Texas local news makes it to TPM

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My State Senator, Wendy Davis’s, office was the target of a number of firebombs within recent days.  It is a scary story that had a good ending.  A staff member put out the fire and a suspect was arrested within hours.  No one was injured, thank goodness.

See the details in this well written story from yesterday’s Talking Points Memo blog post by Nick R. Martin.

Entitlement programs are no longer off limits for cuts.

President Obama called for Medicare and Medicaid reform in his jobs speech to Congress. And Texas Gov. Rick Perry called Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” in the previous night’s Republican debate.
It looks like everything could be up for grabs in the bipartisan race to dismantle our Federal government’s social safety net.

A Bipartisan Move to Tackle Benefits Programs

by JACKIE CALMES, nytimes.com
September 8th 2011

At the same time, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill expressed a willingness to wring savings from the long-untouchable programs during the first meeting of the special committee that is charged with recommending $1.5 trillion in deficit reductions over the decade. Then President Obama, in his address to a joint session of Congress on spurring job creation, reiterated his call for a plan reducing long-term debt with both changes in entitlement programs and taxes from the wealthy.

To the chagrin of many in his party, this summer Mr. Obama proposed changes in Medicare and Social Security that once would have been unthinkable for a Democratic president during his unsuccessful talks with the House speaker, John A. Boehner, for a “grand bargain” on cutting deficits. In return for the Republicans’ agreement to raise taxes after 2012 for the wealthy, Mr. Obama indicated that his party would support slowly increasing the eligibility age for Medicare to 67 from 65 and changing the formula for cost-of-living increases in Social Security to a less generous one that some economists consider more accurate.

Until Mr. Perry’s recent entry into the Republican contest, the debate over reining in the projected growth of the entitlement programs focused on the health programs, Medicare and Medicaid. Their projected costs, given the aging of the population and fast-rising medical expenses, are greater and growing faster than those for Social Security.

The turn in both parties toward tackling the cost of the entitlement programs has been building. In 2010, Congressional Democrats approved about $500 billion in future savings from Medicare to help pay for the new health care law, though Republicans attacked them for it in last year’s midterm elections. But the onset of the new deficit committee’s work and Mr. Perry’s scathing critique of social spending has added a new dimension.

At the first meeting of the House-Senate committee on deficit reduction, which is to make recommendations by Nov. 23 for a quick up-or-down vote in Congress, several Republicans said that entitlements were the main cause of annual deficits and should be the panel’s focus.

James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, a House Democratic leader on the panel, said that he was for “smart and compassionate budget cuts” and “ending military adventurism,” but that Congress must not shred Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits.

Separately, the senior Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, Sander M. Levin of Michigan, circulated a memo listing two dozen options that could squeeze more than $500 billion out of Medicare in the next 10 years. Aides to Mr. Levin said that he was not endorsing the ideas but helping other Democrats understand the sorts of actions that could be taken.

Read more at

 

Does financial consumer protection have a chance?

Since the Dodd-Frank Financial Regulatory reform bill was signed into law, vested interests have been trying to weaken it, kill it or emasculate it. Set to go into force today, we are waiting to see what happens. I am not optimistic.

The story is by Lois Beckett of the nonprofit news organization operating in the public interest:
ProPublica, July 20, 2011, 4:26 p.m

Amplify’d from www.propublica.org

Will Innovative New Financial Regulator Be Hobbled Before It Even Starts?

These heat maps show two model mortgage forms that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau posted on its website to illustrate the number of comments generated by each part. (Photo courtesy of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau)

Want to know what people find most confusing about mortgage disclosure documents? Then check out these heat maps created by a new government regulatory agency.

e than 13,000 comments on the documents, and the maps show which parts of the fo

The heat maps show two model mortgage forms that the agency posted on its website [1]. Users left more than 13,000 comments on the documents, and the maps show which parts of the form generated the most comments—which may indicate, among other things, which parts are the most difficult to understand.

This more inclusive approach to regulation is one of the hallmarks of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau [2], a politically contentious agency that will open for business this Thursday.

The agency is trying to draw in consumers, since one of its jobs is to make sure that consumers understand the financial deals they’re making. It has a candy-colored website [2] that looks more like a social media start-up than a cluttered .gov page. It turned to Twitter [3] for a pre-launch “Open for Suggestions” campaign and then posted response videos [2] on its YouTube page [4].

