Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

How much is contraception coverage and costly violations for BNP Paribas

Steven Brill
Jul 8, 2014 05:00 UTC

justices

1. Does health insurance covering contraception actually cost anything?

In this article about a renewed fight at the U.S. Supreme Court just days after its decision about whether the owners of the Hobby Lobby retail chain had to buy insurance covering certain forms of contraception, the New York Times’ ace court reporter Adam Liptak wrote:

The majority opinion there, written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., seemed to suggest that the forms could play a role in an arrangement that was an acceptable alternative to having employers pay for the coverage. Under the arrangement, insurance companies that receive the forms pay for the coverage on the theory that it costs no more to provide contraception than to pay for pregnancies.

Read the sentence I put in italics.

Obamacare was only passed after President Barack Obama and the bill’s lead sponsors in the House of Representatives and Senate agreed to a compromise to assuage religious groups opposed to contraception.

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Sotomayor answers questions during final day of testimony at her confirmation hearings in WashingtonUnder the compromise, religious organizations could not be forced to pay for insurance that included contraception. Instead, the insurance companies would include the coverage separately, at their own cost. The Hobby Lobby case was about whether privately owned businesses with the same qualms about contraception could claim the exemption.

At the time the law was passed, and then after the Hobby Lobby case was brought, I wondered why an insurance company would agree to provide some coverage for free.

Sealing deadly court files, and Obama and his Cabinet

Steven Brill
Apr 15, 2014 04:44 UTC

1. Sealing deadly court files:

In the wake of continuing disclosures about General Motors’ failure to acknowledge critical safety issues related to faulty ignition switches, there’s a looming issue that has not been addressed: How litigation settlements negotiated by private parties can result in court-sanctioned cover-ups that endanger the public.

We now know that there were several cases in which the families of people who died in crashes after ignition switches failed quietly received cash settlements from GM.

In return for the cash, the plaintiffs not only promised to withhold the settlement details but also agreed with GM that the court files would be sealed. In some cases, those sealed records included documents and transcripts of pre-trial deposition testimony that contained evidence gathered about the dangers of the faulty switches.

A refund for Healthcare.gov, European lobbyists, and A-Rod’s curious supporters

Steven Brill
Oct 22, 2013 13:47 UTC

1. Can we get our money back for the failure of Healthcare.gov?

Over the weekend the Wall Street Journal scored a scoop of sorts, getting the first interview with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius since her ill-fated appearance on “The Daily Show.” She addressed the failure of her Healthcare.gov website to function as the enrollment marketplace for the 36 states that are having the federal government operate their Obamacare insurance exchanges, instead of doing exchanges on their own.

The Journal quoted Sebelius as saying “she would see if the government was entitled to any refunds, once the work is done.” With $400 million having been spent on outside contractors for the collapsed website, reporters ought to follow up on that aggressively.

Government contractors usually escape responsibility for cost overruns, lapsed schedules or downright failure to produce a product that works by claiming, rightly or wrongly, that the instructions they were given destined the project for failure, were not explicit enough, or were changed midway through the work. In the case of Healthcare.gov, the Statement of Work instructing the lead contractor, CGI Federal, was 60 pages, single-spaced. So lack of detail may not be a great defense. But were the instructions poorly conceived — or changed in a way that caused the current fiasco? Or are other factors responsible for the failure, making it unlikely that we taxpayers can get some of our money back?

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.

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.

Booz Allen’s liability, Europe and the NSA, and Obamacare as stimulus

Steven Brill
Jun 10, 2013 16:07 UTC

1. Booz Allen’s liability in the government snooping leaks:

We now know that the source of last week’s leaks revealing various U.S. government data collection and surveillance activities is a low-level employee of the giant consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, which the New York Times reported on Monday was paid $1.3 billion last year by various American intelligence agencies under multiple contracts related to data collection and analysis. (The firm’s website  has a whole section under “Intelligence Community” about how Booz turns “Big Data Into Big Insights.”)

So, the obvious question is what do those contracts say about the firm’s liability if one of its employees spills its client’s secrets resulting in what Director of National Intelligence James Clapper calls “gut=wrenching” losses? Can we at least get some or all of our money back? (The company’s stock was down in Monday morning trading, perhaps in anticipation of such problems.) If not, why not?

