What If We Just Gave Renters Money?

Originally published in The Atlantic on October 20, 2021.
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In an obscure but public meeting last week, local and federal housing officials discussed a controversial idea that could transform U.S housing policy: What if the government gave money directly to renters, rather than relying on a complicated voucher system that drives both tenants and landlords up the wall? You’ve heard of universal basic income. What about universal basic rent?

The status quo is not working particularly well. More than half a million Americans experience homelessness on any given night, housing stock is in too-short supply, and rent and mortgage payments consistently rank among the heftiest bills families have to bear. For decades, most federal housing assistance has come in the form of a voucher program known as Section 8. But the program is cumbersome and bureaucratic. Landlords are often reluctant to jump through the government’s regulatory hoops to get the money, so they opt out. Because of funding constraints, only a quarter of those eligible for vouchers even get one, and those lucky few often must scour dozens of ads before finding even one unit that might accept the subsidy.

President Joe Biden promised during his campaign to make these vouchers available to all low-income families who qualify, and Congress is debating a measure as part of his economic package that would add roughly 750,000 more vouchers to the program. If it becomes law, that expansion would surely help some Americans find homes. But it wouldn’t solve the underlying problem: Most landlords don’t want to rent to voucher recipients.

The coronavirus pandemic showed the viability of an alternative path—one that officials in Biden’s administration now seem willing to at least discuss. Congress tried a lot of things to help people struggling with the economic fallout from COVID-19. One initiative, a government-administered eviction-prevention program, has been mired in paperwork and delays, and only one-fifth of the money the feds allotted to it has been distributed. Another program, in which the IRS simply mailed Americans stimulus checks, got money in people’s hands right away.

These recent experiences might inform federal leaders as they research new ways to improve housing assistance. Last Thursday, at a public meeting organized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, policy experts and housing-authority officials considered new voucher-program ideas that could merit formal study. Making vouchers more like cash for renters, as opposed to subsidies for landlords, was one of the top three ideas that emerged from the meeting, and it will be explored further at a second gathering later this month. The leading proposals could be tested under a HUD program known as Moving to Work, which has been around since 1996 but was expanded by Congress in 2016.

Distributing rental subsidies as cash was the second-most-popular idea discussed at the meeting, and participants acknowledged that it could involve a cost-saving element, too, as it would reduce, or even eliminate, the need for regular HUD inspections of voucher-eligible housing. At the conclusion of the three-hour session, committee members voted to continue their discussion of the idea at their next scheduled meeting, on October 28.

“I think it’s interesting in light of [universal basic income], and I think it would be interesting to decouple the government from trying to figure out the right type and size and quality of housing and leave that up to people,” Chris Lamberty, the executive director of Lincoln Housing Authority, in Nebraska, said at the meeting.

A couple of hours into the virtual call, Todd Richardson, the head of HUD’s research arm, noted that meeting participants seemed relatively excited about the cash-assistance idea. He warned, though, that it might not “pass muster” with the agency’s legal department. Asked for clarification as to what the legal concerns may be, a HUD spokesperson told The Atlantic that the public meeting posted on the Federal Register was not “intended for press” and “I don’t think we had put an invitation to the press.”

Moving to Work isn’t the only vehicle policy makers could use to test the idea of distributing cash-based rental assistance to tenants. Congress could also authorize a pilot study, like it did in 2019when lawmakers approved a new voucher program to help families relocate to richer neighborhoods.

And in Philadelphia, starting early next year, a new study will explore how families fare when they receive rental assistance as cash. “There’s never been a full evaluation of using cash to renters for our tenant-based vouchers,” Vincent Reina, one of the University of Pennsylvania researchers who will assess the program, told me. “There’s been some explorations, but a true, proper evaluation is something that we’ve never really done.” Reina attributes the lack of study to political resistance. “Cash transfers are often more contentious,” he said.

The closest thing to a real test of the idea occurred in the 1970s, when Congress authorized the Experimental Housing Allowance Program. That program, which ran for longer than a decade in a dozen U.S. cities, provided cash assistance for housing directly to more than 14,000 low-income families. In a report filed to Congress in 1976, program evaluators noted that housing allowances were being well-received by their local communities and that the housing payments were being successfully administered to renters.

It’s clear that at least some current HUD staff are considering this old research. In 2017, Richardson published a blog post suggesting that the 1970s housing-allowance experiment could inform the Moving to Work program today.

Public-housing authorities might resist the idea, as it could require them to relinquish some control. Other authorities might lack trust that the funds would go toward rent. The findings from the Experimental Housing Allowance Program also suggested that cash subsidies could lead to lower-quality housing options for renters, though experts caution against drawing firm conclusions from the half-century-old study.

Studying the idea of cash rental assistance has great potential, Phil Garboden, a professor of affordable-housing economics, policy, and planning at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, told me. “I imagine vouchers will continue to exist in their current form for quite some time, but studying it is a terrific idea,” he said. “We absolutely do not have good data on it.” Garboden hopes researchers could tease out whether landlords avoid taking the vouchers mainly because they don’t like to deal with the red tape involved, or whether they’re simply resistant to renting to poor people.

Some renters might prefer the voucher status quo, but for others, cash could prove easier to use. Being able to pay for housing with cash or some dedicated housing subsidy might alleviate some of the administrative hassle that comes with navigating the U.S. welfare system—what the Atlantic writer Annie Lowrey coined “the time tax” earlier this year.

“Different forms of support work differently for different people, and a voucher could be a really effective mechanism for some households and some markets and less effective for others,” Reina told me. “It’s not to say vouchers can’t work, or can’t be improved, or shouldn’t be made universal, but we know through our existing voucher research that elderly households, households with kids, and households where the head is Black are less likely to use vouchers.”

Stefanie DeLuca, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins who was in attendance at Thursday’s meeting, told me that distributing housing assistance as cash could feel dignifying for some tenants. “The research on the Earned Income Tax Credit points to the idea that recipients experienced a sense of agency and dignity when they received a lump sum of money, and I suspect that renters being able to present themselves to landlords as paying like any other potential tenant could feel quite empowering,” she said.

Still, DeLuca’s own research suggests that the existing housing-voucher program could be improved in real ways to entice more landlords to participate, even in competitive markets. Researchers have been studying landlord signing bonuses and ways to get landlords their money faster. Even COVID-19 has helped hasten the digital streamlining of HUD contracts, making them less annoying to manage.

new bipartisan bill introduced in May by Senators Chris Coons and Kevin Cramer would seek to remove red tape for Section 8 landlords. HUD is also beginning a new, major study of landlord incentives as part of its Moving to Work expansion.

And to be sure, one reason lawmakers have long resisted cash transfers is fear of political blowback. Over the years, Republican and Democratic politicians have embraced the myth that welfare rewards laziness, and that cash benefits in particular will spark public outrage.

But as we emerge from the pandemic, it’s clear that cash assistance to Americans is more politically viable—even more popular—than many in Washington previously thought. The U.S. government has also proved that it can cut checks quickly when it deems it necessary. In fact, distributing money can be easier than administering a byzantine social-insurance program that eligible participants may not even know about. If landlords continue to resist housing vouchers, perhaps the government will take that decision out of their hands and simply give renters cash.

Legislators Push to Make Phone Calls in New York’s Jails and Prisons Free

Originally published in New York Focus on October 14, 2021
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Vivett Dukes made a point to talk by phone with her husband John at least once every day while he was in prison at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison about 30 miles north of New York City. “The goal was once in the morning, and once whenever else if we could,” she recalled. “I felt very alone with this. There aren’t a lot of safe places to talk about the true impact of incarceration on family connection and how it really tries to rip up love.”

Asked about the cost of the calls, Dukes began to cry. “It was very expensive,” she said amid tears. At times I didn’t eat lunch, or I denied myself other things. The fees that I incurred were enough for me to take a second job.” Dukes said she tried to budget at least $200 a month.

A new legislative effort in New York aims to address the exorbitant costs of communicating with incarcerated people, costs that bear heavily on family members and particularly low-income women and people of color. The yet-to-be introduced legislation would aim to make not just phone calls but also email and video conferencing free, modeled off a bill Connecticut enacted earlier this year, the first state in the country to do so.

People incarcerated in New York pay some of the steepest rates for phone calls in the country. A 2019 report by the Prison Policy Initiative, a national criminal justice reform group, found that New York had the 7th highest average cost for an in-state jail call in the nation.

How much New Yorkers pay depends on where they’re incarcerated. In 2007, the state passed legislation to drive down the cost of calls in state prisons, and in 2019, New York City became the nation’s first major city to assume paying the costs of jail calls. But neither action affected local jails in the 57 counties outside of New York City, where the average cost of calls in 2019 was $8.83—50 percent higher than the national average. In some jails, costs run as high as $9.95 for a 15-minute conversation.

Most of this money is collected by the counties, which negotiate lucrative kickbacks in contracts with phone providers. Just under two-thirds of revenue from the average jail call goes into counties’ coffers, according to research published this year by the Prison Policy Initiative. In 22 counties, that figure stood at at least 80 percent.

