Monday, July 13, 2009

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We're posting them at our re-designed e-news blog! Click here to check it out. Read what the alternative media has to say about corporate rule--and learn what Alliance for Democracy campaigns and chapters are doing to build the alternative: a sustainable, truly democratic government sustained by an open media and clean elections.

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Insurance, health interests fill Baucus' coffers

By Mike Dennison, Billings Gazette, State Bureau, published June 14

As Sen. Max Baucus has taken the lead on health reform legislation in the U.S. Senate, he also has become a leader in something else: campaign money received from health and insurance industry interests.

In the past six years, nearly one-fourth of every dime raised by the Montana Democrat and his political action committee has come from groups and individuals associated with drug companies, insurers, hospitals, medical supply firms, health service companies and other health professionals.

These donations total about $3.4 million, or $1,500 a day, every day, from January 2003 through 2008.

Baucus, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, which is drafting a major health care reform bill this month, insists that this cascade of money is not unduly influencing his work.

"No matter the issue, Max always puts Montana first," said his spokesman, Ty Matsdorf. "Max will continue to do what's right for our state, and groups like SEIU (a union representing thousands of health care workers) and AARP (a senior citizens' group) wouldn't line up in support of his health care reform effort if this wasn't true."

Baucus' office also lists numerous examples of how his proposed reforms are challenging the health care and insurance industries, such as requiring insurers to accept all customers, regardless of health condition.

Yet some reform activists and others who watch the political system say it's foolish to think this money doesn't hold some sway.

"When you spend so much of your time raising money, as members of Congress do, from those who have a compelling interest in the outcome of legislation, it has to change what you think about it, and the viewpoints that you have," said David Donnelly, director of Campaign Money Watch, a Washington, D.C., group that tracks money in politics. "It's just human nature. ... and members of Congress are human."

Advocates of national, public health insurance for all -- a proposal largely excluded from the health reform debate -- say their exclusion points to the power of moneyed interests in Congress.

"I'm convinced that this (money) has a profound influence," said Quentin Young, national coordinator for Physicians for a National Health Program. "Otherwise, how could Baucus, an otherwise respected and wise politician, say categorically that single-payer (national health insurance) is off the table?"

Only Baucus' Republican counterpart on the Finance Committee, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, rivals him in terms of percentage of funds from these business sectors.

The Gazette State Bureau examined fundraising data for Baucus, Grassley, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (who chairs the Senate Health Committee, which is drafting health reform legislation), the other two members of Montana's congressional delegation, and President Barack Obama.

The data are compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit group that tracks and sorts campaign donors by profession and industry. Here's a summary of what the State Bureau discovered:

From 2003 to 2008, the Baucus campaign and his Glacier PAC, which raises money and distributes it to other candidates, received 23 percent of their $14.8 million from health care and insurance interests.

The $3.4 million from these sectors includes $853,000 from pharmaceutical and health products, $851,000 from health professionals, $467,000 from hospitals and nursing homes, $466,000 from health service and HMO interests, and $784,000 from insurance.

The insurance sector money includes donations from all types of insurance company interests, including health insurance.

• Five of the top 10 specific donor sources for Baucus were drug companies, health insurers or health-related firms. For example, employees of Schering-Plough Corp., a major drug firm, gave him $92,000 over the period, more than any other single source.

• Grassley, the highest-ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, received 23.5 percent of his funds from health and insurance interests but a lesser dollar amount than Baucus ($2.3 million out of $9.8 million total funds).

• Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat and a longtime advocate of health care reforms, received only 7.5 percent of his funds from health and insurance interests, or about $1.2 million.

• Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., had minimal contributions from the health and insurance sectors.

• Obama, whose campaign raised a whopping $745 million in 2007 and 2008, received a relatively small share from health care interests ($19 million, or 2.5 percent) and insurance interests ($2 million, or 0.3 percent).

Baucus has been leading the charge on health care reform in the U.S. Senate since early 2008, holding numerous hearings and Finance Committee meetings on the issue. He released a lengthy "white paper" last November, outlining his reform ideas, and a major bill is expected to be introduced this month.

The general thrust of his proposals is to require all citizens to buy health insurance while also forcing the private insurance industry to stop practices that make coverage unaffordable for many. He supports subsidies to those who may have trouble affording insurance.

However, on a reform bitterly opposed by the insurance industry and most health care interests - a public, nonprofit insurance plan offered by the government - Baucus has been more ambivalent, saying he supports the idea but declining to specify in what form.

Baucus's office supplied nearly 20 examples of stances he has taken in direct opposition to drug, insurance and banking interests that have donated to his campaign funds.

He has supported importing lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada, allowing the government to negotiate for lower drug prices for Medicare recipients, funding research that would show when generic drugs are a better deal than brand-name drugs and reducing Medicare payments to private insurers by $13 billion over five years.

His office also points to an April 2007 Wall Street Journal article in which Baucus was quoted as telling medical industry contributors at a fundraiser, "You should worry about me coming after you."

Donnelly, the Campaign Money Watch director, says the proof on health care reform will be in the final product - and that he's not terribly optimistic.

Health and insurance interests are clearly targeting Baucus and his Finance Committee, which often have shown themselves to be receptive to their influence, he said.

"This debate on health care is a microcosm ... that even after a 'change' election, how much the special interests view (Washington) as their fiefdom," Donnelly said.

Supporters of national health insurance are even less optimistic, noting how Baucus, Obama and leaders in Congress won't even consider their proposal, which they believe would have broad public support.

"I can't think of any reason other than fidelity to your donors, to explain why they would keep us out of the debate," said Young of the physicians group. "Until we get campaign finance reform, it will be very difficult to do anything to challenge the status quo (in health care), and the status quo had better be challenged, because it's a very bad status quo."

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Peru Suspends Decree That Fueled Amazon Violence

compiled from reports by Agence France Presse, Indymedia, and Democracy Now!
Peruvian lawmakers suspended one of several controversial laws that eased restrictions on lumber harvesting in the Amazon rain forest, days after it sparked clashes between police and indigenous protesters, killing dozens of people.

The legislature agreed by a 59 to 49 vote to suspend Decree 1090 -- dubbed the "Law of the Jungle" -- that covers forestry and fauna in Peru's northeastern Amazon rain forest, said Javier Velasquez, the head of Peru's single-chamber Congress.

Ten decrees opening indigenous lands to resource extraction are vehemently opposed by the approximately half-million Indians of 65 ethnic groups who live there. They see the development of the jungle as an assault on their way of life and have been holding protests since April across the region. The decrees were issued in 2007 and 2008 by Peruvian president Alan Garcia to bring Peruvian regulations in synch with conditions imposed by the US-Peruvian Free Trade Act.

The Amazon protest peaked Friday and Saturday when some 400 police officers moved in to clear protesters blocking a highway near the northern city of Bagua. Protesters fought back. According to Indymedia, a raid by police to free 38 police hostages taken by protesters resulted in the deaths of nine of the hostages. (AFP reports that the hostages were killed by the protestors). Subsequent reports on Indymedia say that as many as 84 protesters have been killed, with another 150 arrested.

The decrees were originally to be suspended for 90 days, but in the final vote legislators agreed on an indefinite suspension "to negotiate without pressure," said Aurelio Pastor, a legislator with
President Alan Garcia's APRA party.

Angry legislators with the opposition Nationalist Party (PNP) called for the decrees to be overturned, and waved signs as they held a protest in the chamber after the vote.

"No to transnational (corporations) in the Amazon," read one sign. "The land and water are not for sale," read another.

