Friday, June 29, 2012

Obama & Roberts Give Health Care, Now Our Duty Begins

Well folks, there is a whole lot of excitement now about the Supreme Court decision on President Obama's health care program.  Some pundits say Roberts was an idiot, others say he is a Machiavellian who has successfully motivated the far right base to run Obama out of office in November.  Of course, many feel just as strongly this is a great victory for the President which will motivate his base to reelect him in November, and it appears they were right.

What not many people are talking about is our share of responsibility in making this program a success.  There is certainly much potential for lowering health care costs if everyone takes more personal responsibility for their own health care.  Whether it is improving our life style choices to maintain our good health, learning more about our individual health problems so we can do things that will improve them, or going for routine regular check-ups to keep problems from appearing and getting out of hand, we have a lot of power.

For example, here is the experience of one family that decided to eliminate all sugar from their diet for one year and the benefits experienced.  In 2016, a study has reported the potential for saving $63billion in smoking health care costs if 10% of smokers quit, and others would reduce their amount of smoking by 10%.

[12/27/16]  Republicans continue to declare their intentions of defunding Planned Parenthood and shutting down "Obamacare" (Affordable Health Care) as soon as possible.  This 2015 article shows how one Republican Congresswoman perpetuated lies and misinformation on behalf of her candidacy.  Many comments tear Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers viewpoint to shreds.
     People at this site, which described Trump voters' distress at the idea of defunding Planned Parenthood, also had a lot to say. One commented "It's Obamacare because Pres. Obama DOES care, it will be called the Trump DOESN'T care plan when he and the GOP get done!"  I like  "TrumpNoCare" plan, or "TrumpCareless" plan, or "TrumpLessCare"plan for a label.
     Unfortunately, many people do NOT realize the well liked Affordable Care Act is "Obamacare". Mostly poorer states refused to expand their Medicaid services (fully funded by the Federal government) leaving many of their citizens underinsured.  If Trump succeeds in destroying "Obamacare" as promised, all the lower income people who voted for him in states with expanded benefits will loose them.  [States expanding Medicaid – AZ, AR, CA, CO, DE, DC, HI, IL, IA, IN, KY, MD, MA, MN, MA, NH, NV, NJ, UT, NM, NY, ND, OH, OR, PA, RI, VT, WA, WV]  If you live in one of these states and voted Trump you voted against your own interest.  This long, detailed article with maps and listing of who has benefited from this program and by how much will answer your question.

[11/19/16]  One casualty of reduced spending on preventive health care and education has been the increase in the rate of sexually transmitted diseases (STD's) since the major recession began in 2008.  Let us hope that Republicans in Congress are not penny wise and dollar foolish with their cutting of Obamacare, Planned Parenthood, and other programs that help prevent or reduce STD rates.  Health care costs for increasing rates of STD are far higher than prevention.

Of course, sometimes danger are not apparent until some years have passed.  Black lung disease has plagued miners, and asbestos lung cancer has made $millions for mesothelioma law firms, also known as asbestos lawyers.  Unfortunately, such lawsuits have been so expensive that doctors are forced to carry  extremely costly liability insurance.  This is one contributor to current high medical costs.  Something has to be done in the way of tort reform, that is lowering the amount that can be collected in lawsuits.  Trial lawyers will fight this tooth and nail.  Some balance has to be found between the extremely high legal settlements that excessively benefit lawyers and very low recompense that is unfair to injured parties.

Doctors can do a lot to fix serious problems, just as a mechanic can fix your car when it breaks down.  However, if we change the oil regularly, inflate the tires, keep other fluid levels up, and drive carefully, we have the ultimate power to preserve our autos.  It is the same with our health.  If you are reading this blog, then you know how to use a computer.  You can always Google to find information about different health needs, problems and symptoms.  You can also order useful books on line.  Of course the medical profession has been slow to get on board with this approach as it tends to reduce their business.  Concern has now been expressed that we do not have enough General Practitioners to care for the millions of new people with health insurance.  This will be less of a problem when we take fuller responsibility for our own health.

A very important influence is the quality of our nutrition.  We can choose foods that will build up our health or break it down.  If you do the latter, then you are betraying the President's efforts to provide affordable care for all.  If you have developed health problems through age, neglect or stress you may also need to learn about vitamin, mineral, and herbal supplements for restoring health in addition to good foods and exercise.  It is very easy to Google the name or description of the health problem and then add "nutritional treatment for".  Sometimes foods will be recommended and sometimes supplements of one sort or another.  These "neutriceuticals" can do many wonderful things.  They are not as quick as drugs, but they are much better at creating permanent cures or improvements, and rarely have side effects.

