Latest attack on Medicaid also sabotages Treaty Rights, Indian health programs

Agency Says Indian Health Should Not Be Exempt From Medicaid Work Rules Because They Are ‘Race-Based’

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

The Trump administration is supporting a major policy shift on Indian health programs which could result in a loss of millions of dollars and sabotage treaty rights.

A story in Politico Sunday raised the issue. It said “the Trump administration contends the tribes are a race rather than separate governments, and exempting them from Medicaid work rules — which have been approved in three states and are being sought by at least 10 others — would be illegal preferential treatment. ‘HHS believes that such an exemption would raise constitutional and federal civil rights law concerns,’ according to a review by administration lawyers,” Politico said.

The new policy on Medicaid work requirements “does not honor the duty of the federal government to uphold the government-to-government relationship and recognize the political status enshrined in the Constitution, treaties, federal statutes, and other federal laws, said Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. “Our political relationship is not based upon race.”

“The United States has a legal responsibility to provide health care to Native Americans,” Mary Smith, who was acting head of the Indian Health Service during the Obama administration and is a member of the Cherokee Nation, told Politico. “It’s the largest prepaid health system in the world — they’ve paid through land and massacres — and now you’re going to take away health care and add a work requirement?”

Medicaid has become a key funding stream for the Indian health system — especially in programs managed by tribes and non-profits. Medicaid is a state-federal partnership and public insurance. The Affordable Care Act expanded Medicaid eligibility, but the Supreme Court ruled that each state could decide whether or not to expand. Since the expansion of Medicaid some 237,000 American Indians and Alaska Natives in 19 states have become insured.

Officially Medicaid represents 13 percent of the Indian Health Service’s $6.1 billion budget (just under $800 million).

But even that number is misleading because it does not include money collected from third-party billing from tribal and non-profit organizations. In Alaska, for example, the entire Alaska Native health system is operated by tribes or tribal organizations and the state says 40 percent of its $1.8 billion Medicaid budget is spent on Alaska Native patients. That one state approaches the entire “budgeted” amount for Medicaid.

Other states report similar increases. Kaiser Family Foundation found that in Arizona, one tribally-operated health system reported that about half of visits were by patients covered by Medicaid in 2016. And, an Urban Indian Health Program, reported that its uninsured rate at one clinic fell from 85 percent before the Affordable Care Act to under 10 percent.

Those Medicaid (and all insurance) dollars are even more significant because by law they remain with local service units where the patient is treated (and the insurance is billed). In Alaska more than two-thirds of those dollars are spent on private sector doctors and hospitals through purchased care for Alaska Native patients. And, unlike IHS funds, Medicaid is an entitlement. So if a person is eligible, the money follows.

A recent report by Kaiser Health News looked at Census data and found that 52 percent of residents in New Mexico’s McKinley County have coverage through the Medicaid.  That’s the highest rate among U.S. counties with at least 65,000 people. “The heavy concentration of Medicaid in this high-altitude desert is a result of two factors: the high poverty rate and the Indian Health Service’s relentless work to enroll patients in the program,” Kaiser reported. Most of McKinley County is located on the Navajo and Zuni reservations.


Kaiser Health News said Medicaid has opened up new opportunities for Native patients to “get more timely care, especially surgery and mental health services. It has been vital in combating high rates of obesity, teen birth, suicide and diabetes, according to local health officials.”

However the growth of Medicaid is resulting in unequal care for patients in the Indian health system. The benefits in some states, including those that expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, are more generous. Other states not only refused to expand Medicaid and have been adding new restrictions such as requiring “able-bodied” adults to have their Medicaid eligibility contingent on work.

But the Indian health system — the federal Indian Health Service and tribally and nonprofit operated programs — are in a special case because there is a 100 percent federal match for most services. So states set the rules, but do not have to pay the bill. (Medicaid is often the second largest single item in a state budget behind public schools.)

Medicaid is the largest health insurance program in America, insuring one in five adults, and many with complex and long-term chronic care needs. The Trump administration and many state legislatures controlled by Republicans see Medicaid as a welfare program. While most Democrats view it simply as a public health insurance program.

Work rules are particularly challenging for Indian Country. Unlike other Medicaid programs, patients in the Indian health system will still be eligible to receive basic care. So stricter rules will mean fewer people will sign up for Medicaid and the Indian Health Service — already significantly underfunded — will have to pick up the extra costs from existing appropriations. That will result in less money, and fewer healthcare services, across the board.

A letter from the Tribal Technical Advisory Group for Medicare and Medicaid said American Indians and Alaska Natives “are among the nation’s most vulnerable populations, and rely heavily on the IHS for health care. However, the IHS is currently funded at around 60 percent of need, and average per capita spending for IHS patients is only $3,688.” The latest per person cost for health care nationally is $10,348 (totalling $3.3 trillion, nearly 20 percent of the entire economy).

The tribal advisory group said it is “critically important” that there be a blanket exemption for IHS beneficiaries from the mandatory work requirements.

A report in September by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that the majority of American Indians and Alaska Natives on Medicaid already work, yet continue to face high rates of poverty. It said over three-quarters of American Indians and Alaska Natives are in working families, but that’s a gap of about 8 percent compared to other Americans (83 percent).

The Trump administration’s characterization of tribal health programs as “race-based” is particularly troubling to tribal leaders because it would reverse historical precedence.

A memo last month from the law firm of Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Walker said the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services “has ample legal authority to single out IHS beneficiaries for special treatment in administering the statutes under its jurisdiction if doing so is rationally related to its unique trust responsibility to Indians. Under familiar principles of Indian law, such actions are political in nature, and as a result do not constitute prohibited race based classifications. This principle has been recognized and repeatedly reaffirmed by the Supreme Court and every Circuit Court of Appeals that has considered it, and has been extended to the actions of Administrative Agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services even in the absence of a specific statute.”

Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a Shoshone-Bannock tribal citzen. On Twitter: @TrahantReports Cross posted on Indian Country Today.

(The National Congress of American Indians is the owner of Indian Country Today and manages its business operations. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently as a digital journalism enterprise.)

 

Trump budget is a ‘messaging document’

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National Economic Council discusses White House infrastructure plan. (White House photo)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Budgets are statements: This is what “we” care about.  It’s money that reveals priorities. The “we” could be, and ought to be, the country. Or the “we” could be a presidential administration that’s not really equipped to govern. So there will be lots of stories this year, like last year, about the Trump’s administration’s desire to cut federal Indian programs, wipe out public broadcasting, end student loan forgiveness, wreck Medicaid and Medicare, food stamps, housing programs, and generally just about every federal program that serves poor people.

As Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney told reporters: “This is a messaging document.”

And what a message: Rich people face tough times so they deserved a huge tax cut. Poor people are poor because of their own failures. And more money is needed for a wall that’s not needed, for the largest military in the world, and the Republicans no longer believe that deficits matter.

But Mulvaney has a different version. Here is what he says are the messages.

“Number one, you don’t have to spend all of this money, Congress.  But if you do, here is how we would prefer to see you spend it,” he said. “And the other message is that we do not have to have trillion-dollar deficits forever.”

Ok. So the action is in Congress. Even Republicans on Capitol Hill know that this budget cannot be. It’s chaos as numbers.

Perhaps the best line of nonsense was written a line written by the budget director to House Speaker Paul Ryan saying domestic spending at the levels Congress has already approved would add too much to the federal deficit. That’s funny.

For this budget to become law (and overwrite the current spending bill) the House and Senate would have to agree to a budget. That’s unlikely. As I have written before there are lots of votes against any budget but not enough votes to pass any budget. A budget resolution would allow the Senate to move forward with a spending plan with only Republican votes (and even then only one to spare). But unless the rules change (which President Trump wants) the Senate needs 60 votes for regular appropriations bills. That means a lot of compromise before federal spending.

