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a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

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Nailing down the new normal: Walmart, Obamacare, and part-time, low wage America

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 7th December 2012

Last week the Huffington Post’s Alice Hines reported,

Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, plans to begin denying health insurance to newly hired employees who work fewer than 30 hours a week, according to a copy of the company’s policy obtained by The Huffington Post.

Under the policy, slated to take effect in January, Walmart also reserves the right to eliminate health care coverage for certain workers if their average workweek dips below 30 hours — something that happens with regularity and at the direction of company managers.

As several experts contacted for the story noted, the story is of a piece with other corporate actions responding to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) with labor cutbacks, such as the Papa John’s, Applebee’s and Olive Garden/Red Lobster announcements (discussed a couple of weeks ago on this blog) that the companies intended to move workers from full-time to part-time status to take advantage of provisions in the ACA.

“Walmart likely thought it didn’t need to offer this part-time coverage anymore with Obamacare,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “This is another example of a tremendous government subsidy to Walmart via its workers.”  [...] 

For Walmart employees, the new system raises the risk that they could lose their health coverage in large part because they have little control over their schedules. Walmart uses an advanced scheduling system to constantly alter workers’ shifts according to store traffic and sales figures.

[...] in recent interviews with The Huffington Post, several workers described their oft-changing schedules as a source of fear that they might earn too little to pay their bills. Many said they have begged managers to assign them additional hours only to see their shifts cut further as new workers were hired.

The new plan detailed in the 2013 “Associate’s Benefits Book” adds another element to that fear: the risk of losing health coverage. According to the plan, part-time workers hired in or after 2011 are now subject to an “Annual Benefits Eligibility Check” each August, during which managers will review the average number of hours per week that workers have logged over the past year.

As Marcy Wheeler (“emptywheel”) pointed out, she had already seen in late 2009 that “incenting s#!t plans” was an advertised feature of the developing health care “reform”, not a bug.  Writing that the proposal was “a Plan to Use Our Taxes to Reward Wal-Mart for Keeping Its Workers in Poverty,” she explained in 2009,

…if Wal-Mart wanted to avoid paying anything for its employees under MaxTax, it could simply make sure that none of them made more than $14,403 a year (they’d have to do this by ensuring their employees worked fewer than 40 hours a week, since this works out to be slightly less than minimum wage). Or, a single mom with two kids could make $24,352–a whopping $11.71 an hour, working full time. That’s more than the average Wal-Mart employee made last year. So long as Wal-Mart made sure its employees applied for Medicaid (something it already does in states where its employees are eligible), it would pay nothing. Nada, zip. Nothing.

The upshot?  Congratulations, America: you’re “subsidizing the gutting of our local economy so that the descendants of Sam [Walton] could continue to get disgustingly rich.”  Read the rest of this entry »

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Move to part-time economy was always baked in to Obamacare; single payer will be better

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 19th November 2012

A number of companies — Papa John’s Pizza, Applebee’s, and Olive Garden/Red Lobster to name a few– have been loudly announcing their intentions to move workers from full-time to part-time status (less than 30 hours per week) as a political response to the relevant provisions of “Obamacare”, or the Affordable Care Act (ACA).*

This, in turn, has led to pushback and calls to boycott these businesses, and more power to that, I say.  But any employer based health insurance plan was always going to create an incentive to shed as many covered, full-time jobs as possible, to be measured against the ability to get by with part-time employees instead.  In this connection, the fact that it’s mainly been restaurant chains announcing this move is not surprising; I wonder just what percentage of a Papa John’s workforce was full-time in the first place.

Far more worrisome than a handful of loudmouth CEOs at the tip of the part-time economy iceberg are the many more below who may be quietly going about the same thing.  The weakness of the recovery from the 2008 recession nearly gave us President Romney; part of that weakness has to do with full-time jobs being lost and replaced with part-time ones.

The trend to part-time jobs isn’t new — Wal-Mart has done this for years, mainly to get around the risk of overtime pay once a 40 hour week is exceeded; the degree to which workers can be replaced by automation surely also accounts for some of this trend.

But policy makers assume that the real world responds to incentives, and here was an incentive to respond to.  Indeed, the incentive was all but announced with blinking neon lights; the option to limit coverage to full-time employees was explicitly pointed out by the Obama administration for those companies too dim to figure it out on their own.   As a U.S. Department of Labor document in early 2012 emphasized:

 …nothing in the Affordable Care Act penalizes small employers for choosing not to offer coverage to any employee, or large employers for choosing to limit their offer of coverage to full-time employees, as defined in the employer shared responsibility provisions.

Similar guidances were issued by the IRS and the Health and Human Services Department.

