It’s been three years (3/23) since President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the most sweeping overhaul of the US health-care system since the enactment of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965 and labelled “Obamacare” by its Republican opponents. While some of the most significant provisions won’t go into full effect until next year, Sy Mukherjee noted at ThinkProgress.org (3/22), many of its reforms already have taken hold — and have changed the lives of Americans for the better. For example:

• Through its state-based Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan (PCIP) — a bridge program for American adults with pre-existing conditions that will cover them until the law is fully implemented — more than 107,000 Americans like 56-year-old Arthur Yu have already gained coverage that was once unavailable to him. After losing his job in 2008 and running through his COBRA benefits, Yu remained uninsured for five years as no private insurer would cover him due to his diabetes and high cholesterol. “If something major happened to me, my savings would get wiped out,” he told NewAmericaMedia.com. But after Obamacare’s passage, he was able to enroll in California’s PCIP program in 2012, giving him enormous financial — and medical — peace of mind with a premium of about $520 a month. As many as 25 mln Americans with pre-existing conditions lack health insurance, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.

• Obamacare has helped seniors save over $6 bln on their prescription drug costs by closing the so-called Medicare “donut hole.” And because of a rule requiring insurers to spend at least 80% of the premiums they charge customers on actual medical care rather than overhead or profits, millions of Americans received rebate checks — totaling $1.5 bln in 2011 alone — from their insurance companies. Arizona resident Connie Kadansky told CNN after she got a $79 rebate from her insurer last summer, “It was a surprise. My insurance agent tells me that my insurance is going to skyrocket. He hates Obamacare. I read the letter and I said to myself, ‘So what’s wrong with this? This is good.’” Although Republicans contend the law will drive up insurance premiums, the New York Times noted that thus far it seems to have reduced them. Any insurer that wants to increase its premiums by 10% or more for people who buy their own policies must justify the increase to state or federal officials.

• One of the law’s most popular aspects is allowing young Americans to stay on their parents’ health plan until they’re 26. In a time of economic uncertainty, that can mean the difference between life and death. Last October, teenager Jen Rubino wrote for HuffingtonPost.com of her struggles with a rare chronic illness, and the constant worry that she would lose access to her father’s health insurance once she got older. But as Jen put it, “everything changed when President Obama signed the Affordable Health Care Act.” In fact, over the last several years, the percentage of uninsured young adults in America dropped to 27.9% of young people in 2011, from 33.9% in 2010 — as 1.6 mln young Americans gained coverage in just the first year of Obamacare’s implementation. The New York Times reported (3/24) that 6.6 mln people ages 19-25 have been able to stay on our join their parents’ plans as a result, with 3 mln previously uninsured young adults getting insurance.

The law also appropriated $11 bln over five years to build and operate community health centers, a major factor in increasing the annual number of patients served to 21 mln, a rise of 3 mln from previous levels. Some $5 bln has been put into a reinsurance program that has encouraged employers to retain coverage for retirees and their families; 19 mln people benefited with reduced premiums or cost-sharing..

HOUSE OKS RADICAL BUDGET. Republicans have tried and failed to repeal Obamacare nearly 40 times since it passed — the most recently, twice in the House this year, including Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget, which passed the House 221-207 on a nearly party-line vote (3/21) and would repeal and defund the Affordable Care Act (but keep the tax revenue), slash income tax rates on the wealthiest Americans, slash spending on social programs and radically restructure the nation’s retirement programs.

A day earlier, 84 Democrats voted for the Congressional Progressive Caucus budget that would create nearly 7 mln jobs while bringing down the deficit by $4.4 tln over a decade with higher taxes on the wealthiest (including a 49% rate on incomes over $1 bln); a financial transaction tax that would discourage reckless speculation; a long-awaited end to tax advantages for outsourcers and corporate jets; a forward-looking carbon tax; a public option for health insurance; sensible military cuts; and investment in infrastructure, school construction, child care, and putting teachers and firefighters back to work. The House also rejected a Congressional Black Caucus budget, 305-105, and it rejected the Senate Democratic budget, 261-154, with 35 House Dems voting against the Senate version.

