The 47 percent dogs

Now I’m not saying that these three dogs registered to vote and cast ballots, but they clearly are wearing “I voted” stickers*. 🙂

They are also members of the 47% Club. They have never paid rent, are on food stamps and get feee medical care. You get three guesses on who they voted for.

The first two guesses don’t count.

All in jest, of course, but here’s hoping you voted today!

*They did not really register to vote nor did they cast a ballot. That would be illegal. Even in Ohio.

Emergency rooms, magical thinking, and the poor

Emergency Room

To hear Mitt Romney (and many others) tell it, Emergency Rooms are the physical embodiment of Mother Theresa, treating indigents like Jesus treated the lepers. The great seas of health care are suddenly parted for the poor and ill, and outstanding bills just miraculously become absorbed into the ether of write-off’s and tax exemptions.

This type of magical health care thinking isn’t limited to multi-millionaire politicians. Many in the public also believe ER’s effectively fill the wide gap between sickness and insurance. It’s a fallacy that has become so engrained that its standard line — get sick, get treated by an ER, get the tab picked up by someone else — goes nearly undisputed by those on both the right and the left.

That’s simply not the way it works.

Setting aside the fact that ER’s are not mandated to treat what their doctors may consider a non-emergency — a subject which merits its own, separate discussion — many uninsured ER patients find themselves saddled with bills they can’t hope to pay. These bills are not just from the hospital, but from outside physicians, diagnostic services, and laboratories, none of whom are mandated to treat the indigent or uninsured for free.

Depending upon the state and the hospital, uninsured patients may meet with a hospital social worker who will have them fill out forms for state aid or other programs. There is no guarantee of approval, and even when someone does qualify, benefits may not extend to other services rendered in the course of care.

On a trip across the US, I spoke to several people in dire straights due to medical debt. One of them was a homeless man in his 30s. John M. was a single laborer who was working a temp job when he was hit with over $8,000 in medical bills for non-work related wound that had led to a staph infection. In the hospital, he met with a social worker who helped him apply for aid. Later, he received notice that he didn’t qualify due to his income and status as a single person. The bills started pouring in, not just from the hospital, but from doctors whose names he didn’t recognize and labs that had processed his tests.

When bills like John’s go unpaid, hospitals and other businesses may “write them off,” but contrary to what many people may believe, this does not mean that they disappear. Collection agencies buy such debts for pennies on the dollar and then may vigorously pursue the patient-debtor, through judgments, wage garnishments, and bank account liens. To add to the confusion, medical debts can be bought and sold many times over, involving an almost incomprehensible string of collection agencies.

Like many people with medical debt, John attempted to work with the collection agencies on a payment plan, but there were too many of them, each demanding that their bill take precedence. Desperate for relief, John went to an agency that specializes in helping debtors reach payment agreements and was told he didn’t make enough to carry the minimum monthly payment that would be required. At that point, John considered filing for bankruptcy, but he couldn’t afford the attorney’s fees.

Four years after his illness, with his credit ruined and with several court judgments against him, John’s low wages were garnished and he could no longer afford his rent. He applied for a second job as a cashier at a home goods store and was told that they’d run his credit report as a matter of practice. It was the same at other places he applied. While he was never told why he wasn’t hired, he suspected that his low score had something to do with the lack of call-backs, particularly since he’d never had such a problem finding a minimum wage job before.

John scrambled for a cheaper place to live, but none of them were cheap enough to make up for the loss of wages, and all of them required better credit than his. He was told he’d need a cosigner or a larger deposit, neither of which he had. Feeling he had no choice, John quit his job and found work with another temp agency, hoping to outrun his garnishment and at least catch up on his rent. Within two months, the collection agencies had found his new place of employment and set the wheels in motion to collect their pay. John was eventually evicted. Jobless, he lived out of his 14 year-old truck for a while, but then his truck died and he couldn’t afford repairs. He sold it for scrap so that he could eat. He showed up at the county day labor office every weekday, hoping to make enough money to rent a motel room. Sometimes there was work, sometimes there wasn’t. Sometimes he slept in shelters, but many times he slept in the streets. When winter got to be too much, he scraped together enough to take a bus to a warmer climate. When I met him, he was among many of Florida’s homeless and his prospects for crawling out of the hole were dimmer than ever.

