Insurance Companies Plan To Increase Policies Offered On Exchanges Following 2014 Success, And Other Health Care News

The first year of enrollment for insurance under the exchanges is largely for first getting our feet wet, with more people projected to sign up in the future. It certainly exposed problems in the computer system and allowed for them to be fixed (although further testing before October was clearly needed). Insurance companies got to see whether this was a profitable market they would want to enter. In the past one or two insurance companies dominated in most areas on the individual market. One of the benefits of selling coverage through the exchanges was the hope that multiple companies would now begin to offer coverage.

Even conservatives who oppose the Affordable Care Act should agree with the benefits of having more companies offer insurance, including the likelihood of competition leading to lower prices. Actually exchanges, along with mandates, were originally supported by Republicans until they opposed the plan when supported by Barack Obama.

So far we are receiving good news following the initial IT problems. The Affordable Care Act now looks like a good policy which just got off to a rocky start. Enrollment is estimated at 7.5 million, exceeding predictions made even before they were adjusted downward with the early computer problems, with more healthy young people signing up at the last minute. Politico reports that insurance companies are happy with what they are seeing and want to get in:

Health insurers got their first taste of Obamacare this year. And they want seconds.

Insurers saw disaster in the fall when Obamacare’s rollout flopped and HealthCare.gov was a mess. But a strong March enrollment surge, along with indications that younger and healthier people had begun signing up, has changed their attitude. Around the country, insurers are considering expanding their stake in the Obamacare exchanges next year, bringing their business to more states and counties. Some health plans that skipped the new marketplaces altogether this year are ready to dive in next year.

At least two major national insurers intend to expand their offerings, although a handful of big players like Aetna, Humana and Cigna, are keeping their cards close for now. None of the big-name insurers have signaled plans to shrink their presence or bail altogether after the first rocky year. And a slew of smaller health plans are already making moves to join more states or get into the Obamacare business for the first time.

“[W]e see 2014 as just the beginning for exchanges,” said Tyler Mason, a spokesman for UnitedHealth Group, one of the nations’ largest insurers. “As the economics, sustainability and dynamics of exchanges continue to become clearer, we believe exchanges have the potential to be a growth market with much to offer UnitedHealthcare and other insurers and consumers.”

Nurturing this growth and health plan participation will be one of the first tasks of Sylvia Mathews Burwell, assuming she is confirmed to succeed Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of Health and Human Services.

The article reviewed plans by many of the larger insurance companies and also noted that several smaller companies now want to start selling insurance. Being able to offer their plans on the same computer site as the larger companies will allow small companies to compete for sales more easily than in the past, further increasing choice for consumers.
It is not only insurance companies which see the Affordable Care Act as succeeding. The latest Reuters/Ipsos poll shows the number of people who prefer Democrats over Republicans on health care has increased:

Americans increasingly think Democrats have a better plan for healthcare than Republicans, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted after the White House announced that more people than expected had signed up for the “Obamacare” health plan.

Nearly one-third of respondents in the online survey released on Tuesday said they prefer Democrats’ plan, policy or approach to healthcare, compared to just 18 percent for Republicans. This marks both an uptick in support for Democrats and a slide for Republicans since a similar poll in February.

Not surprisingly, Gallup has found a greater decrease in the uninsured in states which have embraced the Affordable Care Act, such as by setting up their own exchanges and taking advantage of the expanded Medicaid program.

Having Gallup survey the number of uninsured is of value as the Census Bureau is changing how it is surveying the uninsured, with Gallup providing a second set of numbers for comparison. Many Republicans see a conspiracy to make Obamacare look good. Actually this looks like a change to get more accurate results, which might actually show a greater number of uninsured. The changes also started with 2013 so we will still be able to compare the year prior to the exchanges to subsequent years. Sarah Kliff explained further at Vox.

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Gallup Finds Number Of Uninsured Continues To Fall

Percent Uninsured

New figures from Gallup show a further decrease in the number saying they are uninsured. The number of uninsured decreased to 15.6 percent in the first quarter of this year, a 1.5 percent decrease from the fourth quarter of 2013. This is the lowest recorded level since late 2008 and suggests that the Affordable Care Act is successful in providing insurance to the previously uninsured. This also shows a further decrease from a similar survey conducted last month.