While there were any number of business journal articles from as early as 2010 suggesting cutting full-time jobs might be a consequence of or workaround for “Obamacare,” the issue was also addressed by that abandoned tribe in the health care debates: single-payer, Medicare for all advocates such as Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP).   PNHP web site articles noted both the likely business response to Obamacare and the superiority of single-payer in this respect (and others).

So these days, boycottpapajohns.org may be single-payer advocates’ best friend.  As the web site puts it:

Obamacare is part of the problem. It doesn’t address costs and does precious little to improve the health care system. It’s a recycled Republican plan. [...] In addition to boycotting places like Papa John’s, we need to get businesses out of the health care system. We need single-payer health coverage.

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* An admirable graphic about employer responsibility under the ACA was developed by the Kaiser Foundation. Note that penalties are per full-time employee.

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Ladies and gentlemen: your infinitely cunning Democratic Party

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 14th March 2012

So I listen to Chris Van Hollen tonight, and he’s “asked about” health care reform — i.e., the moderator shuffles a bunch of question cards people submitted and then boils some of them down to a key word.

Van Hollen starts shaking his head and says (paraphrasing) “”Obamacare” was really patterned on *Romney*care; Obama’s going to be able to look at Romney in a debate and say “this is your plan.” Yes, what a stirring moment that will be for Democrats.

Then he added “*Democrats* wanted Medicare for all.”  Golly!  If only they’d had the White House and both houses of Congress, they could… have… never mind.

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Insurans cignaensis

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 29th April 2010

Health care activist Marc Stier has been attending and protesting the Cigna 2010 annual shareholders meeting.  Yesterday he mentioned on Facebook that the health insurance giant had finally confirmed reports that it had been making payments to the Chamber of Commerce — a bitter opponent of health care reform in any meaningful form — even as Cigna professed to be supporting health care reform:

Today, for the first time, CIGNA admitted to making secret payments to the Chamber. They won’t tell even their own stockholders how much money they sent through the Chamber but there is now no question they did so.

He got a snarky comment from one “Bob”* saying, essentially, “I’m shocked, shocked!” As a friend of mine replied:

Well, Bob, it’s kind of a big deal b/c they were making public statements about loving the idea of reform and getting all those uninsured ppl coverage so they could have access to the best health care system in the world. Their collective heart bled for the ppl who suffer or so their mouthpiece, Karen Ignani told us. Secretly funneling millions to kill reform is something that is, in fact, you know, newsworthy.

Millions that might have paid for a few more health-related procedures — but that’s not really the point of all those premiums, is it.

But Bob, *I’m* with you: you and I already know what sanctimonious liars, compulsive cheats, incorrigible frauds, ruthless sociopaths, and bloodsucking intestinal parasites the health insurance companies are — it’s just their nature, it’s not really news.  For my part, I see this report as just a little piece of the puzzle towards an objective, scientific monograph on the species:

Insurans cignaensis has no eyes, vestigial limbs, and a rudimentary but highly specialized brain; like all members of the Insurans genus, it is incapable of survival without a host country.  I. cignaensis’s body has evolved down to a fastening and rasping mouth, a digestive system, and reproductive organs issuing payments to shareholders, PACs, and (recent studies have shown) to symbiont organisms like C. commerce. While certainly unappealing in appearance and life cycle, it is truly a triumph of economic evolution in the Corporazoic Era.

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* Not his real name.
UPDATE, 4/29: Also on Facebook, activist Cate Poe noted
additional news from the shareholders meeting: “When asked whether the company would end the practice of dumping customers that file expensive insurance claims, known in industry parlance as “purging,” [CEO] Cordani expressed no interest in doing so. He remarked that “purging” was an “unfortunate” term he would work to change in the industry without addressing the practice itself.” So parasitic behavior I thought was ruled out is still in. I. cignaensis rules!

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David Frum and a Tale of Two Spotlights, Maybe Three

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 29th March 2010

Last Sunday, conservative and former Bush speechwriter David Frum had the temerity to criticize Republican strategy in the wake of the health care and insurance reforms passed on Sunday.

Last Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal lashed out at him, claiming he “now makes his living as the media’s go-to basher of fellow Republicans, which is a stock Beltway role.”

Last Wednesday, David Frum was forced out of his position at the American Enterprise Institute.  Like others, I had a good time with the news, suggesting a paragraph on the AEI “About Us” page be rewritten as

“The Institute’s community of scholars is committed to expanding liberty, increasing individual opportunity, and strengthening free enterprise. AEI pursues these unchanging ideals through independent thinking, open debate, reasoned argument, and by firing anyone who disagrees with us.”

Scott Horton, in What Frum’s Firing Tells Us About Politics Today, writes that event

…tells us a good deal about AEI and the current dynamics within the Republican camp. In today’s AEI, policy experts aren’t there to do analysis and give advice—they’re there to serve as made-to-order propagandists. Differing views are not wanted.