State Assembly Member Harvey Epstein (D-Manhattan), who is leading the charge in his chamber to make calls free, told New York Focus that he expects towns and counties will resist efforts to end these kickbacks. “Whenever states do things that have fiscal impacts, there is always pushback by municipalities,” he said. “They’ll say we’re doing an ‘unfunded mandate.’ That’s just going to be a fight we expect to have.”

Bianca Tylek, the executive director of Worth Rises, a national group focused on profiteering in prisons, says she anticipates sheriffs mounting some opposition as well. In Massachusetts, where similar efforts to make calls free and eliminate commissions are underway, sheriffs have warned that such measures could result in fewer prison programs and less safe communities.

New York Focus reached out to county executives and sheriffs in eight counties, each of which clawback a majority of call revenue—Albany, Erie, Cattaraugus, Cortland, Delaware, Monroe, Ontario, and Saratoga. Most did not return request for comment.

But Theordore Kusineirz Jr., the chair of the Board of Supervisors in Saratoga County, which takes 80 percent of jail call revenue, told New York Focus that he opposes the idea of making the communications free for the incarcerated. “The hard-working, taxpaying, law-abiding residents of Saratoga County should not have to cover the cost of phone calls for those who wish to disregard the rules of society,” he said.

Spokespeople for the county executives in Erie and Albany referred questions to their counties’ sheriffs, who, like the other sheriffs contacted for this article, did not respond to requests for comment. The New York State Sheriffs’ Association also did not return a request for comment.

All Eyes on the State Budget

For the last few years, advocates and lawmakers have debated whether to push legislation to make phone calls free throughout jails and prisons or just in state prisons, which could be an easier fight politically. Epstein introduced several bills of varying scope last year, none of which received a committee vote.

This year, the coalition—which includes Epstein, State Senator Jamaal Bailey, and the advocacy organizations Worth Rises, Color of Change, and the Fines and Fees Justice Center—have decided to move forward with one comprehensive bill to make all prison and jail calls free.

With promising state revenue projections, Epstein is hopeful that this bill will find greater success in 2022. “The bill cost money and last year with Covid was a difficult fiscal year,” he said. “This year we’re in a better position to move it forward.”

The coalition plans to press Governor Kathy Hochul to include the idea in her executive budget proposal, due to be released in January, and then to pass a bill based on the budget during the next legislative session, which runs from January until June. Epstein says his office is still working on crunching the numbers for his proposal.

The governor has promised to give the idea a hearing. “Governor Hochul is committed to improving justice and safety in jails, and we will review the legislation,” spokesperson Hazel Crampton-Hayes told New York Focus.

Some advocates, including Tylek, have raised concerns that Mike Keogh, the husband of Hochul’s new secretary, Karen Keogh, works for Bolton-St. Johns, a top lobbying firm in Albany that represents Securus, the prison telecom company that covers state prisons and New York City jails.

Securus initially lobbied against efforts to make prison phone calls free in Connecticut, but under pressure from Worth Rises and the private equity firm that owns Securus, the company later announced it would stand down. This year, Securus spokesperson Jade Trombetta told New York Focus that “we have not and will not” lobby against any similar legislation in New York, adding that it is their company policy “to work with any funding model that allows us to provide quality services to the incarcerated and maintain the security technology needed to protect public safety.”

Melissa DeRosa, the former secretary of Governor Andrew Cuomo, also had ties to Bolton-St. Johns. DeRosa’s father was a top partner at the firm, and while the Cuomo administration insisted DeRosa recused herself from anything related to her father’s business, lobbying reports showed the company continued to have access to Cuomo’s inner circle, even when the governor was under investigation.

Rob Galbraith, a research analyst at LittleSis, a corporate watchdog group, told New York Focus that such conflicts of interests were routinely dismissed in Albany for years — which is why paying attention to ties between new executive branch officials and lobbying firms matters now. “The stock response under Cuomo was that it’s misogynistic to even pose the question,” Galbraith said. “But Kathy Hochul has a new mandate for transparency.”

Trombetta, the Securus spokesperson, said Mike Keogh has not worked with them directly. Crampton-Hays said that “recusals have been put in place to ensure that any New York State business relating to the Secretary’s spouse is delegated.”

GTL, another prominent prison telecoms company, covers about 85 percent of jails outside of New York City. GTL spokesperson Natasha Fleury did not say whether her company would support or oppose the legislative push in New York, but said it is “constantly evaluating ways to drive down rates across the country” and noted that it currently provides free phone services in San Francisco county jails. (Last year, San Francisco officials announced that rather than requiring families to pay for calls, the city will pay GTL a fixed monthly rate per phone device.)

As advocates, telecom companies, and government officials hash out the legislation, incarcerated people and their families will continue to foot the bill.

Laron Rogers, who has been incarcerated in New York for nearly a quarter-century, said that legislation to make prison calls free would particularly help incarcerated people communicate with children and the elderly.

“I know some guys [in prison] who have children [but] might not have a relationship with the child’s mother, or the child might live with someone who won’t put money on the phone account, so then it’s almost impossible for them to talk to their kids,” Rogers, who is currently at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, said. “And, you know, my uncle—he puts money on my grandmother’s line, because she doesn’t like the internet, she doesn’t like giving out her personal information. If you have elderly people, that’s a real barrier.”

Vivett said that free prison phone calls would have made a world of difference for her.

“I was so stressed I would miss a call from [my husband]. My blood pressure was up, my anxiety,” she said. “I would sleep with the phone, just every minute, holding it like life support.”

In The Fight for Reproductive Rights, Don’t Forget the Medicaid Gap

Originally published in The Intercept on October 1, 2021.
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IN ONE OF the grimmest periods ever for reproductive rights, advocates are scrambling to react to a spate of new restrictions on abortion. The Biden Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Texas in the wake of S.B. 8, the state’s new law that invites private citizens to enforce abortion bans through civil litigation. House Democrats passed the Women’s Health Protection Act, a bill that would protect abortion providers and remove barriers for patients. And some advocates see hope in medication abortion, a combination of two drugs — mifepristone and misoprostol — which people can take to safely end pregnancies.

But many states still restrict where providers can mail drugs, and most groups still only service states with relatively friendly abortion laws. Last week, a Republican state representative in Florida introduced a bill that mirrors S.B. 8, and lawmakers in other GOP-controlled states have signaled interest in following suit. The U.S. Supreme Court has refused thus far to block Texas’s notorious statute, and the Women’s Health Protection Act stands little chance of passage in the Senate.

As long as the Senate filibuster remains in place, and the U.S. Supreme Court maintains its anti-abortion majority, advocates in the South say there’s little that Washington can really do to aid their plight. There is one crucial method, though, which often falls off the radar: Medicaid expansion.

“What people have forgotten is [in] this entire swath of the southeast, from Texas and Georgia and Florida, we never got Medicaid expansion, so there’s a lot of people, especially people capable of becoming pregnant, unable to access any sort of insurance,” said Robin Marty, a journalist, activist, and head of operations for West Alabama Women’s Center, an independent abortion clinic in Tuscaloosa. “We need national organizations to remember that we’re still five steps behind. While they’re trying to get new medication abortion programs standing, we’d like to even use the [Affordable Care Act] birth control mandate.”

As Congress considers proposals to include in the upcoming reconciliation bill — a $3.5 trillion social spending package that Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., are threatening to derail — Democrats are weighing at least two measures that would expand Medicaid access in the 12 states that have refused. One pathway, led by Democratic Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff of Georgia and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, would create a program that’s like Medicaid but administered by the federal government rather than by individual states. Their proposal would require the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to offer coverage to those eligible in the 12 holdout states. Texas Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett also has a bill that would allow cities and counties to expand Medicaid in states that have refused. And some powerful lawmakers, including House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., have cited Medicaid expansion as a top priority for inclusion.

Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., speaks on Medicaid expansion and the reconciliation package during a press conference with fellow lawmakers at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23, 2021.

The cost for expansion so far is estimated at potentially $250 to $300 billion, but the price could shrink if legislators put an expiration date on their plans. Clyburn suggested last week that he would back a few years of Medicaid expansion, which he said could be harder to strip away once it’s in place.

Lawmakers are under pressure to reduce the cost of the reconciliation package — despite the fact that the $3.5 trillion price tag would be spread over 10 years and partially covered by raising taxes on the wealthy — and several health care priorities are competing for space. These include expanding Medicare, bolstering Obamacare subsidies, and ensuring access to in-home care for the elderly. A Washington Post report on Thursday made the chances for a permanent Medicaid expansion look less likely: Some advocates and Democratic senators expressed concern that it might reward recalcitrant GOP lawmakers, or even incentivize states that have expanded Medicaid to reverse course, potentially forcing the federal government to pick up the tab for states that had previously expanded Medicaid.

