Archive for August, 2009

Howard Dean: The Real Debate about Health Care

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

The real health care debate we should be having, says former Governor of Vermont and former Chair of the DNC Howard Dean, isn’t about how much or how little government should be involved in your health care. In this country, insurers routinely deny health insurance to anyone with a pre-existing condition, and immediately dump the customer when he gets sick, for the sake of the bottom line. The real debate, therefore, is: should we continue with this broken, barbaric system—or should we give Americans the choice of a public health insurance option: the same choice people over 65 have.

While employers are guaranteed the right to purchase health insurance, the great majority of states — which govern the individual insurance marketplace — do not extend the same protection to Americans who buy individual insurance politics. In most states, “insurers can refuse to sell individuals policies based on their health, recreational activities, occupations, credit histories, and a variety of other factors” — and state governments do little to stop them. As a recent Families USA report observed, “[States] are doing very little to provide basic protections for health care consumers and many are turned down from coverage or are charged unaffordable premiums or have their health claims wrongfully denied.”

Insurance companies earn enormous returns for their chairmen and shareholders, becoming successful by insuring only healthy people while rescinding coverage once a person becomes ill.

More than 14 million Americans receive their health coverage on the individual market, but although these patients pay hefty premiums, only a fraction of the dollars are spent on providing actual care. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), 29 percent of premium dollars in the individual insurance market go toward administrative costs; the average policyholder spends roughly $300 more on administrative costs each year than if he or she purchased coverage through a group policy.

Meanwhile, medical loss ratios, an indicator of how much revenue insurance companies spend on care versus how much they keep as profits, have dropped precipitously in the last decade. That is, as more and more people have become uninsured or discovered that they don’t have enough insurance to cover their medical expenses, insurers have grown richer.

Read the whole article here.


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Common Sense Reform: Howard Dean, MD, on NPR’s All Things Considered

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

Are your representatives in Congress going to side with the insurance companies, or are they going to side with the American people? Howard Dean wants to know.

Governor Dean spoke with NPR’s Robert Siegel on All Things Considered this past Friday about President Obama’s health care reform goals, the public option, and his new book, Howard Dean’s Prescription for Real Healthcare Reform: How We Can Achieve Affordable Medical Care for Every American and Make Our Jobs Safer.

August 21, 2009

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who was the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is pushing to keep a government-run insurance option, or “public option,” in the health care legislation. He says it’s not a left vs. right issue, but a common sense issue.

Listen Now


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The Public Option: A Dealbreaker for Dems?

Monday, August 24th, 2009

At the risk of going “off the reservation,” I have to confess: I’ve been reading about health care in the news a lot lately, as I’m sure you have (how can you avoid it?), and I’ve been talking with co-workers here at Chelsea Green, and I’m starting to come around to President Obama’s point of view. Namely, that the public option is important, but it’s not the whole enchilada.

Ideally, a public option would exist to provide competition to the private insurers. But the main point of the public option, as I understand it, is to “keep the insurance companies honest”—i.e., to control costs. We shouldn’t focus, laser-like, on the public option without addressing all the other problems with our current system.

First of all, we need to regulate the system such that it would be illegal for insurers to dump their customers when they get sick and need insurance the most. We need to make it illegal for insurance companies to deny insurance because of pre-existing conditions, stop the practice of dumping patients by fishing for errors in their paperwork, and we must drop yearly or lifetime caps on coverage. You could cut a lot of the administration costs in these companies by ending these horrible practices.

Second, and arguably more importantly, how do we control spiraling costs? Forcing private insurers to compete with a public option would help. But the entire system needs to be overhauled. Right now, doctors have more incentive to perform more and more costly and—in a worst-case scenario—unnecessary procedures. We need to incentivize patient care, so that patients don’t need to keep coming back to the hospital to treat a problem that should have been fixed the first time. More to the point, the new system should place much more emphasis on preventive care and maintenance.

An insurance mandate would certainly help control costs as well. As long as these other rules and regulations were in place, and enforced, competition within the system could work to keep costs down. Again, throwing a public option in the mix would be ideal.