The vote suspending the decree is seen as a compromise allowing the government to resume talks with the protesting indigenous groups who have been blocking key regional highways, said spokesmen for legislators that voted for the measure.

The vote also comes on the eve of a strike called by the country's powerful leftist labor umbrella group, the General Confederation of Workers of Peru (CGTP). Other protest marches, including those held by indigenous protesters in Amazon cities and towns, are planned in Peru's main cities.

Internationally, groups supporting the protesters are calling for solidarity protests at Peruvian consulates and embassies and revocation of the Peru FTA. Amazon Watch asks individuals to send protest emails to key people in the Peruvian government through this link:

Meanwhile some 3,000 Indians from 25 ethnic groups continue to block a key Amazon highway linking the cities of Tarapoto and Yurimaguas, some 700 kilometers (435 miles) north of Lima.

"We want an immediate derogation of those laws," said Segundo Pizango, an apu -- indigenous leader -- at a roadblock near Yurimaguas.

The repercussions of the violence have rocked the government, with Women's Affairs Minister Carmen Vildoso resigning Monday in protest over the government's crackdown, and Prime Minister Yehude Simon planning to resign at a future date when protests ease.

The crisis even extended its reach to foreign affairs after Nicaragua granted political asylum to Alberto Pizango, the main indigenous protest leader, who earlier took refuge in Managua's
embassy in Lima. The Garcia administration has issued an arrest warrant for Pizango on charges of sedition, conspiracy and rebellion.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Pennsylvania Town Fights Big Coal on Mining Rights

by John Hurdle. Published by Reuters June 15.
A small Pennsylvania town is trying to ban coal mining in a battle being played out across the state as rural communities try to assert control over mining, gas drilling and other businesses.

Blaine Township, a community of 600 about 40 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, hopes to trigger a legal battle that could determine the rights of municipalities throughout the United States to control corporate activity.

Some legal experts say the township is highly unlikely to win that fight. For now the dispute is in federal district court, where major energy companies have sued the township over three ordinances that would ban coal mining and require companies in any business to disclose their activities to local officials.

Penn Ridge Coal LLC, a unit of Alliance Resource Partners, and Allegheny Pittsburgh Coal Co., a unit of Allegheny Energy, say Blaine's laws violate their corporate rights.

The companies say the ordinances would prevent them from mining 10.6 million tons of recoverable coal beneath the township -- enough to supply electricity for 2 million people for a year.

The township has gone further than any of the 120 U.S. municipalities -- most of them in Pennsylvania -- that have passed ordinances to curb corporate activity such as factory farming or spreading sewage sludge, said its lawyer, Tom Linzey of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund.

Of three townships sued by corporations over their ordinances, only Blaine has refused to back down, Linzey said.

Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, towns are resisting efforts by energy companies to extract natural gas from the massive Marcellus Shale formation amid fears that toxic chemicals used in drilling are contaminating ground water and endangering human health.

Creeks Diverted
In Blaine, residents are seeking to prevent coal mining -- which they expect to begin there in 2011 -- because they fear it will ruin their houses and disrupt water supplies, as they say it has in surrounding areas.

They want to block longwall mining, a technique that rips tons of coal from underground without putting anything in its place, causing the land above to sag. The practice, which has been used in coal-rich southwest Pennsylvania since the 1970s, has cracked the walls, roofs and basements of homes and opened fissures in the land, diverting or draining creeks and ponds.

In neighboring Morris Township, Tammy Bowman pointed to a pile of broken wood and concrete -- all that's left of an outbuilding she said was destroyed by shifting ground from mining beneath her 19th century farmhouse.

"It just started to drop and drop," she said. "It got so bad, you couldn't even walk in the door."

One section of her house is held up with mechanical jacks.

Near the village of Graysville, the 62-acre (25-hectare) Duke Lake, once used for fishing and boating, now sits empty after the shifting ground opened a crack in its retaining wall, environmentalists say.

Blaine's three ordinances, passed in 2006, 2007 and 2008, also assert that communities have a right under the U.S. Constitution to control business within their boundaries and that corporations do not have constitutional rights as "persons" to sue municipalities for passing laws that would hurt corporate interests.

"This illegitimate bestowal of civil and political rights upon corporations prevents the administration of laws within Blaine Township and usurps basic human and constitutional rights guaranteed to the people of Blaine Township," says the township's Corporate Rights Ordinance of 2006.

To implement the ordinances, township supervisors are now campaigning for "home rule," a legal code that transfers some powers from state to local control and is commonly used to raise taxes or increase the number of supervisors on a board.

Establishing Home Rule
Blaine supervisors want to use home rule to establish what they say is the township's constitutional right to control corporate activity. Voters on May 19 approved a plan to set up a commission to study the proposal and recommend whether to adopt it.

A third lawsuit has been brought by Range Resources, a natural gas company, asking the court to invalidate Blaine's demand that corporations disclose their activities.

Penn Ridge Coal and Allegheny Pittsburgh Coal are asking U.S. Judge Donetta Ambrose of the Western District of Pennsylvania to declare Blaine's ordinances invalid and unenforceable.

In April, Judge Ambrose denied the township's motion to dismiss the case. She is expected to rule late this year.

Linzey predicted the case will eventually go to the U.S. Supreme Court because it pits energy companies who want to exploit one of America's richest coal seams against residents who are determined to resist what they see as rapacious mining.

He conceded the court is unlikely to overturn more than 100 years of established law that gives corporations rights as "persons" under the constitution, but he said the expected outcome would become a springboard for a popular campaign for a constitutional amendment to strip corporations of those rights.

Blaine's supervisors said they want to establish a principle of local self-government that will inspire other communities.

"Who dictates how we are going to live here?" asked Board spokesman Michael Vacca. "Should it not be us?"

(Editing by Daniel Trotta and Cynthia Osterman)© 2009 Reuters

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Monday, June 15, 2009

Up in Smoke: Health insurers hold billions in tobacco stocks

by Desiree Evans, published at Facing South, the Journal of the Institute for Southern Studies

A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that major U.S., Canadian and British life and health insurance companies are investing billions of dollars in tobacco company stock.

Researchers first revealed that health and life insurance companies had major investments in tobacco companies in 1995 in an article in the British medical journal Lancet. More than 10 years later, insurance companies are still deeply invested in "big" tobacco, despite the national calls upon them to divest.

"Despite calls upon the insurance industry to get out of the tobacco business by physicians and others, insurers continue to put their profits above people's health," said Wesley Boyd, the new report's lead author and a faculty member of Harvard Medical School. "It's clear their top priority is making money, not safe-guarding people's well-being."

The report found that seven health and life-insurance companies in both the United States and overseas have nearly $4.5 billion invested in companies whose affiliates produce cigarettes, cigars and chewing tobacco.

"Although investing in tobacco while selling life or health insurance may seem self-defeating, insurance firms have figured out ways to profit from both," Boyd said. "Insurers exclude smokers from coverage or, more commonly, charge them higher premiums. Insurers profit -- and smokers lose -- twice over."

The study highlights New Jersey-based Prudential Financial Inc., which sells life insurance and long-term disability coverage. With total tobacco holdings of $264.3 million, Prudential Financial is a major investor in three tobacco firms, including America's biggest cigarette maker, Virginia-based Philip Morris.

Health advocates point out that these private, for-profit insurers have repeatedly put their own financial gain over the public's health. "It's the combined taxidermist-and-veterinarian approach: either way, you get your dog back," study co-author David Himmelstien explained. "If you own a billion dollars [of tobacco stock], then you don't want to see it go down, you are less likely to join anti-tobacco coalitions, endorse anti-tobacco legislation, basically, anything most health companies would want to participate in."