“Its openness thus far suggests the tantalizing possibility that it could be the nation’s first open-source regulator,” New York Times personal finance columnist Ron Lieber wrote last week [5].

Created as a result of last year’s financial reform law, the agency is supposed to be a “cop on the beat” overseeing consumer financial products such as mortgages, credit cards and payday loans.

But just how effective the bureau will be is still in question, in large part because of a partisan battle on Capitol Hill over how much power the agency should have to police banks and other financial institutions.

As part of a wider attack on last year’s Dodd-Frank legislation [6], a group of Republican legislators have promised to block the bureau from operating fully unless its ability to police businesses is put under bipartisan control.

Republicans want to replace [7] the bureau’s director—nominated by the president—with a five-member bipartisan board. They also want to make it easier for the bureau’s rules to be overturned, while some are also demanding that Congress be given control over the bureau’s budget.

Republicans have promised to filibuster the appointment of the bureau’s director (the nominee is former Ohio attorney general, and Jeopardy star, Richard Cordray [8]) until their demands are met.

Like many other news outlets, the financial news service Bloomberg lambasted the changes in an editorial [9] on Tuesday, saying it would politicize the agency and make it slower.

The bureau “was designed to move quickly (like the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.) and not ploddingly (like the SEC, where three commissioners must pre-approve nearly everything the agency does),” Bloomberg opined.

At the moment, the bureau gets its funding from the Federal Reserve. This is a good thing, Bloomberg concluded, because it means the bureau is “insulated from the partisan funding fights that have hamstrung the SEC, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and other regulators.”

It’s worth noting that the SEC, whose job to investigate and prosecute companies for financial fraud was expanded under Dodd-Frank, recently had its budget cut by $222.5 million [10] by the Republican-controlled House appropriations committee.

The bureau’s opponents aren’t backing down. Forty-four Republican senators have signed a letter vowing to oppose [11] the confirmation of any agency chief until the new regulator is restructured. On Tuesday, a key Republican senator described Cordrary, the current nominee, as “dead on arrival [8].” President Obama could bypass this issue by pushing the director through in a recess appointment [12]. (The Senate’s current recess is on hold due to debt ceiling negotiations [13].)

Until the bureau has a confirmed director, its regulatory powers are limited in significant ways [14]. As the Los Angeles Times has noted [15]:

The agency won’t have power, for instance, to crack down on mortgage brokers, some of which helped lead the nation into the housing debacle four years ago. It also won’t have authority over other largely unregulated sectors of the financial services industry, such as payday lenders and remittance companies such as Western Union, that it was created to police.

But as the political battle rages on and media scrutiny focuses on Elizabeth Warren’s political future [16], little attention has been given to what the bureau has actually done. And its initial efforts are interesting, especially because they show a commitment to open government [17] and real public engagement. (Ron Lieber noted [18] that its blog actually accepts comments—”unlike, say, the White House’s.”)

The bureau’s mission is to create transparency in an industry dominated by confusing claims and mouse print [19]. Good design isn’t just a perk here—it’s fundamental to the bureau’s regulatory efforts.

Case in point: One of the CFPB’s top priorities has been streamlining [1] the federally required mortgage disclosure documents. If that sounds like a mouthful, it’s worse on paper: two separate, complicated forms that are confusing for customers and, the bureau contends [20], also burdensome for many mortgage servicers to fill out.

The goal is to replace them with a single, two-page document that clearly answers the questions: “Can I afford this mortgage?” and “Can I get a better deal somewhere else?”

Two of the potential designs [21] for the new form [22] each have a note at the top, in bold print: “You have no obligation to choose this loan. Shop around to find the best loan for you.”

The bureau’s other projects [20] include improving transparency about credit card prices and fees, the exchange rates used for remittance transfers of money to other countries and the credit scores sold to consumers and creditors.

It’s worth noting that, while the financial industry has lobbied heavily against the bureau [23], its efforts may actually help businesses in the long run.

In a recent letter [24] to shareholders JP Morgan Chase’s chief executive, Jamie Dimon [25], noted that the company does not oppose the bureau. “If the CFPB does its job well, the agency will benefit American consumers and the system,” Dimon told shareholders. “Strong regulatory standards, adequate review of new products and transparency to consumers all are good things.”

