Archive | July 22, 2011

Health Care Scams Employees

Health Care Scams Employees


By Viji Sundaram


Synopsis: In San Francisco, workers are suffering due to a loophole in a city ordinance that was originally intended to help them.


SAN FRANCISCO — When a Chinese-American restaurant worker submitted a reimbursement form to his boss after a visit to his doctor, he was told he couldn’t get reimbursed because his health plan “only covers certain types of care.”

Another Chinese-American worker was told by his boss that if he agreed to not seek reimbursement for medical expenses, the employer would “reward” him with a $30 kickback every month, according to Shaw San Liu, an organizer with Chinese Progressive Association, a grassroots organization that works with immigrants and low-wage workers.

The two scenarios described by Liu are not all that unique, as was obvious from the 30 or so workers who showed up at San Francisco City Hall yesterday to support an amendment that would stop employers from taking advantage of a loophole in a city ordinance that requires businesses to provide health care for their employees.

The Health Care Security Ordinance (HCSO) was implemented by the city in 2009, creating a mandate for businesses with more than 20 employees to provide them with some level of healthcare, or access to healthcare.

Some small businesses opted to comply by putting money into a Health Reimbursement Account (HRA) — a flex-plan that their employees can draw from during the year to pay for certain health care services.

According to the city’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement, in 2010, the vast majority (90 percent) of San Francisco employers provided their employees with traditional health care plans; only 3 percent enrolled their employees in Healthy San Francisco, a sliding-scale public program; and the rest (7 percent) provided their employees with the HRA plan.

For every hour an employee works, the company puts $1.37 into their HRA, which translates to about $2,000 a year for a full-time employee.

But a loophole in the law has inadvertently created a financial incentive for employers to restrict employee access to the HRA accounts, according to the San Francisco Labor Council. By placing arbitrary restrictions on employee use of the HRA funds, employers can reclaim more than 80 percent of the money they put into those accounts at the end of each year, explained Ramneek Saini, community services director with the San Francisco Labor Council.

Many of these businesses, such as restaurants, are also levying surcharges on customers to pay for the employee health care expenditures. At least one restaurant owner, Jennifer Piallat, of Zazie Restaurant, was able to purchase regular health insurance for her eligible employees through surcharge fees.

“The problem is that most of these accounts are set up with ‘use-it-or-lose it’ provisions,” explained Supervisor David Campos, who yesterday proposed an amendment to plug the HRA loophole. “The employers are credited with making the expenditures, but the balances in the accounts are wiped-out at the end of every year (or when the worker quits or gets fired) and the employers keep the money.”

Some employers, said Liu, don’t even tell their employees that they are eligible for the HRA plan, especially if the employee is an immigrant and has language barriers.

“There is a financial incentive for employers not to let their employees know about the flex-plan,” Saini said, noting that last year, of the $62 million deposited into the plan, $50 million went back to employers and only $12 million was accessed by employees.

The Campos amendment would close the “don’t-get-sick-in-January” loophole, as Campos calls it, by clarifying that employers are only credited for satisfying their Employer Spending Requirement if they actually spend the money on their employees’ health care. In other words, the amendment requires funds placed into the HRAs to rollover from year to year so employees can have meaningful protection if they fall ill or are injured. It also allows employees to save for or pay medical bills over time or to use the funds to purchase their own insurance.

The 3-member Board of Supervisors Government Audit and Oversight Committee, comprising of Supervisors Campos, David Chiu and Mark Ferrel, voted 2-1 to hold the amendment for further review. But Campos is optimistic he can get four other supervisors to vote for the amendment when the full board meets July 26.

An estimated 60,000 city residents were uninsured at the time the HCSO program officially began, in July 2007. An unsuccessful legal challenge by the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, which represents restaurants statewide, delayed its implementation until January 2009.

It has now covered about 75 percent of the city’s uninsured at a cost of roughly $120 million a year, including city money, state grants, employer contributions and participants’ fees. The average monthly cost per person is $280.