Moreover, healthcare advocates point to this study as another reason why health insurance coverage should not be left in the hands of private insurers. Himmelstein asked, "Is this who we want running our health care system?"

Going Down Tobacco Road
Worldwide, tobacco is considered the leading cause of lung cancer and a major risk factor for heart attack, stroke, pulmonary disease and cancer. It is the leading cause of preventable deaths, and the leading cause of cancer deaths among men and women, according to U.S. and world health officials. Each year, about 443,600 people in the United States die from tobacco-related illnesses, and worldwide it is a contributing factor in 5.4 million deaths a year. Tobacco kills more Americans than alcohol, car accidents, suicide, AIDS, homicide, and illegal drugs combined, according to the American Cancer Society.

Tobacco is an issue that the South knows a lot about, considering the region's historical dependence and ties to the tobacco industry. Experts have shown that strong economic and cultural ties to tobacco in the South have often correlated with high rates of tobacco use. While cigarette consumption has been declining and is expected to continue to decline nationwide, the consumption of smokeless tobacco - snuff and chewing tobacco - has actually increased over the past decade, especially in the South. Several Southern states lead the nation in smokeless tobacco use, including West Virginia, Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi. Yet, research has shown that smokeless tobacco can be just as dangerous as cigarette smoking. Not only can it lead to mouth cancer, smokeless tobacco may also play a role in other cancers, heart disease and stroke.

Several of the Southern states that lead in smokeless tobacco use and have traditional ties to the tobacco industry also comprise what health experts have come to refer to as the "stroke belt" - a swath of states that include North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Americans living in this region have a 15-percent higher stroke risk, and the death rate from stroke is 30 to 40 percent higher than in the rest of the country. Health experts suspect that tobacco use could be one of the contributing behaviors leading to these high rates.

Sweeping Legislative Changes around Tobacco
This has been an exciting week for health advocates. Sweeping changes in how the government controls tobacco are likely to be approved by the Senate despite strong opposition from tobacco interests and the tobacco lobby. The U.S. Senate is set to vote on new laws that for the first time will permit the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the production, sale, and marketing of tobacco products, including limiting how much nicotine is in each cigarette, and banning advertising and marketing aimed at children.

Tobacco regulation has been a long, hard fought for cause due to the power and influence of "big " tobacco and its lobby. Congress has been trying for more than a decade to give the FDA powers over tobacco products, particularly after a 2000 Supreme Court decision that the FDA could not regulate tobacco unless Congress changed the law.
A final vote on the bill is expected Thursday, and Democrats say they have enough votes to win final passage. The House passed a very similar bill earlier this year, and resolution of the minor differences would send the bill to President Obama, who supports it. The lone Democrat voting against the move to end debate on the bill Wednesday was Senator Kay Hagan, the newly elected official from North Carolina, one of the historically recognized tobacco growing states.

Supporters of the legislation, including health advocacy groups, have linked reducing the financial costs of tobacco illnesses, about $100 billion a year, to the overall drive to improve the healthcare system. The bill's opponents have voiced concerns that the changes could prove costly in tobacco-growing states such as Kentucky and North Carolina.

Single-Payer Off the Table?
A step forward and a step back, some say. While health advocates celebrate the changes in tobacco laws, the health reform debate of the last couple of months has instead left health advocates with much to be desired.

Currently, the Obama Administration is pushing Congress to pass a healthcare reform bill by the end of the year that would cover most of the nation's 47 million uninsured. As Reuters reported:

Obama has declared this summer "make-or-break" time for healthcare reform and has called on Congress to pass comprehensive legislation by the end of the year, saying America can no longer afford the costs of a system dominated by profit-driven insurance and healthcare companies which leaves 46 million people uninsured.

Though he is leaving the details to Congress, Obama has said reform must ensure a public health insurance option operating alongside private plans, a reduction in basic costs, and assurance that no one is denied insurance.
But healthcare reform advocates are upset that lawmakers have taken a "single-payer" plan off the table. For years health advocates have been calling for a government-financed nationalized health plan - in the form of single-payer legislation. Even though most physicians, health officials and health advocates support single-payer legislation, the option has been excluded from the current debate in Congress. In a single-payer system, as envisioned by most advocates, the federal government would pay for basic medical care delivered by public and private health professionals. The money would come from taxes, and medical bills would go directly to a government insurance plan, similar to Medicare.

Last month, single-payer advocates took to the streets across the country to protest the exclusion of single-payer medical plan from the debate to revamp the nation's troubled health system. During Senate Finance Committee hearings in May, 13 doctors, nurses, lawyers and activists stood up to complain that no single-payer proponent had been invited to take part and were arrested for disrupting the proceedings.

The Harvard doctors involved in writing the recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine also support a single-payer plan and point to their report as just another reason why health insurance coverage shouldn't be left in the hands of private insurers. Boyd and his colleagues also believe that their findings call into question whether insurers ought to have a voice in the ongoing debate in Washington over healthcare reform.

As they write in their letter published in NEMJ:
"The Obama administration is proposing a major overhaul of the U.S. health care system, and the insurance industry is poised to play a major role in the process. Insurance firms, like any business, are driven by profit, and this fact compromises any health care plan that includes them. In case there is any doubt that insurers place profit above health, consider their investments in tobacco.
These facts should discomfit Canadian and British readers as their countries consider further privatization of health insurance. For those of us in the United States, these data are a reminder of the true priority of the insurance industry, which is making money, not ensuring health and wellbeing. These data raise a red flag about the prospect of opening vast new markets for private insurers at public expense, as has happened in our state of Massachusetts, whose recent health care reform is often cited as a model for national reform.
Not only have health insurers and drugmakers contributed millions of dollars to members of Congress, but the powerful private health insurance lobby, along with other corporate and political interests, have been derailing efforts at healthcare reform for years. Observers say this intense lobbying is likely the reason the single-payer option has been largely dismissed from the healthcare reform debate.

Currently Democrats are debating several alternative options for "public" plans, some of which could include a government-financed purchasing pool that people could buy as an alternative to individual health policies offered by private insurers. Private insurers would play a role in all of the proposed plans.

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Single payer health care is the only way to control costs

by Dr. Peter Mahr
Our current healthcare system is a mess for both those who carry health insurance and those without. Only a single payer national health insurance program that provides public financing for privately delivered healthcare services can clean up this mess and provide all Americans access to needed medical services regardless of ability to pay.

In a study released last week we learned that healthcare debt contributed to 62% of personal bankruptcies in 2007. And, surprisingly, 77% of those going bankrupt were insured when they first fell ill. The same year 47% of Americans reported some medical debt or payment problem and 16% of Americans had been contacted by medical debt collection agencies. Despite spending 16% of GDP on healthcare and increases in insurance premiums that dwarf growth in family income, millions are left bankrupt and 50 million more are uninsured. These figures highlight, in the starkest terms, how broken our employer-based private for-profit health insurance system is.

For all our money spent, the result is a fragmented complex healthcare system with poor outcomes. We are far behind other industrialized nations in terms of public health measures. Regional healthcare spending varies dramatically and has more to do with how many doctors there are per capita than other factors. The United States performs poorly on benchmark measures of preventative care and our management of chronic illness mirrors our chaotic and disorganized payment system. We consistently fail to meet evidence-based guidelines for chronic illnesses like diabetes and chronic lung disease.

