Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Ending Foreclosure Profiteering

By Alyssa Katz

During the real estate bubble, older urban neighborhoods across the nation, from Atlanta to Baltimore to Cleveland to Sacramento and countless communities in between fell victim to a devastating plague of predatory lending and mortgage fraud.

This was enabled by Wall Street’s bottomless appetite for financing home loans, lenders’ lax standards, and corruption among mortgage brokers and appraisers. Brokers set up borrowers with subprime mortgages knowing they were too big to pay, while organized mortgage fraud rings convinced lenders to issue mortgages for far more than homes were worth, pocketed the proceeds, and left boarded-up foreclosed houses behind.

But the bursting bubble has not brought relief to suffering neighborhoods. On the contrary, communities already hard-hit by mortgage fraud and subprime foreclosures are now enduring the next wave of profiteering: the selling of vacant and foreclosed real estate to speculators.

A few of the purchasers are doing a service by fixing foreclosures up and renting them out. But far too often the foreclosed homes stay vacant and derelict as they’re flipped from one buyer to another.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

When Law Enforcement Disrupts the Peace


By Fr. Glenn B. Jenks

The setting was a beautiful small white pueblo-style Episcopal Church located 35 miles north of Phoenix. Every morning, a group of Hispanic migrant day workers, numbering between 35 and 65, would gather in the church parking lot before sunrise. They were greeted by several church volunteers who had already set out the coffee and the day-old pastries donated by a couple of local coffee shops.

The Day Worker Ministry of this small church was started in an effort to provide a solution to a difficult situation in the town of Cave Creek.

The town had a problem with literally dozens of migrant workers walking in groups along the roads and streets. The town council was frustrated because, while the migrants were not committing any crimes, their mere presence aroused the ire of local residents. That was when Good Shepherd of the Hills Episcopal Church stepped up and offered itself and its facilities to operate a day worker center, away from the streets and local businesses.

In this way, the Day Worker Program of the Church was born. It operated successfully for almost nine years. It helped workers get medical and dental care. The program weeded out "trouble makers," alcoholics and drug users, so that when someone hired a worker they could have confidence that the person they hired was safe, reliable and honest.

Not surprisingly, over time the church became very controversial. For some, it was perceived as having provided a creative solution to a difficult problem. Others felt that by operating this ministry the church itself had become the problem. The local newspaper called the church and its priest the "bad shepherds," and much worse, for befriending what the paper referred to as these "vermin."

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Friday, September 25, 2009

Counting What Counts

By Frances Deviney, Ph.D.

New Census Bureau data shows that for the 10th year in a row Texas has the highest rate of uninsured children in the country, with one of every six kids uninsured. Nearly one of every four Texas kids lived in poverty in 2008 (e.g., $17,600 for a family of three).

As troubling as these numbers are, this data likely under represents the extent of the current problem for two important reasons.

First, the latest Census data does not cover 2009, and unemployment has been rising sharply in Texas this year, from 6.4 percent in January to 7.0 percent in July (the most recent month available). Economists tell us that poverty rises with rising joblessness and that increase is sharper for vulnerable groups like children.

Second, even once the data catches up to the recession, child poverty is likely even deeper than shown in these figures. The federal poverty measure is badly outdated and excludes many families struggling to cover basic expenses, effectively disqualifying them from receiving available food or housing assistance.

The Measuring American Poverty Act would update the poverty measure to include more realistic expenses (including health care and child care) and help us to accurately measure the effectiveness of our poverty reduction programs, such as Food Stamps (now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Shouldn’t we know how many people really need help and whether our help does any good?

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By Louis Miller

The Mississippi Sierra Club, AFL-CIO and NAACP strongly oppose Mississippi Power Company’s (MPCO) proposal to build a $2.4 billion dollar ‘clean coal’ plant and adjoining mine in Kemper County.

Mississippi Power’s arguments for the plant are built on three myths that have little or no basis in fact.

The truth is that the Kemper coal plant: 1. is unnecessary; 2. is astronomically expensive and will drive up customer bills; and 3. would be a major polluter.

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By Miriam Komaromy, MD

When I walked into the exam room, a thin, pale, middle aged man was sitting patiently in a chair waiting for me. Mr. Richards (not his real name) politely explained that he needed medicine for his heart, and gave me a list of the medications he was supposed to be taking. I asked about his living situation, and he told me he had been living in shelters for the past two years.

As he responded to my questions I learned this man was an engineer who had been employed by a prominent technology firm. When he had developed diabetes in his late 30s he quickly developed severe complications, including damage to his vision, and later heart trouble. He could no longer perform his work duties. He lost his job and then his health insurance. He became depressed and withdrawn, and eventually his wife left him. His health care bills bankrupted him and he lost his home. He had applied for disability benefits, but was turned down.

As this man’s story unfolded I felt my stomach clench with anxiety for what would happen to him. Unfortunately I had very little to offer. As a physician who has worked all of my adult life caring for low-income and uninsured patients, I have so often been in a position to apply a band-aid—in this case, arranging for him to receive a month’s worth of his medicine free of charge—but not a solution to the huge problems that face my patients on a daily basis. In order to get in to see a health care provider at my clinic he had stood in line for over an hour in the heat on two successive days, waiting to find out if we would have an available appointment. Tonight he would walk a long distance alone on the street, vulnerable because of his poor eyesight, and would sleep on a cot in a shelter.

