Jul. 1, 2012: Obamacare Lives
Last week, I noted that the Affordable Care Act, dubbed “Obamacare” by some, was likely to see its individual mandate struck down by the Supreme Court in its pending decision. (The odds I cited gave the mandate a 25% chance to survive; other markets varied, but not by very much.) Lo and behold, though, the high court deemed it constitutional in a stunning 5-4 vote, defying oddsmakers the world over. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. was the deciding factor, joining the four liberal justices expected to support the bill. Roberts, in his majority opinion, basically argued that the individual mandate only offered a financial penalty for individuals who refused to purchase health insurance, and therefore could be viewed as a tax, which Congress does indeed have the right to levy under the Constitution. This was a rejection of the government’s primary argument, that health insurance is a form of interstate commerce which the Constitution’s commerce clause gives Congress the authority to regulate, but the provision itself nonetheless stood under other means. The four dissenting justices combined in a rare joint dissenting opinion, arguing that the law was in fact “invalid in its entirety” and that the majority’s decision to reframe it as a tax in order to make it acceptable “amounts to a vast judicial overreaching.”
Not every component of Obamacare survived its Supreme Court test. While the individual mandate was the most contested issue, another key point was Congress’ attempt to strip states of existing Medicaid funding if they refused to take part in an expansion project to add millions of low-income members to the program. The high court ruled that it was unconstitutional to withhold Medicaid funds for noncompliance with the new project. Still, the individual mandate was easily the biggest component of the act, particularly given arguments from all sides insisting that the mandate served as the crux for the entire law, so the decision is widely seen as a triumph for the president.
The law’s survival keeps Barack Obama’s biggest legislative achievement intact, a victory that the president immediately touted to his supporters. Mitt Romney, Obama’s inevitable opponent this November, is instead treating the law as a rallying point for his presidential election bid, declaring to voters that the Supreme Court’s real message was that “If we want to get rid of Obamacare, we’re going to have replace President Obama.” His campaign reported a $300,000 fundraising spike just after the decision was announced. Others seized on the chance to call Obama a liar for insisting in 2009 that, since the intent of the law was to create an all-inclusive system, the federal mandate was not a tax, a claim the high court firmly rebuked.
The 26 states that originally sued the government over Obamacare have been less than happy about their loss. Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, among others, begrudgingly said that while the decision was “extremely disappointing for Virginia and for America,” his state would take steps to comply with the law. Despite the individual mandate, some citizens are sure to remain uninsured, many on the basis of exceptions such as religious beliefs, imprisonment, or facing “unaffordable” insurance premiums: those that would sap at least 8% of the household income even after government subsidies. Some believe that an even bigger worry for those already covered under insurance plans is that premiums could increase, as insurance companies are now forced to accept those with pre-existing conditions and are limited in their ability to charge substantially higher rates than those for their healthy customers. Those companies could be forced to raise costs for all of their customers in order to handle the burden of new members who enter with pre-existing health conditions, from lifelong smokers to the elderly.
Ironically, low-income families qualify for Medicaid, and those in the tier immediately above them will receive generous subsidies to cover their health insurance costs. But in higher income brackets, those subsidies quickly recede. For instance, a family of four would lose the last traces of government help as soon as their annual household income exceeded about $93,700. It turns out that most middle- and high-income families would shell out over 8% of their household incomes to cover insurance — it is they who will technically find health insurance to be “unaffordable.” Only those at the very top of the income range, making at least $180,000 a year for a family of four, earn enough money for insurance to be “affordable” without subsidies.
On the other hand, there is no denying that Obamacare will result in many more Americans being insured, which could lighten some of the strain on the healthcare system as a whole to handle these uninsured patients. Many argue that this law lends a hand to those in lower income brackets and with pre-existing health conditions who would otherwise be unable to fend for themselves in the health insurance marketplace, and it also gives incentives for companies to offer affordable insurance plans to their employees. Those in the insurance industry appear to be quickly adapting to the new provisions, as well. In any case, this drastic overhaul of American healthcare system is expected to cost about $1 trillion in taxpayer dollars over the next nine years, with most of the funds going to the insurance subsidies and the Medicaid expansion.
In the sports world, on Monday former star pitcher Roger Clemens was acquitted of all charges in his perjury trial. Clemens had been accused of obstructing federal investigators’ efforts to uncover the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball and of lying to Congress when he denied using them himself. The prosecution’s case centered around Clemens’ former strength coach Brian McNamee, who allegedly saved evidence of Clemens’ malfeasance as a recourse in case authorities ever questioned him, which they did. But none of the jurors seemed to place any faith in McNamee — from his plea bargain to his ever-changing story, McNamee just didn’t seem credible. The fact that the prosecution’s key piece of evidence against Clemens was a syringe that McNamee stored in a beer can for seven years only made matters worse. As one juror said, the case came down to a question of “who was the liar? Was it Clemens or was it McNamee? We decided that it was McNamee.”