And that’s true.  But what’s also interesting is how little Frum’s views differed from a Republican Party’s of not so terribly long ago, and how embarrassing they could and should have been for Sunday’s victors, not its vanquished.  For the centerpiece of what Frum wrote was this (emphasis added):

“This time, when we went for all the marbles, we ended with none.  Could a deal have been reached? Who knows? But we do know that the gap between this plan and traditional Republican ideas is not very big.

And it’s true — even Nancy Pelosi and liberal columnist E. J. Dionne tout the Republican antecedents of the current legislation, identifying its ancestors in Heritage Foundation proposals of the early 1990s, the 1996 Dole campaign, and of course (however much he now hates to admit it) Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts health care bill of 2006.  And they celebrate that.

Imagine two spotlights illuminating a stage, one with blue light, one with red; there’s some overlap, and a small bluish dog squats there, producing small bluish dog output.  To its right, a tethered Doberman gnaws on a couple of bloody bones, with older ones gnawed clean and abandoned stage left.  When the Doberman’s occasional snarls frighten the little blue dog, it invariably wags its tale and briefly assumes a submissive posture.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Real News Network: what happened, what’s next with health care reform

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 27th March 2010

The playlist above contains three reports from Real News Network:

Progressives debate health care “victory”, 3/25/2010 (transcript)

A story combining news clips from the signing of the bill with interviews of journalist Norman Solomon (Institute for Public Accuracy), Dr. Margaret Flowers, of Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP), and Dr. Mandy Cohen, Executive Director of Doctors for America.

What happened to health reform? (Part 1), 2/25/2010 (transcript)

Moderator Paul Jay interviews Donna Smith, legislative advocate for National Nurses United and the California Nurses Association, and Mandy Cohen, seeking reactions to the Obama/Democrats/Republican roundtable at Blair House in late February.

What happened to health reform? (Part 2), 2/25/2010 (transcript)

Continues the interview with Donna Smith and and Mandy Cohen.  Smith:” What’s interesting to me is they [the Obama administration - ed.] just didn’t trust how much support there was for real significant change in this country. I think that they—you know, to President Obama’s credit, he wanted to reach out to the other side of the aisle and have this great attitude of bipartisanship. But that’s not what the American people elected when they elected him. They really wanted change, significant change.”

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Health care reform: an activist-annotated scorecard

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 26th March 2010

The passage of H.R. 3590 — the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — last Sunday, followed by President Obama’s signature on Tuesday, created a set of broad minimum improvements to health care and health care insurance practices in America, by enshrining a prior Senate bill into law.

These may or may not be followed by additional changes in H.R. 4872 — the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act — now under debate in the Senate, chief among which are provisions delaying and reducing the so-called “Cadillac tax” on high-cost health insurance, a subject rightly of concern to unions protecting coverage for higher levels of work-related injuries and diseases.  Passage of this bill seems likely, since the reconciliation process can’t be filibustered under Senate rules, and thus requires only a simple majority.*  Even if Republicans vote unanimously against the bill (as is also likely), Democrats are likely to command that majority even if several Democratic Senators defect.  [UPDATE: the Senate and House have passed bills fixing minor infractions of reconciliation rules, but without amendments for a public option or anything else; it's done.]

The legislation promises to improve access to health care for millions, and may well rank as a milestone in American social policy — it’s been billed by New York Times business writer David Leonhardt as “the biggest attack on economic inequality since inequality began rising more than three decades ago”, and by conservative writer David Frum as a conservative ‘Waterloo’ that will not be undone.

But the cost to liberal values and goals has also been high.

Public option dead, right to choose denied care
As rehearsed in a post earlier this month, neither House action included a public option — the popular idea of a federally administered health insurance plan to compete with private insurors that was a cost-saver in its own right, and a possible way station to a ‘single payer’ health insurance system.  Instead, an individual mandate to purchase health insurance will further fatten the bank accounts of health insurance companies.

Moreover, in the negotiations preceding Sunday’s vote, Rep. Bart Stupak (D) agreed to vote for the bill in exchange for an Obama Executive Order confirming that the executive branch would prevent federal funds from being used to pay for abortions — thus enshrining the so-called Hyde Amendment, passed annually, as a matter of permanent federal executive branch policy.  Together with provisions in H.R. 3590 — inserted by Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) to the original Senate bill — researchers are predicting abortion insurance coverage will will not just be eliminated from insurance plans operating under health insurance exchanges, but will also decline overall.  Dana Goldstein (of “The Daily Beast”) writes, “To get the health-care bill passed, a pro-choice president reneged on his pledge to support reproductive rights for rich and poor alike.”

