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U.S. Senate Makes Another Run at Taking Health Insurance Away From Millions of Americans

Posted by NYPIRG on September 25, 2017 at 8:14 am
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If you promised to do something, but you found out that if you fulfilled your promise tens of millions of people would be hurt, and some may die, would you do it?

That’s the question facing the U.S. Senate Republicans right now.

For years, Republicans across the nation have pledged to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act.  Their promise was a cynical one since they never developed a replacement. Instead, they pandered to their supporters with a promise that was empty.

But they did promise.

Now, Republicans control both Houses of the Congress and the White House.  For their supporters, it is time to deliver on that promise.

But since the pledge was never serious and merely intended to throw “red meat” to a partisan base, the Republican Congressional leadership never had to contemplate the consequences of their failure to develop a meaningful alternative to the Affordable Care Act.

When members of the House of Representatives voted to advance their “repeal and replace” plan, they did so without holding public hearings and without allowing the independent Congressional Budget Office time to analyze their replacement program.

They dramatically limited independent analysis for one reason – they knew that their plan would hurt tens of millions of Americans.  And when the Congressional Budget Office issued its review – after the Republican House members had approved it – the impact became clear: over 20 million Americans would lose their health care coverage.

And losing health care coverage can be devastating: if someone gets sick and has no coverage, they can become deathly ill; and if their family tries to pay for care, they could become bankrupt.

House Republicans knew this, but didn’t care.  A promise was a promise, no matter if it cost people their health, their income, or their lives.

On the Senate side, a similar plan was offered.  It too would have stripped away health insurance from tens of millions of Americans.  It too would have led to needless illnesses, financial ruin, and early deaths that would have resulted from its plan.

But the Senate is a different place. The majority cannot easily steamroll their legislation through.  So the Republican leadership changed the rules to allow their so-called replacement to be considered – again with minimum public input – but the plan failed.  Republicans have a small majority in the Senate and a few members thought that a promise that would hurt millions of people was a bad promise to have made, and worse to fulfill.

Now the Senate Republican leadership is once again trying to advance a plan to strip health insurance away from millions.  This time, there is additional pressure – from wealthy campaign donors.  According to the New York Times, a wealthy Dallas businessman said he had formed a “loose-knit coalition of donors who warned senior Republicans — including Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader — that contributions would dry up if Congress did not overhaul the tax code and repeal the Affordable Care Act.”

Why would rich campaign contributors want to strip away benefits from lower income people?  We can only guess that it’s part of some ideology. But we should expect our public officials to stand up to those pressures.

Yet, weak-kneed Senators have advanced a new plan, one that not only takes away coverage from tens of millions of Americans, but is also considered unworkable by experts.  The plan is so flawed and cruel that Republican opposition from governors and a small group of U.S. Senators may doom it.

Why should Americans have to experience this spectacle?  How can a nation which currently spends far more than any nation on its health care, yet has mediocre health outcomes and millions of people still without health insurance – have as its top domestic debate plans to make things worse?  All because elected officials have not been interested in telling the truth.

“Repeal and replace” is a fraud.  It appears that all some donors, activists and the Congressional leadership want is repeal.  They don’t seem to care about who gets hurt.

Consumers’ Finances at Risk

Posted by NYPIRG on September 18, 2017 at 10:29 am
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Recently, it was revealed that Equifax, one of the big three credit reporting agencies, had been hacked, potentially compromising the data of 143 million Americans, which is more than 40 percent of the entire U.S. population.

The stolen data includes names, Social Security numbers, birthdates, addresses and some driver’s license numbers. One fraud expert told the New York Times, “On a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of risk to consumers, this is a 10.”

The major credit bureaus—Equifax, TransUnion and Experian—compile the financial and personal data on consumers from creditors and other sources, create profiles on borrowing and repayment histories, and sell the data to banks, credit card companies and other businesses.  Their business model is based on collecting our financial data—typically without our permission.

This is not the first time the credit agency has been hacked; hackers gained access to Equifax’s system twice before, prompting questions of why security was not improved to prevent a third attack.

