House Bill Would Force Health Insurers To Share Rate Info With Congress, Since The White House Won’t

Virginia Congressman Morgan Griffith has introduced a bill before the House of Representatives that, if it becomes law, would mandate that health insurers share with Congress the same information they share with the White House about annual rate adjustments before they take effect.

Griffith, a Republican, introduced the so-called Insurance Rate Transparency Act on Friday, commenting on his Congressional website the bill is squarely aimed at the Obama Administration’s reticence in sharing with Congress – and, by extension, the public – what it knows about how the Affordable Care Act affects projected premium increases for consumers.

While campaigning in 2007, now-President Obama said “I have made a solemn pledge that I will sign a universal health care bill into law by the end of my first term as president that will cover every American and cut the cost of a typical family’s premiums by up to $2,500 a year.”

Thus far, Obamacare has seemingly failed to fulfill the President’s promise. And some of the nation’s largest health insurance providers were unable to confirm such a reduction under Obamacare when I recently asked them about that promise at a Committee hearing.

At this hearing, the insurance providers indicated that their rates would be filed with the Department of Health and Human Services and various states by the end of June. Since the Administration has delayed open enrollment until after the 2014 elections, many Americans simply will not know what premium increases they will face in the exchanges. The Insurance Rate Transparency Act would ensure that the American people are not kept in the dark for political reasons.

Here’s a video of Griffith questioning insurers at a May 7 hearing about which way rates are heading under Obamacare:

Currently, insurers are only required to “submit their rates to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and certain states – including the Commonwealth of Virginia – so that any rate changes and increases in premiums can be reviewed and certified,” Griffith observed. Under his proposal, however, HHS would have 30 days after it had received that information to hand it over to Congress.

Obamacare Plans Milk Deductibles For All They’re (Not) Worth

If you’re unfortunate enough to be attached to a health plan that has revised its prescription drug co-pay policy under Obamacare, expect to pay out of pocket for all of your medications until you’ve spent enough money to meet your annual deductible.

According to a report last week by health policy research company Breakaway Policy, in conjunction with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, while prescription drug co-payments may be incorporated into an Obamacare plan, they are virtually meaningless for most patients because they don’t kick in until the patient has paid out of pocket for medications up to their annual deductible.

The out-of-pocket requirement applies to policies crafted around “combined deductible” plans, which make up half of the middle-tier “silver” Obamacare plans the study examined:

Of the 1,208 unique Silver plans analyzed, approximately half (641) offer combined deductibles under which medical and prescription drug expenses accumulate to a single deductible. The average combined deductible for those plans is $2,267 for a 27 year-old individual. The other approximately half of plans (567) have two separate deductibles, a medical deductible towards which expenses for medical services accumulate and a drug deductible towards which expenses for prescription drugs accumulate.

Obamacare customers in that first group will have to pay every penny of their prescription costs out of pocket before their co-pay kicks in — all while paying monthly premiums.

Obamacare has already been blasted for driving up deductibles — a fact that only exacerbates the out-of-pocket drug mandate.

That means hefty out-of-pocket expenses for Obamacare plan holders, especially since Obamacare deductibles are “relatively high” as compared to employer-sponsored insurance plans.

“In addition to being relatively high as compared to the ESI [Employer-sponsored insurance] market, deductibles under [Obamacare] Exchange plans are being applied to products and services not generally subject to the deductible in ESI plans, such as prescription drugs and physician visits,” the study concludes. “This could further complicate enrollees’ task of evaluating plans’ cost sharing provisions, as they will not only have to consider the amount of deductibles but also the way they are applied.”

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Obamacare Patients In SoCal Go To Tijuana To Get Affordable Care

Some Southern Californians who’ve signed up for Obamacare are opting to head south of the border to Tijuana, Mexico to get affordable out-of-pocket treatment instead of dealing with insurance deductibles at home.

A USA Today report Wednesday highlighted the financial incentive as one among several factors that prompt many Obamacare enrollees living in the border region to head to Mexico for basic medical treatment. Most are legal immigrants or naturalized citizens conversant in the Spanish language and in the medical establishment in Mexico.

Traveling to Mexican physicians isn’t a new phenomenon for people seeking lower general health care costs, but the advent of the Affordable Care Act has contributed to an increase in such traffic.