At the same time business is booming for those who profit from healthcare. From 2003- 2007, the profits of the nation’s largest insurers rose 170.2 % to $12.6 billion. Pharmaceutical companies continue to gross billions of dollars with the top ten firms profiting a total of $75 billion in 2008. For-profit hospital chains and dialysis centers make millions while delivering worse outcomes when compared to non profit alternatives. Surgical sub-specialists make 3-4 times what generalists make.

So what do we do with a healthcare non-system that is a big money maker for insurers, some hospitals and the pharmaceutical industry but leaves one in seven people lacking insurance and most with insurance that is too costly and inadequate? How do we repair a delivery system that is expensive, focuses on moneymaking services rather than primary and preventative care and has little emphasis on evidence-based medicine?

Clearly the solution is to adopt a single payer national insurance program: publicly funded and privately delivered. We already pay for our current system with out of pocket payments and taxes.

Personal income taxes pay for Medicare, Medicaid, public employee health insurance, tax breaks to employers who provide health insurance to their employees and healthcare coverage for military personnel and veterans. The sum total comes to 60% of our total health insurance costs. In essence, we are paying for national health insurance now. We just aren’t getting it. Instead, a single payer system would use tax dollars to provide true comprehensive healthcare coverage for all.

Furthermore, a single payer system is the only reform proposal that would drastically reduce the staggering administrative costs that accompany our private insurance industry. Profit margins, overhead and administrative costs associated with our current private insurance industry remove $350 billion from the healthcare system each year. In reducing administrative costs a single payer plan would save enough money to cover the 50 million uninsured.

Single payer health insurance also holds great promise for reforming the delivery of healthcare. With single payer, a reimbursement system can realign the delivery of healthcare services from one of maximizing profit to one in which we maximize health. Reimbursement for primary and preventative care can be emphasized while specialist and end of life care can be more rationally utilized. Regional spending can be leveled. And a one payer system can bargain effectively with the pharmaceutical
industry, driving down medication costs which currently add $98 billion a year to the cost of our healthcare system.

In short, only a single payer system that eliminates for-profit, private health insurance can generate the cost savings to pay for a truly universal healthcare system. And, only a single payer system, with the tools of bulk purchasing, negotiated fees and global purchasing, can realign our delivery system to emphasize primary preventative care while bringing sanity to our skyrocketing healthcare s pending. A majority of the public and a majority of physicians support the adoption of single payer health insurance.

Now is our chance to embrace true reform.

Dr. Mahr is a family physician who works for the Multnomah County Health Department at East County Health Center in Gresham, OR. He is also chairman of the Portland Oregon chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program.

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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Max Baucus, the "Senator for K Street," Should Not Be Deciding Health Care for America

by Kevin Zeese. Published by the Baltimore Chronicle on May 31

Why aren’t single payer advocates allowed to testify before Baucus’ committee? Follow the money.

Senator Max Baucus and the Senate Finance Committee are too corrupted by corporate health industry profiteers donations to give America the health care policy it needs.

Health care is 15% of the U.S. gross domestic product. U.S. health care expenditures, which have been rising rapidly for several years, surpassed $2.4 trillion in 2007, more than three times the $714 billion spent in 1990. The cost of health care is projected to reach $4.4 trillion by 2018. There is a lot of room for corporate profiteering in the increasing cost of health care. The millions the health care industry has invested in Baucus and the Senate Finance Committee could therefore turn out to be very profitable.

It is evident that any bill that comes out of the Senate Finance Committee will be a pro-industry bill that will ensure trillions in profits for the health insurance industry, HMOs and the pharmaceutical industry.

Baucus has held two hearings so far and has refused to allow advocates for the most popular reform—a single payer national health policy—to even testify. Single payer "improved Medicare for all" is favored by more than 60% of Americans as well as majorities of doctors, nurses and economists. It is the most cost-effective and efficient way to provide health care to all Americans from cradle to grave.

Why aren’t single payer advocates allowed to testify before Baucus’ committee? Follow the money. Campaign donations explain why, and demonstrate that the Senate Finance Committee should not be in charge of health care. Senator Reid should remove the health care reform bill from Baucus and start all over before the Health Committee in the Senate.

Here’s why Baucus is not doing the people's business:

According to, over his career he has taken donations from:

* The Insurance Industry: $1,170,313
* Health Professionals: $1,016,276
* Pharmaceuticals/Health Products Industry: $734,605
* Hospitals/Nursing Homes: $541,891
* Health Services/HMOs: $439,700

Baucus has shown his bias and should be removed from leading the health care reform effort by the Democratic Party leadership.

That is a grand total of $3,902,785. Can we trust Baucus to put aside the profits of the industries that have kept him in the Senate? Will he put the people’s necessities ahead of the profits of his contributors? Baucus has shown his bias and should be removed from leading the health care reform effort by the Democratic Party leadership.

In 2008 Baucus had virtually no challenger in Montana. A little-known Republican was on the ballot, and Baucus won with 73% of the vote. But, Baucus sought big donations from big business anyway. He used his connections to corporations with business before his committee to raise an immense campaign fund of more than $11 million. In 2008, 91% of his donations come from individuals living outside of Montana, which is why he is more the “Senator for K Street” then the Senator for Montana. Corporate health profiteers who invested in Baucus will now benefit from his stewardship over health care reform. His 2008 donations from health care profiteers included:

* Insurance: $592,185
* Health Professionals: $537,141
* Pharmaceuticals/Health Products: $524,813
* Health Services/HMOs: $364,500
* Hospitals/Nursing Homes: $332,826

That is $1,826,652 Baucus took from these industries, and now he can reward them by deforming health care reform.

The health care profiteers knew that Baucus would determine their fate and ponied up. Now the only thing standing between them and their payback is a single payer national health care plan. Yet single payer, which would end private insurance and control the cost of pharmaceutical drugs, is not being considered—not even allowed to participate in the conversation before Baucus.

It is not just the chairman of the committee who has received massive donations. The full Finance Committee is a gluttonous embarrassment of campaign pay-offs. In 2008 the committee members received a total of $13,263,986 from industries affected by health care reform. Can we trust this committee to put the interests of the people before their donors?

The donations to the Finance Committee in 2008 included:

* Insurance: $5,103,900
* Pharmaceuticals/Health Products: $3,308,831
* Hospitals/Nursing Homes: $2,809,353
* Health Services/HMOs: $2,041,902

These industries expect to be rewarded with billions, even trillions, in profits and hundreds of millions in corporate welfare. Senator Baucus’s behavior shows they have made a good investment—they've bought themselves a senator who should be called Chairman Blagojevich. He is doing his best to make sure the single payer message is not heard because he knows it is the fairest, most efficient and cost-effective way to ensure health care access for all Americans—but he can't let that be implemented because it would put some of his donors out of business and control the profits of others.

It is time to remove Baucus from the leadership of health care reform. It is time to move the critically important priority of reforming America’s health care system from the Finance Committee and put it before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. At least their mission is health care, not money.

Kevin Zeese is the executive director of the, which is urging a single payer national health care system as part of its ProsperityAgenda.US project. Along with seven others, Zeese was arrested when he testified from the audience of a recent Senate Finance Committee meeting on health care. See the video on YouTube.

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Saturday, June 6, 2009

Doctor Critical of Baucus Promotes Single-Payer Plan

by Mike Dennison. Published on June 6 by The Billings Gazette (Montana).

Maryland psychiatrist Carol Paris is calling herself one of the "Baucus 13" these days - in other words, one of the 13 doctors, nurses and activists arrested last month while protesting before a Washington, D.C., health reform hearing chaired by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.