SENATE PASSES A BUDGET! Republicans have been complaining for the past four years that the Senate has not passed a budget. The Senate passed a $3.4 tln budget (3/23) in a 50-49 vote, as four Democratic senators facing tough re-election campaigns joined all the Senate Republicans in opposing the measure, which seeks to raise $1 tln in new tax revenues by closing some tax breaks for the wealthy. Democrats who opposed the Democratic budget, apparently because of the tax increase, were Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.

The Senate finally passed the budget shortly before 5 a.m. on Saturday (3/23), after working overnight through a series of symbolic, non-binding votes on amendments to the budget, a.k.a. “vote-a-rama.”

The Senate budget aims to reduce deficits by $1.85 tln over 10 years through a mix of tax increases and spending cuts. The House Republican plan seeks to cut $4.6 tln over the same period without raising taxes.

Jamelle Bouie of WashingtonPost.com noted that a CNN poll released just after the election found that 67% expressed support for a deficit reduction plant that balanced spending cuts with tax increases. Likewise, a December poll from the Pew Research Center found only 32% said debt could be reduced without raising taxes.

Among the amendments considered in the vote-a-rama, Dean Baker noted that the Senate unanimously passed an amendment by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) that put the Senate on record opposing the proposed switch to the “chained CPI” as the basis for the annual Social Security cost-of-living adjustment — which would reduce scheduled benefits for retirees by 3% over 10 years.

Also, given the opportunity to vote for Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposal to replace guaranteed Medicare benefits with a voucher program, the Senate voted 96-3 for Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.)’s amendment to repudiate the voucher plan. Only Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) voted for Medicare vouchers. Ryan’s entire budget fared better, losing 40-59, as GOP Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Dean Heller (Nev.), Mike Lee (Utah), Rand Paul (Ky.) and Ted Cruz (Texas) voted against Ryan’s plan.

REPUBLICANS WOULD REPEAL STUDENT LOAN REFORMS. All 45 Senate Republicans voted (3/22) for a budget amendment proposed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) that called not only for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act but also the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010. That amendment, which was opposed by 52 Democrats and two independents, would have repealed the student loan reform and Pell Grant expansions that were enacted at the same time as the health-care reform. The Republicans proposed to repeal the provisions that moved student loans from commercial banks to direct lending from the US Education Department and used half of the estimated $61 bln in savings to increase the maximum annual Pell Grant scholarship to $5,550 in 2010 and to $5,975 by 2017, while indexing the grants to inflation. The targeted reforms also lowered payments on student loans and shortened the debt forgiveness timeline. For new loans after 2014, graduates will have to pay 10% of disposable income, instead of 15%. It also provided $2.55 bln to support historically black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions; $2 bln for community colleges; and $750 mln for a college access and completion program for students.

Such a repeal would have meant a return to larger loan payments, smaller Pell Grants and reduced support for colleges and universities, while putting billions of dollars back in the coffers of Wall Street banks, Josh Israel noted at ThinkProgress.org (3/23). But in his floor speech explaining the amendment, Cruz told his colleagues only that his proposal was about defunding and repealing Obamacare, making no mention of the billions of dollars he would take from higher education to give back to for-profit banks. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Cruz has received more than $180,000 in PAC contributions from the financial sector in his 2012 campaign.

SCHULTZ PUSHED TO WEEKEND, WELCOMES THE CHANGE. Ed Schultz scored one of his biggest scoops (3/13) when he got the first interview with Scott Prouty, the bartender who secretly recorded Mitt Romney’s notorious “47%” video at a Florida fundraiser last year. Prouty said he recorded the video in part because he was offended by Romney’s remarks about a Chinese factory he had visited and his disparaging remarks about the “47%” of America that’s dependent on government and wouldn’t vote for him. The video, leaked to Mother Jones magazine, helped sink Romney’s candidacy and Prouty laid low until after the election. In his interview, Prouty thanked Schultz “for speaking out for workers all across America. That’s the reason I’m here today is because you have a voice that — I think we need more voices like yourself.”

