Our U.S. economy is still shaky. A payroll tax cut was enacted to help increase the spending power of middle-class Americans, and it is due to expire at the end of February.

Class action lawsuits and medical malpractice lawsuits have driven up costs across our health care system, and could potentially be ameliorated through comprehensive tort reform.

There are dozens – probably hundreds – of serious domestic issues that our Congress could be working on.

Instead, they are currently focused on contraception.

Let’s set the record straight: Members of Congress who seek to limit the availability of affordable birth control all enjoy contraception insurance as part of the government managed Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB).

This benefit has been in place since 1998, and it “…ensures that federal employees participating in FEHB have insurance coverage of FDA-approved prescription contraceptives and related services.”

Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum told an audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on February 10 that ‘insurance plans shouldn’t cover contraception services because birth control “costs a few dollars” and is only a “minor expense” for women.’

Good to know.

In my job – in my life – I am forced to prioritize my time and my efforts. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could spend all my time focused on minor issues that I think are “fun”?

That seems to be what our leaders in Congress are all about these days.

To paraphrase an old fable, “Rome is burning while our Congressional leaders are fiddling.”

We pay each and every member of Congress a base annual salary of $174,000, plus deluxe health care and pension benefits, and perks for things like travel and mail. There are various stipends for leadership roles as committee chairs, majority leader, minority leader, etc.

Most recent estimates of the total annual costs of our federal legislative body – Senate and House of Representatives — are in the $5 Billion range.

Now, some might point out that spending for the House and Senate, which includes salaries, mailings, and committee expenses, represents only .07 percent of total federal spending. The entire legislative branch includes additional expenses for the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Budget Office, the Library of Congress, and some other functions.

That seems like a really good deal — if we are getting focus on critical issues and real results.

There are some – including voters, political scientists and lawmakers themselves– who have said that the 112th Congress (which convened on January 3, 2011) was our worst ever.

The 2011 session began with a House vote to repeal President Obama’s health-care law and ended with a flip-flop over the 60-day tax-cut extender — with detours in between for the two parties to flirt with shutting down the government, jeopardize the nation’s credit and various assorted legislative mayhem.

As a citizen, a taxpayer and a voter, I don’t much care what political party a person claims as their own.

What I do care about is: When they run for public office and get elected, our representatives put aside their personal agendas and work for the best long-term interests of our country.

Is that too much to ask for?

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I am writing from Toney Westchester County, NY.

Our current County Executive, Rob Astorino, recently decided to charge mostly poor families in our County an extra $120 a month for subsidized child care, while most families still grapple with the worst effects of the recession.

Much like presidential candidate Mitt Romney, County Executive Astorino is sending the message that he is out of tune with the proletariat, and that he has distain for the lower and middle-income people who are the majority of the workforce in New York’s lower Hudson Valley.

Our County Executive recently announced that he would ask for permission from New York State to increase from 20 percent to 35 percent the amount of money charged families who use subsidized child care. Now, two years into his four year term, Astorino has been consistent in his apparent campaign targeted at cutting child care and a number of other services that help to keep the working poor working.

In the end, Astorino knows that this gets relegated to be a ‘women’s issue’ and he knows that women have little, if any, influence on election outcomes.

In fact, equal access to quality child care is way more than a ‘women’s issue’, it is a long-term societal issue.

The positive impacts of quality early care and learning on early cognitive development have been well documented.

Children from households with 2 parents who are both college graduates probably benefit the least from high-quality child care, because they start out with a ‘competitive advantage’ from their home environment.

The children who need the most help — those from single parent households where the mother’s highest level of educational achievement is GED or less — are the most in need of rigorous, reliable and high-quality ECE programs.

The positive impact of universal and equal access to quality ECE is clear: on individuals, on families and on society overall, although the positive program outcomes are more often gleaned from European data because of the political ‘yo-yo-ing’ that exists in the U.S.

Westchester County is one of the highest cost areas in America.

Why wouldn’t the residents and businesses in Westchester NOT want to set an example for other U.S. areas in terms of equal access to high-quality early care, if for no other reason than to create a salubrious environment for employers that need a productive workforce?

In the final analysis, discrimination against children due to economic circumstances has disparate impact on children of color.