There are a lot of legitimate concerns and questions that could be had. We could be having an intelligent, constructive debate over how best to enact reform. There are legitimate questions that aren’t being asked by the leaders of the conservative side, mainly because they’re busy foaming at the mouth over Sarah Palin’s fictitious granny-killing “death panels,” imagining a socialist dystopia that’s a cross between Logan’s Run and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” “What about this provision in the bill that says when a person reaches 30 he’ll be stoned to death to sate the commie gods of the harvest?” Ludicrous.

Don’t get me wrong. I do want a public option, and I think it would be best for the Democratic Party if they were to prove that all this “60-vote supermajority” and “Yes We Can” stuff really means something. A decisive victory on something that so many of us on the left want would go a long way toward restoring faith in the party and the President. More importantly, it would prove to an increasingly disillusioned American public that the US is not, in fact, a corporatocracy where Big Business always wins out over the will (and best interests) of the people. Politically and morally, it’s the right move.

Thinking Rationally about Health Care Reform? There’s a Cure for That. (Video)

Monday, August 24th, 2009

Health care worries got you down? Or do you just have a serious case of the Mondays? This one’s for you.

Mark Fiore on health care reform (h/t Daily Kos):

Kaiser Poll Shows Support Still Strong for Health Care Reform

Monday, August 24th, 2009

While it does seem that the President and Democratic Congress’s poll numbers are dropping (mainly, I think, due to Democratic frustration over the mishandling of the health care reform debate, and the administration’s attempt to quietly dump the public option amid muddled, mixed messaging), Americans still overwhelmingly support the choice of a public option.


Despite all the negativity in the Corporate Media (I’m looking at you, Greg Sargent), a brand new Kaiser poll shows support for health care reform is strong and steady, despite a month of vicious attacks by GOP leaders, rightwing talkers, industry scare ads, and townhellers.

The core Democratic proposal – a “public option” – is supported by a solid 59%-38% (21%) majority. A simpler idea that Rep. Anthony Weiner frequently discussed – allowing people 55-64 to join Medicare – is enormously popular, polling at 75-22 (+53).

And support for a national health plan – like Canada, UK, and every other industrialized country – is dead even despite the complete demonization of “socialized medicine” in Washington DC and on Morning Joe. Imagine if we had a real debate on single-payer Medicare for all, which has the support of 87 progressive House members despite the demonization?

Read the complete article—including charts and graphs—here.

Onion Special Report: Congress Deadlocked Over How To Not Provide Health Care

Monday, August 24th, 2009

Once again, the Onion totally nails it. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.


WASHINGTON—After months of committee meetings and hundreds of hours of heated debate, the United States Congress remained deadlocked this week over the best possible way to deny Americans health care.

“Both parties understand that the current system is broken,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters Monday. “But what we can’t seem to agree upon is how to best keep it broken, while still ensuring that no elected official takes any political risk whatsoever. It’s a very complicated issue.”

“Ultimately, though, it’s our responsibility as lawmakers to put these differences aside and focus on refusing Americans the health care they deserve,” Pelosi added.

The legislative stalemate largely stems from competing ideologies deeply rooted along party lines. Democrats want to create a government-run system for not providing health care, while Republicans say coverage is best denied by allowing private insurers to make it unaffordable for as many citizens as possible.

“We have over 40 million people without insurance in this country today, and that is unacceptable,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said. “If we would just quit squabbling so much, we could get that number up to 50 or even 100 million. Why, there’s no reason we can’t work together to deny health care to everyone but the richest 1 percent of the population.”

“That’s what America is all about,” he added.

Read the whole article here.

The Basic Toolbox for Nontoxic Housecleaning

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

As mentioned in our earlier post about sustainable food, two new books (from our contest earlier in the year) Chelsea Green Guide to Sustainable Food by Elise McDonough and the Chelsea Green Guide to Nontoxic Housecleaning by Amy Kolb Noyes are now available!

Here’s an excerpt from Nontoxic Housecleaning:

The Basic Toolbox for Nontoxic Housecleaning

Most of the basic ingredients you’ll need to make your own household cleaners can be found at your supermarket, although not all of them will be in the cleaning aisle. A few ingredients may require a special trip to a co-op or health food store, if your local supermarket does not have a sizable “natural foods” section. Many of these items may already be in your cupboard.

