Stories I’d like to see Steven Brill Tue, 18 Nov 2014 12:06:58 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Bottom line on climate change: It’s costing you money Tue, 18 Nov 2014 04:15:47 +0000 Participants wearing masks during a hazy day at the Beijing International Marathon in front of Tiananmen Square, in Beijing

This column by Martin Wolf in the Financial Times last week is a story I’m glad I saw. It prompted me to think about how to make reporting on a subject I usually find boring a lot more compelling.

In the wake of the midterm elections and the victories of candidates like Senate Majority Leader-elect Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), whose prime campaign plank was to preserve his state’s environmentally lethal coal industry at all costs, Wolf writes:

Many Republicans seem to have concluded man-made climate change is a hoax. If so, this is quite a hoax. Just read the synthesis report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. One is asked to imagine that thousands of scientists have put together a complex fabrication in order to promote their not particularly remunerative careers, in the near certainty they will be found out. This hypothesis makes no sense.

“Likely consequences” of ignoring the scientifically obvious, Wolfe continues, “include disease, extreme weather, food and water insecurity and loss of biodiversity and valuable ecosystems.”

That all makes sense. But the point in this powerful, cogent essay that really got me thinking was this: “One justification [for continued inaction] is that cost of action to mitigate emissions would be inordinate. It should be noted, however, that the costs … would be less, possibly substantially less, than the costs to the high-income countries of the recent financial crises. These have lowered gross domestic product by around a sixth, relative to pre-crisis trends, in the U.S., UK and euro zone. In some economies, when the losses are counted, they will be far bigger. Moreover, it seems likely that these losses will never be recouped.”

U.S. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell holds a news conference after he was re-elected to a sixth term to the U.S. Senate at the University of Louisville in Louisville

So here’s my idea for new sustained reporting that would get Americans and people around the world to focus more on climate change. We need a constant barrage of reports on the bottom-line effects of climate change that drive home the reality that this is a pocket-book issue.

It’s not enough to write that global warming is causing South Florida to lose x feet of land per decade to the ocean, or that climate change is behind the increasingly severe hurricanes or wildfires that more regularly dominate our headlines. How much more is flood insurance costing Florida homeowners? How much are property insurance premiums rising where hurricanes, tornados or wildfires are most likely to strike?

How much more is federally supported flood insurance, as well as disaster relief through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, costing taxpayers?

What do insurance companies have to say about their projections for premiums next year or 10 years from now? How much more is the reinsurance they buy to protect them from over-the-top disasters expected to cost?

How have food prices been affected? How much will they be affected in the near future?

Are we starting to see declines in property values in venues most vulnerable to global warming?

What is the projected cost of measures being taken — such as the billions of dollars worth of barriers being suggested for the waterways coming into New York harbor — to protect against us doing nothing about climate change?

Wolf also makes a convincing case that we have a core ethical obligation when it comes to climate change:

We are the beneficiaries of the efforts of our ancestors to leave a better world than the one they inherited. We have the same obligation even if, in this case, the challenge is so complex.

That left me imagining that a generation or two from now kids will be huddled on the remaining high ground in classrooms reading a world history textbook trying to explain how the lack of an urgent news hook allowed politicians who were accountable to their parents or grandparents to continue bowing to industry lobbyists and ignore taking the necessary and costly steps to avert the slow-motion disaster that became global warming.

Or, as Wolf put it, “however strong such a moral argument may be, it is most unlikely to overcome the inertia we now see. Future generations, and even many of today’s young, might curse our indifference. But we do not care, do we?”

"Storm chaser" Derek Sibley of Hollywood, FL reviews photos on his camera as Tropical Storm Isaac moves over Key West, FL

The way to make us care is to make the issue anything but an abstract moral argument by attaching current, tangible price tags to that inertia.

With President Barack Obama’s announcement last week of an agreement with China to set ambitious carbon emissions goals, opponents of climate-change action lost one of their main arguments — that it makes no sense for the West to act if China continues to be the world’s worst polluter. The agreement comes at a time when parts of China, including Beijing, are often unlivable because of near-apocalyptic pollution, which poses a crippling threat to the country’s economy.

The way to help make sure that both countries keep to those commitments is to keep driving home the cost of not doing so with tangible, dollars-and-cents journalism.

As for McConnell and Kentucky’s coal industry, here’s an idea for a related story: Since McConnell is about to take charge of the Senate, the politics of shifting away from coal are challenging, to say the least. And the cost to the families in Kentucky and elsewhere who depend on that industry for their livelihoods cannot be ignored.

So, if coal is so destructive — if it is so much a cause of those economic losses from global warming that Wolf calculates — why wouldn’t it make fiscal sense to finance an aid program, unprecedented in size and cost, to help families displaced by the coal industry’s decline? Why wouldn’t a massive grant to coal-mining regions, including huge tax incentives for new economic development, along with, say, $50,000 a year for each coal family for a five- or 10-year transition period, be the right thing and the politically smart thing to do?

Why wouldn’t it be the most cost-effective way to get over this hurdle? Someone should tally up the numbers.


PHOTO (TOP): Participants wearing masks during a hazy day at the Beijing International Marathon in front of Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, October 19, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) holds a news conference the day after he was re-elected to a sixth Senate term at the University of Louisville in Louisville, Kentucky, November 5, 2014. REUTERS/John Sommers II

PHOTO (INSERT 2): “Storm chaser” Derek Sibley of Hollywood, Florida, reviews photos on his camera as Tropical Storm Isaac moves over Key West, Florida, L August 26, 2012. REUTERS/Andrew Innerarity

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Should Obamacare be derailed by a single sentence? Tue, 11 Nov 2014 19:27:12 +0000 RTR4DLI3.jpg

Most disputes that end up at the U.S. Supreme Court are about the interpretation of the Constitution and statutes, not about facts. The press is mostly left to provide the basic background of the dispute and then quote each side’s lawyers. Little independent digging is required.

But a case about the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, that the high court decided to take up last week, is different.

The case, King v. Burwell, hinges on whether the wording of one sentence of the 906-page law that defies common sense and seems to negate a linchpin of the law — the availability of federal subsidies to middle-class families so they can buy health insurance — should somehow outweigh other provisions in the law that contradict that sentence.

The sentence in question seems to allow federal subsidies only to people buying insurance on exchanges “established by the states,” when, in fact 35 states opted to let the federal government run their exchanges for them, which was also provided for in the law.

Other sections of the law state or imply that subsidies are available to people to buy insurance on these federally-established exchanges. And the entire law was clearly based on the idea of everyone being entitled to the subsidies.

