Sunday, August 19, 2007

Every Man for Himself

Six miners lost thousands of feet underground after a cave-in in the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah. Three rescue workers killed and six wounded trying to save them. This is one more illustration of how little concern Americans have for one another as workers. One of my most frustrating issues as an American is how easily working class Americans are divided.

In January 2006, 12 miners were killed after an explosion in the Sago Mine in West Virginia. (In fact, in all of 2006, 47 miners were killed). This tragedy caused great hue and cry and a call for stricter mine safety laws. West Virginia quickly passed legislation establishing a mining emergency operations center and requiring miners to wear wireless communications devices. The state of Ohio debated similar legislation.

Robert E Murray, owner of the Crandall Canyon mine, said about the new safety laws, "they are seriously flawed, knee-jerk reactions". Ohio eventually passed a weaker package of mine safety legislation.

In case anyone thinks such information is relevant, federal mine safety regulators have levied $260,073 in fines against Murray since 1995. Since the beginning of 2007, this particular mine has received 32 safety violations. In 2003, four top employees of KenAmerican Resources, also owned by Robert Murray, were convicted in a federal court in Kentucky of conspiring to violate federal mine safety rules.

Robert E Murray asserts that an earthquake caused the mine collapse, something that is denied by geological evidence. Instead, it seems pretty certain that "retreat mining" was being done at Crandall Canyon. Retreat mining is a particularly dangerous operation that involves removing the last of the coal in a seam by blowing up the pillars of coal that support the ceiling and walls of the shaft.

In the same year as the Sago Mine tragedy, 2006, while there was all this discussion going on about mine safety, President George Bush was adamantly pushing his choice of William Sickler as his Mine Safety Czar. Naturally, in the way of so many Bush appointees, Sickler previously worked for the very industry he was now to be put in charge of policing, having managed mining operations for BethEnergy Mines, a subsidiary of Bethlehem Steel. As a coal company executive, Sickler had his own safety issues. Three workers died in BethEnergy mines during his tenure. In one incident, as reported in the Charleston, West Virginia, Gazette, one mechanic died and six others were injured when a portal bus carrying them to the bottom of a mine shaft derailed. A report regarding this incident issued alleged that the bus had not been properly maintained.

Sickler didn't have much support for his nomination as Mine Safety Czar. He was opposed by the United Mine Workers, the families of miners, and both Democratic and Republican congress members. President Bush first nominated Sickler to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration in in 2005. By May, it looked pretty certain that his nomination would be rejected. In July, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, hired Sickler as a consultant, while vowing and declaring that she had absolutely no intention of making an end run around the nominating process. In August and September, the Republican-controlled Senate voted twice to send Sickler's name back to the president. In October of 2006, Bush installed Sickler as the Mine Safety Czar as a recess appointment in defiance of senators on both sides of the aisle.

Arlen Spector, Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, said he didn't think Sickler was "the right man for the job." Rick Santorum, also a Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, said he was "disappointed". Isn't this whole process just so typical of George Bush? He will have what he wants and to hell with what anyone else thinks.

So now we have the perfect storm regarding mine safety - six miners trapped in the Crandall Canyon mine, an arrogant mine owner with a less than sterling record on protecting his workers, and a Mine Safety Czar who seems to be missing in action.

The larger question is: what will Americans do about this? Will they rally to the defense of the miners and other wage earners? Will they begin to insist with their voices and their votes that workers be given a voice at the political table when it comes to labor issues. Or will they just watch their pay and their pensions and their health insurance fade away without protest? Will we do as we have so often done and be more jealous than supportive of people who earn more than us or get more benefits?

I always find it laughable when pundits and politicians tell us we must not engage in "class warfare" when they mean the poor against the rich, but Americans have never been into that kind of class warfare - we're more into being at war with one another.

*Note - the latest news from Crandall Canyon is not good. A test of the air in the mine shows that the quality is too poor to support life. The owner now says, it is likely that the bodies will never be found.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

War and more war

* 48 American soldiers killed in Iraq so far in August - as of 8/17

Well, what have we found out in the last couple of weeks?

- The Pentagon can't account for 190,000 weapons that went to Iraq. We don't know who has them now. Could be our friends, could be our enemies. Could be people who pretend to be our friends, like Iraqi soldiers and police officers, who are really part of the insurgency or militant death squads. We don't know who they are being used against but it seems likely that at least some of them targeting our own soldiers. It is a heck of a situation when you just open the store houses and let whoever come in and grab up almost 200,000 weapons. But, typical of this administration. Think of thousands of trailers meant for Katrina victims currently rusting away in Arkansas.

- A new report states that soldiers are committing suicide at the highest level since Vietnam. Is anyone surprised? You can only put people under so much stress without expecting some of them to crack. But, somehow, the party that supports sending them back into a war zone over and over again is the one that has the reputation for supporting the troops. The Democrats offered legislation that would require that the active military have as much time off at home as they spent in combat and that the National Guard receive 3 years off between deployments so their lives aren't completely upended. The Republicans hung tough and defeated the bill. But this is the party that insists it is the one that supports the troops. Sometimes I feel like Alice in Wonderland. I've slipped behind the looking glass.