On Friday, Paris was in Montana, doing what got her arrested: urging Baucus, Congress and the president to consider a single-payer system of national health insurance that covers all citizens equally.

[Psychiatrist Carol Paris, one of 13 people arrested last month while protesting before a health-reform hearing chaired by Sen. Max Baucus, spoke at a rally Friday in Helena in favor of single-payer insurance. (Eliza Wiley Independent Record)]Psychiatrist Carol Paris, one of 13 people arrested last month while protesting before a health-reform hearing chaired by Sen. Max Baucus, spoke at a rally Friday in Helena in favor of single-payer insurance. (Eliza Wiley Independent Record)
"The next 60 days are critical," she told a rally of 150 single-payer supporters in Helena. "We need to keep the heat on Sen. Baucus (and Congress and the president)."

Single-payer advocates held rallies in six Montana cities on Friday.

Paris, 56, is a member of Physicians for a National Health Program, whose 16,000 members are pushing for a national, publicly funded insurance plan that would replace private health insurance. The group paid for her trip to Montana.

In an interview Friday with the Gazette State Bureau, Paris said she used to believe that the private health insurance market could be reformed to improve health care, and she spent several years lobbying the Maryland Legislature.

"After a few years, I came to the conclusion that it was just a phenomenal waste of time," she said. "At that point, I just said, there has to be a better place for me to put my time and energy."

That was just six months ago, when she joined PNHP, to push for a single-payer system.

But Paris and other Maryland-area members found themselves basically ignored by Congress. They planned to protest - and get arrested - at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on health reform, chaired by Baucus.

Paris and her colleagues showed up the morning of May 5, spread themselves among the gallery and, one by one, interrupted Baucus as he started the meeting.

"I interrupt this so-called public hearing to bring you the following unpaid political announcement: Put single-payer on the table," Paris said before she was arrested. "My name is Dr. Carol Paris, and I approved this message."

Capitol police arrested the protesters, who have been charged with disrupting Congress.

Baucus, a key senator in drafting health reform legislation, said last week that he'll ask that the charges be dropped. He's said repeatedly that a single-payer system won't be considered as a reform and is backing changes that maintain private health insurance.

Baucus spokesman Ty Matsdorf said Friday that the senator and single-payer advocates have the same goal of providing "quality, affordable health care to every American," and that Baucus is confident that Congress will pass meaningful reform to "make this goal a reality."

Paris, however, said her experience in private practice has convinced her that true reform can happen only if private health insurance is replaced with national, public insurance for all.

No longer would physicians' staff have to spend hours dealing with multiple insurers on billing, no longer would patients have to do the same, and no longer would patients have to worry about which doctor is "in network," she said. "You can go to any doctor you want," Paris said. "It's the private insurance industry where you can't go to any place you want."

Paris's arrest was covered prominently by her local newspaper but received little or no attention from national news outlets.

She said she's not surprised: "The mainstream, national media have blacked us out as much as Congress has. ... I would say they're following the lead of the president and Congress and simply not giving us a voice."

Yet Paris said the reaction from her patients, as well as many fellow physicians, has been overwhelmingly positive.

She said she hears "over and over and over again" how people are frustrated by the current system, particularly dealing with their insurer, and that as soon as they understand how single-payer would work, they usually support it.

"I think that the only thing that keeps this from happening is the lack of political will by the president and our Congress," Paris said.

© 2009 Billings Gazette

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Facing Down the Private Insurance Industry

by Robert Kuttner. Published on June 4 by The Boston Globe
Despite budget pressures, President Obama has not backed off his commitment to universal healthcare reform. But the devil is in the details. And if he is not careful he could end up with a reform worse than nothing.

A crucial question is whether the law will include a public, Medicare-style plan. This public plan could be used by people who otherwise lack good insurance, or by employers who conclude that the public plan is a better deal for themselves and their workers.

The public plan would be the gold standard of both good coverage and cost-containment. Without the public option, a system to cover everyone by relying on the existing private insurance industry will realize few cost savings. The result would be increased pressures over time to cut care and shift out-of-pocket costs from insurers to consumers.

The administration's projections have relied heavily on the supposed savings of better use of computerized medical records. However, absent a single unified system, or a strong public option, better computerization will not realize major savings.

The US healthcare system is the most expensive and least cost-effective in the advanced world mainly because private insurance companies waste about 25 cents on the dollar on claims, profits, administration, and marketing. They have no serious financial incentives to emphasize prevention, and every possible incentive to avoid sick people. Doctors and hospitals, meanwhile, make their money from increasing costs.

Other countries get better results at lower cost because a universal system naturally emphasizes wellness and prevention, and spends its money on the most cost-effective treatments, not the most expensive ones. Every nation faces similar inflationary pressures because of advances in technology and an aging population; but other advanced countries, using single-payer systems, do a fine job of covering everyone for 10 percent of gross domestic product or less, while we spend upwards of 15 percent and leave out nearly 50 million souls and under-insure tens of millions more.

Obama's plan is a variant of an astute strategy first proposed by the political scientist Jacob Hacker as a solution to two political obstacles to health reform. First, how do you enlist the uninsured and the anxious insured in the same coalition? Second, how do you build momentum for a single-payer system recognizing that there are not the votes to legislate it all at once?

Hacker's insight was that if the government offered a public insurance option, people who liked their present private insurance could keep it, while others could elect the public plan. Coalition problem solved. And the superior efficiencies of the public plan would gradually overtake the rival private plans. Momentum problem solved.

But Hacker neglected one key political detail - the immense power of the private insurance industry. Not surprisingly, the industry's stance is that any public plan must compete on disadvantageous terms. And most Republicans oppose a public plan outright.

Obama, the great conciliator, has chosen to work with the private insurance industry rather than targeting it as the primary obstacle to meaningful health reform. Periodic leaks from the White House suggest that if push came to shove, Obama would ditch the public plan in order to get a bill through Congress.

Senator Max Baucus of Montana, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, is no enthusiast of a public plan. After the New York Times last week reported Baucus sparring with Senator Ted Kennedy on whether to include a public plan, the two senators quickly cobbled together a statement insisting they were really in harmony.

However, in the push to get legislation in the face of fierce industry and Republican opposition, a good public plan could well be tossed overboard. That would leave a legacy of expanded coverage, but a time bomb of exploding costs, underinsurance, and a squeeze on actual care.

I would much rather see Obama battling for public health insurance, making it clear to Americans that the obstacle to real reform is the private health insurance industry. That, however, is not the president we have.

We'll see what kind of public plan, if any, survives.

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Media Quarantine of Single-Payer Continues: Fifteen Years Later, Public Health Insurance Still Taboo

by Julie Hollar & Isabel Macdonald. Published on Thursday, June 4, 2009 by Extra!, a publication of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Reposted on

As a big healthcare policy debate looms once again in Washington, one thing remains as certain as it was in 1993: A single-payer plan that would provide government health insurance to everyone is off the media agenda.

CNN senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen recently explained why healthcare "reform" is more possible now than it was under the Clinton administration (3/5/09): "Fifteen years ago you sometimes heard-actually you heard quite a bit-people saying: 'Let's have a single-payer system like in Canada. The government is going to be the health insurer for everybody.' You don't hear that as much as you used to. So more people are on the same page more than they once were."

Cohen is right that there were many people in favor of single-payer 15 years ago; as Extra! pointed out back then (7-8/93), polls consistently found majorities supporting tax-financed national health insurance. And the numbers today? A January New York Times/ CBS poll (1/11-15/09) found 59 percent in favor of government-provided national health insurance. In other words, contrary to Cohen's claim, people are on pretty much the same page today as they were 15 years ago.