But not only is the hack a serious financial threat to consumers, the actions of Equifax itself are disturbing:

  • It’s been reported that Equifax took six weeks to disclose the hack. The company says it discovered the breach, which it reports began in mid-May, on July 29.  However, the public disclosure of the hack occurred in early September, a full six weeks after the fact, which left consumers at risk without knowing it.
  • Bloomberg News reported that three Equifax executives sold shares in the company after it discovered the hack but before its public disclosure. Those three reportedly collected $1.8 million from the sales. The sales were made on August 1 and 2, the third and fourth days after the breach was discovered. Equifax says the executives were unaware of the breach at the time of their sales – but one of the executives is the Number 2 at Equifax. If he wasn’t told of the theft of data within days of the company’s discovery, that’s a big problem.  Predictably, once Equifax publicly disclosed the hack, its stock shares tumbled 13 percent.

It’s pretty clear that Equifax should also answer why it took so long to alert the public about the breach.  Equifax discovered the breach on July 29, leaving people vulnerable to new account identity theft for over a month while it conducted its investigation.  That’s a problem — people should have been alerted sooner and been given clear explanations about their options.

In New York, Attorney General Schneiderman has announced his own investigation and offered consumers tangible steps that they should take to protect themselves.  Here’s his advice:

  • To check whether your information was compromised, you can go to a website set up by Equifax.
  • Check your credit reportsfrom Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion by visiting annualcreditreport.com. This is a free service.  Accounts or activity that you do not recognize could indicate identity theft.
  • Consider placing a credit freeze on your files. It will not prevent a thief from using any of your existing accounts, but a credit freeze makes it harder for someone to open a new account in your name.
  • Monitor your existing credit card and bank accounts closely for unauthorized charges. Call the credit card company or bank immediately about any charges you do not recognize.
  • Since Social Security numbers were affected, there is risk of tax fraud. Tax identity theft happens when someone uses your Social Security number to get a tax refund or a job. Consider filing your taxes early and pay close attention to correspondence from the IRS.

Since this isn’t the first hack of Equifax, and it isn’t even the biggest cyber attack – that distinction goes to Yahoo.com – it’s shocking how lax the company has been.  Equifax, and the other credit bureaus, make money by collecting our personal data without our permission.  You would hope that they would have the most aggressive anti-hacking programs in the world.

Clearly, that’s not the case.

Equifax and other credit bureaus are long overdue for more oversight from regulators and lawmakers.  Consumers will have to monitor their credit activity for a long time.  And voters should demand actions from federal and state regulators.  At a minimum, Americans should expect that all credit reporting companies offer free credit freezes; and, for consumers who choose not to freeze their credit report, unlimited credit monitoring — not just for one year.  After all, there’s no expiration date on when thieves can use stolen personal information.

Immigrants in America

Posted by NYPIRG on September 11, 2017 at 11:34 am
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The incredible natural calamities occurring around the world have understandably taken away public attention from important policy decisions, such as the Trump Administration’s move to end federal policy protecting the children of undocumented immigrants.

The Trump Administration overturned a federal policy called the “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” or DACA, which was established during the Obama Administration.  The rationale then was that undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children should be dealt with differently.  Adults who illegally immigrated to the United States did so knowing that they could face challenges by government authorities.

Their children, on the other hand, had no say in the decision.  Thus, the Obama Administration argued, those children should be protected from deportation and allowed to stay temporarily in the country to work or study.  The Obama Administration made its decision through executive action without Congress.

In order to qualify for DACA, an individual may request DACA protections if the person was under the age of 31 on June 15, 2012; came to the U.S before they turned 16; lived continuously in the U.S. from June 15, 2007 to the present; were in U.S. on June 15, 2012 and when the person requested deferred action status.

According to estimates, there are 800,000 undocumented immigrants covered by this order in the U.S., with over 40,000 of that total in New York.  The Dreamers, as they’re often called, are students, but also in the military, emergency responders, healthcare aides, doctors in training and perhaps the person who served you breakfast at your local coffee shop this morning.

Last week, President Trump ended the program.   His argument is that the Obama decision was unconstitutional because Congress, not the White House, is supposed to set immigration law.

Of course the President is entitled to his opinion on what’s constitutional and what’s not, but the federal courts are the decisionmaker, not him.

And this is not an academic issue; hundreds of thousands of people’s futures are on now at risk—as well as their families, friends and people who work with them and benefit from their presence..

The President’s argument is that the Congress can figure this out.  Under the President’s decision, the Congress has six months to do so.

