Health Care

A Bumper Crop of Pot Referenda

(Flickr/Torben Bjørn Hansen)
In the halls of state legislatures, few folks laugh at the exploits of Cheech and Chong or Harold and Kumar. There is a bipartisan consensus that marijuana laws are political kryptonite, as if touching the topic of drug legalization, even medicinally, might prompt immediate backlash. The lack of mainstream support is surprising, given that sizeable groups in both parties have long clamored for an end to the “War on Drugs.” Some drug war critics point to the costs, both societal and budgetary, associated with imprisoning millions of people for a crime that doesn’t seem to hurt anyone. Others like the fiscal possibilities for marijuana legalization: If pot is legal, it will be taxable, and at a time when state governments are starved for cash, any possibility for new revenue is an opportunity. Though mainstream lawmakers remain reluctant, citizens seem to be warming to the idea of marijuana as something other than an illegal substance. (Maybe stoner movies have had some success.) A 2011...

Arlen Specter: A Poor Man's Richard Nixon

From Democrat to Republican to Democrat again, from his fierce opposition of Robert Bork to his cutthroat cross examination of Anita Hill, Specter was always, above all, a politician.

(Flickr/ProgressOhio)
Flickr/musicFIRSTcoalition W hen Arlen Specter, the former Pennsylvania Senator who died Sunday at the age of 82, was negotiating to become a Democrat in 2009, he believed that he would retain his GOP-acquired seniority on the Senate committees in which he served. Specter thought he’d gotten a commitment from Majority Leader Harry Reid—Specter’s switch would not only help him avoid a primary challenge from the right, but would give the Democrats 60 votes in the Senate. However, the Democratic caucus resented the idea that Specter could jump ahead of lifelong Dems on the seniority list. Reid was thus unable to keep the agreement with Specter. Losing the committee seniority, Specter said, according to Politico , “was the worst moment of my life.” The worst moment of a then-79-year-old man’s life? Think about that. Specter had, by then, lost his parents. He had gone through several bouts of cancer, a benign brain tumor, and cardiac bypass surgery in the previous decade. He had two...

Medicaid Is the Real Target

Since August, when Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan as his running mate, the two campaigns have fought a fierce battle over who is the most stalwart protector of Medicare. In the first presidential debate, Romney assailed President Obama for his $716 billion in Medicare cuts, and Ryan did the same in last week’s vice presidential face-off. Likewise, the Obama campaign has hit Team Romney for the Ryan plan and its Medicare “premium support”—which, if implemented, would gradually replace traditional Medicare with subsidized, regulated private insurance. The irony is that—in the short term, at least—Medicare will stay unchanged, regardless of who wins the election. Seniors are among the most mobilized voters in the electorate, and there’s too much political risk involved in making big, immediate changes to Medicare. For that reason, Medicare reform plans on both sides are backloaded and will take time to unfold. The same isn’t true of Medicaid, the other major federal health-care program. The...

Are Women Better Off Than We Were Four Years Ago: Take Two

The story so far. Last week I objected to the question “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” I object to the idea that my well-being can be reduced purely to economics, or to few things that the president can affect. (One colleague wrote: My 90-year-old mother would certainly say she’s not better off than she was four years ago, but that’s more about her health than about her wallet!) So I’m going to hijack that question for my own purposes and ask: Are women better off than we were four years ago—not just financially, and not just in ways affected by President Barack Obama’s administration, but overall? Last week we checked in on our financial well-being, given that finances are indeed important. But there’s more to life than our checkbooks and retirement plans. So welcome to Episode Two: Our Bodies, Our Well-Being. There’s some good news and some bad news. As you know, this past year, some prominent menfolk have been deeply distressed to learn that we believe that...

Obama: Giving Away Social Security

(AP/Rex Features)
Here is Mitt Romney’s proposal to cut Social Security benefits, from the Romney campaign website : First, for future generations of seniors, Mitt believes that the retirement age should be slowly increased to account for increases in longevity. Second, for future generations of seniors, Mitt believes that benefits should continue to grow but that the growth rate should be lower for those with higher incomes. In other words, cuts in benefits. In the first debate, I was waiting for President Obama to go to town on this. Instead, Obama had this to say: LEHRER: "Mr. President. Do you see a major difference between the two of you on Social Security?" OBAMA: "You know, I suspect that, on Social Security, we’ve got a somewhat similar position. Social Security is structurally sound. It’s going to have to be tweaked the way it was by Ronald Reagan and Speaker — Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill." He’s got a similar position to Mitt Romney’s? On Social Security? Does this man just want to hand the...