Her suggestion that it was those loud single-payer voices that stymied "reform" is likewise unfounded; as Extra! reported in 1993, corporate media were then solidly behind the Clinton administration's big insurer-friendly "managed competition" plan-single-payer was hardly discussed in the press. ("The debate over healthcare reform is over. Managed competition has won," the New York Times had already editorialized on October 10, 1992. "The outcome is as wondrous as it is surprising.")

And just as big media silenced single-payer back then, Cohen and her colleagues continue the tradition today. In the week leading up to Obama's March 5 healthcare summit, hundreds of stories in major newspapers and on NBC News, ABC News, CBS News, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR and PBS's NewsHour mentioned healthcare reform, according to a recent FAIR study (3/6/09). But the idea of single-payer was mentioned only 18 times-and only five of those included the views of single-payer advocates. 

On March 31, PBS's Frontline took an in-depth look at the U.S. healthcare system in Sick Around America, offering a prime opportunity to explore single-payer-or so thought the correspondent originally slated to do the show, T.R. Reid. In Frontline's 2008 special Sick Around the World, Reid examined healthcare systems in other developed countries, concluding that in nations where there is some private-sector role in health financing, one of the central lessons is that they "all impose limits"-including that insurance companies "can't make a profit on basic care." The show discussed single-payer alternatives, including Taiwan's healthcare system.

But in Sick Around America, the only alternative to the current U.S. healthcare system that was examined in any depth was Massachusetts' system of mandating that people buy insurance from for-profit health insurance companies. Reid, who was contracted to be the correspondent for the new documentary, quit over concerns that it contradicted his earlier research (Corporate Crime Reporter, 4/2/09): I said to them, mandating for-profit insurance is not the lesson from other countries in the world.... I said, I'm not going to be in a film that contradicts my previous film and my book. They said I had to be in the film because I was under contract. I insisted that I couldn't be. And we parted ways.

After FAIR criticized the film (4/7/09),  Frontline pointed out that the show's narrator mentions that "other developed countries bar health insurance companies from making profits on basic care and cap their administrative costs." Of course, one brief mention in an hour-long show hardly constitutes a fair hearing.

As FAIR's study found, most mentions of single-payer tend to come from its critics, who bring it up in order to shoot it down-such as when Fox's Sean Hannity argued (2/19/09), "If we look at England, if we look at France, if we look at Canada, the single-payer, the worst thing we can do if we really care about kids is let the government run the healthcare system."

Single-payer did recently get a new proponent in corporate media with MSNBC's hiring of populist radio host Ed Schultz to fill its 6 p.m. slot. Since going on the air April 6, Schultz has questioned guests about single-payer multiple times, as when he asked why the Democrats won't put such a plan on the table (4/27/09): "The majority of the health providers, the majority of Americans want single-payer. You've got a president with a 69 percent approval rating. What are they waiting for?"

Schultz ought to ask the question not just of Democrats, but of his corporate media colleagues as well.

© 2009 Extra! Magazine (FAIR) Julie Hollar is the managing editor of FAIR's magazine, Extra!. Isabel Macdonald is the communications director at FAIR. 

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Thursday, June 4, 2009

Baucus: Single payer advocates won't be invited to speak

by David Swanson. Posted June 3 on
Senator Max Baucus met Wednesday with advocates for single-payer healthcare, including Senator Bernie Sanders, and told them that he might drop criminal charges against 13 people arrested for speaking up in his hearings, but that he would not include any supporters of single-payer health coverage in any future hearings. According to one report, Baucus suggested that he'd been mistaken to exclude single-payer but asserted that the process of creating healthcare reform legislation was too far along now to correct that omission.

Senator Sanders said after the meeting that if healthcare reform did not create a single-payer system it shouldn't be done at all, and that within three or four years we would realize we'd solved nothing. He said that it would be better to increase funding for community health centers and take steps to make it easier for medical students to go into primary care, than to enact major reforms that didn't go to the root of the problem.

Sanders has a bill (S 486) that makes some of the changes he advocates, as well as a bill (S 703) to facilitate the creation by states of single-payer healthcare systems. Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin has introduced resolutions on the same topic in the House. Dr. Margaret Flowers, co-chair of the Maryland chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP), attended a press conference following the meeting on Wednesday and filled me in. She said that while states are pursuing single-payer legislation, it would be much easier for them to succeed if they had waivers allowing federal healthcare dollars to go to the states, and if needed changes were made to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.

Advocates of single-payer emerged from the meeting with Baucus declaring their determination to push ahead with what they see as a fundamental struggle for human rights. Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee and national vice president of the AFL-CIO, said the fight for single-payer is a civil rights movement, and that people "have to turn up the heat." When someone questions the political viability of single payer, she said, we should question "allowing people to die and suffer for lack of political will."

The press conference, in which Baucus did not participate, was attended by the New York Times, Politico, the Associated Press, Pacifica Radio, Congressional Quarterly, and a camera that Flowers believed belonged to CNN. Sanders opened the press conference with a statement on the domination of the private for-profit health insurance companies wasting $350 billion per year in billing, profiteering, and complexity. If we were serious about healthcare reform, he said, we would be having a serious discussion of single-payer.

Dr. Marcia Angell, former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine and senior lecturer at Harvard, said that in her diagnosis the disease was market-driven healthcare in which access is based on the ability to pay.

Dr. David Himmelstein, co-founder of PNHP and associate professor medicine at Harvard Medical School, reported that Baucus had said he might be willing to drop charges of unlawful conduct and disruption of Congress against 13 people but had no intention of opening up any hearings to include single-payer. Himmelstein also announced the release of two new studies. The first, being released Wednesday, reportedly finds that some of the largest investors in tobacco stock are private health insurance companies. The second, to be released Thursday, reportedly shows that not only are personal bankruptcies increasing, but 62 percent of them are now due to medical debt.

Geri Jenkins, RN, co-president of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee and a practicing registered nurse, reported that Baucus had implied he'd made a mistake in not including single-payer but that it was too late now.

And, finally, Dr. Oliver Fein, president of PNHP and associate dean at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, said that he and his colleagues had asked Baucus for a full hearing on the merits of single payer and asked for the Congressional Budget Office to create a comparison of single payer with whatever plan Congress produces that is not single payer. Senator Sanders said that he would continue to push Baucus to hold a hearing.

Dr. Flowers said that in her analysis the single-payer movement is largely inclined to go in the direction that Sanders stated on Wednesday: support for a single-payer bill or nothing. I asked her whether she believed that those pushing for single payer would ever support a public option as doing more good than harm and whether she thought those pushing for a public option would ever advocate allowing states to enact single payer. Flowers acknowledged that there are many (perhaps even most) people in the public option movement who prefer single payer. In fact, it is difficult to find a supporter of the public option who does not claim to "personally" want single payer but to find it "politically unfeasible." But Flowers said that PNHP does not support a public option and backs only single payer. And she said she was unaware of any advocates of a public option also advocating for allowing states to create single payer.

Author David Swanson has been a journalist and communications director for the Kucinich 2004 presidential campaign, International Labor Communications Association, and ACORN, and is co-founder of and Washington Director of

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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Tap Water Worries Have You Buying Bottled? Safeway Loves You!

by Jonah Owen-Lamb. Published June 2 by the Merced (California) Sun-Star, and posted on
Wells are drying up across the county from an overtaxed and sinking water table.

Drought and climate change threaten the future of local water supplies.