Of course, not all stories are as extreme as John’s, but the fact that some are is a stark reminder of how easily a life can be unraveled, particularly when medical debt can bring a host of life-altering consequences.

Some people do end up qualifying for State programs, and there are some hospitals which have developed their own foundations to assist in care, but there’s no national uniformity to the system. While an uninsured person at one hospital may qualify to have their ER charges reduced or paid for by another entity, another person, at another hospital, may not.

In any case, medical debt is on the rise and collection agencies are becoming increasingly aggressive in pursuing debtors.

The Commonwealth Fund, a private foundation that sponsors health care research, estimates that 22 million Americans were contacted by collection agencies for unpaid medical bills in 2005. That increased to 30 million Americans in 2010. – March 2012, USA Today

As the article in USA Today points out, credit may be wrecked even when medical debt is paid. Slow and late payments can stay on records for seven years, and as much as ten if there is a judgment involved. There is also a valid and growing concern that collection agencies are misusing the court system to have debtors thrown in jail, adding the element of warrants and jail time to people’s background checks which, like poor credit, may diminish their future employment and housing opportunities. Poverty by itself is a vicious cycle that is difficult to escape. Adding collections, garnishments, judgments, bad credit, and arrests to the list of obstacles can make it nearly impossible. In the bigger picture, it would seem to do more harm to our economy and social structure to keep people locked in the cycle of medical debt for years on end, rather than to offer them a real solution.

Despite receiving tax exemptions to care for the uninsured and poor, some hospitals have gone so far as to sue these patients for what they are owed. Others, as noted, turn their debts over to collection agencies. In the mix are the outside services which are not given the same exemptions, and which aren’t subject to the same guidelines.

The result of all of this is that both patients and the medical care industry are suffering, while collection agencies are growing richer. By 2007, the number of collection agents had doubled from the early 1990s, while industry revenue tripled to $15 billion (on $40 billion in collected debt).

So, no, emergency rooms are not the answer for America’s sick and uninsured. The illness that’s treated today should not result in years of financial consequences, which not only affects individuals, but society as a whole. To what end is a culture that binds people to medical debt in ways that may cost them their homes, jobs, and futures? To what end is a medical system that only increases the need for shelters, welfare, and other social services — while burdening the healthcare industry with millions of dollars in extra costs? An America that grows poverty is not as valuable as an America that grows potential. Anyone who would argue against that is as short-sighted as they are unreasonable.

I apologize, Governor Kasich

Northmont Kindergarten Sign

Dear Hon. John Kasich, Governor of Ohio;

I apologize for my sight-sightedness with respect to my opposition to your state education budget cuts and SB5, which sought to limit bargaining rights for teachers. Clearly these were bills designed to give smart-ass bloggers like me an endless supply of content for free.

Please forgive my lack of vision. I look forward to the endless bounty of your labors.

I remain your loyal subject,

Rufus Dogg

Northmont Kindergarten Sign

Meet the head of your new HOA; The Bank

Common wisdom was once upon a time that the bank did not ever want to own your home. It would try so hard to not own your home it would fall over backwards to work with you if you ever fell behind on your mortgage.

Until the housing bubble burst in 2007-08.

Everything has now changed. Banks want so badly to own your home that they will literally dodge your phone calls and letters attempting to restructure your loan or even work out terms with you.

Being rather old school, this sort of behavior puzzled me at first. What would a bank do with a house? They are not in the real estate business?

But they are. Getting into the real estate business is their way of turning lemons into lemonade.

When the foreclosure rate was insanely low, the cost to the bank to manage a house that was foreclosed on was too great for the return. But look what has happened since the bubble burst. The foreclosed homes have consolidated. Where there was only one home in a subdivision, there are now 20-40 homes or more. It now makes sense to hire property management companies to flip the house, maintain it and manage the renters*.