THERE ARE MORE than 2 million poor, uninsured adults in the so-called Medicaid gap. Of those, roughly 800,000 are women of reproductive age. Most people who fall into the gap are unlikely to afford insurance on the individual marketplace because they’re ineligible for premium subsidies, which help offset high monthly costs. And while the Affordable Care Act applies to most private insurance plans, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 13 percent of workers in 2019 were enrolled in “grandfathered” plans exempt from the ACA’s protections — including the mandate for contraception coverage.

In Washington, D.C., and 38 states that have expanded Medicaid since 2014, public health researchers found an immediate and large increase in insurance coverage for low-income women of reproductive age. Health and economics researchers also found that low-income women in expansion states were more likely to use effective birth control methods during their postpartum period than their counterparts in holdout states, and were more likely to use long-acting reversible contraception, considered among the best methods for preventing unwanted pregnancies. The proposed Medicaid expansion plans would increase access to birth control and reproductive services in the remaining 12 states.

On Tuesday, Planned Parenthood Federation of America issued new fact sheets detailing what Medicaid expansion would mean for each state that has until now resisted broadening coverage. In Alabama, for example, Planned Parenthood says 51,000 women of reproductive age would gain access to affordable health insurance, including more than 20,000 Black women. In Texas, more than 324,000 women of reproductive age would gain affordable health insurance and access to services, including 48,000 Black women and 1930,000 Latina women.

“I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen who wanted birth control and were not able to get it,” said Marty. “The county health departments are booked two to three months in advance, so by the time they get there it’s too late; and then we have patients who do have private doctors, but the doctors are denying them the coverage.”

Jamila Taylor, the director of health care reform and a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, said expanding Medicaid could definitely help support women who fall into the coverage gap, who lack insurance or access to comprehensive maternal services. “We know this affects people not ready to be parents, and those who are ready to have children,” she said.

So if either the Ossoff-Warnock-Baldwin plan or the Doggett proposal passes, the changes could expand access to contraception for thousands of currently uninsured people. But would they allow Medicaid to cover solutions like medication abortion? Thanks to the Hyde Amendment — a prohibition on using federal funds to cover abortions outside of the exceptions of rape, incest, and endangerment to a woman’s life, which Congress has reauthorized every year since 1976 — the answer is still no.

There is legislation pending in the House and Senate, called the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance Act of 2021, or EACH Act, that would overturn the Hyde Amendment — but like the Women’s Health Protection Act, it stands little chance of passage with the filibuster in place. On Wednesday, Manchin told the conservative National Review that he was open to considering Medicaid expansion as part of reconciliation — but only if the package includes the Hyde Amendment. States can, however, still opt to use their own Medicaid funding to cover abortions, and 16 primarily blue states already do.

As long as the Hyde Amendment remains in place, those living in regions at odds with reproductive health access will have to rely on more difficult and sometimes risky measures to terminate their pregnancies. If the amendment were repealed, Medicaid funds could potentially be used to prescribe medication abortion, offering an alternative in places where clinics are closed. But many hostile states have broadened their anti-abortion measures to cover mifepristone and misoprostol. Since April, lawmakers in Republican-led states, working closely with anti-abortion groups like the Susan B. Anthony List, have moved to pass even more restrictions on medication abortion.

Marty, who authored “Handbook for a Post-Roe America” in 2019, said for now people should consider obtaining medication abortion pills before they are pregnant, a process known as advanced provision. Some are are already doing this in Texas through Aid Access, an organization based in Europe that a Dutch doctor started in April 2018.

“At this point [activists] do not believe that someone who takes this step is under threat of a lawsuit because pregnant people are explicitly excluded from [SB8], but it could be a potential lawsuit if that person who ordered it gave it to someone else,” said Marty.

But shipping pills from Europe can result in delays. “Hypothetically, there might be people who try get ahold of medication abortion from one of these online retailers despite living in a different city,” said Marty, referring to U.S.-based telehealth organizations like Abortion on Demand. In those cases, which could also present legal risk, women might ask contacts they know living in more abortion-friendly states to obtain the medication and then quietly mail them the pills.

“As an author and activist, I firmly believe that all people need to be [ready] for when abortion is completely illegal and inaccessible,” said Marty. “It’s become clear to me that abortion will mostly disappear in red states.”

Massachusetts May Become First State to Send Money to Low-Income Countries to Deal With Climate Change

Originally published in In These Times on September 16, 2021.
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As unprecedented natural disasters ravage the United States, while federal commitments to climate finance have lagged, the Massachusetts legislature is poised to make a statewide commitment to global climate initiatives. A bill winding its way through the Massachusetts House and Senate could make the state the first in the nation to legislate in support of international climate finance — that is, the transfer of money to low-income countries so they can reduce their carbon emissions and respond to threats of climate change. 

The legislation would create a voluntary check-off option for Massachusetts residents to donate through their annual tax returns to the Least Developed Countries Fund, a multilateral fund established in 2001 under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to help low-income nations adapt to the climate crisis. 

The Biden administration’s commitments to the Green Climate Fund, another multilateral vehicle established by the United Nations in 2010 to finance projects in low-income countries, have fallen far short of what activists say is necessary for the United States to pay its fair share and meet the scale of the global threat. While Biden has promised to restore trust among international partners in the wake of the Trump presidency, climate advocates say much more funding is needed.

“I think it’s very important for states to step up,” said bill sponsor Tony Cabral, a Democratic representative from the 13th Bristol District in Massachusetts who has served in office for 30 years.

Supporters say the bill can help elevate the oft-ignored climate justice issue and its impact on vulnerable countries which usually receive scant attention. Both the Least Developed Countries Fund and the Green Climate Fund serve the Paris Agreement, adopted by the United States and other major countries in 2015, but they are separate entities and any revenue raised for the former would not count toward the U.S. government’s pledges to the latter.

“One of the objectives is to lead by example,” said Lauren Stuart, a climate change policy adviser at Oxfam America. ​“At the end of the day, realistically, this legislation probably won’t bring in a ton of money — Massachusetts is not a huge state — but the idea is that hopefully this can prompt other states to take action and, collectively, if we can get more states to implement this, then that can lead to much bigger contributions.”

Righting climate wrongs

The impetus for the legislation came in 2017, when former President Donald Trump announced his intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and to end the United States’ climate finance contributions. At the time, the country had donated just $1 billion out of a $3 billion Green Climate Fund pledge it promised to meet by 2018.

By implementing the new legislation, lawmakers in Massachusetts hope to begin the process of jumpstarting climate aid to lower-income countries. 

“We were really optimistic it was going to pass during the last legislative session,” said Stuart. ​“It’s a very straightforward bill, there’s no real opposition to it, but policymaking can be a painfully slow process.” The majority of bills that get introduced never become law and those that do often take years to pass, according to Chris Gregory, a lobbyist with the Boston-based Northeast Energy Efficiency Council, a trade group. When Covid-19 hit, legislative priorities in the state were upended immediately as lawmakers grew overwhelmed with new challenges.

Gregory, who has been helping to shepherd the bill on a pro-bono basis, said one challenge advocates initially faced was the fact that the state’s existing process for income tax return checkoffs wasn’t working very well. Massachusetts residents already have six options on their tax returns to contribute to various causes, but while there is an established process for adding charities to the form, there is no way to remove them, even when groups raise no money or no longer merit receiving donations. 

“The lawyers in the [Massachusetts] Senate said, ​‘wait a second this whole thing is screwed up, we essentially need you to fix it before we take up your bill,’” said Gregory. ​“So after the first version, we went back and drafted a mechanism by which [charitable groups] could get thrown off. It took a lot of research and a lot of work, but we think it will work better now across the board.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the first state to introduce a checkoff box on its state income tax form was Colorado in 1977, which was intended to raise money for nongame and endangered wildlife preservation. By 2018, there were over 420 state checkoff programs across 30 states and Washington D.C., with most going to efforts to support military families, health education, disease prevention and groups for children.

Exactly how much money the option in Massachusetts could raise for climate finance each year is not clear, but Gregory thinks it could be in the six figures, and that there’s room for more concerted public service advertising than past checkoff programs have deployed.

Next steps

The legislation has been referred to the Committee on Revenue, and supporters are waiting for a hearing to be scheduled for the fall. Stuart said they’re expecting a legislative schedule by the end of September with a hearing for their bill hopefully within a month or two. ​“We keep asking for the set date and we just heard we will be given plenty of time to prepare,” she said.

While there’s no organized resistance to the bill, which promotes a voluntary effort that costs the state nothing, activists say that doesn’t mean its passage is guaranteed, especially as lawmakers are still focused on processing the influx of federal money from Covid-19 stimulus.

“This should be easy, but stuff that should be easy is always the hardest to pass,” said Gregory. He added that the state Senate is expected take the bill up and pass it quickly, but the House, which both bigger and more conservative, is where the real challenge lies.

“People think of Massachusetts as a very liberal place, but it’s an extremely conservative place in some ways, and lawmakers don’t like frivolous gestures,” he said. ​“So you have to make sure it’s seen as a serious undertaking and that constituents want it.”