Still, the “not guilty” verdict may do little to clear Clemens’ name outside of the courtroom, as many still believe that he owes many of his historic accomplishments to steroid use. Hall of Famer Rich “Goose” Gossage explicitly called out Clemens after the verdict, saying that despite all of his on-field achievements, “The Rocket” should never be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Gossage says he believes that the seven-time Cy Young award winner used steroids to gain a competitive edge, and that he was only acquitted because of bad testimony, likening the verdict to that of disgraced former football star O.J. Simpson. Gossage is hardly the only person who remains skeptical of Clemens, but perhaps the clearest indicator of whether he has restored his good name will come in the Hall of Fame voting this December (with inductees announced in January). The trick here is that Clemens will be facing a strong class of players who are widely assumed to be steroid-free — does anyone really believe that the wiry Greg Maddux was ‘roiding it up? — along with a host of others who played major parts in the steroid era, including sluggers Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, and Barry Bonds.
Lance Armstrong, arguably cycling’s biggest star, has been fighting similar allegations about doping during his unprecedented run of seven consecutive Tour de France titles. “But wait,” you say. “Didn’t he win those almost a decade ago? And wasn’t his blood being tested, like, daily?” Why, yes. True on both counts. Toward the end of Armstrong’s 1999-2005, he even joked about his blood was being scrutinized more than that of any other human being on the planet, with daily tests at certain points. Yet the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency filed formal charges against Armstrong on Friday. The USADA claims that at least ten former teammates and associates who are prepared to testify against him, and that they also have blood samples from 2009 and 2010 that are “fully consistent” with performance-enhancement use. Armstrong, who retired from cycling last year, has been vocal in decrying the allegations, claiming that two of the witnesses are Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, both of whom have been embroiled in doping scandals of their own and have ample reason to want the attention deflected toward Armstrong. (The USADA has not released its list of witnesses, saying it is keeping them anonymous to protect them from intimidation.) More importantly, Armstrong says that he passed every blood test he took from 2009-10 and posted the results on his website, Livestrong.com. He also noted that most of the USADA’s allegations fall outside their normal eight-year statute of limitations, while the agency says that he has extended the time limit by continuing to deny drug use, making any earlier incidents part of an ongoing cover-up.
Let’s cross the pond to London, where apparently while watching Wimbledon, tournament officials decided they needed to work with the International Tennis Association to “drive excessive grunting” out of tennis. Because professional athletes shouldn’t exert themselves to the limits of their physical abilities. That’s just uncouth.
Well, maybe the officials were just stunned by second-ranked Rafael Nadal’s early exit from the tournament, a shameful dismantling by virtual unknown Lukas Rosol. Frankly, against the 100th best player in the world (yes, Rosol was ranked exactly 100th among males entering the match), Nadal didn’t even look decent, outright falling into the net on one particularly awkward occasion. I suppose that the unfathomable sight of Nadal’s shellacking might explain tournament officials’ disconnect from reality, so we can probably let the “no grunting allowed” proposal slide for now and just hope they come to their senses soon.
On the science front, researchers at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York made the summer heat seem like a joke last week when they created the hottest temperature ever seen on earth: 7.2 trillion degrees Fahrenheit. That’s 7,200,000,000,000 degrees. (If you’re wondering why any of us are still alive to read this post, it’s because the extreme temperature lasted less than a billionth of a second, in the instant that two gold ions collided, and had to be measured by the color of light emitted.)
To put the heat in perspective, New York very briefly housed a temperature 250,000 times warmer than the center of the Sun. In fact, if that temperature had been sustained, it would have been capable of melting the Sun itself. So stop whining about your piddly little 100-degree forecast. That’s nothing.
But what was the reason for all of this? Well, it wasn’t just to earn a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records, especially since a team at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland is planning to break the 7.2 trillion mark later this year. Rather, these researchers hoped to recreate similar conditions as those in the split-second after the Big Bang, when matter had not yet formed into atoms but consisted of a soup-like mixture of quarks and gluons, its elemental particles. The quarks quickly combined into neutrons, protons, and electrons as they cooled, linked together by the gluons — which, yes, sounds an awful lot like “glue.” The Brookhaven experiment took the process in reverse, superheating matter to melt it back into this plasma mixture, and then observing how it clumped back together to determine why early matter formed as it did.
So maybe creating a temperature hot enough to annihilate our planet really wasn’t as reckless as it first sounded. The same cannot be said of David Dopp, a Utah resident who won a free Lamborghini Murcielago in a convenience store contest last November and crashed it within six hours. Apparently Dopp, who ironically works as a truck driver, had already been stopped by police for driving too fast. That didn’t stop him from going 40-50 mph in a 35 mph zone, hit a patch of black ice, and skidded 75 feet off the road. Sure, our first response might be that this professional driver needs a new profession, but that overlooks the costs of Dopp’s “free” car. This week, reports began to surface that Dopp had to place his house as collateral just to get insurance for his new supercar, and taxes of over $100,000 were set to cripple his finances. After he apparently failed in his attempts to sell the vehicle to Jay Leno, a noted car collector, the six-figure burden magically destroyed itself. Worse yet, an anonymous tip indicates that Dopp is hoping that the car is totaled so that he can collect the $300,000 insurance payout rather than have to spend the money getting it repaired.
With that said, it’s difficult to say whether or not this was actually a case of insurance fraud, or if Dopp’s hope for the Lamborghini’s destruction was merely him putting a silver lining on a vehicular tragedy. Furthermore, even if this was a case of insurance fraud, such a charge is very difficult to prove. But either he’s a felon, or the man who drives for a living is so lousy at that simple task that he obliterated one of the world’s most prized cars. Take your pick.
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