Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

Medicare meddling, the guns of Westchester, and Al Gore’s payday

Steven Brill
Jan 8, 2013 13:09 UTC

1)   Fiscal cliff Medicare meddling:

According to this report in the New York Times, last-minute negotiations on the fiscal cliff included new congressionally imposed limits on what Medicare will pay for “nonemergency ambulance transportation of kidney dialysis patients” and “would reduce Medicare payments … for stereotactic radiosurgery, complete course of treatment of cranial lesion(s) consisting of one session that is multi-source Cobalt-60 based.’”

Yes, Congress really does get that far down in the weeds when it comes to dictating how Medicare doles out more than $500 billion a year. This includes, for example, overseeing the payments Medicare allows, by state, for designated categories of ambulance rides (“critical,” “emergency,” “air evacuation,” etc.).

There are two obvious stories here: What scandalous overpayments or abuses in those nonemergency kidney dialysis ambulance trips triggered this intervention, and who in Congress pushed for it? Similarly, what’s the story behind those Cobalt-60 treatments?

Beyond that, either of those tidbits would be a good lead-in for a broader story about the more typical type of congressional intervention when it comes to Medicare. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle habitually succumb to lobbyists in ways that keep Medicare costs far higher than they need to be. For example, except in a few regions of the country, Medicare is not allowed to conduct competitive bidding for medical equipment ranging from canes to wheelchairs to oxygen supplies. The result is billions in overpayments every year, with Medicare paying more per cane to buy tens of thousands of canes than you would pay to buy them one at a time at Wal-Mart. At a time when Medicare cuts are center stage in the ongoing deficit debate, why not try to identify the cost of this congressional meddling?

2)   Surprise! Gannett makes news for its journalism:

Two weeks ago a Westchester, New York–based daily newspaper, the Journal News ignited a firestorm by publishing a map showing the locations of all those in the communities it covers who had received handgun permits. Those who clicked on the electronic version of the map on the Journal News website were shown the names and addresses of all the permit holders.

How far can the Chinese firewall stretch?

Steven Brill
Dec 31, 2012 18:11 UTC

1.    Media tug of war in China:

Last week, my daughter sent me this amazing Bloomberg.com story, accompanied by graphics and  clickable family trees, that unraveled how the “princeling” ancestors of China’s “Eight Immortals” – the generals and party leaders who built the communist superpower – now control the country’s leading industrial and financial conglomerates. The New York Times has also been on the case, detailing in articles like this one and this one how those controlling China’s national and regional governments have showered favors on their entrepreneurial relatives.

Then, last Friday the Times added a report describing heightened Internet blocking measures that Chinese authorities are taking to keep these kinds of stories about Chinese crony capitalism and other scandals from being seen online in China. The new efforts to firewall information that would embarrass the ruling class even include trying to block offending content from reaching the virtual private networks (VPNs) used by corporations to ensure the privacy and security of the information their employees transmit around the world.

It’s all fascinating, important stuff. But it’s only the opening rumble of what could be one of the major business and political stories of 2013. After all, this is the kind of information that threatens to overturn the implicit deal with the citizenry that the Communist Party rulers have depended on for the last two decades: let us rule and we won’t act like Communists when it comes to giving you economic opportunity.

The NRA playbook, Obama’s pot dilemma, and HSBC’s money laundering

Steven Brill
Dec 18, 2012 12:41 UTC

1. Getting the NRA’s massacre playbook:

In the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre, we’ve been reading a lot about school lockdowns and other emergency drills. Here’s an idea for some original reporting about a different kind of emergency drill: Reporters ought to get sources inside the National Rifle Association, or people who deal with the organization, to reveal the playbook the NRA must have developed by now to make sure the group can swing into action whenever there’s an outbreak of mass gun carnage.

Is there an email or phone list in place so that the first crisis team conference call can be convened quickly? Who’s on it in addition to NRA staff? Gun company executives? Lobbyists? Pollsters? PR people?

Is there a set script for the initial comment (such as “Now is not the time to talk politics”) followed by a sequenced set of later responses? How does the response evolve from the first days into the first week and then the second? Who is designated to make decisions about when to start responding to press inquiries and whether to do the Sunday talk shows, who should be the spokespeople and what the talking points should be?

Athletes’ charities; American lawyers and Bangladesh’s sweatshops; the fate of workplace screwups

Steven Brill
Dec 11, 2012 12:46 UTC

1.    Looking at athletes’ charities:

I was at a dinner last week in which the featured speaker was New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. Jeter spent much of the time talking about Turn 2, the foundation he and his family established soon after he joined the Yankees. It sponsors programs intended, as its mission statement explains, to get kids in impoverished communities “to turn away from drugs and alcohol and ‘Turn2’ healthy lifestyles.” There was also a video about the charity’s work and the hands-on involvement of Jeter, his parents and his sister.

It was impressive, and the foundation’s latest publicly available tax return (for 2010) supports that first impression. A relatively modest charity with about $3.4 million in assets, Turn 2 used those assets to spend about $200,000 more than the $2.3 million it received from investment income and contributions. The biggest contribution was almost $600,000 from Jeter; the rest came from donors such as Gatorade, Nike and the Yankees. The money went to support a wide variety of after-school and summer sports clinics and other youth programs in New York, Tampa (where Jeter has a home and the Yankees train) and Kalamazoo, Michigan (where Jeter’s family lives).

Jeter, his sister and their parents draw no salaries, and the highest salary, $101,000, goes to a non-relative listed as the foundation’s full-time president.

