CMA Capitol Insight is a biweekly column by veteran journalist Greg Lucas, reporting on the inner workings of the state Legislature.
Which one is worse off? Social Security or Medicare? The question was asked by the moderator at a recent panel of the Leadership California conference in Sacramento. Most of the audience said Social Security, perhaps because of all the media attention and lengthy number of dire predictions routinely made about its solvency. If more medical professionals were in the room, the number of people correctly answering Medicare would no doubt have risen. Some estimate that without a change – i.e., more money being contributed by employers and employees or costs being reduced – Medicare could be out of money in 12 years, perhaps less. Not to belabor the obvious but this is a profoundly serious matter – particularly with 10,000 baby boomers in America turning 65 each day for the next 19 years. In a nutshell: services received far outstrip contributions. A quick review of the math says it all. An employer and an employee each pay 1.45 percent per paycheck to support Medicare. They each send Uncle Sam 6.2 percent for Social Security. Illustrating the point a bit more graphically are Eugene Steuerle and Stephanie Rennane of the Urban Institute think tank: an average-wage couple together earn $89,000 a year. If they retired in 2011, they would have paid $114,000 in Medicare payroll taxes during their careers. But they’ll receive more than $350,000 in medical benefits from Medicare over their lifetimes. In a word, unsustainable.
Obsessed with Age
Americans spend $54 billion each year on what are called “nutri-cosmetics,” which claim to offer myriad anti-aging effects for skin. Products containing anti-oxidants, herbs and vitamins that are applied or swallowed will make you look younger, so their manufacturers say. Buyer beware, any number of groups caution. Looking for a nutrient with guaranteed health benefits for the skin? Stick with the old H2O.
Governor Jerry Brown’s budget writers in their most recent Finance Bulletin crow that the state’s unemployment rate “tumbled” 0.2 percentage points to 11.1 percent in December. True, the statewide unemployment rate was 12.5 percent in late 2010, but that 11.1 percent still translates into 2 million Californians out of work. And that 11.1 percent is the statewide average. In Merced, the unemployment rate is 18 percent, while in the Bay Area it’s under 10 percent. Riverside and San Bernardino stand at nearly 13 percent. Los Angeles, Long Beach and Santa Ana have an unemployment rate close to that of the state, 10.9 percent. And the unemployment rate differs by race, ethnicity and age. For Californians aged 16 through 19, the unemployment rate is more than 35 percent. It’s 17.6 percent for those aged 20 through 24. For Californians aged 35 to 54, the rate is below 10 percent. As of the end of 2011, nearly 9 percent of Asian Americans were unemployed, 11.3 percent of whites, almost 14 percent of Hispanics and 19.6 percent of African Americans.
That’s the word the Legislative Analyst uses in pointing out that more than one-third of California’s 2 million unemployed haven’t been able to find work for over one year. Nearly half of those 2 million Californians have been without work for more than six months, according to a recent report on the state of the state’s economy and what that means for the budget. “The number of Californians unemployed for long periods has skyrocketed,” the analyst writes. In December 2011, the number of unemployed still looking for work after 26 weeks was 43 percent of the number of persons unemployed nationally and 46 percent of those in California. The number of long-term unemployed has nearly doubled since 2009. While the number of Californians unemployed for 27 to 51 weeks fell in 2011 – from 321,000 in December 2010 to 246,000 in December 2011 – those unemployed for one year or more rose from 704,00 to 718,000. What this means, the analyst says, is that “there is a significant population that may face permanent difficulties in reentering” the workforce. “California governments, families and nongovernmental organizations all will have some higher costs in future years to help support these individuals,” writes the analyst. “This, in turn, may impair future economic growth to some extent.”
Not the Kind in the Tub
A new street drug, dubbed “bath salts,” is a powerful stimulant that produces effects similar to being on methamphetamine and cocaine – with paranoia, hallucinations and suicidal desires thrown into the mix. Last October, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) used an emergency order to ban for one year the chemicals used to make bath salts: mephedrone, methylenedioxypyrovalerone and methylone. In issuing its order, the DEA said this: “There has been a growing use of, and interest in, synthetic stimulants sold under the guise of ‘bath salts’ or ‘plant food.’ Marketed under names such as ‘Ivory Wave,’ ‘Purple Wave,’ ‘Vanilla Sky’ or ‘Bliss,’ these products are comprised of a class of chemicals perceived as mimics of cocaine, LSD, MDMA, and/or methamphetamine. Users have reported impaired perception, reduced motor control, disorientation, extreme paranoia and violent episodes. The long-term physical and psychological effects of use are unknown but potentially severe. These products have become increasingly popular, particularly among teens and young adults and are sold at a variety of retail outlets, in head shops and over the Internet. However, they have not been approved by the FDA for human consumption or for medical use and there is no oversight of the manufacturing process.” There’s also no test to pick up the drug – the only way to tell if someone is on bath salts is if they admit it.
Put the Fiddle Down, Nero
There’s good news at the Capitol. And bad news. The good news is that the deadline to introduce more pieces of legislation during this legislative session has passed. The bad news is that a lot of bills were introduced before the deadline – more than 1,000 on the final day and the penultimate day alone. The 40-member Senate has now introduced 1,573 bills since the session began on December 4, 2011. The 80-member Assembly has created 2,679 measures. It’s usually at this point when long-time Capitol observers trot out the often used but still apt chestnut of how it’s quality that counts, not quantity.
Examining the Age-Old Question
Are all these pieces of legislation necessary? Should California go the Washington, D.C., route and introduce only a handful of bills – albeit each the size of the New York City phone book? (The Patient Protection And Affordable Care Act of 2009 clocked in at more than 2,400 pages.) Should limits be placed on state lawmakers as to the number of measures they can introduce? Limits exist, but there are still more than 4,200 bills put into the hopper. Some measures are well-intentioned: a CMA-sponsored bill, AB 2064 (introduced one day before the deadline) would require a health care service plan or health insurer that provides coverage for childhood and adolescent immunizations to reimburse a doctor or physician group the full cost of buying the vaccine and administering it. The bill also says no deductible, co-pay or “other cost-sharing mechanism” can be imposed. Another bill would reward teachers of science, technology, engineering or mathematics – the so-called STEM courses – with a $1,000 tax credit and a $1,500 credit for those who teach in lower-performing schools.
On the Other Hand
A number of bills say they would make a “technical, non-substantive” change to various parts of the state or “delete obsolete language” from the code books. It seems like it would be far cheaper and a better use of the valuable time of lawmakers if they gave that job to some functionary – perhaps create an official state copy editor who could comb through the codes and make those low level additions and deletions. After making public the changes contemplated, of course. Just a thought.
Just How Deep Can a Woodchuck Sleep?
Woodchucks –groundhogs – hibernate hard. Bears and bats can be roused, but the woodchuck virtually shuts itself down, dropping its body temperature (often to freezing), and sharply slowing its heart and respiration rates. Fascinating, but when did this become a publication of National Geographic, a reader might well ask. Turns out hibernating animals are far more resistant to sudden fatal heart attacks and arrhythmia. That’s why the New Jersey Medical School in Newark is taking a closer look at Punxsutawney Phil and his kindred to see if cardiac mechanisms in hibernators, particularly the hardcore ones, can help two-legged non-hibernators.