May 26, 2005
GBIO on the front page of Globe
Well, I missed it until 11:24pm tonight, but a preview of tonight's GBIO action was on the front page of the Globe. It's not a bad article, really, although I wish it had concentrated on the trials that people endure right now, today, all the time, under the current system. But I guess that's not considered news -- the dance of power always seems more interesting...
Also, the reporter sells it as a "universal" health care plan. It's not: it would cover 80% of the currently uninsured in MA. You can see it as a substantial step towards universal coverage in some of its structural particulars, but it's not a flat-out universal plan.
And here's a deceptively enlightening quote from Romney's spokesman:
''Both the governor and the Senate president have made it clear that tax increases and employer mandates are off the table," Fehrnstrom said.
Well, let's be clear what is on the table, then. High deductibles and high co-pays for people who are the least able to afford it, A-OK, that's on the table. Taking away people's dental coverage: that's on the table. Eyeglasses: on the table, and they'll take them, too, thank you very much.
Let's be clear: people's lives ... they're on the table. No taxes or employer mandates, though. Priorities.
Anyhoo, it was a really great event tonight. Very inspiring, but also humbling: there's a lot of work to do. I'll write more tomorrow.
What the bloggers are saying about what the Valley Advocate says the bloggers are saying
In the past year, Massachusetts has developed its own mini-blogosphere. It is still rather nascent, but there is a core group of bloggers emerging who are concerned with state politics. And to these new bloggers, Deval Patrick has almost a "rock star" status. All of them are talking about him. Here are some selected excerpts:
Etc. Thanks to Frederick Clarkson for the steer -- you can read his take on all this here.
I also should point out that although the idea was certainly out there before sco put up his comments about Patrick's convention speech, the precise wording of the Advocate's cover ("Our Obama") comes directly from sco's quote. (I see that sco noticed as well. Take a bow over there in Watertown.)
As sco says, the reason we're getting noticed is because hardly anyone else is covering what we're covering. To pretty much everyone else in the media, the gay marriage plank was the story from the convention, even though its adoption was absolutely pro-forma. Even to the Phoenix, which does very good local reporting, the story of the convention was that of stagnation and insularity. It seems like the bloggers, perhaps due to our naiveté, star-struckness and inexperience, were the ones to realize that something actually happened there.
... By the way, I just got that robo-call from Patrick, too. Also, a cardboard cut-out of Patrick just came up to my door and asked for my vote. I shook a Deval Patrick inflatable dummy's hand in line at Dunkie's this morning, and I'm going bowling tonight with a holographic Deval Patrick projection. I'm on the simulacrum short list!
May 25, 2005
GBIO takes on Health Care
Thursday night, May 26th at 7pm at Temple Israel of Boston, the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization will hold an action in support of the Health Care Access and Affordability Act, a major piece of legislation that will provide health care coverage to 80% of the 500,000 people currently uninsured in Massachusetts. They're expecting more than 1,000 people to show up, representing the various member organizations of GBIO. They will tell their stories about the necessity of expanding health care in this state; recognize legislators that have signed on to support the bill; and will commit to getting 40,000 of the necessary 65,825 signatures to qualify the bill for a 2006 ballot initiative.
Here's my full disclosure: I am an active participant in GBIO -- what they call a "key leader". I got involved through the church I used to sing at because of some work they were doing on affordable housing issues.
GBIO encompasses a wildly diverse group of organizations, from Trinity Church in Copley Square to Temple Salem in Dorchester to Temple Dorshei Tzedek in Newton. You could not have a better representation of the "New Boston" than this. The leadership team at GBIO is the smartest, savviest, best-organized, and nicest group of folks you could meet. And as a whole, GBIO doesn't just speak Truth to Power: GBIO invites Power into the house, sits it down, serves it tea, tells the Truth that breaks Power's heart, holds Power's hand tightly, looks Power in the eye, and says, "You need to be with us."
This is going to be a great event -- the beginning of an 18 month journey to get health coverage for thousands of folks who don't have it. I'll have a rundown afterwards.