The Big Three:
• Baking soda (the little yellow box you keep in the refrigerator)
• White vinegar, 5 percent acidity (this is your normal, everyday plain vinegar)
• Soap (or detergent, if hard water is a concern)

Baking Soda
That little yellow box absorbing odors in your refrigerator and/or freezer is also a star of natural cleaners. Sodium bicarbonate, a.k.a. baking soda, is a mineral derived from soda ash. It is slightly alkaline and neutralizes acidic things, such as odors in liquids caused by acids, so it works on laundry, in drains and garbage disposals, and even on tough problems such as pet urine. Baking soda’s abrasive texture makes it ideal for scrubbing surfaces such as sinks, counters, appliances, and bathroom fixtures. If you adopt no other techniques in this book, you will still be making a big difference by swapping your toxic scouring powder for plain baking soda.

Distilled 5 percent white vinegar can be purchased economically in gallon jugs at many supermarkets. When a recipe in this book calls for vinegar, it always refers to distilled 5 percent white vinegar. Other vinegars, such as apple cider and red wine vinegar, can leave behind stains—not what you want in a household cleaner. Vinegar, for cleaning purposes, is the opposite of baking soda. It is acidic and thus neutralizes alkaline substances. Like all acids, vinegar corrodes and dissolves. For example, it will break down “hard-water” mineral buildup on sinks and tubs. It also dissolves tarnish from metals such as brass and copper.

Vinegar is a powerful sanitizer. Although it is not officially recognized by the EPA as a disinfectant, it is commonly known to kill bacteria, molds, and other microbes. While the smell of vinegar can be overwhelming, it dissipates after a couple of hours.

Liquid Soap or Detergent
Unless I specify otherwise, whenever I refer to soap in this guide I mean a liquid soap. Purists insist upon using castile soap, which has a vegetable- or nut-oil base. Other soaps use an animal product, such as beef tallow, as their necessary fat. (Soap is formed through a process called saponification, in which fats chemically react with a strong alkali, such as lye.) Detergents work like soaps, but are made from synthetic ingredients. Detergents were developed during World War II, when the oils used to make soap were scarce. They are generally made from petroleum products with added surfactants and foaming agents.

That said, there are some very good phosphate-free, biodegradable detergents on the market that are free of artificial dyes and perfumes, and are not tested on animals. (Phosphates are a problem because, as they build up, they pollute waterways and can cause fish kills and other ecological damage.) The major advantage of a detergent is that it does not react, as soap does, to minerals in hard water. The evidence of this reaction is commonly referred to as “soap scum” that can build up on shower walls and cause white laundry to dull and turn gray. Those with soft water need not worry much about such reactions.

I personally prefer to use a castile soap that has been scented with an essential oil such as peppermint, sweet orange, or lavender. This reduces the amount of essential oil I add to my homemade cleansers, thus keeping down the end cost. Dr. Bronner’s is a widely available brand that is made with organic oils, is certified fair trade, is not tested on animals, and is available already scented with essential oil. Vermont Soap Organics is another popular brand.

These three ingredients will take you far. When combined in a cleaner, a castile soap scented with an essential oil will mask some of the vinegar scent. Additional oils can be added to customize your cleaner and to boost certain cleaning properties. For example, just a few drops of tea tree oil will help combat bathroom mold and mildew.Note that vinegar’s scent will dissipate fairly quickly. While it may smell strong at first, it will not linger as the scents of some synthetic cleaners are meant to do. Therefore, it only takes a few drops of essential oil to scent a whole bottle of homemade spray cleaner. As the smell of vinegar fades it is the essential oil that will leave a lasting impression.

Refrigeration Innovation: A Cooler Idea to Save Energy

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

You can make a refrigerator that consumes only 10% of the energy of your current model, runs almost silently, and stores the same amount of food. And you can do it with only minor alterations to an energy-hogging chest freezer. Australian inventor Tom Chalko shows you how.

