Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

How Obamacare burns smokers, the Economist’s anonymous staff, and New York City’s bike-sharing program

Steven Brill
Oct 8, 2013 13:33 UTC

1. How Obamacare burns smokers:

Amid all the publicity around the glitch-filled launch of the Obamacare health insurance exchanges and the accompanying debate over whether the premiums being offered will be low enough to attract enough buyers, one aspect of the story hasn’t gotten nearly the attention it deserves.

Almost anyone who has followed the story knows that Obamacare doesn’t allow people with pre-existing conditions to be denied coverage or to be charged extra; that it limits the price differentials that can be charged to older people versus younger customers; and that it provides government subsidies to those living below 400 percent of the poverty level to help them pay their premiums. But what’s not well-known is how Obamacare lowers the boom on the 19 percent of American adults who smoke, substantially negating all three of those consumer-friendly features.

Being a smoker is the one pre-existing condition that insurance companies can discriminate against under the Affordable Care Act. In fact, insurers participating in the exchanges can charge a premium of up to 50 percent for smokers.

But the penalty doesn’t stop there: The premium subsidies that Obamacare makes available for the poor and lower-middle class are based on a formula that subsidizes an individual or family so that they do not have to pay more than a certain percentage of their income — out of their pockets– for their insurance. However, under the law, those subsidies cannot be applied at all to pay the 50 percent smokers’ premium. The loss of that subsidy can be a big deal.

Suppose, for example, someone earning $20,000 a year would qualify for a $3,000 subsidy on an insurance plan costing $4,000 a year. This would make his annual cost $1,000. But if he’s a smoker, the same plan might cost $6,000 a year (factoring in the 50 percent surcharge on the $4,000 sticker price). He would still only get a $3,000 subsidy, because the subsidy can’t be applied to the smokers’ penalty. That means he would pay $3,000 out of pocket instead of $1,000.

Default scenarios, Yankees’ doctors, and why Internet companies backpedaled on privacy

Steven Brill
Sep 24, 2013 11:11 UTC

1. Default scenarios:

With a deadlock over raising the debt ceiling looking more likely than a stalemate over funding the government to avert a shutdown, I’ve been looking for a definitive story on what exactly will happen if the ceiling isn’t raised.

Yes, we’ve read that the government is likely to continue to pay its debts to bondholders in order to avoid a default. That means that other checks for basic expenses, like payrolls, will have to be delayed until revenues roll in to cover them. But how exactly will that work?

Indeed, is there really any way that the government — which must have thousands of agencies and offices issuing checks every day — can control its outlays the way you or I might control our checkbooks when we’re in a pinch? Or is everything already programmed on systems that can maybe be turned on or off but can’t be tweaked to cover one check but not another? Who in the government is staying up at night working on that?

Arms inspection stalling, runaway healthcare costs, and why Snowden revealed himself

Steven Brill
Sep 17, 2013 12:11 UTC

1.  Reality check on arms inspection stalling:

This New York Times article published last Sunday provides good detail on the challenges associated with implementing an arms inspection deal with Syria. However, someone this week ought to do a comprehensive recap of the years of stalling done by North Korea, Iraq and Iran to stave off and otherwise jerk around U.N. arms inspectors. President Obama may have found a convenient excuse for calling off the attack on Syria, but despite the promises of the rogue countries when they agreed to inspections, has any such mission ever gone according to schedule? And this one is supposed to proceed apace in the middle of a civil war.

2. Runaway healthcare costs, 50 cents at a time:

The test strips that diabetics use to measure blood sugar levels can be bought for about 50 cents each in boxes of 50 at the local Walgreens. That doesn’t seem like much, but it can add up when the world’s biggest healthcare customer is doing the buying.

Medicare spends over a billion dollars a year to provide the test strips to about 4.6 million beneficiaries, according to a recently released report from the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General.

The cost of attacking Syria, and tell me what to think about fracking

Steven Brill
Sep 10, 2013 10:52 UTC

1. Scoping out the budget for attacking Syria:

This article in Defense News estimates that if President Obama attacks Syria the cost would likely be “hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons,” including $1.4 million for each Raytheon Tomahawk missile that is launched. All last week I saw estimates that were equally vague and varied from the tens of millions up to and over a billion dollars.

Of course, that’s hardly the press’s fault; no one can know the cost of the proposed attack without knowing the details of the war plan, and even then, the ultimate cost would depend on how the plan pans out — including how many weapons are used and how long it all takes.

Still, I would like to see two stories this week related to the Syria war debate and money.

MTV’s Miley Cyrus mess, Donald Trump and the law, and who benefits from federal fines

Steven Brill
Sep 3, 2013 17:06 UTC

1. Ask about the Miley Cyrus sleaze:

In the wake of MTV’s universally-panned decision to feature 20-year-old Miley Cyrus in a cringe-producing sex pantomime with 36-year-old Robin Thicke during the telecast of the MTV Video Music Awards, reporters ought to be sticking microphones in front of producers and executives at MTV and its parent Viacom.

Using what the New York Daily News called “a foam hand as a sexual prop,” Cyrus’s act was characterized this way by Mika Brzezinski on MSNBC’s Morning Joe: “That was not funny. That was really, really bad for anybody who is younger and impressionable. And she’s really messed up, so I don’t think they should have put her on stage. They should be ashamed of themselves….”