New Yorker financial columnist James Surowiecki [26] has argued that the financial industry should see the creation of a bureau as a boon, not a threat [27]. “Meatpackers hated the Meat Inspection Act of 1906, but it rescued the industry from the aftereffects of the publication of ‘The Jungle,’ ” Surowiecki wrote. “At a time when Americans profoundly distrust the financial industry … [the CFPB] could turn out to be the friend banks never knew they needed.”

Read more at www.propublica.org

Congressional investigation of decision to deny coverage for brain injured troops – from ProPublica

ProPublica is a non profit news organization that offers the opportunity for us to republish its stories in total. Thanks to them for this story, now amplified.

Amplify’d from www.propublica.org

Congress to Investigate Pentagon Decision to Deny Coverage for Brain Injured Troops

WASHINGTON, D.C.–A key congressional oversight committee announced [1] today that it was opening an investigation into the basis of a decision by the Pentagon’s health plan to deny a type of medical treatment to troops with brain injuries.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., the chairman of the subcommittee on contracting oversight, said she wanted to examine a contract issued by Tricare, an insurance-style program used by soldiers and many veterans, to a private company to study cognitive rehabilitation therapy for traumatic brain injury. Such injuries are considered among the signature wounds of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The study, by Pennsylvania-based ECRI Institute, found insufficient or weak evidence to support the therapy. Often lengthy and expensive, cognitive rehabilitation programs are designed to rewire soldiers’ brains to conduct basic life tasks, such as reading books, remembering information and following instructions. ECRI’s findings ran counter to several other studies, including ones sponsored by the Pentagon and the National Institutes of Health, which concluded that cognitive rehabilitation was beneficial.

In a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, McCaskill cited an investigation [2] by ProPublica and NPR in December, which found that top scientific experts had questioned the Tricare-funded study in confidential reviews, calling it “deeply flawed” and “unacceptable.”

“If true, these reports raise significant questions regarding the Department’s award and management of the contract with ECRI Institute, and may have profound implications for hundreds of thousands of injured service members and their families,” McCaskill wrote. “We owe it to our brave service members to find the truth.”

The ProPublica and NPR investigation also found that senior Pentagon officials have worried about the high price of the care, which can cost more than $50,000 per patient. Some studies estimate that as many as 400,000 troops have suffered traumatic brain injuries in the war zones, though only a small percentage of them would need a full-scale program of cognitive rehabilitation therapy.

McCaskill joins a growing chorus demanding that Tricare reconsider its decision to deny coverage for cognitive rehabilitation. In recent weeks, the American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans’ organization, called [3] on Tricare to provide treatment. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee with oversight of the Middle East, sent a letter [4] to Gates asking for an explanation of Tricare’s stance.

McCaskill was also one of the senators who signed a letter [5] in 2008 asking Gates to direct Tricare to begin providing cognitive rehabilitation to troops. This November, the Pentagon sent a response [6] to Congress informing them of the Tricare study’s findings. George Peach Taylor Jr., then-acting assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said the Pentagon would continue to study the treatment, with another report expected later this year.

In strongly worded response [7] on Jan. 19, McCaskill said that the senators who signed the original letter believed that enough evidence existed on the treatment’s benefits to justify covering the cost for brain-damaged soldiers.

She asked for Gates to provide her committee with a series of documents on the contract and critical scientific reviews by Feb. 18.

“While we agreed that further research on cognitive rehabilitation therapy was appropriate, we also called on the Defense Department to err on the side of providing this proven treatment to service members,” McCaskill wrote.

ProPublica and NPR have filed a similar request under the Freedom of Information Act, but Tricare has denied access to the documents, giving contradictory explanations [8] for why. ProPublica and NPR have appealed.

Tricare officials have said their decision to deny cognitive rehabilitation is based on regulations requiring scientific proof of the efficacy and quality of treatment. They have said that the study by ECRI highlighted a lack of rigorous evidence proving the therapy’s benefits.

Tricare officials also noted that the agency does cover some types of treatment considered part of cognitive rehabilitative therapy. For instance, Tricare will pay for speech and occupational therapy, which plays a role in cognitive rehabilitation. Tricare officials deny that cost played any role in their decision. In a statement [9], Tricare said the care of troops was their “utmost” concern.

