The First Brick in the Wall

March 23, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

President Donald Trump’s administration announced a $600 million bidding contest late Friday night to kick off construction of The Wall, a towering physical barrier between the United States and Mexico.

The process will start with little walls — an unknown number of barriers of concrete and other materials that will serve as models for the bigger wall, which Trump made central to his political campaign.

Construction will proceed with unusual haste. Companies have just two weeks to submit proposals. Finalists will make a 2 1/2-hour-long oral presentation to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, which is overseeing the contest. Winners will be announced by late May.

Steven Schooner, a professor of government contracting at George Washington University, tweeted that the process was “extremely/uniquely complicated (and confusing).”

But CBP officials said the approach was designed to get the best value for the government.

“Through the construction of prototypes, CBP will partner with industry to identify the best means and methods to construct border wall before making a more substantial investment in construction,” the agency said in a statement.

The bidding documents released Friday provide important clues as to what the Trump administration hopes to erect on the 1,200 miles of border with no physical barriers. Some 650 miles are already fenced.

The little walls are supposed to be tall. They should be “physically imposing in height” — 30 feet is preferred, though 18 feet is acceptable. However, the prototypes will be as little as 30 feet long, and cost as little as $100,000.

The little walls are supposed to be strong. They must be able to withstand attacks from “sledgehammer, car jack, pick axe, chisel, battery operated impact tools, battery operated cutting tools, Oxy/acetylene torch” for at least one hour, preferably four. They should also be able to span 45-degree slopes, and block tunneling. Contractors will build prototypes of concrete — Trump’s preferred material — but also other materials that will allow visibility between the two sides. Once the government has determined a model, the prototypes may be demolished.

Finally, the little walls are supposed to be pretty — at least on the U.S. side of the border. The agency wants the walls to be “aesthetically pleasing” so that the color and texture blends into the environment on the “north side of the wall.” There is no similar language for the Mexican side of the wall.

In addition to the tough building conditions, the agency clearly understands another difficulty will be political: Interested builders are urged to discuss their experience in “executing high profile, high visibility and politically contentious” construction projects.

Immigration activists are expected to protest construction of the wall, deploying tactics learned during the long, bitter protests over construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. The bid calls for companies to hire their own private security contractors to protect their projects.

The final cost of the wall — and even whether it will be built — is a matter of debate. Trump has said he anticipates the final bill to be from $10 billion to $12 billion. The Department of Homeland Security has suggested a cost of around $21 billion. Trump’s proposed budget has called for $2.6 billion to begin construction.

In Congress, some Republicans and many Democrats have opposed spending billions for an untested and possibly ineffectual border barrier. Trump has said he will force Mexico to pay for the wall. The Mexican government has rejected the possibility.

What is clear is that the Trump administration’s methods will favor large, experienced government contractors with demonstrated experience in big construction projects. Companies such as KBR, Tutor Perini Corp., Parson Corp. and Fluor Corp. have all indicated an interest in building the edifice.

At the same time, the agency has asked bidders to explain how they will meet the agency’s goals to deliver contracts to small, minority and veteran owned companies. Customs and Border Protection aims to pay 38 percent of its contract to small business, 5 percent to woman-owned firms and 3 percent to companies owned by disabled veterans.

In practice, the likely outcome is a few large government contractors overseeing a small army of subcontractors to build the wall.

More than 700 companies signed up for notifications about the building of the wall, including more than 140 minority-owned firms — about 20 percent of the total. It is unclear how many of the firms possess the necessary experience and ability to participate in the bid.

Christian Miller joined ProPublica in 2008 as a senior reporter based in Washington, D.C. He spent the previous 11 years reporting for the Los Angeles Times.

 

Trump’s Watered-Down Ethics Rules Let a Lobbyist Help Run an Agency He Lobbied

February 16, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Geoff Burr spent much of the last decade as the chief lobbyist for a powerful construction industry trade group. Burr sought to influence a host of regulations of the Department of Labor, opposing wage standards for federal construction contracts and working against an effort to limit workers’ exposure to dangerous silica dust.

In the Obama administration, someone like Burr would have been barred by ethics rules from taking a job at an agency that he had lobbied.

In the Trump administration, Burr now has a top job at the Labor Department.

Burr is the first publicly known example of a former lobbyist who was able to take a job in the government as a result of President Donald Trump’s watering down of ethics rules in place during the Obama administration.

As a candidate, Trump regularly railed against lobbyists and led crowds in chants of “Drain the swamp!” But as president, Trump last month signed an executive order that weakened significant aspects of the Obama ethics policy, including scrapping a ban on lobbyists joining agencies they had recently lobbied.

Ethics experts say Burr’s hiring is a troubling example of how the new administration has greased the revolving door.

“A lobbyist like Burr may de-register on Monday and enter the Trump Administration on Tuesday,” said Craig Holman of the watchdog group Public Citizen. “The very same agency Burr has been lobbying as a hired gun is now Burr’s to help run. This is a grave problem for the public because the agency may well represent the special interest rather than the public interest.”

