White House Closes E-Tip Box Hopefully Reducing Right Wing Paranoia

The collection of email spreading false information on health care reform played well into the conservative tendencies to both play the victim and imagine conspiracy theories. The idea initially did not appear to have civil liberties ramifications. With conservatives choosing to fight health care reform by spreading misinformation, often through viral email, as opposed to engaging in honest debate, the White House thought it would help keep up with the misinformation campaigns to have emails sent to them for fact checking. The problem is that email might contain the name and always contains the email address of the recipient. Suddenly conservatives who had no qualms about actual surveillance during the Bush years are pretending to be civil libertarians in attacking this plan.

The collection of email contains another problem for the White House. Current laws prohibit them from editing it to remove identifying information or destroying the records. Such details of the law have enabled the right wing noise machine to further play on the paranoia of right wing conspiracy theorists such as in this item from Fox.

While there is no evidence that the White House was interested in collecting names as opposed to reviewing misinformation for debunking, after eight years of George Bush it is best to not even give such an appearance of compromising civil liberties. The White House has disabled the e-tip box less than two weeks after the program began. Now the right wingers can return to worrying about whether Barack Obama is a Muslim and where he was born.

Update: Response from the White House blog.

Reconsidering Mandates

During the battle for the 2008 Democratic nomination many of us backed Obama over Clinton partially due to his opposition to mandates which require individuals to purchase insurance. This has seemed like a lost battle since, in addition to many Democrats, the insurance industry has pushed hard for mandates if there are changes such as eliminating restrictions on preexisting conditions. If the insurance industry wants something it is possible some Republicans will make some noise but in the end they will vote for it. The coalition between the Clintonistas and Republicans in the pocket of the insurance industry seemed to prevent any reconsideration of mandates, until now.

Many liberals have had qualms about mandates. Some of us have objected on libertarian grounds while others were simply concerned about forcing people to purchase products from the insurance industry with its track record for mistreating customers. With more questions as to whether there will be a public option, some liberals are again questioning a mandate. Dean Baker still thinks a mandate will eventually be necessary but supports putting this off:

If we get the sort of insurance reform that President Obama has proposed, then mandates, or something very much like them, will be necessary at some point. But they will not be necessary from day 1. After all, not everyone is going to rush out to game the insurance system. It will take some period of time before the number of free riders grows enough to be a real problem.

We know that it will be necessary to revisit health care in the not too future in any case. The lack of mandates will help to ensure that this date comes sooner. Then we can talk about measures that will allow us to control costs, like a robust public plan.

But, if we can’t get a public plan in this round, why should progressives be pushing for a regressive tax that will go into the pockets of the insurance companies and their overpaid CEOs? Let the insurance companies try to make a living in the market, when they grow up and feel strong enough to compete with a public plan, then we can have mandates.

Digby adds:

In my view the Democrats are playing with fire in the worst way if they institute mandates without offering any option for reasonably priced insurance. In effect, they will be telling all the people who are currently uninsured that unless they buy unaffordable policies upfront (for which they may receive some money back at the end of the year when they file their taxes) that they must not just live in fear of getting sick — they are now criminals. I can’t think of a more politically inflammatory thing to do at a time like this. And the right will demagogue this thing in a way that makes Sicko look subtle by comparison.

I’ve always thought it was a political risk to create a new law that forced people to give money to insurance companies. It’s worked in auto insurance, but there’s a completely different set of risk factors involved and the costs are much more manageable for the average person. To get rid of the cost control mechanism while keeping the mandate is a recipe for political backlash…

It was never going to be easy to sell mandates, but they are making it substantially harder if they tank the public plan. They’re another bullshit compromise anyway, made before anyone even got to the table, just like single payer — health care should be paid for by higher taxes on the wealthy scumbags who are the only ones winning in this godforsaken economy anymore and the elimination of health insurance’s obscene profits. But in the interest of “going to the middle” the reformers went with mandates and now, without the public option, they’ll be stuck with a regressive tax that’s going to be very politically difficult to defend.

If the administration and the congress can’t be bothered to stick on the public plan, I see no reason why the left should stick with mandates.

Two Cops Advise Legalization of Drugs

Peter Moskos, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Neill Franklin, a 32-year law enforcement veteran, have written an op-ed in The Washington Post calling for legalization of drugs in order to decrease violence and give decimated neighborhoods a chance to recover. Both are members of f Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. Here is a portion:

Drug users generally aren’t violent. Most simply want to be left alone to enjoy their high. It’s the corner slinger who terrifies neighbors and invites rivals to attack. Public drug dealing creates an environment where disputes about money or respect are settled with guns.