2. Greenwald’s conflict?

Revealing Snowden’s identity was Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald’s latest in his series of scoops on U.S. government snooping. Greenwald posted a video interview with Snowden in which the Booz Allen employee says he revealed the government’s intelligence programs to Greenwald to expose abuses of what he called “a surveillance state.”

The commencement speech market, Obamacare job bonanza, and recess appointment gridlock

Steven Brill
May 14, 2013 11:36 UTC

1.  The commencement speech market:

It’s my guess that the most sought-after commencement speaker this season is former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. How many invites did she get, and how does that compare with other top names? And did she accept any? Is she getting paid? Especially now that Benghazi has come back into the news, has she set any ground rules related to the appearance, such as whether she will be available to the press before or after the talk?

Who else is a top drawer graduation speaker this year? And who, in terms of gravitas or lack thereof, is this year’s most unlikely pontificator?

What’s the market like generally this season? At a time when students face mounting tuition debt, have any schools, mindful that graduates are rarely rocked by any commencement speaker, made it a policy not to spend big bucks to put a star at the podium?

Digging deeper on the effects of Obamacare

Steven Brill
Jul 10, 2012 12:54 UTC

Just because President Obama and his team have been pathetic when it comes to letting Americans know what’s in his healthcare reform law doesn’t mean the press shouldn’t be zeroing in on this huge, multifaceted story. The law is packed with changes – some of which have already taken effect but have barely been written about – whose ramifications range from likely upheavals in the advertising and marketing industries to an apparent lifeline for all Americans who are mystified or even tormented when dealing with their health insurers.

A marketing explosion

Let’s start with the business angles. As this article from Advertising Age points out, once various provisions of Obamacare take effect, key sectors of the healthcare industry, particularly hospitals and insurance companies, are going to have to become heavily engaged in consumer marketing and communications. In the last few years we’ve seen some hospitals use advertising to establish their brand, and, as I mentioned in this column in February, United HealthCare has been aggressively advertising to consumers.

All of these early efforts are about to be taken to a whole new level because of Obamacare – which requires that by 2014 everyone must buy health insurance and every state must have an exchange where consumers can go online and compare insurers’ offerings. This means not only that the market for health insurance is going to expand but also that much of it is likely to be sold directly to individual consumers rather than through an employer. Meantime, hospitals and doctors’ networks will want to advertise to have more leverage in negotiating with insurers to include them in the insurers’ networks.

Obamacare word games, Arianna’s real deal, and Spanish power

Steven Brill
Nov 29, 2011 16:09 UTC

By Steven Brill

This is the second entry in a new regular column, “Stories I’d Like To See.” It’s the notebook of someone who still thinks like an editor but is over the thrill of managing a reporting staff – or the hassle of dealing with “great” story ideas that crash and burn when someone actually goes out and reports them and learns anew that even the best editors can’t hit much better than the best ballplayers (meaning three or four out of ten story ideas will actually work).

1. Obamacare’s Word Game Screw-Up:

As the debate over the constitutionality of Obamacare’s individual mandate moves toward an election-year climax in the Supreme Court, I’m surprised that I haven’t read a story recounting the deliberate but boneheaded decision by Administration officials to call the fine imposed on those not buying health insurance a “penalty” instead of labeling it a “tax.” Someone in the White House counsel’s office or the Justice Department must have spoken up and told everyone else what most constitutional lawyers who have looked at the current litigation now readily acknowledge: that there would be almost zero chance of opponents mounting a credible attack on the provision if it was called a tax. In fact, in one of the lower court skirmishes over the constitutionality of the law, conservative D.C. Appeals Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh seemed to enjoy tweaking the Obama people by readily conceding that the law would be okay had they simply called it a tax. Congress has a well-established right to tax anything or anyone.

Apparently afraid of burying the word tax somewhere in the 974-page bill, the Administration insisted on calling the fine – which, ironically will be assessed on tax returns and collected by the IRS – a “penalty” for not buying insurance. Did any of the President’s lawyers warn the former constitutional law professor about this?

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