Later in that same show, Schultz informed his viewers his show would be moving to weekend afternoons. MSNBC had been considering such a move for months, apparently in a bid for younger viewers. Brian Stelter reported at the New York Times (11/12/12) that MSNBC, as the nation’s liberal TV network, had overtaken CNN in the ratings and was closing in on Fox News. Fox still had 1 mln more viewers than MSNBC, mainly due to Fox’s advantage in senior viewers, but MSNBC beat Fox three nights in a row after the election in the highly-prized 25- to 54-year-old demographic.

“We’re closer to Fox than we’ve ever been,” Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC, told Stelter in November. “All of this is great for 2013, 2014 to keep building.” Griffin also told Stelter he wanted to add more political programming on weekends, replacing hours of prison documentaries that earn solid ratings but muddy the channel’s identity. And Stelter noted that several MSNBC employees, speaking anonymously, told him the network was looking at possible replacements for Schultz. (Schultz, who has a temper, angrily rejected the reports at the time.)

In a profile of Schultz in Columbia Journalism Review (3/1), Michael Meyer noted that Schultz had an impressive year in 2012. After moving from 10 p.m. to 8 p.m. (Eastern time) in the primetime reshuffling that followed Keith Olbermann’s parting ways with MSNBC in 2011, Meyer noted, “The ‘fat, red-headed guy from Fargo,’ as Schultz refers to himself, handily beat the more camera-friendly Anderson Cooper in that timeslot. And while it seems no one ever will top Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, Schultz earned MSNBC its best 8 p.m. ratings among the coveted 25-to-54 demographic since 2009.

“But even as Schultz’s audience grows, he’s beginning to look out of place in an MSNBC lineup that is increasingly the domain of a wonky, erudite liberalism that is about as far from Schultz’s fired-up everyman persona as 30 Rock is from Fargo,” Meyer added.

Stelter told Meyer, “When MSNBC talks about its brand, it talks about Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell and Chris Hayes. It doesn’t talk as often about Ed Schultz.”

Announcing the move, Schultz played the good soldier: “My fight on The Ed Show has been for the workers and the middle class in this country. This new time slot will give me the opportunity to produce and focus on stories that I care about and I know that are terribly important to American families and American workers. I am very proud of the work our team has done here at 8 o’clock. But I have to tell you, sitting behind this desk five nights a week just doesn’t cut it for me. I want to get out with the people like I did in Wisconsin. I want to get out and tell their stories all over the country. This show has been a show that has been a voice for the voiceless. That really was my mission when I came here to MSNBC, and it remains.”

He added, “I’m going to be here at MSNBC for a long time. I’m not going anywhere. And I invite all of you to join me on Saturday and Sunday from 5 to 7 p.m. [Eastern time]. And this show is going to start in April. I will continue to do my radio show. In fact, my goal is to do the radio show until the good Lord takes me. That’s how much I love radio.”

The next day, MSNBC announced that Chris Hayes, a liberal writer who had hosted the channel’s Saturday morning show, would take over Schultz’s old time slot as the lead-in to Rachel Maddow. Stelter noted, “The change is predicated on the belief that MSNBC can win a wider audience with Mr. Hayes than it did with Mr. Schultz, a champion of the working class whose bluster didn’t always pair well with Ms. Maddow and the channel’s other prime-time program, The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell. Mr. Hayes, on the other hand, is just as policy-oriented as Ms. Maddow and Mr. O’Donnell, and is a regular contributor to both of their programs.”

Hayes, 34, will be the youngest host of a prime-time show on any of the major cable news channels and it is hopes that he would attact younger viewers. Of Schultz’s one mln viewers last year, 249,000 were between 25 and 54, while Maddow had an average of 339,000 viewers in that key demographic.

