayed for two months in this week’s deal, and the potential shutdown of the government when the current spending resolution expires in March. Standing up to brinkmanship will require a level of resolve that the president has yet to fully demonstrate.

It is also unclear where new revenue will come from given the long-term agreement on the Bush tax cuts and the fact that the President has taken corporate tax reform off the table, arguing that loophole closures should be dedicated to corporate tax reduction. The easiest and most politically popular option, higher marginal tax rates on wealthy individuals, is done. The other options (capping the value of tax deductions for home sales or charitable contributions) will be harder to accomplish.  

So what’s at stake moving forward?

Sequestration cuts. The current plan locks in three-fourths of the cuts ($85.4 billion) plus another $4 billion in discretionary cuts in the current year (FFY2013). While there is some hope current year cuts will be reduced, it is more likely that the debate will center on knocking back the devastating sequestration cuts for 2014 and beyond.

Working family tax credits. One of the surprises of the debate was the targeting of the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit programs, which are refundable for very low-income working families. While the fiscal cliff agreement continues those programs for five years, including the improvements that specifically benefit low-income families, there is grave concern that their refundability may be in jeopardy.

Medicaid. The health care program was excluded from sequestration, but cuts are likely to be on the table. Since states jointly fund this program, reduced federal participation will just shift costs to states. On the plus side, Medicaid is key to the promise of coverage under the Affordable Care Act, so protecting Medicaid is likely to be a high priority for the administration.

Entitlements. Chained CPI might return, as well as cuts to Medicare and Social Security. 

Pressing for additional revenue will continue to be the key to avoiding new deep cuts to health care, education and other critical services. While the Fiscal Cliff no longer looms, the Debt Ceiling Cliff is just over the horizon.

Corbett Tries Stealing Penn State Narrative

Gov. Tom Corbett announced yesterday he, as Governor, is suing the NCAA for its sanctions against the Penn State football program and the University.  With questionable and shaky legal standing, the suit alleges antitrust violations in the manner in which the collegiate athletic association chose to impose draconian sanctions against a program which it acknowledged did no wrong, broke no NCAA rules.

Legal experts question the Governor’s legal standing to file such a lawsuit.  Current Attorney General Linda Kelly abdicated her job and delegated to the Governor’s Office the authority to file this suit.  Why didn’t the state Attorney General just file it?  Politics.  Gov. Gasbag, watching steadily dreary poll numbers largely driven by his ill advised involvement in firing legendary coach Joe Paterno, desperately needs to reverse course, he has to initiate a cut back tot he open field before his re-election is doomed to the locker room.  

Incoming AG Kathleen Kane ran on a platform of investigating Corbett’s role in the three year investigation of Jerry Sandusky and wants to discover if he dragged his feet allowing a serial child molester to remain on the street because he didn’t want unfortunate political blowback while running for Governor.  Corbett then led the Board of Trustees decision to fire JoePa making him one of the evil tyrants in the story to Penn State football fans.  There are a few of them in the Commonwealth and the Guv stands no chance of re-election unless he does some serious damage control.  This lawsuit is driven completely by politics and not by law.  It is likely to be dismissed before November 2014 making him look even more desperate  I predict a sack for loss or worse, a blocked kick for an opposition touchdown.