When the meaning of a federal law ends up being disputed in court because the wording is vague or internally contradictory, the dispute turns on the kinds of facts journalist are used to digging out. That’s because judges are supposed to try to figure out what the legislators intended the law to mean and to do.

To be sure, the government’s briefs in trying to fight off this new challenge to Obamacare from its die-hard Republican opponents (including the Oklahoma state attorney general who, oddly, is fighting to take away his constituents’ right to get the subsidies), do take a stab at proving what should be obvious. Their briefs in these cases present a good case that the senators and representatives indeed meant to provide subsidies even in states that declined to set up their own exchanges.

But the lawyers’ chronicle of what happened when Obamacare was being written — of what the facts demonstrate about the legislative intent — is far less convincing than what I suspect some good reporters could come up with.

Maybe the government lawyers were gun-shy about embarrassing the congressional staffers who obviously screwed up. The staffers’ mistake — using shorthand parlance in one place that everyone working on the law understood but that can lend itself to a twisted meaning by those who want to twist it — in my view rises barely above the level of a typographical error. But it now threatens the most significant domestic legislation passed in the last 50 years. Whatever the reason, the government lawyers’ account of the legislative intent was relatively threadbare compared to what it could be.

In completing a book on the saga of Obamacare, due out in about seven weeks, I thought the argument in King v. Burwell by the Obamacare opponents was so absurd that I didn’t spend much time on it. But what I did find out is that no legislator or staff member on either side of the aisle that I spoke with ever thought that the subsidies would not go to the states using the federal exchange, and that the confusion and inconsistency in the wording was the result of some last-minute cutting and pasting of a phrase from a prior draft.

Put simply, from what I can tell, the Obamacare opponents’ current argument that the sentence they have homed in on was put there to penalize states that did not set up their own exchanges is not something that was on the minds — or that emerged in the conversations, memos or drafts — of anyone involved in the negotiating, writing and passing of Obamacare.

But, again, I did not spend a lot of time on this. Other reporters, not brief writers, should be able to do a much better job of establishing that.

Someone should ask Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) or any members of his staff about it. Though he ultimately declined to vote for it, Grassley and his team were the Republicans most intimately involved in the drafting and negotiating of Obamacare. Many of its best provisions were drafted by Grassley and his staff.

I casually asked Grassley about this King argument in June – well before this case looked like any federal judge would be partisan enough to buy it. He shrugged if off. In fact, the idea that blocking subsidies for states that used the federal exchange was something he didn’t even seem to understand conceptually. He seemed not to even know what I was talking about.

Another credible source would be former Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Me.), who was also immersed in the details of the bill as it was being considered.

Reporters should go beyond Snowe or Grassley (especially since he might now be unwilling to own up to what he thinks of the plaintiffs’ position) and get some willing sources on Capitol Hill to let them scour the files of the multiple Senate and House committees that worked on the bill. I am sure they will find lots of smoking-gun evidence that not only proves the negative — that no one ever thought to limit the subsidies that way == but proves that in estimating the cost of the law the assumption was always that subsidies for families in every state would be provided.

A review of the documents could start with a white paper issued in November 2008 by the father of the Affordable Care Act — former Montana Senator Max Baucus — who on page 20 describes how the subsidies would be available to all Americans. I can all but guarantee that no document prepared after that contradicts that principle.

Someone should ask the staff of the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office if in “scoring” the cost of the bill, they ever considered not counting the costs of providing subsidies to families in states on the federal exchange. They never issued such a score, and they are supposed to score legislation based on the instructions they get from both sides of the aisle. Why wouldn’t they have issued a score estimating the reduced cost for not giving subsidies to families signing up on the federal exchanges?

Beyond the merits of the litigation — which, again, journalists have a unique opportunity to shed light on — someone should start working on a story about what the aftermath would be following a decision killing the subsidies in federal-exchange states. (It still seems unlikely, but less so after four justices decided last week to take this shaky case.)

Will Republican governors really opt to have hundreds of thousands, or millions, of their constituents who were able to get health insurance because of the subsidies now lose their policies? Or might they agree to let their exchanges be categorized as “established by the state” because in all states, state insurance regulators govern the insurance sold on the exchanges.

Unlike the issue of federal subsidies on the exchanges for the middle class, Obamacare explicitly allowed states to choose whether to expand Medicare in their states, again using federal subsidies. That, itself is another argument against the plaintiffs. If Congress was explicit about providing choice for the states in one provision, why wouldn’t it have done so in the provision establishing subsidies on the exchanges?

Even judges who are wary of delving too far into legislative intent usually accept the legal principle that in interpreting legislation they should assume that Congress would not hide major provisions of a law in an unclear clause.

It’s one thing for Republican governors, such as Rick Perry in Texas or Rick Scott in Florida, to refuse to take advantage of a different provision in Obamacare allowing them to expand Medicare, leaving poor people in their states much worse off than the poor in neighboring states. But will these Republicans opt to short-change their middle class political base the same way?


PHOTO: People wait in line to enter the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington Nov. 10, 2014. REUTERS/Larry Downing 

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Did Islamic State really call a convention of nuts and have 15,000 people show up? Tue, 04 Nov 2014 05:38:05 +0000 Islamic State fighter gestures from a vehicle in the countryside of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, after the Islamic State fighters took control of the area

Last week, the Guardian reported, “The United Nations has warned that foreign jihadists are swarming into the twin conflicts in Iraq and Syria on ‘an unprecedented scale’ and from countries that had not previously contributed combatants to global terrorism.”

“A report by the U.N. Security Council, obtained by the Guardian,” the story continued, “finds that 15,000 people have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside the Islamic State (ISIS) and similar extremist groups.”

Multiple news organizations picked up the Guardian’s scoop but added little. It seems that none had gotten the report, which the United Nations has not released.

But this is a huge story demanding lots more difficult reporting. Have 15,000 terrorist wannabes really trooped in to Iraq and Syria from what the Guardian reports the United Nations says is “more than 80 countries” to join a group whose major calling card is beheading Westerners for show and otherwise slaughtering nonbelievers?

Islamic State fighters stand along a street in the countryside of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, after taking control of the area

That’s a huge number, dwarfing anything we have previously been told about the number of fanatics recruited from around the globe to join Islamic State’s fight.

What information is the United Nation basing its estimate on? Are the numbers real? Are they growing as fast as the Guardian’s story implies?  Who carried out this “report” for the U.N. Security Council? If the recruits are able to be counted and even have their countries of origin identified, as the report implies, why can’t they be tracked and stopped?