From the report:

Some of these patients now going to Mexico remain uninsured, or work for employers in the U.S. offering insurance plans that pay for medical care in Mexico. Others have signed up for Obamacare to cover emergencies or avoid a fine – but face high deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses.

“Even with insurance, it can sometimes be cheaper in Mexico,” said Steven Wallace, who is associate director the UCLA center and has studied why Mexican immigrants seek care in Mexico.

One woman who works in Riverside County, Calif. told USA Today she’s covered under a higher-tier Platinum Obamacare plan – but she hasn’t found it useful for helping defray the cost of basic care. “The Obamacare plan, she said, is just for emergencies,” the story observes.

In Tijuana and other border towns, many doctors will see patients for as little as $15, and typically conduct sessions with patients that last far longer than many general practitioners’ hurried appointments in the U.S.

“[Mexican insurance executive Christina] Suggett said appointments typically last 30 minutes or more and the doctors don’t rely heavily on nurses or medical assistants – a contrast to often more rushed encounters in the United States.”

IRS Audited 1 In 10 Conservative Donors Flagged In Tea Party Scandal

On Wednesday, GOP Congressmen revealed the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) audited 10 percent of the conservative donors it had uncovered through improper or illegal discriminatory targeting as part of its political discrimination against conservative and Constitutional groups.

Ten percent is a far higher audit rate than that endured by the general population, a fact House Republicans used to demonstrate there’s still plenty of undisclosed information about the targeting scandal that certain IRS employees — and perhaps the Obama Administration — is holding back.

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, who came on board in the wake of last year’s scandal, sat before a House Ways and Means hearing on Wednesday to address GOP leaders’ concerns that, under his leadership, whatever the IRS was doing to disadvantage conservatives in 2012 — when Barack Obama was seeking a second Presidential term — has stopped.

“The committee uncovered new information indicating that after groups provided the information to the IRS, nearly one in 10 donors were subject to audit… The abuse of discretion and audit selection must be identified and stopped,” Congressman Charles Boustany Jr. (R-La.) told Koskinen.

“[The] IRS has long insisted that Americans should not worry about political targeting at your agency because the IRS has layers of internal protections to guard against it. But in the course of our investigation, however, we found that [former exempt organizations administrator] Lois Lerner acted in defiance of these internal protections.”

Koskinen stayed quiet on the subject of how the agency came to audit conservatives at such an extraordinary rate, but agreed that people’s political views shouldn’t play a role in how the IRS singles out taxpayers for scrutiny.

“Every taxpayer deserves the right to assume that they will be treated fairly no matter what their political beliefs, what organization they belong to, who they voted for in the last election,” he said, adding that a small number of conservative groups identified in the IRS scandal still have not been granted the nonprofit status they first sought in 2012.

California Congressman Fights To Preserve Soldiers’ Right To Smoke

House Democrats and Pentagon officials are contesting a proposed amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that, if approved, would ensure tobacco products could continue to be sold at military commissaries and bases.

The amendment, introduced by Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), comes in response to a proposal by the Pentagon that aims to ban the sale of cigarettes in military stores as a means of promoting good health. In March, the Department of Defense included this language in a memo intended to steer operational policy:

“Although we stopped distributing cigarettes to our Service members as part of their rations, we continue to permit, if not encourage, tobacco use. The prominence of tobacco products in retail outlets and permission for smoking breaks while on duty sustain the perception that we are not serious about reducing the use of tobacco.”

This week, Hunter took aim at that idea with an amendment which essentially outlaws the DoD from banning the sale of anything in commissaries that wasn’t already for sale at the start of the year. And his rationale for doing so was a rhetorical tour de force:

As somebody who used the exchanges and lived on base for a number of years at Camp Pendleton, we do use the exchanges almost purely for beer and tobacco. The young Marines that go to war and fight for everybody in this room, they use those exchanges purely for tobacco and some beer – sometimes water and Gatorades, and little snacks to take to the field.

Just because we join the military to serve this country doesn’t mean that we can’t do it comfortably in the smallest ways possible. We sleep in the dirt for this country. We get shot at for this country. But we can’t have a cigarette if we want to for this country, because that’s unhealthy.

