Category Archives: readers write back

Reader Response: “Good Xtians”

Quite a few readers commented on my post on South Carolina’s Lt. Governor Andre Bauer, who said that poor people are like “stray animals” who shouldn’t be fed because it just encourages them to “breed.” Reader Stefan Thiesen’s comment consists of the definition of  Psychopathy: “a personality disorder whose hallmark is a lack of empathy.”

I especially like this response from Charlie Ehlen, a Vietnam Vet and retired machinist from Louisiana, who wrote about my post on his blog Charlie’s Corner:

Now keep in mind that this guy, Andre Bauer, claims he is a “good Christian”. He is running for the office of governor in his state also.

This “wonderful” person is on record as saying that we should treat poor folks like stray animals and not feed them. You see, according to this “good” guy, the poor folks will just come back for more if you help them. We should, I suppose, just let them fend for themselves, and if they die, well, so much better for the state. Yep, that way there would be fewer poor folks to clog up the system. Oh, and more for those who aren’t poor.

It amazes me how these miserable damned jackasses can run around America claiming to be “good Christians” and then say crap like this and the media just lets them walk away from this sort of comment.

Here again is another “fine” example of what I continue to call an Xtian. There is NO Christ in the Xtianity they practice. There is none in what they preach either.

Now, some will jump on me as I am an old heathen, but I do know some bits of the Christian story. Jesus mentioned helping the poor at different times in the New Testament. He did not, that I remember, say to not feed them and just treat them like stray animals. In one story Jesus even went so far as to show socialist tendencies. I refer to the story where he told the rich man to sell all his belongings and give the money to the poor. Not being a follower of any religion, I do not have the chapter and verse in front of me. Any real Christians who might be reading this can look it up I am sure.

I, too, have often had occasion to denounce this kind of hypocrisy from those who proudly identify themselves as “good Christians.” Over the years, the right has tried, with some success, to gain a monopoly on the word Christian as shorthand for a set of narrow-minded and punitive conservative beliefs that are anything but.

However, I’m the grandson of a minister, and while I’m not religious myself, I have no desire to criticize people who are inspired by Jesus’s teachings to do some genuine good. (Quite a few of them are at work in Haiti right now.) That’s why I like Charlie’s terminology, which immediately serves to separate the real Christians from the Xtians.

Aging Right Wingers Revolt Against AARP

Today is the day that over-50 Tea Partiers across the country are supposed to burn their AARP cards to protest the group’s support for health care reform. At least, that’s what one right-wing blogger is encouraging them to do. As I mentioned in a post a few days ago, self-described “Tea Party Patriot” Sam Mela announced the “1st Tea Party Winter Fest for Health Care Freedom & AARP Card Burning”:

The Tea Party Movement is initiating a nation-wide AARP Card Burning, on the first day of winter, December 21, 2009. This is in response to AARP’s duplicitous stance in support of Congress’ attempted thievery of ample health care away from the American people. This response is being called for due to the fact that Congress has turned a deaf ear to the will of the American people, one of the most vulnerable groups of our society, our American Seniors….

Don’t forget your lighters, AARP cards and any other AARP printed material/mailings; home made cards a/or signs…you could even dress up like Santa, or his elves, Scrooge, Tiny Tim, whatever your favorite Christmas character…don’t forget your cameras & video recorders! If YOU don’t send this message NOW, the die will be cast!

It seems unlikely that more than a few stragglers will turn out in Santa suits today to torch their membership cards (and a good thing, too, since as one of my readers pointed out, the cards are plastic). When a West Virginia Tea Party organizer called for a day of AARP card burnings earlier this month, the only reports were of a half-dozen protesters huddled around a fire in the state capital.

That hasn’t stopped Republican politicians from picking up the battle cry. John McCain recently urged AARP members to trash their cards both in Arizona speeches and on the Senate floor. (To his credit, he told them to cut the cards in half and send them back to AARP, rather than burn them.) 

Though AARP has lost tens of thousands of members over the health care reform issue, that’s a tiny fraction of its 45 million total. President Obama and Democratic senators have been making much of AARP’s support for the reform legislation, leading Sam Mela, in a post yesterday, to lament the fact that “in terms of Public Relations and Public Perception, the AARP has been able to steamroll over the Tea Party movement, without encountering even token resistance, although it would have been a simple matter for the Tea Partiers to neutralize them at any time.”