The uninsured rate has been falling since the fourth quarter of 2013, after hitting an all-time high of 18.0% in the third quarter — a sign that the Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as “Obamacare,” appears to be accomplishing its goal of increasing the percentage of Americans with health insurance coverage. Even within this year’s first quarter, the uninsured rate fell consistently, from 16.2% in January to 15.6% in February to 15.0% in March. And within March, the rate dropped more than a point, from 15.8% in the first half of the month to 14.7% in the second half — indicating that enrollment through the healthcare exchanges increased as the March 31 deadline approached.

This report is consistent with The Urban Institute’s Health Reform Monitoring Survey (HRMS) which estimated that the number of uninsured adults had fallen by 5. 4 million before the surge in enrollment in March . Another study performed prior to the late March surge in enrollment showed that at least 9.5 million new people received insurance.

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Lack Of Information And Misinformation Suppressing Enrollment In Insurance Plans

Recent polls are showing some of the obstacles to extending coverage among the uninsured. A study published Monday by the National Academy of Sciences showed that a substantial number of consumers lack basic knowledge of how insurance works which would be necessary to intelligently purchase coverage. A new Kaiser Health Tracking Poll shows lack of knowledge of the deadline for obtaining coverage and widespread belief in many of the false claims being spread by opponents of the Affordable Care Act.

Many are unaware of next week’s deadline to obtain coverage and avoid potential tax penalties:

A third of those who lack coverage as of mid-March are unaware that the law requires nearly all Americans to have health insurance or pay a fine. When it comes to the specifics, four in ten of the uninsured (39 percent) are aware that the deadline to sign up for coverage is at the end of March, leaving about six in ten unaware of the March deadline.

When reminded of the mandate and the deadline, half of those without coverage as of mid-March say they think they will remain uninsured, while four in ten expect to obtain coverage and one in ten are unsure.

Many plan to not obtain coverage due to cost concerns, unaware of financial assistance available:

While some report trying to get coverage from new options available under the ACA, large shares of the uninsured remain unaware of two of the law’s key provisions that could help them get coverage. About half the uninsured are unaware that the ACA gives states the option of expanding their Medicaid programs, and more than four in ten don’t know that it provides financial help to low- and moderate-income individuals to help them purchase coverage.

The Kaiser poll showed a reduction in the gap between those who see the law unfavorably as opposed to favorably. While more now have a favorable opinion than previously, the majority continue to have an unfavorable opinion. Much of the opposition is based upon misinformation spread by opponents:

“It’s too expensive for regular people.”
“it’s costing too much money. It’s supposed to help people with low incomes and it’s not.”
“Because it’s a financial hardship on the U.S.”

The first two are based upon lack of knowledge of the assistance available which does make coverage more affordable. The third has been shown by the recent non-partisan report from the Congressional Budget Office to be false. Among its other benefits, the Affordable Care Act will reduce the deficit, reduce unemployment, and help stimulate the economy by freeing people from the insurance trap, enabling more people to work for and start small businesses

Opposition also includes a belief that the individual mandate is unconstitutional despite a Supreme Court ruling upholding the law. Some expressed the false belief that the ACA gives government more control over personal health care choices, echoing further scare stories from the right wing as to what the law does.

Despite unfavorable views about the law, a majority still would prefer to see improvement to the law as opposed to repeal or a Republican alternative:

Perhaps reflecting this sense that the debate has gone on long enough, more of the public would like to see Congress keep the law in place and work to improve it (49 percent) or keep it as is (10 percent) rather than repeal it and replace it with a Republican-sponsored alternative (11 percent) or repeal it outright (18 percent).

The poll found that many aspects of the law are popular, even if many people are unaware of these and other benefits:

As previous Kaiser tracking polls have found, many of the ACA’s major provisions continue to be quite popular, including across party lines. For example, large shares of Americans – including at least seven in ten overall and at least six in ten Democrats, Republicans, and independents – have a favorable view of the fact that the law allows young adults to stay on their parents’ insurance plans up to age 26, closes the Medicare “doughnut hole” for prescription drug coverage, provides subsidies to low- and moderate-income Americans to help them purchase coverage, eliminates cost-sharing for preventive services, gives states the option of expanding Medicaid, and prohibits insurance companies from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions. Nearly as many (including a majority across parties) have a favorable view of the “medical loss ratio” provision that requires insurance companies to give their customers a rebate if they spend too little money on services and too much on administration and profits. Somewhat more divisive is the law’s Medicare payroll tax on earnings for upper-income Americans, which is viewed favorably by about three-quarters of Democrats and just over half of independents, but just a third of Republicans.

