Saturday, February 8, 2014

AOL cuts benefits, blames Obamacare


AOL became the latest company to blame Obamacare for cutting back on employee benefits.

AOL CEO: Obamacare leads to 401(k) cut

The tech firm will now pay its 401(k) company match only to employees who are active on Dec. 31 of that year, as opposed to in their paychecks throughout the year. So those who leave the company before the end of the year will forfeit the match.
AOL (AOL) CEO Tim Armstrong blamed $7.1 million in additional Obamacare costs the company is facing this year. Had the company not made the change in its 401(k) payments, employees would have seen their health insurance costs increase, he told CNN Thursday.
Armstrong did not provide a lot of specifics about what aspects of Obamacare were pushing up the company's health care costs, but said it was one factor affecting the 401(k) restructuring.
"The Obamacare Act and some of the changes that happened there had increases in our health care costs," Armstrong told CNN. "We had to make a choice whether we pass those on or whether we took other benefits and reduce them."
Some employees will still see their premiums rise, depending on the plan they picked, though AOL "ate a huge piece of the increase."
The news came on a day when AOL announced 2013 was "its most successful year in the last decade," reporting revenues of $2.3 billion.
AOL's move makes it the latest in a string of companies to change their benefits because of Obamacare. A few weeks ago, Target (TGT,Fortune 500) said it will stop offering health insurance to part-timers and instead help them buy coverage on the state and federal exchanges. Last year, United Parcel Service (UPSFortune 500) and University of Virginia said they are dropping coverage for employees' spouses that have access to benefits elsewhere because of Obamacare.
Here are the major Obamacare fees and taxes that employers say will raise their costs:
Transitional reinsurance fee: This fee will be imposed on employers for the next three years and will go toward helping the state-based insurance exchanges pay for large claims. The fee will be $63 per insured member in 2014, but is expected to decrease in the latter two years.
Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute fee: This charge will go to pay for a new agency tasked with giving patients a better understanding of the prevention, treatment and care options available, and the science that supports those options. Employers were charged $1 per insured person in 2013 and will pay $2 in 2014. The fee then increases with inflation in health care spending for the next five years.
Health insurer fee: This annual fee is aimed at helping pay for the implementation of ACA. It will be about 2.5% of total premiums in 2014 and is expected to go up to 4% by 2017. Beyond that, it will rise with the growth in premiums. Insurers are expected to pass this fee through to employers.
'Cadillac' tax: Starting in 2018, employers who offer rich benefit plans -- where the total premium will cost more than $10,200 for an individual plan or $27,500 for family coverage -- will have to pay the so-called Cadillac tax, a 40% tax on the amount over the threshold. This tax is prompting companies to shift more medical expenses onto employees, which not only brings down the price of the premiums, but also pushes employees and their spouses to consider other options available to them.
Individual mandate: Also adding to employer costs is the Obamacare requirement that Americans obtain insurance or face a penalty starting in this year. That will prompt many employees who had opted out of their company's coverage to sign up.
Aside from new Obamacare fees and taxes, the growth of health care costs has been at record low levels for several years. Annual premiums -- including both employers' and employees' shares -- rose only 4% in 2013, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation/Health Research & Educational Trust (HRET)2013 Employer Health Benefits SurveyTo top of page

Vulnerable Democrats want credit for passing Obama's health care law, then trying to fix it