Isn’t this just another proof that the housing lawsuit really may have merit?

Class Action Law Suits

February 6, 2012

Class Action Lawsuits really frost my windshield.

In November 2011, Senior U.S. District Judge James King approved a $410 Million settlement against Bank of America in a class action suit which alleged that the bank overcharged debit card users for overdraft fees.

It all sounds good and just – those greedy blood sucking banks! — until you get to the news that the Judge set fees for the class counsel at about $123 Million.

That is 30% of the award.

Maybe the bank was bad, and it really needed to be punished and to refund some excessive fees that were charged to customers.

But, for this law firm to step in and take $123 Million off the top? What in the world did they do to earn $123 Million? And how does this help any consumers who may have been victimized?

I’ve been waiting for the news on who will be litigating against that law firm for Piracy and Pillage! Haven’t heard anything yet, but I’m sure one of the other Class Action Conquistadores will step forward soon?

I recently was the beneficiary personally from a class action suit against an insurance company for some transgression that I don’t think really happened. Pretty sure I didn’t get any monetary benefit, maybe a coupon for a 10% discount on future premiums?

I do recall that the class action law firm received a 7 figure payout — not in coupons, but in real dollars!

Who pays for that? We do.

Over the years, I’ve read about proposals in Congress around “Tort Reform”.

I’ve read that some of the spiraling costs in our health care industry are in large part related to fear of litigation.

The Congressional Budget Office recently found that reforming the medical malpractice insurance system, a.k.a. “med-mal reform” — a.k.a. ‘tort reform’ — could save $54 billion over 10 years.

Other estimates are higher.

David Kendall, a senior fellow with Third Way, an independent ‘think tank’ recently said, “We found that roughly, between $92 to $207 billion dollars per year can be saved from reducing defensive medicine.”

My call: We are missing some real opportunities to reform our legal system and to save huge amounts in our health care system due to a continuing battle between Red and Blue.

Yet, if we look back in history, we would find that the Civil War was decided long ago.

Isn’t it time for each and all of us to find ways to find common ground and work together for the common good?

ObamaCare?

February 1, 2012

Members of Congress have the Cadillac health insurance plan.

Why should we expect them to understand the plight of average Americans?

When things got ugly in France, Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake.”

What people didn’t grasp back then was that Marie wasn’t being mean or sarcastic, she just didn’t know.

She was so disconnected, she had no clue what it was like to be a peasant in France at the end of the 18th Century. In fact, some historians believe that something may have been lost in the translation, and that Marie wasn’t referring to what we today think of as cake, at all.

Even so…

My sense is that most of those sitting in Congress today are so disconnected that they have no clue what it is to be a regular American at the beginning of the 21st Century.

So, we need to give them a break, stop the rhetoric, and come up with a plan to help inform those who have the power that we — the people who are getting jerked around — are just not happy with the fat cats working in the private insurance industry who travel in their private jets and chauffeured black cars while denying us health care; that we are not happy with our Congresspeople and other ‘government workers’ — who now make up around 30% of the workforce — and who have lifetime benefits.

We are not happy because the rest of us — the 70% who work in the private sector — are getting screwed.

Some of us have been working as virtual slaves to a corporation which recently determined that health care coverage for retirees was too much of a burden for them to shoulder.

Or worse, the company declared bankruptcy or closed down, leaving workers and retirees with nothing other than bad memories.

Others of us were counting on some sort of group plan that has now disappeared.

We need access to a group health plan that spreads the risks and the costs across a broad cross section of the population.

If we take this to the extreme, let’s take a peek at K-12 public education, which is typically funded with property taxes, levied on all property owners whether they have children or not, and whether they send their children to public or private schools.

Everyone shares in the cost of public education. Everyone.

Some pay twice: they pay their taxes; then they send their children to private schools. That’s their choice.

With our healthcare system as it stands today, people have no choice. Either you are at the top of the economic pyramid and have the Cadillac plan, or you are uninsured.

Is that a Socialist issue?

Then what about roads? Sewers? Libraries? Public education? How about parks? Sidewalks? Public transportaion?

It seems that the USA may be the last of the economically developed nations to stop and recognize the need for universal health care.

Will this be the very issue that precipitates our demise as a sovereign nation?