Read all posts from February 2010

  • When it comes to keeping track of the score in Washington, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office is commonly considered to be as independent as they come.  As one noted Republican Member of Congress said, CBO “speak[s] the truth to power here in Washington” and does “an important service by telling us the facts.”  As the Recovery Act hit the one-year mark last week, you may have seen some Washington game-playing about its effectiveness.  Well now, once again, the CBO, has spoken.

    There was already a strong consensus that the Recovery Act is working (see this summary), but in case you need any more proof, check out today’s new report from the CBO (pdf).  According to their analysis, the Act has created or saved up to 2.1 million jobs as of the fourth quarter of last year.

    Or take another example: last Friday, Macroeconomic Advisers, a prominent private-sector forecasting firm, posted this entry on their blog about the impact of the Act: “the definitive answer: it works.”  It doesn’t get any clearer than that.

    Mark Zandi, a former economic advisor to John McCain, also recently reviewed the evidence and wrote, “the stimulus did what it was supposed to do: short-circuit the recession and spur recovery.”

    Let’s be clear: we want the world to know the objective, empirical facts about the Recovery Act, most notably that two million folks are on the job because of it.  But we also know that the hole in the job market left by the Great Recession is a lot bigger than that, and I assure you, everyone here is focused on finding the best ideas to make sure that every American who wants to work can find it.   

    Day in and day out, the President consistently stresses the urgent need to build off of the successes of the Recovery Act in bringing the economy back from the brink and moving forward with targeted proposals to jumpstart job creation, and we are working closely with the Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate to get that done.  The bipartisan vote in the Senate yesterday on their jobs bill is an important step forward, and we’re going to keep at it until the great American job machine is back up and running.

    Jared Bernstein is Chief Economist to Vice President Biden, and Executive Director of the Middle Class Task Force

  • In his press briefing today, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs announced another step to make sure our health care system works for the benefit of American families, not for the benefit of health insurance companies:

    [T]oday the President announced the administration’s strong support for repealing the antitrust exemption currently enjoyed by health insurers.  At its core, health reform is all about ensuring that American families and businesses have more choices, benefit from more competition, and have greater control over their own health care.  Repealing this exemption is an important part of that effort.

    Today there are no rules outlawing bid rigging, price fixing, and other insurance company practices that will drive up health care costs, and often drive up their own profits as well. 

    The President's support was made official in a statement of administration policy (SAP) sent to Congress as the House considers that legislation in the coming days.  Here's the SAP (pdf):

    STATEMENT OF ADMINISTRATION POLICY
    H.R. 4626 — Health Insurance Industry Fair Competition Act
    (Rep. Perriello, D-Virginia, and 65 cosponsors)

    The Administration strongly supports House passage of H.R. 4626. The repeal of the antitrust exemption in the McCarran-Ferguson Act as it applies to the health insurance industry would give American families and businesses, big and small, more control over their own health care choices by promoting greater insurance competition. The repeal also will outlaw existing, anti-competitive health insurance practices like price fixing, bid rigging, and market allocation that drive up costs for all Americans. Health insurance reform should be built on a strong commitment to competition in all health care markets, including health insurance. This bill will benefit the American health care consumer by ensuring that competition has a prominent role in reforming health insurance markets throughout the Nation.

  • Yesterday, President Obama and The First Lady hosted the National Governors Association in the State Dining Room at the White House. We thought we'd pass along some photos and excerpts from their remarks:

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    President Obama:

    One of the things that I've always said about governors that Washington could learn from is that it's hard to be overly ideological as a governor, because the fact of the matter is, the rubber hits the road with you.  You guys can have all kinds of abstract thoughts, but when families come to you looking for help, when communities have been devastated, you're the ones they turn to.  And so these arguments become a lot less abstract.  And I think it's a reflection of that experience as chief executives in each of your state that makes you able to work together so effectively in this organization.

    So I want to congratulate you for having worked through a very difficult year.  I want you to know that this White House wants to continue to partner with you, and not just -- not just in terms of us telling you what we think we can do to help, but more importantly, us listening and finding out from you the kinds of extraordinary ideas that all these states represent.  You guys are -- continue to be the laboratory for our democracy.