With all the recent advancements in energy efficient appliances and electronics, manufacturers have been lauded for their hard work at reducing the energy impacts of a typical household.  
And it is deserved. Take for instance the refrigerator. Just 20 years ago a typical fridge would burn 800 or more kWh’s per year. 10 years ago that got cut down to 500. Not 350 kWh’s is par for the course.
But every now and then, someone comes along with an innovation so simple, and so brilliant (in that hidden under your nose kind of way) that it makes all the hard-earned advancements seem moot. For the refrigerator, that someone is Australian inventor Tom Chalko (PDF).
He had the idea to convert an old chest freezer (a known energy hog) into a SUPER high-efficiency refrigerator using nothing more than an internal thermostat hacked into the compressor. The result is a almost nonexistent 100 watts per day (the equivalent of a 100 watt light bulb going for an hour). That is approximately 1/10th the energy use of the most energy efficient (standard size) refrigerator currently on the market.

Read the whole article here.

Twinkies Are Not Real: Seven Simple Considerations for Sustainable Food

Saturday, August 22nd, 2009

Remember that contest we had long ago? Well, the books are here! Both the Chelsea Green Guide to Sustainable Food by Elise McDonough and the Chelsea Green Guide to Nontoxic Housecleaning by Amy Kolb Noyes are now available!

Here’s an excerpt from Sustainable Food:

Seven Simple Considerations for Sustainable Food

The basic hierarchy followed in this book, inspired by the Natural Gourmet Institute’s founder, Annemarie Colbin, is whole, seasonal, organic, local, fresh, real, and delicious. Let’s start our edible adventure by defining each of these terms.

Whole foods exist as close to their natural state as possible, and represent the simplest and most nutritious form of human sustenance. Increasing the amount of whole foods in your diet will instantly cut down on the amount of unhealthy additives you consume, while simultaneously reducing your carbon footprint.

Whole foods arrive in their natural packaging, such as a peel or skin, which can easily be composted, along with inedible cores, seeds, or stems, thus reducing the amount of household garbage that ends up in a landfill. More importantly, by avoiding processed foods, you opt out of an industrial food-production system that converts wholesome ears of corn into industrial products like high-fructose corn syrup, and that considers synthetic food additives like aspartame, monosodium glutamate, and trans fats to be part of a balanced diet.

Grains are whole foods when they are minimally processed (brown rice, oat groats, wheat berries, etc). Fruit must have no edible pieces removed. For instance, apples are whole foods, but apple juice is not. In the kitchen, meals that are created from whole ingredients are considered “wholesome.” For example, a smoothie blended together from berries, bananas, cashews, and whole milk can be considered a whole food, since all of the ingredients qualify.

It’s easy to find whole foods in the produce section, bakery, deli, or dairy case on the periphery of your grocery store, whereas heavily processed, “packaged goods” typically rule the center aisles. When you must venture into the center of the labyrinth, consider leaving your cart behind, to discourage impulse buys.

Seasonal foods arrive in abundance at a particular time of year, such as pumpkins in the autumn, parsnips in the winter, asparagus in the spring, and strawberries in the summer. Adding seasonal foods to your own diet means challenging your palate with new dishes and connecting your kitchen to the larger rhythms of the planet.

Before our modern system of shipping and refrigeration, almost all food was seasonal, and you’ll definitely find this reflected in traditional recipes. For instance, pasta primavera translates as “springtime pasta,” and includes vegetables like fresh peas that ripen at that time of year. And while making roasted asparagus in the winter sounds like a delicious idea too, it’s less so when you consider all the extra fuel required to airfreight those tender spears from South America. Better to wait till spring and buy local.

Seasonal eaters also save money and get fresher food, since they buy perishable items when they are most abundant. To extend the season, you can preserve some of this bounty through methods of food storage like canning, pickling, drying, and freezing. Small-scale home canning and freezing efforts are much more energy efficient than industrial processing, once you take into account the energy required to transport these foods to your local supermarket, and from there to your pantry or home freezer.

Organic foods, including fruits, vegetables, grains, meat, milk, and cheeses, have been produced without the use of chemical pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. Removing these largely petroleum-based inputs from the food chain fights global warming, reverses soil degradation, and produces healthier, more sustainable foods. The USDA also rejects genetically modified organisms (GMOs) when awarding organic certification.