The most popular part of the president’s budget is infrastructure spending. But most of his plan would be funding from state, local, and tribal governments. That’s a problem. Congress will not be eager to follow this approach, especially in an election year. Members of Congress love announcing new roads and other projects. It means jobs back home.

It’s telling that in the White House statement on infrastructure tribes are not mentioned (something that was routinely done in the Obama White House).

Gary Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council, wrote: “Our infrastructure is broken. The average driver spends 42 hours per year sitting in traffic, missing valuable time with family and wasting 3.1 billion gallons of fuel annually. Nearly 40 percent of our bridges predate the first moon landing. And last year, 240,000 water main breaks wasted more than 2 trillion gallons of purified drinking water—enough to supply Belgium.”

So the Trump administration’s answer is to fund this with local government dollars because, as Cohn puts it, “the federal government politically allocated funds for projects, leading to waste, mismanagement, and misplaced priorities. The answer to our nation’s infrastructure needs is not more projects selected by bureaucrats in Washington, D.C Instead, the President’s plan designates half of its $200 billion for matching funds to stimulate State, local, and private investment.”

Another thing for a broken Congress to fix. If the votes are there. In theory that should be easy. This is an area where Republicans and Democrats agree (actually anyone who looks at the crumbling state of infrastructure can figure this one out). But in this Congress? We shall see.

At the State of the Indian Nations Monday, National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel said: “Native peoples are also builders and managers of roads and bridges, and other essential infrastructure. These projects are often in rural areas. They connect tribal and surrounding communities with each other, and the rest of the Nation. Tribal infrastructure is American infrastructure. In 2018, NO infrastructure bill should pass, UNLESS it includes Indian Country’s priorities.”

Back to the budget as a messaging document. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities says this budget “violates the spirit of the bipartisan agreement that congressional leaders negotiated just a few days ago.”  That’s going to make it much more difficult to come up with the next agreement in Congress (unless the law is ironclad, stripping the administration of some of its governing authority).

The budget assumes that Congress would repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with a block grant formula. The votes are not there for that. It’s fantasy.

The current bipartisan agreement “calls for adding $2.9 billion per year over the next two years to the discretionary Child Care and Development Block Grant, boosting this key federal program to help make child care affordable for low- and modest-income parents.  But the budget reneges on that and proposes essentially flat funding for the program. The Administration’s blatant dismissal of a major bipartisan agreement on which the ink is barely dry may make bipartisan agreements harder to reach in the future,” the budget center reports. “And then, in years after 2019, the budget calls for cuts of unprecedented depth in non-defense discretionary programs even though that’s the part of the budget that contains many federal investments in long-term economic growth.  By 2028, funding for non-defense discretionary programs would fall 42 percent below the 2017 level, after adjusting for inflation.  Indeed, by 2028, total NDD spending, measured as a share of gross domestic product, would be at its lowest level since Herbert Hoover was president.”

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Where federal money is spent. Source: Congressional Budget Office.

To me that’s the key point. Domestic spending, the programs that serve Indian Country, are already dropping and have been for a long time. All domestic discretionary programs add up to about 4.6 percent of the budget — and federal spending on Indian Country is a tiny fraction of that.

And, as the budget center points out, that means Trump budgets would actually “go below the 2019 sequestration levels, which Congress just agreed is too low to meet national needs.”

The messaging document (the budget, remember?) has another problem. It’s based on assumptions that are even more of a fantasy than repealing the Affordable Care Act. The budget assumes a 3 percent growth rate this year and 4 percent next year. So lots more people earning more and paying more income taxes (since corporations will be paying less). Not. Going. To. Happen.

Even economists think this is nonsense. The crackdown on immigration, for example, is shrinking the economy, not growing it. And the Congressional Budget Office projects a long term growth rate of just under 2 percent. Last year the economy grew at 2.6 percent, below what Trump said would happen and even below the consensus of economists.

This 2019 budget will accomplish one thing: It will serve as a mile post for the fall election. Republicans can make the case for defense spending and, I suppose, that they used to be against deficits. And Democrats will make the case for protecting health care and other domestic priorities.

Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

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The federal government shutdown is a failure by Congress to govern

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Updated Sunday.

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

The government is in its official shut down mode. And it’s a fight that has been brewing for a long time. It’s complicated because there are several different congressional factions, think of them as mini-political parties, that have different goals.

Remember this: The Republicans are in charge. This process could have been resolved within the caucus — if the GOP leadership had the votes. Back in September. And that’s the main problem. There are not enough votes for an affirmative solution. It’s so much easier for one faction or another to say “no.” (The House did pass their latest, short-term version with the support of the so-called Freedom Caucus. But several Senators in the Republican camp are still not on board because that solution doesn’t send enough money to the military and still other senators are not happy with another Continuing Resolution for any additional spending.)

Democrats have not had much say in the government since the election of Donald J. Trump as president. Senate leaders have used budget rules designed to pass legislation with 51 votes. But this short-term spending bill does not qualify — at least for now. More on that shortly.

There are three things on the Democrats’ “must” list. They want domestic spending protected (remember, one GOP faction wants deep cuts into government spending). Party leaders have been successful doing this with every Continuing Resolution so far because the alternative is the Budget Control Act and that would require deep cuts to the military (as well as domestic programs). Because of this threat, the faction in Congress that supports more money for the military has been willing to work with Democrats.

Democrats also want funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program or CHIP. That is a huge program for Indian Country (along with Medicaid) pays the health care costs for more than half of all American Indian and Alaska Native children in the Indian health care system.

The CHIP program is in the House Continuing Resolution. But, as the National Indian Health Board posted last week, the House bill “does contain a 6-year reauthorization for the Children’s Health Insurance Program but does not include the Special Diabetes Program for Indians. This is a huge miss. The Special Diabetes for Program for Indians expires March 31. The ideal solution would be for the Senate to include both CHIP and the diabetes program in any deal that’s made with the White House.

The bill also does not fund Community Health Centers which could lose up to 70 percent of their budget.

The final sticking point for the Democrats is protecting the people who were brought to this country by their parents or other adults unlawfully as children. This issue is interesting because nearly everyone sees the value in finding a solution to the problem because the United States is their country in all but paperwork. Yet even the rhetoric is changing. A few days ago Republicans were talking about agreement on this point. Today the language is harsh, Republicans saying Democrats are trying to “protect illegal aliens.”

But the Senate bill that the president rejected was bipartisan. Immigration hardliners did not want the deal, even though it would have increased funding for the wall, because it was too lenient on Dreamers. The White House represents the most conservative element on immigration issues.

Of course none of these issues are new. But Congress has not had the votes to pass any plan. So the solution has been short-term spending bills. This government shutdown is about ending that stalemate, resolving the debates, and moving forward.

That said:  Don’t be surprised if another “deal” is another short-term pass. But the goal is to force Congress into a real debate. Big picture stuff. (Yeah, right. I know, but I had to write it anyway.)

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, told National Public Radio that he doesn’t think “anybody’s going to negotiate very seriously with a gun to their head.” He said one of the problems is the Senate and the dysfunction over the “rule of 60.” Because of that, Cole said, the Senate hasn’t passed a single appropriations bill. “They didn’t do a real budget this year. The House did.”

The rule of 60 is the power of the minority to call for a filibuster. It takes 60 votes to end debate. President Trump took to Twitter Sunday to call for an end to that Senate rule. “Great to see how hard Republicans are fighting for our Military and Safety at the Border. The Dems just want illegal immigrants to pour into our nation unchecked. If stalemate continues, Republicans should go to 51% (Nuclear Option) and vote on real, long term budget, no C.R.’s!”