I was struck all over again by the cruelty of a so-called health care “system” that offers health insurance only to those who are employed.

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By Rachel Ann Hicks

Long lines at polling places made big headlines last election cycle. Though remarkable, many expected the unusual Election Day waits which were caused by a record number of Americans participating in the democratic process.

More surprising though were the pre-Election Day polling lines: due to the new national trend known as in-person early voting, thousands of Americans lined up to vote before Election Day.

Like voters in Arkansas, Georgia, and Tennessee, Mississippi should join in and adopt in-person early voting because it will improve democratic participation -- and, therefore, democracy -- in Mississippi.

Despite experiencing our highest voter turnout during the last presidential election cycle, Mississippi’s rate of voter participation still leaves us below the national average for 2008. Historically, the news is even worse. Turnout statistics from the last two midterm elections, 2002 and 2006, show Mississippi ranked last or next to last nationally. Although more Mississippians vote in our gubernatorial election years than in midterm election years, voter participation in these important state races lags that of states whose officials are elected in the same year as the president.

Low voter turnout sends a signal to our elected officials that they do not need to be accountable to all of their constituents. Unless all registered voters express their desires through the ballot box, we undermine a fundamental principle of American democracy -- that our government is “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Case for Comprehensive Immigration Reform


By Rev. J. George Reed and Chris Liu-Beers

Across North Carolina, nearly everyone agrees that the current immigration system is broken. So if the system is broken, why do we continue pouring money into it? Instead, we should take this historic opportunity to fix it.

Many politicians are saying that they want to address the root causes of our immigration situation, but they go on to talk only about increased enforcement. Of course, we are a nation of laws and the rule of law should be upheld. But experience and common sense show us that merely building a bigger wall won’t work because enforcement alone does not deal with the root causes. If we’re going to address the causes of immigration, we need to have a serious conversation about factors like American trade policy (including NAFTA) and the lack of opportunity in many “sending” countries. When NAFTA went into effect in the mid-1990’s, its unfair trade provisions allowed U.S.-subsidized corn to flood the Mexican market, bankrupting nearly 2 million Mexican corn farmers virtually overnight. This major economic disaster had a big impact on immigration into the U.S. from Mexico.

The bottom line is that Congress and the President basically have three options for addressing immigration – and only one of them will work. 1) Allow the current immigration mess to deteriorate further, a prospect that frustrates the vast majority the American people. 2) Hold out for the ugly fantasy that we are going to get rid of 12 million undocumented immigrants, a prospect as unrealistic as it is un-American. 3) Move forward with a comprehensive plan that restores the rule of law, gets people in the system, makes employers play by the rules, and creates a stable, sustainable and legal system of immigration.

Since we’re not going to deport 12 million people, we need comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship in order to assimilate new Americans. We already know that building a bigger wall won’t help. We’ve tried that for the last few years with nothing to show for it. What we need is an orderly system that works for both immigrants and our country.

Click here to read the full Op-ed

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Women Need Health Care Reform, Stat!

By Willie J. Parker, MD, MPH

Despite the shouting and name-calling at the town hall meetings, I remain hopeful about health care reform. I have no other choice. As an obstetrician-gynecologist, I spent years learning how to keep women healthy. Too often, I find myself telling patients with easily treatable conditions that I can’t help them -- they don’t have the money to get well. Denying women care and watching them suffer rips me apart. That’s why I’ve become an ardent advocate for health care reform.

I am not talking about withholding the latest, cutting-edge, exorbitantly priced medications or treatments. No -- I’ve had patients whose health insurance doesn’t cover such basic health needs as Pap smears and birth control prescriptions. And forget about having a baby -- many insurance policies don’t cover prenatal care or labor and delivery, or they treat pregnancy as a pre-existing condition.

As a country, we need to give women a better chance at staying healthy. Through health care reform, Washington could guarantee affordable reproductive health care to every woman and every girl in the nation, no matter who is insuring her.

Recently I had a patient, Celia, who made too much money to qualify for Medicaid. Her employer didn’t offer insurance. She had fibroids, a common condition of the uterus. But because Celia couldn’t afford to see a doctor, her fibroids grew unchecked to the point of interfering with her monthly cycles. She bled so heavily that she became severely anemic. I had to send her to the ER where she was hospitalized to receive a blood transfusion.

Celia’s hemorrhaging was an unnecessary risk to her health. Moreover, the hospital paid for her trip to the ER, the kind of expenditure that makes health care more expensive for everyone. If she had health coverage, her fibroids could have been managed by a solution as simple as birth control pills, sparing the toll her illness took on her family, her coworkers, and everyone else who depends on her.

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By Alice Faryna, MD

Despite the acrimonious debate, there is actually consensus on both sides of the political aisle -- our current health care system is seriously flawed, dysfunctional and requires major change.