Originally, the organic farming movement sought not only to avoid synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, but also to address the myriad other drawbacks of industrialized agriculture by supporting small, diverse, local, and eco-friendly food producers. However, the success of organic products in the marketplace has attracted large corporate investment and government interference, both of which continue to transform the movement. It’s important to remember that, while the greater availability of certified organic products represents a victory for consumers, the struggle to secure safe, sustainable food for everyone remains far from over. One way you can help is to join the Organic Consumers Association, and help fight the agrochemical companies and corporate agribusinesses that constantly lobby the USDA to weaken existing organic standards.

Meanwhile, despite their recent, rapid growth, organics still constitute a very small sector of the overall food economy. Also, as just mentioned, large corporations have muscled in on this increasingly profitable market. On the plus side this means less pesticide pollution, and more accessibility and affordability for consumers; on the minus side it usually means a continuation of agribusiness as usual, such as factory-style, monocrop farming, and the long-distance transportation of organic produce from remote locales to markets.

According to the USDA, anything labeled “100% Organic” must contain less than 5 percent nonorganic material, while the “organic” label mandates at least 90 percent organic ingredients, and “Made with Organic Ingredients” requires 70 percent organic ingredients. Organic produce can have some pesticide residue on it, according to a 2002 Consumers Union report. While detectable residues were much lower compared to conventional items, some organic items can be tainted by pesticide drift from neighboring nonorganic farms. And organic meat or poultry may, in some circumstances, have been fed a certain amount of nonorganic grain or hay, or the animals treated, if sick, with antibiotics. When antibiotics are used on an animal it is removed from the herd and not reunited until all drugs are out of its system. In the case of organic dairy cows on antibiotics, their milk is not added to the food supply until they are healthy again.

The commonly accepted standard for local food means it was grown, gathered, hunted, or raised within a 100-mile radius of where you live. Self-described “locavores” refer to this area as their “foodshed.” A consumer’s dietary impact on the ecosystem is referred to as the “foodprint,” a riff on the popular “footprint” metaphor that measures an individual’s overall carbon impact based on their lifestyle. Purchasing local foods directly supports small-scale farms, giving the farmer more of your grocery dollar and keeping money circulating within the local economy.

Throwing a 100-mile dinner party offers a fun way to learn about the bounty of your own foodshed, while simultaneously spreading the word about the benefits of local eating, including freshness, value, reduction of energy consumption, and support for nearby farmers.

For optimal taste and nutrition, fresh food should be eaten as soon as possible after it has been picked, harvested, caught, or slaughtered. Avoid using frozen and canned foods whenever possible. Frozen foods consume tons of energy in order to stay below freezing until you’re ready to cook them. Canned foods are convenient and have a long shelf life, but they also rely on an energy-intensive production process.

Instead, when fresh food is not available or preferable, investigate traditional methods of food preservation—like drying, pickling, and fermenting—that can actually make food healthier! While canning and freezing foods requires energy, it’s still more efficient to preserve food at home with these methods if driving to the store to buy prepackaged frozen food is the alternative. “Putting food by” is a traditional and valuable skill for thrifty and eco-conscious families.

A Twinkie is a tangible item. It can be seen, touched, and tasted. So is it real? For the purposes of this discussion, it is not. “Real” food, in our definition of the term, will exclude any product of industrial refining processes, excluding not just junk food and fast food, but many of the packaged goods found in the modern supermarket—everything from what Gorton’s calls “fish sticks” to what Kraft calls “macaroni and cheese.” Those fake foods aren’t grown or even cooked like “real” foods: they’re imagined into being by a corporate marketing team, created in a lab by a food scientist, constructed out of refined ingredients, artificial flavors, and preservatives, and then heavily promoted and advertised.

The famous question organic farmers posed to the USDA certification program is “Can a Twinkie be organic?” Well yes, technically, because Hostess could start with organic ingredients and then highly refine or process them. But in many ways the concept of organic “convenience” foods is antithetical to the true spirit of the original organic-foods movement. So look beyond the label and don’t assume that highly processed “organic foods” (of which there are many) are good for us or for the planet.

