Amid the news of the debt ceiling debate and the government shutdown, a disturbing report was released in the U.S. Senate on October 7 revealing rampant abuse in the approval process of Social Security Disability benefits. The report, issued by the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, offers a peek into just how loosely at least one government benefits program is administered and sheds light on the need for more oversight of the programs that swallow 10 percent of the nation's GDP.
The Committee report encapsulates a two-year investigation, led by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), of a West Virginia Social Security office charged with the disbursement of Social Security Disability funds. The investigation uncovered an advanced network of inside dealings between a Kentucky-based law firm, local doctors, and an Administrative Law Judge resulting in a complex rip-off of the federal government's disability program. The suitably named Eric Conn of the Conn law firm in Kentucky paid doctors substantial fees for unsubstantiated medical evaluations of his clients, maintained a highly questionable relationship with the judge who consistently approved Conn's clients for benefits, and in doing so generated more than $4.5 million in attorney fees paid by the Social Security Administration for services rendered to disability applicants.
The travesty, however, is not the millions paid to the attorney, but the billions that will be paid out over the lifetimes of those whose claims were improperly approved under this scheme to defraud the U.S. taxpayers. more >>
The national debt has surpassed $17 trillion, or about $53,765 for each U.S. citizen, including children. Total unfunded liabilities, what the federal government is projected to owe minus what the federal government is projected to receive in revenue, is over $126 trillion.
The U.S. Treasury Department posts the national debt, to the penny, on weekdays, not including holidays, at around 3 p.m. On Friday, Treasury reported the national debt at $17,075,590,107,963.57, the first time it has surpassed the $17 trillion mark. By Monday afternoon it was down slightly, at $17,074,260,390,144.95.
Part of that amount, about $5 trillion worth, is debt the government owes to itself, in the form of the Social Security trust fund. Since Social Security now pays more to beneficiaries than it receives in revenue, through a payroll tax, the program trades in its special Treasury bonds to make up the difference. more >>
In a speech that showed both frustration and hope for the future, President Barack Obama addressed the American people Thursday morning after Congress reached a short-term compromise late Wednesday night to end the federal government shutdown, reopening the government until Jan. 15 and suspending the debt ceiling through Feb. 7.
The president said in his address that the past weeks of federal shutdown have wreaked havoc on America's economy and the trust of the American people in their government. Obama sternly said that the federal shutdown has done more to undermine the economy than anything else in the past three years.
Obama added that the shutdown has "inflicted completely unnecessary damage" on the U.S. economy and American people, as well as "encouraged our enemies, emboldened our competitors, and depressed our friends who look to us for steady leadership." more >>
Americans were shocked by headlines like, "Priests Face Arrest for Holding Mass During Shutdown." News accounts reported that Catholic priests were warned that they are not permitted to minister on base during the shutdown, and they risk being arrested if they attempt to do so.
Since they are unpaid volunteers, this was not caused by a shutdown of military funds. Priests were warned that they risked arrest and military discipline if, without pay, they simply walked onto the base property to perform a chaplain's regular duties.
Congress quickly responded with a nonbinding resolution to reinstate furloughed chaplains on a volunteer basis. The House voted 400 to 1, and the Senate passed a similar resolution. more >>
Political leaders reached an agreement Wednesday on a temporary government funding bill and a temporary extension of the nation's debt limit. The agreement provides a path out of the current toxic environment that led to the standstill, but it also puts off the difficult issues for only a few months.
The agreement will fund the government until Jan. 15, increase the national debt limit to allow enough borrowing until Feb. 7, and set up a conference committee composed of members from both houses and both parties to come up with a longer term agreement by Dec. 13. The agreement will also include back pay for federal workers and one small change to the Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare," – income verification will be required for all beneficiaries of ACA subsidies.
The government shutdown began when Republicans demanded changes to the ACA in exchange for funding the government. President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats insisted they would not negotiate. In the end, they split the difference. Obama and the Democrats did allow one change to the ACA, but it is a modest one. more >>
The Affordable Care Act is like the television show Storage Wars, where unclaimed items in storage lockers are auctioned off after a quick peek through the door. People bid top dollar and hope for the best. Some find a goldmine, but the unseasoned bidders usually receive a Pandora's Box.
Let's look at some of the winners. The Center for Public Policy, a non-partisan public interest think tank in Washington D.C., estimated that $120 million was spent lobbying for health reform. Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) alone spent $26 million lobbying for Obamacare in 2009. And PhRMA has spent well over $100 million on ad campaigns promoting healthcare reform legislation.
Upon passage of the bill, the stocks of some of the largest health insurers, including Cigna, UnitedHealth Group,WellPoint,and Aetna climbed. Major makers of electronic health records (EHR) systems lobbied hard, locking out smaller competitors. Chicago-based Allscripts Healthcare Solutions former CEO Glen Tullman, who had served as health technology adviser to Obama's presidential campaign in 2008, made more than $200,000 in contributions to the campaign, and was frequent guest at the White House during 2009. With some nudging from the Stimulus mandate for EHRs, annual sales of Allscripts more than doubled from $548 million in 2009 to $1.44 billion in 2012. Cerner, another software purveyor, spent $400,000 lobbying for EHR. During the same three-year period, sales rose 60 percent. more >>