Of course Indian Country (and the economy) will be hit hard if this shutdown lasts very long. Lots of families, both government employees and contractors, could lose a paycheck.

The problem is we really don’t know exactly how the Trump administration will manage this particular closure.  Some agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Administration, are using year-end funds to continue operation. The White House has posted a round up of agency plans. But we will know about the direct impact next week.

During the last government shutdown, 21-days that started on December 16, 1995, and continued to January 6, 1996, all 13,500 Department of Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs  employees were furloughed; general assistance payments for basic needs to 53,000 BIA benefit recipients were delayed; and estimated 25,000 American Indians did not receive timely payment of oil and gas royalties,” according to the Congressional Research Service. The last time around furloughed employees were eventually paid. Eventually.

All told Standard & Poor’s estimated the U.S. economy lost $24 billion last time around.

The Indian Health Service and the Department of Interior posted planning memos in September about what is expected to happen. Basically: Many BIA employees will be furloughed, except for those that work in public safety or who are managers. However the Bureau of Indian Education will mostly continue working as normal.

Former Indian Health Service Director former IHS director Dr. Michael Trujillo told Congress that the government closure “caused considerable hardship within Indian communities. One result of staff furloughs was difficulty in processing funds for direct services and to contracting and compacting tribes so the delivery of health services could continue. Those staff that continued providing health services were not paid on time. Threats to shut off utilities to our health facilities and even to stop food deliveries were endured. We reached a point where some private sector providers indicated that they might not accept patients who were referred from Indian Health facilities because of the Federal shutdown.”

Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

 

 

 

 

First, do no harm. What it takes to manage the Indian health system

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Robert Weaver, Quapaw, is President Donald J. Trump’s nominee to head the Indian Health Service. Weaver’s background is insurance, not health care delivery. (Weaver Group photo)

 

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

What qualifications are needed to manage (and possibly reform?) the Indian health system? It’s Indian Country’s largest employer with more than 15,000 on the payroll and many, many more people who work in health care for tribes, non-profits and other related agencies. The IHS budget is $6.1 billion. Yet it’s also the least funded national health care delivery system, operating in a political atmosphere where critics ask, why can’t it do more?

The Wall Street Journal published a story last week that raised questions about Robert Weaver, the Trump Administration’s nominee to head the Indian Health Service. The Journal challenged Weaver’s history at St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin, Mo., from 1997 to 2006. However it quoted Jennifer Talhelm, an HHS representative, saying “any suggestion Mr. Weaver is unqualified to run IHS is a pure act of character assassination.”

Weaver is a member of the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma.

A few facts: Weaver will be the least educated director of the Indian Health Service ever. If confirmed, Weaver will the tenth permanent director. All but one prior to Weaver have been physicians, most with multiple degrees in public health, science, and health administration. One former director, Robert McSwain, was not a medical doctor, but he was a longtime health manager and holds a Master of Public Administration from the University of Southern California. On his CV, Weaver lists his education at Missouri Southern State University in International Business with an emphasis in Marketing and Accounting; Minor in Spanish; Minor in Vocal Music & Piano. However the Journal reported that he was seeking a degree and did not graduate.

Weaver’s background is insurance. In a September 2016 profile in Native Oklahoma magazine, Weaver said, “We have Native Americans who are brilliant — geniuses — at gaming, but where are the Native American geniuses at insurance? It’s the second-largest cost we pay other than payroll. Yet it just goes to the wayside.” He told the magazine that his business saved the Quapaw Tribe more than $5 million a year.

“I try to be a translator for tribal leaders to understand this convoluted, difficult-to-understand, most of the time full of lies and deception industry, into ‘this is what it is. This is what your choices are.’ I get it,” he told Native Oklahoma.

Perhaps the Indian Health Service should be led by someone with an insurance background. It would surely help if the agency could come up with a better funding model, including a mix of insurance funds (third-party billing in IHS-speak.)

But there are three problems that ought to be clearly addressed through the Senate confirmation process.

First there is the problem of scale. Weaver would jump from managing a $10 million a year small business — one where he can hire and fire at will — to running a $6 billion agency where personnel decisions are made by folks higher in the chain of command at the Department of Health and Human Services or even as a favor to a United States Senator. And firing? Just one such action could take up more time than the three years left in this administration. And that’s the easy stuff. The agency’s operations are complicated by Congress, law, regulation, tribal relations, the Veterans Administration, Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance.

To his credit, Weaver has been outspoken about the underfunding of the Indian health system. (Question: Will he say so again in his confirmation testimony?) In a paper he wrote a year ago, Weaver said: “Healthcare is a treaty right for all Native Americans. The method of delivering healthcare for Native Americans is the Indian Health Service system established through the Federal Government. The Federal Government allocates funds to the IHS system each fiscal year. This allocation has been and continues to be inadequate to meet the healthcare needs of Native Americans. Currently it is underfunded by thirty billion dollars annually.”

That figure of $30 billion would eliminate the funding disparity for Indian health. (The National Congress of American Indians has published a plan to make that so over a decade.)

The second problem is how to articulate the Indian health story. This is a problem of “duality,” two competing ideas. On one hand you have some significant health and management problems such as those identified in the Great Plains by The Wall Street Journal. On the other hand you have a system that is innovative and includes models of excellence (such as clinics in the Pacific Northwest or the Alaska Native Medical Center.) One story is told. The other less so. I am convinced that a fully-funded system will only happen when we tell both stories. The narrative of failure is not an incentive to invest more money.

The third problem is the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid. Weaver wrote that the law works for Native Americans but overall it was a failure. “We now see that it did not provide health insurance for the forty million uninsured Americans identified as the target market in 2008, it is not affordable for those who were pulled into the ACA system, and the out of pocket maximums associated with the plan effectively make access to healthcare unattainable,” he wrote. The first part of that sentence is factually incorrect. The uninsured rate dropped from 20.5 percent in 2013 to 12.2 percent in 2016, a 40 percent decline. You can argue about the cost of that insurance, but it’s complicated because the ACA required minimum standards for insurance, covering such things as women’s health. All of the Republican plans are designed to save money by getting rid of those standards.

Of course in the Trump era there’s probably not a candidate for any public office who champions the ACA.

But I also don’t see any Medicaid experience in Weaver’s background and that is an expertise area that is critical. Some of the medical, treatment, and ethical issues are extraordinarily complex. They will require a solid team to help consider all of the alternatives that have life and death consequences. (So, if confirmed, he’ll need a lot of help.) Oklahoma is not a Medicaid expansion state, so there would not be a lot of experience in squeezing every dollar from Medicaid by making more people eligible or rethinking the coding of costs. The public insurance of Medicaid (and Medicare) now total $1.05 billion of the IHS budget, but it could be a lot more.

Weaver could use his expertise to help tribes improve insurance for tribal members and employees — and that could boost funding for IHS. Private insurance is now only about $110 million of the agency’s revenue.

So what are the qualifications necessary to run the Indian health system? I have a bias. I have met some of the great physicians who ran the agency. I remember Emery Johnson’s passion and thoughtfulness about what IHS could be. I’d even argue that IHS has had remarkable leadership since its founding. So the standard, for me, at least, is quite high. There are also two Native women who have run state health agencies — an ideal background for managing the IHS. There is a lot of talent out there.