Yet the behemoth group itself seems worried about losing the PR war in what they say is the most divisive issue it has ever encountered. At a press briefing in October, one AARP executive said that despite expending significant resources, it had been unable to unite its membership, while another declared, “We face a communications challenge.” A conservative  group, the American Seniors Association, is exploiting the opportunity, offering half-price memberships to anyone who mails in their cut up AARP card. And polls consistently show the strongest opposition to health care reform comes from the over-65 crowd. 

Although, unlike most reporters covering the subject, I am a member of the age group in question, that doesn’t mean I get what this resistance is all about. Or rather, I understand there being resistance–but it’s for all the wrong reasons. I’ve been critical myself of AARP for their cozy, lucrative partnership with the health insurance industry. And I get testy when I hear about big cuts to Medicare, knowing that the “reform” will only increase the profits of insurance and drug companies. But the reform bill throws seniors a few crumbs, which is about all it does for anyone else. And it’s no threat at all compared with the Republican dreams of remaking Medicare on a privatized model, along the lines of Bush’s Part D prescription drug program. 

Beyond these details, there’s the strange fact that all this resistance comes from right-wing old folks, who enjoy the only single-payer health care program this nation has ever known. As another reader of my previous post pointed out, “Courage would require that they burn their Medicare Cards and renounce that socialism rather than a meaningless protest against a non-governmental organization.”

Like the now-famous town hall geezer who told his Congressman to “Keep your government hands off my Medicare,” there’s some pretty nutty self-contradiction in the comments I’ve seen on the AARP revolt. One response to Sam Mela’s card-burning blog post attacked the organziation for being both a left-wing front and a corporate stooge: “I never have trusted this socialist orgainization that makes it money off of insruance commissions on its members.”

There’s half a grain of truth in this analysis. But somehow, it’s the red menace part that always seem to stick, while the real enemies of decent, affordable health care get a free pass.  In the end, I guess, it all boils down precisely the way it usually does in America: While a divided citizenry haggles over crumbs, the private companies take the cake.

It Pays for Insurance Companies to Let Us Die

My post on Tuesday–about how the health reform legislation will do nothing to stop private health insurance companies from continuing to turn down claims–brought in a comment from Richard Johnston, an employee benefits lawyer in California. Johnston has an entire blog dedicated to this subject–and to its legal underpinning in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, or ERISA. The blog’s inaugural post has the clearest description of how this travesty of a law functions, and I recommend reading it in full.

Basically, ERISA says that if an insurance company wrongfully turns down your claim, and you take them to court and win, the only thing you can collect is the value of the benefits that the company should have paid out in the first place–plus, if you’re lucky, some attorney’s fees. No damages, as Johnston says, to compensate for “the trashed credit, the lost home, the bankruptcy, the ruined life.” In practice, this means there is a strong incentive for insurers to turn down claims, because even if they are violating their own policies and thus committing fraud, they literally have nothing to lose.

As of now we have a situation where the law tells insurers they face no meaningful consequences if they deny care improperly or even commit outright fraud. As one federal judge has commented, “if an HMO wrongly denies a participant’s claim even in bad faith, the greatest cost it could face is being compelled to cover the procedure, the very cost it would have faced had it acted in good faith. Any rational HMO will recognize that if it acts in good faith, it will pay for far more procedures than if it acts otherwise, and punitive damages, which might otherwise guard against such profiteering, are no obstacle at all.”

All this holds true even if the insurance company’s behavior causes death. When a 17-year-old died after Cigna turned down her request for a liver transplant, her parents sued the insurance company. As Johnston writes:

Thanks to ERISA, a Los Angeles judge had to dismiss their wrongful death case against Cigna, because ERISA provides the Cignas of the world immunity from liability for killing people….

The insurance companies’ flack, one Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, defended the outcome, saying that to hold insurance companies accountable for killing people will “bankrupt these plans, and employers would no longer be able to offer coverage.”

That makes perfect sense. How can you be expected to offer your services at a reasonable price if the courts are going to nitpick about you killing people?

The insurance companies, as many before me have pointed out, are this country’s real “death panels.”

