Affordable Care Act – remind folks to sign up by February 15

The Affordable Care Act continues to build its resume, even though there are some who try to ignore this growing success for political reasons. That is unfortunate as many who have not considered the ACA are shortchanging themselves due to available subsidies, which are favored by the majority of Americans per the Kaiser Family Foundation. More on this later.

It troubles me when I see people who are part of fundraising events to raise $150,000 or more to pay for medical bills for an injured or sick child because they lacked healthcare insurance. If these folks had signed up for the ACA, the only money they would need is for the out-of-pocket limit which usually run in the $5,000 to $20,000 range depending on the plan selected. As I have noted before, the number one reason for personal bankruptcy in the US is no or poor healthcare insurance. Yet, it is not too late, as they can still sign up for care since coverage is guaranteed, which previous policies did not offer.

With three weeks to go in the ACA’s current exchange enrollment season, exchange enrollment has hit 9.6 million passing the President’s expectations. The exchange enrollment will likely push toward the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) target of 12 million by the middle of next month.  It should be noted this does not include enrollment under Medicaid in the majority of states who did expand Medicaid, which will only improve with more states considering such expansion.

Further, the non-partisan CBO has for the second time reduced its projections of future medical costs as a result of dampening costs due in part to the Affordable Care Act. As an actuary and former benefits consultant and manager, having more folks covered will help further dampen costs as they seek treatment and get medications before they become eventual train wrecks. Plus, by seeing doctors and nurses in advance, the long term costs are further dampened as they are being served in the more cost-effective place and not in an Emergency Room in a crisis.

But, back to the Kaiser Family Foundation survey from January. Many may not realize that some strident opponents have brought a lawsuit that questions the ability of the federally run exchanges to offer the subsidy. The federal exchanges had stepped up to cover 37 states, when some states asked them to do so. The US Supreme Court will rule on this later in the year. I do not anticipate that they would rule unfavorably, but stranger things have happened. If they did about 10 million Americans would be screwed, sorry for the use of the most appropriate term. Yet, per Kaiser, what would Americans want in that case:

  • 64 percent say Congress should pass a law making subsidies available in all states;
  • 40 percent of Republicans favor such a law, with a solid majority of Democrats and Independents supporting such legislation;
  • 59 percent of residents in the healthcare.gov states say they would want their state to act to operate its own exchange;
  • By party declaration, 61 percent of Democrats, 63 percent of Independents and 51 percent of Republicans favor a state exchange in those now served by the federal exchange.

Given the fact there is a cost to running an exchange, many of the states asked the federal government to take the lead. In fact, a significant number of state attorney generals have written to the US Supreme Court to not rule against the subsidy.

With all of its complexity and communication challenges, which is partly due to Americans not understanding healthcare insurance, in general, the ACA is building a resume of success. This Congress should heed Americans wishes to improve it where possible, but accept that it is showing success. And, the remaining state legislatures should expand Medicaid as it would help many residents in need, help their economy even further, and keep rural hospitals afloat to serve.

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Buying America for $889 Million

What you say, you did not know America was for sale? A few weeks ago I wrote a post about how the oligarchy is more empowered to buy political influence given the amount of money in politics. This investment is further facilitated by the Citizens United and McCutcheon US Supreme Court decisions which give greater reign to folks with money to fund political candidates.

On cue, the Koch Brothers, two of the wealthiest men in America whose money is traceable to the fossil fuel industry, have publicly stated a desire to invest $889 million in the 2016 Presidential race. Note the use of the term “investment” rather than “spend.” The Koch Brothers, like other members of our oligarchy, are investing in a politician to win to insure their interests are representated. The Koch Brothers are citizens, just as we are, and are entitled to invest their money, but the remaining citizens need to be asking more questions.

– Why would you spend $889 million to sway an election?

– What do you expect in return for such an investment?

– Is the fact that your money is linked to the fossil fuel industry have anything to do with your investment in the potential next President?