Good books are available in health food stores and on line that will help you learn more about the great variety of things you can do through nutrition.  It is well worth your while reading some and learning how to take care of yourself and your family.  You will save your own money, and that of your country.  Paying attention to exercise and emotional health and equilibrium are also valuable and you should learn about those aspects of health as well.  Unfortunately in 2016 there are increases in "Obamacare" costs in many states as shown on a this map.

In a broader vein, we must take a more intelligent approach to serious illness, and death and dying.  Today I heard someone report it is known that 10% of the sick run up around 90% of the health care costs.  It is also the case that often half of the lifetime medical costs for an individual are spent in the last 6 months of their life.  Almost 40 years ago, I and some friends formed something call The Health Action Committee.  I testified before Congress when attempts were being made to reduce the availability of nutritional supplements.  Thank goodness we won, and I know I owe much of my generally good health now to our success then.

We also approached a well known health insurance company.  They allowed us to examine their records for our area.  We determined that indeed it was10% of their policy holders who were causing 90% of their costs.  We then proposed an experiment where this 10% and/or their spouse/caregiver would be given focused information on how to improve their health with an emphasis on diet and neutriceuticals.  We explained to the insurance company that if this training resulted in lower costs, then they would make money, because lowering fees always falls behind lower costs.  Unfortunately, we were 40 years too early.  Now, however, would be a perfect time for insurance companies, businesses and labor unions to take another look at this approach to lowering health care costs.

When first proposed, the far right made a big fuss about the idea of people being able to discuss decisions around dying and death with their physicians.  This was even mislabeled as "death panels".  Every one of us is going to die, and it is wise to make plans about it while one is still healthy and communicative.  Our culture has also made dying a fearful and technical process.  It has been taken out of the hands of families and turned over to the "experts".  My late mother, who died of congestive heart failure at 89, and my late husband who died of Alzheimers at 75, both begged me not to let them die in some impersonal hospital.  They also made a point of getting legal help with wills and advanced directives while they were still mobile and mentally active.

I had to confront my own feelings about death, and also learn how to give them the care they needed.  Fortunately, they were not in a lot of pain or it might have been a lot harder to care for them.  I had gotten my whole family interested in therapeutic nutrition some years earlier.  When caring for them I made sure they got the nutritional inputs that would help them the most.  The result is that they were mobile and active until the last few months, which greatly reduced the need for costly medical inputs.  When the time came that they could no longer eat much or take their supplements, the end came quickly.  I also was able to get home hospice services to come to my home on a daily basis in the last week or two.  They explained and helped me do what would be most helpful, and also gave some emotional support.

One very important help was through the Medicare program.  There was, and probably still is, a provision that up to 20 days of free Medicare treatment in a Rehabilitation Nursing Facility can be used if one has been hospitalized for 3 days or more.  This is not nursing care.  There must be a real goal for some sort of rehabilitation.  In my husband's case the goal was for him to be able to walk the stairs to our second floor bedroom after he was hospitalized for 4 days.  This service has to be used within 30 days of the hospitalization.  I found out about it after my mother had been out of the hospital for 25 days.  We frantically  found a facility for her.  I don't remember what our rehabilitation goal was, but it did enable us to drive to her home state, close down her room in the boarding home where she had been living, put her possessions in storage, and bring back her winter clothes and other items she wanted with her.  She stayed there for 5 days, and lived with us for another 4 months without further hospitalization.  Here is more on this service from a legal information site.

AARP has pointed out that some hospitals are holding patients for several days without legally/formally admitting them.  The family is then shocked to discover that the 3 qualifying days for free Medicare rehabilitation care have not actually occurred and they are stuck with a large Rehabilitation Nursing Facility bill.  Be sure you or your relative is actually admitted to the hospital and yell like hexx if they are not.

Thus, by learning skills and being able to care for my mother and husband, we saved both ourselves and the medical/insurance system many, many treatment and hospitalization dollars.  We can all help the Obama health care program be a success if we learn how to take maximum responsibility for our own health and that of the ones we love.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Solar Energy Revolution - Don Wharton (Guest Post)

We know that fossil fuels will run out sometime in the future. Our use of them is depleting a finite source. We also know that the solar energy falling on our Earth every 88 minutes equals all energy sources humanity uses in a given year. That means earth gets 6,000 times the solar energy than all the energy we consume. However, these facts say little about how and when we will move to renewable sources for the energy needs of humanity.