Well, I’ll tell you what. If you want to make us all healthy, then let’s outlaw war, because war is really dangerous. It was bad for my health, and it’s bad for other people’s health. So if you truly want to make it so we’re all healthy, then we shouldn’t have a military at all – because that in and of itself is dangerous.

Hunter served two tours in Iraq and another in Afghanistan as a Marine, so he speaks from an experience that many of the amendment’s adversaries in Congress simply can’t claim.

“Especially for the enlisted ranks and the young officers, it’s important that what few amenities we get to keep when we join the service –and give our lives up to Uncle Sam for four years – that those amenities, we get to keep them,” said Hunter.

Most Oppose Obamacare Contraception Mandate

A new poll from the Family Research Council (FRC) finds that the embattled Obamacare mandate requiring employers to offer health plans that cover contraception and morning-after coverage isn’t popular with the majority of Americans.

Released today, the poll targeted only the Obamacare contraception mandate, asking the following straightforward question:

As you may know, the President’s healthcare law contains the HHS mandate which requires that all private healthcare plans, including both employer based health plans and individual market health plans, cover preventative care services for women, which includes all FDA approved contraceptives, including drugs that can destroy a human embryo, and sterilization services without a direct cost to the patient. Employers that offer their employees’ healthcare plans that do not includes these drugs and services will be fined up to $100 per day per employee. Do you support or oppose this law?

Fifty-three percent of respondents said they oppose the mandate; 40 percent said they oppose it “strongly.” But only 43 percent said they support the law – with 26 percent saying they “Strongly” support it.

WPA Opinion Research, which conducted the poll on behalf of the FRC, said the results reflect complexities in the views of potential voters whom establishment candidates from both parties typically attempt to shoehorn into black-and-white ideological groups.

“There is broad opposition to the healthcare mandate that forces employers to cover contraceptives,” concluded WPA. “Additionally, Democrats should be wary about being on the wrong side of this issue as voters that typically support them tend to oppose the mandate.”

Porn In The EPA

An Inspector General’s report on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and members of the House Oversight Committee said Wednesday that the agency has either turned a blind eye toward — or actually rewarded — employees who watch tons of porn, sell diet pills out of their offices, get paid for not working, or hire their friends and relatives into paid internships.

The headline-getter is the unnamed porn-watcher. Allan Williams, Deputy Inspector General for Investigations at the EPA, told the House Oversight Committee Wednesday that the “career EPA employee” had watched hours of porn daily on his workplace computer.

Here’s a portion of Williams’ actual testimony:

One such investigation involves a career EPA employee who allegedly stored pornographic materials on an EPA network server shared by colleagues. When an OIG special agent arrived at this employee’s work space to conduct an interview, the special agent witnessed the employee actively viewing pornography on his government-issued computer. Subsequently, the employee confessed to spending, on average, between two and six hours per day viewing pornography while at work. The OIG’s investigation determined that the employee downloaded and viewed more than 7,000 pornographic files during duty hours.

That’s a lot of porn. USA Today reported Wednesday that the employee had been doing this since 2010. Williams said the case has been handed over to the Department of Justice.

Then there’s Renee Page in the EPA Office of Administration, whom the report alleges to have sold jewelry and weight loss products out of her office while on the clock. Page also allegedly hired 17 relatives and friends as paid interns and finagled money from the department’s budget to give to her daughter.

Finally, the report reveals a number of pay-for-no-work cases at the EPA. One involves an employee who, for five years, held a work-from-home position but did no actual work. Of course, she received more than half a million dollars in “earnings” and performance bonus pay. In all, the employee had worked from home for more than 20 years.

The report accuses an EPA “senior executive” of letting it all slide:

During the same investigation, the OIG also found evidence that implicated a senior executive. This senior executive, who was the absent employee’s prior supervisor, remained aware that the employee had been teleworking for more than 20 years with very little substantive work product to show during this time. The senior executive knew about the arrangement between the employee’s current supervisor and the absent employee. This senior executive took no action,even though he knew the EPA was being defrauded. Upon receiving a target letter from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the senior executive retired and was not prosecuted. Furthermore, the DOJ declined to prosecute either the absent employee or the current supervisor.

… During the course of the OIG’s investigation, the absent employee’s supervisor informed us that he was not the only EPA manager who was allowing employees not to report for duty.