Erik Wemple of the Washington Post (3/14) called Schultz’s bombastic style, particularly in his criticism of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, an “embarrassment,” but Leo Gerard, international president of the United Steelworkers, told Wemple, “Ed did a hell of a job talking of the plight of people in the middle class.” Gerard was optimistic that Schultz would continue to fight for workers, but he said, “Not having him in that (8 p.m. weeknights) time slot is a big loss for people fighting to stay in the middle class and to get into the middle class.”

Charlie Kernaghan, director of the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights, tied the change to MSNBC’s new owners — Comcast, which took over NBC in 2011 and completed the acquisition in March. “The problem is that the ownership of Comcast — they’re not pro-union in any way. They’re like extremists and I think that certainly has something to do with it,” he said.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee created an online thank-you to Schultz that, as of 3/15, gathered more than 47,000 signatures. “When unions were attacked in Wisconsin and Ohio, Ed was there. When Whirlpool fired workers in Iowa, Ed was there. When Bain Capital was moving jobs overseas from Illinois, Ed was there.”

But Hayes, who previously was a writer for The Nation, told HuffingtonPost.com he’s committed to covering the same labor issues that Schultz did. “I totally hear where they’re coming from,” Hayes said in an email to HuffPost’s David Jamieson. “What Ed did on his show, in putting the issues facing working people front and center night in and night out was genuinely revolutionary in the medium. He also put voices of working people — from organized labor and unorganized labor — on his show in a way no one has before. We’re absolutely committed to doing the same.”

He added, “I got my start in lefty journalism as a labor reporter at In These Times, and it’s in my blood.”

Schultz showed more class than his anonymous colleagues at MSNBC, as Matt Wilstein of Mediaite.com noted that Big Ed used the final moments of his final weekday primetime show (3/14) to pledge to make his weekend show “the best hours in cable,” staying loyal to the subjects he’s always covered on The Ed Show”: “The people on the road, the stories, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, the middle class Americans who are fighting for a fair share.” After thanking his wife, Wendy, who recently struggled with ovarian cancer, he urged his viewers to stay loyal to the show that Hayes was taking over. “Stay here at 8 o’clock Monday through Friday because Chris Hayes is going to do a fantastic job,” Schultz said. “He’s a great, brilliant young talent who’s going to have a lot of years at 8 o’clock.”

SEN. JOHNSON TO RETIRE. Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) announced he would not seek re-election in 2014 (3/26). Johnson, 66, joined the Senate in 1997 and has been widely expected to retire at the end of his term, as he has faced physical challenges since a blood vessel burst in his brain in 2006. Among the potential candidates to succeed him are his son, Brendan Johnson, US attorney for South Dakota, and former US Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, who lost a bid for re-election in 2010. Of the 35 seats up in 2014, 21 are held by Democrats and 14 are held by Republicans. R’s need a net gain of 6 seats to take control of the Senate.

REPUB FILIBUSTERS KEEP APPEALS COURT EDGE. Republicans managed to block the confirmation of Caitlin J. Halligan, a prominent New York lawyer, to the US Court of Appeals for D.C. long enough that Halligan requested that her name be withdrawn from consideration after 2-1/2 years of waiting. President Obama withdrew the nomination (3/22). Republicans objected to Halligan’s work on a New York case against gun manufacturers. She was nominated to the seat vacated by John Roberts in 2005 when he joined the Supreme Court. The 11-member D.C. court has four vacancies, four Republican-appointed judges and three Democrat-appointed judges, Dave Weigel noted at Slate.com (3/25). Halligan had the support of Senate majorities in votes in 2011 and 3/5 to proceed to a vote, but she needed 60 votes under Senate filibuster rules. The DC Circuit rules on many regulatory issues and in February ruled against Obama’s recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, which also encouraged Republicans to continue filibustering Obama’s appointee to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in an attempt to shut that agency down.

Republicans also blocked the nomination of Goodwin Liu to the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in May 2012. Republicans have reneged on the 2005 “Gang of 14” deal that prevented filibusters of judicial nominees except under what they termed “extraordinary circumstances.”