More override news
The Fray reports that the town of Longmeadow has rejected three Proposition 2-1/2 overrides, and Plympton recently rejected one as well. Meanwhile, Cape Cod Works updates the Harwich override story: apparently, there may be a revote on the override that failed recently (and, according to this story, tempers in the town are flaring). Holliston, in contrast, just passed an override - by 12 votes out of over 3,000 cast - and Hanson approved one as well. Several other towns have overrides on upcoming local elections ballots, according to my quick Google News search.
Is there a trend in these results? Or are these overrides always intensely local issues, the result of which is determined not by which way the bigger winds on "taxes" are blowing, but rather on how badly a town's residents feel they need the particular item to be financed by the override? Either way, I continue to believe that property taxes, and Prop. 2-1/2 overrides, need to be brought into the statewide debate on income taxes. Taxes are taxes, and it's foolish to talk about one while pretending that the other isn't implicated. So far, Deval Patrick seems to be the only Gov candidate who understands that, but maybe there's still hope.
You! Out of the risk pool!
The Eisenthal Report has commented on my post on the governor's chief health care advisor suggesting that hospitals be more aggressive in collecting on unpaid bills. I appreciate his input, and there's a very useful discussion in the comments section of his post from Lynne and our own David.
Eisenthal's main point is that bills need to be collected as a practical business matter for the hospitals, and as a matter of equity to those of us that do pay our bills; that just as rent and property taxes need to be paid, so then do medical bills.
That's fine with me, and perfectly sensible, all things being equal. But as we know, all things aren't equal. As David points out in the comments, one has some control over what rent one pays, and from then on it's fairly predictable. Medical costs are wildly unpredictable -- part of the unfairness of life. Lynne points out that uninsured people actually pay more on an individual basis than do insurance companies, and much more than the government. (I once had a doctor give me a "professional courtesy" discount when she realized I had a large deductible, and I would be paying for her care out of pocket.)
So, it behooves us (yes, we are behooven) to look at health care in its own unique and messed-up context. The real problem of health care is: Who's paying for it? See, "health insurance" is really a misnomer: "Insurance" implies pooling of risk, where individuals get resources together, pay out for the unfortunate circumstances, and endeavor to encourage safe behavior. Well, we've got no true pooling of risk in our current system; health plans are more like memberships with benefits, like your local health club: you pay in, and you can show up. And with the rising cost and increasingly exclusionary rules of the club memberships, a lot of people simply can't afford to buy in.
To make a long story short, the people that Tim Murphy wants to collect money from, are the people who are least likely to be able to afford it, for one or more of the following reasons:
- *They don't have any insurance (and are therefore charged higher prices),
- **They have inadequate insurance (i.e. high deductibles and co-pays)
- They have just gone through an illness or injury which has very possibly compromised their earning ability: lost work hours, decreased productivity, etc.
I'm sure we can all think of other reasons. (Lynne has courageously told her personal story here. I am going to be collecting more personal stories and posting them here.)
Just as a practical matter of helping hospitals collect on their bills: Instead of going after the folks who are in the weakest position to pay, doesn't it make more sense to strengthen the institutions that can pay?
I'll have a lot more on this in the weeks and months to come. Bear with me -- the wonkery can be pretty thick. But the human side is really very easy to understand, and that's the side that RomneyCo seems to find the most elusive.
*To put this in perspective regarding our state health system: The adults in a family of four that makes $26,000 a year are too rich to qualify for MassHealth under our current system (cf. also here).
**The Governor's Commonwealth Care proposal would charge families an average of $500/month for a stripped-down, high-deductible and - co-pay plan. Here's the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization's helpful proposal comparison of Romney's and Travaglini's plans with the Health Care Access and Affordability Act, which is being promoted by a wide variety of civic groups.
Priscilla Owen confirmed 56-43
The Senate has just confirmed Priscilla Owen to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.
