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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

 

A look at freedom and liberty in the US ten years after 9-11-01

A recent poll revealed some surprises about how Americans feel about their constitutional rights after ten years of changes in how the Fourth Amendment has been applied in their lives. They still care a great deal about civil liberties protections, even in the face of the need to deal with increased government surveillance. They have differing levels of tolerance for intrusions however, depending on the circumstances.
Readers are encouraged to read the full WaPo article for the details of this truly fascinating poll.

Amplify’d from www.washingtonpost.com

Poll: Americans open to trading off some liberties _ within limits _ to fight terrorism

By Associated Press, Published: September 6

WASHINGTON — Surveillance cameras in public places? Sure. Body scans at airports? Maybe. Snooping in personal email? Not so fast.

Ten years after the 9/11 attacks led to amped-up government surveillance efforts, two-thirds of Americans say it’s fitting to sacrifice some privacy and freedoms in the fight against terrorism, according to a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

A slim majority — 54 percent — say that if they had to choose between preserving their rights and freedoms and protecting people from terrorists, they’d come down on the side of civil liberties. The public is particularly protective of the privacy of U.S. citizens, voicing sharp opposition to government surveillance of Americans’ emails and phone calls.

The poll asked people to grapple with some of same quandaries that the government and the courts have been wrestling with over the past decade, and even before the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Two-thirds of those surveyed believe the resulting policies are a mish-mash created in reaction to events as they occur rather than clearly planned.

The AP-NORC poll found that about half of those surveyed felt that they have indeed lost some of their own personal freedoms to fight terrorism. Was it worth it? Close to half of those who thought they’d lost freedoms doubted it was necessary.

Overall, six in 10 say the government is doing enough to protect Americans’ rights and freedoms as it fights terrorism. But people may not even be aware of what they’ve given up. The extent of government eavesdropping and surveillance is something of a mystery.

Read more at www.washingtonpost.com

 

My post today is the latest from Propublica’s investigation into “fracking.”

ProPublica, a nonprofit journalism organization has a number of ongoing investigations. One I have followed is titled “Fracking – Gas Drilling’s Environmental Threat.” It is about “the promise of abundant natural gas is colliding with fears about water contamination.
Where I live in Texas is one of the most active gas drilling areas around. It adds revenue to our city and county coffers, but takes away from my feelings of environmental safety and protection of citizen interests. The series makes my point. This article is by Nicholas Kusnetz, written August 12, 2011.

Amplify’d from www.propublica.org

Report for Obama Questions Effectiveness of Gas Drilling Regulations

In sharp contrast with gas industry portrayals, the draft report released yesterday by a federal panel on shale gas drilling [1] explicitly acknowledges that current regulations may be insufficient to protect the environment and public health.

For years, the gas industry has said that drilling with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, into deep shale formations is safe. The federal government has been caught in an awkward position, limited from regulating the industry by exemptions written into federal environmental laws, while also working to promote domestic energy production.

The draft report continues to promote drilling, but it comes down squarely on the side of stronger oversight. It notes serious environmental impacts from shale gas drilling and says it is “far from clear” whether federal and state regulations are protecting the public.

“If effective environmental action is not taken today,” the report says, “the potential environmental consequences will grow to a point that the country will be faced (with) a more serious problem.”

Many of the panel’s recommendations already have been adopted by some states and members of the drilling industry over the last couple of years, including disclosure of chemicals used in fracking and better well construction.

Some go further. The report recommends that companies monitor air quality on drilling sites and publish those results. It also calls for limits on emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas and the primary component of natural gas.

“I think we’re lifting the bar a bit,” said John Deutch, chairman of the panel. Deutch is a former CIA director, has worked for the Energy Department and also sits on the board of two energy companies.

Across the board, the panel recommended making more information available to the public in order to create transparency and give a sense that progress is being made, Deutch said.

President Obama commissioned the report in March from Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who later appointed the seven-member panel. The panel was given 90 days

ending Thursdayto come up with immediate steps that can be taken by regulators and drillers.

The report released yesterday doesn’t recommend any specific regulations, leaving that to state and federal agencies. Many recommendations rely on industry cooperation.

“Whether and how these recommendations will be implemented is absolutely the critical question,” said Matt Watson, senior energy policy manager at the Environmental Defense Fund. That organization’s president, Fred Krupp, was the panel’s only member from an environmental group.

The report is notable in part because of the makeup of the panel. Some environmentalists, academics and state lawmakers have criticized the group, saying that six of the seven members have financial ties to oil and gas companies [2]. Watson, who was not among that group of environmentalists, said the members’ biographies could make the recommendations carry more weight.

“Some of them are quite bold,” he said of the findings, “and it’s noteworthy that a group like this panel, which is made up of members with very diverse backgrounds, would come to consensus.”

Some aspects of the report are in clear conflict with industry characterizations. For example, the report says that the oft-repeated industry linethat fracking has been performed safely for decadesis insufficient to quell concerns. Instead, it says, the industry must monitor its own activities and make those results public.

The Independent Petroleum Association of America, an industry group, issued a statement calling the report a “useful starting point” for achieving improved safety. The group did not respond to a request for comment.