At yesterday’s hearing, at least a dozen businesses showed up at City Hall to oppose the Campos amendment, saying it will hurt them. But supporters of the amendment — many of them immigrant workers — far outnumbered them.

“Last year, I had to spend a lot of money when I got sick,” said Raciel Esperanza, a waiter at a San Francisco restaurant, and a supporter of the amendment. “I couldn’t get reimbursed for my out-of-pocket expenses, which is a hardship for me. I also wasn’t allowed to use the funds for dental, vision, or even to purchase my own insurance.”

*Republished under “Content Exchange” the original can be found on New American Media


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Setting the Record Straight on the Nile

Setting the Record Straight on the Nile


By Fasil Amdetsion*

The coming together of six East African states to sign the Cooperative Framework Agreement regulating use of the Nile – the first basin-wide agreement to attract the support of a majority of Nile riparian states – has elicited widespread media coverage. Ethiopia’s announcement that it intends to build a new mega dam along the Nile has further spurred the journalistic frenzy.

As is often the case with stories about a region which seldom makes international headlines, but for the most harrowing of crises, some of what is written is correct, but significant aspects of what appears in print is wrong.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Lester Brown, head of the Earth Policy Institute, writes that East Africa’s recent drive to use the Nile is unfortunate for Egypt and poses ‘a grave threat to Africa’s newest democracy,’ given its growing population and dwindling water resources. Brown neglects to mention why Egypt’s 81 million citizens are ostensibly entitled to a monopoly over the river, to the detriment of the Nile Basin’s 220 million other inhabitants.

Most other commentary, does not show such a wanton disregard for East Africa, but is often rife with inaccuracies nonetheless.

Here’s what is right: Egypt contributes no water to the Nile, but together with Sudan, makes exclusive use of the river. Egypt justifies its monopoly by pointing to two archaic treaties. Egypt signed the first such treaty with Anglo-Egyptian Sudan in 1929 (and an updated version with independent Sudan in 1959). The 1929 Agreement allotted twelve times more water to Egypt than Sudan, whereas the 1959 Agreement gave Egypt 75 per cent of the water and Sudan 25 per cent. Both agreements apportion no water to upper riparian states.

The British also signed onto the 1929 Agreement on behalf of their colonies, pledging that no works reducing the quantity of water flowing to Cairo would be undertaken in British-administered territories. The Egyptians claim that these agreements preclude the upper riparian states (Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo) from sharing in the river’s plentiful bounty.

These basic contours of the story are accurately reported, but the details which follow, often are not. Broadly speaking, the fallacies fall into three categories.

First, that the 1929 treaty bestows upon Egypt an unqualified majority stake in the Nile and that this agreement is legally binding on upper riparian states.

Second, that the upper riparians are trying to rewrite or renegotiate the 1929 and 1959 Agreements by entering into the new Cooperative Framework Agreement on the Nile.

And, third, that such modification is sought in order to dispossess Egypt of its ‘majority’ rights.

These statements are inaccurate and must be corrected.

The 1929 Agreement does not bind all countries through which the Nile flows. In the case of the DRC, Rwanda, Burundi and Ethiopia, the matter is straightforward because these countries never subscribed to the 1929 Agreement. One need not be a lawyer to understand that non-parties to an agreement cannot be bound by its terms. It is plainly obvious that Egypt cannot enjoy an unqualified majority right to the Nile, if Ethiopia, from which approximately 85 per cent of the water flows, is not a party to the 1929 Agreement.

But the 1929 Agreement carries no weight with respect to Britain’s former East African colonies too. Indeed, there are multiple arguments – from the fact that the treaty violates fundamental norms (referred to by lawyers as jus cogens), to the fact that it was too one-sided (a Leonine treaty, in legal parlance) – which militate in favor of concluding that the agreement was void at its inception. Even if that were not the case, under international law, newly independent states are generally not considered to inherit treaties, unless such treaties deal with the discrete issue of international boundaries.