- The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, has found that the U.S. has completed 2,797 rebuilding projects (schools, hospitals, power plants, etc.) in Iraq at a cost of $5.8 billion. Of these, the Iraqi government has accepted only 435 of them. Why? Because inspection found most of them to be shoddily built, crumbling and abandoned. Makes you wonder who got the $5.8 in rebuilding funds though, doesn't it? And why those construction companies aren't being fined and/or otherwise punished. Even when we got it right, the Iraqis managed to screw it up themselves. Example: we spent $90 million to refurbish two huge turbines at a power plant in Baghdad but they were ruined when Iraqi employees used the wrong fuel in them. You'd think electricity would be a high priority in Iraq, where residents usually only have power for a few hours a day. Are the people in charge, both Americans and Iraqis, simply inept or is it deliberate because of some profit motive? Will we ever know?

- "Wait for General Petraus", has been the mantra of the war supporters for months now. It was the touchstone for their continued backing of the war. Well, mid-September is rushing towards us and now it appears that the General's report isn't going to be his at all. It is going to be the Bush administration report with "input" from General Petraus. I have thought from the beginning that the Petraus Report was just a mechanism for buying yet for time for this war which has been sold to us in a endless series of "six more month" increments. I assumed the General would inform us that "some progress has been made" and the administration would seize on that as a device to insist on six more months to let the surge work. I still think that's what will happen. The surge will have to end in the spring, according to military experts, because our military will run out of bodies to keep it going. So, with great fanfare, it will be declared a success and we'll be told that we are now able to "withdraw" some troops. Then the numbers will settle in to what they were before the surge and stay that way as long as Bush is president.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Dead Dogs

Recently, there has been a situation at the Animal Shelter. I don't know the exact details but it involves dogs picked up from an allegedly neglectful home. As it turned out, some of these dogs had Parvo, an extremely serious and deadly disease. As a consequence of the Parvo, which I understand is quite contagious, all the dogs in residence were ultimately put down and the Shelter is in a state of quarantine.

I do the books for the Animal Shelter and am there quite frequently picking up their money and bills to be paid. Virginia Reahard, our long time Animal Control Officer, retired in May and Sherry Cox was promoted to the top spot. The last time I talked to Sherry, the situation at the Shelter had only recently occurred. She'd been in contact with veterinarians, the health department, other shelters and her board members. Not all the information she'd received in terms of symptoms, contagiousness and length of quarantine matched so it left Sherry in a quandary about how to handle this crisis.

Ultimately, she decided that, based on the varying information she'd been given, all the dogs in the Shelter should be euthanized and the kennels completely cleaned and disinfected and given some time before taking a chance on bringing in any more dogs. I completely agree with this assessment on her part. Whether or not that was the "right" choice, I can tell you that Sherry is a very caring and responsible person. If she decided to put down the dogs, it was because she believed it was the best option for the sake of the Shelter.

Some people disagreed with this decision. So be it. That is always going to happen.

The broader point I would like to make is that most folks don't have the faintest idea how many animals in Wabash County are euthanized on an annual basis. They may get personally caught up in the fates of these particular, possibly sick, dogs because they read about them in the newspaper. The situation is called to their attention. But, dogs in Wabash County are put down every single week. Hundreds of dogs. Perfectly healthy dogs. All breeds of dogs (although thank God for the rescue groups that now come to save the breeds they are involved with). Big dogs, little dogs and medium-sized dogs. Adult dogs and adorable puppies.

If people want to care about dogs, then please care about them every week of the year, not just in this particular instance. If people want to care about dogs, then please have your dogs spayed or neutered so the Shelter isn't flooded with puppies that no one wants. If people want to care about dogs, then don't buy puppies and then get angry with them when they aren't instantly house-broken or bored with them when they grow out of the cuddly stage.

In 2006, 1551 animals were picked up by the Wabash County Animal Shelter. Of that 1551, 1211 were euthanized. So, please, if you want to care about dogs (and cats), don't just care about the 20 or so that were euthanized last week, care about the other 1211.

42 More Days

* 80 soldiers kills in Iraq in July 2007 - 6 killed so far in August as of the 5th.

I just got an e-mail from Jason Truman in Iraq. He has 42 more days before he will be coming home - for good, I hope. I always list the the Iraq casualties because I want the figures to smack people in the face. These aren't just names speeding along the bottom of the cable news networks. They are our sons and daughters, husbands and wives, aunts and uncles.

Of course, when you have a personal connection to someone in Iraq, as I have to Jason, your thoughts tend to fasten on that particular person. So, please, whoever reads this keep Jason in your thoughts and prayers that his 42 days pass quickly and he comes home safely to Tammy and his three little boys.

Thanks.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Sicko

Brenda and I went to see Sicko last weekend. Sicko is, of course, Michael Moore's latest movie about America's pathetic excuse for a health care system. Moore uses dramatic techniques (some might even call them gimmicks) to draw viewers in. But the fact that he doesn't simply use a dry-as-dust recitation of the facts, doesn't mean his points aren't valid.