In order to answer that question we need to look at the evidence. In March 16, 2011 the Scientific American hosted a blog article summarizing the evolution of prices and projections based on the historical evidence.1 The analysis gave a seven percent annual reduction in solar cell costs based on recent decades. At this rate, the projected Solar energy cost should fall below the current US average residential cost of $0.12 per KWH by 2020.

Since the Scientific American article's data from 2009 was printed, prices for solar cells have crashed by over half. The article, when written, had module prices modestly below $3 per peak watt. Prices for high quality modules at a European port in April 2012 are quoted between 74 and 98 cents per peak watt wholesale.2 The retail price is higher but Solarbuzz as of May 2012 has 34% of the retail prices for modules below $2 per peak watt.3 These rapidly lowering prices are due to many factors that have saturated the market such as over investment in plants to refine silicon and very low cost thin film technologies. Financially strapped European countries have reduced the feed in tariffs that paid for much of their installed base of solar energy. The result has been very fierce competition for all available contracts. “Bankability” is now a major term in the solar market.. This refers to higher quality product from manufacturers which banks view as financially strong enough to survive.

The current declines in installed costs have not kept up with prices for solar modules themselves. However, we already do have many situations where newly installed solar energy costs less than fossil fuel investments with no governmental subsidies. For example, in Hawaii the average cost for electricity was $0.33 per KWH in February 2012.4 The Department of Energy has a SunShot initiative designed to reduce installed costs by 75% to $1 to $1.50 per peak watt. A recent study by Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and GTM Research has the average installed utility scale system costs (Q1 2012) at only $2.90 per peak watt.5 Power from these installations are typically sold under long term power purchase agreements. In an April 2012 news report, “The weighted average highest cost of solar and other renewable power contracts accepted by California utilities in the state’s Renewable Auction Market (RAM) auction was 8.9 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) for 20-year power purchase contracts...”6 This is higher than some other wholesale energy costs but it is well below the 15 cents that average California residential users are charged including distribution costs.4

Germany's different approach demonstrates that far lower installed costs are possible. They have been using very high feed-in tariffs to encourage large scale installation of systems. The Germans have worked on streamlining all permitting and delivery systems. The result is over four times as much solar energy installed in a much smaller country (7500 MW Germany vs. 1700 MW America in 2011).7 The German solar installation costs in the first months of 2012 have dropped below two Euros ($2.60) per peak watt.8 The following cost graph covers the six years from the second quarter of 2006 through the first quarter of 2012.    

This shows a rate of decline of over 14% per year during this period or double the expected rate in the Scientific American article. The costs are roughly half that of similar American residential systems. The downward impact on the retail costs of electricity during a sunny day in Germany is already dramatic. Given the average residential costs of electricity (about $0.33 per KWH)9 the household value of a solar installation in getting very near grid parity in Germany. This is true for a country that receives less than half the solar energy of much of the United States. The German market for electricity is immensely complex and a full treatment of it is well beyond the scope of this essay. However, the fact that they have engineered technology and polished procedures that are so successful suggests that much of the world might achieve grid parity very rapidly.

A report on average American permitting and inspection costs of $2,516 per installation explains some of our increased costs compared to the German experience.10 The Department of Energy cites this report to document a major goal of the SunShot Initiative. The report says Germany, France, and Japan have eliminated permitting for basic residential installations. If we retain residential permitting the report suggests uniform national standards, a $250 fee or cost of permit issuance, email submissions, three day decisions and single inspections executed within a two hour window. The general view is we need to look at solar energy system as a very simple and normal appliance installation. It would make a massive difference in almost all jurisdictions.

Another part of the SunShot Initiative is the Plug and Play concept. It presumes an installed cost of $1.50 per peak watt will be equivalent to 68¢/kwh. At that price it will be cost competitive nearly everywhere. The DOE wants systems that can be purchased at a hardware store and installed by a homeowner with no permitting whatsoever. This envisions something so simple it could be plugged into a wall socket. They want some way for the system to automatically communicate with the utility so that the system and grid are automatically configured to work optimally. In Germany there is a specification which slightly increases the cycles per minute of the AC as a signal to the solar system to ratchet down or cease dispatching energy to the grid. This gives the grid manager a needed management tool when large scale solar capacity is installed.

There are a small number of vendors with systems that are now designed to be easily installed by homeowners by plugging into a standard 120 or 240V AC circuit. The costs are typically $3.50 to $4.00 per peak KWH. An example would be the Spin Ray 240V AC system sold for $849 plus shipping.11 Westinghouse is marketing their Instant Connect system at a modestly higher price per peak watt. Roughly 35 to 40% the cost is for the electronics. The majority of that cost is for the conversion of DC to AC current. This cost should rapidly decline at greater scale as it has in Germany. These systems do not eliminate the additional permitting or inspection costs. They do not have the sophisticated integration with the utility system desired by the DOE and there may be additional costs for bracketing depending upon how and where they are installed. We need an agreed upon specification which can be defined and certified for the plug and play function with little or no permitting. These specifications must be national standards that apply across jurisdictions.