Churchill Had the Answer for Joe Wilson

John Hellegers, a reader and an old friend, sent me the following  email this morning:
Last night’s outburst from Rep. Joe Wilson (R.-S.C.) brings to mind one of the better Churchill stories.  There’s abundant heckling in the British House of Commons, but there are limits on what can be said.  One can impute all manner of ignorance, folly or faulty analysis to a fellow member– and one can do that in very colorful language–but one can’t call him a liar or a crook.
In the aftermath of World War II, there was a young Labour MP who didn’t know the limits, and went after Winston Churchill, no less, in highly unacceptable terms.  Clement Attlee required him to apologize, so he drove down to Churchill’s country house to do so.
 
Arriving at the door, the young MP told the butler his name.  The butler went inside to search for Churchill.  He learned that he was in one of the bathrooms.  The butler knocked and told Churchill the name of the visitor.  Churchill’s response was “Tell him I’m on the pot and I can take only one shit at a time.” 
churchill

Air France 447 Report: French Duck for Cover

I am posting this morning a lengthy comment I received from Manuel Garcia, Jr.,a retired engineering physicist, who wrote a most informative critique in Counterpunch.

His original article there—”The New Crisis in Aviation”—provides a detailed analysis of Flight 447, and is well worth reading. Garcia can be reached at: mango@idiom.com. Garcia writes:

I notice two things about the AF447 BEA investigation (http://www.bea-fr.org/anglaise/actualite/actu.htm) news stories today: 1) the plane held together till the bitter end, including the tail, and 2) Airbus planes are completely safe, keep flying folks:

[Quoting the Washington Post]
Despite the lingering mystery about what led to the plane’s sudden plunge, [Alain Bouillard, who is heading a probe by the French Investigation and Analysis Bureau] said he saw no reason at this point to ground the twin-engine Airbus A330 or for passengers not to board such aircraft with confidence. “As far as I am concerned, there is no problem flying these aircraft,” he told reporters.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/02/AR2009070201409.html?hpid=sec-world

So, the plane hits in one piece at one spot, and the tail is found six days later about 50 km south of most the rest of the debris field, which stretches about 150 km north, with the bodies pretty much along a line, and bits of wreckage flung out 50 km each way laterally from that track. China Airline 611, a 747, broke up at 35,000 in 2002 — a badly repaired rear pressure bulkhead gave way, explosive decompression — a breakup first into four pieces (estimated from radar) and ultimate scatter over 130 km; and AF447 pinpoints in one spot and has equivalent scatter? Maybe the ocean currents did spread out the AF447 debris that far; but some data on the currents and perhaps some computer models of the dispersal would sure make that argument more convincing to those of use not experts at marine drifts.

Regardless of any technical analysis (and the BEA people are closer to the data and specimens than I can ever be, and they have access to specialists, which I am not) it seems pretty obvious that if more Airbus planes had fallen out of the sky because their composite tails fell and/or broke off, then the world would be screaming to ground the entire fleet immediately. And Boeing’s increasing delayed Dreamliner would start looking like a Plumbob Zeppelin. So, AF447 has to hold together because it is holding ‘everything’ together. There was already a crisis in civil aviation before AF447 died, because of high fuel prices and the economic crash — ticket sales were down, airplane orders (at the Paris Air Show) were absent, and the buyer’s market has people demanding and getting bargain tickets. What government agency is going to sink it’s civil air transport sector over one or two little crashes?

There is big fear out there about the management of the public mind, and the fearful withdrawal of its pocketbook. Back in 1958 Queen Elizabeth II even went abroad on the new de Havilland Comet to instill confidence back into the British aero industry. But, that was after the Comets had been grounded for over three years while the problem was solved. The prospect of over twelve quarters of no cash flow is not a viable option today. Who says there is no human sacrifice in our society? Instead of war captives spread out on stone altars to have their hearts ripped out on state holidays, we send bundles of people off on low-odds sudden termination lotteries in jumbo plastic airplanes, or death-wad and toxin-laced junk food mass feedings and drug trials. Our capitalist society is a like casino where you’re forced to play a slot machine, and if the long odds come up against you then it blows up in your face. The concept is deemed OK (by those raking in the chips) because the odds of bad stuff are “low.” Russian Roulette with 8 million empty chambers in the barrel is OK, so just pay up and keep pulling the trigger.