The individual mandate remains highly unpopular. Anticipation of this is one of the reasons I opposed the individual mandate prior to passage of the Affordable Care Act, preferring an alternate system to provide incentives to purchase coverage and penalize those who try to game the system by waiting until sick to purchase insurance.

Much of the opposition to the ACA is based upon beliefs about the law which are untrue:

Misperceptions also persist about things the ACA does not actually do. For example, nearly half the public (46 percent) think the law allows undocumented immigrants to receive financial help from the government to buy health insurance, and another two in ten (22 percent) are unsure whether it does. A third of the public (34 percent, including 32 percent of seniors) believe the law establishes a government panel to make decisions about end-of-life care for people on Medicare, with another quarter saying they are unsure (23 percent of the public, 25 percent of seniors).

Unfortunately both lack of information and intentional misinformation being spread by opponents of the Affordable Care Act is likely to cause a substantial number of people to go without coverage this year. The deadline is fast approaching for purchasing coverage on the exchanges. There is no deadline for those who qualify for coverage due to Medicaid expansion, but Republicans in many states are also denying this benefit to residents of their states even though the federal government picks up almost all of the cost.

Cross posted at The Moderate Voice

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Don’t Panic Because Nate Silver Predicts Republicans Will Take Senate

I was traveling yesterday and when I finally got on line saw a lot of panic over Nate Silver predicting that the Republicans were favored to take control of the Senate. I don’t find this terribly significant.

We already knew that there was a real possibility that the Republicans could take control of the Senate and Silver’s prediction does not provide any new information. Silver making the prediction does not mean it is any more likely to occur than it was last week. He was way off in predicting a 61 percent chance the Republicans would take control of the Senate in 2012. I hope he is wrong again.

As I noted recently, Nate Silver’s predictions in the 2012 presidential election were similar to those from other sources (ignoring the Republicans who made predictions contrary to polling results). His predictions for the Senate in 2012 were also comparable to predictions being made by others at that point. His prediction for the Senate in 2014 is comparable to predictions already made by others.

There is real reason to fear that the Republicans will take control of the Senate is year, but the news of Nate Silver predicting this does not alter what we knew before he made this prediction and does not mean that it is any more likely to occur.

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Republicans, White Working Class Voters, And Race

White working class males present a particular frustration for Democratic strategists. Most independent economists agree that Republican economic policies have increasingly led to redistribution of  wealth to the ultra-wealthy at the expense of the middle class yet Republicans obtain the majority of votes from low-information white voters who are hurt the most by Republican policies.  Last week I looked at attempts by Democrats to regain the votes of white males. This is hindered by low-information voters being misled by Republican misinformation (while better educated white male voters are more likely to vote Democratic). Many vote contrary to their economic self-interest based upon social issues. This is all reinforced by the Republican southern strategy which enhances economic insecurity by playing on racial fears.

Thomas B. Edsall has an op-ed in The New York Times on How Democrats Can Compete for the White Working Class. His analysis actually leaves many reasons for Democrats to remain gloomy about these prospects. He began with some differences in attitudes between these less-educated white voters and the general population in surveys conducted by Democracy Corps:

Democracy Corps found that less well-educated whites agree, by a huge 46.2 percentage point margin, with the statement “When something is run by the government, it is usually inefficient and wasteful.” This is 11.6 points more than all voters.

Similarly, the general public agrees that “It is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves” by a 19.5 percentage point margin, while whites who did not go to college agree by half that.

He also cited a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute from September 2012 entitled “Beyond Guns and God: Understanding the Complexities of the White Working Class in America.” This also showed that working class whites tend to be more conservative on social issues but also that this was far more the case in the south. Grouping these numbers nationally made these voters appear more conservative on social issues than is actually the case:

…while working-class whites in the South opposed same-sex marriage by 61-32 in the P.R.R.I. survey, in the Northeast they favored it 57-37; in the West they were split 47-45; and in the Midwest they were modestly opposed, 44-49. In the case of abortion, majorities of non-college whites outside of the South believe the practice should be legal, while those in the South were opposed 54-42.

In general, the findings of the P.R.R.I. study suggest that outside the South, Democrats should be able to make significant inroads among working-class whites – and, in fact, they have. In 2008, when Obama was losing nationally by 18 points among noncollege whites, in Michigan he carried these voters 52-46; in Illinois, 53-46; and in Connecticut, 51-47.

There remains another huge stumbling block to Democrats winning these white votes–race:

The P.R.R.I. study did point to one Democratic stumbling block: affirmative action and “reverse discrimination.”