And Merced has been selling its tap water since 2002 to a water bottling plant, which then sells that water at rates far above what it costs the plant to buy it from the city.

The Safeway Inc.'s water bottling plant in Merced -- one of the top five commercial/industrial water users in the city, which bottles Safeway's in-house purified and spring water brand Refreshe -- uses roughly 50,000 gallons a day, five days a week, for its bottling operation.

The plant, which provides most Refreshe drinking and spring water to Safeway stores in the state, filters city water, puts it in bottles and sells it as purified water. The bottles note that the water was bottled in Merced, but not that it was pumped out of the ground by the city. (Refreshe spring water is shipped in from a spring and then bottled in Merced.)

Some say the operation is just like any other business that buys water from the city. But others claim it represents a troubling trend. Environmentalists and water rights activists contend that the increasing commercialization of public water and the selling of tap water not labeled as such isn't how water pumped out of the ground by cities is meant to be used. They claim that bottled water sells itself as safer and healthier than tap water, but in many cases is not.

The Sierra Club's Water Privatization Task Force noted that the growth of the bottled water industry -- spearheaded by companies like Nestle, Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola -- is not only depleting aquifers and springs across the country, but also represents a step toward increasing water privatization.

The task force also noted that the industry advertises bottled water as better than tap water -- even though much of the water in bottles comes from the tap. "The bottled water industry promotes bottled water as a healthy, trendy drink, without mentioning that it can cost 500 to 4,000 times more than tap water," commented the task force.

In Safeway's case they pay more than $1,000 a month for more than a million gallons of water. The retail cost for that much purified bottled water at Safeway is just under $3 million. Safeway would not say how much it costs them to produce their water.

Despite these concerns, the public's taste for the stuff is growing.

According to a 2009 report on the industry by Bottled Water Reporter, bottled water sales in the U.S. accounted for more than $11 billion in 2008. Over the last decade bottled water consumption jumped from more than $4 billion in 2000 to double that by 2008. According to Food & Water Watch, over 112 bottling plants exist in the state and over 1 billion gallons of bottled water are sold in California every year.

In the report, tap water was distinguished from bottled water. "Clearly," noted the report, "consumer perceptions matter, and consumers regard bottled water very differently from tap water. Even where tap water may be safely potable, many people prefer bottled water, which they regard as superior in taste."

Safeway spokeswoman Teena Massingill said that criticisms about commercializing municipal water and replacing it with expensive bottled water are baseless and unfounded. "There will always be critics of products," she said. "We are providing a product that did not exist previously. So I think that the argument that they are making is unfounded," she said.

As for the Safeway's operation in Merced, Merced spokesman Mike Conway said the city treats Safeway as it would any other industrial water consumer.

"There's no difference between any kind of water user who uses our water to process a product -- whether it's bottled water or anything else," said Conway.

"As for some additional perspective," wrote Conway in an e-mail, "if the city pumps about 21 million gallons of water a day, and Safeway uses 50,000, that works out to be 0.238 percent of our total gallons pumped."

But the plant doesn't only use water. It also produces waste. The plant's purification process discharges roughly 52,000 pounds of salts a year into the city's wastewater system, according to their permit.

Safeway's in-house brand Refreshe, bottled in Merced with well water, doesn't say on its label that it was originally municipal tap water.

Massingill's reply is simply that the product that Safeway provides -- fresh water -- isn't tap water.

But a new law could force water bottlers to at least let consumers know the source of their bottled water -- not just where it was bottled.

Assembly Bill 301 would require bottling facilities to register with the state and disclose the source of their water. Currently, the state's Department of Public Health only requires that bottled water labels list where the water was bottled, not the actual source of that water.

Another area of concern with bottled water, says Ruth Caplan, the national coordinator for the Defending Water for Life campaign, is that while bottled water sells itself as better than tap water, it contributes to pollution and has been found to be less healthy than tap water -- at least in some cases.

Many of the bottles end up in landfills, Caplan added, and in some cases contain industrial chemicals and bacteria above state and industry standards. According to the Sierra Club, nine out of 10 plastic water bottles end up as garbage or litter.

The National Resources Defense Council tested a wide array of bottled waters in the late '90s and found the majority contained either industrial chemicals and other contaminants, such as chloroform, that were above levels set by the state and the industry. The study included Safeway-brand bottled waters whose labels indicated they had gone through reverse osmosis filtration like the purified water in Safeway's Merced plant.

Safeway's Massingill declined to comment on NRDC's study, but said that Safeway is fully conscious of its environmental footprint and the healthfulness of its products. The company uses as little packaging as possible in its products. For instance, its plastic bottles are among the thinnest in the industry.

In addition, Safeway uses wind and solar energy on a wide scale. "We operate in the most environmentally conscious manor possible," she said. Safeway is one of the largest retail users of renewable energy in the United States as well, she said.

On top of the company's efforts to be green, Massingill said it provides jobs for roughly 70 people at its Merced plant. It's also actively involved in the community through the sponsorship of events, among other contributions.

The Wild West was founded partly over water wars. It's clear some are still being fought, even inside the bottle.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Looting of America

by Greg Coleridge, Ohio American Friends Service Committee

An accurate term to describe the causes of and prescriptions to the current economic crisis is "the looting of America." That is also the title of a new book by Les Leopold, co-founder and director of the Labor Institute and Public Health Institute and among those who formed the labor-environmental Blue-Green Alliance.

Leopold attempts through the book the near impossible: to clearly and simply describe the root causes of the global economic crisis, the bizarre and complex financial instruments created which resulted in astonishing profits by transformed liabilities into assets, and a range of moderate to radical policy changes to reign in the fantasy-finance casino perpetrated by giant financial corporations and others.

The root of the current crisis goes back to the 1970's when worker productivity and real worker wages began to diverge. Between 1945 and 1973, as productivity increased (more products and services were produced by workers per hour), firms sought more workers to increase their own profits. This drove up the price of labor.

It all changed beginning in 1973 when corporate owners no longer reinvested productivity profits back into firms (the real economy) or with workers to the same degree. Capital owners kept productivity profits for themselves. The percentage of wealth owned by the top 1% began to sour. Capital owners began looking for alternatives sources of profit of their extra wealth with high rates of return and little risk. The era of fancy financial instruments, led by derivatives, was born.

The derivative, credit default swap, collateralized debt obligation, and other fantasy finance "instruments" are defined and explained with excellent analogies in many cases. Derivatives, for examples, are compared to fantasy baseball where hundreds if not thousands of persons compete by betting on the statistics of real players yet none of whom actually own any of the real baseball teams or have any control over any of the real players. Similarly, derivatives derive their value from some real entity - a stock or bond. Hundreds, if not thousands, can own bets on the same single stock or bond. It's a financial casino.

The flood of hundreds of billions of dollars into the casino economy fueled more and riskier bets and the housing boom. It enriched the financial corporations that were involved in this new business. As wages declined, debt increased and consumer spending eventually slowed. Meanwhile, real businesses were unable to secure credit for innovation as financial institutions looked to fantasy finance as more profitable.

The housing and debt bubbles burst because that what bubbles do.

Leopold devotes the last two chapters to solutions - divided between, as he says, "Proposals Wall Street Won't Like" and ones they really won't like. In the former category are:

Financial Disaster Insurance - premiums from every conceivable financial sector transaction to pay back taxpayers from the current raid on the treasury and for the recession caused by the financial casino and for the next one. He estimates this could amount to $500 billion per year.

Financial Product Safety Commission - creation of an FDA-like product-approval process before any type of financial "instrument" is permitted on the market.