Tricare did not immediately return requests for comment on McCaskill’s investigation.

ECRI defended its study. The non-profit institute, which has carried out numerous health reviews for Tricare, other agencies and hospital and medical groups, said they applied standard protocols in reviewing scientific literature about the efficacy of cognitive rehabilitation therapy. ECRI provided a document explaining its review here [10].

“The issue of how well cognitive rehabilitation therapy works for traumatic brain injury is important,” said Jeffrey C. Lerner, the president and CEO of ECRI Institute. “ECRI Institute is fully committed to providing information to the U.S. Senate on our report and methodology.”

by T. Christian Miller, ProPublica, and Daniel Zwerdling, NPR Jan. 21, 2011, 5:21 p.m.

Read more at www.propublica.org

 

Health Care Reform: a work in progress for Congress

Congress is back in town this week. While they were away, however, the news and opinion resources I follow on Twitter have been busily posting on the issue of health care reform that currently dominates the legislative agenda. 

 

But first — Twitter posts, “tweets” are limited to 140 characters. If you are not familiar with this great news resource, to begin, it can be a serious news site, depending upon whom you follow.  Second I recommend the site TweetDeck as a great way to organize your news gathering.  A couple of notes about the following news bullets:  RT = ReTweet (a repetition of an earlier post and a compliment to the originator).  All entries that begin with a hash mark (#), denote a Twitter search subject.  For example, #hcr stands for health care reform.  The phrase <@author’s name> is who wrote a tweet/post.
Links to other articles begin with “http://. . . ”  The posts are in chronological order:

Christopher Hayes* — chrislhayes Great RT @KimAbramson: will #HCR vary in how it’s implemented State to State? #thebreakdown

 

Taegan Goddard — pwire Senate begins health care debate as new poll shows Americans “tilting against” the reform legislation… http://pwire.us/Vi Matt Yglesias — mattyglesias RT @wonkroom: Even if lawmakers do not take a day off until Christmas, Senate has just 25 days to pass bill before year’s end. #hcr


McClatchy Newspaper —
McClatchyDC Congress poised to clash over national debt http://bit.ly/84GxOA

John Dickerson — jdickerson To get votes of Maine senators Harry Reid going to make “being flinty” a condition for which you get a $200 subsidy

Roll Call News — rollcall GOP Rep: Health care bill’s passage would be an ‘”internal” terrorist attack’ http://bit.ly/obIuW

*chrislhayes $40b MORE per year than we’re gonna spend on hc RT @marcambinder: DNI announces ’09 intelligence budget: My unofficial total estimate: $130b

Karen Tumulty — ktumulty best quote from interview i just did w john dingell: “insurance companies hate this like the devil hates holy water.” #publicoption #hcr

In summary, public opinion ab out the need for reform has diminished.  Congress has less that one month of work days before year’s end.  There is less and less of an appetite for government spending. The Intelligence budget is higher than HCR would be, however. Bipartisan support for reform is all but nonexistent.  Republicans and the health care industry are dead set in their blanket opposition.  So, we will see what happens.

[Post date November 30, 2009]

My all-in-one Home Page of websites where I post regularly: Carol Gee – Online Universe

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Afghanistan is a riddle wrapped in an enigma for the U.S..

Afghanistan is grabbing its share of headlines this week.  Multiple intense meetings are taking place at the White House.  Various of the key players have come down publicly on one side or the other about what to do next.  Violence continues in “Af-Pak,” as it became known early in the Obama administration.  Defining who the primary adversaries are in the region has not been settled.  Friction is being between the military and civilian elements within the governments of both the U.S. and Pakistan.  And everybody is weighing in with opinions.  Today’s post is my attempt to clarify the basic elements of the current situation.

A suicide car bomb killing at least 12 people was intended for the Indian embassy in Kabul, according to the New York Times (10/8/09).  The previous day the same paper published an analysis by Peter Baker and Eric Schmitt that explains that the Afghan war debate now leans towards a plan to focus on a campaign against Al Qaeda in Pakistan.  It is not known whether this view is accepted by the entire Obama war cabinet.