I hope they find the recorders, because I have a belief they will clear the pilots (the presumption of good piloting is a purely emotional attitude on my part), and because I think it would be enormously helpful to aeronautical engineers to finally decipher the instrument failures and sequence of forces that occurred on AF447. The price for this lesson was unwillingly paid by 228 people. I fear that not finding the recorders will become politically convenient, and suspect that the blame game has now completely taken over: anyone with a perceived liability regarding AF447 is in Red Alert CYA mode, and many with a loss or perceived potential for gain are weaving court filings (some no doubt quite justified). The French and the Brazilians already had a finger-pointing tiff early in the search, about what was or wasn’t real AF447 wreckage, and what might or might not have happened as regards in-flight breakup. The BEA report of 2 July points to air traffic sluggishness in Brazil and more so in Senegal as delaying the start of search-and-rescue. In seems unlikely that starting the search planes six hours earlier would have made any difference; the wreckage of AF447 would have sunk in minutes, and since there seems to have been no fire, there would be no ocean-surface fuel-burning to see. Despite the news reports (officially leaks) of autopsy findings in Brazil, and the participation of French medical forensic observers, the BEA complains it has not received the official autopsy results from Brazil. Probably true, but why?, is it all PR jockeying for world news media, CYA, and finger-pointing?

The BEA’s conclusion about an intact impact may be correct, but I will find it more convincing when they present step-by-step reasoning that ties all known facts (or proves individual facts spurious) into a sequence that produces their conclusion. That, and making their data public so independent analysts can replicate their findings, would be a first payment of honorable compensation to the dead. The principal of the rest of that debt would be to re-engineer the air transport fleet to prevent the technical failures that occurred on AF447. To do that we have to know what they were.

My AARP True Confession

By now readers will have noticed that I hardly ever have anything nice to say about AARP. I do sometimes cite their studies, which provide some valuable information. But I’ve also bashed them several times, both here on Unsilent Generation and in Mother Jones, for making money by selling insurance–an inherent conflict of interest for a group that is supposed to represent older Americans’ interests in health care debates. I’ve even dissed their magazine, which to me always comes off as a Cosmo wannabe for old farts. 

AARP's Temple of the Geezers. Photo by Kimbar from Flickr.

AARP's Temple of the Geezers. Photo by Kimbar from Flickr.

I can tell from the comments I’ve gotten (not to mention the hundreds of oldsters who burned their AARP membership cards when the group supported Bush’s Medicare drug bill) that I’m not the only one who feels this way. In response to my latest post about AARP, reader George Fulmore remarks that “AARP doesn’t have one of the largest, most impressive buildings in downtown Washington, D.C., primarily by being a supporter for the elderly. From the start, AARP has been in the insurance business and has been profitable.” (It’s true–AARP’s HQ looks like some kind of castle, complete with courtyards and turrets, and takes up a full city block. You don’t build a place like that just off of $16 membership fees.)

In view of all this, I think I need to come clean with George and the rest of my readers: Hello, my name is Jim, and I am an AARP member.

That’s right, like millions of other American elders, I have developed a dependency on AARP. In fact, I’m not only a member, but also a willing participant in their insurance scams. I have not one, but two types of  AARP Medicare insurance: Medigap supplemental insurance, and a Part D prescription plan. 

Why do I do this, knowing what I know? I really don’t have much of an answer. Part of it is fear and loathing of the insurance industry, which over time I have experienced as a bunch of con artists and double crossers in the health, auto, life, and home areas. I realize, of course, that AARP is merely a middleman, which works in partnership with United Healtcare. But even though I know better, I feel more comfortable dealing with AARP than dealing directly with the insurance companies. 

Most important, I think, is the fact that when you call up AARP you actually talk to a live human being. And most of the time the people answering the phone sound like real people, not programmed sales staff. If they can’t answer your questions, they politely pass you along to another real person. This is unheard of in this day and age–speaking to two live people in one phone call. I suspect this is a major selling point for a lot of people, especially older people who grew up in an age before impersonal automated phone systems. I know it’s a pretty flimsy standard on which to base my choice of an insurance provider. But then again, in the United States, the bar is set so low that it doesn’t take much.

I’d sincerely like to overcome my AARP habit, but I don’t think I’m ready yet to make the break. All I can say is that I look forward to the day when all parts of Medicare take their place in a true and complete single-payer system, with the insurance companies left out in the cold–and AARP with them. Then I’ll be first in line to sign up for AARP Anonymous.

