IN HISTORIC VOTE, SENATE PASSES HEALTH CARE REFORM BILL
U.S. Senator Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), 92, longest-serving member of the Senate, arrives yesterday for one of the three procedural votes ahead of this morning's expected partly-line passage of the legislation itself.
1. SENATE PASSES ITS HEALTHCARE REFORM BILL THIS MORNING | Diluted version of House bill. But this is the one that will prevail, because getting both houses' passage of a merged "conference" bill will be tougher in the more conservative senate. Negotiations between the houses on a final bill begin early January. Dem leadership hopes to have successful legislation on the president's desk before his State of the Union address late next month. Here are some major differences between the House and Senate bills that will be ironed out in conference.
2. THIS IS REFORM | Biggest change in biggest sector of U.S. economy in four decades. Not since LBJ's creation of Medicare in 1965 has such thorough reform come this close to law. Even the less ambitious Senate bill set for passage today changes the $2.5-trillion healthcare system by providing health-insurance coverage for 94% of Americans by extending coverage to the more then 30 million uninsured. It halts such private-industry practises as refusing coverage on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions. As with car ownership, most Americans now will be required to have insurance, and will receive state subsidies to help pay the premiums if necessary. State-based exchanges will be created where the uninsured can the compare plans and purchase those most closely tailored to their family's needs.
3. THIS IS PALLID REFORM | More red tape, no new government insurer, dubious savings. The penalty for not adopting the single-payer system common to all other advanced economies - and preserving the status of the private-insurance industry - is even more red tape due to maze of new loopholes, exemptions, and subsidies in the legislation, some for patients, some for hospitals and other caregivers, some for private-sector insurers, Big Pharma and medical-device industry. Think Rube Goldberg - the existing U.S. system - times two. “Our administrative arrangements make pyramid building seem like parsimony,” Henry Aaron, a healthcare analyst at the D.C.-based Brookings Institution, tells Globe and Mail. “And the U.S. system is going to continue under this law to be administratively grotesque.” Globe notes that "as much as a quarter of the $2.5-trillion Americans spend on health care annually goes toward administrative costs, compared to less than 10 per cent in most developed countries with universal health coverage. Paper-pushing – such as pre-authorizations for care and disputes between patients, doctors and insurers about who pays what – remains a big and growing subsector of the U.S. health-care economy." Obama cites CBO report that backs his assertion, he says, that reform will curb rising costs that will eventually threaten America's solvency if not reined in. But the CBO has a lot of expert company in actually stating, "It is unclear whether such a reduction in the growth rate could be achieved, and if so, whether it would be accomplished through greater efficiencies in the delivery of health care or would reduce access to care or diminish the quality of care.”
CANADA'S AFGHAN DEATH TOLL RISES TO 134 | Canadian soldier killed by IED. Death of Lt. Andrew Nuttall, 30 (shown) follows deceptive lull in fighting as winter approaches. Because Canada opted to fight in southeast Kandahar, one of Afghanistan's two more dangerous provinces (the other is next-door Helmand to the west, where British forces are concentrated), Canada has suffered more fatalities per deployed soldier than the other 40 or so troop-contributing ISAF nations. The Canadian mission has no lasted seven years, dating from 2002 - longer than Canada's combat missions in either world war.
BLACKBERRY OUTAGE OUTRAGE | Two blackouts this week alone have RIM clients seething. Virtue of BlackBerry system is all signals go through just three centres, offering ironclad security to privacy-sensitive users from Barack Obama to Fortune 500 CEOs. Downside is software glitches such as this week's can take millions of devices out of service in a heartbeat. Other smartphones piggyback on networks of AT&T, Verizon and other traditional telecoms, where problems can quickly be isolated to relatively small service areas, but the networks are more vulnerable to hackers.
CHOCOLATE WOES | 30-year highs in cocoa prices may force price increases, smaller portions. Confectioners are experimenting with shifting away from dark chocolate, despite its greater health benefits, to less cocoa-intensive milk chocolate. Also with smaller chocolate-bar sizes and, where possible, price hikes. In highly competitive markets like Germany, however, makers cannot pass on additional costs to consumers. Trouble stems from shortages among West African cocoa suppliers.
NUKE COMEBACK? | Obama pressing ahead with state subsidies for new plants. Power industry hasn't built a new reactor since Three Mile Island scare. But Obama energy policy is to stimulate every potentially viable alternative to fossil fuels. Next few years will see tussle among biofuel, wind, solar, and more eco-friendly fossil-fuel providers for state financial assistance.
RUSSIA RECOMMITS TO NUKES | Medvedev says Kremlin at work on new generation of weapons. Sounds like a reversal of recent U.S.-Russian talks on reducing stockpiles. Reality is about 40% of Russian stockpile is obsolete and must be scrapped anyway. Also, like Saddam's pre-invasion bragging about his non-existent WMD, Russia to some degree is blowing smoke about its soon-to-be-upgraded prowess as a nuclear power, in order to strengthen its regional influence. Reality is the country's too poor to greenlight a hyper-ambitious program when basic infrastructure needs like crumbling hospitals, schools, factories and highways need attending to.
ALBERTA EXODUS | Net out-migration for first time since 1994. Long accustomed this decade to major inflow of new residents from elsewhere in Canada, last quarter saw first net loss of population in 15 years, due to recession and slump in oil and gas prices. This could be a good thing. Alberta's infrastructure building has never kept pace with population boom, driving up costs of housing and other basics and causing shortage in social services. A breather before my predicted increase in oil to $200 a barrel by 2012-13 gives Edmonton a chance to invest more heavily in better living conditions - and a lower costs now that labor isn't entirely commandeered by currently shelved new oil-sands projects. Recession has also taken its toll on population growth rates in U.S. Sun Belt.
SPLIT-UPS | Robbins and Sarandan have been separated since the summer. Couple reveals end to 23-year partnership. I feel badly. These are two of my favorite actors and social-issues progressives. In 2004, Sarandan told the Chicago Sun-Times: "I think it's about deciding that if you're ever going to be intimate with someone, it might as well be this person and you might as well slug it out. It can be very, very difficult. Then you add children to the list and it becomes impossible. You lose track of the person as your romantic soul mate. It's just very tough." I'm with Tim and Susan's fans in wishing them each well.
QUOTE OF THE DAY | "When your opponent is drowning, throw the son of a bitch an anvil." -James "Serpenthead" Carville, strategy guru in the presidential bids of Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton. Lots of bemoaning this week a lost era of D.C. civility that in fact never existed, and mouthed by some of the biggest culprits - conspicuously GOP stalwarts - who've been responsible for the hyper-partisanship of the current era.
Courtesy The New Yorker, Dec. 21 edition.
Please consider joining me as an elf this holiday season by participating in the Toronto Star's Santa Claus Fund, a century-old Toronto tradition. The Star uses donations to assemble and distribute gift boxes to thousands of less-financially advantaged children throughout the GTA. Each box contains a book, clothing and a toy. You can read all about it, including first-hand accounts of Toronto families in need, at http://www.thestar.com/santaclausfund. I'm counting on your kindness to help put smiles on thousands of young faces this December 25th! Many thanks, David