    The First Lady:

    Working for the next generation is what drives so many Americans to do what they do -- to work that extra shift, to take that extra job, to go without themselves just so that their kids can have more than they did.  It's what we've always done in this country.  I know my parents have done it for me.  They measured their success by the success of their children, by whether their children were happier and healthier and had a better shot at fulfilling their dreams than they did.

    That's why so many of you got involved in politics in the first place -- to leave something better for those who are going to come after you.  And in the end, that's what "Let's Move" is all about.  It is simple.  Let's stop wringing our hands and talking about it and citing statistics.  Let's act.  Let's move.  Let's give our kids the future they deserve.

     

     

     

  • On February 6, the White House Open Government Initiative launched a government wide public participation opportunity unprecedented in the history of our democracy. As part of the Open Government Directive issued in early December, every major agency published an open government website. These pages went live in early February complete with the latest news and updates, downloadable data unique to that agency, and information about how each agency is moving to implement the President’s call for a more transparent, participatory, and collaborative government. These new websites also incorporate a mechanism for online civic engagement.

    These websites will be most effective with broad input from as many members of the public as possible visiting these sites and providing feedback on the development of each agency’s open government plan, including ideas for how to make the agency more effective and efficient and suggestions for data that should be published online.  These public brainstorms utilize similar free, easy-to-use tools as the White House used in soliciting public engagement in developing its open government agenda. People can post an idea, comment on the ideas of others, and rate and rank ideas to provide the agency with an ordered list of categorized suggestions. This is the first time something like this has been tried across the entire executive branch and we are eager to solicit input.

    Now through March 19th, the American people can make a difference by logging on to each agency’s open government page and making your voices heard. We hope you will assist us in this historic effort to bridge the gap between citizens and their government.  It would be particularly helpful for you to provide specific suggestions for what agencies should include in required elements of their plans.  These elements include a strategic action plan to improve transparency, as well as agency proposals to use technology platforms and other innovative methods (e.g., prizes and competition) to improve collaboration. 

    Start participating today – visit one or more of these websites and provide feedback:

    To see the tops ideas across government, visit OpenGovTracker.com or view the agency contact information for a complete list of all agencies, their contact information, their dialog tool URLs and RSS feeds, and other ways for the public to submit ideas. Ideas and comments that are submitted via email, phone, or other means will be posted on the agency's dialog site by moderators. That will allow others to comment and vote on these ideas.

    This is only the latest effort by the Administration to make the government more transparent.  Our other concrete commitments to openness include issuing the Open Government Directive, putting up more government information than ever before on data.gov and recovery.gov, reforming the government’s FOIA processes, providing on-line access to White House staff financial reports and salaries, issuing an executive order to fight unnecessary secrecy and speed declassification, reversing an executive order that previously limited access to presidential records, and webcasting White House meetings and conferences. The release also compliments our new lobbying rules, which in addition to closing the revolving door for lobbyists who work in government have also emphasized expanding disclosure of lobbyist contacts with the government.  And the President capped the year off by calling in the State of the Union for bold transparency initiatives (pdf) as part of his reform agenda for 2010 and the years ahead.

    Tina Tchen is Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of the Office of Public Engagement
     

     

     

  • Hi, I am Victoria Espinel, the U.S. Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator. I am honored to have been appointed by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve in this new position created by Congress in the Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property Act of 2008.  Given the unique nature of this job, I’d like to describe what I’m doing in my office and how we want to engage the public to get input on what we, as a government, should be doing.

    While talking about our global competitive advantage at a recent town hall meeting in Ohio, the President said, “One of the problems that we have had is insufficient protection for intellectual property rights”–and it is important that our ideas are protected.  In December 2009, the Vice President, joined by Cabinet members and other senior government officials, held a roundtable discussion to emphasize the Administration’s commitment to enforcing laws against intellectual property theft.

    Intellectual property are the ideas behind inventions, the artistry that goes into books and music, and the logos of companies whose brands we have come to trust.   My job is to help protect the ideas and creativity of the American public.  One of the reasons that I care about this is because I believe it is enormously important that the United States remain a global leader in these forms of innovation – and part of how we do that is by appropriately protecting our intellectual property.  Our intellectual property represents the hard work, creativity, resourcefulness, investment and ingenuity of the American public.  Infringement of intellectual property can hurt our economy and can undermine U.S. jobs.  Infringement also reduces our markets overseas and hurts our ability to export our products.  Counterfeit products can pose a significant threat to the health and safety of us all.  Imagine learning that the toothpaste you and your family have used for years contains a dangerous chemical.  U.S. Customs officials have seized several shipments of counterfeit toothpaste containing a dangerous amount of diethylene glycol, a chemical used in brake fluid, and that in sufficient doses is believed to cause kidney failure.  All of these are reasons why your government has renewed its efforts to challenge this illegal activity.