In February the federal judiciary had 88 vacancies in, a third of which were considered judicial emergencies, where remaining judges are forced to perform judicial triage, the liberal American Constitution Society reported (2/27).

BUSH LIBRARY ACCOMPLISHED! The George W. Bush Presidential Library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas will open to the public on 5/1. Rachel Maddow noted that is the 10th anniversary of President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, in a premature celebration of the conquering of Iraq.

TENNESSEE’S HEALTH CARE LOTTERY. Tennessee residents who have high medical bills but would not normally qualify for Medicaid under the state’s stingy restrictions can participate in a twice-a-year lottery by calling into a state phone and requesting an application for TennCare. But the line shuts down after 2,500 calls, which can take less than an hour. If the state participated in Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, it would allow the state to cover an additional 180,000 people, according to the state’s own estimates, with the federal government promising to pay the full cost for the first three years and 90% after that. But many in the right-wing Republican legislature object to the expansion of Medicaid, Abby Goodnough reported in the New York Times (3/25).

BIG SWING ON DRONE ATTACKS. Support for CIA drone atttacks on US citizens suspected of terrorism abroad is way down after a 13-hour filibuster by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) of John Brennan’s nomination to head the CIA dramatized the issue. A Gallup Poll found that 65% think the US should use drones to launch airstrikes in other countries against suspected terrorists. But a year ago 79% of the public approved of drone strikes against American citizens overseas. In March it was 41%. Asked about drone strikes against suspected terrorists in the US, 25% approved and 66% were opposed. On airstrikes against US citizens living in the US who are suspected terrorists, 13% approved and 79% were opposed.

MICH. REPUBS CRY FOUL ON UNION DEALS. When Michigan Republicans in December rammed a so-called “right to work for less” law through the legislature in that traditionally pro-union state, they did not have the votes for the law to take effect immediately. Instead, the law took effect (3/28), but in the interim, public employee unions managed to lock down long-term contracts in a number of jurisdictions, effectively maintaining closed shops and planning for changing political winds that could lead to repeal of the law, reports Stateline, a publication of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The right wing in Michigan, which did not take into account the broad support for unions in local governments, is apoplectic. “Lawmakers in the Republican-controlled legislature are incensed by what they see as efforts to circumvent the law and are considering severe financial sanctions for educational institutions that participate,” Stateline reported.

State Rep. Mike Shirkey (R), a key sponsor of the right-to-work law, said supporters didn’t anticipate that unions would resort to “acts of desperation.”

In the Ann Arbor area, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution (2/20) formally condemning the right-to-work legislation as “designed to weaken labor unions and their ability to serve their members” and urging swift repeal. The resolution also directed the county administrator and director of human resources to engage in expedited negotiations with the county’s labor unions.

On (3/20) the Board of Commissioners approved 10-year agreements with unions representing about 700 county employees. Commissioner Andy LaBarre, who authored the resolution, said unions approached the county about expediting the bargaining process and the county was proud to accommodate them. “The unions have been ready and willing,” he said. “We all agreed this rather abhorrent thing presented us both with a deadline we should meet.”

CRUZ: PATH TO CITIZENSHIP KILLS IMMIGRATION REFORM. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is resisting a move by Republicans to support a bipartisan immigration reform bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to eventually become citizens. Cruz, a Canada-born son of Cuban immigrants, said President Obama's insistence on a path to citizenship is a "dealbreaker" that will cause the House to vote down the bill. "His behavior concerning immigration leads me to believe that what he wants is a political issue rather than actually to pass a bill," Cruz told the Dallas Morning News. "What he wants is for the bill to crater, so that he can use the issue as a political wedge in 2014 and 2016. That is why I believe the president is insisting on a path to citizenship for those who are here illegally. Because by insisting on that, he ensures that any immigration reform bill will be voted down in the House."

Cruz's fellow Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who -- like Cruz -- are both popular with tea party conservatives, have come out in support of legislation that would eventually allow undocumented immigrants to become citizens. 

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2013



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