Moreover, the upper riparians are not attempting to rewrite or renegotiate the 1929 Agreement, for how could they rewrite an agreement they refuse to recognize, consider illegitimate, and to which they have registered strenuous on-the-record objections? Instead of modifying existing agreements, the upper riparian states are trying to institute a framework for the utilization of the Nile, where there previously was none.

Finally, by coming together to conclude an agreement, upper riparian states are not trying to ‘dispossess’ Egypt. The lack of significant works in the upper reaches of the Nile basin does not imply acquiescence to a purported Egyptian right, which East Africans are supposedly suddenly clamoring to appropriate for themselves. Instead, the paucity of construction reflects the historical inability of East Africans to muster the requisite resources to develop the Nile because of political instability and the hurdles to international funding put in place by Egyptian diplomats.

These corrections are not mere semantic quibbles. Words matter, and inaccuracies – be they legal or historical in nature – risk becoming conventional wisdom if repeated often enough. It is incumbent on concerned Africans to avail themselves of every opportunity to set the record straight.

* Fasil Amdetsion is an Ethiopian-American lawyer based in New York. He is a member of the Global Advisory Board for the International University of Haiti and a member of the Board of Directors of the African Services Committee.


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NATO’s Debacle in Libya

NATO’s Debacle in Libya


By Alexander Cockburn


After three and a half months of bombing and arms supply to various rebel factions, NATO’s (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) failure in its efforts to promote ‘regime change’ in Libya is now glaring.

Obviously NATO’s commanders are still hoping that a lucky bomb may kill Gaddafi, but to date the staying power has been with the Libyan leader, whereas it is the relevant NATO powers who are fighting among themselves.

The reports from Istanbul of the deliberations of NATO’s contact group have a surreal quality as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Foreign Minister William Hague gravely re-emphasise their commitment to regime change and the strengthening of ties to the Transitional Council in Benghazi, while the humiliation of the entire NATO expedition is entering the history books as an advertisement of the dangers of political fantasy in the service of ‘humanitarian interventionism’, appalling intelligence work, illusions about bombing and air power and some of the worst press coverage in living memory.

Take British Prime Minister David Cameron. He can thank Rupert Murdoch, even the wretched Andy Coulson, for one ironic blessing. His appalling misjudgement and obstinacy in hiring former News of the World editor Coulson has so dominated British headlines these past days that an equally staggering misjudgement in the international theatre is escaping well-merited ridicule and rebuke.

When Cameron vied with French president Nicolas Sarkozy in early March in heading the charge against Gaddafi, no murmur of caution seems to have disturbed the blithe mood of confidence in Downing Street. It was as though Blair’s blunders and miscalculations in Iraq, endlessly disinterred in subsequent years, had never been.

Cameron, like Sarkozy, Clinton and Barack Obama presumably had intelligence assessments of the situation in Libya. Did any of them say that Gaddafi might be a tougher nut to crack than the presidents of Tunisia or Egypt, might even command some popular support in Tripoli and western Libya, historically at odds with Benghazi and the eastern region? If they did, did they pay any attention?

The Western press, along with al-Jazeera, was no help. The early charges of Gaddafi committing ‘genocide’ against his own people or ordering mass rapes were based on unverified rumour or propaganda bulletins from Benghazi and have now been decisively discredited by reputable organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Any pretensions the International Criminal Court (ICC) might have had to judicial impartiality have been undermined by the ICC’s role as NATO’s creature, rushing out indictments of Gaddafi and his closest associates whenever NATO’s propaganda agenda has demanded it.

The journalists in Benghazi became cheerleaders for what was from the start plainly a disorganised rabble of disparate factions. The journalists in Tripoli were reluctant to file copy which might be deemed by their editors as ‘soft’ on Gaddafi, a devil figure in the West for most of his four decades in power. America’s pwogwessives exulted that at last they had on their hands a ‘just war’ and could cheer on NATO’s bombardiers with a clear conscience and entertain fantasies about the revolutionary purity of the rebels.