On the central question in the debate over frackingwhether millions of gallons of fluids injected deep in the earth can migrate through cracks and contaminate aquifersthe panel took a nuanced view. The report says there is a slight chance of that happening, but it does not rule out the possibility, saying “few if any” cases have been confirmed. Deutch said they chose the wording out of caution, not because they are aware of any cases.

“This all depends upon how prudent a person you are,” he said. “If you say ‘no cases,’ one is going to turn up.”

Some advocates said the panel’s recommendations fell short of what is needed to protect the public. Dusty Horwitt, senior counsel for the Environmental Working Group, said he was disappointed that the report made no mention of the many exemptions for oil and gas companies from major environmental laws like the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Air Act. While he supports many of the recommendations, he said it is unclear how they will translate into better practices.

“The question is, who is going to enforce some of these reforms that the panel is calling for?” he said. “We have laws on the books that could prevent some of the problems that the panel and others are interested in solving, but the panel was silent about those laws.”

The report comes amid a robust public relations effort from the industry arguing that drilling and fracking are safe. As concerns have grown, companies have been running full-page spreads in newspapers [3] and putting ads on TV.

ProPublica has been reporting on the safety and environmental risks of gas drilling for three years. Previous investigations have detailed many of the problems addressed in these recommendations, including doubts over the climate benefits of natural gas [4], gaps in the disclosure of fracking chemicals [5] and problems with wastewater disposal [6].

Although many of the panel’s recommendations have already been adopted or considered by state governments and the EPA, the report is significant in its acknowledgement of the threats, said Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“What’s important here are the underlying findings: that there are problems that need to be fixed, and that they can be fixed.”

Two of the most significant recommendations involve water use and air quality. The EPA proposed rules last month that would reduce emissions [7] of smog-forming and toxic air pollutants from many stages of the drilling process. The report calls for a broader approach that would encompass more operations and that would also limit methane emissions.

The panelists also called for a systemic approach to water use that would track every step from withdrawal to disposal. Most states do not track exactly how much of the fluids pumped underground in fracking returns to the surface as wasteas much as 90 percent can remain.

Other recommendations call for the creation of a public database linking to disparate sources of information on fracking and shale gas drilling, and for more research and development from the government (the Energy Department recently announced $10.3 million in grants for shale gas research [8]). Deutch said the proposals call for about $75 million in new federal spending on these initiatives.

The draft will be reviewed by an Energy Department committee next week before being finalized. Over the next 90 days, the panelists will use the recommendations to come up with specific advice for the Department of Interior, which regulates drilling on federal land, and the EPA. It will be up to those agencies to pursue any rulemaking they decide is necessary.

Read more at www.propublica.org

 

VA must address widespread mental health issues

As has most often been the case, mental health is not as well treated as physical health when it comes to health care benefits. The Veterans Administration has responsibility to treat veterans and to treat them well. This important article by the public interest journalism organization, Propublica, explains.
Remember that these programs are also vulnerable to the budget cutting fever now spreading across the country.

Amplify’d from www.propublica.org

More than Half of Recent War Vets Treated by VA Are Struggling With Mental Health Problems

by Joaquin Sapien

ProPublica, May 11, 2011, 11:31 a.m.

More than half of all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans treated in Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals since 2002 have been diagnosed, at least preliminarily, with mental health problems, according to statistics [1] obtained by the advocacy group Veterans for Common Sense.

The data, which is released quarterly, also shows that the raw number of returning soldiers with psychological problems is rising. Nearly 18,000 new patients were treated for mental health issues at VA facilities in the last three months of last year—the most recent time period for which data is available— upping the total to more than 330,000 [1].

The latest numbers confirm a trend that has intensified over the last several years. Paul Sullivan, the executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, said that when the organization first began to collect the data in late 2004, only 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in VA hospitals had been diagnosed with mental problems.

The increase should come as no surprise given that a recent military survey, obtained by ProPublica and other media outlets, shows that U.S. troops in Afghanistan are currently reporting lower morale and greater emotional strain than at any other time in the last five years.

That report [2] notes that mental health staffing has doubled in warzones in order to ensure treatment is available immediately for soldiers who suffer psychological trauma.

Sullivan applauded the increase in staff abroad, but questioned what’s being done to make sure that troubled troops are properly cared for once they come home.

“We truly support having more doctors in warzones, that’s great,” Sullivan said. “But we also need to make sure we have enough doctors here.”

Laurie Tranter, a spokeswoman for the VA, told ProPublica that the agency has increased the number of mental health staff in the U.S. by more than 40 percent since 2002 to more than 20,000. Tranter suggested that the increase in veterans diagnosed with and treated for mental health problems may, in part, reflect more proactive screening and better access to services.

Pressure is mounting on the military and the VA to fix long-standing shortfalls in mental health care.

A federal appeals court issued a scathing opinion of the VA’s system yesterday, noting that it takes an average of four years for veterans to receive mental health benefits, a beleaguered process that demands immediate reform.

Writing for a three-judge panel, Judge Stephen Reinhart said, “Although the VA is obligated to provide veterans mental health services, many veterans with severe depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) are forced to wait weeks for mental health referrals… For those who commit suicide in the interim, care does not come soon enough.”

As reported [3] by the Associated Press, the ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturns a 2008 verdict [4] and sends the case, which was filed against the VA by veterans’ advocates, back to U.S. District Court for resolution.

Read more at www.propublica.org