    My job is to help coordinate the work of the federal agencies that are involved with stopping this illegal behavior.  We are going to work together to develop a strategy to reduce those risks to the public, the costs to our economy and to help protect the ingenuity and creativity of Americans.  We want to be able to reduce the number of infringing goods in the United States and abroad.  The examples are almost endless: counterfeit car parts, illegal software, pirated video games, knockoff consumer goods, dangerous counterfeit medicines, and many other types of products – including very sophisticated technology.  Our goal is to better use taxpayer dollars and other government resources to be more effective in reducing any threat to our economy and our safety.  

    To further these goals, we are working to find ways of measuring these threats and their impact on us.  How many jobs depend on the existence of intellectual property?  What are the greatest risks to health and safety?  We need better data on these questions and it is part of my job to figure out what the answers are.  We cannot do that without your help.  So, my office is asking the public to give us information about the costs and the risks – and then give us suggestions for what we could be doing better as a government.   As a first step, we are issuing a notice to the public asking for your input.  Here’s a link to this request (pdf).  You can send your comments to intellectualproperty@omb.eop.gov.  We look forward to hearing from you.

    Victoria Espinel is the U.S. Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator

  • The President believes strongly that Thursday’s bipartisan meeting on health insurance reform will be most productive if both sides come to the table with a unified plan to start discussion – and if the public has the opportunity to inspect those proposals up close before the meeting happens.

    That’s why yesterday the White House posted online the President’s proposal for bridging the differences between the Senate- and House-passed health insurance reform bills. The proposal puts American families and small business owners in control of their own health care. It makes insurance more affordable by providing the largest middle-class tax cuts for health care in history, it ends discrimination based on pre-existing conditions, holds insurance companies accountable,   and reduces our deficit by $100 billion over the next 10 years.

    But you don’t have to take our word for it: the proposal is posted right here at WhiteHouse.gov for everyone to examine. You can read through the plan’s bipartisan ideas section by section, or you can select your health care status and find out what the proposal would mean for you. You can even submit a question for our policy staff to answer.

    What you can’t do just yet is read about the Republicans’ consensus plan – because so far they haven’t announced what proposal they’ll be bringing to the table. To be sure, there are many Republicans who share the President’s conviction that we need to act on reform, and there are several pieces of Republican health care legislation out there. Previously we were told this was the House Republican bill. Is it still? We look forward to hearing whether this the proposal they'll bring. The Senate Republicans have yet to post any kind of plan, so we continue to await word from them. As of right now, the American people still don’t know which one Congressional Republicans support and which one they want to present to the public on Thursday.

    President Obama has been clear that his proposal isn’t the final say on legislation, and that’s what Thursday’s meeting is all about. But after a year of historic national dialogue about reform, it’s time for both sides to be clear about what their plan is to lower costs, hold insurance companies accountable, make health insurance affordable for those without it, and reduce the deficit.  A collection of piecemeal and sometimes conflicting ideas won’t do.

    As we said today, we’ll be happy to post the Republican plan on our website once they indicate to us which one we should post. We hope they won’t pass up this opportunity to make their case to the American people.

    Dan Pfeiffer is White House Communications Director

  • Last week, tragedy befell public servants in Austin, Texas.  Earlier today, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner met with IRS employees in Austin to express his sympathies and support, and he read this note from the President:

    To the men and women of the Internal Revenue Service at Austin:

    I asked Secretary Geithner to carry this message to you. 

    It is with great sadness that I write to you on the tragic events of February 18th.  You, your families and colleagues are in my thoughts and prayers. 

    Michelle and I extend our condolences to you on the death of your colleague, Mr. Vernon Hunter.  Vernon dedicated his life to service to this great country, serving over 20 years in the military before joining the IRS.  We mourn his death. 

    As we work with law-enforcement agencies to investigate the events leading up to this plane crash, I want the dedicated employees of the IRS to know that I am thankful for your dedication, courage and professionalism as we rebuild in Austin.  And as you continue your work, we will do what is needed to ensure your safety.