I mention this last question in that the industry has been in full public relations campaign mode ever since “An Inconvenient Truth” was produced to reveal the impact of climate change. The PR campaign has been hugely successful in first convincing some that climate change was a hoax. Now that it is apparent climate change is not a hoax, the line in the sand has been redrawn to say climate change is real, but the evidence that it is man-influenced is based in imperfect science.

These are public relations strategies meant to confuse the issue and allow the continued expansion or perpetuation of fossil fuel retrieval and use. It should be noted the same public relations firm that was so successful with the hoax campaign is the same one who has been telling us how safe fracking is. The lack of safety of the fracking process is increasingly becoming apparent as the evidence of water and air pollution, earthquakes and environmental degradation mount.

While I am disappointed in some of the measures taken by President Obama on fossil fuel expansion, he is at least doing something about climate change and accelerating expansion in renewable energy which is producing jobs, as well. Yet, the deference to the fossil fuel industry made by the President is not good enough for some of our wealthy citizens who benefit from the fossil fuel industry. With a faster migration away from fossil fuel needed, the Koch Brothers need a President that will do their beckoning to push off climate change actions that the rest of the world is doing. We are already ten years behind where we should be, but they want to push it further out, until it is too late and they have made their money.

These are the questions we should be asking. Since we do not pay attention and some who do will only pay attention to pseudo news sources that are speaking from the Koch playbook, we are not in a good a position in our country to fend off the wolves from our democracy. I recognize there are wolves on both sides of the political equation, but we need to be mindful of who money is being spent by and on and ask questions. Please look into the Move to Amend the constitution to not equate money with free speech and to note that corporations are not people. A link to the petition is below. http://movetoamend.nationbuilder.com/petition.

To be honest, there is very little chance that “we the people” can hold back this tide. Money is power and does buy influence, but we must at least do our best to maintain our democracy and keep our politicians honest. We can start by paying attention to real news and asking more questions.

Interviewers – please refrain from answering your own questions

While on hiatus, John Oliver’s show “Last Week Tonight” did a brief skewering of shows like “60 Minutes” where the interviewers have a terrible habit of answering their own questions. Since I like “60 Minutes,” it made it more fun to see interviewer after interviewer feed the answer to the person being interviewed, who would echo the response or just agree. When this form of questioning and fed answering was packaged together where you witness it done twenty times in a row, it is quite humorous.

Yet “60 Minutes” is not alone in this interviewing style. It is more widely used by interviewers on all kinds of shows, be they entertainment, pseudo news or more serious news shows. If there is any thoughtful hesitation by the interview subject, the seconds are filled with the interviewer’s perceived answer to which the subject must react. It becomes less amusing when the interviewer is not interested in the response and is more antagonistic to the subject being interviewed. These tend to occur on the pseudo news networks or with an overbearing host, even if the show is a comedy show.

When I see this occur either in a demonstrative or antagonistic way, I find myself saying “Let him (or her) answer the question.” I enjoy watching Bill Maher’s show “Real Time with Bill Maher” due to the subject matter, comedy and guests, but find he often will talk over someone who does not entirely agree with his view. To his credit, he will have people with opposing views on his show and he tends to be more well-versed than many of his non-expert guests, but when he disagrees (or curtails conversation) with a true subject matter expert, it is often puzzling. But, Maher does a better job than many of the hosts of  talk shows which become a shout fest, where listening to the other person’s view is a challenge.

Much of this gets back to people using their own set of facts to foment their opinion on something. If the subject offers any opinion that creates a dissonance in the interviewer, whether they are anti, neutral or pro the argument, then it is unsettling to the interviewer and audience. It may also be due to the interviewer wanting to show how smart he or she is to validate his or her worth to his viewers and management. I also think the lack of control over the interview scares people, as they don’t want to be shown to be foolish. Some people cannot help themselves in this regard.