Or, on closer look, is the report a vague estimate published to highlight the threat so that the world will pay attention?

Assuming the report’s findings look real, what is motivating recruits from as far afield as the Maldives, Chile, Russia and Northern Ireland? Who are these people?

Has Islamic State’s use of social media and other digital propaganda, including videos of the beheadings, worked so well that the group has been able to convene a convention of all the world’s crazies, arm them and send them out to battle? We need to read and see as many different case histories as reporters can gather.

That, of course, is easier said than done. Trying to get that story from any of those 15,000 recruits could, by definition, be a suicide mission. But reporters should at least try to track down the families of the recruits. The world needs to understand what is going on here.

Then there’s the question of how long the recruits are typically staying and what their leaders’ priority is. Are they being encouraged to come and get trained and then go home to fight? Or are they being encouraged to fight in Syria or Iraq as long as possible and only urged to continue the battle elsewhere once they decide to return home?

Which leads to all the unprecedented security issues — for the United States and every other civilized country — raised by the apparent burgeoning of an indoctrinated and trained army like this.

For starters, should this change the way we think about all the privacy issues raised by the Edward Snowden leaks that revealed the National Security Agency’s seemingly unbounded effort to track people? Should knowing that there are 15,000 trained fanatics roaming the world targeting Western democracies make us more willing to let agencies like the NSA sift through everything and everyone’s lives?

If we know that these recruits are getting into Iraq and Syria mostly through the border of one country, maybe Turkey, should a Western alliance execute a kind of reverse border-control strategy and line up all the forces necessary to block people from leaving Turkey for Syria or Iraq? Could we get the Iranians and Saudis to do the same thing from the east and south?

Are we already trying to do this?

Is there any way we can and should change our passport system — perhaps even by embedding chips in passports — so that we can actually know when people returning home have been in Syria or Iraq? Or other hot spots as they arise?

Finally, what are we trying to do, and what more can we do, to counter what appears to be an increasingly successful image campaign by the world’s worst villains?

In that regard, I’d like to see what my former colleague — former Time Managing Editor Richard Stengel — now under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs — is up to. I’ve read lots of stories, like this one, extolling Islamic State’s social media savvy and referring vaguely to how Stengel and others are trying to counter it.

But these reports have not pinned down what Stengel has been trying to do and whether and why it has worked or failed.

Have bureaucratic or other constraints (the constraints of political correctness, perhaps) limited Stengel? What other, more creative or aggressive measures do private-sector messaging experts suggest we try?

An army of 15,000 (and growing) violent, crazy people — with many carrying U.S. passports or passports from countries where they don’t need visas to come to the United States — should start everyone thinking outside the box. And an army of journalists should be tracking all that.


PHOTO (TOP): An Islamic State fighter gestures from a vehicle in the countryside of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, after the Islamic State fighters took control of the area, Oct. 7, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

PHOTO (INSERT): Islamic State fighters stand along a street in the countryside of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, after taking control of the area, Oct. 7, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

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Why Election Day won’t hold the answer to who will control the Senate for the next two years Tue, 28 Oct 2014 04:42:04 +0000 Republican U.S. Senator Roberts campaigns at a conservative rally in Gardner

Scoping out the Senate Majority:

It seems likely that which party controls the U.S. Senate for the next two years will not be decided on Election Day.

I’m not only thinking about the possibility that two close races — in Louisiana and Georgia — could end up requiring runoffs. If candidates do not get more than 50 percent of the vote because fringe opponents siphon off votes from the pair running neck and neck, Louisiana’s runoff would be in December and Georgia’s not until Jan. 6, 2015.

Former President Bill Clinton waves to voters next to Senator Mary Landrieu during an early voting rally in Baton Rouge, Louisiana

The uncertainty that’s more intriguing is that even after those runoffs, if they happen, there might be three independent senators who could swing the majority to one party or the other.

One, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, is a staunch liberal who will certainly cast his lot with the Democrats, as he has in the past. But Maine independent Angus King has not said for sure that he will continue to caucus with Democrats. And Kansas’s Greg Orman, an independent businessman who is locked in a tight race with incumbent Republican Pat Roberts, has steadfastly refused to say which party he would vote with.

Another longer-shot wild card is former Senator Larry Pressler of South Dakota. He is also running has an independent, but his rise in the polls has subsided recently.

One can only imagine what Orman and King will be promised by both sides if one or both become swing votes. Beyond that, there is a Democratic senator in a red state (John Tester in Montana) and even one or two moderate Republicans in a blue state and a swing state (Mark Kirk in Illinois and Susan Collins in Maine) who might be persuaded to flip.

Still more intriguing is the fact that anyone could flip at any time, or even flip back. Their all-important vote to caucus with one party or the other can also change at any time. Vermont’s late Senator Jim Jeffords proved this when he left the Republican Party in May 2001. He declared himself an independent who was going to caucus with the Democrats, and instantly caused upheaval in Washington by turning control of the Senate over to the Democrats.

As longtime moderate Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania demonstrated when he jumped the aisle in 2009, moderate senators in both parties are finding themselves endangered in primaries or being tagged in general elections by the baggage of having their party affiliation identified with positions less moderate than theirs. So the prospect that some senators can live comfortably on either side of the aisle is becoming increasingly untenable.

Which means that as Election Day approaches, one or more of our best political reporters ought to try to map out the scenarios for what could become hand-to-hand combat for a Senate majority even after the polls close.

Where did the rifle used in Ottawa come from?

I keep expecting to see stories explaining how alleged Ottawa terrorist Michael Zehaf-Bibeau managed to get what the New York Times reported is a “Winchester rifle, a firearm his criminal conviction had prohibited him from owning.”

Armed RCMP officers race across a street on Parliament Hilll following a shooting incident in Ottawa

Canada, unlike the United States, has strict laws requiring all gun owners to be licensed following a rigorous background check — that presumably would have blocked Zehaf-Bibeau because of his criminal record and history of drug abuse.

This Vox story provides a good summary of the Canadian gun-control regime compared to the lack of controls in the United States. But so far there has been nothing on why the Canadian law didn’t work in this case.

In Mexico there is a vibrant black market in all kinds of firearms that are brought into the country from the United States.

The United States supplies guns to countries south of the border much the way those countries supply drugs to America.  Is that how Zehaf-Bibeau got the weapon that terrorized downtown Ottawa?

Who’s Lisa Monaco?

In the aftermath of the killing in Ottawa, I noticed that White House Homeland Security Adviser Lisa Monaco did some television interviews outlining the Obama administration’s reaction to the apparent lone-wolf attack.

