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Kaiser Kidney Fiasco Part II

Last week I wrote about the Los Angeles Times smart piece of investigative journalism on Kaiser Permanente's troubled kidney transplant program in California.

As a result of the work done by reporters Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber, the California Department of Managed Health Care has intervened to demand that Kaiser pay for transplants at established hospitals if its patients elect to transfer to other programs. "Let me put it this way, [Kaiser] will do what the patients want them to do," Cindy Ehnes, director of the department told the LA Times.

Yesterday, Kaiser made a public apology and confirmed that it has agreed to the terms described by Ehnes.

Kaiser is not out of the woods yet. Two patients and the widow of a third have filed suit against the HMO as a result of botched paperwork and unnecessary delays that harmed treatment. In all, the treatment of up to 1,500 patients suffered due to Kaiser's forcing them out of established hospitals, denying kidney transplants that were available at other institutions, or botching paperwork so patients were stuck in limbo between programs.

The LA Times points out in an editorial that more oversight is still needed, and that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services could go a long way towards getting that done.

In the mean time, however, here's to the great work done by two sharp reporters and a regulatory agency with teeth.

Foucault on The West Wing

Illegal wire-tapping, millions of civilian telephone records turned over to the NSA, National Guard troops "temporarily" deployed on the Mexican border, "extraordinary rendition" of nameless suspects, "detainees" imprisoned in Guantanamo without due process, a limitless war on terror, an "axis of evil" -- sounds like the President has been reading Michel Foucault's Society Must Be Defended, a series of lectures given at the College de France that reverses Clausewitz's famous aphorism and explores how "politics is war continued by other means."

That President, however, is not George W. Bush. He's Democrat Josiah Barlet, who departed The West Wing after two terms, seven seasons and a raft of Emmy nominations. Yes, in last night's series finale, observant viewers spotted Foucault's book among President Barlet's private possessions.

I'll leave it to TV critics to debate what this might signify. But note to the real Prez in case he decides to take the lead of his fictional counterpart and, uh, read: Though Society Must Be Defended "deals with the emergence...of a new understanding of war as the permanent basis of all institutions of power," it is not a how-to manual.

Prime Time Bush Bull

What will Bush really mean by sending "troops to the border" as anticipated in his Monday night speech on immigration. Probably a lot less than what it is implied as I explain here.

But it's going to be a bloody mess anyway. As Bush tries to appease his right flank while simultaneously pandering to the more moderate reformers in his own party, he's likely to tear that immigration baby right in half.

Those pushing for reform are likely to be dissatisfied with what will probably be at most a back-handed endorsement from the President. The Minuteman Right, meanwhile, is going to be even more irked when it learns that all those troops heading to la linea are most likely to wind up as glorified desk jockeys.

Reconstruction Watch Part 6

A non-profit company in El Paso -- The National Center for Employment of the Disabled (NCED) -- was raided last week by 70 federal agents investigating whether it violated the terms of its no-bid contracts to produce chemical protection suits for soldiers.

Under the contract, 75 percent of the work was to be completed by severely disabled employees. The Committee for Purchase from People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled – the federal panel overseeing such contracts – indicates that, in fact, only 7.8 percent of the labor was performed by severely disabled workers.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the NCED was awarded $1.2 billion "in recent years", and $276 million in the fiscal year ending in October. But now its government contracts have been suspended and federal agents have confiscated more than 1,000 boxes of documents and computer information from the company.

Good to see that the federal panel is doing its job, but one wonders where these same agents – drawn from the FBI, GSA, IRS, and US Army – are when it comes to investigating Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown and Root and its water purification failures? Or that same company's $263 million in disputed charges to the government? Or the 50 lawsuits filed by whistleblowers against firms like Halliburton that are suspected of defrauding the government (and the American public) – suits that are being held up in court by the Bush administration? And let's not forget that $9 billion was simply lost -- that's right, lost, gone, nowhere -- by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).