It also raises questions about ambiguous language in the Trump executive order.

Instead of banning lobbyists from working at agencies they lobbied, the Trump pledge, which has to be signed by all executive appointees, imposes restrictions on what such officials can work on. Specifically it says they cannot “participate in any particular matter on which I lobbied … or participate in the specific issue area in which that particular matter falls.”

Ethics lawyers are now puzzling over what exactly that language means.

That task is made more confusing because of an apparent error in the Trump executive order: It says the phrase “particular matter” has the “same meaning as set forth in section 207 of title 28, United States Code.”

That part of the U.S. code does not exist.

There is a definition for that term in section 207 of title 18. (The error is doubly strange because much of the Trump executive order was copied word for word from an earlier Obama order. The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

While it was cited incorrectly, the phrase “particular matter” does have a clear legal meaning, which has been detailed by the Office of Government Ethics.

Another phrase in the Trump order, “specific issue area,” was also used in the Obama order but its meaning is unclear.

“It is not defined in the Trump pledge. There’s uncertainty within the government and outside the government about what that particular term means,” said Robert Walker, an ethics lawyer at Wiley Rein in Washington. “The same lack of clarity was a problem with the Obama pledge in this area.”

Because the Obama pledge included a blanket ban on lobbyists joining agencies they recently lobbied, the ambiguity of the restrictions on what lobbyists could do was less urgent.

The Obama administration was criticized for issuing a handful of waivers to allow former lobbyists to join the administration, thus skirting its own lobbyist ban. Out of thousands of appointees, there were five such waivers over the course of the Obama administration. None were at the Department of Labor.

Because Trump weakened the Obama rules, he won’t have to issue waivers in such situations. But if Trump issues a waiver allowing, say, a former lobbyist to work directly on issues that he lobbied on, we may not even find out about it: The executive order removed the mechanism for public disclosure of such waivers.

The president has cultivated a relationship with the building trades unions. But early hires at the Department of Labor are opponents of wage standards for construction contracts.

As President-elect Donald Trump picks his top officials, we’re laying out the best accountability reporting on each. Read the story.

In the case of a former lobbyist like Burr, who worked at the Associated Builders and Contractors, there was a consultation with a Labor Department ethics lawyer. “If recusals were deemed to be necessary, it’s likely that there would be some documentation of the contours of those recusals,” Walker said.

Department of Labor spokeswoman Jillian Rogers declined to detail how Burr will comply with the ethics order. She offered the following statement:

“Mr. Burr has signed the Ethics Pledge and received a full ethics briefing on his first full day at the Department. He has been in frequent consultation with the DOL Ethics officer to ensure he is fully compliant with all ethical obligations in his role at the Department.”

Enforcement of the Trump’s ethics rules will also be at the discretion of the administration, as it was with the Obama order.

Whether Burr’s work at the Labor Department will be significantly limited by the president’s ethics rules depends on how the administration interprets the order.

Burr is now a member of the so-called beachhead team at the agency and is reportedly in line to be chief of staff to Labor Secretary nominee Andrew Puzder.

That role is shaped by each labor secretary’s needs, according to Seema Nanda, who was chief of staff through January 20 of this year.

Under Obama Labor Secretary Tom Perez “anything significant that is happening in the department or anything that is a change in policy you are discussing as chief of staff,” Nanda told ProPublica.

That includes reviewing documents that need the secretary’s signature, such as new regulations, reports to Congress, or letters.

The chief of staff and his or her deputies “regularly meet with the agency heads to see what they’re thinking about. You are really going over in depth what each agency is working on.”

Thousands ‘Unite’ In Passionate, But Peaceful Inauguration Day Protests

January 20, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Several thousand protesters converged on City Hall today to voice their outrage over the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

Two different groups — one starting in Boyle Heights and another near Staples Center — met up on Spring Street outside City Hall’s west entrance a little before 1 p.m.

“We organized this event to make sure to cross the bridge and protest Donald Trump,” Sol Marquez, an organizer with Centro CSO who marched with the Boyle Heights group, told City News Service.

“We are here to say that we won’t stand for his hatred.”

While marchers were vocal while chanting slogans like, “The people united must never be divided,” the protest was peaceful. Law enforcement presence at the scene was minimal, featuring several dozen officers and sheriff’s deputies in regular uniforms.

Officer Tony Im with the Los Angeles Police Department’s Media Relations Section said no arrests had taken place anywhere in the city related to an inauguration protest.

An officer on scene around 1 p.m. estimated that about 3,000 to 4,000 protesters were on Spring Street, but by 3 p.m. the size of the crowd had diminished, as had the size of the law enforcement presence. By 4:30 p.m. the protest was winding down and its organizers were packing up.

The number of protesters was below the 10,000 predicted Thursday by some organizers.