A former federal prosecutor who ran the Justice Department’s National Security Division before moving to the White House, Monaco has had little written about her, except for this brief National Journal profile in April 2013, following the Boston Marathon bombing.

Monaco has also been in the news lately because administration officials explained that one reason for appointing Ron Klain as the “Ebola czar” was that Monaco had so many other issues on her plate related to Islamic State and other security matters that she couldn’t devote full time to dealing with the effort to contain the virus.

It’s time to find out more about Monaco and what her role coordinating homeland-security issues entails. She seems to be the White House liaison to a wide range of turf-conscious agencies that have roles in issues that run the gamut from airport security to disease control to cyber attacks.


PHOTO (TOP): From left: Senator Angus King (I-Me.), Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Greg Orman. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts; Jim Gourg; Orman Handout

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Former President Bill Clinton waves to voters next to Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.) during an early voting rally in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, October 20, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Armed Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers race across a street on Parliament Hill, following a shooting incident in Ottawa, October 22, 2014. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

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Hospital turns to PR to fight Ebola Thu, 16 Oct 2014 22:22:30 +0000 A general view of the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas

This New York Times story on Thursday outlines the damage done to the  reputation of  Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas as a result of its mistakes in dealing with Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan. The hospital, the Times reports, has now “hired Burson-Marsteller, the global public-relations firm, to help tell its side.”

It would be great to see a story detailing the advice Burson is giving the hospital — especially because hospitals, which rarely contend with a skeptical let alone hostile press, are terrible at dealing with the media. It would be even better to see stories that go beyond recording what is already a hospital apology tour clearly suggested by Burson.

Typically, hospitals are every community’s favorite charity — though they make exorbitant profits and often bill patients abusively. Thus, the Times reported:

Until three weeks ago, few questioned Presbyterian’s status. With nearly 900 beds and 1,000 doctors, it is the eighth-largest hospital in Texas and has excelled in delivering both cardiac care and babies…. It is the hospital of choice for some of the region’s richest and most prominent residents. The board chairwoman at the hospital’s parent company, Texas Health Resources, is Anne T. Bass, the wife of the billionaire investor Robert M. Bass.

But then the Times reported on some suits brought by patients alleging bad care in the hospital’s emergency room and that “the hospital’s most recent tax filings, from 2012, show that it had $613 million in revenue and $1.1 billion in net assets. The hospital’s president at the time was paid $1.1 million.”

The Times, however, missed some more important numbers that provide a fuller picture of what may be among the most successful businesses in northern Texas, such as:

  • The hospital had an operating profit (revenue over expenses, with noncash depreciation added back) of $89 million. That’s a profit margin of 14.5 percent — amazing for a people-intense service business, let alone a supposed nonprofit.
  • I’m sure Anne Bass and others in the Dallas community are charitable, but of that $613 million revenue, just $7.8 million, or 1.3 percent, came from contributions.
  • Meantime, the hospital was still able to realize those profit margins while paying seven executives more than $600,000 each and three more than $1,000,000.
  • That is still not the full picture. The Dallas hospital is a subsidiary of a 25-hospital system called Texas Health Resources (the client that retained Burson). This parent company had revenue of $3.7 billion in 2012, with operating income (excluding depreciation because it is not a cash expense) of $473 million. I counted 20 executives on the parent company’s tax form earning more than $600,000, with the highest earner topping out at $2,685,000.

Why am I laying out all these compensation numbers? Because any good reporter should want to put Burson and its new client to the test by asking how much of the large bonus portion in each compensation package is based on the executives’ attention to quality control.

A worker in a hazardous material suit is helped to undress after coming out of an apartment unit where a man diagnosed with the Ebola virus was staying in DallasSo far, Burson seems to have encouraged hospital officials to end their early silence and engage with the press, and even to own up to their early mistakes. Burson obviously believes this will take some of the heat off.

It shouldn’t.

As with most hospitals, Texas Health Resources form 990 filing has a lot of high-sounding gobbledygook about how judiciously the compensation of its executives is determined. It cites its board’s retention of “independent” compensation consultants to determine, among other things, the metrics that should be used for its bonus plans.

I’ve found, however, that despite the way nonprofit hospitals and their boards like to refer to their mission in terms of providing quality care, even to those who cannot afford it, the metrics these boards typically set mostly — if not completely in some cases — have to do with two cold, hard business numbers: revenue and operating profit.

How, in fact, are the bonuses at Texas Health determined?

How much does the quality of the care — for which federal regulators now have multiple, comparative measures — count?

A worker in a hazardous material suit looks on from a balcony as they remove the contents from the apartment unit where a man diagnosed with the Ebola virus was staying in DallasOne of the most important of those measures has to do with the rate of infections contracted in the hospital. Is any executive’s compensation in any way based on that? Is there a separate board quality-control committee that monitors this aspect of the hospital’s performance?

Those questions should be followed by asking for specifics related to how often the hospital did drills for dealing with infectious diseases, who was in charge of those drills and how were they documented.

With the original mistake in mind — that Duncan, who obviously had no insurance, was sent home from the emergency room when he should have been admitted — any good reporter should ask if any policies or incentives were in place at the hospital to discourage potential nonpayers from being admitted.

If Burson and its client are in any way cagey about providing all documents and making available all officials and doctors related to this process and these policies, the reporter should find doctors or nurses who will provide the information, even if they will not allow their names to be used.

A hospital that, like most, has enjoyed a relatively easy ride in the media has now been thrust into the international spotlight in a horribly negative way.  It’s time for the media not to record its apology and move on, but to look at this institution, and others like it, as the aggressive — and vitally important –businesses that they are.


PHOTO (TOP): A general view of the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, Texas, September 30, 2014. REUTERS/Brandon Wade

PHOTO (INSERT 1): A worker in a hazardous material suit is helped to undress after coming out of an apartment unit where a man diagnosed with the Ebola virus was staying in Dallas, Texas, October 5, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Young

PHOTO (INSERT 2): A worker in a hazardous material suit looks on from a balcony as they remove the contents from the apartment unit where a man diagnosed with the Ebola virus was staying in Dallas, Texas, October 5, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Young

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Following the mistakes in the Texas Ebola story Tue, 14 Oct 2014 05:06:17 +0000 A worker in a hazardous material suit is sprayed down by a co-worker after coming out of an apartment unit where a man diagnosed with the Ebola virus was staying in Dallas

1. Ebola and malpractice tort reform:

As we all now know, the death of Dallas Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan was preceded by what might have been a fatal mistake made by emergency-room doctors or nurses at the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital. Although he showed up at the hospital complaining of Ebola-like symptoms and reportedly told a nurse that he had just arrived from Liberia, he was sent home with antibiotics.