WASHINGTON — Hit with a multimillion-dollar barrage of televised attacks, Democrats in tough re-election races want credit for trying to fix the problematic parts of the health care law at the same time they claim bragging rights for its popular provisions and allege Republicans will reverse the law's crackdown on insurance company abuses.
It's a tricky, high-stakes political straddle by lawmakers who voted to create the controversial law, which Republicans intend to place at the center of their campaign to win control of the Senate and hold their House majority.
In one of the year's most closely watched races, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., recently aired a commercial that shows her in numerous public settings last fall sternly telling President Barack Obama to keep his promise to let people keep their current health plans if they want to — and then taking credit after he took steps to make that happen.
"I'm fixing it and that's what my bill does, and I've urged the president to fix it," Landrieu says of the health care law in the ad. It ends with a screen that reads: "The result: People now allowed to keep health care plans." The three-term lawmaker aired the ad after a televised attack by Americans for Prosperity, a group funded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch that has spent more than $25 million on similarly themed commercials in several races.
Hundreds of miles away, in Arizona, an outside group that backs Democrats stepped in after Americans for Prosperity targeted Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick. Referring to, which had a wretched debut last fall, a House Majority PAC ad said the Democratic lawmaker "blew the whistle on the disastrous health care website, calling it stunning ineptitude, and worked to fix it."
At the same time, Kirkpatrick "fought to hold insurance companies accountable, so they can't deny coverage for pre-existing conditions or drop it when they get sick," said the commercial, referring to popular elements of the law already in place.
The response comes as Democratic Party leaders look eagerly to outside groups to keep pace with the Koch brothers' early campaign barrage, while acknowledging they have been neither fast nor aggressive enough inside the Capitol in countering Republican attacks and demands for repeal.
"We have to stop being so defensive," said Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, recently tapped to lead an effort inside the Senate to respond publicly to GOP attacks.
Democrats also say public opinion points the way to a strong campaign rebuttal to Republicans. Geoff Garin, a pollster with ties to many lawmakers in the party, said that even in GOP-leaning districts, "there is a preference for a Democrat who wants to keep the good parts and fix the bad parts over a Republican who wants to repeal the whole thing."
It's a point Democrats emphasize.
In North Carolina, fast becoming ground zero of the "Obamacare" fight, a Senate Majority PAC ad says Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan "forced insurance companies to cover cancer and other pre-existing conditions." It adds that one of her Republican rivals, House Speaker Thom Tillis, "sides with insurance companies and would let insurance companies deny coverage."
Hagan has yet to air her own ads on the subject, although her campaign website makes the claims similar to the commercial by the Senate Majority PAC.
Americans for Prosperity has put more money into North Carolina than any other race, more than $5 million so far compared with about $1.5 million for the Democratic organization helping her. Both totals are certain to swell.
One recent anti-Hagan ad shows a woman saying she was shocked when she got a notice that her coverage was being canceled. "Kay Hagan told us if you like your insurance plan and your doctors, you could keep them. That just wasn't true."
Americans for Prosperity has also attacked in Arkansas, where Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor faces a tough race. The incumbent ran an ad late last year that did not mention the Affordable Care Act by name. It said he was working for "more doctor visits, free preventive care and lower prescription costs," references to elements of the legislation he voted for.
Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire has been attacked by a different group, Ending Spending, which mocked Obama's now-discredited statement that Americans could keep their health care if they liked it. "Next November, if you like your senator, you can keep her. If you don't, you know what to do," says the announcer.
Her official Senate website says she "voted in favor of the 2010 Affordable Care Act because she believes it is an important first step to making essential changes to our health care system."
"No longer can health insurance companies put lifetime dollar limits on health benefits or drop coverage if someone gets sick. Children under 19 can no longer be denied coverage if they have a pre-existing condition, and parents can keep their children on their insurance plans up to age 26," it says.
Republicans are trying to mitigate any damage from assertions along those lines.
More than three years after promising to "repeal and replace" Obamacare — and not once proposing an alternative — the House GOP leadership recently circulated a series of health care principles. Citing political reasons, party aides and strategists say they do not expect a bill to advance to the House floor this year. They note that would give Democrats a chance to turn the health care issue into a choice between two plans, rather than a referendum on an unpopular law with the president's name on it.
So far, at least, the deep-pocketed Americans for Prosperity is betting heavily that a straightforward message of repeal is a winning one, particularly when it is aimed at female voters.
Tim Phillips, president of organization, says that rather than targeting conservatives, who already oppose Obamacare, "we're trying to reach out to folks in the middle."
Republicans and Democrats alike say that means independent voters and loosely aligned Democrats. Many of the ads appear designed to appeal to women, whom Phillips said tend to be "the predominant health care decision makers" for their families and their aging parents as well as for themselves.
Democrats "know that this law is a huge problem for them," he said.


NSA captures data on third of US calls


Anonymous officials tell papers that NSA struggles to keep up with growing volume of cell info after 2006

Civil liberties groups said the findings do nothing to diminish the fact that agencies still desire to have more information.
The National Security Agency collects less than 30 percent of calling data from Americans despite the agency's massive daily efforts to sweep up the bulk of U.S. phone records, two U.S. newspapers reported Friday.
Citing anonymous officials and sources, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal both said the NSA's phone data collection has had a steep drop-off since 2006. According to the newspapers, the government has been unable to keep pace since then with a national surge in cellphone usage and dwindling landline use by American consumers.
The Post said the NSA takes in less than 30 percent of all call data; the Journal said it is about or less than 20 percent. In either case, the figures are far below the amount of phone data collected in 2006, when the government extracted nearly all of U.S. calling records, both newspapers reported.
NSA officials intend to press for court authorization to broaden their coverage of cellphone providers to return the government to near-total coverage of Americans' calling data, the newspapers said.
The lowered estimates for the sweep of government surveillance would be significant because federal judges, members of government task forces and media accounts based on documents provided by NSA leaker Edward Snowden have all described the NSA's bulk metadata collection as sweeping in millions of records from American phone users.
Lowered estimates could be cited by officials to alleviate privacy and civil liberties fears, but they could also raise questions about the government's rationale for the program – that the NSA's use of all Americans' phone records are critical in preventing potential terrorist plots.
National security officials have said that the collection of bulk data is essential to national security because it provides a massive pool of calling records and other metadata that NSA analysts can quickly search to pinpoint calling patterns showing evidence of potential terror threats.
Congressional critics have meanwhile pressed efforts to end the bulk phone data sweeps, and two panels of experts have urged President Obama to end the program because they see little counter-terrorism advantages and say the program intrudes on personal liberties.  
For his part, Obama has committed to ending government storage of phone records but still wants the NSA to have full access to the data. NSA and national intelligence officials declined to confirm or discuss the reports.  
Civil liberties groups said they were not reassured by the reports, saying the government still intends to gather phone records from all American users.
"To accept their legal reasoning is to accept that they will eventually collect everything, even if they're not doing so already," said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union. 
Verizon and AT&T said last December that they would provide figures this year on data requested by the government in law enforcement and intelligence investigations.
But the Journal reported last year that several major cellphone entities including Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile were not part of the NSA's bulk metadata collection. It is not clear why cellphone providers would not be covered by the NSA legal authority.