In a second article, Goldstein captured how whipsawed liberal groups could be about the events of the past weeks with the example of Feminist Majority president Eleanor Smeal.  On the one hand, Smeal vowed to go after Stupak by raising money for primary opponent Connie Saltonstall, –while on the other hand she celebrated the passage of a health reform bill won at the expense of reproductive choice: “If you turn down half a loaf, you get nothing,” Smeal said. “Given the realities of the vote count, I am glad that 15 million people will have access to Medicaid, most of whom will be women, and another 17 million will have access to these state insurance exchanges. I think to have nothing would have been horrible.”

Online and on the ground activists score the reforms
But quite aside from what’s not in the bill, there’s also the nagging feeling that what is there is less than meets the eye.  Last Friday, Jane Hamsher of “firedoglake,” who was among the most steadfast supporters of a public option in the run-up to Sunday’s vote, published Fact Sheet: The Truth About the Health Care Bill, an itemized list of “myths” about the pending health care/ health insurance reforms, along with her footnoted rebuttals to each one.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Death of the public option on the Orient Express

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 15th March 2010

Hercule Poirot: If all these people are not implicated in the crime, then why have they all told me, under interrogation, stupid and often unnecessary lies? Why? Why? Why? Why?
Dr. Constantine: Doubtless, Monsieur Poirot, because they did not expect you to be on the train. They had no time to concert their cover story.
Hercule Poirot: I was hoping someone other than myself would say that.
Murder on the Orient Express, 1974 film version

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

The “public option” — a health insurance option run by the federal government, for those mandated to obtain new health insurance– seems likely to be dropped from the final health insurance reform legislation apparently on the agenda sometime towards the end of this week.

Last week, Rachel Maddow pointed out the sizeable number of Senators who’ve either co-signed the Bennet letter or otherwise claimed they would support a reconciliation bill with a public option.  Guest Chris Hayes (The Nation) said he thought that support was soft — some Senators were counting on never having to vote for or against a public option.

When Maddow replied that Durbin had just pledged to whip whatever came to the Senate from the House, Hayes continued,

“…except for the fact that what is going to come out of the House is being negotiated between three parties … the House leadership, the Senate leadership, and the White House [...] …it’s become this kind of like murder mystery game of “Clue,” it’s this whodunit, you know, who killed the public option: was it Senator Reid with procedural obfuscation in the Senate chamber, was it Rahm Emanuel with the insurance industry in the Roosevelt Room, everyone is pointing fingers at everyone else and it really is hard to figure out who actually put the knife in.”

And that, of course, is the point.  As in Agatha Christie’s famous mystery, the right way to read the evidence is that they *all* put the knife in, spreading and blurring responsibility for the deed. Read the rest of this entry »

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The option – the option – the public wants options!

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 25th October 2009

Without it, it’s a giveaway!

Via Real News Network and brought to you by Billionaires for Wealthcare.

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UPDATE, 10/25: Enthusiastic review by Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, hilariously pinch-mouthed writeup by Garance Franke-Ruta in the Washington Post.

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Van Hollen: “public option is essential”

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 24th September 2009

I received an e-mail from Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD-8) today that updates my knowledge of where he stands in the health care debate.

As Van Hollen might write, I’m pleased to report that he makes repeated and positive mention of the “public option” in his remarks, which naturally center on HR 3200, the “American Affordable Health Choices Act.” From the e-mail:

The American Affordable Health Choices Act fulfills the promise of bringing real change to America through two key provisions: giving Americans the choice of a public health option and providing universal coverage to all Americans. [...]

One of the most significant elements of this bill will be the public health option. A public option is essential for creating choice for consumers and more competition for the insurance companies. The top 10 insurance companies have seen their profits increase 430 percent over the last seven years, yet the majority of Americans’ incomes have stayed flat while their insurance premiums have sky rocketed. A public option will keep insurance companies honest and bring health costs down for the American people.

This may or may not be a surprise to close watchers of the health care reform debate, but Van Hollen’s unequivocal emphasis — at least at this point — on the public option was welcome news to me.  Last year during the election he actually went further, endorsing a “single payer,” Medicare for all reform, but hasn’t opined on that since then as far as I know.

In an September 1 interview with Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, this is how Van Hollen handicapped the prospects for the public option:

Right now, you have Senate moderates saying they can’t pass a bill with a public plan and House liberals saying they won’t pass a bill without one. Is health-care reform between a rock and a hard place?

We need to let it play out more. In the House there’s a consensus in support of the public option, and people coming back from their districts continue to support a public option. Then we’ll have to see what the Senate does and where we go from there. As we come back, the White House will have to play a bigger role in this debate.

I wonder how he rates Obama on that score now; that’s somewhat less than a pledge to fight for a public option no matter what.  But given his continued support for a public option — a stance that is presumably in step with other House Democrat leaders — it’s important to support Baucus bill amendments like Jay Rockefeller’s that add the public option to the Senate bill.

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EDIT, 9/25: “Representative,” “(D-MD-8),” and link to the congressional web site added.

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