That mistake has already sparked widespread speculation about a malpractice suit that Duncan’s family could bring against the hospital and its staff.

However, in addition to the conventional legal questions about whether Duncan’s family could prove that his release — and the delay in his treatment — caused his death, the family has another problem: the law governing malpractice cases in Texas.

As this Reuters report notes:

Texas tort-reform measures have made it one of the hardest places in the United States to sue over medical errors, especially those that occurred in the emergency room …. To bring a civil claim in Texas over an emergency-room error, including malpractice, plaintiffs have to show staff acted in a way that was “willfully and wantonly negligent,” meaning that the staff had to have consciously put Duncan or others at extreme risk by releasing him, rather just having made a mistake.

General view of Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in DallasIn other words, tort reform in Texas means you can’t sue a doctor or nurse for making a mistake, even a stupid, fatal one. Or even one that might end up causing multiple fatalities if Duncan gave the virus to others after he was allowed to leave the emergency room.

For me, that makes this case a great way to take another look at tort reform, from lots of angles.

Would polling tell us that most people think the erring doctor or nurse should be able to be sued? Or would polling tell us that people think Texas legislators were right to protect doctors, nurses and their hospitals from legal harassment by reining in the trial lawyers?

Indeed, the facts of this case seem to present a fresh way to debate whether doctors or nurses, who make honest mistakes under pressure in an emergency room, should be shielded from suits. Because for every suit involving an awful mistake like this one, there could be more suits involving honest judgment calls that turn out to be wrong. Or even turn out to be right but are brought because the outcome was tragic and the lawyers think they can force a settlement?

Texas’ tort-reform law has been on the books since 2003. Has emergency- room care in the state declined in any noticeable way because, as the plaintiff’s lawyers always claim in fighting tort reform, doctors know they are not nearly as likely to be held accountable in court?

Has the practice of so-called defensive medicine, in which doctors over-test and over-treat patients so they can tell a jury they did everything they could, been reduced? One way to measure that would be to calculate the number of MRI’s and CT scans given per patient before and after the law took effect.

As I have found in researching a coming book on the economics and politics of U.S. healthcare, doctors and hospital administrators routinely use the fear of malpractice suits as an excuse for using these high-profit tests at a far higher rate than doctors in any other country.

Have hospitals tightened their own quality-control and disciplinary processes because they know that doctors don’t have to worry about lawsuits and, therefore, want to add accountability measures of their own to deal with staff mistakes?

Or have they loosened discipline because they don’t have to worry about being sued for their staffs’ mistakes?

2. Ebola and medical bills:

I can’t help but wondering what Duncan’s medical bills look like — and who is going to pay them.

As a Liberian, he can’t possibly have had health insurance covering his care in Texas. But I assume his family is not going to get a $1-million or $2-million bill from the hospital. (Which would add insult to injury, given how his case was mishandled.) So who’s on the hook for all those expenses?

Is the federal government picking up the tab because Ebola is some kind of special-category emergency? If so, what would the legal basis be for someone, like Duncan, with a headline-making, life-threatening disease to be treated for free while others who show up at a hospital with a more conventional emergency are asked to pay, with the hospital stuck with the tab if they don’t pay? While we are on the subject of bills, who is paying for the monitoring of all the people Duncan had contact with whose conditions need to be watched throughout the possible 21-day incubation period?

3. Ebola and freedom:

The Ebola threat also offers a fresh context for a story having to do with the legal framework under which important decisions about basic freedoms have to be made by various officials.

What if those people don’t want to be monitored? What if those who show symptoms don’t want to be isolated? What does Texas law say about that? Or does federal law supersede state law, and if so, what is the law?

There has also been speculation that Duncan was not given a drug made available to two healthcare professionals flown to Atlanta and successfully treated. Supposedly, the supply of the drug had been depleted. That raises the question of who makes decisions about giving out lifesaving drugs that are in short supply.

4. Ebola and personal responsibility:

Although the Ebola Texas story has received saturation coverage, one detail we still don’t know is the name of the nurse and/or doctor who made the mistake of sending Duncan home. How come?

Yes, I would like to read a story about the person who made the mistake. What is his or her record? Was the emergency room busy when Duncan showed up? Or was the staff sitting around with little to do, yet still failed to react carefully enough? And were policies, explicit or implicit, in place encouraging them not to admit uninsured patients whose bills are likely to go unpaid?

What disciplinary action did, or will, the hospital take? What usually happens in a situation like this at that hospital and at hospitals generally?

But more than that, I would like to see a story exploring the issue of personal responsibility and public accountability when private people make mistakes that have huge public ramifications. I was wondering about this a few weeks ago, when a few Secret Service officers obviously screwed up by allowing Omar Gonzalez to jump the White House fence and make it all the way into the East Room.

What are the reasons for naming or not naming these people?


PHOTO (TOP): A worker in a hazardous material suit is sprayed down by a co-worker after coming out of an apartment unit where a man diagnosed with the Ebola virus was staying in Dallas, Texas, October 5, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Young

PHOTO (INSERT): A general view of Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, Texas, October 1, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Stone

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Where did the Department of Education’s ‘Race to the Top’ lead? Tue, 30 Sep 2014 05:00:33 +0000 U.S. President Barack Obama visits Wright Middle School in Madison

We are fast approaching the fifth anniversary, on Jan. 10, of when state applications are due to apply for awards under President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program.

Passed in early 2009 as part of the Obama administration’s economic stimulus package, Race to the Top offered $4.3 billion to be split among states that won a contest demonstrating they would use the money to enact what administration education reformers, led by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, outlined as steps to improve America’s failing K-12 public education system. This system perennially spends more money per student compared to other countries, yet produces results at the middle or low end when it comes to how American children compare to their peers around the world.

Because Race to the Top was cleverly cast as a contest among states and their governors for much-needed federal dollars, it attracted outsized publicity, and quickly made education reform a high-profile political issue.

At the top of Duncan’s list of prescribed reforms was overhauling the way school systems evaluate teachers, reward them for good performance and weed out the worst performers.

Put simply, the teachers unions had, by the end of the 20th century, become so dominant across the country in education governance and local politics, especially in the Democratic Party, that teachers were treated like interchangeable “widgets,” as Duncan liked to say. They were not evaluated at all. Or if they were, 95 percent to 99 percent were given “satisfactory” ratings that then led to permanent tenure. They could not be fired unless convicted of a crime — although even convictions didn’t necessarily mean they lost their spots in the classroom or on the government payroll.