All history shows that the dropping of thousands of bombs and missiles, with whatever supposed standards of ‘pin point accuracy’, never elicits the enthusiastic support of civilians on the receiving end, even if a certificate of humanitarian assistance and merciful intent is stamped on every projectile. Recent pro-government rallies in Tripoli have been vast. Libya has a population of about 6 million, with 4 million in Tripoli. Gaddafi barrels around the city in an open jeep. Large amounts of AK-47s have been distributed to civilian defence committees. Were they all compelled to demonstrate by Gaddafi’s enforcers? It seems unlikely.

This last week the Western press excitedly relayed the news that a handful of prisoners were denouncing Gaddafi. Well, if you were a prisoner with rebel guns pointed at your head, would you proclaim your fidelity to the prime target of their fury, or murmur that you had been dragooned into unwilling service? Isn’t this an item from journalism 101. Are they ‘black mercenaries’ or Libyans from the south who happen to be black and members of Gaddafi’s militias?

Another pointer to NATO’s misjudgements has been the heavy-handed dismissal of charges from African, Russian and even leaders of NATO countries such as Germany that the mandates of two UN Security Council resolutions passed in February and then March 17 – protection of civilian populations – were being brazenly distorted in favour of efforts to kill Gaddafi and install the ramshackle ‘provisional government’ in Benghazi – a shady bunch from the get-go.

In early March, Sarkozy, languishing in the polls, believed the counsel of ‘new philosopher’ Bernard-Henri Lévy, after the latter’s 6 March excursion to Benghazi, that Libya and its oil were up for grabs. On 11 March Sarkozy took the precipitate step of recognising the Benghazi gang as the legitimate government of Libya and awaited Gaddafi’s collapse with a confident heart.

In a hilarious inside account of the NATO debacle, Vincent Jauvert of Le Nouvel Observateur has recently disclosed that French intelligence services assured Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Alain Juppé ‘from the first [air] strike, thousands of soldiers would defect from Gaddafi’. They also predicted that the rebels would move quickly to Sirte, the hometown of Gaddafi and force him to flee the country. This was triumphantly and erroneously trumpeted by the NATO powers, which even proclaimed that he had flown to Venezuela. By all means opt for the ‘big lie’ as a propaganda ploy, but not if it is inevitably going to be discredited 24 hours later.

‘We underestimated al-Gaddafi,’ one French officer told Jauvert. ‘He was preparing for forty-one years for an invasion. We did not imagine he would adapt as quickly. No one expects, for example, to transport its troops and missile batteries, Gaddafi will go out and buy hundreds of Toyota pick-up in Niger and Mali. It is a stroke of genius: the trucks are identical to those used by the rebels. NATO is paralysed. It delays its strikes. Before bombing the vehicles, drivers need to be sure they are whose forces are Gaddafi’s. “We asked the rebels to a particular signal on the roof of their pick-up truck,” said a soldier, “but we were never sure. They are so disorganised…?”’

When collapse did not arrive on schedule the French government breezily confirmed earlier this month it was shipping and air-dropping arms supplies to Libyan rebel groups. We can safely assume Britain has its own clandestine operations in train, though the capture of the SAS/MI6 unit by Libyan farmers was not an inspiring augury.

The NATO coalition is now falling apart, though disclosure of this development has been muted to non-existent in the US press. French Defence Minister Gérard Longuet gave an interview at the end of last week to a French TV station saying that military action against Libya has failed, and it is time for diplomacy: ‘We must now sit around a table. We will stop bombing as soon as the Libyans start talking to one another and the military on both sides go back to their bases.’ Longuet suggested that Gaddafi might be able to remain in Libya, “in another room of the palace, with another title”.’

If Longuet’s startling remarks were for local consumption on the eve of an assembly vote, it clearly came as a shock to Cameron and Secretary of State Clinton. To heighten the impression of a civil war in NATO Cameron and Clinton rushed out statements asserting the ongoing goal of regime change, and that Gaddafi’s departure was a sine qua non, as demanded by the Benghazi gang.