Yet, what we are lacking through this interview process, is more people asking “why” questions. Why do you believe that? Why did you change your mind from an earlier stance? Why should we believe you now? That would be scary, but would give us more answers to our many questions. One final comment about talk show hosts – just because you have a talk show does not make you right or right on every opinion you espouse; it just means you have a talk show.

Sonic Highways – a terrific Foo Fighters Journey across America

For those who subscribe to HBO, there is a terrific series about American music called “Sonic Highways.” In essence, Dave Grohl and his band the Foo Fighters are traveling to various cities across America that have innovative music scenes. In essence, the Foo Fighters are tracing our musical roots. Thus far, I have seen episodes in Chicago, Seattle, New Orleans, Los Angeles and Austin and each have been wonderful and unique. Each show culminates in the Foo Fighters recording a song in a memorable venue such as Preservation Hall in New Orleans, in Steve Albini’s studio in Chicago or the original television studio for Austin City Limits. I highly recommend you check the series out.

In each of the three shows, they talk with performers who made it big in these locations as well as regionally, nationally and/ or globally. They speak of key influencers early on in the music scene there. So, it is both historical and current. For example, a key reason Seattle has been a big venue for new music is bands from Los Angeles and San Francisco did not like traveling up the coast several hours for only a few gigs. As a consequence, Seattle started its own music scene which culminated with Nirvana’s success, but could trace its roots back to much earlier times.

In Chicago, they spoke at length with Buddy Guy about his career and work with his good friend Muddy Waters. They also spent a lot of time with Rick Nielson, the uniquely fabulous guitarist of Cheap Trick, who tied blues with punk rock and tremendous theater. Nielson actually joined the Foo Fighters on the recording at the end of the show, based on Guy’s quotes called “Something from Nothing.” Albini produced the Nirvana second album where he met Grohl when he was Nirvana’s drummer.

Austin is a melting pot of music from blues to country to rock to all of the above blended together. Musicians from Willie Nelson to Jimmy and Stevie Ray Vaughan to Gary Clark, Jr. to Billy Gibbons to Roky Erickson have graced the city and stages there. Plus some of the more colorful band names like “Thirteenth Floor Elevators,” “Moving Sidewalks” and “The Fabulous Thunderbirds”  were spawned there.

Austin City Limits exposed the Austin music scene even further and has been going strong for 40 years. Grohl was amazed the old theater and stage where ACL was filmed and recorded was still in tact and they performed the song for the show there. Grohl was amazed the grand piano that was used for the show was still there behind the seats covered with a tarp. This piano had been played by Fats Domino and many others and there it sat unused.

Like Austin, New Orleans is an amalgamation of different types of music and is where Jazz really got its roots and took off. One of the reasons for the blending of jazz, blues, zydeco, etc. is the eclectic mix of people who were allowed to commingle before it was acceptable in other places. While the venues are many, the Foo Fighters chose to perform at Preservation Hall, which is a tiny and old venue with one of the best house bands around. If you go, you will stand (in line and while listening), but it is worth it.

I look forward to seeing more of these shows. I think they are still filming, but have already recorded versions in Washington, Nashville and New York and maybe other places. Please do yourself a favor and check it out.

If leaders want to help the middle class, let’s start with a raise

Having been a human resources consultant, manager and supervisor for over 33 years, let me state a truism. There is always a reason for employers to want to depress salary increase budgets. The reasons vary over time, but employees have been continuously counseled on their employer’s need for holding down the salary increase budget. So, if we really want to help the middle class in America, we could start by giving people deserved raises. I am not talking about an across the board same percentage raise for everyone, but let’s begin with freeing up a little more of a salary increase budget and leverage those dollars wisely.

Having seen this issue from the three perspectives noted above, it is truly amazing how much more money can be allocated to employees if you go from a 2.0% or 2.5 salary increase budget to a 3%, 3.5% or 4% budget. These extra one-half percentage points will permit further delineation between good and average performers and those who are further beneath their market salary median, which is the goal for most employers’ compensation plans. Middle class Americans have been treading water for several years now and it is long over due to begin to pay them more than we have.