But the Trump administration likes the idea of shaking up government. And, appointing someone to run the IHS with a very different background, does just that. Perhaps Weaver brings a new way of thinking and managing. Then again we would do well to remember the latin phrase that medical doctors learn early in their training, Primum non nocere. It means: First, do no harm.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

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(Note: I use the phrase, Indian health system (lower case) unless I am specifically talking about the agency. My reason is that the narrative of a government-run health care agency, the Indian Health Service, doesn’t reflect what most of what the agency does now. The funding mechanism that supports tribes and non-profit health care agencies is the largest part of the system.)

 

Tax cuts? Hell. No. Thousands of American Indian and Alaska Native children will lose health insurance

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Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Congress has yet to reenact the Children’s Health Insurance Program and states will soon run out of funds to prop up the program. That will mean that thousands of American Indian and Alaska Native children will lose their health insurance. And, the result is the Indian Health Service will have to stretch its already thin dollars to try and cover the budget hole.

The Children’s Health Insurance Program expired Sept. 30. This federal program insures young people and pregnant women who make just enough money not to qualify for Medicaid (but can’t afford private insurance). The idea is to make sure that every child has the resources to see a doctor when they are ill.

It’s hard to break down precise numbers because agencies lump funds from the Children’s Health Insurance Program or CHIP into Medicaid data. But we do know that the law worked really well. We also know there are more than 216,000 children that have health insurance because of Medicaid and the CHIP. Indeed, Native American children rely on Medicaid and CHIP at much higher percentages than other population groups. A study by Georgetown reported that 54 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native children were enrolled in Medicaid or CHIP as compared to 39 percent of all children. “Even though much progress has been made in extending Medicaid coverage to American Indians and Alaska Natives, the uninsured rate for American Indian and Alaska Native children and families remain unacceptably high,” the report said.

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Source: Georgetown University Health Policy Institute. Coverage Trends for American Indian and Alaska Native Children and Families.

Overall the uninsured rate among non-elderly American Indians and Alaska Natives fell by 7 percentage points from 24 percent to 17 percent, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

This is a big deal and here’s why: The Indian Health Service is a health care delivery operation that works best when insurance (third-party billing in government-speak) pays for the medical costs. Medicaid, CHIP, Medicare, and other third-party billing now accounts for 22 percent of the IHS’ $6.15 billion budget.

But if Children’s health is no longer funded (because Congress did not reauthorize the legislation) then the Indian Health Service will have to make up the difference. That means taking money away from other patients and programs. It will be a critical problem for clinics because by law dollars from third-party billing (or Medicaid and CHIP) remain local.

Alaska is the state most impacted by Congress’ failure to act because two-thirds of the children in the Native health system are covered by Medicaid or CHIP. Other states where there will be significant hits: Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington, New Mexico, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and California.

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Source: Georgetown University Health Policy Institute

The House of Representatives passed a CHIP reauthorization in early November. But that bill included a $6.35 billion budget cut to other health programs, including the Prevention and Public Health Fund, which provides money for vaccines, smoking cessation, and other initiatives to improve public health. The House would also ban lottery winners from being insured by Medicaid, tighten the timetable for people to sign up, and to change other rules.

It’s unlikely the Senate will agree. But the Senate is not moving quickly to pass its own legislation. The Senate is too busy working out tax cuts that will benefit large corporations and the very wealthy. (Previous post: What matters? Tax fight is about seven competing values.)

Across the country, some nine million low- and middle-income children rely on CHIP for health coverage. And, according to The Hill newspaper, States have asked the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for funding to hold them over in the interim, and the agency has awarded about $607 million in redistributed funds to states and U.S. territories. Tribes will also lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in CHIP-related grants.

Last month, Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, who chairs the Senate committee responsible, called CHIP a “top priority” that had bipartisan support. The committee passed the bill October 2. But it’s up to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, to bring the legislation to the floor for enactment. Then the House and Senate would have to iron out and agree on their differences before the bill can become law.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

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What matters? Tax fight is about seven competing values #IndigenousNewsWire

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Original federal tax return in 1913.

Why Indian Country should have a voice in this debate

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

There is no better way for any legislature — be it a tribal council, a state assembly, or a Congress — to telegraph what’s most important to a society than through tax policy. How a government collects revenue says what constituent groups are seen to matter. And, conversely, what groups and issues are insignificant. And, that of course, is Indian Country.

As Adrian Sinclair wrote in Cronkite News: “Indian Country once again does not have a seat at the table.” Tribes “aren’t treated the same as state and local governments across the board on a whole series of issues,” John Dossett, general counsel for the National Congress of American Indians, said after the hearing. “Tribes are … either ignored or they’re an afterthought.” He said there are many cases where state governments have more power than tribal governments, like the federal Adoption Tax Credit, which gives a credit to parents who adopt a child with special needs. But the credit only applies when a state court, not a tribal court, rules that a child has special needs.

So Indian Country is a perfect illustration for my larger point: A country’s tax policy shows what it values. The key to this idea is simple when a nation wants more of something, then taxes it less. And, other hand, if a nation wants less of something? Tax it more.

All interest on debt was deductible when the first income tax was created in 1894. Why? Because Americans did not like to borrow. It was almost immoral. As a writer for Harper’s Weekly warned a man in debt “must smile on those he hates, he must extend his hand where he would strike, he must speak pleasantly with a curse in his throat … He wears dependence like a yoke.”

But Congress made debt a better deal. You could borrow money for that new farm, or especially a home, and the government would subsidize the loan by making it a tax deductible transaction. By the 1920s car loans were the bigger deal. Americans were borrowing, buying and deducting. Congress created a monster with that policy and today debt is one of America’s great loves. Then in 1986 Congress switched gears: Today individuals can only deduct mortgage interest. But even that single benefit was generous. You could buy a big house. A bigger house. A ginormous house. And deduct 100 percent of the interest up to the cost up to $1.1 million of debt. And that tax deal includes second homes.

So as a policy the Congress was telling we the people buy bigger houses. And go ahead, get that second house in the woods or on the lake.

That’s what tax reform is, setting parameters for what the elected leaders think important for a national policy. So, if it becomes law, this tax reform will change the way we consumers spend money. Perhaps we’ll buy and build smaller houses and rent a cabin on the lake instead of purchasing one. This might be a good outcome for all of us. This is actually a pro-climate policy (please don’t tell Congress.)

This same priority process is true for renewable energy. Congress created incentives for wind, solar and other renewable energy. But, now the Republican plan is to reverse course, and reward oil, gas, and especially coal. Tax policy will favor fossil fuel development and renewable energy will therefore cost more. But will companies still invest? Who knows? We do know the calculations will be way more complicated. And, did I mention, renewable energy will cost more.

Let’s consider the overarching messages, the narrative, that will form policy in the tax bill before the Senate and the one already passed by the House of Representatives.

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ONE: The bigger the corporation, the bigger the break

The tax bills paid by corporations are driving the legislation in both the House and the Senate. Republicans argue that if taxes are lower, companies will invest more in the United States (instead of other countries) and hire more people at higher wages.  This debate is complicated because the current tax code is full of loopholes (something that Republicans say will be fixed). But the bottom line is that U.S. companies have a higher tax rate than what other countries charge, but, and this is huge, the companies actually pay less in federal taxes than what other other countries charge.

As the Harvard Business Review says: “First and foremost, corporate taxes are important because they help pay for government services. While they don’t account for as much U.S. tax revenue as they once did, they remain one of the central ways the government raises funds. According to the Tax Policy Center, “The corporate income tax is the third largest source of federal revenue, after the individual income tax and payroll taxes.”

The House bill cuts the top rate that large corporations pay from 35 percent to 20 percent. It would be the largest one-time drop in the big-business tax rate ever. And it’s a permanent change (the individual rates expire after a decade) at least until there’s another tax bill.

Companies will also get more deductions for purchasing new equipment. And there is an incentive for companies to move their profits back to the United States from low-tax countries.

