Monday, March 29, 2010

Charlie Baker: Right on Municipal Workers' Health Insurance

Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker’s main issue differentiating himself from Governor Deval Patrick has for weeks been his emphasis on cutting state spending, including eliminating 5000 jobs. But he hasn’t been specific about where those jobs are, so his criticism of the Patrick administration has lacked clarity, credibility and clout, easily dismissible as campaign rhetoric . Recently, however, the Globe reported that Baker has come out four-square for giving municipalities more flexibility in shaping the health insurance benefits that public workers enjoy. And that’s a solid plus for Baker.

City and town workers’ health insurance takes a huge bite out of city budgets, in some cases over 20 percent. That comes right out of property taxes and, hence, out of taxpayer’s pocketbooks. In some cases, those same taxpayers are underwriting a level of health benefits for public employees that those taxpayers don’t even enjoy themselves. A recent study by The Boston Foundation found that “these health benefits are among the most generous offered by any employer in the Commonwealth,including the state and federal governments, as well as private employers!”

That same report noted that Boston alone could save more than 17% or $45 million if its workers got coverage through the state’s Group Insurance Commission. Statewide, there would be tens of millions of dollars saved. Baker asserts that this could reach savings of $100 million.
The Governor, to his credit, signed the law that, for the first time, allowed cities and towns to join the Group Insurance Commission. But the law requires the approval of a whopping 70% of union members in a community to approve that move. That’s even more Draconian than the 60% of U.S. Senators required to end a filibuster! Small wonder that just 19 communities have taken advantage of this cost-saving option.

Boston Mayor Tom Menino has gathered together a group of like-minded mayors to consider a signature drive to put a petition on the state ballot. You go, guys! If local communities can’t achieve savings in their health insurance, it will certainly mean laying off police, firefighters, and teachers, some of the unions who are fighting to preserve their laughable $5 co-pays and scant 20% share of premiums.
Is it so unfair to limit what city and town workers have for health insurance to the level of benefits that state workers already enjoy?

There’s little backbone in the legislature on this issue. Many lawmakers are wary of tampering with benefits won through collective bargaining. But let’s face it. We live in tough times. People everywhere are having to pay higher co-pays and deductibles. Employers everywhere are having to switch to less costly coverage. Everyone has to share the burden.

Governor Patrick has admirably taken on the unions in allowing civilian flaggers instead of police patrols and in attacking the excesses of the Quinn bill. What does he have to lose in standing tall with the mayors on health insurance? Charlie Baker scores on this one.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Scott Brown – All squirrely on health reform

Name a position on health reform, and Scott Brown has taken it. As a state senator, he voted for the Massachusetts health reform law, which became the model for the federal law. Yet he rode to Washington on a pledge to be the 41st (and decisive) vote against health insurance reform legislation in the U.S. Senate. He became the 41st vote, thus blocking a 60-vote super majority needed to end a filibuster, but he couldn’t trump the Democrats’ procedural moves. So now we have a long-awaited health reform law.

Immediately afterward, Brown told Globe reporters Matt Viser and Susan Milligan, “I think it’s important to repeal it.” But, in an interview with Channel Five’s Janet Wu, he said it isn’t a question of ending it but fixing it. A partial fix is in the budget reconciliation bill now before the U.S. Senate, but Brown is said to be opposing that. Which is it?

Brown has two years to let the people of Massachusetts know how he thinks and what he really stands for. He has two years to demonstrate whether he can be more than a centerfold celebrity and a poster-boy for Tea Party anger. Most thoughtful people respect politicians who are not reflexively ideological and can hold and articulate nuanced positions on complicated issues. But Brown has yet to demonstrate he's up to the task. Health care is but one important issue where he can demonstrate both his independence and his leadership, reasons why many fearful and frustrated voters gave him their votes.

Then again, if the Democrat who challenges him in 2012 is South Boston Congressman Steve Lynch, whose “forgainst” positions have been brilliantly laid out by Boston Globe columnist Brian McGrory, then perhaps voters will have a tough choice when looking for clarity of thought and inspiring leadership.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Health Insurance Reform: The End of the Beginning

The course leading to the House vote on health insurance reform was clearly a case of winning ugly. We’ve all had an overdose of exposure to legislative sausage-making. But, in the end, the 219-to-212 vote was a huge step forward, an historic moment in the history of this country.
More than 30 million uninsured people will get coverage. The ability of insurance companies to bar people with pre-existing conditions and cap lifetime benefits will come to a close, paid in part by expanding the pool of the insured to include millions of younger, healthier people. Individuals would have to buy coverage, as they do in Massachusetts. Small businesses would have to provide coverage but would receive tax credits to do so. Both individuals and small businesses would be able to participate in groups to negotiate better rates with private insurers. Seniors would start getting help closing the so-called donut hole, the gap in Medicare D coverage of prescription costs.