    We are grateful for your service to this country.

    May God bless you and the United States of America.

     

    President Barack Obama

  • Today is a good day for American consumers, as the credit card reform bill the President signed last year kicks in. We’re marking the occasion by holding a live online video chat through CreditCards.com with Austan Goolsbee of the Council of Economic Advisers at 2:00 this afternoon.

    You can get some background on what’s in the bill through today's piece in USA Today. The President made a statement of his own this morning:

    Today, the major reforms of the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act that I signed into law last spring take effect, marking a significant turning point for American consumers.  For too long, credit card companies have had free rein to employ deceptive, unfair tactics that hit responsible consumers with unreasonable costs.  But today, we are shifting the balance of power back to the consumer and we are holding the credit card companies accountable.

    The new rules taking effect today mean that credit card companies can no longer retroactively increase rates or increase rates in the first year you open an account, charge misleading late fees or use over-limit fee traps.  They’re now required to send ample notification if they plan to make changes to the terms of your card and they must employ clear, simple standard payment dates and times.  There are new protections for underage consumers, restrictions on double billing and caps on high-fee cards.  The new rules are an unprecedented step in my administration’s ongoing efforts to strengthen consumer protections and enact meaningful financial reform.

    These new rules don’t absolve consumers of their obligation to pay their bills, but they finally level the playing field so that every family and small business using a credit card has the information they need to make responsible financial decisions.

  • On Thursday the much-anticipated bipartisan meeting on health reform will be held at the Blair House across the way from the White House. With Congress having spent most of a year discussing and debating reform, the President put forward a proposal to work off of during the meeting to help lay out a path forward.   The proposal aims to give the American people and small business owners more control over their health care choices by building on the progress Congress has already made, and including new ideas from both parties and the President himself.

    And of course, join us on Thursday here at WhiteHouse.gov, where the entire bipartisan meeting will be streamed live.

  • At 3:00 PM EST today the First Lady will give a group of Washington, DC music students a special preview of the 2010 Governors’ Ball performance. Grammy Award Winning artist, Harry Connick Jr. will spend some time talking to students and will close out the event with a song, joined by a few residents from the New Orleans Musicians’ Village. The Musician’s Village was conceived by New Orleans native Harry Connick, Jr. in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to rebuild homes for many of New Orleans cherished but displaced artists, those who have defined the city’s culture and created the sounds that have shaped the musical vernacular of the world.

    Watch the live events today on WhiteHouse.gov/live

     

  • While almost everybody has heard health insurance horror stories from stories in the local paper, from somebody they know, or even somebody closer to home, it’s easy to think it won’t happen to us personally. In many cases we never even see the worst of insurance company abuses until we get sick ourselves. But the rash of “jaw-dropping” premium increases, as the President put it in his Weekly Address earlier today, has shown that nobody is immune to bad practices from insurance companies as long as health reform is not in place.

    As a recent report out of HHS documented, outrageous premium requests have hit every region of the country recently – up to 39% from one insurance company in California, 56% from another in Michigan, 24% in Connecticut, and 23% in Maine to name a few examples.

    Yesterday we learned that our seniors are vulnerable as well. Seniors who remained enrolled in their Medicare Advantage plans – which are tied to private insurance -- experienced rapidly increasing premiums, at 32 percent on average, between 2009 and 2010.

    And today we learn that younger Americans can be just as vulnerable – indeed one California mother found that premiums for her kids were rising at a rate that makes even the other outrageous examples look modest. In what a MarketWatch headline calls a “health-care shocker”:

    [Lori] Creasey, a Huntington Beach, Calif.-based attorney, said she received notices late last year for the two individual Anthem policies she bought for her college-age sons. For her 18-year-old son, Kyle, the monthly premium was climbing to $135 from $80, a 69% hike. Her 21-year-old, Walter, saw his premium jump to $139 from $84, a 65% increase.

    "I was kind of shocked when I got [them]," Creasey said.

    Lori and her sons aren't the only Americans who have been shocked by their premium increases. And if we do nothing theirstories will become more and more common.

    That's why the President is committed to passing health reform and it's why he has invited leaders from both parties in Congress to discuss the issue on Thursday. You can watch the meeting live here on our website.