The Senate bill is evolving. It also rewards big business. But in order to reduce the cost of the entire package, it delays reducing the corporate rate until 2019. (Imagine every business in the country holding off on just about any new activity because the tax laws changed next year.)

The metaphor: Multinational corporations rule.

TWO: It’s tough being rich

The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof writes that it’s hard being a billionaire these days. “Why, some wealthy folks don’t even have a home in the Caribbean and on vacation are stuck brooding in hotel suites: They’re practically homeless! Fortunately President Trump and the Republicans are coming along with some desperately needed tax relief for billionaires.”

One way this works is be reducing the tax when someone inherits a wealthy estate. Both versions start this tax at $11 million. The House eliminates the so-called “death tax” in 2024 while the Senate keeps the tax but raises the exemption.

A second provision changes what’s called the Alternative Minimum Tax. The way that works is that after a tax return is completed, and there’s a whole slew of deductions, there is a calculation to see if that taxpayer should still pay something. The idea is to make sure that people earning more than $130,000 a year still pay an income tax, even if they find deductions in every corner. That goes away.

And there is one more goody for the rich. Charitable contributions can still be deducted.

The metaphor: Wealthy families so need our help. OMG.

THREE: Why work?

This part of the debate starts with the corporate tax rates. The Trump administration argues that cutting corporate taxes will benefit workers because companies will reward workers with better wages.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin claims that “many, many economic studies show that more than 70 percent of the burden of corporate taxes are passed on to the workers.”  However economists are divided. As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities points out “this claim is misleading … the evidence indicates that most of the benefits from a corporate rate cut would go to those at the top, with only a small share flowing to low- and moderate-income families.  Mainstream estimates conclude that more than one-third of the benefit of corporate rate cuts flows to the top 1 percent of Americans, and 70 percent flows to the top fifth. Corporate rate cuts could even hurt most Americans since they must eventually be paid for with other tax increases or spending cuts.”

The bottom line is that the tax bill will not make life easier for people earning under $75,000 a year. The income tax portion might go down (depending on family size, smaller in this case is better) but costs will go up for education and health care.

And, on top of that, this tax policy will sharply reduce federal spending across the board. Last week the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and the Native American Finance Officers Association (NAFOA) came out against both the House bill and the Senate Finance Committee bills in part because of this point. “NCAI and NAFOA view it as deeply regrettable that neither the House nor the Senate bill takes seriously Indian Country’s priorities for tax reform,” a news release said.  “With respect to tribal nations, unless tribal provisions are included, the current tax reform legislation amounts to little more than a $1.5 trillion increase in the federal deficit over the next ten years. This deficit increase will inevitably create pressure to cut federal programs and services that are extremely important to tribal communities. Deficit-financed tax cuts that lead to austerity budget cuts would affect all Americans, but would disproportionately impact American Indians and Alaska Natives who rely on federal funding of the trust responsibility as well as social programs.”

The metaphor: Workers don’t matter.

FOUR: Help mom and pop sell stuff

Most people who own a small business structure their entity as Limited Liability Corporations, S-Corps, or a partnership. This means that the income generated is reflected on the individual’s tax return. The House lowers the taxes on profits from 39.6 percent to 25 percent and has a 9 percent increase on the first $75,000. The Senate goes a different route with a new incentives for small business. This is “pass through income” because of the structure. And this part of reform really does solve a problem. Small business is critical — especially in Indian Country — but does not get the attention (or the breaks) that large corporations do.

Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Oklahoma, said last week, “As a former small business owner, I understand firsthand how burdensome the current tax code is on Main Street. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act delivers relief to mom-and-pop shops in our communities so that they can hire more individuals, grow their business, and invest more in our local economy.”

The metaphor: Small business is cool, too.

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FIVE: Elite colleges? Or is it, college only for the elite?

The House bill is an all-out attack on higher education. This is nonsense. Especially when the country needs to be competitive in a digital, knowledge-based world.

First up: Tax private universities’ endowments with a tax of 1.4 percent on portfolios that exceed $250,000 per full-time student. Only about a hundred schools would be affected, and it penalize colleges that have resources. Since those university operating costs will not go down, it’s not likely that this will result in more financial aid for students. The House also makes it impossible for tax-exempt bonds from private — and some public — institutions. This will make campus construction projects more expensive.

The House bill eliminates the deduction of interest for student loans. Americans now owe more than $1.4 trillion on student loans. It already is making it more difficult for young college graduates to buy homes, and transition into the middle class. This provision will be just one more thing. (And student loans are already stacked against the borrower. You can’t get rid of them in bankruptcy.) So instead of solving a problem, Congress is making it worse.

The House bill also repeals the Lifetime Learning Credit, eliminates the Coverdell savings accounts, but does expand the American Opportunity Credit.

The House bill would also classify tuition waivers as income (making a graduate student wealthy for tax purposes.) Imagine a “bump” in student’s income that is equal to tuition, some $30,000, $40,000 or even more. 

Laurie Arnold, Colville, director of Native American Studies and an Assistant Professor of History at Gonzaga University, remembers trying to explain this to Congress when she was in graduate school. “Many members of Congress had children enrolled in large/research universities, yet had no idea that graduate students teach the majority of introductory classes at those institutions. In general, the disconnect about this was broad, and many Members fell back on the language that not taxing the stipends was simply another tax break.”

Stipends are now taxed. And Congress is keen to add tuition waivers to the tax revenue pool. This will make it more difficult for people to pay for graduate school, and increase the debt levels for those who do. As a national policy this makes no sense. None.

As UCLA neuroscientist Astra Bryant told Wired magazine:  “I mentor two underprivileged undergraduate women, and my concern for them is that an increased tax burden would make it financially impossible for them to afford to pursue a PhD.”

And for Indian Country? There is already a shortage of graduate students and PhDs. Why should it be made more difficult?

The metaphor: College is stupid.

SIX: The growing gap between rich and poor

The gap between rich and poor is growing wider. “The wealthier you are, the more likely you are to benefit from the proposed tax changes. The poorer you are, the less likely you are to leave poverty,” writes Camille Busette for the Brookings Institute.

“Let me distill that: over one third of American households had trouble putting food on the table, putting a roof over their heads, or getting medical care; blacks and Hispanics are falling further behind whites in net wealth; and 99 percent of Americans hold a diminishing 76 percent share of income in the U.S. These are all alarming trends, but to have one-in-three consumers report that they cannot regularly put food on the table in the U.S., one of the wealthiest countries in the world, is the most deeply disturbing,” Busette writes. “Such a miserly budget, in combination with the tax reform plan, could mean the loss of some very important services for low-income and poor Americans.”

The tax reform measures will require massive budget cuts. Soon. Tribal governments will be hit hard. We already know how difficult sequestration was for tribes a few years ago. The kinds of cuts that will be needed to pay for these tax cuts will cost significantly more than sequestration.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities pegs these coming budget cuts at $5.8 trillion, $800 billion in cuts below sequestration levels.

The metaphor: You can’t afford to be poor.

SEVEN: Obamacare? Really? Again?

A serious question: Which house of Congress hates healthcare more?

The House kept the Affordable Care Act insurance mandates, but eliminates medical deductions. So a family that is dealing with a catastrophic, expensive medical event won’t be able to offset any of those costs from their tax bill. Already this provision is limited to higher income taxpayers. It’s only open to people who itemize their deductions, an estimated 8.8 million claimed it on their 2015 taxes, according to the IRS. But for those families that need this break, it’s a big deal.

