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.” 

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: Garcia writes:

I notice two things about the AF447 BEA investigation ( 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.

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!!