The morning rainstorm may have kept some at home, but not long after the protesters started to assemble the rain paused and the sun came out for a few minutes, causing many in the crowd to cheer.

The Boyle Heights protest began at Mariachi Plaza before moving to the Federal Building and then City Hall. The protest that began near Staples Center was organized by more than 90 groups and began at Olympic Boulevard and Figueroa Street.

A common point of anger for the protesters at City Hall was Trump’s stated proposals to begin mass deportations of immigrants living in the country illegally.

“We are working toward building a coalition that can defeat Trump’s agenda. That means defending immigrant rights,” Lorenzo Osterheim, a student at Pasadena City College and member of Students for a Democratic Society, told CNS.

But there were other issues on the minds of protesters as well, including the hacking campaign allegedly orchestrated by the Russian government to help Trump during the election, his refusal to release his tax returns, his views on the environment and the crude audio recording that caught him bragging about sexually assaulting women.

One protester held a sign that said, “I pay legitimate taxes, I want a legitimate president,” while another sign simply said, “Rapist.”

A large bus with a digital billboard on it that read “United Against Hate” was parked in front of the City Hall steps on Spring Street and a number of speakers addressed the crowd from the roof of the bus through a P.A. system.

“Trump will deregulate the little restrictions we have on Wall Street,” Carolyn Gomez of the Party for Socialism and Liberation told the crowd. “He will smash environmental regulations so that resources can be extracted and profited from by corporations while leaving the environment in an abysmal state.”

Skirmishes in Washington did turn violent today, with protesters breaking store windows and tear gas being used on some of them by police.

Other protests were held today across Los Angeles, including the “Caravan of Justice” in South Los Angeles that included several dozen groups, such as Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, Los Angeles Community Action Network and United Teachers Los Angeles.

The “Caravan of Justice” began at Leimert Park at 9 a.m., with about 100 protesters boarding three busses to travel to other sites around the city before returning to Leimert Park at 2 p.m., said Jasmyne Cannick, who is doing media promotions for the protest.

“The reason why these groups came together was because they did not feel like the protests that are taking place in downtown Los Angeles were being inclusive of people of color,” Cannick said.

The Los Angeles Unified School District declared today “Unity Day 2017” at its campuses  ”to encourage students to participate in the civic-engagement process and to promote schools as safe and appropriate venues for meaningful dialogue about the presidential election,” according to the
district.

District officials said they developed lesson plans and activities for the day geared primarily to high school students, but available for students in all grades. The activities included “unity dances,” poster-making gatherings and “justice circles” to discuss the issues.

The Real Danger of Trump’s Alleged ‘Pee Party’

January 19, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

The week leading up to the presidential inauguration brought streams, if not floods, of pee jokes. You might even say it was the number one opportunity for scatological humor since the poop cruise of 2013.

My heart goes out to parents who have to find an appropriate way to explain this to their children.

The occasion for the pee jokes was a leaked, unverified report on Russian anti-Trump intelligence. Someone described as a former British intelligence agent claims the Russians have been cultivating Trump for years, in part by gathering compromising information on him to hold over his head.

In one especially lurid example, the source claims, Trump allegedly paid sex workers to engage in lewd urination-related acts in a Moscow hotel known “to have microphones and cameras in all the main rooms.”

For those who support Trump, it’s a heinous and untrue case of scurrilous journalism. For those who oppose Trump, it’s an opportunity to laugh at him. And laugh and laugh and laugh.

If any of the allegations are true, though, it’s no laughing matter.

Surprisingly, the two media outlets that got it right on this story are Saturday Night Live and Teen Vogue.

Saturday Night Live made a lot of jokes, but they also portrayed Vladimir Putin using a tape of the “Big Russian Pee Pee Party” to blackmail Trump.

Teen Vogue put the issue in less funny terms: “If allegations are true, and the Russian government does have compromising financial and personal information about Donald Trump, then we should be more concerned about whether or not this will have an effect on his foreign policy — and not laughing at his sexual preferences.”

In other words, there are two possible scenarios. The better one, no doubt, is that there is no tape, there was no pee pee party, the Russians have nothing on Trump, and the whole thing was made up.

Another fake news crisis is the last thing we need, but it’s better than the other option. Imagine what Russia could do if it were actually able to blackmail a sitting president of the United States.

“Don’t interfere with us in Ukraine or we’ll release the tape.”

“Let us do what we want in Syria or we’ll release the tape.”

“Keep NATO out of countries near Russia or we’ll release the tape.”

And so on.

Trump has lashed out against the claims, calling them a “political witch hunt.”

But rather than attacking anyone who mentions the allegations, Trump should take them seriously. If a foreign country has damaging material it could use to blackmail a U.S. president, that’s a serious matter that the president should investigate.

And he shouldn’t handle it by disparaging or disbelieving his own intelligence agencies whenever they give him news he doesn’t like.