Ad technolology that may threaten newspapers; winners and losers of the fiscal cliff

Steven Brill
Nov 20, 2012 12:51 UTC

1. Another threat to newspapers’ business models?

This article in the New York Times last Friday and this one in the National Journal pinpoint two important developments in the media business that could collide to pose yet another threat to the financial viability of journalism.

The Times article describes the rise of “programmatic advertising,” in which new online tracking technologies allow an advertiser to follow a consumer whose profile fits the advertiser’s targeted demographics wherever the consumer goes online rather than just make an educated guess about the websites that consumer is most likely to visit.

Before programmatic advertising, if an upscale restaurant chain decided that its best prospects were well-to-do men who live in major metropolitan areas and travel a lot, it might buy ads in the business sections of high-end newspapers or on business travel sites. Now the restaurant chain can follow those targeted people to any website they visit. It doesn’t have to buy ads on the sites where the target is most likely to be found but can instead simply bid on an electronic ad exchange to buy the cheapest ad that will reach someone with those demographics no matter where he or she goes (a gossip site, for example).

The clown-show economics of storm-hit utilities, and in search of open primaries

Steven Brill
Nov 13, 2012 12:42 UTC

1.   My Alaska-Hawaii electricity repair team:

It’s 10 o’clock and the lights are out. Do you know where your local utility actually lives?

I have already written that New York State Electric and Gas — the incompetent, uncaring electric company that services our home in northern Westchester County, New York ‑- is not exactly a community utility. It is part of a Spanish energy conglomerate. Nonetheless, when a repair crew finally arrived six days after Hurricane Sandy hit and I chatted up the guys who were about to climb our poles, I was amazed to hear that one was from Hawaii and the other two from Alaska. That they had come that far seemed so absurd that I asked to see their driver’s licenses.

Adding to this theater of the absurd was the fact that the truck they were driving was owned by something called Michels Company and had come from Syracuse, New York. That’s about 250 miles from our house. And they had been commuting all week on that truck to the repair jobs in our neighborhood from a motel in Kingston, New York – which is 72 miles away.

Keeping tabs on the Red Cross; Romney’s transition plans; Obama’s next book

Steven Brill
Nov 5, 2012 20:53 UTC

Red Cross donations: Remember September 11

I hope we soon see a lot of coverage of how the Red Cross is using its Hurricane Sandy contributions.

For everyone from Mitt Romney to President Obama to the good-hearted people who raised $23 million through NBC’s telethon last Friday, the Red Cross has become the charity of choice for victims of Sandy – just as it was the default charity after 9/11. But if New York’s last mass disaster is any indication, how the Red Cross uses the money is worth a lot of reporters’ attention.

In the months after 9/11, the Red Cross demonstrated that it was great at providing immediate relief such as blankets, food and short-term shelter, but it really wasn’t in the business of providing costlier long-term aid, such as help for people to rebuild homes and businesses. Thus, after $850 million in 9/11 contributions had poured into the organization, far surpassing what it could spend handing out blankets and sandwiches and setting up shelters, a mini-scandal unfolded when it was revealed that much of the money people thought they were donating to victims of the terror attacks was in fact being socked away to provide that same kind of short-term relief for victims of future fires or floods.

Hurricanes and utilities, keeping Time, and delving into the bureaucracy

Steven Brill
Oct 29, 2012 23:48 UTC

1.   Hurricanes and the utilities

Memo to local newspaper editors and television news producers in today’s hurricane zone: Assuming your community loses its power, find out which of the CEOs responsible for the utilities in your area have generators at their homes. If your reporter can’t get on the CEO’s property to look for one, just have him or her show up outside after it gets dark and see if the lights are on.

The only catch is that the CEO has to live in your region, meaning that the company responsible for the cutbacks in repair crews that could result in the lights staying out across parts of the Northeast for days isn’t yet part of some far-flung conglomerate. As I pointed out here about a year ago, the guy responsible for the prolonged power outages last fall in my area of northern Westchester in New York sits atop a company based in Spain.

2. What’s the story at Time?

With the imminent demise of the print version of Newsweek, I’d like to know what’s happening at Time.

from The Great Debate:

New election economy; voter fraud billboards, N.Y. skyscrapers 2.0

Steven Brill
Oct 23, 2012 07:38 UTC

Scoping out the new election economy:

No matter what you think about the court decisions, including Citizens United, that have unraveled campaign-finance restrictions, it’s clear that the resulting gusher of contributions has created an industry of breathtaking scale.

Estimates now put overall federal campaign spending for 2012 at about $6 billion - more than half of Hollywood’s entire box-office gross last year. And that’s only for presidential and congressional campaigns.

So it’s time for a comprehensive report, perhaps from the Wall Street Journal or Reuters or BloombergBusinessweek, on Elections Inc.

Electoral legal minefields, baseball contracts, and airline woes

Steven Brill
Oct 16, 2012 10:26 UTC

1. The Election Day legal battlefield:

We need all kinds of coverage of the legal Armageddon that we may face on Election Day and the morning after.

Assuming the election stays close, there could be multiple swing states in play, with voter identification and provisional balloting rules so much in flux that the multi-court, multi-issue legal war we suffered through in Florida in 2000 will look simple by comparison.

For example, voting in Ohio in 2008 was marred by all kinds of confusion and fights over thousands of ballots, but the battle ended on election night because President Obama pulled ahead of Senator McCain in the state by such a wide margin that the contested ballots would not have been decisive. This time, Ohio is likely to be much closer, and even with a federal judge having thus far enjoined implementation of new, Republican-sponsored early voting restrictions, confusion persists and the state’s election machinery seems no less subject to breakdowns and disputes than it was in 2008.

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