Once again, the unevenness and even arbitrary nature of profiteering investigations points to the critical need for a bipartisan, independent War Profiteering Commission. Such a body -- empowered with the ability to subpoena and fully investigate all questions of fraud, waste, corruption, and mismanagement -- would give the American people confidence that justice will be served on these worst acts of betrayal.

And, of course, if the Democrats take back the House in November Congressional committees with subpoena power could complement the work of the War Profiteering Commission. This oversight is crucial because when it comes to getting at the truth, Bush & Co. will simply leave it to The Committee for Purchase from People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled to scapegoat outfits like NCED, while the Halliburtons continue to walk.

MOVIE NOTE: Fortunately we also have courageous filmakers like Robert Greenwald, who are determined to hold the war profiteers accountable. His next film will expose how the White House has put a greater value on rewarding well-connected war profiteers than ensuring our security. The film -- set for release before November's midterm elections -- brings together new and explosive footage. Click here for more info and ways you can help get out the word.

Had Enough?

Had Enough?

It's a phrase Newt Gingrich adapted from an ad exec in 1946 and popularized. Now he's telling Democrats to use it against his own Party. For once, Democrats should heed Newt's advice.

"Had enough?" certainly beats the focus-grouped hogwash that passes for Democratic slogans these days. Such as the official: "Together, America Can Do Better." Or the even more preposterous motto floated by a prominent Dem recently: "America Needs An Audit." As our colleague David Corn astutely noted, everyone hates audits.

"Had enough?" on the other hand, compresses all the Republicans failures into two easily understandable words. Barack Obama made the phrase the centerpiece of a fiery speech in Washington on Thursday:

I don't know about you, but I think old Newt is onto something here. Because I think we've all had enough. Enough of the broken promises. Enough of the failed leadership. Enough of the can't-do, won't-do, won't-even-try style of governance.

Four years after 9/11, I've had enough of being told that we can find the money to give Paris Hilton more tax cuts, but we can't find enough to protect our ports or our railroads or our chemical plants or our borders.

I've had enough of the closed-door deals that give billions to the HMOs when we're told that we can't do a thing for the 45 million uninsured or the millions more who can't pay their medical bills.

I've had enough of being told that we can't afford body armor for our troops and health care for our veterans. I've had enough of that.

I've had enough of giving billions away to the oil companies when we're told that we can't invest in the renewable energy that will create jobs and lower gas prices and finally free us from our dependence on the oil wells of Saudi Arabia.

I've had enough of our kids going to schools where the rats outnumber the computers. I've had enough of Katrina survivors living out of their cars and begging FEMA for trailers. And I've had enough of being told that all we can do about this is sit and wait and hope that the good fortune of a few trickles on down to everyone else in this country.

I don't know about you, but when George W. Bush said he didn't believe in nation building, I didn't know he was talking about this nation.

Obama's been hot and cold as of late. But speaking before hundreds of women at the annual gathering of Emily's List, he hit the perfect chords.

So You Want to Be a Rock & Roll Star?

Remember when your parents used to say, if you study hard you can grow up to be President? Remember when it was, well, the job to aspire to?

But what with Bush at 29 percent approval ratings, according to the latest Harris poll, and close to 70 percent of Americans believing that the country is heading in the wrong direction, another recent poll, conducted by the Washington Post, reveals how the presidency has, well, fallen into disrepute.

It seems that parents, when asked to rate six career choices for their kids, rated doctor most favorably (at 89 percent). Then, in descending order, they selected lawyer, professional athlete and police officer. That all makes some sense. But catch this. 34 percent of parents selected rock and roll musician as a preferred career choice for their kid; President came in at just nine points higher--at 43 percent. So, does this mean Keith Richards, Courtney Love, and Kid Rock are close to edging out the White House job as most preferred, respectable, important?

Don't get me wrong, I love rock and rollers and think they should be higher up in this poll, but these numbers are just another gauge of the ugly damage the current WH occupant has done to the presidential office.

