Tuesday, October 21, 2014
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POSTED: Thursday, November 14, 2013, 2:27 PM
Independence Blue Cross. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)

If you're a policy wonk, politically obsessed, or otherwise fascinated by health-care news during the troubled rollout of Obamacare, you may be either worried or gleeful that President Obama has offered a temporary reprieve to people whose policies have been canceled because they don't  meet the standards of 2010's Affordable Care Act. The president's fix: They can keep the policies - whether they're decent insurance or junk - for one more year.

Experts on both sides have warned that such a change raises the risks of "adverse selection": If only the oldest and least-healthy people buy coverage via the new exchanges, such as the glitchy federal marketplace at HealthCare.gov, then rates for those policies could rise - perhaps even into the fearsome "death spiral." The whole concept of the ACA, as I reminded readers in Sunday's column, is based on pooling risks as widely in the individual market as they are for those covered through work. Today's news raises the question: By extending the reach of the ACA's grandfather clause, does Obama's fix - like some clearly damaging measures proposed in Congress - threaten to undermine the whole law?

Well, at least one major insurer, Philadelphia's Independence Blue Cross, apparently doesn't share that worry. Although it canceled about 24,000 policyholders covered by so-called "guaranteed-issue" plans - Pennsylvania's pre-Obamacare answer to covering the uninsurable - IBC took another tack with policies aimed at the young, healthy market, such as its Keystone HMO plans: It set them to expire on Dec. 31, 2013, and has been inviting policyholders to renew them for a year even though they don't meet the law's new standards.

POSTED: Tuesday, November 12, 2013, 3:59 PM
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is described as a "liberal icon" in a piece in The New Republic. (AP Photo / Cliff Owen / File)

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is often cast as a "progressive heartthrob" or "liberal darling," - the kind of dismissive terms that have dominated reaction to Noam Scheiber's piece in The New Republic, "Hillary's Nightmare," speculating on a potential Warren run for president against Hillary Clinton.

Is Warren the "liberal icon" that Scheiber describes? Perhaps - few politicians are as outspoken about how decades of deregulation have damaged the nation's middle class. But don't let that language confuse you - unless you think that only liberals care about how to protect all of us, rich and poor, against a repeat of a financial crisis that caused trillions of dollars in damage. Warren showed her skills again today in a speech highlighting her bipartisan proposal to address the lingering "too big to fail" problem by reinstating the Depression-era rules that Democrats and Republicans repealed in the 1990s. I'm quoting it in full because it's as clear-headed and concise as anything you'll find on what led to the 2008 crisis and what's still needed to fix it. If Warren is a populist, she's a populist policy wonk of the highest order:

Thank you, Americans for Financial Reform and the Roosevelt Institute for inviting me to speak today. I’ve been working very closely with both AFR and Roosevelt for years now, and I’m really delighted to be here.

POSTED: Thursday, October 24, 2013, 11:06 AM
House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, holds a copy of President Barack Obama's fiscal 2014 budget proposal book as he questions Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on (AP)

The new federal Obamacare website, HealthCare.gov, isn't working as it should. Democrats are embarrassed and pushing for speedy fixes. Republicans are sensing blood in the water, and turning the problems into political theater. But there's something else going on, as Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas point out in an excellent blog post this morning: rank hypocrisy from people who have done everything they can to undermine the 2010 law's implementation. They say all the evidence they need - and a new definition of "chutzpah" - comes from recent history:

The classic definition of chutzpah is the child who kills his parents and then asks for leniency because he's an orphan. But in recent weeks, we've begun to see the Washington definition: A party that does everything possible to sabotage a law and then professes fury when the law's launch is rocky.

On Tuesday, Rep. Paul Ryan became the latest Republicans to call for HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to step down because of the Affordable Care Act's troubled launch. "I do believe people should be held accountable," he said.

POSTED: Thursday, September 12, 2013, 12:39 PM
Daniel Ueda, Central High School

Last month, I shared an open letter from Daniel Ueda, a physics teacher at Philadelphia's prestigious Central High School best-known as coach of the school's award-winning robotics team, the RoboLancers. (If you're interested, watch the video here of Ueda's accepting Geekadelphia's "Geek of the Year" at the Academy of Natural Sciences, or view Philly.com's story and photo gallery.)

Today, Ueda asked to share something else: a platform put forward by his robotics team, giving their perspective on the Philadelphia School District's financial crisis and calling on others to join their campaign. It's essentially a petition - if you agree and want to lend your support, you can sign up after reading it.

