NEWS DAY | Overloading MinnesotaCare / Subverting health care reform / Atrazine warning / Afghan election, U.S. deaths

Overloading MinnesotaCare The failing economy has dumped thousands of people into MinnesotaCare as they lose other heatlh care insurance. The system has been so overloaded, reports the Star Tribune that some applications are taking two or three months for processing. Since approval is not retroactive, that means people are left without any insurance coverage during processing.

The crush of applicants has doubled the time required to process applications, to eight weeks, and phone lines are often jammed because the agency that manages the program now answers the phone only between 12:30 and 4 p.m. so workers can spend more time on the paperwork backlog.

MinnesotaCare is available only to people who are MN residents, are uninsured and cannot get health insurance through their employer with at least half the premium paid by the employer. In addition, the appicant must meet income and asset restrictions.

A Minnesota 2020 commentator tells the story of her return from Australia to Minnesota and the obstacles she and her husband faced in trying to get health insurance — any health insurance. “We wanted to sign up for a basic plan we could extend on a monthly basis until we could find employment with health insurance benefits,” she explains. “When all twelve providers responded with a resounding ‘No!’ I realized we would need to find a more permanent health care plan.”

Subverting reform Health insurance companies will get a big pay-off under health care “reform” proposals that offer subsidies to help people “afford” insurance. The Los Angeles Times reports on the sweet deal that Big Insurance struck (hat tip to Eric Black at MinnPost). According to the LA Times, insurance companies are “poised to reap a financial windfall” under the leading plans, all of which “would guarantee insurers tens of millions of new customers — many of whom would get government subsidies to help pay the companies’ premiums.”

Health insurance companies both financed and urged employees to participate in this summer’s vitriolic attacks on the “public option,” which would establish a lower-cost alternative to their high-profit plans. (See previous posts for references to high and rising profit margins for health insurance companies (UnitedHealth profits up 155%), and the 30% administrative cost of private health insurance versus 4% administrative cost for Medicare.)

But wait — there’s more, reports the L.A. Times:

In May, the Senate Finance Committee discussed requiring that insurers reimburse at least 76% of policyholders’ medical costs under their most affordable plans. Now the committee is considering setting that rate as low as 65%, meaning insurers would be required to cover just about two-thirds of patients’ healthcare bills. … Most group health plans cover 80% to 90% or more of a policyholder’s medical bills, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service. …

“They have beaten us six ways to Sunday,” said Gerald Shea of the AFL-CIO. “Any time we want to make a small change to provide cost relief, they find a way to make it more profitable.”

Atrazine warning A new National Resources Defense Council report finds that federal and state monitoring and reporting of atrazine levels in surface water and ground water are inadequate, and that atrazine levels frequently exceed federal safety standards. According to NRDC, short-term, high-level exposure to excess atrazine levels is dangerous, but federal standards are based on a yearly average rather than the high levels that occur in early summer after atrazine is applied to fields. Moreover:

Because the monitoring program was not designed to account for the timing of runoff in response to weather events or application, the EPA’s watershed monitoring program probably underestimates peak exposures.

According to MPR:

Paul Wotzka is a hydrologist who has studied water quality in southeastern Minnesota for years. He says animal tests show atrazine in small amounts can cause birth defects.

“If you were pregnant mother, drinking water in June and you had these high spikes of atrazine in your water, you would want to know about them,” he said.

Wotzka says private wells are rarely tested, and public drinking water supplies are only tested once a year.

The NRDC recommends banning atrazine, and says other methods for weed control are already available. Atrazine has already been banned in European Union countries.

Only one Minnesota watershed, the North Fork Whitewater River watershed near Rochester, was monitored. EPA monitoring in 2005-2006 showed an average atrazine concentration of 0.47 ppb and a maximum concentration of 15 ppb in this watershed. The maximum allowable concentration under EPA guidelines is 3 ppb as a yearly average, although NRDC warns that:

The adverse reproductive effects of atrazine have been seen in amphibians, mammals, and humans-even at low levels of exposure. Concentrations as low as 0.1 ppb have been shown to alter the development of sex characteristics in male frogs. When exposure coincides with the development of the brain and reproductive organs, that timing may be even more critical than the dose.

War Reports

Afghanistan As the war drags on, more voices question whether the U.S. should be in Afghanistan at all. Bob Herbert criticized the war in his column, noting the reluctance of Afghan troops to fight, and the war dragging on year after year after nine bloody years.

If we had a draft — or merely the threat of a draft — we would not be in Iraq or Afghanistan. But we don’t have a draft so it’s safe for most of the nation to be mindless about waging war. Other people’s children are going to the slaughter. …

Well, if this war, now approaching its ninth year, is so fundamental, we should all be pitching in. We shouldn’t be leaving the entire monumental burden to a tiny portion of the population, sending them into combat again, and again, and again, and again …

The deaths of four more U.S. service members yesterday raised the death toll for foreign soldiers to 295 since January, according to the New York Times, making this the deadliest year to date. Twelve foreign soldiers died in the first year of the war (2001) with the numbers rising steadily to 294 in 2008, a number now surpassed. The number of U.S. deaths already stands at 172 this year, up from last year’s high of 155.

Early results of Afghan elections were released today, with 10% of the votes counted, showing President Hamid Karzai with about 40% of the vote and challenger Abdullah Abdullah with about 40%, with the remaining 20% split among the other 29 candidates. On Monday, a cabinet minister said that President Hamid Karzai had won 68 percent of the vote, a figure so large as to cast doubt on the entire election, according to the Washington Post. The Post said Karzai was expected to win a bare majority, and that Abdullah had been expected to win 25%. Election monitors report widespread fraud.

“In Baraki Barak District, only about 500 people were able to vote out of 43,000 registered voters. In Harwar District, nobody at all was able to vote out of 15,000 registered voters. Yet the ballot boxes from these places came to Kabul full,” alleged Faizullah Mojadedi, a legislator from Taliban-plagued Logar province. “The fact that people were afraid to vote became a big excuse for those who wanted to take advantage of it.”

The final results will not be in until all the votes are counted, some time in September.

Iraq At least 11 people were killed and more wounded in two bus bombings yesterday near the usually quiet southern town of Kut, reports Reuters.

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