As for the rest of us, there’s no harm in making jokes, so long as we remember that the real issue is blackmail, and not just a salacious (if unverified) story that’s good for a laugh.

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It. Distributed by OtherWords.org.

For Trump, Billionaires Know Best, Even If They Are Mexicans

December 29, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Mexico City—Throughout his unorthodox campaign, Donald Trump kept sending mixed signals about Mexico and his ideas about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

He denounced Mexican immigrants, who comprise a significant share of the undocumented labor force in the U.S. today. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best … They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” he said. Then, during one of the debates, he praised Mexican leaders. In a retort to Jeb Bush, Trump claimed that Mexico’s leaders were “much smarter, much sharper, much more cunning” than American officials in Washington.

This love-hate attitude toward Mexico—vilifying Mexicans in the U.S. but praising Mexican leaders as pulling a fast one over Americans—made no sense to Mexican observers.

Former Mexican President Vicente Fox denounced Trump as a “a crazy guy” and “a false prophet.” Former Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda opined in the New York Times that Mexico should “fight back” against Trump: “By threatening to deport all undocumented immigrants, about half of whom are Mexican; to build a wall on the Mexican border; and to rip up the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is far more important for Mexico than for the United States, Donald J. Trump made Mexico one of the central issues of the campaign.”

(New America Media)

(New America Media)

Yet, while Mexican politicians expressed outrage, Mexicans continued to be perplexed by the campaign as it unfolded. Most Mexicans consider immigrants, legal or undocumented alike, as men and women who want honest work, often times resisting the trap of joining gangs or drug trafficking, and therefore worthy of being praised. Trump’s claim that Mexican leaders are “smart,” on the other hand, was considered ridiculous: Mexicans consider President Enrique Peña Nieto to be an idiot.

So when Donald Trump invited Carlos Slim, one the world’s richest men and the single-largest investor in the New York Times, to dinner at his Palm Beach estate, Mar-a-Lago, it became clear that Trump’s admiration for Mexican “leaders” meant businessmen, not politicians.

“What President-elect Trump wants to do in coming closer to the Mexican business community has an impact, not only nationally but regionally with Latin America, and opens the doors for good business relations overall,” said Larry Rubin, president of the American Society of Mexico and one of several candidates to serve as Trump’s ambassador to Mexico. “The closer that the administration is to businesses and governments in Mexico and in the region, the better for the U.S.”

The dinner between Trump and Slim set the stage to clear the table between the two moguls so they could proceed on how best to work together. While Slim has expressed skepticism at Trump’s wild campaign promises, such as building a wall along the border and tearing up NAFTA, he understands posturing and how to leverage it. He has amassed a sweeping fortune, with investments in countries around the world. If Trump wants to negotiate better deals that will strengthen the American economy, he could use a partner like Slim—who knows how to make profitable deals globally.

More important for Trump, who has alienated the mainstream media in the United States, he has to reach out to former adversaries. Slim, as the single-largest investor in the New York Times—which published a negative story on Trump just about every day for a year and a half—can offer guidance to the incoming administration. During the campaign Trump accused Slim of being part of a “conspiracy” against him—and the source of the sexual assault stories where Trump is heard on tape bragging about touching women inappropriately.

What did they talk about over dinner? What both billionaires have in common is infrastructure. Trump has promised to rebuild America’s infrastructure and Slim has more than a decade’s experience in the field: In 2005 he started Impulsora del Desarrollo y el Empleo en America Latina SAB de CV, or “IDEAL,” which could very well undertake large-scale infrastructure projects along the border, such as building a wall. Which, of course, would use lots of cement from CEMEX, the largest cement company in the world, and it’s in Mexico.

It is clear that Trump is a modern-day Calvin Coolidge in his philosophy. Coolidge famously said that “the business of America is business.” Trump believes politicians have ruined the country, getting us in useless wars while neglecting the homeland. While “trillions,” as he said throughout the campaign, have been squandered in the Middle East, America has been neglected, its infrastructure in need of repair, good jobs being outsourced to foreign countries, trade deficits draining the country’s wealth, and an opioid epidemic ravishing the heartland.

Trump, who has long admired (and been jealous of) Carlos Slim’s success, is reaching out to Slim as he fills his administration with billionaire businessmen.

If the business of America is business then it will take “billionaire businessmen” to turn things around—as if the purpose of his administration were akin to a hostile takeover and new management was needed for a turnaround to make the shareholders (voters) happy.

Trump ran a haphazard campaign. Yet, perhaps to his own amazement, he won. And now, to realize his vision of making America great again, he’s betting that he needs to enlist the most successful people on the planet to get the job done.

Trump “is surrounding himself with the 1 percent: billionaires and millionaires, investment bankers and venture capitalists, Wall Street insiders and family fortune heirs, many educated at elite schools. It is the most brazen embrace of big money since the 1980s era of Ronald Reagan, Tom Wolfe’s Masters of the Universe and Oliver Stone’s Gordon Gekko,” David Smith wrote in The Guardian.