Massachusetts Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey did not return requests for comment on whether they support the bill or are advocating its passage. When Warren ran for president in 2020, she proposed a $100 billion ​“Green Marshall Plan” to fund projects in developing nations, but the projects would have required countries to purchase American-made energy technology. Projects funded out of the Green Climate Fund and the Least Developed Countries Fund do not come with similar restrictions. Markey, who has emerged as a strong proponent of environmental justice, has been less vocal on the need for international climate finance, though earlier this year he introduced a bill to support individuals displaced by climate disasters.

Larry Yu, co-chair of the Boston Metro chapter of the Climate Reality Project, said his group has been working to help advance the bill. ​“Tactically we’ve held a couple of webinars and talked about it in our meetings,” he told In These Times. ​“And we’ve used those talking points in talking to a few targeted legislators in the state House. This is not a campaign where our strategy has been to get 10,000 people to show up at the state House. Our approach has been to go to committees.”

Yu said he and his fellow activists have no illusions that Massachusetts would somehow offset the outstanding commitments from the federal government. ​“But if we save one community’s livelihood, or save another family’s lives, that’s powerful,” he said. ​“This is a real issue of global climate justice that many people haven’t seriously engaged with before.”

Advocates of the bill hope its passage will spur similar legislation across the country. It wouldn’t be the first time states followed one another in adopting pioneering climate reforms, as has happened before in commitments to pursue 100 percent clean energy goals and set new emission standards on construction and transportation. 

Daniel Sosland, president of the Acadia Center, a regional climate and energy think tank, said he’s supporting the Massachusetts bill in part because it offers citizens a way to take direct action on a global level. 

“It’s symbolic,” added Gregory. ​“But sometimes symbols are important.”

Public Campaign Funding Gains Steam to Counter Big Donors’ Sway

Originally published in Bloomberg Businessweek on September 16, 2021.
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When Christina Henderson, a new at-large member of the Council of the District of Columbia, first considered running for office, one of her worries was whether she could raise enough money to be competitive. “I was not independently wealthy. Most of my friends worked in the public sector,” says Henderson, who was previously a staffer on the Council.

But D.C. had begun public financing before the 2020 election cycle. The program provides candidates who agree to accept only small contributions with a 5-to-1 match for every dollar raised from a D.C. resident. Henderson took her chance, won her seat, and credits the program with giving her a path.

“One of the best things, as an elected official who plans to continue to participate in public financing, is that I don’t have to spend my term fundraising or worrying about resources for the next election,” she says. “I can just do my job.”

report in August from the D.C. auditor found the program, which distributed almost $4 million to candidates in 2020, increased both the number of people who ran for office and those who donated to local campaigns.

Public financing of elections has been around for decades in the U.S. Today there are at least 27 programs in states, cities, and counties (most but not all of them Democratic), with models ranging from direct candidate grants to small-dollar matching. Advocates say public financing can stem corruption, empower a public that too often feels marginalized by special interests, and diversify public bodies from school boards to Congress.

The idea has been gaining traction: New York City and San Francisco both moved to bolster their existing programs, and new programs in Baltimore and Portland, Ore., as well as the one in Washington, have gotten off the ground. But there are still questions about how much public financing can mobilize new donors at the local level. And it faces a test in Congress this fall as part of a voting rights package.

November will be the first time Democracy Vouchers are used in a mayoral election in Seattle. Under this program, introduced in 2017, vouchers are mailed to registered voters, who can then donate them to candidates. “Seattle’s model is really unique, because it doesn’t require residents to have disposable income to participate,” says Jennifer Heerwig, a sociologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. After a nonmayoral Seattle election in 2017, Heerwig and other researchers found that voucher donors were more representative of the population in age, income, and race than cash donors. In 2019, the program’s second cycle, the number of residents using vouchers almost doubled, to about 7%.

This year the top two vote-getters in August’s mayoral primary, Bruce Harrell and Lorena González, redeemed the fewest vouchers among the five candidates who chose to use them, and outside spending soared. The two leading PACs that supported Harrell and González, for example, raised almost seven times more money than the top vote-getters did combined in the last election.

Alex Koren, González’s campaign manager, says they’re seeing a significant uptick in voucher contributions since the primary ended and expect to max out on redeeming vouchers this month. Harrell’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment, but data shows it’s already maxed out.

Not everyone is sold on the merits of public funding, even in blue cities. In May voters in Austin rejected a ballot proposal that would have established a city voucher program such as the one Seattle uses. Polls suggest voters like the idea of reducing the influence of big money in politics, but they’re less keen to put their own tax dollars toward a solution.

Experts say public-financing programs can suffer from not being generous enough, hampering candidates who might choose to participate—as is the case with the system for presidential campaigns, which no general election candidate has taken part in since 2012. When Republican Doug Ducey ran for Arizona governor in 2014, he declined public financing and was able to raise more than double the amount of his primary competitors who opted in.

“The programs will say, ‘Take these public funds, but don’t spend over this amount or else you’re not eligible to take the public money,’ which is an invitation for all these outside groups to spend tons of money,” says Raymond La Raja, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “And that’s exactly what happens.”

HR 1, the comprehensive voting rights bill the House of Representatives passed in March, has a provision for voluntary 6-to-1 matching for small congressional campaign donations up to $200. To avoid political blowback from using taxpayer funds, it would be financed through a new fee on criminal and civil fines, fees, and settlements with banks and corporations. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the new fees would reduce the federal deficit by almost $1 billion over a decade. HR 1 would also authorize a voucher program to be piloted in three states, where voters would receive $25 to donate to congressional candidates.

Democratic Representative John Sarbanes of Maryland, the lead sponsor of HR 1, says there’s “good momentum” for the public-financing provision. While key Senate swing voter Joe Manchin of West Virginia has expressed reservations about the size of HR 1, he co-sponsored a compromise bill that Senate Democrats introduced on Sept. 14 that included 6-to-1 small-donation matching. Even a trimmed-down package may not garner the 10 Republican votes it would need in the Senate. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has attacked the public-financing proposal specifically as “piles of federal dollars going to yard signs, balloons, and TV ads for candidates at least half of Americans disagree with.”

Federal public financing may hinge on the fate of the filibuster. “I think whatever represents real reform, sadly, by definition, will be something that the current Republican leadership in the Senate will stand against,” Sarbanes says. “If that’s the reality we face,” he says, “then you have to look at resetting the rules. And I think that conversation is ongoing among Senate Dems.”

Building Trades Union Imposes Vaccine Mandate on Itself

Originally published in The American Prospect on August 25, 2021.
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As the country continues to wrestle with efforts to increase vaccination rates, an international building trades union took the rare step on Wednesday of stating clear support for vaccination mandates for its staff, its national collective-bargaining unions, and its affiliated local unions.

The International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT), which represents 140,000 active and retired craftspeople in the U.S. and Canada, issued a statement urging the labor movement to “lead by example.” It goes further than other unions, which have generally stated that any vaccine requirement should be negotiated first at the bargaining table.

“We’re not looking for anything at the bargaining table, and we’re not looking at our support in return for something else,” said incoming IUPAT General President Jim Williams Jr. “We feel COVID is a true health and safety risk on the job site, and if the employers mandate it, we want to be supportive. There’s a ton of mandates that employers already put out for health and safety.”

Williams said his union lost 65 members to COVID-19 last year. “What we in unionized construction pride ourselves in is being the safest workforce in the industry,” he told the Prospect. “We’d be crazy to think that we’re promoting health and safety by not having our workforce vaccinated at this point.”

The IUPAT’s new stance will take shape in three ways. Beginning October 15, the international union will require all of its own non–bargaining unit office and field employees to show proof of vaccination. Given this new policy, their statement reads, “it is only reasonable that they apply the same approach to the interpretation of their national collective bargaining agreements.” In practice, this means that for the roughly 150 employers across the country who have agreements with the IUPAT, the international union is declaring that any employer vaccine mandate will be considered “consistent” with their contracts as currently written, and no grievances will be filed to contest such a requirement.

Lastly, the IUPAT is providing guidance to its local affiliates (known as “district councils”), which likely have the right to demand bargaining over vaccine mandates. “The IUPAT expects that each District Council facing this issue will consider the facts on the ground in their jurisdiction—trends in infection rates as well as local or state restrictions—and choose a course of action that best protects our members’ health and work opportunities,” the statement reads. “The General Executive Board is seeking to lead by example.”

The IUPAT’s position is nuanced. The union is encouraging immediate support for employer vaccine mandates, while also encouraging local affiliates to put support for the mandates directly into their contracts, to stave off the duty to file member grievances over the issue.

But negotiating the latter need not come before the former, as other unions have called for.

ABOUT TWO WEEKS AGO, KEY OFFICIALS in the IUPAT met together in Las Vegas and discussed vaccinations. The rise of the delta variant helped motivate union leaders to take a firmer stance. “There’s still a continued pandemic, and when people take their eyes off the ball, especially in the workplace, that’s when things get bad,” Williams said.