When and if there is a streamlined Federal set of standards it is likely that American costs will be equal to or lower than the German example. As it stands the first approximations of the plug and play technology is competing against the standard installers. When solar systems become a commodity item competing against other high volume manufacturing plants the needed electronics, framing and bracketing costs (balance of systems) will have the same ferociously declining price trajectories as the solar panels themselves. When that happens nearly all consumers will find solar to be a financially attractive option with no subsidies at all. The time frame for this will range from immediately to less than eight years from now.

An obvious implication of this trend is that nuclear energy with its current costs and 10+ year time frames for building will not be cost effective. The tens of billions in federal loan guarantees for new nuclear construction is nearly certain to result in universal economic default and a high net cost to taxpayers. The more reasonable investments would be large scale smart grid capacity that can share energy over wide regions and energy storage technology that will smooth energy availability.

This review of solar energy focuses on evolution of the technology and major policy factors limiting its near term implementation. Future essays will review policies in regard to smart grid operation, integration with other renewable energy sources, construction standards and financing issues.


11  [end Don Wharton's article]

A lot has  happened since this guest article was posted.  DC has been inflicted with Exelon and its 23 nuclear power plants.  Pepco, which they now own, has asked for an $85.5 million rate increase just as we who fought the takeover predicted.  On the other hand oil and gasoline prices have continued to be low.  We don't know yet whether Exelon will be less cooperative with DC solar than Pepco has been in the past.

Meanwhile, other renewable energy supplies are being tested.  For several years there have been reports about off shore wind farms near Spain and Denmark among other countries.  These have all been anchored on the sea floor.  Now, however, a floating wind farm idea is being proposed well off the California coast.  This article provides a number of interesting details and a chart of the growth of off shore wind production in a number of countries.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Supreme Court (Citizen's United): Anniversary of Another Big Mistake (Plessy v. Ferguson)

One Hundred and twenty years ago last week, our Supreme Court perpetuated a major miscarriage of justice in the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson decision.  On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy was arrested in a "white-only" railroad car in New Orleans because he refused to vacate his seat.  He was 1/8th black, and by Louisiana law he was required to use facilities for "colored" patrons.  For those who have forgotten, in the middle of last century, there were still laws of this sort operating in Washington, DC.  Laws like this governed use of water fountains, rest rooms, buses and trains, eating places, schools, dressing rooms in stores, etc.

Mr. Plessy was triggering a test case against these laws which were being enacted across the south. Remember, this was less than 30 years after the Civil War. To its great shame, the Supreme Court ruled against him, thus giving legal standing for segregation which lasted more than half a century.  It was finally overthrown by the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954 which said separate schools were not equal, and thus the integration era was born.

Even in the late 1960s integration was still an issue in New Orleans.  My late husband and his light skinned friend Booker Brooks were doing organizing work for the American Federation of Teachers in Louisiana.  Late one evening they stopped at a bar or cafe for a late meal and some liquid refreshment.  The proprietor refused to serve them and asked them to leave.  They sat there.  Soon a cop car and officer showed up.  They were asked to leave again, but continued to sit.  Soon another police car arrived, and another, and another.  Finally there were 7 cars and their officers and even a Captain trying to deal with the situation.  They continued to sit there.  Finally, the police gave up and left.  I don't remember if they were actually served or not, but they sat there together and were not moved.

Once again the Supreme Court has ruled with a narrow 5 to 4 decision against the rights of citizens.  The infamous "Citizen's United" case established the rule that Corporations are People, and Money is Speech.  The impact of this ruling is that corporations can give as much money to the politicians they support as they wish, and the source of the money does not even have to be identified.

This combined with efforts throughout the country to make it harder for young people, the elderly, and people of color to vote has brought a sad state of affairs to our electoral process.  The people are fighting back however.  There are efforts nationwide to put forth an Amendment to the Constitution clarifying that Corporations are not the same as natural persons, and that money should not be a protected form of speech.  In addition locally we have the effort to put Initiative Measure No. 70 on the November ballot.

The purpose of this initiative is to give DC voters a chance to vote on whether or not they want big money in our political process.  The Summary Statement of this Initiative says "This initiative, if passed, would prohibit corporations and other business entities from making direct contributions to principal campaign committees, exploratory committees, legal defense committees organized in support of public officials, transition committees, inaugural committees, or constituent-service programs."