Three out of five working-class whites believe “that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.” This view is strongest in the South, at 69 percent, but it is the majority conviction of working-class whites in all regions of the country, where it is never lower than 55 percent.

In another key measure of white working-class racial resentment, the P.R.R.I. survey found that by a margin of three percentage points, the white working class agreed “that the government has paid too much attention to the problems of minorities.” White noncollege voters were split down the middle on this issue in the Northeast and Midwest. In the South, 58 percent agreed.

Thirty years ago, in the aftermath of the 1984 presidential election in which Ronald Reagan crushed Walter Mondale, Democrats were deeply alarmed over the defection of blue-collar voters.

Stan Greenberg, the Democratic pollster, conducted focus groups in 1985 in the white working-class suburbs of Detroit and found that “these white Democratic defectors express a profound distaste for blacks, a sentiment that pervades almost everything they think about government and politics.”

The perception of reverse discrimination was an even more acute source of anger: “The special status of blacks is perceived by almost all these individuals as a serious obstacle to their personal advancement. Indeed, discrimination against whites has become a well-assimilated and ready explanation for their status, vulnerability and failures.”

A separate study that year, financed by the Democratic National Committee, found that white working-class voters were convinced that “the Democratic Party has not stood with them as they moved from the working to the middle class. They have a whole set of middle-class economic problems today, and their party is not helping them. Instead, it is helping the blacks, Hispanics and the poor. They feel betrayed.”

While these attitudes are stronger in the south, I fear that Democrats will continue to face serious obstacles to attracting white low-information voters in other regions. That does not mean I disagree with Democratic attempts to  try to pick up votes. There are white working class voters who are less conservative and less motivated by race than those in the south and some might be convinced to vote more along economic interests. Even if Democrats continue to win a minority of these voters, increasing their share could still add to Democratic margins.

This strategy has also begun to backfire against Republicans nationally. The realization that Republicans have based their electoral strategy to such a considerable degree on stroking racial fears has been one reason why they have been so unsuccessful in obtaining Jewish votes, and why Republican use of racial fears on immigration issues is hurting their long term prospects due to the loss of Latino voters.

Among other measures, Democrats have attempted to improve the economic conditions of millions of workers by pushing for an increase in the minimum wage. Now Obama has escalated this with an executive order which will provide overtime pay to millions of Americans who have been denied this:

President Obama this week will seek to force American businesses to pay more overtime to millions of workers, the latest move by his administration to confront corporations that have had soaring profits even as wages have stagnated.

On Thursday, the president will direct the Labor Department to revamp its regulations to require overtime pay for several million additional fast-food managers, loan officers, computer technicians and others whom many businesses currently classify as “executive or professional” employees to avoid paying them overtime, according to White House officials briefed on the announcement.

Mr. Obama’s decision to use his executive authority to change the nation’s overtime rules is likely to be seen as a challenge to Republicans in Congress, who have already blocked most of the president’s economic agenda and have said they intend to fight his proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour from $7.25…

Under the new rules that Mr. Obama is seeking, fewer salaried employees could be blocked from receiving overtime, a move that would potentially shift billions of dollars’ worth of corporate income into the pockets of workers. Currently, employers are prohibited from denying time-and-a-half overtime pay to any salaried worker who makes less than $455 per week. Mr. Obama’s directive would significantly increase that salary level.

In addition, Mr. Obama will try to change rules that allow employers to define which workers are exempt from receiving overtime based on the kind of work they perform. Under current rules, if an employer declares that an employee’s primary responsibility is executive, such as overseeing a cleanup crew, then that worker can be exempted from overtime.

White House officials said those rules were sometimes abused by employers in an attempt to avoid paying overtime. The new rules could require that employees perform a minimum percentage of “executive” work before they can be exempted from qualifying for overtime pay.

“Under current rules, it literally means that you can spend 95 percent of the time sweeping floors and stocking shelves, and if you’re responsible for supervising people 5 percent of the time, you can then be considered executive and be exempt,” said Ross Eisenbrey, a vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal research organization in Washington.

Conservatives are likely to protest the use of an executive order here, ignoring the fact that Obama is just reversing a previous executive order by George W. Bush in 2004. Think Progress has more on the economic effects of this executive order. Jared Bernstein, former executive director of the White House Task Force on the Middle Class, also predicts that “a potential side effect is that you may see more hiring in order to avoid overtime costs, which would be an awfully good thing right about now.”