There’s broad support among the American public for vaccine mandates. The COVID States Project, a polling group out of Harvard, Rutgers, Northeastern, and Northwestern Universities, found earlier this summer that 64 percent of Americans backed the government requiring COVID-19 vaccinations, including 45 percent of Republicans. Morning Consult separately found even 38 percent of Republicans backed employer-mandated vaccine mandates.

In May, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said federal laws don’t preclude employers from requiring vaccination against COVID-19, though businesses may be required to provide workers accommodations for religious reasons and disabilities. Several unions have struck deals with employers on vaccine mandates, most recently the Walt Disney Co. with 40,000 workers at Disney World in Florida, who are represented by the Services Trades Council Union.

But for now, most international unions, even those actively encouraging vaccinations, have not gone as far as the IUPAT. Earlier this month, Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), issued a statement saying that, with the delta variant spreading, vaccination is “more essential than ever.” But he stopped short of expressing support for employer mandates. “As employers establish vaccination policies, AFSCME will address the impact on workers through bargaining to ensure that the front-line heroes of this pandemic are treated fairly,” Saunders said.

Likewise, when Tyson Foods issued a vaccination requirement for its U.S. workforce earlier this month, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which represents 24,000 Tyson meatpackers, issued a critical statement, saying employers should negotiate such policies with their workers first. “While we support and encourage workers getting vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, and have actively encouraged our members to do so, it is concerning that Tysons is implementing this mandate before the FDA has fully approved the vaccine,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone had said. “This vaccine mandate must be negotiated so that these workers have a voice in the new policy.” (The UFCW separately supports a national mask mandate, and Pfizer’s COVID vaccine, Comirnaty, was approved by the FDA on Monday.)

SEIU, which is strongly encouraging vaccination for its members, also warns on its website that “employers may commit an unfair labor practice if they fail to bargain with the union before implementing a mandatory vaccination program.” Last week, when Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced a new vaccine mandate for all health care workers, nursing home workers, and public-school employees, the local SEIU affiliate president released a statement noting, “When it comes to the vaccine mandate, there is no consensus among our membership. People strongly support the mandate and people strongly oppose the mandate. But I think we can all agree that having a say in how this new policy impacts our lives is a good thing.”

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents unionized federal workers, said in late July that any new vaccine policy must be “properly negotiated with our bargaining units prior to implementation.”

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers is currently negotiating a vaccine mandate with AT&T, and attempting to find solutions like permanent at-home work for workers who oppose the mandate.

Some unions, including the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association and the American Postal Workers Union, have come out against vaccination mandates writ large. Others, like the American Foreign Service Association and the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, have expressed support for vaccine requirements. “We don’t think either our members or their mission should be placed at risk by those who have been hesitant to take a shot,” said IFPTE president Paul Shearon.

For his part, Richard Trumka, the recently deceased leader of the AFL-CIO, expressed his support for vaccination mandates just before his death. “If you are coming back into the workplace,” Trumka had said, “you have to know what’s around you.”

Leaders at Inspired Teaching Demonstration PCS Hesitated to Tell Families About Staff COVID-19 Cases and HVAC Systems In Repair

Originally published in Washington City Paper on August 23, 2021.


Three staff members at the Inspired Teaching Demonstration Public Charter School tested positive for COVID-19 since returning to work in-person on Aug. 11, a fact the school did not share with families until the evening of Friday, Aug. 20, after City Paper asked why parents had not been informed. Students are set to return for in-person classes on Wednesday, Aug. 25. Sundai Riggins, the head of school, says they notify “those who [are] in close contact and those present in the building” when there are positive cases and “no students or families are currently in the building.” 

On the afternoon of Thursday, Aug. 19, school leadership sent an email to parents informing them that their previously scheduled in-person “Meet Your Teacher” day planned for Friday, Aug. 20, would now be held virtually to reduce risk ahead of students returning to school next week.  

That same day, unbeknownst to parents, District Urgent Care staff was on site providing rapid and PCR tests to school employees; DC Health recommends that any close contact, even those who are fully vaccinated, get tested 3 to 5 days after an exposure. While no rapid tests were positive, the results of the PCR tests were still pending as of Friday night.

Friday morning, hours before the virtual parent meetings, school leadership shared staff on a document with talking points to use in their forthcoming discussions, which directed teachers to keep the positive cases to themselves.  

Among other things, if a parent or guardian asked their child’s teacher if someone at the school had gotten COVID—which happened in three confirmed instances in the past week—staff were instructed to say, “ITDS, like almost all other communities, has experienced positive cases of COVID since the pandemic began in March 2020.” The talking points continue to say, “ITDS is dedicated to the balance of transparency with our community while respecting the private health information of students, staff, and families.”

“I felt like we were being asked to lie,” one employee told City Paper.

Teachers and staff returned to the school building on Aug. 11, where roughly 80 employees have been gathering in a large multipurpose room for training and activities. Employees generally wear masks, though face coverings are removed occasionally for snacking and drinking. More than 90 percent of employees are fully vaccinated, according to the school. All staff members, except those with a medical or religious exemption, are required to be fully vaccinated.

The following Monday, Aug. 16, all staff were notified in an email from school COO Kate Keplinger that a fellow employee who had been with them on Wednesday and Thursday the week prior had tested positive. The email said all non-fully-vaccinated people had been notified, and fully vaccinated people should monitor themselves for symptoms for the next 14 days but need not quarantine.

That same day, two more staff members tested positive for COVID-19, a fact school leadership learned about Monday evening, but did not tell staff about until the following morning, when they all gathered together again in-person for training. At 12:27 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 17, Keplinger reiterated in an email to staff that two more employees had tested positive, and that they had last been inside the school building the day before. She informed staff that District Urgent Care would be available on Thursday to test any staff who was interested. DC Health’s guidance states fully vaccinated close contacts do not need to quarantine but should get tested 3 to 5 days after exposure.

City Paper asked if all staff involved in the trainings got the provided PCR and rapid testing. Riggins said “the majority of staff” took a rapid test and did not respond about PCR testing. When asked why the tests were optional rather than required for exposed staff, Riggins said, “Optional testing is in compliance with ADA [the Americans with Disabilities Act] and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.” 

But requiring COVID-19 testing if local public health authorities recommend it, which they currently do, is permitted under both statutes. 

“It is not a violation of the ADA or the Civil Rights Act to mandate testing,” Lawrence Gostin, a professor of health law at Georgetown University, told City Paper. “If the staff member refuses to be tested, DC Health should order them to be quarantined for 10 to 14 days. Health and safety must always be the highest priority in schools. That means either getting tested or being quarantined. There are no other safe or reasonable options.” 

Riggins did not return multiple requests for additional comment.

One Inspired Teaching employee, worried about the in-person event with parents still on the books for Friday, and about other issues with COVID-19 mitigation at their school, reached out Wednesday afternoon to the Office of the D.C. Auditor. ODCA told the employee they would be treated as a whistleblower, according to the employee, who later reached out to City Paper.

City Paper contacted D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson on Saturday to ask what her office did with the information provided to them by the concerned staff member, and if they could share any correspondence they may have sent to other agencies or Inspired Teaching.

Patterson confirmed an employee reached out, and said they consider the employee “a whistleblower because the individual did not want their name used in any way from concern about possible reprisal.” Patterson said ODCA shared the information they learned from the employee with DC Health in case it could provide additional information beyond what the agency had already learned through the city’s contact tracing program.

Patterson—acknowledging that D.C. government emails are public information unless explicitly exempted under FOIA—shared the following from the email her office sent to DC Health.

Our office received a whistleblower alert from a staff member at Inspired Teaching Public Charter School about an outbreak. I’m sharing it with you as it seemed concerning, especially since an in-person back to school night is scheduled for Friday:

The whistleblower shared that at least 3 symptomatic staff at Inspired Teaching Public Charter School have tested positive for COVID via rapid tests after participating in a staff training conducted inside at the school. Other staff were not informed of these positive cases, and the school leader continued to organize additional days of the in-person training. Staff were also not instructed to quarantine. The school is hosting a large in-person “meet your teacher” event this Friday. The whistleblower is concerned that Friday’s event if it continues could infect more people. Additionally, half of the school does not have a functioning HVAC system nor the ability to open windows. Families have not been informed about the cases nor the lack of ventilation. The whistleblower has communicated with DC Health contact tracers who have been helpful.

Please let us know if more details would be helpful to DC Health. I know you will have at least some of this information via contact tracing.

Also, moving forward, how should school staff report such concerns to DC Health?

Patterson did not say whether DC Health responded to her office’s note.

DC Health did not return requests for comment on this story. 

As noted in Patterson’s email, Inspired Teaching had also been dealing for weeks with ventilation issues, though parents were not informed until Friday night, following inquiries from City Paper. “[W]e are currently repairing parts of our HVAC system, which has caused some cooling units to not work in a few classrooms,” the school told parents that night. At a Back to School Zoom meeting held for parents the prior evening, Inspired Teaching’s presentation read:

Mary Pitts, a parent of two Inspired Teaching students, told City Paper she was comfortable with how the school responded to the positive cases and, given the timing of them, did not feel it was necessary for school leadership to alert parents of those cases or of the broken HVAC systems ahead of students arriving on Wednesday.