One of the dilemmas for employees in a down market or with a struggling employer, is the employee downsizings are done in concert with the salary increase budget. What do I mean by this? If you have a salary increase budget of 3% of payroll and do not let people go, the supervisors will manage to the 3% giving “less than meets expectations” employees below 3% increases with some poor performers getting 0%. This will enable the better performers or the relatively underpaid good performers to be allotted more than 3%. As a sidebar, one constant challenge with this is everyone believes they are above average, which is quite difficult to be true.

However, if a company decided to downsize letting their lesser performers go – the ones who would get the 0% increases – then with the same 3% budget, the better performers will have to get less as the 0% increase employees have been let go. In essence, the company has moved the pay bar median downward and has to force fit the performance process to meet the budget. Which means the better performers will get less and the average performers will get below 3%. And, when this process is done poorly (as it almost always is), the truly better performers are upset by being told they are only “meets expectations” and by getting a lesser than expected raise.

Throughout the recession, many companies were forced to do this, so salaries became depressed. If you worked for a company in trouble and were a good performer for several years in a row, the dampened raises you received would compound, leaving you further behind. If you were an average performer, these steady Eddie’s were at best treading water or may have lost ground.

So, with the recovered and further growing economy, 2014 has been the start to the mindful retention of key employees. 2015 will likely see a greater need to retain key and average employees. More employees are updating their resumes and are looking for what the market has to offer. Employers would be wise to help the middle class by giving them a raise. I can assure them the cost of turnover in a bubbling economy is greater than those targeted salary increases if you don’t.

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For employees who are testing the waters, two pieces of advice. Don’t leave a job until you have one. And, be prepared to leave (or consider options) if you ask your employer for an increase (either with or without another offer) and the employer says no to your request. If you are not prepared, then you may not want to ask the question. It goes back to every employee believes they are better than average, when that is difficult to be true. However, even solid performers have fallen behind, so your request may be justified. You should be able to make more money if you leave, but the questions are (1) do you want to leave and (2) are the skills you have more intrinsic (related to where you work) or extrinsic (easily transferable to a new employer)? If the former, you need to tread more carefully. Either way, be diplomatic in your request.

 

Four movies worth another look

From time to time, I have highlighted various movies that range from old to new. Today, I want to focus on a few that people may have overlooked due to the age of the movie or because they slipped under the radar screen less detected. If you have not seen these movies, give them a shot. If you have not seen them in awhile, please take the impetus to revisit them. In no particular order:

The Manchurian Candidate – although a remake has been done, the first version aired in 1962 and was directed by John Frankenheimer. It starred Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury (who plays antagonists very well), Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh and James Gregory. It was the first movie about the subject of brainwashing and incorporates flashes of the technique as we try to figure out what is going on as the story plays out around a presidential candidate.

Madame X – released in 1966, this is one of my favorite Lana Turner movies. It was directed by David Lowell Rich and also starred John Forsyth, Ricardo Montalban, Burgess Meredith and Keir Dullea. The movie is about a famous woman who, after an affair, is paid to go away by a conniving mother-in-law to protect her son. The movie eventually leads to this woman being put on trial many years later, where she only wants to die for her crime, simply signing her name “Madame X.”

The African Queen – released in 1951, this John Huston directed movie stars Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. Many have likely seen this movie, but it is two stars at their best, as the Nile River vessel, the African Queen is piloted by a heavily drinking captain in Bogart to ferry his lone passenger in Hepburn. The struggles of two very different people is worth the watch and takes you through a series of emotions.

The Dead Zone – the newest of the four movies was released in 1983. It covers one of my favorite of Stephen King’s books and was directed by David Cronenburg. Christopher Walken stars as a man who recovers from a coma following a car accident having the power to see the future by touching someone, but with some haze or a dead zone. He learns that he has the power to change the hazy part. It is a fascinating story on the power to change the future, especially when it is horrific. Martin Sheen plays a presidential candidate, Brooke Adams plays the now married ex-girlfriend who had stopped waiting for Walken’s character to come out of his coma. Tom Skerritt, Herbert Lam and Anthony Zerbe play excellent roles, as well.