In high-crime areas, police spend much of their time answering drug-related calls for service, clearing dealers off corners, responding to shootings and homicides, and making lots of drug-related arrests.

One of us (Franklin) was the commanding officer at the police academy when Arthur (as well as Moskos) graduated. We all learned similar lessons. Police officers are taught about the evils of the drug trade and given the knowledge and tools to inflict as much damage as possible upon the people who constitute the drug community. Policymakers tell us to fight this unwinnable war.

Only after years of witnessing the ineffectiveness of drug policies — and the disproportionate impact the drug war has on young black men — have we and other police officers begun to question the system.

Cities and states license beer and tobacco sellers to control where, when and to whom drugs are sold. Ending Prohibition saved lives because it took gangsters out of the game. Regulated alcohol doesn’t work perfectly, but it works well enough. Prescription drugs are regulated, and while there is a huge problem with abuse, at least a system of distribution involving doctors and pharmacists works without violence and high-volume incarceration. Regulating drugs would work similarly: not a cure-all, but a vast improvement on the status quo.

Legalization would not create a drug free-for-all. In fact, regulation reins in the mess we already have. If prohibition decreased drug use and drug arrests acted as a deterrent, America would not lead the world in illegal drug use and incarceration for drug crimes.

Drug manufacturing and distribution is too dangerous to remain in the hands of unregulated criminals. Drug distribution needs to be the combined responsibility of doctors, the government, and a legal and regulated free market. This simple step would quickly eliminate the greatest threat of violence: street-corner drug dealing.

Posted in Drug Policy, Op-eds. Tags: . 1 Comment »

How To Make An Effective Ad


In honor of the start of the new season of Mad Men last night, this is a good time to look at advertising. What better way is there to get attention for an ad than to have Keira Knightly topless? Don Draper couldn’t have done better (and the ad is pretty good too). I’m not sure if this ad will do more for Chanel or for the popularity of suspenders.

Update: I knew there was something familiar about that ad. Keira Knightly posed in a similar manner with suspenders in the December 2007 issue of Interview magazine. So much for originality.

05_Flatbed_1 - NOVEMBER

Opposition to Medicare Lab Fees Proposed By Senate Finance Committee

Republicans have been trying to scare seniors with misinformation on health care reform, falsely claiming they will be subjected to loss of care due to Medicare cuts. While in general this is false, there is one health care reform proposal which actually does cut benefits to Medicare beneficiaries. This is in the bipartisan Senate Finance Committee proposal which I have previously stated should not be passed.

The Wall Street Journal reviews just one negative aspect of the proposal. Fortunately this comes in the business section and is worth reading, as opposed to the tremendous amount of misinformation which has been published in their opinion section.  The proposal is to charge a co-payment for laboratory tests. Currently Medicare has a deductible for most out-patient services and a 20% co-pay, but does not charge this on laboratory tests.

One major reason for not charging this is that the charges to collect this copay will often exceed the actual amounts which can be collected. Medicare approved charges for many laboratory studies are often under ten dollars. Billing for such small amounts can easily cost more than is collected. Further adding to the complications of collecting this is the problem that patients tend to be less likely to pay bills for services provided by outside billers  as opposed to the physician they are actually seeing.

While the added out of pocked expenses will generally be small, they can add up to be meaningful for seniors on a fixed income, leading AARP to oppose this measure.  One goal of the health reform legislation is to reduce out of pocket costs to encourage patients to obtain preventive care, as well as to receive routine monitoring of chronic diseases. It is contradictory to eliminate the co-pay on the office call for preventive services and then to charge more than in the past for laboratory studies.

It is possible that having to pay something out of pocket will lead to lower costs by reducing the amount of laboratory studies performed. This might turn out to be counterproductive for overall cost savings. Several years ago the  local Medicare intermediary became very restrictive on paying for drug levels for patients on digitalis. I wound up ordering far less of the levels, potentially saving Medicare some money. I also had a couple of patients hospitalized due to elevated levels of the medication which would have been picked up in out patient laboratory studies if not for the restrictions. In the end I bet that the restrictions cost Medicare far more than it saved due to increased hospitalizations, along with an increased number of EKG’s done to make up for the difficulties in obtaining the drug level. This laboratory restriction has subsequently been dropped.