“As school is starting every year, people get sick or last minute changes happen, and I very much presume that we, as parents, don’t expect to have insight into all of that,” she said, noting it’s typically hectic for schools before the start of any school year. “I feel for the staff—trying to react in an environment that is changing a lot, but I think [the school] put their protocols in place and it sounds like they deployed them.” Pitts praised the administration for responding to parent feedback around making outdoor lunch an option when weather permits, and said she and other parents are looking forward to sending their children back for in-person learning.

In New York City, Retirees Brace for Switch to Privatized Health Care

Originally published in The Intercept on August 19, 2021. Co-authored with Sam Mellins.
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STARTING IN JANUARY 2022, over a quarter million former New York City government workers and their dependents are set to be shifted off Medicare and on to privatized health insurance. Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Municipal Labor Committee, which represents retired New York City employees, announced the move in mid-July, following several months of scrambled protest from bewildered retirees.

The plan has been cast as a necessary measure to rein in mounting health care costs and reduce strain on the city’s budget. While public sector retirees in New York City are currently insured by Medicare, the federal government’s program for people over 65, the city reimburses them for outpatient care, as well as for a “Medigap” plan that offers additional services. City officials and union leaders have negotiated a deal that they claim will save upward of $600 million by switching to Medicare Advantage, the federally funded privatized health insurance program that launched ostensibly to give consumers more choice and reduce Medicare costs.

For months, union leaders have emphasized that despite distressing stories members may have heard about Medicare Advantage, the new plan will yield affordable care at the same level, if not better, for enrolled retirees and their dependents. But retirees who spoke with The Intercept and New York Focus expressed concerns that their health care will become less accessible over time, and health care experts say their fears are not unwarranted.

Retirees who do not want to switch to privatized insurance will have the option to remain in traditional Medicare, but they will need to pay a monthly premium, currently covered by the city, to access the same level of coverage they receive now. That rate is likely to be around $200 a month, estimates Stu Eber, president of the Council of Municipal Retiree Organizations, a group that advocates for retired city workers.

Eber predicts that this option will be infeasible for many older adults. “There are tens of thousands of people … whose pensions are less than $20,000 a year,” he said. “They can’t afford it; they have no choice. They’re going to be in this Medicare Advantage plan.” The new plan has been awarded to a coalition of Emblem Health and Blue Cross known as “The Alliance.”

Now that the plan has been approved, the city and labor committee are doubling down on their efforts to persuade the public that the switch is good policy and the coverage is nothing to be concerned about.

The city points to rising costs associated with traditional Medicare, which have increased nearly 50 percent over the past six years. To make up for the higher costs, co-pays for those who opt to stay in traditional Medicare will begin in January. A side-by-side comparison of the traditional Medicare option and the Medicare Advantage plan, released by the city, shows competitive rates and benefits between the two in the coming year. Some elements of the Medicare Advantage plan, such as annual maximum out-of-pocket costs and primary care physician visits, actually appear friendlier to beneficiaries.

benefit-comparison-1

“This new plan not only mirrors and improves on the GHI Senior Care Plan [the city’s traditional Medicare option], it also includes aggressive oversight to protect member benefits,” read one update from the United Federation of Teachers, the city’s teachers union. “Most importantly, under this plan, retirees will still have premium-free access to the same providers and hospitals they now use.”

One flyer from the Municipal Labor Committee says that savings will come from “subsidies” the federal government gives to Medicare Advantage programs because Medicare Advantage “relieve[s] it from much of the back-office tasks” associated with traditional Medicare.

But health insurance experts said that explanation doesn’t hold water. Under Medicare Advantage plans, the federal government pays private insurers, whereas under the current model, the federal government pays providers directly for care.

“It’s not that the federal government is paying for something they weren’t paying for before, it just changes the nature of how they pay,” said David Meyers, an assistant professor at the Brown University School of Public Health.

And indeed, when pressed for details, a de Blasio administration spokesperson acknowledged that “it’s a mischaracterization to call it a subsidy.”

In reviewing the cost-benefit comparison literature, Meyers told The Intercept and New York Focus that the proposed Medicare Advantage plan “appears to be somewhat generous as far as plans go.” He pointed to relatively low out-of-pocket maximum costs of $1,470 and supplemental benefits such as meal delivery on returning from a hospital stay. “It’s not obvious that this is a predatory sort of plan,” he said.

Another health policy expert agreed. “The outlook for the first year looks pretty good,” Tricia Neuman, executive director of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Program on Medicare Policy, told The Intercept and New York Focus.

But concerns remain for retirees trying to figure out if they’re getting a raw financial deal. Some local health advocates, meanwhile, believe that the shift will create new disparities among New York City retirees across race and gender.

The New York Metro chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program, a national group of health care professionals who support single-payer health insurance, warned that the city’s Medicare Advantage plan will create a bifurcated system: Higher-income, predominantly white retirees will stay on traditional Medicare because they can afford the supplemental Medigap insurance, while lower-income retirees, predominantly people of color, will accept the more restricted Medicare Advantage plan.

Physicians for a National Health Program – NY Metro statement3 pages

The chapter further cautioned that the move to Medicare Advantage could result in gender disparities already demonstrated in worker pay. Among current New York City municipal workers, 58 percent of men earn $70,000 or more, compared to just 36 percent of women. “This disparity in income among retirees is likely to be even greater, since they worked for the city before many of the current measures aimed at decreasing inequalities in the workforce were put in place,” noted Leonard Rodberg, the New York Metro chapter’s research director and a municipal retiree.

These inequities have played out nationally, according to Meyers. “Medigap plans can often be quite expensive, so many lower-income people, who are often minorities, tend to enroll in Medicare Advantage at high rates and Medigap at lower rates,” he said.

Another top concern is whether the costs imposed on retirees would remain similar to traditional Medicare over time or whether the plan might shift more costs on to older adults in years to come.

The present cost-sharing arrangement has been locked in through 2026, a spokesperson for the de Blasio administration told The Intercept and New York Focus. But uncertainties surrounding federal funding of Medicare Advantage and less stringent pricing regulations than exist in traditional Medicare mean that the post-2026 future is less certain.

“This arrangement assumes that Medicare will continue to provide favorable payment to Medicare Advantage plans that enable them to provide extra benefits,” said Neuman. “That may continue into the future, but it may not.”

Many retirees are also concerned about the plan’s requirement that enrollees obtain permission from insurance companies before accessing certain recommended procedures. A significant portion of the savings achieved by most Medicare Advantage plans hinges on such preapprovals.

“Gatekeepers are never a good thing,” Eber said. “They stand between you and getting the medical assistance and tests that you need, when you need them.”

A spokesperson for the de Blasio administration said that services requiring such pre-authorization would include inpatient hospital admissions, skilled nursing facility admissions, rehabilitation services, complex radiology, prosthetics and orthotics, and transplants.

“To wait around for somebody to say, ‘Yes, you can have an MRI; yes, you can go to physical therapy; no, I don’t think you need this test or that test’ — I’m not interested,” said Jane Roeder, a retired city administrator.

Some retirees may even be receiving misinformation from their own union leadership regarding which services will require authorization under the new plan. A United Federation of Teachers spokesperson told The Intercept and New York Focus that the new Medicare Advantage plan “will have to adhere by the same ‘prior authorization’ requirements as [traditional] Medicare.”

But other than for “durable” medical equipment (such as walkers or oxygen tanks), prosthetics, and certain physician-administered drugs, traditional Medicare very rarely requires preapprovals.“

Diane Archer, president of Just Care, an informational site that offers health and financial tips to older people, said suggesting that retirees will get the same health care fundamentally obscures the differences between the two programs. “They may offer the same benefits, but the way Medicare Advantage plans ‘save money’ is by covering fewer services,” she said. “What few people understand is that ‘same benefits’ is very different from ‘same health care.’”

On top of pre-authorization, Medicare Advantage plans tend to come with more restrictive networks than traditional Medicare, which offers access to the vast majority of physicians nationally. “While the plan is PPO and claims to have a very large network, PPO plans can still guide you to specific providers,” said Meyers. “I can’t say if the plan will have a robust network in the NY area- if it does, it might be fine, but one of the largest benefits of [traditional Medicare] is that there are really no network restrictions.”

The city and union leadership argue that retirees need not worry. According to an FAQ published by the city’s Office of Labor Relations, 640,000 out of 850,000 Medicare providers nationally are contractually obligated to accept their new Medicare Advantage plan.

A de Blasio administration spokesperson dismissed concerns regarding whether the remaining 210,000 will accept the plan, noting that those providers will be compensated at the same rates that Medicare pays. In the case of recalcitrant providers, a call center will assist retirees in getting payments to relevant physicians, the spokesperson said.

According to the FAQ, as a last resort, retirees can pay their providers and submit the claims to the health insurance companies for reimbursement.