More on the Pharma Con Job

By the way, there’s more than one reason for the purported $80 billion in drug company largesse to the decrepit classes, which I discussed yesterday. This most recent ploy is yet another of Big Pharma’s machinations to extend the life of drug patents, and keep people taking their exhorbitantly priced brand-name drugs. As Reuters points out today, when seniors reach the Medicare Part D donut hole, the majority of them percent either stop taking some of their drugs altogether, or switch to cheaper generics. To keep that from happening, the drug companies are more than willing to offer oldsters their “generous” discounts on brand-name drugs. 

Right now, a company winning regulatory approval of a new drug from the FDA can get monopoly protection under the patent law for 20 years. (Since the patent clock starts ticking before clinical trials begin, the actual life of the patent can be anywhere from 7 to 12 years). Once that time is up, the firm can then file for an extension which can run another 30 months. During that time,the big pharmaceutical company can sue the companies that want to put a generic equivalent on the market, and hence keep the patent in place. And when that time is up, the company can slightly alter the chemical composition of the drug whose patent is running out and introduce an entirely new drug (like Nexium replacing Prilosec). If the FDA goes along with that, the clock starts ticking all over again.

Carolyn Caffrey, an Unsilent reader, makes an important point in her comment on yesterday’s post, which helps explain why the drugmakers are grasping at every possible ploy to keep brand-name drugs sales going.

A LOT of their “cash cow” drugs are up for patent expiration in the next few years. They stand to lose HUGE money. And quite a number of those are drugs used widely by Medicare patients…like Aricept for Alzheimers. So, they’re trying to cut their losses by discounting ONLY brand name prescriptions as a way of squeezing extra life and dollars from those through the Medicare program. I just completed a little summary of 18 of the top “patent cliff” drugs whose patents expire in the next 3 years. But here is a partial list of top sellers that will be open to generics:

in 2010: Lipitor (the #1 drug in retail sales with annual sales in 2008 of $5.9 BILLION); Advair, Levaquin, Cozaar, and Aricept.
In 2011: Seroquel, Zyprexa, Actos, Xalatan, Aprovel, and Plavix (#3 at $3.8 billion);
In 2012: Lexapro, Avandia, Singulair, Zometa, Diovan, Crestor, and Symbicort.

Yeah, some gift to the elderly huh. Don’t you know the advertising is going to be fierce too, and targeted, to keep seniors asking for those, and doctors prescribing them.

I’d be tired…if I wasn’t so DAMN MAD!!

Am I “On Crack” When It Comes to Flight 447?

PUB_GT_Aircraft_Composite_Content_1980-2010_lgThat’s what one of my readers wants to know. He made this comment in response to my coverage of the Air France 447 disaster, which questions whether the growing use of composite  materials in aircraft construction might have played a role in this and other recent crashes. I think it’s a pretty important subject of inquiry, since more and more of these fiber and resin materials are used in commercial airplanes every year. And apparently a lot of people are as riveted by this subject as I am, since there’s plenty of discussion on the web, and even a larger than usual number of comments on my own posts.

My original long post on this subject inspired one comment from someone who lost a relative on American Airlines Flight 587, also in the Airbus 300 series, which crashed in New York City in 2001 after its composite-made vertical stabilizer detatched in flight–something that might or might not have happened on AF 447. He wonders whether there have been “instances where a metal vertical stabilizer has broken off the fuselage, in-flight, on large conventional passenger jets.” I don’t know the answer to his question, but I’ve sent it to people more knowledgable than myself, and hope to have a response I can pass on soon.

The rest of the comments on this post (including one from an aircraft engineer and one from an Airbus 330 captain and instructor) accuse me of being irresponsible and inflammatory. One says that I might as well have asked whether aliens shot down AF 447.  Another inquired, “Are you on crack?” and then went on to say that “implying that composite parts caused the vertical stabilizer to detach from AF447, and thus doomed the flight, is premature at best, and irresponsible as a whole.”   

I encourage everyone to read all of these critical comments, which are written by knowledgable people and contain valuable information. As someone who has a ticket on an Air France Airbus A340 next month, I sincerely hope they’re right in saying that the composite parts are safe. I agree that it is “premature” to conclude that these parts played a role in the AF 447 and/or AA 587 flights. I also believe it is premature to conclude that they didn’t play any role. And I’d feel a lot better if we knew for sure, before sending any more jetloads of people out over the Atlantic Ocean in these planes.