The Congressional Budget Office says that the legislation would reduce the federal deficit by more than a trillion dollars over two decades. That may have given some in Congress the cover they needed to vote Yes, but the history of such cost projections is checkered at best. This is still a work in progress. Adjustments will need to be made, just as they had to be made with Social Security, Medicare and civil rights legislation.

Minority Leader John Boehner says that “millions of people are scared to death” of the bill. But why is that? Because John Boehner and his pals have deliberately scared them – about death panels, government takeover of health care, a looming radical Socialist experiment. All nonsense.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer points out that the Harry and Louise anti-health reform ads in the 1990’s warned that, under the then-proposed legislation, everyday folks would pay more and get less. The health bill back then was defeated. And what happened? We’ve been paying more and getting less.

The sausage has been made. President Obama thankfully stopped over-learning the mistakes of the Clinton health care fiasco and finally became fully engaged. Partisans of the left and right can find much to vent about. But the newly passed bill, as the President and health care economists have pointed out, “runs straight down the center of American political thought.” It’s far from perfect. But it is a step forward on a journey that couldn’t begin without that first step. To paraphrase Winston Churchill after the Second Battle of El Alamein in 1942, “This isn’t the beginning of the end; it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Friday, March 19, 2010

National Grid: Fear Monger, Scam Artist?

National Grid seems to have joined the ranks of such scam artists as vinyl siding salesmen and certain car mechanics.  Judge for yourself, based on this experience of one of our neighbors, without heat and hot water for five days due to the storm. When Alison and Hal got the basement dry enough to attempt to light the furnace and the hot water heater, she called National Grid, thinking this successor to the estimable Boston Gas was honest and reliable. Boy, was she in for a surprise.

A "technician" arrived at the house, and the first words out of his mouth were "did they tell you that this visit would cost a minimum of $165?". Of course, "they" had not, but at this point, as Alison put it, $165 was feeling like a small price to pay for a hot shower and heat for her family.

The "technician" spent all of three minutes in the basement and then declared that both the water heater and boiler were "condemned." In a tone calculated to instill fear, he explained that the hot water heater was designed to shut down permanently once the offending groundwater reached a certain level - "the newer models are all built like that."  He quickly moved to page two of the scare tactics and con job. He said that the insulation on the inside of the boiler got wet and that, once it dried, it would crumble and could result in a fire "or worse". He said their only option was to replace both the hot water heater and the boiler. National Grid would be happy to do so for the mere sum of $7,000, at which time he required a 50 percent deposit for any work agreed to.

After the sticker shock wore off, Alison called her local plumber to explain the situation and to ask if he installs boilers and hot water heaters. He did, but said it was unlikely that new equipment was needed. He had spent the entire day starting up other flood victims' heaters and even those under more water were now working just fine. He asked if the National Grid technician had attempted to do certain things to start both pieces of equipment. When Alison replied that the inspection only lasted a few minutes and that none of those steps had been taken, the plumber said she was being misled and taken advantage of. Alison said she had heard similar stories about similar National Grid tactics from other flood victims in the city.

Alison's flood cleanup crew from New England Carpet Cleaning, which has been providing stellar 24/7 service,  returned, and with a few quick adjustments restarted both the furnace and the hot water heater. The insulation that had gotten wet and supposedly put her family in such danger was wet less than an inch deep and was simply removed.  Everything else inside was dry. Her plumber came today and approved the repair. As Alison recounts: "The National Grid technician disconnected some parts that rendered the burner inoperable, then quickly declared our boiler 'condemned.' He literally wrote this scary word on our receipt. But our flood cleanup crew reconnected the parts and we were back in business."

Alison, Hal and the kids had their first night with warm house and hot showers, but of course they are furious. They immediately called National Grid to cancel their appointment for today's hot water heater replacement, requested an immediate refund of the deposit they were required to make, and asked to speak to someone about getting their $165 service fee refunded . As she put it, clearly the only service they got was a snow job. They were told that a supervisor and a person from the sales department would call, but, surprise, they have yet to hear from either one of them.