The question remains whether low-information white working class voters will realize that they are benefiting from such policy differences between the parties or whether they will continue to fall for right wing talking points on the economy, and allow the Republicans to continue to scare them with the prospect of blacks and immigrants challenging them for jobs.

Cross posted at The Moderate Voice

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Number Of Uninsured Continues To Decrease

Gallup reports a continued decrease in the percentage of Americans without health insurance, including a drop in uninsured young people:

Percent Uninsured

The percentage of Americans without health insurance continues to fall, measuring 15.9% so far in 2014 compared with 17.1% in the fourth quarter of 2013.

These data are based on more than 28,000 interviews with Americans from Jan. 2-Feb. 28, 2014, as part of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. With only a few weeks remaining in the first quarter, the uninsured rate is on track to be the lowest quarterly level that Gallup and Healthways have measured since 2008.

The uninsured rate has been declining since the fourth quarter of 2013, after hitting an all-time high of 18.0% in the third quarter. The uninsured rate for the first quarter of 2014 so far includes a 16.2% reading for January and 15.6% for February.

Uninsured Rate Declines Most Among Lower-Income and Black Americans

The uninsured rate for almost every major demographic group has dropped in 2014 so far. The percentage of uninsured Americans with an annual household income of less than $36,000 has dropped the most — by 2.8 percentage points — to 27.9% since the fourth quarter of 2013, while the percentage of uninsured blacks has fallen 2.6 points to 18.3%. Hispanics remain the subgroup most likely to lack health insurance, with an uninsured rate of 37.9%.

The percentage of uninsured has declined across all age groups this year, except for those aged 65 and older. The uninsured rate for that group has likely remained stable because most Americans aged 65 and older have Medicare.

The uninsured rate among 26- to 34-year olds and 35- to 64-year olds continues to decline — now at 26.6% and 16.3%, respectively. The February Enrollment Report released by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) highlighted no significant changes in young adults’ enrollment in the health exchanges since its December report, with the cumulative total enrollment rate among 18- to 34-year-olds hovering at 25%…

Implications

The uninsured rate continues to decline after the requirement to have health insurance went into effect on Jan. 1, 2014. This drop could be a result of the ACA, which aims to provide healthcare coverage to more Americans through multiple provisions, including federal and state healthcare marketplaces where Americans can purchase health insurance coverage at competitive rates.

At the end of February, HHS reported 4 million people have signed up for health insurance coverage through the marketplaces established under the ACA. With the open enrollment period scheduled to close on March 31, the uninsured rate in the U.S. will likely continue to fall. Additionally, healthcare aides in the Obama administration announced on Wednesday that Americans will be able to renew old health insurance plans for up to three years, even if the plans do not comply with ACA policies. Other provisions of the healthcare law have not yet gone into effect, such as the requirement for employers to provide health insurance to their employees by 2015 or 2016. These provisions also may affect the uninsured rate over time.

These numbers remain lower than ultimately desired but do show a significant improvement, and further enrollment in the exchanges is expected during March, after the period of this survey. Further enrollment by young, healthy adults would be advantageous, but with enrollment at current numbers the Affordable Care Act would remain viable. Some states also had delayed implementation of Medicaid expansion due to initial political opposition by Republicans (with some states continuing to refuse to expand Medicaid). For example, Michigan is not accepting applications for the expanded Medicaid program until after April 15, 2014, which should further add to the newly insured.

Most likely enrollment will also continue to increase substantially in future years. Initial implementation of the original Medicare program and Medicare Advantage plans were also hampered by problems and took time to get established. This year enrollment under policies provided under through the exchanges was hindered by additional factors including the initial computer problems and a campaign by opponents of the law to dissuade the uninsured from enrolling.

Numbers regarding reduction in the number of uninsured would provide one parameter regarding the success of the Affordable Care Act, but there are many other numbers to look at. This includes no longer having people lose their insurance due to developing serious medical problems or losing their job, no longer having people denied health care coverage due to pre-existing conditions, no longer having people declaring bankruptcy because of losing insurance, the number of people who no longer having caps on health care coverage, the number freed from the “insurance trap” forcing people who otherwise do not need to work to continue working for insurance coverage, along with the overall benefits to the economy. The Congressional Budget Office Report, frequently distorted by Republicans, shows that the Affordable Care Act will reduce unemployment, help decrease the deficit, and allow more people to leave large corporations to start small businesses.

Cross posted at The Moderate Voice

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Support For Same Sex Marriage Increases (Except Among The Tea Party)

Support for legalization of same sex marriage has reached a new high according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll:

Half of all Americans believe that gay men and lesbians have a constitutional right to marry, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll in which a large majority also said businesses should not be able to deny serving gays for religious reasons.