The banks are slowly owning large tracts of private property. They are becoming the de facto Home Owners Association. Eventually, they will be the loudest voice at city council meetings and zoning boards.

Are you noticing? Is anyone in Washington?

*We have had one such company rent out an old church and set up shop just right outside of Englewood. Their signs are on almost every distress property in every subdivision for miles. Like watching McDonalds expand.

Drug testing our way to a Master Race

Drug testing

Drug testing

In October, Linn State Technical College in Linn, Mo., notified its 1,200 students that they will have to take a drug test to enroll there

Florida requires citizens applying for pubic assistance to submit to a drug test. Supporters of the policies note that public assistance is meant to be transitional and that drug tests are increasingly common requirements for getting jobs. So, the argument goes, people get drug-tested all the time so it must be ok.

Only it isn’t ok.

The question is not if it is ok that we test welfare recipients but that we are testing people at all for drug use. It is not an invasion of their privacy. It’s about assuming they are guilty of using and proving they are not. It assumes that people who test positive (whether or not they really are positive) are unemployable, bad credit risks, stupid or unworthy of basic human assistance

We don’t test for alcohol yet alcohol kills more people and contributes to more workplace accidents than marijuana does.

If we are wondering how to create a “Master Race,” this is how we do it. Only employ people with high FICO Scores, no prison record and a clean drug test. The rest with any human faults and frailties we can leave to the ravages of poverty.

But that is probably ok as we work toward privatizing prisons and then replace public sector employees with prisoners who make less than a $1.00/day. They are already being put to work as highway workers and firefighters.

Maybe we can replace teachers with prisoners one day as well.

The vast chasm between the haves and the have-nots

Urban Street

Back several year ago (actually a lot of years ago) I found myself in Philadelphia for the first time ever, in a rental car, in the middle of January, very lost. I just needed to get on the freeway pointing to the airport.

Me and my travel companion got out at a gas station and asked someone how to get to the freeway. The man did not know. After several minutes, I realized this man was not being intentionally unhelpful, he just simply didn’t know. He had never driven a car in his life and had no reason to ever use the freeway. He probably never ventured outside his neighborhood his whole life.

….

Taxes and a disturbing trend

I have never filed a late tax return.

Ever.

It is not uncommon for state, local and federal tax departments to send my corporation a letter, asking for some explanation or asserting that I had not filed correctly or filed and paid on time, etc. I run a very tight ship and these matters usually get cleared up with a prompt letter and excessive documentation proving the date of filing, the date the check cleared and whatever else is needed to satisfy the anomaly.

I hire very good people. They have never been wrong.

It used to be that we would get a random letter every other year or so. It happens. Tax departments are very complicated with a lot of gears and levers and people pushing and pulling those levers. But lately, I’ve noticed that we are receiving letters almost quarterly from every tax department; from Ohio Department of Taxation to Ohio’s Health and Human Services to The City of Vandalia to the Internal Revenue Service. As of today, we have five outstanding tax issues.

FIVE!!!

I have no doubt that all of these will be resolved, but I have to ask: What the hell is going on here? Are these tax departments understaffed? I’d like to think that is the problem because the other alternatives is they are either stupid or malicious. That is not a road I’m willing to go down.

I have noticed, though, that no matter the outcome, the tax department always insists on assessing a late filing fee, even though the return was not late. Yes, we fight that but it is one more step in the process.

Maybe public sector cuts are not the answer. Small government may just mean that critical services gets rushed and too many mistakes happen. Mistakes like this cost private business a lot of money in extra payroll, time away from development, paranoid documentation practices and just needless pain-in-the-ass. All of this is real money.

As a private business, you can’t just ignore a tax letter. Really, not wise. It doesn’t matter how small you are, it has to be attended to right away.

This isn’t a “I hate paying taxes” rant. I get why we pay taxes. Like everyone else (except Warren Buffet) I would like to pay less. But mostly, I would like to not be on the crap end of these letters that seem to come in without rhyme or reason. If that means we should be increasing taxes to hire a few more people to make sure these mistakes don’t happen, I’m for that.