My posts on this subject are intended to raise questions, not answer them. So far, all anyone has is questions. Even though some 400 pieces of wreckage have now been recovered, French investigators today stated:  “We don’t have new specific information that allows us to say this is what happened.” This means that we can’t rule out the possibility that composite parts were a contributory factor, just as we can’t rule out a number of other possible causes.

What concerns me most is what seem to me well-substantiated claims that the composite parts may not have undergone sufficient testing before new aircraft models began flying, and that they now lack effective routine ground testing between flights. These issues were raised by such reliable sources as the New Scientist, which recently published an update on the subject. If nothing else, the AF 447 crash suggests that we ought to take a serious look at the efficacy of testing protocols for composite aircraft construction, especially before the new generation of high-composite planes starts flying.

I’ve also gotten some comments from friends who wonder why I’m writing so much about airplane safety on a blog that’s supposed to be about the politics of aging, from the point of view of an old person. The only age-related reason I can give is that I grew up in an era before there was such a thing as a consumer safety movement, and that I happen to have been a witness (and perhaps even a minor participant) in the birth of this movement. 

ccb6eb6709a0fb1280861110_L__AA240_Back in the mid-1960s,  I began reporting on a car called the Chevy Corvair. At the time, the safety problems in that vehicle were being brought to life by an obscure young consumer activist named Ralph Nader. I was widely attacked as an irresponsible alarmist, while the auto industry responded with a blizzard of experts and even put a detective on Nader to try and get something on his personal life to smear him. But Nader perservered, and the questions he raised were taken up first by the late New York Senator Pat Moynihan and later by Bobby Kennedy. This eventually led to the institution of the first auto safety standards.

My response to the experts charging journalists like myself with ignorance and sensationalism is: Answer our questions and respond to the general public, which you serve. The aircraft industry and the airlines would be nowhere without the subsidies we taxpayers fork out through the federal government, and the tickets we buy on these planes. We have every right to ask questions of any conceivable sort, and to expect clear, evidence-based answers. There are always, in such cases, conspiracy theorists who won’t be satisfied by any amount of evidence. I’m not one of them, and neither, I believe, are many of the others who are asking similar questions–and getting a similar mix of (approving and attacking) comments in response.

I would also argue that we also have every reason to be skeptical, knowing how much money the aircraft manufacturers have sunk into the future of composite parts–and also knowing the airlines’ history of putting profits before public safety, and the FAA’s weaknesses in holding them accountable. This was one of the grim lessons people should have learned from 9/11, if they hadn’t learned it already.

It isn’t the public’s job–or mine–to prove that airplanes (or cars, or food additives, or prescription drugs, or any other product upon which our health and safety depend) are not safe. It’s the job of the corporations that make these products to prove to us that they are safe. Right now, I have my doubts about the safety of certain aircraft. I’m waiting–and hoping–to be proved wrong.

More Social Security Give-and-Take

READERS WRITE BACK

George Fulmore makes a couple of important points in his comment on my recent post “Social Security Give-and-Take Leaves Old Folks in the Hole.” First, he responded to my statement that some people might pay more in Medicare Part B and D premiums next year, even though there will be no increase in Social Security benefits:

My understanding is that there cannot be an increase in the Medicare Part B premium that is greater than the increase in one’s Social Security payment. In other words, the amount of the Social Security check (out of which Part B premiums are paid) is not to be less than it was the year before. If there is no increase in SS payments, then there can not be an increase in Medicare Part B for those of us already in both systems.

 This limit does indeed apply in most cases, but there are exceptions, as explained in the latest newsletter of the Medicare Rights Center:

Part B premiums are expected to rise over the next two years. However, three quarters of people with Medicare will be protected from these increases by the “hold harmless” provision of the Social Security Act. In order to mitigate the financial impact of increasing Part B costs on people with Medicare, the provision ensures that the increase in Part B premiums cannot exceed the COLA for a given year for people with Medicare who have the premium deducted from their Social Security checks. With no COLA predicted for 2010, the Part B premium will be frozen for these people.

However, premiums for the remaining 25 percent of people with Medicare—including the wealthiest, who already pay a higher Part B premium, and those with low incomes who have their premiums paid by Medicare Savings Programs—will be subject to unusually large increases over the next two years to compensate for the decrease in revenue caused by the hold harmless provision. The Part B premium for 2009 is $96.40, but the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the basic premium will rise to $119 in 2010 and $123 in 2011.