Ueda told Geekadelphia that he teaches and coaches for "purely selfish reasons," but there's abundant evidence to belie that - starting with the fact that he still teaches in Philadelphia when he could make a lot more money elsewhere. It never ceases to amaze me how market-worshiping conservatives are willing to ignore that consequence of basic economics when they dismiss the significance of school-funding disparities: Since most teachers can't afford perpetual altruism, wealthier districts will get most of the best teachers, and students in places like Philly will be perpetually shortchanged.  Last year, the Education Law Center's National Report Card on school-funding fairness again gave Pennsylvania a "D" for how it distributes school funds - an embarrassing contrast with New Jersey's "A," and a travesty for students in underfinanced districts without other options.

Dan Ueda, Philly Geek of the Year 2013 from Andrew Gormley on Vimeo.

POSTED: Thursday, August 15, 2013, 1:54 PM

You may never have heard of Certegy Check Services. But if you ever pay a merchant by check, it's one of the companies likely to be deciding whether your payment is accepted or declined - much like the better-known "Big Three" credit-reporting agencies - and trading in your personal and financial information. And the Federal Trade Commission said today that Cetergy repeatedly ignored requirements of the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

The FTC says Cetergy has agreed to pay $3.5 million to settle the charges at faced as a "nationwide specialty consumer reporting agency" - the second-largest such penalty it has ever imposed. It said Cetergy repeatedly "failed to follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy of consumers' report information. Among other things, Certegy failed to adequately track the handling and resolution of consumer disputes, resulting in its failure to promptly delete inaccurate or unverifiable information. This failure led to the retention and reporting of inaccurate consumer report information regarding consumers who may have been denied the ability to pay by check at the thousands of merchants who use Certegy's check authorization services."

You can find the FTC's announcement here. The FTC's in-house blogger, Leslie Fair, says one allegation stood out in the complaint:

POSTED: Wednesday, August 14, 2013, 11:21 AM
Daniel Ueda, Central High School

Daniel Ueda teaches physics, for now, at Central High School, but he is best-known to the public as the coach of the school's award-winning robotics team. He says both roles are in jeopardy because of our leaders' failures to provide adequate funding to the state's largest school district. He sent me an open letter about the crisis - an overused word that's absolutely appropriate here - and its direct impact on him and his students. It seems worth sharing, and noting, as he does, that similar harm threatens students and teachers throughout the district:

Dear Philadelphia,

The RoboLancers need your help.

POSTED: Tuesday, August 13, 2013, 11:42 AM
FILE - In this Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, file photo, American Airlines and US Airways jets prepare for flight at a gate at the Philadelphia International Airport in Philadelphia. European authorities cleared US Airways Group Inc.'s proposed merger with American Airlines' parent company, AMR Corp., Monday, Aug. 5, 2013, on the condition that they give up one slot at London's Heathrow airport and take steps to foster competition on the London-Philadelphia route. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

The Justice Department's antitrust division, joined by Pennsylvania and five other states, filed suit in federal court today to block the planned merger between US Airways and American Airlines. The suit states what consumer advocates say is obvious: Reduced competition will mean higher prices for passengers.

If successful, the lawsuit would block the carriers' plan to create the world's largest airline by merging the two companies as American emerges from bankruptcy.

“If this merger goes forward, even a small increase in the price of airline tickets, checked bags or flight change fees would result in hundreds of millions of dollars of harm to American consumers," Bill Baer, the assistant attorney general who runs the antitrust division, said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. "Both airlines have stated they can succeed on a standalone basis and consumers deserve the benefit of that continuing competitive dynamic.”

POSTED: Friday, August 9, 2013, 6:14 PM

Prisoners - literally a captive market - are perhaps the biggest victims of phone deregulation's unintended consequences. On Friday, after a decade of complaints from families and advocacy groups, the Federal Communications Commission finally moved to end the price-gouging that has enriched a handful of carriers, private-equity firms, and jurisdictions that controlled the prisons' phone contracts.

Here's how it works, according to the LA Times:

The prison phone market, which brings in $1.2 billion annually, is dominated by two little-known phone companies. Global Tel-Link, based in Atlanta, and Securus Technologies of Dallas, both backed by private equity firms, make up more than 80% of the market, according to Standard & Poor's.

About this blog

Jeff Gelles, who writes the Inquirer's weekly Consumer 14.0 and Tech Life columns, takes a broad look at the marketplace of goods, services, and ideas.

Reach Jeff at jgelles@phillynews.com.

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