However, real people are now being held hostage.  If the Congress fails to act, hundreds of thousands of people who grew up in American could face deportation.

And why?

The Trump Administration and the Congressional majority argue that DACA recipients have taken jobs away from Americans and that the program unfairly protects people who are in the country illegally.

In a nation of over 300 million people, the number of DACA recipients is relatively small and can’t possibly have had much impact on the American jobless rate.  Moreover, these individuals came here as children.  They’ve grown up in this country, come through the public school system and view it as home.

As a result, the Trump Administration’s policy means that the nation is turning its back on immigrants who contribute to the American economy and society and who’ve basically spent their whole lives in the US.

Members of both parties in Congress say they want to come up with a fix that won’t leave these immigrants out in the cold.  We’ll see.  This Congress hasn’t been productive so far.

Fixing DACA is only one action that must be taken, and that action should be clear.  But there is the much larger issue of what to do with the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already living in the United States, as well as the policy for accepting immigrants in the future.

For a nation founded on immigration, shutting its doors to future immigrants and threatening the livelihoods and very lives of those already here – even those without documentation – is both cruel and shortsighted.

The Campaign Season Begins

Posted by NYPIRG on September 4, 2017 at 9:15 am
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Not only does Labor Day herald the beginning of the football season, it also kicks off the final quarter of New York’s election campaigns.  And while the focus of this year’s elections is on local offices, there are three ballot questions that impact the state’s constitution.

Since New York does not have a process for citizens to directly change the constitution, the only ways that the constitution can be changed is either by an amendment approved by two successive legislatures and then put to voters for approval, or through a constitutional convention at which elected delegates develop changes to submit to voters for approval.

The three questions will likely appear on the back side of this year’s paper ballot.  The questions each have a number, one, two or three.  In reverse order, here are the questions being put to voters.

Question 3 is a proposal to amend the state constitution to allow for the creation of a 250-acre land bank to be used in the Adirondack Park.  If approved, the land bank would allow local governments to request the use of the land in the Adirondack forest preserve for projects in exchange for the state acquiring 250 acres to be designated for the Park.

The reason that this question is on the ballot is that the Adirondack Park forest preserve is protected under the “Forever Wild” clause of the New York State Constitution.  As a result, the Park is protected as wild forest land, thus prohibiting the lease, sale, exchange, or taking of any forest preserve land.

Question 3 would allow counties and townships of certain regions that have no viable alternative to using forest preserve land to address specific public health and safety concerns.  In order to offset such uses, the proposal requires that the state obtain another 250 acres of land that will be added to the forest preserve, subject to legislative approval. The proposed amendment also will allow bicycle trails and certain public utility lines to be located within the width of specified highways that cross the forest preserve while minimizing removal of trees and vegetation.

Question 2 amends the constitution to allow judges to reduce or revoke the state pension of a public officer convicted of corruption, defined as a felony conviction stemming from a corrupt act that occurred during his or her official duties.

Under current law, public officials can put their pension at risk if they are convicted of corruption and they took office after 2010.  Under New York’s state constitution, public pensions cannot be altered once the individual is in the system.  Changes can only be made for future public employees.

Question 2 would make a constitutional change that would allow for the reduction or removal of a public pension from a public official who was in the system prior to 2011.

Question 1 may be the question which, if approved, could have the biggest impact on the future of the state.  Question 1 is the proposal for voters to decide whether they want to convene a constitutional convention.

Under the state constitution, every twenty years voters have the opportunity to decide if they want to convene a convention at which the current constitution could be re-written.  If voters approved the creation of a convention, then delegates would be elected the following year.  Those delegates could rewrite the constitution in any way it wanted.  The changes proposed by the delegates would then be forwarded to voters in the following election to decide whether they want to approve the changes.

All three questions will be on the ballot this Election Day, November 7, 2017.  In order to be registered to vote in time for the election, New Yorkers would need to be registered no later than October 13th – which is also the deadline for changing a political party to vote in the 2018 primary elections.

Off-year elections are usually marked by low voter turnouts. Many voters are simply disinterested in voting on candidates for local offices.  But this year is different, there are two proposals to change the state constitution and a once-in-two-decades chance to vote on whether to convene a convention to alter the blueprint for government in New York.

The election season is in its fourth quarter, now is the time for voters to get ready for the final drive.