But this random “wheel of fortune” game we seem to now be on ticks me off more than higher taxes. This makes me feel like a sitting duck.

The I Could Do it Better Syndrome

InvisiblePeople.tv

You know them.

They’re the people who yell at the television on Monday nights, insisting that they could have caught that pass or avoided that tackle. They’re the ones who can’t attend a conference or event without telling other people how they would have made it more interesting. They’re the people who believe they can do everything better than anyone else, whether it’s blogging, forging a career, making choices, having a relationship, or even serving a charitable cause.

The I Could Do It Better Syndrome seems to affect only a small percentage of the population, but they’re a persistent and vocal minority that demands not only to be heard, but somehow validated. It’s not enough to address their criticisms — they want nothing less than complete capitulation. Yes, you are right and I am wrong. How may I serve you? What can I do to make you happy? Until they get the attention and agreement they want, the I Could Do It Betters won’t let up, at least until they find a new outlet for their hostilities.

There’s a man online who has been doing a remarkable job of bringing light to the issue of homelessness. It was his vision, his idea and his efforts that resulted in a mission that has gathered steam, sponsors and many, many supporters. And while I’ve been neutral in the past about social programs that “raise awareness” — believing that direct, one-on-on support is more critical — Mark Horvath’s InvisiblePeople.tv has gained my respect. His pinpoint focus and tireless travels across the United States and Canada have resulted in more than just awareness and sympathy. His interviews with homeless people have spurred real offers of help and assistance. Further, in giving the homeless a direct opportunity to tell their stories to the world — to look into the camera and in their own words talk about their situations and feelings — Mark has given a powerful voice to those “invisible” people whom society has often ignored or dismissed.

I’ve followed Mark’s journey online for about a year. While it doesn’t surprise me that his mission has been attacked recently by a group of I Could Do It Betters, what I do find disturbing is how far they’ve been willing to go to get other people to jump on their hateful (and I must say, seemingly jealousy-driven, bandwagon). They’ve tweeted his sponsors and threatened to never do business with them. They’ve made YouTube videos questioning his ethics. They’ve accused Mark of exploiting the homeless for his own gain, of being a limelight seeker, of not answering questions to their satisfaction — even of passing out the wrong kind of donated food. Their claims have gotten ridiculous and out of hand — they’ll criticize anything from Pop Tarts to socks — but they seem to delight in any opportunity to assail Mark’s “motives”, his tactics and his character.

Having followed Mark’s mission for over a year, I know that not even one of the accusations are even partially true. This is a simply a bold case of I Could Do It Better by people who, hypocritically, are seeking attention for themselves. They seem to resent the (well-deserved) praise InvisiblePeople.tv has received and believe they could do a better job with the resources Mark has gathered.

My question to the armchair critics would be — if you believe you could do better, why don’t you? Instead of all that energy spent denigrating one person’s efforts, why not build your own mission from scratch? What’s stopping you from rallying support for your own better ideas and solutions?

The answers are, of course, apparent. Lacking their own will, drive and ideas to actually affect change and improve the world around them, the I Could Do It Betters would rather imagine that they could — if only they were Mark. If only they had had the idea and put the work in. If only they had spent the great amount of time and care that Mark has gathering support. If only they were given the opportunity.

However, the I Could Do It Betters have to know that Mark wasn’t given his mission — he created it out of his own vision and ideals and then worked very hard to make it a reality. There’s nothing to stop others from doing the same (or even better) should they ever choose to leave the comfort of their armchairs and take the real-world actions they believe would be an improvement.

You can learn more about Mark Horvath and his mission to help homeless people by visiting InvisiblePeople.tv, or by following @hardlynormal and @invisiblepeople on Twitter.

Today’s post is a guest post by the novelist and essayist, Jane Devin. We’re delighted she stopped by to bark and walk in our back yard and welcome her any time she wants to wander in. If you haven’t already, buy her book, Elephant Girl. It is nothing short of amazing.