States also face an increased financial burden as a result of Part B premium increases that states will pay through Medicare Savings Programs for qualifying low-income people with Medicare. Since these premiums are not deducted from Social Security checks but paid directly by state governments, states will be subject to the higher premium. Moreover, a low-income individual who is dropped from an MSP during 2010 is not protected by the hold harmless provision and must pay the higher premium.

New Medicare enrollees will also pay the higher premium, as will currently enrolled high-income people with Medicare who now pay a higher premium based on their income.

In addition, there is no provision that protects people with Medicare from increased Part D premiums, which are also predicted to rise next year. This means that people participating in Part D might see an increase in premium expenses even while experiencing a freeze in their monthly income.

George’s second point has to do with the practice of hijacking the contents of the so-called Social Security Trust Fund to pay for the rest of the federal budget:

As for the overall “problems,” because all the surplus income from the payroll tax that should have been deposited into the SS Trust Fund has been spent by other federal programs, instead of having $2.2 trillion of REAL money in the SS Trust Fund, it only has IOUs. In any case, those IOUs have the backing of the full faith and credit of the United States, which should make them good as gold.

With regard to the “full faith and credit of the United States,” I’m reminded of an expression from my childhood, when New York’s public transit fare was still 5 cents: “That and a nickel will get you a ride on the subway.” Let’s hope I’m wrong.

But more importantly, George’s comment highlights another major fallacy about Social Security. The conventional wisdom is that old people are now living off the payroll taxes of the young, who will themselves have no Social Security to count on, since it’s all being sucked up by us greedy geezers. The truth is that it works the other way, too: The money we paid into the Social Security system was in fact used to finance the Iraq War, tax cuts for the rich, and the banking bailout.

Credit Cards: Another Way for Banks to Take Your Home

READERS WRITE BACK

Alan Mackay, an Oregon reader, sent me an email in response to my recent post describing how banks and other credit card lenders are going after people’s Social Security payments. In McKay’s case, it is his home the bank is going after because of unpaid credit card bills–and it is perfectly legal, according to state law. In 2005, he  and his wife retired, and bought a modest home at Yachats on the Oregon coast. The house was purchased for cash. There was no mortgage, subprime or otherwise, and, says MacKay, they “were debt free.’’ Then there was a medical emergency and they had to use a Bank of America credit card to pay the bills. In a letter he sent to Oregon public officials, he describes what happened next:.

Although we never missed a payment, never paid late, and always paid more than the minimum, our interest rate rose steadily, without notice. At 27.99%, it is now three times what it used to be. There is no way we can continue to pay our monthly bill.

We never agreed to the usurious interest rates that have put us in this predicament, especially not from a bank that has been bailed out by billions in taxpayer money.

We met with an attorney and were stunned to learn that the bank can seize our home and force a sheriff’s sale to collect from us. This is not a foreclosure, since our house is paid for. It is something that can happen to any Oregonian who cannot pay a debt of any kind, including medical.

A sheriff’s sale would spell utter disaster—even homelessness—for us, and we feel certain that the same is true for rapidly growing numbers of our fellow Oregonians, given our state’s current 12.1% unemployment rate. Some are indeed facing foreclosures. Others, like us, could lose their homes because of other debts. In our case, we could be ruined because our bank has decided arbitrarily, unilaterally, and through no fault or failure of ours, to keep raising the amount of our debt.

Oregon’s homestead law reflects decades-old real estate values, making it easy for banks to seize people’s homes for a small fraction of their real worth. This, together with our bank’s deliberate acceleration of debt, cynically violates everything we teach our children about America’s history and character and about the value of hard work and responsibility.

Congress has passed a law that will forbid exorbitant, unwarranted interest rates, and President Obama is working to put this law into effect before its specified July 2010 date. Even if he succeeds, however, the new law will not help Oregonians whose current consumer debt jeopardizes their homes. Only an immediate update of our hopelessly antiquated homestead law can save them from disaster.

We therefore implore you to issue an immediate moratorium on banks’ confiscatory practices and to halt sheriff’s sales at least until new laws can take effect. Oregon’s homestead laws urgently need to be updated to reflect today’s property values.

Bottom line: The exhorbitant–and ever-changing–interest rates on credit cards can prove another route toward banks foreclosing on a home, without ever holding the mortgage.