Better Know a Ballot Measure

(Flickr/radarxlove and jamelah e.)
When Oregon voted on the nation’s first ballot initiative in 1904, the idea—as high-school civics teachers have told students ever since—was to take power away from the industries that ran the state legislature through bribes and corruption and return it to the people. In those days, corporate interests dominated and corrupted state politics all across the United States. Mining and railroad companies loomed particularly large, buying off entire legislative chambers and putting lawmakers on their payroll. The emerging progressive movement thought it had found a way to fight back: Give citizens the ability to create their own legislation and put it up for a popular vote—a process known as the initiative. There was also the referendum, a tool citizens could use to veto laws at the ballot box. These ballot measures offered a way for the grassroots to make their voices heard. As your civics teacher might have told you, several states would soon join Oregon in using the new power of “direct...

Reaping What Elections Sow

(Flickr/ BKM_BR)
In 2010, Tea Party mania influenced elections at every level—congressional races and governorships, most famously. But the biggest impact was on state legislatures, where 21 house or senate chambers flipped from Democratic to Republican control. In states like Texas, Republican majorities turned into supermajorities; in the Texas House, Democrats were no longer needed to make up a quorum. All the legislative energy was on the side of Tea Party Republicans. They made sweeping, historic changes—to labor laws, to health care, to reproductive rights, and, most of all, to state budgets and public school funding. In a few weeks, voters in most states will be choosing new lawmakers again. They'll make their decisions based in part on how they believe the incumbents governed over the last two years. But because of the massive scale of changes ushered in by Tea Party Republicans, it's going to be extremely difficult—if not downright impossible—for voters to judge the effects of those changes...

When the Fringe Shapes the Center

During the AIDS crisis, ACT UP's radicalism forced more mainstream gay-rights groups to step up their game.

(AP Photo/Tim Clary, File)
(AP Photo/Tim Clary, File) Act Up protestors lie on the street in front of the New York Stock Exchange in a demonstration against the high cost of the AIDS treatment drug AZT in September of 1989. S tarting with my inability to believe Mitch McConnell isn't one of Disney's talking teapots gone rogue, there are plenty of good reasons I don't and shouldn't run the zoo. But if I did, How To Survive A Plague would be mandatory viewing for Occupy Wall Streeters. First-time director David France's new documentary about the 1987-'93 glory years of ACT UP—aka AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, in case you've forgotten—is a wrenching remembrance of a gay holocaust that's already dimmer than it should be in our memory. The movie is also an exhilarating portrait of human beings discovering what they're capable of in a crisis. But above all, it's the story of how a never too numerous band of obstreperous activists successfully changed public policy. On that count, France may gild the lily somewhat...

"One Thing I've Learned: We're All Vulnerable."

You want another reason I hate presidential campaign season? It obscures real problems, the very problems the election is about . Okay, so that’s the same gripe I had yesterday . So let me introduce you to someone who's not just griping, but is doing something about it. Harold Pollack is a health policy analyst who, despite his terrifyingly smart and accomplished credentials , has an extraordinary ability to see social policy the way ordinary humans do: as a series of needlessly frustrating encounters with indifferent bureaucratic machinery. Over and over, he tells the stories of how ordinary human beings of limited abilities or limited means get dropped by the systems our society set up to help them. His stories have a liberal heart—in the sense that he clearly believes societies have a responsibility to help the weakest and most vulnerable—but contain no apologies for system failure. He lets the stories speak for themselves. And that is an extraordinary skill. For quite some time,...

What Romney Left Behind

Flickr/Gage Skidmore
One of the common misconceptions about the presidential candidate version of Mitt Romney is that he disavowed his greatest achievement in public office, health care reform, in an attempt to appeal to his party's base. The truth is that he never actually disavowed it or said it was a failure or a mistake. What he did was tell primary voters that Romneycare was really nothing at all like Obamacare, and anyway Romneycare shouldn't be tried in any other state. His comments were utterly unconvincing, but since they were always accompanied by a thunderous denunciation of Obamacare, Republican voters were assuaged enough to let it slide. Which means that had he wanted to, Romney probably could have entered the general election making a positive case on health care beyond "Repeal Obamacare!" By continuing to maintain that Romneycare was in fact a good thing when he was challenged on it (even if he didn't want to talk about it all that much), he gave himself enough rhetorical room that he...