Fifty percent say the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection gives gays the right to marry, while 41 percent say it does not.

Beyond the constitutional questions, a record-high 59 percent say they support same-sex marriage, while 34 percent are opposed, the widest margin tracked in Post-ABC polling

According to the poll, public opinion is more unified on recent proposals that would allow businesses to refuse serving gays and others based on the religious convictions of the business owner. Nearly seven in 10 respondents say businesses should not be allowed to refuse service to gays. On this question, majorities across partisan lines said businesses should not be allowed to deny service.  Last week, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) vetoed a measure that would have allowed businesses to refuse service to customers based on religious grounds.

The breakdown of supporters includes little that is surprising:

Despite the changing views, deep chasms remain along religious, generational and political lines. Six in 10 evangelical Protestants oppose same-sex marriage, while about six in 10 Catholics, non-evangelical Protestants and eight in 10 with no religious affiliation support it. Three-quarters of Americans younger than 30 support same-sex marriage, while less than half of seniors say the same.

Although support for such unions has grown to clear majorities among Democrats (70 percent) and independents (61 percent), Republicans have moved at a slower pace. Fifty-four percent of Republicans oppose same-sex marriage in the new poll, while 40 percent approve of it.

“I just don’t believe in the marriage thing; the Bible says that isn’t right,” said Musser, who opposed the Arizona legislation on the religious rights of businesses.

Republicans are split along ideological and religious lines. Support for allowing same-sex marriage is lowest, below one-third or less, among conservatives and evangelical Protestants.

Greg Sargent has this comment on where much of the this Republican support for government intrusion in the private lives of individuals comes from:

Meanwhile, opposition to gay marriage among Republicans seems to be concentrated among the Tea Party. According to the Post polling team, Republicans and GOP-leaning independents who support the Tea Party oppose gay marriage by 54-38. By contrast, non-Tea Party Republicans and GOP-leaners support gay marriage by 57-36. Tea Party Republicans are often said to be more libertarian-leaning on social issues than other segments of the GOP base (such as evangelicals), but a majority of them still opposes same-sex marriage.

While the Tea Party often claims to be purely concentrated on economic matters,  as I have pointed out in the past, the Tea Party is often just a new name for the old religious right base of the Republican Party.

On the other hand, opposition to same sex marriage is declining among Catholics. A comparable change is also seen with the more liberal views coming from the Vatican under Pope Francis. While outright support for same sex marriage remains too liberal a position for him to adopt, Think Progress points out that he is open to the idea of civil unions:

In an interview published Wednesday, Pope Francis appeared to support governments that recognize civil unions to provide non-traditional couples with access to benefits:

On the question of marriage and civil unions, the Pope reaffirmed that “marriage is between a man and a woman”. States seek to justify civil unions “to regularize different situations of living together,” pushed by the need to regularize the economic aspects between people, such as, for example, to ensure health care, he said. “We have to look at the different cases and evaluate them in their variety”.

Over the last year, Francis has nudged the church in a more welcoming direction on issues like contraception, divorce, and marriage equality. Unlike Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI — who sermonized that same-sex marriage is a “serious harm to justice and peace,” and a “manipulation of nature” — Francis has directed the church to become more inclusive. He has also instructed American Bishops to poll how everyday Catholics view same-sex marriage, divorce, and contraception. Last year, Francis himself welcomed gays priests, arguing, “who am I to judge?” Before becoming the Pope, Francis may have supported civil unions as an Argentina archbishop, though he was simultaneously condemning marriage equality as a product of the “father of lies” that was “destructive to the plan of God” and that would “gravely harm the family.” The Vatican continues to oppose same-sex unions and has had to deny past reports of Francis’ support as “paradoxical” and a “manipulation” of his words.

Francis also discussed plans to revisit the church’s position on birth control, saying “it is a matter of going into the issue in depth and bringing it about that the pastoral practice takes account of situations and of what is possible for persons.”

While this country is quickly moving beyond the idea of civil unions to full marriage equality, support for civil unions is a welcome move in the right direction from the Catholic Church.

Cross posted at The Moderate Voice

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The Battle For Control Of Congress 2014

While the media is increasingly talking about the 2016 presidential election, we have a major election coming up for control of Congress later this year. At present it appears that it is unlikely for the Democrats to take control of the House, and they are now fighting to retain control of the Senate. Predictions that the Republicans will hold the House and possibly take the Senate are based upon historical trends and which Senate seats are up for reelection this year. Of course it is possible to see a break from past trends.