Yet another employee who had become “physically unable” to do any work because of a debilitating illness had nevertheless worked from home for several years, before moving into an assisted living facility.

“When the employee entered the facility, the employee’s supervisor was aware of the employee’s condition and situation; however, the now former supervisor continued to allow and facilitate the employee’s retention of a full salary and benefits,” the report alleges.

If all this isn’t enough, just take comfort in the knowledge that the EPA is the same agency that gave us John Beale.

How Can Progressives Stop The Rise Of Conservative Media? By Regulating Them Like Political Action Committees

There’s apparently a rift among officials at the Federal Election Commission (FEC) over whether to pursue new regulations against privately owned media outlets that, through story selection and/or the tone of their reporting, promote a political ideology or favor political candidates.

The catch, of course, is that such scrutiny coincides with the recent rise of conservative media outlets — particularly Internet-based ones like the Drudge Report aggregator — to supplement the well-entrenched stranglehold that conservative talk shows now hold on the radio market.

FEC Chairman Lee E. Goodman, a 2013 Republican appointee of President Barack Obama, told Washington Examiner’s Paul Bedard that “[t]here are some in this building that think we can actually regulate” media voices that offer a political slant, a possibility that makes him “concerned about disparate treatment of conservative media.”

Here’s more from the Examiner:

“I think that there are impulses in the government every day to second guess and look into the editorial decisions of conservative publishers,” warned Federal Election Commission Chairman Lee E. Goodman in an interview.

“The right has begun to break the left’s media monopoly, particularly through new media outlets like the internet, and I sense that some on the left are starting to rethink the breadth of the media exemption and internet communications,” he added.

Noting the success of sites like the Drudge Report, Goodman said that protecting conservative media, especially those on the internet, “matters to me because I see the future going to the democratization of media largely through the internet. They can compete with the big boys now, and I have seen storm clouds that the second you start to regulate them. There is at least the possibility or indeed proclivity for selective enforcement, so we need to keep the media free and the internet free.”

The idea behind the new push for FEC regulation is simple, and completely unConstitutional: Treat conservative news organizations and aggregators like they’re part of the Nation’s campaign finance machinery and subject them to Federal elections laws. Of course, the FEC’s entire existence revolves around administering campaign finance laws targeted at political candidates and those who support them financially. The FEC was not conceived as a back-door 1st Amendment cop; and neither it, nor any other government entity, has the Constitutional authority to limit free speech.

Goodman has cautioned about the six-member FEC’s more sinister long-term intentions before, penning an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal earlier this year that cites specific examples of the FEC’s recent dalliance with media censorship:

David Gregory and George Stephanopoulos should be concerned. The same Federal Election Commission that represented to the Supreme Court that it could ban books now claims the authority to censor Sunday-morning news programs.

This startling assertion of government power became public in December when the FEC released an enforcement file in the case of a Boston television station’s regular Sunday-morning news program, “On the Record.” The station, WCVB, had invited two congressional candidates (a Democrat and a Republican) into its studio to appear on “On the Record” in the weeks leading up to the 2012 election and formatted the joint appearance as a 30-minute debate.

Another candidate (a libertarian) who was not invited filed a complaint alleging that the value of WCVB’s production costs and airtime constituted unlawful corporate contributions to the two candidates who were invited. Corporate contributions to federal candidates are illegal and people who make them face stiff fines, injunctions, and can even go to prison.

Although the FEC dismissed the Boston case, Goodman warned that the agency should not even be saddled with the power to arbitrate such issues.

“A decision to approve implies the power to disapprove,” he wrote. “And in the case of FEC regulatory authority over corporate contributions, the power to investigate, punish and even enjoin is the power to censor news programs like ‘On the Record,’ ‘Meet the Press’ and ‘This Week.’ The upshot of the WCVB decision is that every television newsroom must look over its shoulder whenever it invites two or more candidates to a joint appearance.”

Add to that Goodman’s concern that the FEC’s compulsion to regulate media is aimed squarely toward conservatives, and it’s evident that the commission’s progressive members have no problem with the Constitutional implications of a government enforcement agency exerting media control.

Goodman’s chairmanship expires in December, but his board tenure doesn’t expire until 2019. At least he’s willing to speak out.