One thing to remember about Sicko is that it isn't about the 46 million Americans who are uninsured. No, these tragic accounts are the real-life stories of people who have insurance. These were Americans who felt secure until they discovered the various methods (talk about your gimmicks!) insurance companies use to not pay claims.

One woman was denied because her insurance company labeled her dishonest for not having revealed on her insurance application that she once had a bladder infection! Oh, they don't hunt for these things in the beginning. They go ahead and cover you and let your pay your premiums until it comes to the time when they might have to pay out big for the surgery such as in the case of the girl in Sicko, then they suddenly discover your supposed deceptiveness and use it as an excuse to deny your coverage.

Moore interviewed a man whose job it was to pore over insurance applications searching for the slightest hint of an error or inconsistency as a reason to reject a claim. He showed portions of a congressional hearing in which a doctor who worked as a screener for an insurance company told how she was encouraged to deny medical procedures on the flimsiest of grounds. One method was to declare even some relatively tried and true procedures and medications as "experimental" and therefore, not covered.

One wife in Moore's film actually worked for, and was insured through, a hospital. When her husband was diagnosed with cancer, she tried everything including begging the appeals committee, to allow the tests recommended by her husband's doctors to go forward. They refused, as they refused to approve the bone marrow transplant he required to save his life. "Nope," the insurance company said, "we consider that operation experimental". Her husband died a short while later.

Another girl featured in Sicko was in a serious accident and was rushed, unconscious, to the emergency room via ambulance. Her insurance company refused to pay the ambulance bill on the grounds that she hadn't gotten the ambulance transport "pre-approved". They did not explain how she was supposed to do that when she was unconscious.

After filming and interviewing all these people, Moore visited Canada, England and France, all of which have national health care, to talk to citizens and doctors about how they like their system. Here in this country, we are always fed horror stories about national healthcare - about the long waits and the supposedly inferior care. I'm sure he could have found dissatisfied customers but the people Moore talked to generally seemed to be perfectly happy with their health care. In fact, they thought Americans were pretty much nuts to allow themselves to be victimized by for-profit insurance companies and pandering politicians.

The doctors in these countries were also content with their rewards under universal health care. They lived in beautiful homes, drove status cars and took long expensive vacations. They all said that they would hate being dictated to by insurance companies regarding the care they were allowed to give their patients.

Toward the end of the movie, Moore highlighted a California university-associated hospital that simply puts its poor patients out on the street when their medicaid/medicare coverage said their allotted time was up. One elderly, disoriented lady was left on the sidewalk barefooted and in her hospital gown. Fortunately, a homeless shelter found her and took her in. A hospital representative didn't even deny what they did but said that they had to do something with these people and they'd found that Skid Row as the best place to leave them. Personally, I think they should leave them on the street in front of some senator's house who gets up in Congress and pontificates about the evils of socialized medicine so they can see first-hand the face of un-socialized medicine. Said senator would, of course, be covered by the best insurance plan in the country thanks to us taxpayers.

The most controversial part of Moore's film was the trip he made to Cuba with a group of people, including some emergency workers suffering from debilitating conditions as a consequence of their rescue work at the site of the twin towers. All have fought to receive the treatment they need but have been stonewalled by their insurance companies as well as the group created to distribute funds specifically meant to assist 9/11 workers.

Moore had heard from politicians in congressional hearings saying what wonderful medical care we are giving to the detainees at Guantanamo so he first took his group to Gitmo where, of course, he was denied entrance. Then he went on in to Havana where everyone in his group received thorough testing, diagnosis and treatment. (The breathing treatment that costs a former EMT over $120 in America costs a nickel in Cuba). Now, I don't doubt for a minute that both Moore and Cuba had an agenda in treating and filming the care received by the Americans but the fact of the matter is that Cuba, a tiny little raggedy-poor Communist island offers all of its people health care. In fact, Cuba ranks only one-step below us in the medical care its citizens receives. America, the richest country in the world, rates 37th.

Back when Hillary Clinton came up with a national health care plan, the insurance companies and the pharmaceutical companies kicked it into gear and spent about a gazillion advertising dollars to put the fear of God into us about how awful that would be, then they spent another gazillion lobbying our congresspeople. Their strategy worked and here we are today with millions of not covered at all and many more millions being shafted seven ways from Sunday by their insurance companies and managed care plans. Our premiums keep going up, our co-pays keep going up and our coverages keep going down. The largest percentage of the bankruptcies in the United States are caused by health care bills than any other reason.

And meanwhile, our health care situation affects other parts of our lives too. How many people keep working when they'd like to retire because they can't afford to go without health care and they can't afford private insurance until their Medicare kicks in? How many people stay in jobs they hate because they can't get health care if they leave? How many lay-offs in America have been caused because companies have fled to countries where they can escape onerous health care costs for their employees? I don't know all the answers to these questions but I know it is....lots.

In one part of Sicko, an English man asks - "why do Americans allow this to happen? They live in a democracy. They have the votes to vote themselves health care. Why don't they?"

Why don't we?