Among the trends causing people to predict this to be a good year for Republicans: minorities and young voters don’t vote as often in off-year elections, a president’s party generally does poorly in the sixth year of the president’s term, a president’s party does poorly when the president has low approval ratings, and a president’s party does poorly when the economy is having difficulties.

On top of this, the Democrats are defending Senate seats in several red states this year, giving the Republicans a chance to pick up some seats. Fortunately the situation is reversed in 2016 with more blue-state Republicans up for reelection. Based upon these fundamentals in a presidential election which is likely to already be more favorable to the party, a Democrat winning the White House should also see a pick up of several Senate seats.

The Republican Party has been working in other ways to pick up votes. They have made voter suppression a major part of their electoral strategy, along with continuing the Southern Strategy based upon racism and now xenophobia. On the other hand, their history of racism may backfire with the increase in minority voters, possibly turning some southern states blue in the near future. We saw this first in Virginia and to a lesser degree in North Carolina. In the future this could extend to Georgia, Texas, and additional states.

Republicans have an advantage in keeping control of the House as so many House districts are gerrymandered to protect the incumbent. In addition, Democrats tend to be more concentrated in urban areas, meaning that even if more people vote for Democrats than Republicans, the Republicans will win more seats by small margins while Democrats will win a smaller number with bigger majorities. More people voted for Democrats than Republicans in Congressional races in 2012 but the Republicans retained control of the House. It would probably take at least  a seven percent margin of victory for Democrats to take control of the House. Republican representation in the Senate is also exaggerated compared to their level of support due to lesser populated Republican states having the same number of Senators as more populated Democratic states.

There are some things which could throw off the fundamentals this year, but we cannot count on voters suddenly no longer being fooled by the GOP line. At present the Republicans receive far too many votes from low-information white voters. Over time the number of younger voters who receive their fake news from Jon Stewart will overtake the older voters who receive their fake news from Fox.

While Obama’s approval rating is low, Congress has an even lower approval rating. Typically in such situations people like their own Congressman even if they disapprove of Congress. This year polls show that many people also think their own Congressman should be thrown out. Based upon this, I wouldn’t be surprised if more incumbents than usual get upset, but that might not necessarily help the Democrats over Republicans. In addition, more people see the Republicans as being more responsible for gridlock, in contrast to a common false media narrative of treating each party as being equally responsible. Maybe they will surprise the pundits and throw the Republicans out.

Another factor influencing whether predictions based upon the fundamentals must occur is that any competent Democratic strategist is aware of every point here, and the party is doing far more than they did in 2010 to try to change this. They are working to increase turnout among Democratic voters this year. They  have a technological edge both in regards to get out the vote efforts and fund raising. It even appears that the same problems which are placing Republicans at a disadvantage with younger voters is also impacting their ability to recruit young tech savvy political operatives. Besides using their technological advantages over Republicans in getting out the vote efforts, they can  motivate Democratic voters with fear of the consequences of the Republicans taking control of the Senate. Tea Party extremism has led to an end to talk of a grand bargain. Democratic compromises on entitlement programs might have discouraged some voters on the left from turning out for Democrats.

I think Democrats will do better if they can successfully explain the advantages of their policies as opposed to Republican policies. Democratic economic policies turned around the economic collapse caused by Republican economic policies, even if the Republicans have managed to slow recovery with their obstructionist moves, decided upon from the start of Obama’s term. The deficit rolled up by George Bush has dropped considerably since Obama took office. The CBO  projects a deficit of $514 billion in 2014, representing three percent of the Gross Domestic Product. This is near the average level for the past forty years, and a vast improvement from 2009 when the deficit was at 10.1 percent of GDP.

Despite early IT problems, which the Obama administration does deserve criticism for, the Affordable Care Act has turned into a tremendous success on a policy level, both in terms of health care reform and its benefits for the economy. Both the Medicare Advantage plans under George Bush and the original Medicare program had early implementation problems which took a couple of years to solve. Of course Republicans will continue to spread unsubstantiated scare stories and it is possible Obama might never received the credit he deserves. Health care premiums will be remain high on the individual market as they were high before Obamacare. Insurance companies will continue to use restricted panels of physicians and hospitals as they did before Obamacare, leaving room for Republicans to blame the Affordable Care Act for problems unrelated to the law.