Instead, teachers were paid solely on the basis of seniority — how long they managed to keep breathing and show up for work. Other than retail service workers, K-12 teaching is the largest single occupation in the country and arguably the most important. Yet when Duncan announced Race to the Top, most school systems were making no effort to measure or reward the quality of those doing that job.

Meanwhile, the growth of successful charter schools had begun to demonstrate that poverty didn’t cause poor academic achievement. Lousy teaching did.

Charter schools are publicly funded and open to all children via a lottery. But they are managed the way a successful enterprise is — meaning employees are rewarded and promoted based on how well they perform.

By the time the Race to the Top contest was launched, charter school systems, such as those operated by the Success Academy network in New York, had students in the country’s most impoverished communities, such as Harlem, outperforming children in New York’s wealthiest suburbs.

Yet the Success Academy schools were actually spending less money per student to produce superior results.

Other reforms Duncan prescribed included incentives for more teachers to specialize in science, technology, engineering and math (called STEM). The unions bitterly opposed that, too. Again, they wanted all their members to be paid the same — based only on how long they had managed to keep breathing.

Another change demanded in the Race to the Top applications was that states would encourage expansion of successful charter-school networks.

In 2010 and 2011, I wrote a New Yorker article (“The Rubber Room: The battle over New York City’s worst teachers.”) and book (Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools) about all this. It was framed against the narrative of the Race to the Top contest and the promises of reform that states had made in their applications to snag some federal money.

The book ended in mid-2011, after 28 states plus the District of Columbia had been awarded prize money. At the time, I speculated that some states were already falling behind schedule for the reforms they had promised. Others, such as New York, seemed to have made promises that there was little chance they could deliver on. Necessary changes in contracts were being resisted by the unions, which continued to draw on political support from much of the Democratic Party.

Near the end of the book, I asked Duncan about that, and he promised that if states didn’t deliver, he would not hesitate to demand his money back and even sue if he had to.

It is soon going to be 2015, and although I have not been following Race to the Top developments as closely as before, it seems like Duncan ought to be turning his lawyers loose in lots of federal courts across the country.

With supposedly liberal Democrat Bill de Blasio’s election as New York mayor, based in large part on support from the teachers union, the city is nowhere close to delivering on its promises to reward great teachers; identify and counsel the not-great ones, and get rid of those who stunt children rather than propel them. In fact, de Blasio promised in his campaign to thwart the expansion of the Success Academy network. (I describe de Blasio as “supposedly liberal,” because it continues to mystify me how anyone can call himself a liberal who tries, as he has, to impede the growth of successful charter-school networks and to allow incompetent teachers to keep their seats at the front of classrooms occupied by the children most in need of the education that could empower them.)

I know that other states have fallen behind or just plain discarded their promises, too.

What’s needed is a comprehensive story for which those old Race to the Top applications — with all their specific, bold promises and timetables — offer an easy roadmap. The Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal (not the New York Times, whose reporting on education reform has mostly been done from the union perspective) should audit every promise made by every state and the District of Columbia.

I can already see the grid of red, yellow and green boxes signifying promises kept, delayed or just plan abandoned, accompanied by a killer story asking Duncan and the offending state and local officials what happened.

The Race to the Top applications had exactly those kinds of grids, in which the states checked off their promises and supplied the scheduled completion dates. It’s time to update them.

Beyond that, by 2015 there should be data available to see if the states that did proceed apace with their reforms (Florida is probably one, as is Tennessee) actually improved classroom results. That’s what is ultimately important.

Finally, no story about what happened to Race to the Top can ignore what’s happened to the Common Core.

Another part of the Race to the Top contest rewarded states for committing to what governors and education superintendents, collaborating across dozens of states, had determined should be new, tougher curriculum standards, called the Common Core. It was viewed as necessary to restore the United States to a competitive footing in a global economy.

At the time, this seemed the easiest promise to make — and pretty much every state made it. After all, there should not be a different way for teaching math in Mississippi versus Massachusetts. Let alone a different standard for achievement in various academic areas necessary to earn a high-school diploma.

Yet somehow over the last two years, the Common Core has been hijacked as a political issue by conservatives, who grouse that it represents federal interference in education. (Again, it’s a group of governors who came up with it.)

The teachers unions have been only too eager to team up with their usual adversaries on the right against the Common Core. That’s because part of the plan, as envisioned in Race to the Top, involves evaluating teachers based on how well their students do in reaching Common Core standards.

Thus, some Republican governors — such as Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, whose state, under his stewardship, had been a leader in promoting education reform — have now back-flipped to please the far right.

Among potential Republican presidential contenders, only former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who has done the most of any governor to promote the Common Core, remains solidly behind a program that, two years ago, seemed as politically unassailable as apple pie.

How did that happen?

And how is it likely to play out in a Republican presidential primary contest?

Speaking of primary contests, another sidebar story should be about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She was great on education reform when she was first lady in Arkansas. But she sided with the teachers unions against Obama’s reform policies in the 2008 primary.

Will she stick with the union position in 2016 and be against Common Core, which Duncan and Obama have promoted so heavily?


PHOTO (TOP): President Barack Obama (L) sits next to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as they visit the Wright Middle School in Madison, Wisconsin, November 4, 2009. REUTERS/Larry Downing

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Just why does the NFL have tax-exempt status? Tue, 23 Sep 2014 05:00:42 +0000 NFL Commissioner Goodell speaks during a news conference ahead of the Super Bowl, in New York

1. Checking the NFL’s numbers:

In the wake of the fallout over National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell’s handling of his players’ domestic violence arrests, there have been multiple reports by journalists, who read the league’s filing of form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service, that Goodell was paid $44 million in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2013.

But there are lots of other leads for reporters to pursue based on what is in that filing, which is a report that every tax-exempt nonprofit organization has to file with the IRS.

For starters, there’s the existence of the form in the first place. How could the NFL — which helps negotiate billions in media and promotion deals for its member teams and which itself reported an operating profit of more than $9 million and $326 million in “program service revenue” — be given nonprofit tax-exempt status?

According to the filing, the NFL claims its tax exemption under section 501c(6). The IRS regulations define eligible 501c(6) organizations as the following:

                       Business leagues

                       Chambers of commerce

                       Real estate boards

                       Boards of trade

                       Professional football leagues

Huh? How did that happen? Neither the National Basketball Association nor Major League Baseball have that valuable status. What’s the story behind that?

NFL: Baltimore Ravens-Ray Rice Jersey ExchangeIn addition, is that status now in jeopardy in light of the NFL’s recent nosedive in public standing?