When National Grid took over Keyspan, formerly Boston Gas, in August 2007, Attorney General Martha Coakley expressed concern for Massachusetts customers and called for serious oversight by the Department of Public Utilities. It's time for Coakley's office to look seriously at complaints like Alison's and identify if these were the renegade tactics of a rogue National Grid  technician, a pattern of practice among field employees, encouraged and winked at by the company, or an actual National Grid corporate policy.
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Bail-Out Issues Strike Home

We are fond of saying we live a block from the Charles River......most of the time. This is the rest of the time. Ten inches of rain in 72 hours! The Charles is over its banks, with water coming up and onto the two-lane road we walk on nearly every day. The ducks and geese are swimming right up to the street. That part is charming; it's the only part that is charming.

The rest of the story is the five inches of water in the lower level of the house - office, workout room, laundry and storage rooms.  The pumps have been going 24/7 for the last five days. Rolls and rolls of sodden carpeting have been torn out and lie sullenly on the lawn.  Boxes of magazines, books, articles we have read, articles we have written, long ignored plaques denoting journalism awards, paper goods, sports equipment, travel memorabilia, and all of the accretions of 30+ years of living in our home are being jettisoned.

Neighbors are helping neighbors.  Those who have no heat and hot water are showering in the homes of those lucky enough to have heat and hot water.  There's a spirit of community. We're all in the same boat, literally and figuratively.  Then it's on to the world of insurance, claims adjusters, deductibles, restoration and replacement. Or whether even to  make a subtantial claim thereby risking premium increases or insurance denial later.  It's a time to think about what can't be replaced and what really matters.

Beyond the discomfort, inconvenience and expense, we're still intact.  We have what counts, and future blogs about politics and public policy lie just beyond the bend -- in the river.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Governor Patrick: Lead Communities to Health Insurance Savings

Governor Patrick is said to be planning a visit to Newton this Saturday.  His campaign will be giving out bumper stickers and signing up supporters. Here’s what I hope he talks about:  the cost of health insurance to cover city workers.  It’s a case study in what ails local communities these days.

Newton faces an $11 million deficit. Eighty percent of the cost of running the city goes for payroll and benefits.  A solid chunk of those benefits covers health insurance.  Recent town hall meetings in all eight wards  showed that  taxpayers want something done about the costs of that health insurance.

For one thing, the city shouldn’t be paying over 80 percent of the premiums, leaving the city workers to pay a token amount.  It doesn’t happen in the private sector, and it’s not fair for taxpayers struggling to pay their own premiums to face a tax increase to cover workers who enjoy greater benefits than their own. Refusing to do better at sharing premium costs will eventually mean laying off some of those very workers, whose services are essential to the city.

Increasing the employee contribution is just one possible solution.  Ending the bar to cities and towns’ joining the state’s Group Insurance Commission should be a no-brainer.  A recent study by The Boston Foundation found that the handful of communities that have joined the GIC have enjoyed significant savings.  If Boston joined the GIC, it could save an estimated 16-17 percent on health premiums. 

Unfortunately, when the state allowed local communities to join the GIC, it required that 70 percent of local unions had to approve.  And, viewing their benefits as something they had bargained for, they refused to agree to join the GIC.  The only solution now seems to be for state law to be changed to lower (or dare we wish it) eliminate that 70 percent approval requirement.

So, Governor Patrick, you’ve already responsibly taken on public sector unions on the issues of civilian flaggers and the excesses of the Quinn bill.   Public employee health insurance is “where the rubber hits the road.”  You’ve been a stand-up guy on some of the toughest issues facing our state - education, ethics, transportation and pension reform – all hot button issues.  This is the big one for cities and towns and their hard-pressed residents. Tell the people of Newton on Saturday what you’re going to do on this issue.   The great recession and shrinking local revenues made it impossible to fulfill your 2006 campaign promise to lower local property taxes, but , by leading a reluctant legislature into the light  on this, you could help  lower the rate of  property tax growth.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Arts in Boston: One Hit, One Miss

The Hit. For anyone who grew up in Boston, yesterday’s reopening of the Paramount Theatre on Washington Street downtown was both a trip down memory lane and an invitation to an exciting future. The theater opened in 1932 but decrepitude forced its closing in 1976. Emerson College has taken it over, invested a fortune (more than$90 million) into restoring it, and immeasurably enhanced that area. The art deco style is drop-dead gorgeous; the sparkling lights on the marquee, a wondrous beckoning.
To celebrate the opening, the Celebrity Series of Boston hosted elegant and versatile Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester, a German cabaret music presentation that – after some initial difficulty with the microphone - provided 80 minutes of pure enjoyment. The music was all from the 1920’s and early 1930’s and captured the beauty, humor, satire and complexity of relationships during the time of the Weimar Republic, with Cole Porter and other American composers thrown in.

Unfortunately, the Palast Orchester was a one-day event. But keep your eye on the Paramount Theatre and its promise of excitement in the performing arts for Emerson students and the community at large.

