Xe, the private security firm formerly known as Blackwater, has hired former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft as an ethics adviser. Blackwater gained notoriety after five of its contract security guards were indicted in the 2007 machine gun massacre in Baghdad's Nisour Square that took the lives of 17 Iraqi civilians. In the wake of that controversy, the company changed its name to Xe to try to escape its bad image. Ashcroft has faced his own ethical challenges, too, and he served as attorney general during many of the constitutional abuses conducted during the Bush Administration. In 2004, he refused to comply with Senate Judiciary Committee demands to produce copies of legal memos that lawyers in Bush administration had prepared that reportedly stated that as commander-in-chief, the president had the right to order torture. Ashcroft was also instrumental in advancing so-called federal "charitable choice" initiatives that funneled taxpayer money to religious groups amid charges that such government-funded programs violate the constitutional separation of church and state. Ashcroft also signed off on the Bush Administration's unconstitutional warrantless wiretapping programs until 2004, when he finally refused to reauthorize them and was subsequently pushed out of the administration.
On April 21, the 60 Plus Association, a front group that FireDogLake reported in 2009 is "almost fully funded by the pharmaceutical industry," started running 60-second radio ads in 30 Congressional districts thanking Republicans for voting for House Budget Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plan, which would phase out the current Medicare program completely for those under 55 years of age. 60 Plus president Jim Martin says it is "absolutely true" that Ryan's plan will phase out Medicare for those under 55, but at the same time says, "at least [Ryan is] trying to save Medicare for the future." The ads misleadingly state that Ryan's plan will "protect Medicare and keep it secure for future retirees." The group also misleadingly asserts that the GOP's budget proposal, which will turn Medicare into a voucher system, will make "no changes for seniors on Medicare now or those who will soon go on it." The ad campaign cost the 60-Plus Association $800,000.
I've written frequently in recent weeks about the eye-popping profits the big, publicly-traded health companies have been reporting. Last year -- as the number of Americans without health insurance grew to nearly 51 million -- the five largest for-profit insurers (Aetna, CIGNA, Humana, UnitedHealth and WellPoint) had combined profits of $11.7 billion.
But that was so 2010.
If the profits those companies made during the first three months of this year are an indication of things to come, 2011 will more than likely be the most profitable year ever for these new darlings of Wall Street.
But lest you think only those big New York Stock Exchange-listed corporations have figured out how to make money hand over fist while their base of policyholders is shrinking, take a look at the so-called nonprofit Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans.
The week of April 10-16 saw the layoff of every public school teacher in Detroit, and the initial fruition of the highly-contested bill that allows emergency financial managers to have unconditional control over a city in a financial emergency. The city of Benton Harbor, Michigan, declared to be in a financial emergency by Governor Rick Snyder, now knows that, according the Snyder, the voter's voice doesn't really matter anymore.
Joseph Harris, the city's new Emergency Financial Manager (EFM), dismantled the entire government, only allowing city boards and commissions to call a meeting to order, approve of meeting minutes and adjourn a meeting.
The law that allows Harris to "exercise any power or authority of any office, employee, department, board, commission, or similar entity of the City, whether elected or appointed," was passed in March after the urging of Governor Snyder, and despite thousands of protesters who came to the Lansing capitol throughout February and March.
This week I received a Ridenhour Prize for my book, Deadly Spin. I'm honored to receive the award, especially in light of my fellow recipients: former Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin; the producers of a film called Budrus, about attempts to find non-violent solutions to the strife in the Middle East, and Thomas Drake, an National Security Agency contractor who blew the whistle on what he believed were corrupt practices. Past honorees have included Bill Moyers and Bob Herbert. Elite company.
It is always nice to be recognized for one's work. The prizes are supposed to honor those "who speak truth to power." But the honor is also ironically unfortunate. The need to write the book at all, to illustrate how selfish profit motives too frequently take precedence over the health care needs of real people, remains a tragedy. And sadly, that continues to be the case, even after so much has been revealed about the inner workings of insurance giants and even after a bruising political battle has been waged to change how health care is delivered in America. The fact is, I shouldn't have had to write the book. There shouldn't have to be an award for people who simply do what is simply right.
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Judge MaryAnn Sumi has once again ordered a halt to further implementation of Governor Walker's union-busting bill, but did not declare whether the Legislative Reference Bureau "publishing" the bill on Friday made it law,* or whether any party is in contempt by arguably violating Sumi's first order. How did we get here, and where are we going?
Johnson County, Indiana deputy prosecutor and Republican activist Carlos Lam resigned from his job after the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism discovered an email he sent to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker suggesting the governor have an "associate" make a fake, violent attack to discredit union protesters and influence media coverage of the protests. Lam resigned shortly before the Center published a story containing excerpts of the email sent from Lam's account on February 19 praising Walker for standing up to unions and suggesting a "false flag" attack on Walker. Lam wrote,
...I think that the situation in Wisconsin presents a good opportunity for what's called a 'false flag' operation. If you could employ an associate who pretends to be sympathetic to the unions' cause to physically attack you (or even use a firearm against you), you could discredit the public unions. ... Employing a false flag operation would assist in undercutting any support the media may be creating in favor of the unions. God bless, Carlos F. Lam.
Lam denies writing the email, saying his email account was hacked. It would have been easy to verify whether his email account had been hacked by examining information that could be obtained from Hotmail and his Internet service provider, but Lam declined to reveal the provider's name to the Center so they could check out the hacking claim. This news follows an earlier admission by Governor Walker to a prank caller pretending to be David Koch of Koch Industries that he and his team had considered placing troublemakers in the crowd, but Walker claims to have rejected the idea for political considerations.
The Center for Media and Democracy's Senior Fellow Wendell Potter has been awarded the 2011 Ridenhour Book Prize for his work, Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR is Killing Healthcare and Deceiving Americans.
"Death panels" are back in the news and Congress is turning its attention to them once again. The problem is, lawmakers are looking in all the wrong places.
The proposed provision would have allowed Medicare to pay doctors to counsel patients about their end-of-life medical wishes. That idea originally had bipartisan support, but when the provision was brought to Sarah Palin's attention, she accused Democrats of wanting to create "death panels" that would decide when to pull the plug on granny and grandpa. The House Energy and Commerce Committee, now headed by Republicans, sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius last week demanding to know how a controversial provision that was excised from last year's health reform bill wound up -- briefly -- in a government "rule" on physician reimbursement.