Wolfowitz's New Comb

Almost a year has passed since Iraq War architect and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz became president of the World Bank -- and the reviews have been slow to come, largely because he's been surprisingly quiet on the job. Back in 2005, Wolfowitz's nomination raised alarms across the international community, even and especially among erstwhile neoliberals like Jeffrey Sachs and Joseph Stiglitz. Sachs publicly called for another candidate with more "experience in development," and Stiglitz predicted that the World Bank would become a "hate figure" causing "street protests and violence across the developing world" and "an explicit instrument of US foreign policy" that will "take a lead role in Iraqi reconstruction."

Stiglitz's own, mutating views on the World Bank aside, his worst fears of a Wolfowitz presidency have yet to materialize. Only last month did Wolfowitz float the idea of returning the World Bank to Iraq (and apparently, only at the urging of donor nations). And following last year's G-8 meeting, he recently announced $37 billion in debt relief to 17 poor countries. Such moves have left even critics of Bush's foreign policy and the Washington consensus with little to say (see Clare Short).

But a story in the latest New Statesman by former World Banker Robert Calderisi asks if Wolfowitz is, in fact, "the worst man in the world?" World Bank staffers interviewed by Calderisi portray a "secretive, unilateralist, omniscient" leader who has surrounded himself with former Defense Department cronies, rarely emerges from his office and is obsessed with his public image. Gee, sound familiar? (Wolfowitz, readers may recall, is the spit and comb guy from Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11.)

More worrying, however, is Wolfowitz only notable campaign to date -- his crusade against corruption. Last year when the G-8 announced its debt relief program to much fanfare, this magazine warned that Wolfowitz's emphasis on fighting corruption could become an excuse to stall debt relief. Earlier this year Wolfowitz laid out a far-reaching anti-corruption plan that according to the New York Times has already "delayed, suspended or canceled hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to India, Bangladesh, Kenya, Chad and Argentina" and blocked $2.9 billion in debt relief for the Congo. What other debt relief might get caught up in Wolfowitz's new comb?

According to Calderisi, World Bank staffers see his campaign as "opportunism rather than sober policy." Moreover, global activists have criticized Wolfowitz's plan for suggesting corruption is endemic to the developing world, rather than something caused and perpetuated by the World Bank's anti-democratic, non-transparent policies that favor multinational corporations over small civil society groups. As the IMF/World Bank watchdog organization the Bretton Wood Project puts it, "Wolfowitz has so far failed to systematically address the roots of the problem."

White House, NSA Block Investigation of Spying

With news reports exposing the National Security Agency's previously secret spying on the phone conversations of tens of millions of Americans, what is the status of the U.S. Department of Justice probe of the Bush administration's authorization of a warrantless domestic wiretapping program?

The investigation has been closed.

That's right. Even as it is being revealed that the president's controversial eavesdropping program is dramatically more extensive – and Constitutionally dubious -- than had been previously known, the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) has informed Representative Maurice Hinchey that its attempt to determine which administration officials authorized, approved and audited NSA surveillance activities is over.

Why?

In a letter to Hinchey, the New York Democrat who has been the most dogged Congressional advocate for investigation of the spying program, OPR Counsel H. Marshall Jarrett explained that he had closed the Justice Department probe on Tuesday, May 9, because his office's requests for security clearances to conduct the investigation had been denied.

"I am writing to inform you that we have been unable to make any meaningful progress in our investigation because OPR has been denied security clearances for access to information about the NSA program," Jarrett explained in his letter to Hinchey. "Beginning in January 2006, this Office made a series of requests for the necessary clearances. On May 9, 2006, we were informed that our requests had been denied. Without these clearances, we cannot investigate this matter and therefore have closed our investigation."

Who blocked the request? The obstruction has come from the very administration that the president asserts is operating "within the laws of our country" and cooperating with appropriate investigations.

The security clearances were blocked by the NSA, which has taken its direction on the spying program from the White House.

Hinchey, who along with Representatives John Lewis of Georgia and Henry Waxman and Lynn Woolsey of California requested the Justice Department inquiry in January, following initial reports regarding the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program, is furious.