Obama’s Hot Election-Year Issues Are Exactly The Ones Voters Don’t Care About

Polls are easy-come, easy-go, but last week’s Pew/USA Today poll gauging the mood of voters ahead of the midterm elections covered a lot of ground. The upshot, USA Today found, is that Republicans stand to gain Congressional seats this November.

One takeaway that may have gotten lost in the ensuing coverage is this interesting tidbit: President Obama’s focus on a political cocktail of immigration reform and climate change to kick off the summer-long campaign season is at or near the very bottom of the list of important issues that voters say will influence their decisions at the ballot box.

Worse for Democrats, their figurehead stands to lose them votes on the three top issues that voters do place at the top of their list of priorities – jobs, health care and the Federal deficit.

Think of it as an inverse pyramid: as voters’ concern about a given issue goes up, the President’s attention to that issue (or his success in attempting to address it) goes down.

On jobs – the top priority for 27 percent of voters: 800,000 people dropped out of the workforce in the latest BLS monthly report, a statistic that magically lowered to official unemployment rate by discounting that number from the pool of people the government considers to be “unemployed.” Health care

On health care – the top priority for 21 percent of voters: Despite the Administration’s recent efforts at claiming victory in the Obamacare sign-up period, insurers are now saying that many of the reported 8 million enrollees may be “duplicates,” and that anywhere between 10 and 20 percent of unique enrollments represent people who never paid their premiums. Obamacare is a mess of a talking point for Democrats in their respective local districts, with officials like Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) urging Democrats to highlight it in their campaigns, even as embattled Democrats like Congressmen Joe Garcia of Florida and Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona run campaign ads taking on Obama like he’s the bad guy.

Meanwhile, DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz pretends Obamacare’s time in the spotlight has already come and gone, and that there’s nothing left for voters to see – in direct contradiction of what voters told the pollsters last week.

On the Federal deficit – the top priority for 19 percent of voters: Like the BLS unemployment statistics, the recent report from the Congressional Budget Office that the Federal deficit is at its lowest point in 70 years is a numbers-massaging game that many voters aren’t buying. The CBO calculates the deficit by using the U.S. GDP as a baseline – and the GDP took a swan dive in the late Bush years and has been crawling since then. Forbes had an excellent article last month that further explains why Obama, of all people, knows he can’t play up a Federal deficit statistic as a point of pride for his Administration.

How did voters rate immigration reform and climate change on the to-do list for Congress? Only six percent named immigration as their top priority – the lowest figure measured in the poll.

As for climate change? It didn’t even make the list.

House Holds Lerner In Contempt

The House of Representatives voted today to hold former IRS administrator Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify about her knowledge of how the agency carried out discriminatory stonewalling of conservative nonprofit organizations as President Barack Obama campaigned for reelection.

The 231-187 vote, approved by all House Republicans and six Democrats, moves the criminal contempt charge to the office of the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. Early speculation by pundits and Congress members put the chances of a prosecution moving forward against Lerner at 50-50.

Unlike the Department of Justice’s shrugging off of similar contempt charges against Attorney General Eric Holder in 2012, Lerner’s case isn’t safely ensconced by the protection of an executive privilege memo from the Obama Administration. While the President could authorize such an order, that, too, would signal to House Republicans who’ve investigated the IRS scandal that Obama indeed believes Lerner knows something he’d rather her not reveal.

“They wouldn’t have a pre-established Justice Department decision on this one,” law professor Charles Tiefer told The Hill.

“If DOJ decided for whatever reason not to go forward with Lerner in an instance where executive privilege was not raised, that indeed would be new and would signal a further weakening of the congressional contempt statute,” Stan Brand, former House counsel, told POLITICO.

Some House Democrats called the vote a McCarthyist witch hunt and insinuated Republicans weren’t focusing on important topics during an election season. But few actually took issue with the contempt charge on its merits.

The quote of the day came from Oversight Committee Democrat Elijah Cummings – who himself has been implicated in the scandal recently, for allegedly communicating with the IRS to direct the agency’s attention to a Texas conservative group ripe for discriminatory targeting.

“I am not defending Ms. Lerner,” he said. “But I cannot vote to violate an individual’s 5th Amendment rights just because I want to hear what she has to say.”