The Miss. An email from the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge urged the recipient to “spread the word about ‘Paradise Lost.’ So here goes. Clifford Odets’ 1935 play was written about a family’s struggle during the Great Depression. There is obvious meaning for people today in exploring the despair wrought by economic turmoil, evictions, bank indifference, mental illness, suicide, hopelessness, turning toward crime and opposition to unregulated capitalism.

But the production at A.R.T. is nothing less than directorial malfeasance. The problem is much more than the awkward and distracting integration of video shots of the acting projected in real time on the backdrop, criticized by Louise Kennedy in the Boston Globe.
Video has enhanced other productions, but not this one.

Director Daniel Fish has the actors declaiming their lines in a most unnatural way, perhaps intended to create a sense of their alienation from one another but certainly alienating the audience, removing the intimacy of the characters’ interactions, and dragging out the performance at least half an hour longer than anyone could stand it.

It’s set in an anachronistic no man’s land, with cell phones, princess phones, WWI references, and characters wearing AIG, Mickey Mouse, Enron and Kerry-Edwards T shirts. Would that the avant garde pretensions were avoided and the Odets play were done as a period piece with a modern message. This production is like root canal! Avoid it at all costs.

Remember, the A.R.T. email urged that people spread the word about Paradise Lost! Consider it done.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Casino Gambling for Massachusetts is a Crapshoot!

Two little letters say it all about one’s perspective on Speaker Robert DeLeo’s proposal to site two resort casinos and slot machines at four racetracks in Massachusetts. He and other supporters speak of gaming (a harmless family entertainment akin to bingo night or Radio City Music Hall); opponents preserve the b and the l and speak of gambling, with all the social costs that gambling entails.

DeLeo makes a compelling case, noting that, while the unemployment rate in Massachusetts is 9.4 percent plus the “no longer counted,” the unemployment in union halls is between 30 percent and 50 percent. He says that, with 65 unemployed people for every job opening, creating a whole new sector is a legitimate plan. DeLeo concedes that casino jobs are not high-wage jobs; he calls them “value-added jobs” to help with the “blue collar depression.” Unfortunately, he is not ready to say how many jobs his gam(bl)ing proposal will generate. Nor will he say just yet what revenues, both from licensing and other taxes, the casinos will produce.

DeLeo says he is aware of the social costs, such as gam(bl)ing addiction. But some of the revenues generated would go to gam(bl)ing addiction programs. Why not just avoid creating new addicts in the first place? Other revenues would go to Massachusetts manufacturers, who need capital improvements, and to community colleges and voke ed schools for job training.

What hasn’t been discussed of late is how much casino gam(bl)ing would cut into lottery spending and, in the end, cut state aid to local cities and towns. When Governor Bill Weld was negotiating with the Wampanoags for a western Massachusetts casino and 2800 slot machines at the racetracks, the projected cut in lottery revenues was some 12 percent.

Much of the research supporting casinos has been funded by the industry. On the other side, there’s a huge amount of research on the negative effects of gambling on retailing, restaurants and other entertainment. (Check out United to Stop Slots in Massachusetts.) State police in Connecticut years ago told me of a marked increase in so-called quality-of-life crimes, like check kiting and prostitution. The conflicting evidence makes one’s head spin like a roulette wheel!

My reservations about casinos are not a matter of morals. I just don’t want to be sold a bill of goods. I want hard data (beyond the anecdotal sighting of cars with Massachusetts license plates at Foxwoods) on what the net costs and benefits are likely to be. And we all need to be aware of who’s going to pay the price if gam(bl)ing expansion cannibalizes other people and businesses in the Commonwealth. Once the decision is made, the die is cast.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The new “Competitive Partnership:” legitimate undertaking or huge public relations gaffe?

Thirteen rich white men want Massachusetts to go back to the old days, or so it seems. And they’re taking along with them one token individual without a Y chromosome.

They are all CEO’s or former CEO’s, and apparently they think things were run just fine under the Vault half a century ago. The Vault was the nickname of the Boston Coordinating Committee, which met secretly in the vault of the Boston Safe Deposit & Trust Company. Today’s group calls itself the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership and says it wants to use its power to improve the Massachusetts economy and create jobs.

Who’s in this clique? Former Hill Holiday CEO Jack Connors, Bank of America Chairman Emeritus Chad Gifford, Liberty Mutual top honcho Ted Kelly, New England Patriots and Kraft Group head Bob Kraft, NStar CEO Tom May, State Street CEO Ron Logue, Raytheon CEO William Swanson, EMC CEO Joe Tucci, John Hancock top dog John DesPrez, Suffolk Construction CEO John Fish, Partners HealthCare chief Gary Gottleib, Staples Chairman Ron Sargent, Putnam Investments head Robert Reynolds and, for a barely perceptible nod to diversity, BJ’s CEO Laura Sen.