In fact, that same form 990 hints that the NFL has long been worried about at least the possibility of losing its special tax-exempt status. A footnote to a section related to the league’s liabilities states that the organization, since 2009, does an annual review to “determine whether a tax position of the League Office is more likely than not to be sustained,” and that, based on the review conducted for this report (the year ending March 31, 2013), the league believes its tax position will continue as is.

The next filing is due this February. I wonder what the footnote will say then.

Other items worth pursuing in the NFL 990:

The league reported $1,276,000 in lobbying expenses, plus another $7,139,000 in fees to Covington & Burling, the powerhouse Washington law firm (on top of $9,030,000 to Paul Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, its New York firm).  That’s a lot of money being thrown around in Washington. What issues was the money spent on?

In addition to Goodell’s $44-million paycheck, the league’s “executive vice president for media,” Steve Bornstein, took home $26 million, and general counsel Jeff Pash received $7,862,000.

That is an unusually high salary for a general counsel — let alone one working for a “nonprofit.” It might be a good hook for a story reviewing the NFL’s multi-front legal problems — from head injury litigation, to disciplining players accused of domestic violence, to maintaining the status of that tax exemption.

In all three cases, most of the money the executives received was listed as bonus compensation — $40 million for Goodell, about $23 million for Bornstein and $4.8 million out of $7.8 million for the general counsel. In light of the league’s current troubles, a reporter — or a member of Congress at a hearing — ought to ask the league owners who set these executives’ compensation, what the bonus criteria have been and whether they will now be changed to reflect the league’s obvious need to worry about issues other than money.

Under “grants,” there’s a $20,000 donation to the National Association of Black Journalists. Should groups of reporters be seeking and accepting money from an organization they cover, especially one that is so much in the news?

Finally, there’s a $15,000 grant “to support 2012 convention” for something called “Association Women in Sports,” which on the form 990 lists an address in Neptune, New Jersey. I could not find any trace of that organization on the Internet, and its address appears to be a residence. Who is this group? And is it going to send back the $15,000?

2. Lobbying over livers:

This editorial from Bloomberg View makes a cogent argument about an arcane issue: allocation of organ transplants, in this case donated livers.

The Bloomberg editors support a proposal to reform how donated livers are distributed that takes advantage of advances in travel logistics and medicine that now allow organs to be transported from regions farther away than contemplated under the current system.

“Under the existing system, managed by the United Network for Organ Sharing,” the Bloomberg editors explain, “donated livers are prioritized for use in the geographic regions from which they come. In regions where the organs are relatively plentiful — in the South, for instance, where death rates are higher — they sometimes go to people who could easily wait longer for a transplant, rather than to sicker patients who may die without them. … A new system … would redraw the map of liver-donation regions to create just four large ones in place of the 11 smaller ones that exist today. Mathematical models suggest that sharing livers within these broader zones would save 554 [lives] over five years.”

As the Bloomberg editors put it, “What’s not to like about the change?”

The answer is that people needing livers in regions like the South would have to wait longer if their need isn’t urgent because they would be competing on a priority list with a larger pool of donees.

Two hospital presidents from different parts of the country and one senior official at the Department of Health and Human Services recently mentioned this controversy to me — and all three wondered why it has not gotten more press.

First, there’s the obvious story about who is producing the new mathematical models referred to in the Bloomberg editorial. And, more generally, who is lobbying whom to push for or block the proposed changes.

Second, what is the United Network for Organ Sharing that Bloomberg says manages the existing system? Its website  says it is the “Organ Procurement and Transplant Network (OPTN) for the federal government.”

What does that mean? Who oversees it? How is this decision about changing the geographic regions going to be made?

This is an organization that not only makes life-and-death policy decisions, like the one about organizing the regions, but also makes daily choices about who gets a life-saving donor organ and who doesn’t.


PHOTO (TOP): NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell speaks during a news conference ahead of the Super Bowl, in New York, January 31, 2014. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Baltimore Ravens fans wait in line over an hour to exchange their Ray Rice jerseys for new NFL jerseys at M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore, September 19, 2014. Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

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Just how strange is Governor Andrew Cuomo? Tue, 16 Sep 2014 05:00:34 +0000 New York Governor M. Cuomo stands during a news conference following a bi-state meeting on regional security and preparedness in New York

1. What’s the matter with Andrew Cuomo?

By now I assume New Yorker editor David Remnick has assigned someone to do a profile of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is fast becoming the Howard Hughes of big-time politicians.

But just in case he hasn’t, here’s a reminder for him or any other smart editor why it’s time to take a long look at the governor: The New York Times report in late July detailing how Cuomo interfered with his supposedly independent corruption commission was great stuff. Even better were subsequent accounts in the Times and elsewhere about the governor’s clumsy attempts to explain things once he got caught.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and his partner Sandra Lee talk during memorial observances held at the site of the World Trade Center in New YorkBut the scandal over Cuomo’s scandal commission — which has spawned an investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office in New York — seems to be the tip of a proverbial iceberg of not just classic political hypocrisy but downright weirdness and paranoia not seen among big-shot politicians since President Richard M. Nixon roamed the halls of the White House.

As this other Times story by Thomas Kaplan points out in hilarious detail, Cuomo, who is running for reelection, doesn’t like to talk to people when he makes campaign appearances. In fact, he doesn’t make many campaign appearances at all.

Even the most mundane ceremonial events in the most out of the way places are tightly controlled and scripted so that the governor — protected by rope lines that keep back the few onlookers who show up — doesn’t have to say anything spontaneous to anyone.

On top of that, last Tuesday when he faced a primary challenge from a relatively unknown contender (who ended up getting one-third of the vote), Cuomo not only did not make an appearance on election night to make a victory speech, but he also instructed his staff not to tell the press where he was. In the few times he has been seen since, he has seemed nervous and out of sorts.

In 2006, Cuomo won praise and admiration in political circles after bouncing back from a disastrous campaign for governor in 2002 and winning election as state attorney general. He was given credit for running a campaign that, unlike the earlier try for governor, was disciplined and featured a candidate who never strayed off message.

Through his tenure as attorney general, and then his 2010 campaign for governor, he won similar praise for that same tight-message control.  But does his apparent unwillingness lately to risk even the most inconsequential spontaneous engagement with people he doesn’t control, not to mention his ham-handed interference with his corruption commission, mean he’s taken self-discipline and his quest for control over the deep end?

It’s time for someone to get inside the State House in Albany and figure out what’s going on. Who are Cuomo’s H.R. Haldemans and John Ehrlichmans — the staffers enabling him like these two men enabled Nixon? Are things as off-kilter as they seem?