The vote was 56-43. If I heard the clerk's roll call correctly, the Democrats voting to confirm were Landrieu (LA) and Byrd (WV). The only Republican voting against confirmation was Chafee (RI). I believe that Daniel Inouye (D-HI), who did not participate in yesterday's cloture vote, also did not participate in today's vote.
Now on C-SPAN2: the nomination of John Bolton!
UPDATE: The roll call on Owen is here.
CORRECTION AND FURTHER UPDATE: The vote was actually 55 (not 56) to 43, as it turns out that Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) voted "Present," apparently in order to protect Sen. Inouye who was out of town and therefore did not vote.
A good post on Janice Rogers Brown
This post at ACSblog explains that the Supreme Court's recent unanimous opinion in a takings case (Lingle v. Chevron U.S.A.) thoroughly rejects the extremist property rights view espoused by Janice Rogers Brown in a dissenting opinion she wrote in 2002 (the case was San Remo Hotel v. City and County of San Francisco). Brown's position, basically, was that government regulation amounts to theft, at least to the extent that regulation diminishes the ability of people to use their property in any manner in which they see fit. All 9 Supreme Court Justices - Scalia and Thomas among them - rejected that view.
What's wrong with the House's stem cell research bill
The Republican-dominated House of Representatives passed, by a convincing margin (238-194) and over the objections of its leadership, a bill that would partially undo President Bush's restrictive policy on stem cell research. It is unlikely to become law, however. The Bill will face significant hurdles (including a filibuster threat) in the Senate. More importantly, Bush has already said he'll veto it, and the margin in the House is well short of the two-thirds needed to override.
But still, this is great news, right? Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that it's great to see a significant number of House Republicans defying both their own wacky leadership and a Bush veto threat to pass a bill on an important public policy issue. And yes, in the sense that it's great to see that many Republicans as well as Democrats understand the potential promise of embryonic stem cell research.
But no, in the sense that the House bill seems to me to suffer from a bit of the same fallacy that our own Governor's stem cell position suffers from. The House bill would lift Bush's ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research only if the cell lines in question are derived from "surplus" embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics. It does nothing to encourage American scientists to keep pace with, among others, the South Koreans who have recently announced impressive results through the use of somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT).
Why is this distinction so important? I can see two reasons. First, on the science: the great thing about SCNT is that, when successfully accomplished, it leads to cell lines that exactly match the DNA of the patient you are trying to treat. That gives you the best chance of avoiding rejection and other incompatibility problems. And that is what the South Korean researchers did. In contrast, because a "surplus" embryo from an in vitro clinic is the result of a sperm cell fertilizing an egg cell, the DNA of that embryo is unique and does not match anyone. A cell line derived from a "surplus" embryo might be useful for research, but my guess is that the more promising therapeutic possibilities will come from SCNT. I am no scientist, but this just strikes me as common sense.
Second, on the moral and ethical issues: I've pounded away at Mitt Romney's "OK to use surplus embryos, but not to engage in SCNT" position on numerous occasions, so I don't need to restate the whole argument here. Here's the short version: it doesn't make ANY sense to me. A "surplus" embryo is a fertilized egg cell that, if implanted into a woman's uterus, has a good chance of developing into a living breathing human (as Bush's photo-op with children who were adopted as "surplus" embryos was designed to show). And it was created with the intention of having a baby. If the couple that created the embryo now does not want to use it, that does not change the nature of the embryo. SCNT, in contrast, does not involve the fertilization of an egg cell. It is a scientific trick whereby an egg cell whose nuclear material has been replaced is induced to divide, thereby creating genetic carbon copies of itself. No ethical scientist undertakes this procedure with the intention of trying to create a human being, and it is not very likely that it would work even if it were tried.
I can appreciate that certain religious or moral points of view would have a problem with either of these methods of undertaking embryonic stem cell research. My point is that SCNT seems to me far less objectionable than the use of "surplus" embryos. So the House bill, and Governor Romney's position, seem to me exactly backward - they are less likely to encourage the most promising avenues of scientific research, and they are less morally and ethically defensible, than a policy encouraging SCNT.