Facebook’s On Line Empire Expands To Huffington Post

Yesterday I noted a report on how Facebook is positioning itself to take over the on line world by becoming an aggregator for all of an individual’s on line material. Huffington Post has announced that they are to become part of this. The plan is that “HuffPost Social News finds your Facebook friends who are also reading HuffPost and links you together on our site so you can dive deeper into the stories you like best.” Individual controls will be maintained so people have some control over what is seen by others. As I noted in the previous post, some people are likely to like the current compartmentalization.

Fixing Health Care in Canada

The Canadian health care system has features which are not supported by advocates of health care reform in the United States, despite the tendency of conservatives to use Canada for scare stories. Canadian physicians are also concerned about some of the problems there and the Canadian Medical Association is discussing reforms to their system.

It is notable that, while there are certainly aspects of the Canadian system which need to be fixed, there is one change which is unthinkable there–adopting the American system. As with most of the industrialized world, they are looking at providing universal coverage with a combination of government and private plans.

I’m sure many conservative bloggers will see any internal criticism of the Canadian system as an argument against health reform, which makes no sense since a system like the Canadian system is not being considered here. It is also notable that, even with its faults, much of the criticism of the Canadian system coming from conservatives is greatly exaggerated and sometimes totally false as recently noted here.

ACLU Successful In Effort Against Censorship of Biblical Passages

Last month I noted that the ACLU was seeking to end censorship of religious material being sent to prisoners. A Virginia jail has changed their policy in response to a complaing from the American Civil Liberties Union:

In response to a letter sent last month by the American Civil Liberties Union, a Virginia jail has agreed to change its policies regarding prison mail to ensure that biblical passages and other religious material sent to prisoners are no longer censored. The ACLU’s letter complained that religious material sent to detainees at the Rappahannock Regional Jail in Stafford, VA was being withheld by jail officials.

“The censorship of religious materials sent to prisoners violates both the rights of detainees to practice their religion freely while incarcerated as well as the free speech rights of those wanting to communicate with prisoners,” said David Shapiro, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project and author of the letter. “We are pleased that jail officials have indicated a commitment to upholding these important constitutional values.”

According to a letter sent to the ACLU by Joseph Higgs, Jr., the jail’s superintendent, the jail has previously had a policy of banning mail sent to prisoners that includes any material printed from the Internet. The policy was adopted, according to the letter, to cut down on large amounts of material being printed from the Internet, which Higgs claims puts an undue burden on jail staff and creates security and safety risks.

Under the new policy adopted by jail officials, prisoners will be allowed to receive material copied from the Internet as long as it can be neatly stored within the storage bunks in their cells. Higgs assured the ACLU in his letter that biblical passages will not be censored from letters written to prisoners and that letters will not be censored merely because they contain religious material.

The ACLU sent its letter to the jail last month after receiving a complaint from Anna Williams, whose son was detained at Rappahannock beginning in June of 2008 until his transfer earlier this year. Williams wanted to send her son religious material, including passages from the Bible, to support him spiritually during his confinement. But rather than deliver Williams’ letters to her son in full, jail officials removed any and all religious material, destroying the religious messages Williams sought to convey to her son. For example, after jail officials excised biblical passages, a three-page letter sent by Williams to her son was reduced to nothing more than the salutation, the first paragraph of the letter and the closing, “Love, Mom.”

Jail officials banned additional material from other letters Williams attempted to send her son, including passages from the Book of Proverbs, the Book of James, the Book of Matthew and an article that contained Christian perspectives on confronting isolation while in jail.

“Jail officials should be commended for promptly expressing their commitment to abiding by the mandates of the U.S. Constitution,” said Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “People do not lose their right to religious worship simply because they are incarcerated.”

The ACLU’s letter also asked jail officials to revise the jail’s inmate mail policy to state that letters will not be censored merely because they contain material printed from the Internet or copied from the Internet and inserted into a letter using a word processor’s “cut and paste” feature.

“Our nation’s constitutional values hold that people should not be denied access to religious materials simply because they are in jail or prison,” said Rebecca Glenberg, Legal Director for the ACLU of Virginia. “No government officials should ever be allowed to interfere with the right of all Americans to freely practice the religion of their choice, or no religion at all.”

Other signatories to the ACLU’s letter were the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, the Rutherford Institute, Prison Fellowship, the Friends Committee on National Legislation and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.