I enjoyed revisiting these movies. Please give them a new look or a first look, if you have not seen them. Three involve people’s ability to impact significant politicians, while the fourth involves two different people working toward a common cause. Tell me what you think and share other gems you like.

 

Why do we expect perfection from athletes?

I am delighted for my friends in Seattle who can relish in one of the more memorable comebacks with their beloved Seahawks coming back to win over the Green Bay Packers. And, for the Green Bay fans, I empathize with you, but please do not take out your frustration on a tight end who did not come up with an onside kick. I do not want to mention his name, but he will more than likely not be forgotten in Wisconsin.

What is ironic, Russell Wilson, the terrific quarterback for the Seahawks had an unusually bad performance for the game and would have been held up as the reason for the loss, had he not led his team back to victory. Yet, why do we expect perfection from our players, when we ourselves are prone to so many mistakes?

I am reminded of Ernest Byner who was an excellent football running back for the Cleveland Browns in the 1980s. Yet, if you mention his name in Cleveland, people will remember “the fumble” where he lost the ball on the five yard line of a tragic loss to the Denver Broncos in the playoffs. The irony is Byner had played one of the most awesome games before the fumble gaining close to 200 yards in rushing in addition to other successes. So, he led the Browns that day, but is not remembered for that huge performance. He is instead remembered for the fumble.

In baseball, two mistakes occurred leading one team to the World Series, which set up the other in the World Series. Donnie Moore was a relief pitcher for the then California Angels in 1986. He was pitching hurt most of the season, but nonetheless had an effective year helping the Angels to the playoffs. His team was not supposed to win, but was about to when he was called in to finish up the last inning. Unfortunately, he was pitching on fumes and eventually gave up a game winning home run to allow the Boston Red Sox to win and go to the World Series.

In the World Series, the Boston Red Sox, who had a weak bullpen, had taken a lead in Game Six against the New York Mets, who had been favored to win. On first base was Bill Buckner, who had a marvelous season leading the team to the World Series. Yet, he should not have been playing first at the time, as the manager normally substituted for him late in the game with a more mobile and better fielder. The Mets began a two out rally in the ninth inning against the Red Sox’ less than stellar bull pen. It all came down to a slow rolling ground ball that Buckner need only to corral and step on first to end the game. Yet, Buckner let the ball go through his legs and the Red Sox lost a heartbreaker. What few people realize is they had to lose another game to lose the World Series.

Two points get overlooked here. Neither Moore or Buckner should have been in the game at that point. But, others players failed to deliver as well. The Mets knew if they could get to the Red Sox bullpen, they could win. The Angels failed time and again to deliver key hits as Moore did what he could do. Both are remembered for their failures and that is unfortunate. Moore later committed suicide, but to tie it to this failure is an over-simplification; he actually had some other demons he was dealing with.

People like to blame others for their failures. It is much easier to name names than it is to look at a greater fault that the team lost. The Packers lost because they did not score two touchdowns deep in Seahawks territory settling for field goals. They lost because they could not stop Seattle who was the best second half team of the season. The fumbled onside kick was just one factor, but the team lost. Nor should Byner be held up as a scapegoat, especially when he played so well and there was this guy named John Elway who quarterbacked the other team.

These are team sports. Teams win and lose. Like players, they are not perfect. Mistakes will occur throughout, so no one should be highlighted. As a former athlete, I have been on the good side and bad side of mistakes. I have helped win games and helped lose them. But, we all lost them or won them. I am reminded of the golfer Jim Furyk who is a tough as nails competitor, even when he played high school basketball. He wanted to be the player to take the last shot of a key basketball game. When the coached asked him why, he said because I can handle missing it. I thought that was profound as how you handle failure is what matters most.