2. Looking at the sagging Yankees, Inc.

Has anyone else been thinking that the Steinbrenner generation that succeeded George Steinbrenner and took control of the New York Yankees after “The Boss” died may not have the old man’s talent when it comes to running a baseball enterprise?

Steinbrenner died in 2010. His son, Hal, took control of the team in 2007 as his father’s health worsened. Hal Steinbrenner’s siblings have also been involved in the Yankees’ management.

MLB: Game Two-New York Yankees at Baltimore OriolesIt is now almost certain that, for the first time in 20 years, the Yankees will not make the playoffs for the second year in a row, despite spending lavishly this winter to bring in new talent.

Sure, it’s hard to blame management for the injuries and subpar performances that have plagued the team. But it’s also hard to have a lot of confidence in a front-office brain trust that has produced a version of the Bronx Bombers where anyone who hits over .260 with more than 50 runs batted in or 15 home runs looks like Babe Ruth.

I would love to read the inside story of how the Yankees are being run and how much the team’s bottom line is being hurt as hapless management flails away through September in a stadium that seems half-empty every night. How much are overall revenues down? And how much has the YES Network, which televises Yankee games and is 20 percent owned by the team, been hurt by what have to be falling ratings?

The entity that owns the Yankees, and that Hal Steinbrenner runs, is a limited partnership, not a public company, which will make reporting this story difficult. But there have to be some limited partners or former limited partners who will shed some light, especially if they’re dissatisfied with the current state of play.

It’s certainly worth a try.

There is also this possible sidebar: Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox owns the other 80 percent of the YES Network. Murdoch and his team can’t be happy with the Yankees either.

What’s his relationship now with the Steinbrenners? Any chance Fox might end up being a buyer if the Yankees continue their slide?


PHOTO (TOP): New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo stands during a news conference following a bi-state meeting on regional security in New York, September 15, 2014. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

PHOTO (INSERT): New York Yankees pitcher Bryan Mitchell (65) pitches in the first inning against the Baltimore Orioles in game two of a doubleheader at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Maryland, September 12, 2014. REUTERS/ Joy R. Absalon

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How much money is raised and spent in fighting cancer? Tue, 09 Sep 2014 05:15:49 +0000 Actress Paltrow is interviewed as she arrives for the fourth biennial Stand Up To Cancer fundraising telecast in Hollywood

1. Cancer money:

The Stand Up to Cancer telethon — simulcast Friday night on all four major broadcast networks and 28 cable channels, and live-streamed on Yahoo and Hulu (available on YouTube here) — reminded me of a story I have long wanted to read: How much money is being spent on cancer research, where is it going and how well is it being spent?

This story, from the CBS Los Angeles affiliate, reports, “Stand Up to Cancer was established in 2008 by film and media leaders as a new collaborative model of cancer research.

“More than $261 million has been pledged to support its programs,” the report continued, adding that the organization “has funded 12 teams of researchers, two transnational research teams and 26 young scientists.”

A story from the Associated Press reported that organizers said $109 million was raised from Friday’s event.

Former basketball player Abdul-Jabbar poses with actress Steinfeld and television journalist Couric at the fourth biennial Stand Up To Cancer fundraising telecast in HollywoodLast weekend was also the Race for the Cure, run through New York’s Central Park, organized by the nonprofit foundation, Susan G. Komen. The group’s website says it spent $58 million in fiscal year 2012 on grants for breast cancer research. Numerous other nonprofits — such as the Lustgarten Foundation, which funded $13 million in pancreatic cancer research in 2013 — similarly target different cancers.

All that seems like a lot, except that the website of the National Cancer Institute, one of the federal National Institutes of Health, reports that Washington funded $4.8 billion in cancer research in the 2013 fiscal year, and funding has averaged $4.9 billion over the past six years.

As I continue to pay attention to health industry news for a book I am completing, I’m constantly reading stories about one philanthropist or another giving tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars to support — and even build new edifices for — a hospital’s cancer research.

So what is the state of play? How useful is the telethon’s $109 million likely to be, compared to the billions available from the federal government and other donors? Does it raise the odds of progress or water down resources if 10 research teams are working separately on the same aspect of the cancer puzzle?

Is seeking donors to put their names on two or three cancer centers in the same city a matter of hospitals exploiting egos to build their fiefdoms? Or is it a true force-multiplier?

Is there something special about what the Stand Up to Cancer group says is its “new collaborative model”? If so, who are the most notorious non-collaborators?

Are there consultants who specialize in winning grants for hospitals and other research teams? Does their effectiveness undermine the mission by getting funds for less promising efforts?

In other words, is this like the government contracts business, where some contractors are better at winning contracts than fulfilling them?

How good is the National Cancer Institute at pulling the plug on research that has become a dry hole?

Where does Congress — which funds the institute — fit into the picture?

And where do the drug companies, who claim to spend their own billions on cancer research, fit in?

2. Alibaba and the China risk factor:

On the eve of the public offering of stock for Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, being touted as one of the largest initial public offerings in history, it amazes me that this eye-opening New York Times story by William Alden last May has not gotten more attention.

Alden’s story delves into what the Alibaba prospectus reveals are the complicated corporate entanglements and potential conflicts of interest involving its founders, as well as the departures from U.S. standards of public-company corporate governance — all of which could victimize shareholders down the road.

Though the Times story only alludes to it, overhanging all these issues is the elephant in the room that shareholders, who some day may feel cheated by the Chinese founders bringing the company to market with all these potential conflicts and without the usual governance safeguards, are unlikely to be able to rely on U.S. courts for redress.

Similarly, with current tensions with Russia in mind, what protects American shareholders if the Chinese at some point decide to disenfranchise them completely?

So the story I want to see is one where a reporter finds investors who have attended the company’s roadshow presentations and finds out from them just how aggressively the bankers and principals selling the stock were asked about that and what their answers were.  And which investors decided to plunge ahead anyway or to take a pass.

It’s not that Alibaba isn’t a juggernaut likely to keep prospering. It’s about whether the shareholders can really rely on participating in that upside.


PHOTO (TOP): Actress Gwyneth Paltrow is interviewed as she arrives for the fourth biennial Stand Up to Cancer fundraising telecast in Hollywood, California, September 5, 2014. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

PHOTO (INSERT): Former basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar poses with actress Hailee Steinfeld (L) and television journalist Katie Couric at the fourth biennial Stand Up To Cancer fundraising telecast in Hollywood, California, September 5, 2014. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

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