Our departed Chairman of the City Council is to to have had a war chest of around $800,000.  Other candidates like Vincent Orange and Jack Evans have more than $300,000.  On the other hand, there is one party, the DC Statehood Green Party which does NOT accept corporate campaign contributions.  The national Green Party follows the same rule.

If you want to get big money out of our politics, look for I - 70 on the November ballot and vote YES.
However, there is just one problem.  This Initiative will not be on the ballot unless it gets enough signatures on the petitions.  The magic number is around 24,000 signatures, but because of errors, duplications, etc. the effort is being made to collect 37,000 signatures.  These must be submitted no later than July 9, 2012, but the organizers want to try to get them collected by July 1, as they need to be double checked, organized and numbered.  With 20 names per sheet, that is a lot of sheets to organize.

Only registered voters may sign the petitions, and only residents of DC, 18 or older may circulate them.  Also, the circulators must witness all signatures.  No leaving them on bulletin boards.  DC Public Trust is the organization sponsoring this activity and should be contacted if you wish to help circulate the petitions.

Passing an Amendment to the Constitution is a long difficult process.  There is some talk that the Supremes may feel that this was not such a good decision after all.  Perhaps they will modify the ruling if related cases are heard in the next few years.  At any rate let us hope that it will not take the Supreme Court another 62 years to correct a mistake so dreadfully dangerous to our democracy.

DC Statehood Green "Shadow" Candidates' Declarations accepted at BOEE, also Chairmanship vote announced

After much hassle, the DC Statehood Green Party finally has its write-in candidates approved at the Bd. of Elections and Ethics for the "Shadow" candidates to appear on the November ballot.  David Schwartzman will be the "Shadow" Senator candidate, and G. Lee Aikin the "Shadow" Representative candidate.  The Shadow rep. is not to be confused with the actual DC Congressional Representative, Eleanor Holmes Norton, who unfortunately does not have a vote, but does have a salary.  Statehood Green Party candidate Natale Lino Stracuzzi is running against Ms. Norton. [Also again in 2014.]   Ann Wilcox will also appear on the ballot as the DCSGP At Large candidate for the Council.  [In 2012]

The Party is still looking for good party members to run for the Wards 2, 4, 7, and 8 Council seats.  [In 2014, Wards 1, 3, 5, and 6.]  There are new rules put out by the BOEE, which incidentally were not told to the active write-in candidates until well after the Primary.  The Party was also not informed about the intent to change these rules until 3 days after the "comment" period had ended, although communications between the Party and the BOEE had been ongoing throughout the comment period.  How ethical is that??  At any rate, according to the new rules, "when the position of candidate is vacant in the aftermath of a primary election for certain offices, the impacted party committee may select, in accordance with its rules, an individual who meets the statutory requirements to hold the office sought to serve as its candidate in the general election."

The Party must notify the BOEE no later that Wednesday, August 8, 2012 of any additional candidate names to appear on the November ballot.  Any such candidate must also file a Declaration of Candidacy by that date.  It would really be great if the DC Statehood Green Party could have a full slate of candidates for the General Election. Judging from the disturbances surrounding our major party, new blood is definitely needed in our political arena.

On Monday (June 11th) while submitting our Declarations of Candidacy at BOEE, we also received the latest news regarding the Chairmanship.  Effective that date the BOEE has certified that a vacancy exists in the office of  Chairman of the Council of DC, and a special election to fill the vacancy will occur on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012 (the same day as the General Election).

Candidates wishing to appear on the ballot must obtain 3,000 signatures of registered voters in DC.  The petition circulation period begins on Friday, June 15 and ends on Wednesday, August 8th.  All registered DC voters are eligible to vote for Chairman.  Those wishing further information on dates, deadlines, etc. can contact or phone 202-727-2194.

Another interesting fact discovered while attending recent events is the distress felt by many in the Hispanic community about President Obama's treatment of the immigration situation.  While at the BOEE offices we were told about one young man whose parents brought him here when he was 4 years old who is about to be shipped out of the only country he has ever really known--the good old USA.  Citizens of Hispanic origin might find the Statehood Green Party more sympathetic than our President's party.  [If elected, Mrs. Aikin would probably be the most fluent Spanish speaker elected in DC.]  For that matter other disillusioned voters might wish to join us as well.  Anyone wishing to register or change their registration can find the form on line at the BOEE site, or go down to their offices at 441 4th St., NW, right next to the Judiciary Square Metro stop.  [2014, They can also change registration at the polling place and file a provisional ballot.]