We're Wasting $750 Billion a Year on Health Care

Institute of Medicine
The Institute of Medicine just came out with a report showing that the American health care system wastes an astonishing $750 billion dollars a year, one out of every three health care dollars spent. As Sarah Kliff explains , "So much wasteful spending leaves a lot of space for fixes. The Institute of Medicine recommends a number of solutions and many boil down to a pretty simple idea: Health care should be better-coordinated." There are a lot of ways to do that, but one particularly thorny problem is that doctors don't want anyone telling them what to do. I remember as a kid watching "St. Elsewhere," and there was a scene in which a hospital administrator angrily chewed out a doctor over something or other. My mother, who spent most of her career as a hospital administrator, said ruefully, "Oh please. No administrator would ever get away with talking to a doctor like that." Part of the reason is that doctors are trained to believe that they're better and more important than ordinary...

First Night of the DNC: A TV & Twitter Review

Did you watch it last night? It was an amazing night of TV, of Twitter (that instant snark convo), and of politics. My twitter feed was full of journos saying to each other: Wow, there’s a lot of energy here! Don’t you feel more buzz than in Tampa? I thought this was supposed to be the dispirited convention, but these folks are excited. You could see that in every breakaway shot of the convention floor: Folks were cheering, nodding, yelling back in witness. Over and over again, the Dems boasted proudly about standing up for health care, equal pay, LGBT rights (including the freedom to marry), and yes, reproductive rights, without apology. (CNN political commentator Erick Erickson got roundly swatted for tweeting, "First night of the Vagina Monologues in Charlotte going as expected.") Whoa. Way to respect your lady viewers! But he was right about this: The Dems were indeed standing up for the ladies’ power over their own bodies and paychecks. Up on stage, the speeches were just on fire...

Paul Ryan Is Way More Anti-Abortion Than You Thought

(Speaker Boehner/Flickr)
Since the Todd Akin affair entered the national conversation, many commentators—myself included—have noted the extent to which Akin’s views are in line with the mainstream of the Republican Party, and nearly identical to ones held by Paul Ryan, the GOP vice presidential nominee. This video, unearthed by Buzzfeed’s Andrew Kaczynski, illustrates the point. In it, a younger Ryan denounces a women’s health provision that was included in a bill to ban “partial-birth” abortion. Exceptions to the ban, he argues, would make it “meaningless”: If you live in a swing state, don’t be surprised if this video appears with a short endorsement from President Obama. More seriously, if there’s anything that places you on the radical end of the abortion debate, it’s opposition to measures meant to save mothers from dying as a result of pregnancies gone wrong. Indeed, this is actually the least of Ryan’s anti-abortion extremism. During his 12-year career in the House of Representatives, Ryan has endorsed...

Texas Says "No Thanks" to Women's Health Care

(AP Photo/San Angelo Standard-Times, Patrick Dove)
If you haven't been worn down reading about Todd Akin's bizarre and ignorant views about the female reproductive system, now turn to Texas, where women's uteruses may soon have to move out of state to find health care. Late Tuesday night, a federal court of appeals ruled that Texas can exclude Planned Parenthood from the Women's Health Program, which provides basic preventative care—like birth control and cancer screenings—for low-income women. The decision has terrifying implications in a state where women's access to health care is already poor. One in four women in Texas is uninsured, and the state also has the third-highest rate of cervical cancer in the country. In Texas, women's health-care clinics serving low-income populations rely on two sources of funding: the Women's Health Program and general state family-planning dollars. Lawmakers have attacked both streams. In 2011, the state legislature slashed state funding for family planning—you know, the thing that prevents...

Rep. Akin and Fun with Fake Facts

Honestly, some days I can’t tell real news from The Onion . Representative Todd Akin’s staggering comment on Sunday about the female body’s amazing ability to reject unwanted sperm actually made my jaw drop. If only it didn’t represent what so many people believe, as Amanda Marcotte explained so clearly here yesterday. The good news is that it flushed those beliefs out into the open. As she said, it’s not a gaffe; it’s an insight into the anti-choice movement’s distrust of women and its ignorance of science. (The fact that Akin’s on the House Science Committee is just one of those hilariously horrifying Onion -style bits of data: Do we really live in a country where a “don’t confuse me with the facts” anti-science ideologue makes policy about … science?) That magical thinking behind Akin's statement arises from an attitude similar—in ideology, not in degree—to that behind honor killings, in which raped girls who refuse to marry their rapists are killed by male relatives for sullying...

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