In his selection of billionaires and millionaires for key administration positions and his reaching out to Slim, bypassing the Mexican president, it is clear that Trump believes the problems facing the United States—and its neighbors, Canada and Mexico—arise from incompetent politicians who don’t know how to run businesses.

If Barack Obama’s administration was a period of inclusion, diversity, and opening the White House to people who had formally been excluded, then Trump is preparing to launch a “by the 1 percent, for the 1 percent” plutocracy.

One of Coolidge’s favored sayings was, “Don’t expect to build up the weak by pulling down the strong.”

As Trump has shown in his career, strength—or its appearance—is a strategic position when negotiating an artful deal. “It’s a million dollars a minute in trade that goes across our border,” said Earl Anthony Wayne, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico under President Obama. “The CEOs [on both sides of the border] are very interested in preserving what they see as mutually beneficial relations. There’s a lot of attention to what the policies will turn out to be and a desire to have a dialogue with whoever the new officials will be.”

In other words, for the Trump administration—and the Trump organization—welcoming Carlos Slim into the fold is of strategic importance: Billionaires know best, even if they’re Mexican.

 

UCLA Study: Trump Brings Uncertainty for SoCal Economy

December 15, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Donald Trump’s election has created a wave of uncertainty for the California and Southland economy, with his hardline stances on immigration and trade policy carrying potential risks, while a possible up-tick in defense spending could be a boon, according to a UCLA economic forecast released Tuesday.

Jerry Nickelsburg, senior economist with the UCLA Anderson Forecast, noted in his report on the state economy that Trump’s proposed increase in defense spending “will be disproportionately directed to California as sophisticated airplanes, weaponry, missiles and ships require the technology that is produced here.”

“Moreover, there are few places to build the proposed 150 new warships, and San Diego is one of them,” Nickelsburg wrote. “Regionally, we expect a positive impact in the Bay Area and in coastal Southern California.”

California could also benefit from potential federal spending on infrastructure repair and upgrades, but Trump’s stated intention to limit funding for “sanctuary cities” – a label generally placed on cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, which are regarded as friendly to immigrants without visas – could throw the impact of such an effort into question. Nickelsburg noted, however, that Republicans may not be able to get an infrastructure-funding package approved without support from the state’s sizeable congressional delegation, meaning there would have to be some assurances of funds being spent locally.

Trump’s proclaimed intention to re-negotiate trade deals – most notably with China and Mexico – is also a wild card for the local economy.

“It may be that the stick works and the trade deals are re-negotiated with a larger volume of trade going both ways,” Nickelsburg wrote. “It is hard to say, and not the most likely outcome we see with our national forecast. Quite possibly there will be a reduced volume of trade, and depending on whether or not the stick is swung, maybe a greatly reduced volume of trade.”

Despite all of the questions, Nickelsburg said the new forecast for the coming years is “slightly higher than our previous one through the end of 2017.”

“This reflects the stimulus assumed in the national forecast, particularly through the defense appropriations,” he wrote. “The weakness relative to the U.S. after that reflects the fact that California, having already reached near full-employment will benefit less from further stimulus than rust belt states and the fact that deportations of unskilled workers will impact food harvesting and food processing.”

In a separate report, UCLA Anderson Forecast economist William Yu suggested that Trump’s vow to deport immigrants with criminal records living in the country illegally could have a notable impact in Los Angeles County, which Yu estimated houses at least 1 million undocumented immigrants.

“… We expect some undocumented immigrants will voluntarily choose to leave L.A. County for three reasons:

“– Because of enforced immigration laws, undocumented immigrants would have a harder time finding jobs;”

“– The rising cost of housing in L.A. has been driving low-wage immigrants to other low-cost counties or states already, and this will continue;”

“– California’s minimum wage incrementally rising to $15 over the next few years will reduce some employment opportunity in low-wage fields,” Yu wrote.

A Trump crackdown on immigration “will reduce the low-skilled labor supply in L.A.,” according to Yu, who said it is still unclear what impact Trump’s policies will have on “high-skilled immigrants.”

“He and most economists know high-skilled immigration has always been a contributor to our nation’s competitiveness, dynamism and innovation,” Yu wrote. “That said, we might even see Trump expand the gate of high-skilled immigration to fuel his pro-growth Trump Train.”

“… For better or for worse, Los Angeles would probably evolve and transform to be more like the Bay Area with more residents, native and immigrant, of high human capital and skills. The high cost of housing problem will persist. If L.A. wants to be a more inclusive and prosperous metro for middle-class Americans, high-density development is the key.”

 

State Senate’s Health Chairman Vows To Defend California Coverage Gains

November 22, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

A key state health care figure vowed Thursday to defend the coverage gains California has seen under the Affordable Care Act in the face of widely expected efforts by President-elect Donald Trump to overturn much of the health reform law.