Looking bad for medical marijuana
SCOTUSblog has this interesting post about the cases that remain to be decided in the current Supreme Court term.
Of particular note is that it seems almost certain that Justice Stevens and Justice Souter are writing the majority opinions in Miller-El (a death penalty case involving a claim of racial discrimination in jury selection) and Raich (a case challenging the federal government's right to prohibit the personal use of marijuana for medicinal purposes). There's no way of knowing which is them is writing which opinion, but it hardly matters - I'd guess that both of their views on both cases are the same. I'd say the chances are about 90% that Mr. Miller-El (the defendant) will win his case and it will once again be sent back to the lower courts for further proceedings (the lower courts really screwed this one up), and that federal authority over the personal use of marijuana, including for medical purposes, will be upheld. I predicted months ago that Raich would be decided 8-1 (Thomas dissenting) in favor of the government, and I'll stand by that prediction. We should know soon.
May 24, 2005
As anyone who reads lefty blogs knows by now, there's been a great deal of hand-wringing over whether the Deal that averted the nucular option was a good idea for the Democrats. I want to weigh in on one aspect of this. Some are worried that Janice Rogers Brown is as extreme a nominee as Bush is likely to be able to find, so if she is guaranteed a vote, how can Democrats credibly argue that anyone else constitutes the "extraordinary circumstances" that justify a filibuster? In other words, if she doesn't constitute "extraordinary circumstances," who would?
In my view, this concern is based upon a misreading of the agreement. To me, nothing in the agreement sets Brown up as a non-"extraordinary circumstance" (nor, for that matter, do I think it sets up Myers and Saad as "extraordinary circumstances"). All the deal does is commit the signatories to vote for cloture on Brown - it doesn't characterize her nomination in any respect.
Look at the structure of the original document carefully. The deal has two distinct parts, Part I ("Commitments on Pending Judicial Nominations") and Part II ("Commitments for Future Nominations"). In Part I, the document simply says that the 14 signatories are committed to voting for cloture on Brown, Owen, and Pryor, and that they are not committed on Myers or Saad. In Part II, it says that with respect to "future nominations," judicial filibusters should only be undertaken in "extraordinary circumstances."
What the deal does not say is that Brown, Owen, or Pryor wouldn't constitute "extraordinary circumstances." The deal in fact says nothing at all about what "extraordinary circumstances" are, other than that each Senator is expected to use "his or her own discretion and judgment in determining whether such circumstances exist." To me, it is a perfectly defensible reading of the agreement - actually, I think it's the best reading - to say that the commitment to vote for cloture on certain pending nominees simply has nothing to do with the "extraordinary circumstances" standard applicable to future nominations. After all, the former is in Part I of the agreement, while the latter is in Part II.
And don't you believe for a second that this is a hypertechnical, legalistic reading that the people drafting the deal weren't aware of - every word of this deal, including the headings and subheadings, was hashed out by these Senators and their counsel and staffs over weeks of difficult negotiations. I cannot imagine that this point would have been lost on anyone involved (if it was, all of their lawyers should be fired).
In short: the notion that Janice Rogers Brown or Priscilla Owen or William Pryor somehow "sets the bar" for "extraordinary circumstances" is a misinterpretation of the agreement. "Extraordinary circumstances" will be defined only when one or more of the signatories to the agreement decides to vote against cloture on a judicial nomination other than Myers or Saad. And we will know if this deal can hold together when we see how the Republican signatories react to that definition of "extraordinary circumstances."
In other news, Think Progress reports that Frist has said that he intends to seek cloture on William Myers (who has already been reported out of the Judiciary Committee). If this is true, it's a quick way of testing some of the agreement's parameters as well as the resolve of its signatories. Also, and perhaps even more interestingly, the Hill reports Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) as indicating that some (unidentified) nominees would be rejected in an up-or-down vote. That would be quite remarkable. Brown seems to me the most likely candidate, although maybe Myers or Saad would be rejected too.