The central debate question seems to hinge on the nature of the current relationship between the Taliban and Al Queda.  The administration pointed out to the Times in an anonymous interview that there are fewer than 100 Al Qaeda fighters left in Afghanistan.  Recent successes with surgical strikes against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan may make that country less central to U.S. strategy.  Another anonymous official characterizes the strategy as one of viewing the Taliban, militants local to Afghanistan and jihadist Al Qaeda as very different.  President Obama has reiterated that his goal is to protect the United States and to prevent the jihadis from getting safe haven.  Mark Knoller reported on Twitter that “a WH official says Obama received a ‘comprehensive intelligence and counterterrorism assessment’ on political & diplomatic situation in Pakistan.”  The unpredictability of the future of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan has to eventually be settled by the President.

President Obama requested an early look at General McChrystal’s troop request from Defense Secretary Gates, according to McClatchy on Wednesday.  The President wanted to read it before the top military officials reviewed it so that it would not be leaked to reporters as was McChrystal’s Afghanistan assessment. This may suggest friction between the military and the commander in chief.  And there has certainly been friction between General McChrystal and his superiors because of his public stances, and because of the leak — source unknown.

Pakistan’s army has similarly objected publicly to the conditions in the $1.5 billion U.S. (Kerry-Lugar) aid package still to be signed by the President, McClatchy reported.  The objection, according to McClatchy, caught the administration by surprise and comes at a time just prior to a planned offensive towards militants in the border region of Waziristan.  And it pits the military “against the fragile civilian government of the Pakistan Peoples Party, which has championed the U.S. assistance deal,” as well as against the opposition in parliament.  The bill has a number of requirements including, “monitoring and certification of Pakistan’s action against terrorism. . . requires the country to work to prevent nuclear proliferation and to show that its military isn’t interfering in Pakistani politics.”  Pakistan’s Foreign minister, on a trip to Washington, played down concerns over the bill, while acknowledging that the language could have been more sensitive to Pakistan’s sovereignty.  Marc Ambinder posted this on Twitter:

RT @nickschifrin: Is the Pakistani military statement of doubt about the Kerry-Lugar bill in #Pakistan a game changer?” It was linked to a related BBC News story explaining more about the nature of the Pakistani military’s objections.

Finally, many of us remember Charlie Wilson’s War. Huffingington Post reports that Wilson now thinks that we ought to consider a new strategy regarding the war in Afghanistan.  “I’d probably shut it down, rather than lose a lot of soldiers and treasure,” noting the President’s “very tough situation.”  See the Scranton Times-Tribune for the fascinating interview.

Afghanistan is a very difficult region of conflict, with no simple answers for the U.S.  Pakistan, and even India, are all parts of one puzzle.  Pakistan’s weak government will probably not fall over its own internal dissension, and the Waziristan campaign will probably begin.  The President is not going to withdraw troops from Afghanistan or aid from Pakistan.  His plans for a strategy will emerge in the next few weeks.  It will almost certainly be a very complicated plan, as it should in these enigmatic circumstances.

References:
Gross: Massive Fraud in Afghanistan Election,” is by Nasrine Gross at Juan Cole’s Informed Comment (10/7/09).

Robert Kaplan on the Regional Dimensions of Afghanistan,” is from Steve Clemons’ The Washington Note (10/7/09).

Guest Post by Michael Cohen: The Trouble with Counter-Insurgency,” is from Steve Clemons’ The Washington Note (4/1/09).

Battle of Books rages in Afghan debate,” is from The Wall Street Journal at  Memeorandum (10/7/09).  Regards Lessons in Disaster and A Better War.

‘Code Pink’ rethinks its call for Afghanistan pullout,” is from the Christian Science Monitor at  Memeorandum (10/7/09).

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CBO Says Finance Health Reform Bill Will Save $81 Billion in a Decade « The Washington Independent

The Senate Finance Committee’s health reform bill will save the federal government $81 billion over the next 10 years, according to the much-anticipated Congressional Budget Office estimate released this afternoon. CBO found that subsidizing the coverage expansion will cost $518 billion over a decade, partly offset by taxing high-cost insurance plans ($201 billion), trimming Medicare rates “for most services” ($162 billion), and cutting subsidies to the private insurance companies that cover Medicare patients ($117 billion).

Good news for several reasons: gives cover to moderate Dems who can now vote yes; gives others some funds to add to the bill where needed, cuts Medicate subsidies to insurance companies. However, it only reduces the uninsured by some 29 million people. But that is a huge start. Now on to the committee vote.