“I want to assure you, your staff and Californians that we stand ready to fight to keep what is working in this state,” Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina), chairman of the Senate Health Committee, told the board members of Covered California, the state’s health insurance exchange, in their first public meeting since Trump was elected on Nov. 8.

“What we have is too important to lose,” said Hernandez, an optometrist. He cited examples of people who had come into his optometry office for the first time because of their newly gained health coverage.

Any rollback in coverage, Hernandez said, would hurt millions of Americans.

California’s rate of uninsurance has been cut roughly in half since 2014, when federally subsidized health plans sold through the exchange first took effect and eligibility for Medicaid, the health care program for low-income individuals, was expanded. Both are key features of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Health advocates who addressed the board Thursday sent the same message as Hernandez, expressing support for the ongoing efforts of the exchange to sign Californians up for coverage in the fourth annual open enrollment period, which started Nov. 1 and ends Jan. 31.

Covered California officials said that Trump’s plan to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act has created confusion among enrollees but that people are still signing up.

In the first two weeks of open enrollment, 44,885 new people have enrolled in health insurance through Covered California, according to numbers provided by the board. That’s down from about 50,000 in the same period last year.

But Peter V. Lee, the exchange’s executive director, noted that Covered California did not run ads at the beginning of this enrollment period because it didn’t want to compete with the election campaign. He said the new numbers are in line with Covered California’s projection of approximately 400,000 new exchange enrollees next year.

This week, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced that more than 1 million people had selected plans on Healthcare.gov, the federal exchange website, during the first 12 days of open enrollment. Of those, 250,000 were new to the exchange. The number of people who selected plans was up 53,000 from the same period last year, according to CMS.

Covered California is the largest state-run marketplace. It has 1.4 million members, nearly 90 percent of whom receive federal tax subsidies to help pay their premiums.

Consumer advocates who spoke at the board meeting expressed optimism that California would maintain its status as a leader in health care reform, though many are also changing the conversation to focus on what parts of the Affordable Care Act might be kept.

It is unclear how far Trump will go in dismantling the health law. He conceded last week that he would like to keep some aspects of it — in particular, allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ health plans and banning insurance companies from refusing to cover people with preexisting medical conditions.

Health experts who addressed the Covered California board made it clear that everything is up in the air: The only thing they’d be willing to bet on is that the Republican replacement for the health reform law won’t be called Obamacare

Ian Morrison, a health care consultant and futurist, told board members that the Republicans’ sweep of the White House and Congress will probably mean a less regulated insurance market, the end of mandates to buy insurance, smaller federal subsidies for the uninsured and greater state control over Medicaid — which also means less federal funding for the program.

Both Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have endorsed the idea of transforming Medicaid into a block grant program, in which states would get fixed allotments from the federal government and would be responsible for any health spending above those amounts.

“When you hear the term block grant, that is code for less money,” Morrison said. “No one talks about block grants and more money.”

The overarching question, Morrison said, is this: Will health coverage for 20 million people be significantly eroded?

He also said he found it hard to understand how guaranteed coverage for people with preexisting conditions could be kept if buying insurance was no longer a requirement for all. The authors of the health reform law believed that a lot of young, healthy people needed to be in the insurance pool in order to ensure that the sick ones didn’t drive up the cost of premiums.

John Bertko, Covered California’s chief actuary, said people should be looking to 2018, since any changes in 2017 are highly unlikely.

“I suspect with the big rate increases, 2017 is going to be a good year for plans that are in exchanges,” Bertko said. He said that was “a bit ironic” given the cloud now hanging over Obamacare.

Trump’s Victory Reveals Two Americas

November 10, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Racial, generational or urban: Donald Trump’s presidential victory revealed the multiple tectonic plates under a country deeply divided, that ultimately rejected traditional politics and decades of neoliberal models.

Nearly split exactly in half, (59 million votes in favor of Clinton and 59 million for Trump), Tuesday’s election results illustrate a country with two separate realities and two conflicting visions.

Trump crushed all the forecasts, mobilizing a record number of whites to the polls, diffusing the predicted Democratic Latino firewall by capturing almost a third of the Latino vote. He took Florida and inspired Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin like never before, breaking the blue barrier of the Midwest that Clinton so confidently relied on for the victory.

It was the worst election for Democrats since 1988, leading them, with their heads hung low, to question how a man without political experience – and a campaign seemingly founded in chaos – was able to win without following the traditional political campaign strategy manual.

Trump surpassed the 270 electoral votes needed to win early Wednesday morning, ultimately accumulating 279 out of the 538 available in the Electoral College; Michigan and New Hampshire results were still pending as of press time.

The only thing that political analysts, media outlets and polltakers came close to predicting was that Trump’s most loyal base would remain rural, middle- and working-class white males, come to be known as the “Rust Belt.”