Individually, most of these power brokers are very good people. I’ve worked with many of them in one capacity or another. In addition to being successful, most, if not all,the companies they represent have distinguished records for philanthropy and civic commitment. But that’s not the point.

Consider the messages they’re sending. First, the “new vault” simply looks too much like the bad old days where ordinary (non-white, non-male) people, even successful ones, were closed out of the decision-making process.

The “new vault” is also a thumb in the eye of existing organizations pushing job creation through public affairs engagement. The New England Council, the Mass. High Tech Leadership Council, Associated Industries, the Mass. Business Roundtable and other similar associations all have differently focused mandates. The more generalized Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, not without its faults, is also in the mix. There are also jobs-focused economic alliances in Merrimac Valley, the North Shore, South Shore, the Berkshires and other regions around the state.

The Boston Globe article announcing “the new vault” acknowledged that most new jobs will be created at small and mid-sized companies, but the members are all from big corporations. Where are the small and mid-sized corporate leaders who can inform the discussion?

Does Massachusetts really need a tiny self-selected, elitist group of powerful people who want to do things the old way, by excluding other voices and not using the ideas and energies of a whole new generation of people highly invested in the future of Massachusetts and already making a difference.

Where is Cleve Killingsworth, the African-American CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts? What about Ralph Martin, managing partner of Bingham McKutchen? The Boston Club (disclosure: I am a member) has worked on expanding the pool of highly qualified women, many at the CEO, COO and CFO level, who are prepared for leadership in any new initiative.

Not quite ready, but waiting in the wings, is a whole new generation of talented leaders who actually reflect the new demographics of the state, identified and developed by groups like the Emerging Leaders Program at UMass Boston and The Partnership. Their creation was motivated by lack of power sharing by the old Vault.

What Massachusetts needs is not a mechanism for deciding who’s in and who’s out but a way to be an inclusive, welcoming place for economic initiatives and intellectual creativity – and to be seen that way across the country and, indeed, the world.
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Winners and Losers from Health Reform Summit -- (posted late due to 2-day Comcast outage)

Seven hours of discussion at Thursday’s health summit did produce some winners and losers on both sides of the table. The Republicans were winners because they were able to present themselves as having ideas, rather than just being naysayers. They had a wider audience for their versions of tort reform, expanding health savings accounts (nothing new in these) and allowing insurers to sell across state lines. They also scored by putting forth Senator Lamar Alexander to open their remarks, a more temperate voice that those ordinarily associated with the GOP brand, and gained credibility with two lawmakers who are also doctors.
President Obama was also a winner. Ever the law professor as well as leader, he managed the presentations in an even-handed and fairly open-minded way, keeping the group focused on key topic areas, and hinting at possible areas of compromise (tort reform, sales across state lines) and restating shared baseline goals (helping small businesses buy insurance as a group, routing out Medicare and Medicaid fraud and abuse, controlling costs, increasing prevention).

The American people also were winners in a couple of ways. First, they saw mostly respectful, civilized discourse, something increasingly rare in this “tea party” era. (As Congressman Joe Barton said, (I paraphrase) ‘never have so many politicians behaved so well for so long in front of television cameras.’

Second, the summit was an opportunity to learn more of the substance of the issue, to set aside some of the shibboleths (this is not a government take-over of health care). Then again, there was still a fair amount of posturing.

Which brings us to the losers. Top four: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (strident, self-congratulatory and non-bending), Senate President Harry Reid (disingenuous), Senate Minority Leader John Boehner and House Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (both Republicans unwilling to say a single area in which they’d be willing to compromise).

So where to from here? It seems clear that fundamental differences (especially over pre-existing conditions and whether you can cover them without vastly expanding coverage to draw healthier individuals into the pool) may make a bipartisan solution all but impossible. If that is so, then having held the summit and having presented themselves as open to a bipartisan solution, the Democrats can then move to reconciliation, requiring a simple majority. What a radical idea!

The most laughable blather by a talking head was Mary Matalin’s assertion that passage by a 51-vote majority represents the “tyranny of the minority!”

Reconciliation has been used by both Democrats and Republicans more than 20 times in the last two decades, including the passage of welfare reform and tax cuts.

Of course, if the Democrats go for reconciliation and fail, you may see Barack Obama as a one-term President! And you may not see significant health reform legislation for another generation.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.