Notably, the city is touting the fact that Hospital for Special Surgery and the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center — two top-tier local hospitals that typically do not accept Medicare Advantage — have agreed to participate in their plan. But there is no binding legal obligation yet, a de Blasio spokesperson confirmed, though the administration expects to finalize an agreement with the hospitals before January. “Both facilities have agreed to continue to see our Medicare Advantage members on an out-of-network basis while negotiations are underway,” the spokesperson added.

But to some retirees, the assumption seems risky.

“How many hospitals are there in this country that don’t accept any Medicare Advantage plan? Why all of a sudden will they accept this one plan?” asked Eber, who noted that he represents retirees living all over the country. “We don’t share the confidence that the city and the Municipal Labor Council have. We hope they’re right, but the proof will be in the pudding come January.”

A spokesperson from Memorial Sloan Kettering declined to comment. Tracy Hickenbottom, a spokesperson for Hospital for Special Surgery, said, “We work with patients, payers and community leaders to demonstrate value and best serve as many people as possible. This enables us to offer acceptance of most major insurance plans for Hospital services, including several Medicare Advantage plans.”

NEW YORK MUNICIPAL retirees are not alone in wondering what an increased push toward Medicare Advantage means for them. As of this year, 42 percent of all Medicare beneficiaries are enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans, up from 24 percent a decade earlier. The Congressional Budget Office projects that share could hit 50 percent by 2026.

“Retiree health benefits have become a significant expense, and employers are looking for ways to meet their obligation and cut costs, which makes Medicare Advantage quite appealing at the moment,” said Neuman.

Despite so many people now on the privatized plans, researchers say they do not have a strong grasp of what kind of health care beneficiaries are actually receiving, especially those who are sickest or have the most complex needs.

This past spring, in an annual federally mandated analysis on Medicare, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission wrote that “the current state of quality reporting in [Medicare Advantage] is such that the Commission can no longer provide an accurate description of the quality of care.”

The plans are also taking a toll on federal coffers, due to overpayments and disenrollments in the final year of life, among other factors. “There is no question that Medicare Advantage is unsustainable in the long term,” said Archer. “It’s driving up Part B premiums, eroding the Medicare trust fund, and costing taxpayers tens of billions a year more than traditional Medicare.”

While support for Medicare Advantage in Congress has been strong and bipartisan for some time, Politico reported on August 3 that some lawmakers and outside groups are pushing “some form of cuts” to the program as a potential source of savings in the budget reconciliation bill. Politically, it may also be easier for the federal government to reduce reimbursements to health insurance companies than to the providers it pays directly through traditional Medicare.

If federal support for Medicare Advantage decreases, costs may rise for city-insured retirees like Josephine Malaysz, who worked for decades as a nurse in the city’s public and private hospitals. Malaysz, whose husband is also a city-insured retiree, views the shift to Medicare Advantage as a poor measure of gratitude for the couple’s long careers in public health.

“My husband worked over 30 years as a paramedic — sometimes he would work 80 hours a week. He loved his job,” she said. “And when I was in the city hospitals, I gave my all to my patients.”

“We gave ourselves to the city, and now you’re retired, and here we go,” she added. “It’s just not respectful.”

New School Year, Same Old Covid Chaos

Originally published in The New Republic on August 17, 2021.

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The dust had seemed to settle on questions of school reopenings—one of the most polarizing political debates of the pandemic. In the spring of 2021, as vaccine shots were administered into arms, and with Congress having authorized billions of new funds for K-12 budgets, it seemed that, for the first time, parents, teachers, and staff could breathe a bit easier. Hope was here, and safe in-person learning was in reach.

Yes, millions of students had opted to stay remote in the spring even when their schools reopened (many parents reported that their child was doing well with virtual school, that it was safer than in-person, or a combination of the two), but leaders were optimistic about autumn, where real normalcy was on the horizon. Some politicians, like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, even came out early to proclaim there would be no virtual option in the fall—a decision some cheered for its confident signal that the end was near. 

Yet recent weeks have reintroduced uncertainty, with the delta coronavirus variant; conflicting guidelines on the local, state, and federal levels; and warring politics that seem to escalate by the day. For the millions of students who have already returned to school, and for those still waiting for the school year to start, signs unfortunately now point to continued chaos with quarantines, closures, and fast-changing rules. In other words, we’re looking at a new school year that could look a lot like last year. To make sense of all, here’s an accounting of where things stand, what we know, and what we have yet to learn.


By mid-May, the CDC announced new masking guidelines, emphasizing that fully vaccinated people no longer needed face coverings outdoors and in most indoor settings. The guidelines took many by surprise, and it wasn’t clear how institutions would determine who was vaccinated or not. But such details were largely waved aside. “We have all longed for this moment,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director, said at a press conference. 

By early July, the CDC went further, releasing new guidance for schools that said while young children should wear masks, vaccinated teachers and students can learn safely in school buildings without them. The agency recommended three feet of distance where possible, but said if that was infeasible it need not stop a return to in-person learning.

At the time of the new schools guidance, Covid-19 cases were fairly low, and the majority of educators had been at least partially vaccinated. President Biden missed his goal of 70 percent of American adults having a shot in their arms by Independence Day, but his administration said not to worry, that there still had been amazing progress. Yet it was hard to ignore that vaccination rates had slowed nationally, and a new, more transmissible variant loomed.

Nearly three weeks later, the mood around the pandemic was far less sanguine, as cases, hospitalizations, and deaths were spiking. Some companies began to push back their return-to-office start days out of an abundance of caution, but there was no similar move to delay school reopenings. Even as some business executives decided it was not yet safe for workers to return, political leaders continued to emphasize that returning to classrooms in August or September would be fine. They pointed to studies from earlier in the pandemic, while acknowledging that the delta variant may complicate those findings. Few were ready to consider any alternative.

On July 27, citing new research on delta, the CDC issued new school guidance, recommending that all students and staff—even if fully vaccinated—wear masks. Only 30 percent of young people ages 12–17 were then fully vaccinated, said Walensky, and the CDC’s data suggested even vaccinated individuals were spreading the virus. 

Still, the CDC’s new warnings came at a time when millions of Americans had lost confidence in the agency’s leadership, and many conservatives saw railing at the CDC as good politics to boot.

On July 29, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order barring local governments and school districts from requiring masks. Not to be outdone, the next day Florida Governor Ron DeSantis issued his own executive order forbidding schools from requiring students to wear masks, going so far as to say it was a matter of “parent rights.” His order, which hinges on one study from Brown University, dismissed the larger body of research showing masks significantly reduce the risk of Covid spread. DeSantis also said Florida would deny funding to districts that defied him. 

Some school districts are indeed defying state bans on masks, and the Biden administration has said it will look to support superintendents who risk retribution. Still, according to data collected by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell, currently about half of the nation’s 100 largest school districts are requiring students to wear masks this fall. As of Thursday, just seven were requiring regular testing of both students and staff.  

Vaccinations are adding yet another layer of complication to school reopenings. After months of encouraging voluntary inoculation, the federal government, private employers, and school districts are now moving slowly toward requiring all employees to be vaccinated. Last week, California became the first state to announce that all teachers, school staff, and even parent volunteers would need vaccination. Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third-largest district, announced Friday that all staff must be vaccinated—a move also endorsed by its local teachers union.

In late July it seemed unclear whether unions would stand in the way of more aggressive vaccination rules, given their reluctance to overriding collective bargaining agreements. When Biden announced on July 29 his new rule that federal workers be vaccinated or regularly tested, some unions, including the left-leaning American Postal Workers Union, expressed opposition to the top-down dictates.

But public opinion remains strong behind teacher vaccinations, and union leaders quickly came around. (Among parents with school-age children, 60 percent say they think all teachers should be vaccinated before returning to the classroom.) On August 8, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, came out in favor of Covid-19 vaccine requirements. “As a matter of personal conscience, I think that we need to be working with our employers, not opposing them, on vaccine mandates,” she said on Meet the Press. Four days later, Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association, came out in favor of vaccine mandates. Individual local unions have also started to pass resolutions in support.

But student uptake remains spotty among those eligible for the vaccine. As of August 11, in six states, over 60 percent of children ages 12–17 had received at least one dose, while in seven states, 30 percent or fewer had gotten their first shot. Yet many school districts have decided not to require students to inoculate themselves against Covid-19, despite long requiring student immunizations for other diseases. 

In Washington D.C., for example, just 14 percent of Black youth ages 12–15 had received one dose of the vaccine as of August 4, as compared with 51 percent of white students in the same age group. Among 16- and 17-year-olds in the district, just 21 percent of Black students had been vaccinated, while 47 percent of white students had. City leaders say they worry a new mandate for students could inspire backlash, and instead want to incentivize voluntary shots. Mayor Muriel Bowser recently announced the district would distribute up to 1,200 free AirPods to teens who got vaccinated, as well as award college scholarships to vaccinated students in a raffle. 