Reform moves?

Intelligence officials are already moving to alter the structure of the phone surveillance program to conform to changes Obama ordered last month.  
On Friday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) posted a government website appeal to private companies to develop ways for the government to continue its phone record searches without storing a massive inventory of phone data.
The posting, on, said the DNI is "investigating whether existing commercially available capabilities can provide for a new approach to the government's telephony metadata collection program."
The Associated Press reported last month that the DNI is already funding five research teams across the country in an effort to develop an encrypted search technique that could be used by the NSA to securely scan phone databanks held elsewhere.  
In a related development, the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in Washington on Thursday authorized two major changes in the phone collection program that Obama committed to in January.
The court agreed to require judicial approval for each internal NSA search of telephone data for terrorist connections and it will narrow the numbers of American phone users whose records can be scanned during each search, the DNI reported.
In the first instance, the NSA now must provide judges with "reasonable, articulable suspicion" for each search of phone data for illicit connections.
That hurdle can be lifted during national emergencies. And the court ruling now scales back the NSA's use of a "three-hop" system in its searches – allowing the agency to scan the records of those in phone contact with a terror suspect and a second wave of people in touch with the first group, but no longer allowing searches of a third wave of phone contacts.

Colin Powell: ‘Certain elements’ in Republican Party ‘demonize’ minorities, women


Former Secretary of State Colin Powell doubled down on comments last year describing a “dark vein of intolerance” in the Republican Party, attacking voter ID laws and claiming there are “certain elements in the party that seem to go out of their way to demonize people who don’t look like the way they’d like them to look like.”
Powell made the comments during a wide-ranging interview with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell marking the beginning of Black History Month. “You said that there’s a dark vein of intolerance in your Republican Party,” Mitchell told Powell.
“I will repeat that now,” he responded. “There are certain elements in the party that seem to go out of their way to demonize people who don’t look like the way they’d like them to look like, or who came from some other place. And I think the party has to deal with this, and the party says they’re doing it. They came out of last year’s election with a lot of ideas about how they’re going to make themselves a little more acceptable.”
“And yet you see things happening,” he continued. “You see members of the party — even senior levels — making statement about women, making statements about minorities, that once again make the party look less tolerant than it should be.”
“When you see a party that seems to, in some states, go out of their way to restrict voting, on the pretense that there is some sort of fraud going on,” he said, referencing voter ID laws instituted in many states and supported by vast majorities of both parties. “I wanna see a party — either a Democrat or Republican party — that is working to get everybody to vote. Isn’t that what America is all about? Getting everybody to the polling place, not keep it harder to get people to the polling place?”
Mitchell seemed to have a hard time believing this was a Republican talking. “Are you still a Republican, or what do you think you are?” she asked hesitantly.
“I’m still a Republican,” he claimed. “And I think the Republican Party needs me more than the Democratic Party needs me. And you can be a Republican and still feel strongly about issues such as immigration and improving our education system, and doing something about some of the social problems that exist in our society and our country. I don’t think there’s anything inconsistent in this.”


Number 4: CEO of American Title Found Dead With Self Inflicted Nail Gun Wounds


In response to Three Prominent Bankers Found Dead From Apparent Suicides Inside A Week:

On Monday I reported on the odd rash of  suicides by financial execs in just the span of a week. There's one more rather grisly death to add to the growing list. Following the apparent suicides of 2 London bankers and a former Fed economist in the US, the Denver Post is reporting that Richard Talley, founder and CEO of American Title, was found dead in his home from self-inflictednail-gun wounds.
The Denver Post reported:
Richard Talley, 57, and the company he founded in 2001 were under investigation by state insurance regulators at the time of his death late Tuesday, an agency spokesman confirmed Thursday.
It was unclear how long the investigation had been ongoing or its primary focus.
A coroner's spokeswoman Thursday said Talley was found in his garage by a family member who called authorities. They said Talley died from seven or eight self-inflicted wounds from a nail gun fired into his torso and head.
Also unclear is whether Talley's suicide was related to the investigation by the Colorado Division of Insurance, which regulates title companies.
Hat tip: Zero Hedge

EPA set to strike key blow against coal?