But Berlusconi, his country the objective of tens of thousands of refugees from the fighting and from economic dislocation in Libya, is now saying he was against the whole NATO adventure from the start. He may decline to renew in the fall current basing agreements in Italy for the NATO intervening powers. Germany has always been unenthusiastic. Initially, France and Britain nourished hopes of close military liaison, but that soon collapsed for all the usual reasons – inertia, suspicion and simple incompetence.

Sarkozy’s suspicions of Germany and Turkey were apparently so intense, according to Le Nouvel Observateur, that he called for the sidelining the Turkish and German officers present in the command structure of NATO, on the grounds that they could undermine the war given Berlin and Ankara’s distaste for the whole exercise. Normal guidelines dictate that when the supreme commander of NATO, an American general and his no. 2, a Briton, are on leave, the no. 3, is to be a German. Sarkozy had this sequence nixed.

Obama has been playing a double game, reflective of domestic pressures and political priorities. At the start, the rush to the UN Security Council was very much Secretary of State Clinton’s initiative. In political stature early to mid-February Obama was at his nadir. There was growing talk of a one-term presidency. Clinton rushed into what she perceived as a tempting vacuum, perhaps even began to entertain some hopes of accelerating Obama’s decline and proffering herself as a potential contender in 2012. Obama, still fighting the ‘wimp’ label, swiftly endorsed the NATO mission and defied challenges as to its constitutional propriety. Clinton soon thereafter announced she was not particularly interested in staying in national politics after 2012.

In terms of equipment the US has been crucial. According to one French general cited by Le Nouvel Observateur, ‘33 of 41 tanker aircraft used in the operation are American, most of the AWACS as well, all the drones as well as 100 per cent of anti-radar missile and laser guidance kits for bombs. And that’s not all. The main means of command and control of NATO as the huge bandwidth for transmitting all the data is American.’ The Director of Military Intelligence General Didier Bolelli revealed that over 80 per cent of the targets assigned to the French pilots in Libya was designated by US! ‘They give us just enough so that we do not figure we were breaking,’ says one diplomat.

Those whose memories stretch back to the Suez debacle of 1956 might recall that Eisenhower simply ordered the British, French and Israeli forces to abandon the effort to overthrow Nasser. We could well be seeing a less overt re-run of that conclusive demonstration of post-Second World War US dominance, with the Obama administration making the point that any effort at asserting European primacy in the Mediterranean region is doomed to failure.

Before his retirement Defense Secretary Robert Gates took the opportunity to twist the knife in a speech in Brussels: ‘The mightiest military alliance in history, is … into an operation against a poorly-armed regime in a sparsely populated country – yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference.’ He said ominously, ‘future U.S. political leaders … may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.’

Even if Obama is in fact wholeheartedly for regime change in Libya, the political temperature here does not favour the sort of escalation – hugely costly and much against the public mood – required in the wake of the failure of the bombing campaign.

There’s no evidence that Labour’s leader, Ed Miliband, lion-like in his eagerness to seize the reins of the anti-Murdoch bandwagon, has the political agility to toast Cameron for the Libyan farce. By disposition he’s probably keener on ‘humanitarian interventions’ than Cameron and can only reproach him for not trying hard enough.

In sum, we on the left should rejoice that a simple colonial smash-and-grab is currently in a shambles, with serious long-term consequences for NATO’s credibility and pretences to respect international law. The kangaroo cage known as the International Criminal Court has been even further discredited, another cause for joy.

What next? The air is thick with speculations about a brokered settlement, salted with hopeful bleats from the Americans and British that Gaddafi is on the verge of collapse, that he is running out of fuel, that the rebels are tightening the noose around Tripoli and that the Russians re-brokering some sort of a face-saving deal. It seems a better bet to recognise that after four and a half months, NATO and the interventionists are being humiliated. Throw in the humiliation of Rupert Murdoch and we can legitimately raise our champagne glasses even higher.


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