As Congress prepares for a final reconciliation, we are bombarded with messages containing language designed to either persuade or frighten us.

In a country as diverse as ours, we need to find common ground for deeply held beliefs and values. Values held by most Americans are quality, affordable, choice and American. Surveys consistently find that over two thirds of Americans favor health care access for all Americans, even if it means a major government role. The words government health care had a negative response, yet the same people wanted a choice of private and public plans.

Recent messages from politicians say they favor a uniquely American solution. Unfortunately, we already have a unique system. Our system costs twice as much as those of most other wealthy nations and fails to cover almost 50 million of us. Since World War II, our health system has relied on employer-based coverage purchased from private for-profit health insurers.

Our uniquely American employer-based private health insurance solution is unraveling. Any employer-based system is particularly vulnerable to economic downturns. Since the current recession began, tens of millions of Americans have lost their jobs and therefore their coverage. Even before the recession, the percentage of employers offering health benefits was falling. Only the expansion of public insurance like Medicaid and SCHIP prevented an even worse epidemic of lost coverage.

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By Sandra Penn, MD, FAAFP

I believe in evidence. As a Western-trained physician, I was taught that half of what I learned in medicine would be proved wrong and that I would have to continue to study, learn and seek evidence that what I was doing continued to be appropriate.

When I came into medicine in 1973, Medicare had already proved itself. Seniors were able to get care as they never had before. By the time I started practicing in the 1980’s, Diagnostic Related Groups was changing the payment system for hospital care because physicians had cleverly moved some diagnostics into in-patient procedures and thus kept patients in hospital longer. Changing the payment system, it was clear, would change the amount that was charged.

During my eight years in private practice, I often wrestled with insurance companies about how they paid. Each company had a different requirement and I would be encouraged to see a person many times for a lesser rate rather than allowing me to charge more and have a longer visit. The insurance companies delayed payment because a single block was not checked on their form, driving up my office expenses because I had to hire more staff to service their forms. Medicare, at least, remained the insurer of all my patients over 65, thus reducing the number of changes I had to make when my patients were forced to switch insurances. That experience has driven me for the last 20 years to be an advocate for health payment reform (I am no longer in family practice although I still do primary care).

The last eight years have seen the deterioration of our health care and our safety net. A safety net is essential because our country has not provided us with the universal, accessible, accountable and affordable health care that is enjoyed by the rest of the developed world.

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Friday, September 4, 2009

A Labor Day for the 21st Century

By Brian Miller

Every year, we celebrate Labor Day to honor the work of everyday Americans who built this country brick by brick, community by community. It’s an honorable holiday that pays tribute to honorable work.

While it’s always good to give thanks, we need much more than well wishes and a cheer of support. We need to ensure that the rules that govern our economic system, whether those rules come from Wall Street or from Washington, treat all Americans, particularly those who are the backbone of our economy, with dignity and respect. That’s what Labor Day is truly about.

From the time the first Labor Day was held, Americans understood that even what we call a “free” market still has rules that govern its actions; rules that can either work for or against the average American. That’s why they fought for a more just set of rules, a fight that ultimately led to the 40-hour workweek, the first minimum wage laws, the abolition of child labor, and workplace safety standards.

Over the last 30 years, we’ve seen the pendulum swing back the other way. While many of the victories won in those early years still stand, we’ve seen an erosion of the right of workers to organize, the weakening of worker and public safety standards, and wholesale rollback of our tax system’s more progressive elements.

All we have received in return is a shift in fortunes to the wealthiest individuals in our economy, with little or none of the promised “trickle down” for the rest of America.

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By Mary Margaret Bollinger

Those of us who experienced the 1993 health care debate should remember the “Harry and Louise fear of change” ads that were used to incite public opposition and defeat health care reform efforts.

Most of the changes the ads warned would come with the Clinton proposal, happened anyway: HMOs and insurance plans limited which doctors patients could see, what hospitals they could go to, and what treatments they could receive. Costs went up, more people lost coverage, Medicare costs continued to increase at an unsustainable rate, and everybody with coverage is paying more for it.

The same “fear” strategy is being used this time as our troubled economy, skyrocketing costs, and the sinking quality of American health care drive the current health care reform effort.

We worry that if everybody has access to health care -- universal coverage -- our own access to health care will somehow be lessened and we will pay more even though we know that everyone who currently has health insurance has seen those costs escalate faster than inflation for more than a decade. We worry that we will not have access to the newest tests and the latest procedures. We worry that we will not have access to the physicians we want to see -- even though that access is limited now as Mississippi has the lowest doctor-to-person ratio in the country.

The best argument for universal coverage is that, by providing more preventive care, it will help drive health care costs down by keeping people healthier in the long run. The man with undiagnosed and untreated high blood pressure dramatically increases his chances of a crippling stroke. The child with asthma whose parents cannot afford the medication or regular doctor visits is more likely to miss school and to end up with an expensive hospitalization. The woman who puts off a mammogram because her insurance does not cover it or she has no health insurance dramatically increases the chances that breast cancer will kill her because treating the disease when it can first be detected is cheapest and has the best odds for success.

Click here to read the full Op-ed