Other factors could come into play. The Tea Party might oust electable Republicans and replace them with extremist candidates which the Democrats can more easily beat. While doubtful, the Tea Party might force Congressional Republicans into a situation analogous to the government shut-down before the election which reduces public support for Republicans. While it is doubtful it will really alter that many votes, even the changes in the late night comedians could help the Democrats over the Republicans.

The easy prediction is now that the Republicans will keep control of the House and control of the Senate is up for grabs. Depending upon whether the factors discussed above alter the usual fundamentals, we still might wind up seeing the pundits talking about all the reasons they knew we would have a different outcome after the results are known.

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Poll Shows More Voters Seeing Through Claims That Both Parties Equally Responsible For Gridlock

The mainstream media often promotes a false narrative that both sides of the political spectrum are mirror images of each other, each equally extreme and each being equally responsible for gridlock in Washington. Some centrists such as Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein have shown that the real problem today is the extremism of the Republican Party. While the media has failed to drop their narrative, most likely due to a false belief that this is how to be unbiased, a Pew Research Center survey shows the public is starting to see through this:

By a margin of 52% to 27%, the public says Democrats are more willing than Republicans to work with political leaders from the other party. A 54% majority also says the Republican Party is more extreme in its positions, compared with 35% of Democrats.

By a 20-point margin, the public sees Democrats (52%) as being more concerned than Republicans (32%) with the needs of people like themselves, while a plurality says Republicans are more influenced by lobbyists and special interests (47% vs. 30% saying Democrats). In addition, four-in-ten believe the Democratic Party governs in a more honest and ethical way (41%), compared with 31% who choose the Republicans. But about three-in-ten (28%) do not pick either side as having an edge on honesty.

Among other findings, deficit reduction has dropped as a priority. It is not clear if this is because people actually realize how much the deficit has declined under Obama. Not surprisingly, there is a tendency for Democrats to be more concerned about the deficit under Republican presidents and vice versa. It wasn’t long ago, when Bush was in the White House, that the Republican mantra was that “Deficits don’t matter,” to quote Dick Cheney.

While more people are realizing that the Republicans are more extreme and unwilling to compromise or work with the opposition, it is questionable whether these results will translate into gains for Democrats in November. There is plenty in this, and other recent polls, which is more favorable for each party. Historically the overall pessimism and declining popularity of the president would predict a poor outcome for the president’s party in an off year election, and off year elections are also more favorable to Republicans due to decreased turnout by the young and minorities.  The safe bet would be that the Republicans will experience moderate gains, although the Democrats could pick up some House seats.

One recent polling finding does raise questions as to whether the election results will be different this year than expected. Often voters express dissatisfaction about Congress but still approve of their own representative. Plus districts are gerrymandered to keep most members of Congress safe.  Gallup found last week that a record low number feel that their own representative deserves to be reelected. Maybe this could mean an unexpected wave election will occur.

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Obama Popularity Improves Along With Successes Of Affordable Care Act

The National Journal led with Barack Obama in their list of biggest political losers of the year, comparing his trajectory to that of George W. Bush. We have a very small sample of presidents serving a second term in recent years, straining the significance of attempts by the media to make such comparisons. Bloomberg has picked up on a trend which most might have missed over a holiday. Obama’s popularity has picked up at the end of the year:

President Barack Obama has picked up five points in public approval since he’s gone away to Hawaii for a year-end family vacation.

The president’s public approval rating was hanging at 39 percent in the days before Christmas, by the Gallup Poll’s average of daily tracking surveys.

Today, in the surveys Dec. 26-28, his approval has risen to 44 percent. His disapproval rating, 54 percent pre-Christmas, is down to 49 percent.

It might also be premature to write Obama off so soon considering another recent Gallup poll which shows Obama leading the list of most admired men for the sixth consecutive year.

None of these polls are conclusive by themselves but should at least make us keep open the possibility that Obama’s popularity could rebound. A messed up web site is hardly as catastrophic as the incompetence shown in Bush’s handling of Katrina.

One factor which might be helping is that the Affordable Care Act is looking far better now than it did a month or two ago. Steve Benen points out over six million people receiving coverage. On top of the groups he looked at, an additional fifteen million are receiving coverage due to now being able to remain on their parents coverage until age 26.

Unfortunately many of the people taking advantage of these benefits probably do not even realize that they are receiving this due to Obamacare. As I discussed a few days ago, Barack Obama might never receive the credit he deserves for the Affordable Care Act as people take for granted the benefits they are now receiving while blaming Obamacare for problems in the medical system which were already present.

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