Stymied by the GOP's long resistance to cap and trade legislation, the EPA this week began public hearings -- the next step toward a final rule -- to cut carbon dioxide emissions  from new coal plants.
The rule would limit emissions to 1100 pounds per Megawatt hour,  a  level the coal industry says is technologically unattainable.
Green energy proponents disagree.
"Opponents say this will prevent ever building another coal-fired plant in the United States today. They say that the technology is not commercially available. These claims are scare tactics," Rep. HenryWaxman, D-Calif., said in a press conference Thursday outside EPA headquarters in advance of the hearing.
Some supporters of the proposed rule say fracking has unleashed a treasure trove of cleaner natural gas. Its new abundance and low price has put coal at a competitive disadvantage, a welcome  development, they say, given the consequences of global warming.
"I think there's been a fair amount of scare mongering that says, the only way we can address climate change is through drastic action that’s going to increase everybody's electricity bills and ruin the kinds of vehicles they want to drive and none of that is happening, " says Elgie Holstein of the Environmental Defense Fund.
But the coldest winter in recent memory is reminding Americans of the need for fossil fuels. A bitter cold January in the Midwest sent propane to a record high of $4.24 a gallon. Heating oil also hit a record high of $4.18 a gallon.  Amid record cold in the South, where most homes use electricity for heat, the Texas power grid took emergency measures to avoid a blackout.
In Europe - years ahead of the U.S.  in green energy usage - many governments  are re-investing in fossil fuels as customers protest rising electricity rates.
"The global warming scientists from the UK and U.N. scientists like Michael Oppenheimer had said snow was a thing of the past," says Marc Morano of Climate Depot, a website devoted to countering claims of man-made global warming.
"As we see record snow and now are entering upon the snowiest decade in the East Coast,even snowier now than the 1960s was… I think it serves skeptics very well to point out that the predictions that the global warming activists have made are going, have gone, belly up," Morano  says.
Whether the cold winter is evidence of global warming or evidence against it, the new EPA regulation should be finalized just months before the 2014 mid-term elections and another approaching winter.
Republicans may seize the opportunity to show that limiting carbon dioxide is not without costs.


Friday, February 7, 2014

Party's Over as Long-Time Pa. Democrat Bails


Longtime SW Pa. Democrat leaving state Senate

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Richard Kasunic, a longtime Democratic state senator from southwestern Pennsylvania, says he will not run for re-election to a sixth term this year.
Kasunic said Thursday the decision to retire wasn't easy, but it's time to spend more time with friends and family.
Kasunic was the senator when his district was the site of the Quecreek Mine rescue in 2002 and the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001.
The 67-year-old Kasunic served six terms in the state House before getting elected to the Senate in 1994. Kasunic authored a major overhaul of Pennsylvania mine-safety laws, signed into law in 2008.
The 32nd District seat includes all of Fayette County and parts of Somerset, Washington and Westmoreland counties. The district's boundaries will shift slightly next year.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Birds of a feather flock together at Holder's Justice Department:


Lawyer's nomination for Justice post draws fire

HARRISBURG, Pa. —The nomination of a civil-rights lawyer to a top federal post is receiving an angry reception from some top Pennsylvania officials.
U.S. Sen. Patrick Toomey wrote a letter to Senate colleagues Thursday, urging the rejection of Debo Adegbile (DAY'-boh ah-DEG'-beh-lay) as assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

Toomey cites Adegbile's work with the NAACP to defend Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther convicted of the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia policeman. He spent nearly 30 years on death row before prosecutors agreed to reduce his sentence to life imprisonment.

Adegbile's nomination is slated for a Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday.

Gov. Tom Corbett also urged that the nomination be rejected and former Gov. Tom Ridge urged the committee to conduct thoughtful and comprehensive review before approving it.


Racist Bigot Joe Biden says NY airport like a 'third-world country'


PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Vice President Joe Biden says New York's LaGuardia Airport could use some major improvements — and that's putting it mildly.
Biden says if he blindfolded someone and took him to LaGuardia Airport he'd think he was in "some third-world country."
Biden made the LaGuardia comment as part of a comparison with the Hong Kong airport. He says Hong Kong has the type of modern facility travelers would expect to see in the United States.
His remarks came during an event Thursday in Philadelphia in which he stressed the need for infrastructure improvement.
Biden focused mainly on Amtrak, which just unveiled its new Cities Sprinter electric locomotive. But he says the nation's ports and airports also need to be upgraded.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey operates LaGuardia. It hasn't responded to a request for comment.