Eating right for the planet isn’t about deprivation: it’s about gaining a new perspective on food and a better understanding of the role humanity plays in the greater ecosystem. The experience of cooking and eating should be one of life’s great joys, not a chore to dread or a routine to take for granted. Be mindful of tastes, and know that real, whole, fresh, local, seasonal organic food should be delicious food too!

Savor your food, chew thoroughly, and make time to eat without distractions. Appreciate the colors, textures, and beautiful forms of fruits and vegetables. Eating slowly brings increased satisfaction, and dining purposefully with good intentions makes food that much more pleasurable.

Marijuana Is Safer: Not a Good Book. A Great Book.

Saturday, August 22nd, 2009

I just recently started watching the HBO show The Wire (I know, I know). One sentiment expressed by one of the police officer characters (sorry, I don’t have their names memorized yet) stuck with me. He said, the phrase “War on Drugs” is a misnomer. Why? Well… wars end.

Wars end. When will the federal government end the “War on Drugs”? When will they admit it’s unwinnable and try adopting a new strategy—namely, decriminalization? When will they give adults the choice: a dangerous, potentially lethal substance (alcohol), or a relatively benign one (marijuana)? delves into these question in their recent review of Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? by Steve Fox, Paul Armentano, and Mason Tvert.

In the past few years, Colorado-based activist Mason Tvert has taken the notion of comparing marijuana to alcohol and used it to great success, first in organizing college students around equalizing campus penalties for marijuana and underage drinking infractions (marijuana offenses are typically punished more severely), then in running a successful legalization initiative in Denver in 2005. Tvert and his organization, SAFER (Safer Alternatives for Enjoyable Recreation), continue to hammer away at marijuana prohibition, and now, in collaboration with NORML analyst Paul Armentano and MPP director for state campaigns Steve Fox, he has taken his “marijuana is safer” campaign to a new level — and, hopefully, to a new and broader audience.

Having known (and repeatedly interviewed) all three coauthors in the course of my duties for the Drug War Chronicle, I assumed “Marijuana Is Safer” would be a good book. I was mistaken. It’s a great book, and an extremely useful one. “Marijuana Is Safer” starts out hitting on all eight cylinders with a foreword from former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper and never lets up. It hits its points concisely and engagingly, it is thoroughly researched, and its political arguments are carefully thought out.

Regular readers of the Chronicle may not expect to learn a lot that they didn’t know already, but they will likely be surprised, especially when it comes to the deleterious effects of alcohol. Did you know about the nasty effects of acetaldehyde? I didn’t. It’s what you get when you metabolize ethanol (alcohol), and it’s carcinogenic and damages internal organs. Because it is so damaging, the body breaks it down into acetate, but if you’re drinking at the rate of more than a drink an hour, you’re body starts lagging behind. Something to keep in mind the next time someone invites you to join a drinking contest.

Similarly, you may share the general conviction that alcohol use can lead to violence, disease, crime, and accidents, but “Marijuana Is Safer” offers up the hard numbers — complete with footnotes. Here’s just one hard number: 35,000. That’s the number of deaths each year attributed to chronic alcohol consumption. We all know what the number of deaths attributed to chronic use of the chronic is, don’t we? That’s right, zero.

Armentano, Fox and Tvert offer a mix of history, science, medicine, media critique, and just plain straight talk as they survey the history of alcohol and marijuana use in America, discuss the differing attitudes toward the two drugs, explain the rise of marijuana prohibition, and, most centrally, compare and contrast the effects of the two drugs on individual consumers and society as a whole.

They also dissect the arguments that legalizers have used — so far, unsuccessfully — to try to end marijuana prohibition. While those arguments are perfectly valid, the coauthors argue that they cannot counter the objection of people who might otherwise be persuaded: Why should we legalize another vice?

Naturally enough, Armentano, Fox and Tvert have the answer: “We would not be adding a vice; we would be allowing adults the option to choose a less harmful alternative for relaxation and recreation,” they write.

Read the whole article here.

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