Analysts – and the polls had mistakenly predicted a shift to the Democratic Party by educated white males and women, which failed to hold up.

Also underestimated was the fact that many who voted in 2008 for President Barack Obama in the suburbs of Scranton, Pennsylvania or Youngstown, Ohio no longer connected with the Democratic message of hope, but had instead shifted their hope for jobs and empowerment to Trump.

Political strategists and pundits miscalculated the weight of votes in urban areas over rural communities, which they believed would bring Clinton the win.

Democrats did best in the largest populated cities in the country, from Washington to Boston in the east; Chicago, Illinois in the Midwest; Houston, Texas; or Montgomery, Alabama in the heart of the South.

“Trump Country” covered areas from the Appalachian Valleys all the way to Pennsylvania but unexpectedly also captured the Ohio, Indiana and Michigan “Rust Belt” like a tidal way.

Another division made apparent Tuesday is a generational one.

55% of voters aged 18-29 voted for Clinton, but almost one out of 10 opted to vote for a third political party, something that could also hint at a disconnect with traditional politics.

According to the exit polls, nearly 29% of Latino voters chose Trump (similar to how they voted Republican in 2012): 71% of Latinos said they didn’t want Trump and more than 80% of African Americans said they preferred Clinton.

During his acceptance speech, Trump spoke about unifying the country: “Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division; have to get together. To all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people.

“It’s time. I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans, and this is so important to me.

In her concession speech Wednesday, Clinton echoed that message, saying, “We all want what’s best for this country. That’s what I heard in Mr. Trump’s remarks last night. That’s what I heard when I spoke to him directly. And I was heartened by that. That’s what the country needs — a sense of unity, a sense of inclusion, a respect for our institutions, our way of life, rule of law, and respect for each other.”

Now, all that is left to see is how the two very different visions will reconcile in this country under Trump’s presidency.

On one side are those who foresaw Clinton’s victory with enthusiasm, believing Obama’s economic reforms worked, serving as models for development with a low unemployment rate and an increase in median salaries.

At the other extreme are those who despise the neoliberal policies, the same that the Republicans defended overseas and which after the 2009 economic many believe contributed to the demise of the U.S. middle-class, and a greater divide between the country’s rich and poor.

EGP staff writers contributed to this report.

 

 

 

California Faces Major Reversal If Trump, Congress Scrap Health Law

November 10, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

California has a lot to lose if President-elect Donald Trump and the Republican-led Congress fulfill their campaign pledge to repeal Obamacare.

The Golden State fully embraced the Affordable Care Act by expanding Medicaid coverage for the poor and creating its own health insurance exchange for about 1.4 million enrollees. Supporters held California up as proof the health law could work as intended.

But now President Barack Obama’s signature law is in serious jeopardy and California officials are left wondering what Republicans in Washington may put in its place.

“There is no doubt that Obamacare is dead,” said Robert Laszewski, a health care consultant and expert on the California insurance market. “The only question is just exactly how Republicans will get rid of it.”

Health policy experts don’t expect Republicans to immediately kick millions of people off their insurance policies. Instead, they predict lawmakers may repeal parts of the law and allow for some transition period for consumers while a replacement plan is put together.

Still, the personal and financial impact for the state could be jarring. The number of uninsured Californians would more than double to 7.5 million people if the Affordable Care Act was repealed, according to a recent study by the Urban Institute.

Researchers also said California stands to lose an estimated $15 billion annually in federal funding for Medicaid expansion and insurance subsidies — more than any other state. That loss of federal money would make it difficult for California to pursue health reform on its own.

State Sen. Ed Hernandez, (D-West Covina), chairman of the Senate Health Committee, said it’s difficult to predict what the next iteration of the Affordable Care Act may look like.

“Will there be federal subsidies? Will the state legislature pay for subsidies to ensure Californians have coverage? Those are open questions,” Hernandez said. “I will do everything I can to make sure California continues to take the lead on this issue.”

Congress already has voted to eliminate funding for Medicaid expansion and premium tax credits to dismantle two key pillars of the health law. Obama vetoed that legislation earlier this year, but Trump made the repeal of Obamacare a centerpiece of his campaign.

If repeal goes through, state leaders and consumer advocates may look to the ballot box, asking voters to fund expanded health coverage through higher taxes or fees. In Tuesday’s election, Californians backed the extension of a hospital fee to help pay for Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program.

State officials could aim even higher and try for a government-funded single-payer health system at the state level. But that’s expensive, disruptive to the current system and a tough sell to the public. Colorado voters soundly rejected a state single-payer initiative during Tuesday’s election.

Some Republican lawmakers in California would applaud a reversal on Medi-Cal expansion. They have argued that state and federal spending increases on the program are unsustainable.

The state’s Medi-Cal program now covers about a third of all Californians. The health law’s Medicaid expansion has added about 3.5 million Californians to the program since January 2014 and total enrollment stands at more than 13 million.