More radical proposals include wage caps - a $500,000 salary cap of any employee at any financial corporation, equal to the salary of the US President; passage of the Employee Free Choice Act to give workers a chance to increase their collective power raising the minimum wage to guard against deflation and to shift wealth away from the fantasy-finance casino, and public takeover the largest pieces of the private financial sector to protect taxpayers, our economy and what's left of our democracy.

Leopold has provided a valuable tool to demystify Wall Street's destructive actions and a variety of tools for public actions to assert greater public control over money and finance.

For more, see the AFSC webpage on Corporations and Democracy.

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Monday, May 18, 2009

Fasting for our future, climate activist enter fifth week of hunger strike

A hunger strike for strong climate legislation has entered its fifth week just as a weak climate action bill begins its Congressional mark-up.

Seven people—Kathleen Breault, SKCM Curry, Ted Glick, Jere Locke, Cathy Luna-Desaulnier, Vincent Pawloski and Diane Wilson, acting as part of Fast For Our Future, today criticized the draft legislation released last Friday by Congressman Henry Waxman and scheduled for “mark up” beginning today.

“This legislation is very problematic,” said fast coordinator Ted Glick. “It’s not even close to being a solution to our urgent climate crisis. 60% or more of the potential revenues that would come from putting a cap on carbon emissions are given free to coal, natural gas, oil and energy-intensive industries. The whole idea of a cap is to increase the price of carbon-based fuels to drive the transition to clean, renewable energy, and this legislation doesn’t do that.

“Further, the requirement for utilities to get their electricity from renewable sources is so weak it might be worse than having no federal renewables requirement at all, given the number of states that have enacted stronger renewable mandates. This is in no way the kind of legislation we need.”

Jere Locke, Director of the Texas Climate Emergency Campaign, criticized the weak target for reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. "The world’s climate negotiators are calling for the world’s industrialized countries to reduce their emissions by at least 25-40% by 2020, with 1990 as the baseline year. This bill would require no more than a few percentage points. As someone with close ties to Africa and Asia and who has worked internationally for many years, I fear for those people in the countries of the Global South who have had little to do with the carbon pollution in the air who will be seriously hurt if we don’t act soon and strongly to address the climate crisis.”

Organizers of the Fast For Our Future intend to issue a call later this week for a worldwide “rolling fast” that would continue for the next seven months leading up to the United Nations Climate Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark in mid-December.

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Friday, May 15, 2009

The Cure for Layoffs: Fire the Boss!

by Naomi Klein & Avi Lewis. Posted Thursday, May 14 on

In 2004, we made a documentary called The Take about Argentina's movement of worker-run businesses. In the wake of the country's dramatic economic collapse in 2001, thousands of workers walked into their shuttered factories and put them back into production as worker cooperatives. Abandoned by bosses and politicians, they regained unpaid wages and severance while re-claiming their jobs in the process.

As we toured Europe and North America with the film, every Q&A ended up with the question, "that's all very well in Argentina, but could that ever happen here?" 

Well, with the world economy now looking remarkably like Argentina's in 2001 (and for many of the same reasons) there is a new wave of direct action among workers in rich countries. Co-ops are once again emerging as a practical alternative to more lay-offs. Workers in the U.S. and Europe are beginning to ask the same questions as their Latin American counterparts: Why do we have to get fired? Why can't we fire the boss? Why is the bank allowed to drive our company under while getting billions of dollars of our money? 

Tomorrow night (May 15) at Cooper Union in New York City, we're taking part in a panel that looks at this phenomenon, called Fire the Boss: The Worker Control Solution from Buenos Aires to Chicago. We'll be joined by people from the movement in Argentina as well as workers from the famous Republic Windows and Doors struggle in Chicago. 

It's a great way to hear directly from those who are trying to rebuild the economy from the ground up, and who need meaningful support from the public, as well as policy makers at all levels of government. For those who can't make it out to Cooper Union, here's a quick round up of recent developments in the world of worker control. 

In Argentina, the direct inspiration for many current worker actions, there have been more takeovers in the last 4 months than the previous 4 years. 

One example: Arrufat, a chocolate maker with a 50 year history, was abruptly closed late last year. 30 employees occupied the plant, and despite a huge utility debt left by the former owners, have been producing chocolates by the light of day, using generators. 

With a loan of less than $5,000 from the The Working World, g a capital fund/NGO started by a fan of The Take, they were able to produce 17,000 Easter eggs for their biggest weekend of the year. They made a profit of $75,000, taking home $1,000 each and saving the rest for future production. 

Visteon is an auto parts manufacturer that was spun off from Ford in 2000. Hundreds of workers were given 6 minutes notice that their workplaces were closing. 200 workers in Belfast staged a sit-in on the roof of their factory, another 200 in Enfield followed suit the next day.

Over the next few weeks, Visteon increased the severance package to up to 10 times their initial offer, but the company is refusing to put the money in the workers' bank accounts until they leave the plants, and they are refusing to leave until they see the money. 
A factory where workers make legendary Waterford Crystal was occupied for 7 weeks earlier this year when parent company Waterford Wedgewood went into receivership after being taken over by a US private equity firm.  The US company has now put 10 million Euros in a severance fund, and negotiations are ongoing to keep some of the jobs.  

As the Big Three automakers collapse, there have been 4 occupations by Canadian Auto Workers so far this year. In each case, factories were closing and workers were not getting compensation that was owed to them. They occupied the factories to stop the machines from being removed, using that as leverage to force the companies back to the table - precisely the same dynamic that worker takeovers in Argentina have followed.
In France, there's been a new wave of "Bossnappings" this year, in which angry employees have detained their bosses in factories that are facing closure. Companies targeted so far include Caterpillar, 3M, Sony, and Hewlett Packard. The 3M executive was brought a meal of moules et frites during his overnight ordeal. (That's mussels and fries--not too shabby.)

A comedy hit in France this spring was a movie called "Louise-Michel," in which a group of women workers hires a hitman to kill their boss after he shuts down their factory with no warning. 

A French union official said in March, "those who sow misery reap fury. The violence is done by those who cut jobs, not by those who try to defend them." 

And this week, 1,000 steelworkers disrupted the annual shareholders meeting of ArcelorMittal, the world's largest steel company. They stormed the company's headquarters in Luxembourg, smashing gates, breaking windows, and fighting with police.

Also this week, in Southern Poland, at the largest coal coking producer in Europe, thousands of workers bricked up the entrance to the company's headquarters, protesting wage cuts.
And then there's the famous Republic Windows and Doors story: 260 workers occupied their plant for 6 world-shaking days in Chicago last December. With a savvy campaign against the company's biggest creditor, Bank of America ("You got bailed out, we got sold out!") and massive international solidarity, they won the severance they were owed. And more - the plant is re-opening under new ownership, making energy-efficient windows with all the workers hired back at their old wages. 

And this week, Chicago is making it a trend. Hartmarx is 122-year old company that makes business suits, including the navy blue number that Barack Obama wore on election night, and his inaugural tuxedo and topcoat. The business is in bankruptcy. Its biggest creditor is Wells Fargo, recipient of 25 billion public dollars in bailout money. While there are 2 offers on the table to buy the company and keep it operating, Wells Fargo wants to liquidate it. On Monday, 650 workers voted to occupy their Chicago factory if the bank goes ahead with liquidation. 

To be continued...

Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist, syndicated columnist and author. To read all her latest writing visit  Avi Lewis Avi is a filmmaker, journalist, and the host of Fault Lines on Al Jazeera English.

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