St. Cloud Times, Sept. 30
Watch how employers handle Affordable Care Act
Amid the highly charged partisan debate about the viability of the federal Affordable Care Act, one of the best nonpolitical gauges to watch could be U.S. employers with 50 or more workers that already offer those workers health insurance. Here's why.
Almost 95 percent of these employers now offer health insurance to full-time employees. But whether they will continue to offer that a year from now is anything but clear.
Witness a recent report in The Wall Street Journal that noted how Walgreen Co. has become the latest mega-corporation to change its company-backed health programs. Starting next year, the drugstore giant will provide payments to its 160,000 eligible employees and require them to shop for coverage on a private health-insurance marketplace.
Walgreen's is not alone. Sears and Darden Restaurants (Olive Garden, Red Lobster and six others) recently announced similar plans. Meanwhile, the Journal report noted IBM Corp. and Time Warner plan to shift retirees from company-run plans to private exchanges.
Details about how much Walgreen's or any of these businesses would pay employees and retirees to find insurance elsewhere are not known. But obviously many businesses are using their individual bottom lines to determine the best way to address President Obama's signature legislation.
Of course, that should not be a surprise. Big companies have for years been requiring their workers to shoulder more of the burden of health care costs. These employers now assess everything from a "spousal surcharge" to biometrics testing of staffers.
(The former is a fee charged if a spouse has access to insurance through their employer but chooses coverage via the spouse. The latter includes tests for blood pressure, obesity, cholesterol, tobacco use, etc.)
As the Kaiser Family Foundation noted in the Journal report, big companies also have been gradually increasing out-of-pocket costs. More than one-third of workers at companies with 200 or more workers had annual deductibles of $1,000 or more last year, up from 10 percent of workers at those businesses in 2006.
Amid such trends, it's not hard to imagine these big companies comparing the costs of offering benefits to what employees can buy on their own then choosing the option that's best for their bottom lines.
Employees, potential job seekers and all consumers would do well to embrace the same approach.
The Free Press of Mankato, Oct. 1
Tea party brinksmanship harms country
"Nuclear option" is a phrase designed to elicit the proper foreboding of an action that should be avoided at most any cost. But House Republicans, driven by a unyielding group of tea party supporters, has been blissfully embracing a nuclear option for months — years really — as they blindly push to end Obamacare at the cost of all else.
The House has voted not 10, not 20, not 30 but 40 plus times to kill the Affordable Care Act, all maddeningly symbolic gestures that have helped further poison an already near-paralyzed Congress. They continued the brinkmanship into Monday's deadline for raising the nation's debt ceiling, arguing they would agree to increase the debt level only if Obamacare is "de-funded" or at least delayed for a year.
Ironically, the right-wing tenacity in the House was made largely possible by a fellow Republican in the Senate, tea party darling Ted Cruz, who helped design the kill-Obamacare-at-any-cost strategy. Or at least pretend there's a chance to kill it in a quixotic gesture.
The president had earlier agreed to delay for one year implementation of some Obamacare requirements on large businesses. But after growing increasingly weary of the GOP's ongoing obstruction he declared he would not negotiate on any aspects of the health care overhaul during the debt ceiling debate.
Indeed there are and will be many adjustments needed to the Affordable Care Act. The sheer scope of the legislation and the new territory it enters requires both parties and the president to work on helpful changes that will make Obamacare work better and at its most cost effective. But simply repeating that it needs to be killed helps no one.
The debate on Obamacare — passed more than three years ago — is over. Congress passed it, the courts approved it and Obama won re-election as the architect of it. The House GOP's continued attacks on it in order to show "principle" to their supporters is destructive to the country and to their party's future.
The GOP, or anyone else, has every right to disagree with Obamacare. If they want to throw it out and replace it with something else, the path is the same as it's always been: Either win enough votes in Congress or get enough like-minded members elected to Congress.
And it's not just the debt limit debate that has been tainted by House GOP intransigence. By tying virtually every issue to zeroing-out Obamacare, the tea party contingent has nearly guaranteed gridlock.
It's long past time they end their ridiculous approach.
Duluth News Tribune, Sept. 30
State, feds can step up for e-cig safety
Three weeks ago today, Duluth made headlines across the state, becoming the first city in Minnesota to ban e-cigarettes indoors where tobacco use already is forbidden, among other restrictions and regulations.
Then, last week, Hermantown made news by passing a moratorium on the sale and use of electronic cigarettes inside public spaces. In addition, Mankato restricted e-cig sampling; North Mankato placed a moratorium on sampling; and Beltrami County, Bemidji and other communities all are considering their own restrictions, bans, regulations and other measures related to a suddenly booming e-cigarette industry, an industry dogged by serious and legitimate questions and concerns about health and safety.
"There are so many communities that have taken action or are percolating right now on this issue," Pat McKone of Duluth, director of the American Lung Association of Minnesota, told the News Tribune Opinion page on Friday. "There's so much unknown. We have to take a serious look. It's not just a fad."
With so many communities in Minnesota and around the country scrambling to catch up to ensure safety, especially the safety of a growing number of young people who are using unregulated e-cigarettes, the Minnesota Legislature and the federal government could step up and take a lead. Then, rules, regulations and restrictions would be uniform rather than the patchwork of policies taking shape now that change from border to border and community to community.
"Would it be better if the state regulated this? I do believe that's the way, but we're going to have a short legislative session, and I don't think (lawmakers) are swift enough to do anything this (coming) year," McKone said. "We do the heavy lifting at the local level and then the state takes it on. That's a common pattern. And that appears to be what'll eventually happen here. But every month (we) delay another group of young people is making decisions and poor choices."
In most communities, kids can buy e-cigarettes easily and legally. And they are. The percentage of U.S. middle school and high school students taking their first drags on e-cigarettes more than doubled from 2011 to 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced this month. In 2012, more than 1.78 million middle school and high school students nationwide had tried e-cigarettes, a precursor to tobacco cigarettes.
And no wonder. E-cigarettes, as addictive, dangerous and harmful to health as they may be, are actively being marketed to kids, just the way tobacco cigarettes used to be. Remember Joe Camel and the portrayal of smoking as cool and hip and what everyone who's anyone was doing? This time — powered by nearly $21 million in advertising in 2012, according to the New York Times — it's kid-friendly flavors such as watermelon and cookies-and-cream milkshake and the portrayal of e-cigarette use as cool and hip and what everyone who's anyone is doing.
And just what are those kids inhaling? Because e-cigarettes aren't regulated, no one can say for certain.
So shouldn't the U.S. Food and Drug Administration step in, test e-cigarette products for safety and regulate what's in them to ensure continued safety?
Attorneys general from around the country think so. Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson joined 40 of her colleagues in a letter last week to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, urging her "to take all available measures to meet the FDA's stated deadline of October 31, 2013, to issue proposed regulations that will address the advertising, ingredients and sale to minors of electronic cigarettes."
The American Heart Association, American Academy of Pediatrics and 13 other agencies think so, too. They sent a letter Sept. 19 to the president, urging him to ensure that the FDA "moves forward promptly with a rule that would assert the agency's authority over all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, little cigars, cigars and other tobacco products not currently under its jurisdiction. More than two years ago, FDA announced its intent to take this action, yet no progress has been made. This delay is having very real public health consequences."
Delay no more, FDA.
Or state Legislature.
Local communities are scrambling and doing their best to do what's right. They and the health and safety of our nation need authority and leadership that can only come from St. Paul and other state capitols and from Washington, D.C.