Molina Healthcare, a Long Beach-based insurer, is a major player in Medicaid managed care nationwide and also covers about 600,000 people through exchanges in California and eight other states. The company’s chief executive, Dr. J. Mario Molina, said he thinks Covered California and other exchanges will become a smaller part of health reform under a Republican plan and coverage expansion will shift more to Medicaid.

Molina said Republicans in Congress could grant governors more flexibility on Medicaid benefits to keep costs down while maintaining guaranteed access to coverage regardless of preexisting conditions, a popular provision of the health law.

“Republicans have the benefit of looking back at the experiment of Obamacare and seeing what worked and what didn’t work,” Molina said in an interview. “I think the Republicans will negotiate a deal where Medicaid gets expanded with more state control and exchanges will play a different role. The most cost effective way to do coverage expansion is through Medicaid.”

Consumer advocates acknowledged the financial challenges posed by repeal but also encouraged Californians to keep signing up for coverage in the meantime.

“Californians should continue to enroll in Covered California this open enrollment season, in Medi-Cal, and all the benefits they are still entitled to–and then fight like hell to keep them,” said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California, a consumer advocacy group.

But some Covered California policyholders expressed concern about what a Trump administration might mean for their coverage.

“I worry it will be gone, and I don’t know what I will do for insurance,” said Jane Henning Childress, 61, who lives in Calaveras County.

Taking into account her federal subsidy, she said she pays about $135 a month for her exchange plan. Earlier this year, she used it to help cover surgery for an ovarian cyst. “It sure helped me out,” she said.

Even before the election, some major health insurers were pulling out of the exchange market nationally and premiums shot up 22 percent, on average, for state and federal exchanges for 2017.

In the Covered California exchange, the average rate increase was 13.2 percent for next year. That’s higher than the 4 percent average rate increases that California negotiated its first two years. Open enrollment started Nov. 1.

Health insurers in California and nationwide face plenty of uncertainty as well from the election outcome. Some analysts said more insurers may exit state marketplaces rather than wait for them to unravel and risk getting stuck with too many expensive patients.

Four big insurers, led by Anthem Inc. and Blue Shield of California, account for about 90 percent of Covered California’s enrollment.

“The unthinkable has happened,” said Ana Gupte, a senior health care research analyst at Leerink Research. “With a Republican sweep of the White House, Senate and the House, we are looking ahead to a 2017 filled with much change and uncertainty in the health care markets.”

Story was originally posted on the CaliforniaHealthline website.

Can the Country Heal Under Trump? We Hope So.

November 10, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

OK America, it looks like we must finally accept the fact that for half our fellow Americans, racism, misogyny, jingoism, and pass the buck-ism are alive and well, and even excusable in 2016.

We now have a President-Elect who gained popularity by telling those who want to go back to 1950 what they wanted to hear: “We’re turning back the hands of time!”

During the race for president, Donald Trump promised a long list of remedies to the country’s ails. He said he will improve the economy by bringing back manufacturing jobs, reducing taxes for the country’s elite, fixing health care, rebuilding the military, defeating terrorists worldwide and getting rid of those here at home he doesn’t like or trust, namely Mexicans and Muslims.

But many of the jobs he talks of no longer exist, replaced by technology. He wants to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, but has given no clue what will take its place.

He places the blame for the demise of the middle-class on undocumented immigrants and wrongly accuses them of getting free government benefits.

There’s no doubt that the country is suffering from growing income inequality and it’s easy to put the blame on “foreigners” taking away minimum wage jobs.

However, as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders so effectively pointed out, the problem is with the top 10 percent having 90 percent of the money, and we should not be blaming those at the bottom of the financial ladder.

Instead, the campaigns of both Trump and Hillary Clinton were too busy throwing mud to be bothered with issues like the often extreme and vulgar corporate profits and executive salaries.

It’s clear Democrats misread the depth of anger among the working class whites in this country. They under-estimated the hidden and overt anger of a government voters feel doesn’t care about them, and Donald Trump kept telling them he alone could solve their problems. In desperations, they believed him.

They believed he could bring back the panacea of the 1950’s, when workers were paid wages that allowed them to live in affordable single-family homes in safe neighborhoods.

Now, President-Elect Trump says he wants to bring us together as one united country.

He says he will be president for all of America; we hope so.

But the protests across the country Wednesday show anger and mistrust run deep. It will take more than words to convince at least half the country he has their interest at heart.

Republicans need to understand that though they have tremendous sway in both the Senate and House, and a president of the same party, over half the country is offended by their refusal to recognize that the “others” in our country will continue to grow, are for the most part younger and should be prepared to meet the country’s future needs.

Likewise, establishment Democrats need to figure out the changes they should make to address the anger and disillusionment in their party.

Will Trump be able to heal the wounds caused by his extremely hostile rhetoric? We hope so, because a country divided will collapse on itself and never be at peace.

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