MTV’s target demographics are teens and pre-teens. So reporters should start with a simple question: Would the producers and executives responsible for Cyrus’s performance have wanted their own teen or pre-teen children (or grandchildren or maybe great-grandchildren in the case of Viacom’s 90-year-old founder and chief executive Sumner Redstone) to have watched the show?

Bezos’ silence, lobbyists and Egypt, and the inner workings of State-owned TV

Steven Brill
Aug 27, 2013 11:48 UTC

1. Wash Post reporters: Get a Bezos comment

These sentences in last week’s Times profile of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos beg for a follow-up from the house the Grahams built:

 “Every story you ever see about Amazon, it has that sentence: ‘An Amazon spokesman declined to comment,’”  Mr. Marcus said. 

Drew Herdener, an Amazon spokesman, declined to comment.

Over the years, in reading stories about Amazon I’ve noticed the same pattern of Amazon simply refusing to comment no matter what the story was about. And, although Amazon’s website lists a phone number for a public relations office, it lists no names of anyone specific to call, nor do its press releases list names for reporters to call for follow-up. Amazon’s resolute refusal to answer press questions and the paradox of Bezos now owning a business whose employees are paid to ask them is captured nicely in this column by Jack Shafer.

Football’s costs, SEC v. Cohen and the Whale’s tale

Steven Brill
Aug 20, 2013 00:25 UTC

The NFL’s looming court tests

As the 2013 National Football League season begins, it’s time for an update on the liability suits the league is facing from what the website Deadspin reported last April were “more than 4,000 former players” who claim to have suffered on-the-job brain damage. The same Deadspin report noted that helmet-maker Riddell is also a defendant in the suits and that in April a Colorado high school student won a $3.1 million judgment against Ridell after he was brain damaged and partially paralyzed following a concussion suffered in a 2008 practice drill.

In June of 2012, Forbes ran a story headlined, “NFL Faces Tobacco-Like Damages Reaching Billions Of Dollars In Concussion Litigation,” and in December, the New York Times reported another wrinkle — that the NFL and its teams are fighting in court with 32 different insurance companies over whether their policies cover the league’s and the teams’ liability and legal costs.

“The N.F.L., which generates about $9 billion a year, may be equipped to handle these legal challenges,” the Times wrote. “But colleges, high schools and club teams may be forced to consider severe measures in the face of liability issues, like raising fees to offset higher premiums; capping potential damages; and requiring players to sign away their right to sue coaches and schools. Some schools and leagues may even shut down teams because the expense and legal risk are too high.”

How the Guardian protects state secrets, and weak reporting at Ad Age

Steven Brill
Aug 6, 2013 12:31 UTC

1. How the Guardian protects America’s national security:

Last week, the Guardian released another Edward Snowden-procured red-hot document – a “top secret,” 32-page National Security Agency training manual for a program initiated in 2008 called XKeyscore that purportedly allowed NSA analysts to vacuum up data on Internet browsing activity around the world.

“The NSA boasts in training materials that the program…is its ‘widest-reaching’ system for developing intelligence from the internet,” wrote the Guardian’s Glen Greenwald.

That was quite a scoop, though I suppose I’m not alone in no longer being surprised at anything the NSA is snatching up. But what did surprise me was that as I scrolled through the electronic version of the document, four of the 32 pages were blacked out, because, according to the Guardian’s explanation: “This slide has been redacted as it reveals specific NSA operations.”

The cushy world of academia, surveillance 2.0 and $200 million to tear down a building

Steven Brill
Jul 30, 2013 11:36 UTC

1. Is higher ed the capital of featherbedding?

This sentence in an LA Times editorial two weeks ago about Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano becoming the president of the University of California caught my eye: “Half of the regents haven’t even had a chance to talk to her about how she would approach the job — a job that involves 10 campuses, 170,000 faculty and staff members and more than 220,000 students.”

Does it really take 170,000 faculty and staff to serve 220,000 students? Actually, not quite. According to the university’s website, there are 121,000 faculty and staff, not 170,000. But that still means 1.8 students for every faculty and staff member* faculty and staff members for every student — which doesn’t seem like much of a workload.

So I checked three other universities at random. New York University’s website says it has about 51,000 students and 16,000 employees, or about one employee for every three students. Harvard lists 16,500 faculty and staff for about 21,000 students, or 1.27 students for every employee. Florida State University says it has a faculty and staff of about 8,200 serving 41,000 students, or five students for every staff member.

TV’s campaign ad addiction, Obamacare outsourced to Canada, and a Romney aide’s new role

Steven Brill
Jul 23, 2013 11:44 UTC

1.  TV’s campaign addiction:

This report from the New York Times’ Brian Stelter two weeks ago explains how campaign cash spent in hotly contested presidential election swing states and in close primary and general election congressional races has helped to drive two recent multibillion dollar purchases of television station groups by Gannett and Tribune Company, both of which already own large collections of local television outlets.

As Stelter explains:

“The increasingly expensive elections that play out across the country every two years are making stations look like a smart investment….Despite an array of digital alternatives and a rapidly transforming television business, 30-second commercials remain one of the most valuable tools of campaigns and political action committees. As Leslie Moonves, the chief executive of the CBS Corporation, which owns 29 stations, memorably said last year, ‘Super PACs may be bad for America, but they’re very good for CBS.’”

In fact, Stelter may have understated the impact of the changed legal landscape that now allows unlimited personal and corporate contributions to PACs, Super PACs, and “social welfare” nonprofits, all of which have been buying hundreds of millions of dollars in political ads.

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