Then the best thing Congress could do to help people with medical debt is to legislate another expansion of Medicaid. As Kaiser Health News reported: “A study from the Urban Institute may shed light on why Medicaid eligibility remains a pressing problem: medical debt. While personal debts related to health care are on the decline overall, they remain far higher in states that didn’t expand Medicaid. In some cases, struggles with medical debt can be all-consuming.”

The Senate is using tax reform to repeal parts of the Affordable Care Act. Again. The Senate would “save” money by ending the requirement to purchase insurance. It saves tax dollars because the government would not have to pay the subsidies for those who sign up under the plan (including those from Indian Country who get no cost plans under the exchanges).

And, repeating myself here, should a form of these bills become law there will be cuts across the board. The Indian Health Service (as well as Medicaid) will need to restructure because it will have so many fewer dollars.

The metaphor: Healthcare is only for those who can afford it.

 

A cold December

Congress wants to wrap up this debate before the end of the year and begin the provisions in the new tax year.

One more thing about values. The two tax bills define what’s important to a society. Alaska’s Sen. Lisa Murkowski was a champion on health care and was a key vote to stop the last Affordable Care Act repeal effort in the Senate. But this time there are competing values. She has also been a longtime supporter of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development. That’s in the bill. It’s her provision. So is she willing to give up on health care for more oil? And what about climate change? Murkowski was eloquent at the Alaska Federation of Natives saying that she is witnessing first-hand the impact in northern communities. This tax bill gives fossil fuels a boost — at the expense of the climate.

What’s really important? We are about to find out.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

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Here we go again: The congressional attack on health care, higher education #IndigenousNewsWire

Updated.

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Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Here we go again. The Congress is hell bent on wrecking the Affordable Care Act.

This time the mechanism is the so-called tax reform bill that will be voted in the U.S. Senate. The logic is rich (and, yes, “rich” is absolutely the right word and sentiment) because this tax cut will wreck the individual health insurance market so that the rich will pay less in taxes. But the problem gets at the core of insurance itself. How do you make sure there is a large enough pool to cover high cost patients? The Affordable Care Act did this by requiring everyone to buy health insurance or pay a penalty. Without that provision people who are healthy are free to skip out. But sick people always want coverage. And that creates an imbalance that does not work.

Senate Republicans added the provision because it saves money, some $338 billion according to the Congressional Budget Office. It estimates 13 million people will drop health insurance.

“We’re optimistic that inserting the individual mandate repeal would be helpful,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday.

The Senate bill is now being shaped into its final form. Wait. That’s funny. That’s what they say. But both the Senate and the House will change these tax bills all the way up until the final vote (unless it’s a sure thing, anyway). One of the reasons the bill will evolve is what’s called the Byrd Rule. This Senate is using the reconciliation process, like the Affordable Care Act repeal bills, so only 50 votes are required to pass. But that means the bill has limit of $1.5 trillion in new debt over 10 years and cannot add more after that. None of the bills, so far, accomplish that.

So the health care fight is back. And the Senate majority is confident this time they have the votes to pass the legislation.

There are other provisions in Senate tax bill that will impact American Indians and Alaska Natives.

One of the key ideas is to increase the size of the standard deduction so that fewer taxpayers will have to itemize. But to pay for that the simplicity the Senate bill is getting rid of some popular deductions, including the ability to deduct state and local taxes from your federal tax return. The bill also gets rid of deductions for dependents. The math works out so that families with fewer than three children will pay about the same. But if your family size is larger, then you will pay more. This is Indian Country. The average American family has 3.2 children, but in Indian Country it’s 4.2 children per family.

Update: The Joint Committee on Taxation released its findings on Thursday. Its research shows that taxes will increase for those earning less than $30,000 per year. And by a wide margin. The calculation is based, in part, on the current subsidy to purchase health insurance.

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And this is where it gets weird. The Senate bill does increase a tax credit, from $1,000 now to $1,650 per child. But, and this is huge, the additional $650 credit is only available to those who owe federal income taxes. It’s not refundable. This is important to people who are not rich because so many pay more in payroll taxes (Social Security, Medicare, etc.) than in income taxes.

Add it all up and the Senate bill would increase taxes on 13.8 million moderate income households. But, hey, at least the rich get a break, right?

The House of Representatives passed its version of tax reform Thursday by a vote of 227-205. No Democrats voted for the bill, while 13 Republicans opposed it.

The House bill is similar but takes a different tack on mortgages and the deduction of state and local taxes. The House would also eliminate the ability of families to deduct medical expenses. (Think about that when matched with the Senate’s plan to mess up health insurance.)

And the House bill really goes after university graduate students.

Many graduate students earn a small stipend for working on campus, doing research or teaching, and get a break on tuition. The stipend is already taxed. But the House would tax the tuition waiver, thousands of dollars. The average cost of graduate school is $30,000 a year at a public university and $40,000 at a private school. The Washington Post explains the problem this way: “Say you’re a married graduate student at Princeton. Your spouse has a full-time job and makes $50,000 a year; you have two school-age children. You’re filing a joint tax return. For sake of simplicity, you have no other deductions beyond the standard. According to H&R Block’s tax calculator, you would owe about $5,000 under the current law. Under the proposed Republican plan, you would owe about $15,000.”

The House bill also eliminates the deduction for interest on student loans and it eliminates tax credits for higher education.

This is terrible public policy. The digital age demands more education, not less, and the tax code should be in alignment. The House bill does the opposite. It will make higher education more expensive and less likely for too many people.

And just to make sure that higher education gets the message about what the country values, the House bill also would tax the larger university endowments, such as Harvard, Princeton, and even smaller colleges that have reserves of more than $250,000 per student.

But both the House and Senate do have one group in mind when writing this new tax code, business. The total “tax cuts” in the bill add up to $1.4 trillion over the next decade and of that amount, $1 trillion goes to businesses and corporations. It does this by reducing the corporate tax bracket from to 20 percent.

The other side of this tax debate is that it will reduce the amount of revenue that goes into the federal treasury. That means that soon after one of these measures passes, Congress will be required to look again at cutting spending.

Already the Congressional Budget Office estimates the tax bill will require $136 billion cuts from Medicare, Medicaid, and other entitlement programs. “Without enacting subsequent legislation to either offset that deficit increase, waive the recordation of the bill’s impact on the scorecard, or otherwise mitigate or eliminate the requirements of the [pay-go] law, OMB would be required to issue a sequestration order within 15 days of the end of the session of Congress to reduce spending in fiscal year 2018 by the resultant total of $136 billion,” CBO said Tuesday.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities pegs these coming budget cuts at $5.8 trillion. “These include $1.8 trillion in cuts in Medicaid, Medicare, and other health care entitlement programs and $800 billion in cuts below the already austere sequestration levels in ‘non-defense discretionary’ programs, the budget area that includes education and training, transportation, scientific and medical research, protection of the food and water supply, child care, low-income housing assistance, services for frail elderly people, and much more,” the center reports.

So we are just at the beginning of the debate. The conservative dream is to sharply cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy — and then to shrink government. The House and Senate tax bills do just that.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

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#NativeVote18 — A night of election firsts and a rejection of all things Trump

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Roxanne Murphy beat hate at the ballot box by winning nearly 80 percent of the vote in a race for Bellingham City Council. (Facebook photo)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

A year ago ballots from across the country were being examined by citizens, journalists, and politicians, who were all wondering, “What the hell just happened?” The nation woke up to a President-elect Donald J. Trump.

And this morning? The Trump brand is like an overpriced hotel where you would never, ever stay a second time.

Voters from Maine to Washington and all points in between rejected Trumpism. They voted for Democrats, flipping legislatures in Washington and possibly Virginia. They voted for Medicaid. Medicaid! They voted for higher wages. And there is a clear message to Congress (if members pay attention) that governing still matters.