"It is outrageous that people within the Bush administration have blocked an investigation into the role that members of the Justice Department played in establishing and executing this secret domestic spy program," says the New York Democrat. "We must get to the bottom of this and reveal who has stifled this investigation. The Bush administration cannot simply create a Big Brother program and then refuse to answer any questions on how it came about and what it entails. We are not asking for top secret information. We simply want to know how the domestic spy initiative evolved and who is behind what many legal scholars believe is an unconstitutional surveillance program. If the administration believes the program is legal then it should have no problem being forthright with Justice Department investigators as to how it was initiated and is being carried out."

The key questions that Hinchey and his colleagues want answered are these:

• Who within the DOJ first authorized the domestic surveillance program?

• What was that official's justification was for doing so?

• Had the Bush administration already enacted the program before getting original DOJ approval?

• What does the reauthorization process for the surveillance initiative entail?

• Why, according to news reports, did the then-Acting Attorney General refuse to reauthorize the program and why the Attorney General expressed strong reservations about the program and may have rejected it as well?

Hinchey is not prepared to let the matter rest.

The congressman is seeking to determine who in the administration prevented the OPR investigators from obtaining the security clearances needed to conduct an investigation. When he has that information, Hinchey says, he will press for a reversal of the denial of the clearances and the reopening of the investigation.

At the same time, Hinchey continues to push on a number of fronts for the opening of a full Congressional inquiry into the warrantless wiretapping program and administration efforts to stifle examinations of its domestic spying initiatives.

While he has often stood alone in the past, Hinchey's calls come as part of a Congressional chorus of concern expressed by key members of the House and Senate on Thursday.

The Senate's chief critic of the spying program, Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold, says that the latest revelations have raised a range of new concerns about the White House's apparent disregard for the Constitution and specific statutes requiring that a warrant be obtained before tapping into the telephone conversations of Americans on American soil.

"This Administration's arrogance and abuse of power should concern all Americans," says Feingold, who has proposed that the president be censured for authorizing the warrantless wiretapping program. "That the government may be secretly collecting, and using data mining to analyze, the phone records of millions of law-abiding Americans, as reported in the press today, is a frightening prospect. I am unaware of this program, and Congress needs to find out exactly what the Administration is doing and whether it is legal. It is time for the Administration to come clean with Congress and the American people. We can effectively fight terrorism and protect privacy, the rule of law, and separation of powers, but only if we have a President who believes in these principles."

Block that Cliche!

Most people agree that it's unattractive to try to stop a campusspeaker--however odious--who comes simply to present a point of view.But the choice of commencement speaker is a different matter, making astatement about the school's identity, and about the aspirations of thegraduates.

I didn't attend my own graduation from the University of Michigan,which was addressed by then-president Bush the First, who now seems aharmless granola-nut compared to Senator John "Stop Me Before I Nuke North Korea" McCain,this year's scheduled commencement speaker at the New School, an institution withprogressive traditions. Founded by the likes of John Dewey andThorstein Veblen, the New School remains, even with disgusting warcriminal and union-buster Bob Kerrey at the helm, a hotbed of seriousleftish thinking. So it's delightful to see New School students protesting McCain's upcoming speech .

Fewer and fewer members of the reality-based community still considerpresidential contender McCain a "maverick," but some members of thenews media are holdouts. Yesterday's New York Times story giddily dubshim an "iconoclast." Some recovering McCain liberals have beenobserving with alarm that--surprise, surprise--in preparation for 2008,McCain is buddying up to social conservatives like Jerry Falwell. Thefact is, his "maverick" schtick was always bogus; he's a genuineright-winger, deeply opposed to abortion rights and in favor ofprivatizing Social Security. Check out Bob Geiger's recent debunking of McCainmythology.

My dictionary defines the word "maverick" thus: "someone who holdsindependent views and who refuses to conform to the accepted orthodoxthinking on a subject." Yet for some reason, the word is always used todescribe Republicans who have trivial, though dramatically rendered,disagreements with other Republicans. So can we agree, from now on,that anyone who uses words like "maverick" and "iconoclast" to describemainstream conservatives like John McCain is a lazy hack?