After months of stressing that children are not at risk of severe Covid-19 or death, and that the vaccines are good at preventing severe Covid-19 and death, leaders should not be too surprised that some families are hesitant to conclude that vaccinating their kids is worth it. Still, with low youth vaccination rates and the delta strain being more than twice as contagious as previous variants, pediatric cases and hospitalizations have been increasing, and more experts are warning about the risks to children of so-called long Covid.

New research about the potentially waning efficacy of the vaccines is throwing yet another wrench into school reopenings. Experts are seeing much more spread among vaccinated individuals, and one preprint study published last week by the Mayo Clinic suggested the mRNA vaccines may be significantly less effective in protecting against delta infection—as low as 42 percent effectiveness for those inoculated with the Pfizer vaccine.

On Friday, the FDA approved booster shots for certain immunocompromised individuals, a positive step, but many children live with adults who are immunocompromised and not yet eligible for third doses. While parents worry about the health and safety of their children, they’re also weighing the health and safety of their own parents, themselves, their siblings, their co-workers, and their neighbors. Some families will want to wait until their young children are eligible for the vaccines, or until more vulnerable groups are eligible for boosters. 

It’s not hard to see why. In Mississippi, nearly 1,000 children and 300 school staff tested positive for Covid between August 2 and 6, with roughly 5,000 quarantining from exposure. One Arkansas district had an outbreak of 43 cases, leading more than 800 students and staff to quarantine. In Florida, the Palm Beach County district superintendent reported that two days into the new school year, more than 400 students were in quarantine and the district had 134 confirmed cases, with 108 students and 26 staff members infected.

Given the uncertainty around the delta threat, a growing number of families have called for assurance that their children can learn virtually this fall. Even with experts warning that children risk falling behind academically if they continue to learn remotely, some families believe the harms do not outweigh the benefits in a pandemic, especially when many districts plan to be even more lax about testing and contact tracing than they were in 2020.

According to the Center on Reinventing Public Education, 80 percent of the nation’s 100 largest school districts will now be offering a virtual option; that share doubled in the first two weeks of August alone. However, New York City, the nation’s largest public school district, has not yet agreed to make remote learning available.

Getting kids back into the classroom and easing the burden on working families (especially mothers, who still shoulder most of the child-rearing duties) remain top policy goals, and leaders hope that the new vaccine mandates, the pressure to ramp up mitigation measures, and forthcoming FDA full approval for Covid-19 shots will help limit the spread of the highly contagious strain and ease lingering concerns.

But for those hoping we were finally at the end of the tunnel and could now enjoy calm and relaxed in-person school, the coronavirus has wrought yet another rude awakening.

Steven Holden is the Latest New York Democrat To Try Flipping A Coveted House Seat. Is He Up to The Task?

Originally published in The Intercept on August 11, 2021.
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FLIPPING THE HOUSE SEAT in New York’s 24th Congressional District — which includes all of Cayuga, Onondaga, and Wayne counties as well as the western part of Oswego County — should be a feasible task for Democrats, given that the district elected President Joe Biden in 2020 by 9 percentage points, Hillary Clinton in 2016 by 4 points, and President Barack Obama in 2012 by 16 points. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already designated the upstate New York district as one of its 21 “red-to-blue” targets for 2022.

Hoping to capitalize early on this for the Democratic Party is Steven Holden, a 48-year-old retired Army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Holden, the only primary candidate so far, served as a military finance officer and says he was part of the unit that helped finance the operation that led to Saddam Hussein’s capture in 2003.Join Our NewsletterOriginal reporting. Fearless journalism. Delivered to you.I’m in

But Democrats have faced tough defeats in their past attempts to unseat Rep. John Katko, a former U.S. attorney who was elected in 2014. He’s earned a reputation as an independent thinker in a party increasingly drifting toward extremism. While Katko voted with President Donald Trump more than 90 percent of the time during the representative’s first term, that figure dipped to just over 50 percent during his second. Analysts say things could be different, though, now that Trump is out of office. In January, Katko also voted to impeach the president following the attack on the Capitol — a decision that cost him the backing of prominent local conservatives.

In other words, despite the grim national forecast Democrats face for the 2022 midterms, the party is still hoping that now might be a favorable time for a Democrat to flip the seat. The next question is whether Holden is the man for the job.

When Balter ran to unseat Katko in 2018 and 2020, she campaigned on issues like universal health care, legalizing marijuana, and a $15 minimum wage. In both races, she suffered great losses, losing by about 6 and 15 points, respectively. While her first run was hobbled by a lack of financial support from the party establishment, her 2020 run had the support of the DCCC, EMILY’s List, Obama, Biden, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. The 2020 contest was among the DCCC’s “red-to-blue” targets.

Moderates were quick to pin Balter’s losses on her progressive platform. In a blog post, the centrist group Third Way said her defeat showed that Democrats “must run with mainstream, moderate candidates and ideas central to the Party’s position.”

But 2020 was a tough year for nearly all “red-to-blue” candidates, as well as incumbent moderate Democrats like Abby Finkenauer in Iowa and Max Rose in New York. House Democrats lost a net of 11 seats and saw their majority drop to a slim 220-212 lead over Republicans.

Despite centrists’ warnings, Holden thus far is not looking to create much distance between him and Balter on matters of policy.

“I know there are some political actors who take the view that [Balter] lost because she ran too much as a progressive, but I don’t think that’s accurate,” Holden told The Intercept. “Just from what I know here, the biggest reason she lost is because of turnout, that’s honestly what this is.” (In fact, more than 340,000 voters cast ballots in the 24th District race in 2020, up from 260,00 in 2018 and 302,000 in 2016.)

Balter, who told The Intercept she is not considering running for office “at this time,” said she thinks that a Democratic candidate, whoever that is in 2022, could beat Katko. “President Biden and the Democrats in Congress are delivering for the people,” she said, pointing to pandemic relief checks, local government aid, and the expanded child tax credit. Katko, by contrast, “is failing central New Yorkers in a big way,” she said, and “spends his time stoking the fears of his extreme right-wing base and placating his corporate donors.”

Holden’s theory of change rests on increased turnout (a harder task during the midterms) and “hammering Katko from all sides” on policy. He chalks Balter’s loss up to some siphoned votes from traditional fusion voting. (Over 13,000 voters cast ballots for Steven Williams, a Working Families Party candidate, though Balter lost by almost 35,000 votes.)

He also thinks his background and experience as a veteran could help him win back some Democrats who voted for Katko as well as attract rural voters. “I know Dana tried, but I’m going to go in and talk about issues with Wayne County and the rural part of Cayuga County, and really getting rural and suburban voters to where they feel comfortable with me,” he said. Left unspoken is the question of whether a male military veteran will fare better in upstate New York than Balter, a female professor, did.

BUT HOLDEN’S STRENGTH as a candidate is unclear, particularly if he hopes to clear the progressive lane. For one, regional activists say that so far his campaign has involved little grassroots organizing.

“We don’t have a relationship with him and haven’t been contacted by him,” said Brian Escobar, co-chair of the Syracuse Democratic Socialists of America chapter.

“We don’t know anything about Holden, and he hasn’t reached out to us,” added Tom Heck, a member of the steering committee for Indivisible-24, a local chapter of a national progressive advocacy group.

Nearly two months into his campaign, Holden has no Twitter account, and his Facebook page, which he updates frequently with videos of him discussing issues, has roughly 110 followers.

The district is also set to be redrawn soon, and Heck thinks it’s too soon to say how competitive it will be. (Indivisible-24 backed Balter in 2018 and 2020, and Heck says the group is focused right now on both local issues and pushing nationally for voting rights reform.) That redistricting process hasn’t started yet, but the census data is set to be released later this month, and it will be the first time in the state’s history that district lines are drawn by an independent redistricting commission.

Meanwhile, Katko has his own intraparty conflicts to attend to before the election. While the local branch of the Conservative Party of New York announced in April that it will not endorse Katko, whether the incumbent faces a real primary threat will depend on if the Conservative Party actually chooses to get behind another candidate.

In a statement to The Intercept, Onondaga County Conservative Party Chair Bernard Ment said the local party’s decision about John Katko “will ultimately be decided by our state party with recommendations forthcoming from the counties in the Congressional District” and that they are waiting for the redistricting commission to issue its recommendation. “I will say that I have been approached by a number of candidates willing to take up the challenge to primary Mr. Katko for the Republican endorsement and we may be inclined to back a challenger if that individual shows bonafide Conservative credentials,” he said, adding that the decision will ultimately be up to Gerard Kassar, chair of the state Conservative Party, and the state executive committee.

For now, no other Democratic candidates have jumped into the race, but a source with knowledge of the local Democratic Party said they’re aware of other candidates being recruited and expect some additional people to announce bids soon.

“We are looking forward to reminding voters of Katko’s toxic record and sending him into retirement in 2022,” DCCC spokesperson Abel Iraola said in an email. “His craven flip-flop on pursuing the truth about the insurrection and his vote against the Child Tax Credit and relief for New York families and small businesses show he is more out of touch with his district than ever before, and make him one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the country.”