It was a good night for Native American candidates, too.

In Washington, Roxanne Murphy, Nooksack, won a second term on the Bellingham City Council with nearly 80 percent of the vote. What’s striking is that she ran against the ugly words of an opponent who called on hate instead of discourse. Murphy wrote on Facebook: “Got through so much racism and misogyny during this run for office. But that was all worth it for me to defend our Bellingham community, the work of our current Bellingham City Council, to mutilate a deplorable person at the polls, get more people to vote the whole ballot, and it proved that love can win over hate. Thank you for RoxingTheVote!”

Several other Native candidates won office in Washington. Chris Roberts , City of Shoreline, Zachary DeWolf, Seattle School District,  and Candice Wilson, to the Ferndale School Board.

Washington voters also flipped the legislature from red to blue. The entire West Coast is now governed by Democrats.

Renee Van Nett, Leech Lake Ojibwe, won a seat on the Duluth, Minnesota, city council. She will be the first Native American woman on that body. She told the Duluth News Tribune that her victory was a credit to “traditional issues that people are worried about … they want someone who’s accessible, someone they can call and talk to, someone who will address their needs. They want economic development. They want to be heard.”

Across the country “diversity” was a theme from election night. The “first” is a phrase that seems odd in 21st century America. Yet the first African American Lt. Governor in New Jersey. Another in Virginia. (Hint: The first Native American woman to serve in that capacity should be be next up, Peggy Flanagan in Minnesota.)

The first Sikh mayor in Hoboken (who had to run against overt hate). The first immigrant from Liberia in Montana. The first openly lesbian mayor in Seattle. (Huffington Post has a list of many of the firsts.) The main take away: This was a rejection of the narrow world view of the Trump. The diversity that is the future of America, won. Bigly.

On the policy debate ahead, perhaps the most important vote came from Maine where voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of expanding Medicaid. Maine is one of 19 states whose Republican governors or legislatures have refused to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. This is an initiative — and a process — that could move to other states. “This will send a clear signal to where the rest of the country is on health care,” Jonathan Schleifer, executive director of the Fairness Project, told The Washington Post. This vote is important because it could tip the scales in states where the legislature says one thing and the people another. Alaska. Cough. Alaska. Put Medicaid expansion on the ballot: And it will win.

Elections, of course, are always snap shots. It’s dangerous to think this rout means more of the same a year from now. But the groundwork is there. And this election night will further divide many Republicans from Trump — as well as those who fund elections. There is now real evidence from the best poll of all that voters are not happy with the direction of Congress or the White House.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

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Hegemony is a fine word to describe the Trump era: Goal is to ransack the Earth

 

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A thermal image of Hurricane Maria captured by satellite on Sept. 20 at 2:12 a.m. EDT. The image showed very cold cloud top temperatures in the powerful thunderstorms in Maria’s eyewall. Maria’s eye was just east of the American Virgin Islands, and its northwestern quadrant stretched over Puerto Rico. (NASA photo)

A corrupted word, a corrupted government

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

 

Let’s play with a word and an idea. “Hegemony” means the dominance of one political group over all others. That, at this moment, is the Republican brand. President Donald J. Trump, a Republican Senate, a Republican House, and a conservative, if not Republican, court system that will judge the law and Constitution for years to come. Hegemony.

But that word has been corrupted. Once the Greek word, “hegemon,” meant to lead. But the root word “heg” in English later became to seek, or better, to “sack,” as in ransack.

So hegemony is a fine word to describe the Trump era. The goal is to ransack (instead of lead). Ransack the government. Or at least the idea of government.

There is no better example of hegemony than the debate about the climate. The Republican brand from top to bottom is bent on grabbing as much natural resource loot that can be carried away in short period of time.

Except this: Hegemony is an illusion. What seems like absolute power is not.

This should be easily evident from hurricanes, fires, and other growing climate threats. You would think this is the moment for a pause (at the very least). A time out to examine what’s going on around the world and then a consideration about what should be done.

But the Republican brand, including the people who manage federal Indian programs, are willfully hostile to facts.

The World Meteorological Organization reports that natural disasters have tripled in number and the damage caused by them have increased five-fold. “Today, there is scientific proof that climate change is largely responsible for the dramatic increase in the intensity and devastation caused by the hurricanes in the Caribbean and by many other phenomena around the world,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres after a tour of Dominica. That island, including the Kalinago Indian Territory, was hit with successive category five hurricanes. “I have never seen anywhere else in the world a forest completely decimated without one single leaf on any tree,” said Guterres, who flew by helicopter over some of the most affected areas, including Kalinago Territory.

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Two hurricanes destroyed much of Dominica. (United Nations photo)

And Puerto Rico still waits for clean water, sanitation, electricity, and basic infrastructure more than a month after its storms. Yet President Trump told reporters Thursday: “I’d say it was a 10” as he described the federal government’s response. “I’d say it was probably the most difficult when you talk about relief, when you talk about search, when you talk about all of the different levels, and even when you talk about lives saved. You look at the number. I mean, this was — I think it was worse than Katrina.”

The governor of Puerto Rico has a different take. “Recognizing that we’re in this together – US citizens in Texas, US citizens in Florida, US citizens in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands – we need equal treatment,” said Gov. Ricardo Rossello. “We need all the resources so we can get out of the emergency and of course the resources to rebuild.”

We know, yes, know, that climate change will leave parts of the earth uninhabitable (as we have already seen in tribal communities in Alaska, Washington and Louisiana.) How many times can you rebuild when storm after storm wipes out the life you know? How do we as a country, as a species, decide when we can no longer rebuild or stay? I’ve been thinking a lot about the Iranian city of Ahvaz where temperatures last summer reached 129 degrees. When will it become too hot, 130? 132? What’s the number that we just hit before we leave?

Who will be the next climate refugees?

Already in Puerto Rico that demographic transformation is occurring. “It could potentially be a very large migration to the continental United States,” said Maria Cristina Garcia, a Cornell University historian, immigration expert, and author on large-scale population shifts, which includes a forthcoming book on climate refugees in Scientific American. “Whether that migration will be permanent or temporary is still anyone’s guess. Much depends on the relief package that Congress negotiates.”

Puerto Rico has 3.4 million residents. Think of the magnitude of so many people, half a million or more, moving to Florida, Texas or any other state. Only then will the fecklessness of Congress be clear.

So much of the debate now only focuses on the “relocation.” But Indian Country (that’s had too many experiences with forced relocation) knows that’s only the beginning of the governmental and social costs. There will be costs ranging from demands for behavioral health to increased joblessness and poverty. The fact of hundreds of thousands of American refugees should be seen as a dangerous crisis worthy of our immediate attention.

Right now we don’t even think of Californians as climate refugees, but we should. At least 100,000 people were evacuated and nearly 6,000 homes and buildings were destroyed. And this number will grow and it ought to raise more questions about where humans can and should live.

“An increasing body of research finds that the hot and dry conditions that created the California drought were brought on in part by human-caused warming,” writes Georgina Gustin in Inside Climate News.  “Higher temperatures pull moisture out of soil and vegetation, leaving parched landscapes that can go up in flames with the slightest spark from a downed utility wire, backfiring car or embers from a campfire.

California’s average temperature has risen about 2 degrees Fahrenheit during the second half of the 20th century. Altogether this has led to more “fuel aridity” — drier tree canopies, grasses and brush that can burn.”

Gustin writes that research from the Pacific Northwest National Labs and Utah State University projects more extreme drought and extreme flooding. “If global carbon emissions continue at a high level, extreme dry periods will double, the study finds—going from about five extreme dry “events” during the decade of the 1930s, to about 10 per decade by the 2070s.  Extreme wet periods will increase from about 4 to about 15 over the same periods, roughly tripling.”

Again, raising the question of where people can be? Think of the tension about immigration now — and multiply that by a factor of ten or a hundred to get a sense of the scale ahead.

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The failure of coal

There is another dimension to hegemony — or the lack of that in the federal government. Cities, states, tribes, corporations, and individuals, are ignoring the ransacking of the climate and moving forward with a global community focused on solutions. Markets are exercising power, too.

One example of that is the Trump administration’s failure to revive the coal industry. This was one of Donald J. Trump’s main campaign promises. The chief executive of a private coal company, Robert Murray, sums up the illogic. Just a week ago he said on the PBS’ News Hour: “We do not have a climate change problem” and 4,000 scientists told him that “mankind is not affecting climate change.” Murray’s former lobbyist has been nominated as the deputy director of the Environmental Protection Administration. Already the EPA has proposed rolling back the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan. But the new coal regulations (or more likely, non-regulations) will still be challenged through the regulatory process and in court.

And its the markets for coal that are dictating the terms of surrender. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports coal consumption picked up after President Trump’s election but has started to decline again. “The recent decline in production was a result of weaker demand for steam coal, about half of which is mined in Wyoming and Montana. Production of metallurgical coal, which is used in steel manufacturing and makes up about 8% of total U.S. coal production, increased for the third consecutive quarter,” the EIA reported. “Demand for steam coal, which in the first half of 2017 made up more than 90% of U.S. coal production, is driven by coal-fired electricity generation. In recent years, coal has lost part of its electricity generation share to other fuels, but it still accounted for 30% of the U.S. electricity generation mix in the first half of 2017 compared with natural gas and renewables (including hydro) at 31% and 20%, respectively.”

And the jobs that were promised? There are now under 60,000 people employed nationwide by the coal industry. And about a thousand jobs, at most, were created since Trump took office. By comparison during that same time frame one of the fastest growing jobs, wind turbine service technician, created 4,800 new jobs at an average salary of $52,260. But the big numbers are in health care (where we should be growing jobs) an industry that created 384,000 new jobs as home health aides in the last year.

Hegemony? No.

But Congress acts as if it has all the power over nature. The budget the Senate just passed would open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development. Instead of a pause, and a rethink of climate policies, there is a hurry up and drill mentality. (Even if you love oil: Why now? Why not wait until it’s worth something? The answer is because it will never again be that valuable. The era of extraction is over.)

Sen. Lisa Murkowski is an interesting position. She’s fought hard for Medicaid and for the Alaska Native medical system. She deserves credit for that. But the budget she now champions could undo all of that work because the generous tax cuts will have to be eventually paid for by cutting from social programs, especially Medicaid. And what will the new costs be for more development in the Arctic in terms of subsistence hunting and fishing, potential relocation, higher health costs, and increased strain on the environment?

A group of elders from the Bering Sea recently published a report on their Ecosystem and Climate Change. “The cold, rich waters of the northern Bering Sea and Bering Strait form the foundation of culture, food security, and economy for coastal Yupik and Inupiaq peoples, who have relied on the abundant marine resources of this region for thousands of years,” the report said. “But this unique ecosystem is vulnerable to ecological transformation and uncertainty due to climate change … climate warming is leading to change in seasonal ice, altering the abundance, timing,  and distribution of important species. The loss of sea ice is in turn causing a dramatic increase in ship traffic through these highly sensitive and important areas.”

How do we change course? How do get a pause? One way is to wait until it’s too late.

In Dominica there is a forced rethinking that followed the hurricanes. Roosevelt Skerrit, the country’s prime minister,  recently put it this way: “Our devastation is so complete that our recovery has to be total. And so we have a unique opportunity to be an example to the world, an example of how an entire nation rebounds from disaster and how an entire nation can be climate resilient for the future. We did not choose this opportunity. We did not wish it. Having had it thrust upon us, we have chosen actively and decisively to be that example to the world.”

A shining example, yes, but at a cost that has been extraordinary and painful. The price of hegemony.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please do so. Just credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com #IndigenousNewsWire #NativeVote18

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** Updated to reflect Senate passing a budget.

Health care chaos continues as Trump administration ends insurance payments

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President Donald J. Trump announces executive orders that will end a subsidy for health insurance purchases and allow people to buy less expensive plans that cover fewer medical issues. (White House photo)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

The chaos that is now Trump Care continues.

First, Congress tried to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act by rolling back that law plus the decades long public health insurance known as Medicaid. That effort failed in the Senate. Twice. And Congress hasn’t given up. There are all sorts of proposals floating that would try yet again through the budget or another mechanism.

Meanwhile the Trump administration is trying to unravel the Affordable Care Act using administrative authority. And, in the process, guaranteeing a network of insurance chaos. The President signed an executive order that eliminates payments to insurance companies to subsidize the cost of health insurance for families that cannot afford the full cost. Insurance companies will likely increase health insurance premiums — and by a lot — or get out of the individual health insurance market all together.

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This policy change impacts American Indians and Alaska Natives who get their health insurance through the exchanges. Under the Affordable Care Act, many tribal members and Alaska Native shareholders quality for a “bronze plan” from exchanges at no cost. A silver plan could also have been purchased, depending on income, using subsidized rates.

The Kaiser Family Foundation figures that insurers will need to raise silver premiums between 15 and 21 percent on average to compensate for the loss of the subsidy payments.

It’s interesting: Ending the subsidy will cost consumers more in states that have not expanded Medicaid (such as Oklahoma) since there are a large number of marketplace enrollees in those states with incomes at 100-138 percent of poverty who qualify for the largest cost-sharing reductions.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the total payments were $7 billion in fiscal year 2017 and would rise to $10 billion in 2018 and $16 billion by 2027. The House of Representatives sued the Obama Administration to try and stop these insurance subsidies arguing that Congress never appropriated the money.

The CBO also said that ending the insurance subsidies will increase federal deficits by $6 billion in 2018, $21 billion in 2020, and $26 billion in 2026.

A second administrative order will change the way insurance companies write policies. The Affordable Care Act set out standards so that basic health care issues, including women’s reproductive health, would be covered. But the new rules will make it easier for people to buy limited policies that cost less, but cover fewer medical issues.

“Congressional Democrats broke the American healthcare system by forcing the Obamacare nightmare onto the American people. And it has been a nightmare,” the president said. “You look at what’s happening with the premiums and the increases of 100 percent and 120 percent, and even in one case, Alaska, over 200 percent. And now, every congressional Democrat has blocked the effort to save Americans from Obamacare, along with a very small, frankly, handful of Republicans — three. And we’re going to take care of that also because I believe we have the votes to do block grants at a little bit later time, and we’ll be able to do that.”

But the actions by the administration will only lower the cost of health insurance for one group of Americans, young, healthy ones. Insurance costs for nearly every other plan will sharply increase because of these actions. And especially at risk: Patients who are facing expensive medical treatments such as cancer.

Earlier in the week, the administration also rolled back Affordable Care Act coverage requirements for access to birth control. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation: “These new policies, effective immediately, also apply to private institutions of higher education that issue student health plans. The immediate impact of these regulations on the number of women who are eligible for contraceptive coverage is unknown, but the new regulations open the door for many more employers to withhold contraceptive coverage from their plans.”

The actions of the Trump administration mean two things: There will be chaos in the insurance markets as companies and individuals rebalance the value of those policies; and there will be litigation ahead because every one of these policy shifts will be challenged in court.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please do so. Just credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com #IndigenousNewsWire #NativeVote18

ICYMI: My first audio election special is on iTunes or Soundcloud. Download here.