    We're closer than ever to passing real health reform and stories like this show us how important it is to finish the job.

    Dan Pfeiffer is White House Communications Director

  • Read the Transcript  |  Download Video: mp4 (145MB) | mp3 (25MB)

    With Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack in tow, First Lady Michelle Obama traveled to Philadelphia yesterday as part of the Let’s Move! campaign, a nationwide effort to rally the country around one goal, ending the epidemic of childhood obesity.

    During her remarks at Fairhill Elementary School, Mrs. Obama applauded the city of Philadelphia for their “stand” to end childhood obesity:

    Six years ago, when this city had fewer supermarkets per person than almost anywhere in America, all right, that was six years ago, when many folks had no access to healthy foods; six years ago many neighborhoods had alarming rates of obesity-related conditions like heart disease and diabetes -- the folks in this city, you all could have decided that you had an unsolvable problems on your hands, right?  You could have done that.  You could have decided that these problems were just too big and too complicated and too entrenched and thrown your hands up and walked away.

    But instead you all took a stand, a really important, collaborative stand.  You decided first that no family in this city should be spending a fortune on high-priced, low-quality foods because they have no other options.  You decided that no child should be consigned to a life of poor health because of what neighborhood his or her family lives in.  And you decided that you weren't going to just talk about the problem or wring your hands about the problems, but you were going to act.

    And that's precisely the kind of determination, the kind of commitment that we need to address the epidemic of childhood obesity in this country.  And this issue is an issue of great concern to me, and I've said this before, not because I'm First Lady -- or not just because I'm First Lady of this country -- but because I'm a mother, and I care about my kids and I care about all of our kids.  And I know that this issue is a great concern to all of you, everyone around this country.  We all care about our kids.  That's why last week we enthusiastically and proudly launched "Let's Move."  (Applause.)  "Let's Move" is a nationwide campaign to rally this country around one single but ambitious goal, and that is to end the epidemic of childhood obesity in a generation so that the kids born today grow up with a healthy weight.  Simple but ambitious.

    Mrs. Obama also announced a new part of Let’s Move! -- the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a multi-million dollar public and private investment to eliminate food deserts in America within seven years:

    So with your success here in Pennsylvania, what you've shown us is that when we provide the right support and incentives, then business leaders like Pat Burns and Jeff Brown, they're going to take the chance to invest in our communities.  And when we bring fresh, healthy food to communities, what do we learn?  People will buy it, right?  People will buy it.  These stores are turning a profit.  And what's going on is that they're doing well by doing good.  Isn't that something?  (Applause.)

    So it's because of this example that part of "Let's Move" we created this Healthy Food Financing Initiative that's modeled on what's been going on here.  And as Secretary Geithner said, with a modest initial investment of about $400 million a year, we're going to use that money to leverage hundreds of millions more from private and non-profit sectors to bring grocery stores and other healthy food retailers to underserved communities all across this country.  If you can do it here, we can do it around the country.  (Applause.)  And our goal is ambitious.  It's to eliminate food deserts in America completely in seven years.  (Applause.)

    Again, we know this is ambitious, but we also know that tackling the issue of accessibility and affordability is key to achieving the overall goal of solving childhood obesity in this generation.

    To learn more about what you can do to help solve the childhood obesity epidemic – visit LetsMove.gov and become a fan of Let’s Move! on FaceBook.

     

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  • The President points to outrageous premium hikes from health insurance companies, especially those already making massive profits, as further proof of the need for reform.  Looking ahead to the coming bipartisan meeting on reform, the President urges members of Congress to come to the table in good faith to address the issue.

  • During his visit to a town hall in Henderson Nevada, President Obama announced new efforts to stabilize the housing market by buying vacant homes and converting them into affordable housing that will create jobs, help the housing crisis, and allow the local economy to grow.  He also announced a $1.5 billion fund for housing finance agencies in Nevada and other hard-hit states to help unemployed homeowners avoid foreclosures.  The fund will also help struggling homeowners find a way to pay their mortgages and modify their loans.

    He recalled the steps the government has already taken to stem the housing crisis, by providing tax credits to 1.4 million Americans buying their first homes, as well as a loan modification initiative to lower monthly payments for struggling homeowners.

    He went on to discuss another issue on everyone’s minds: jobs. He highlighted the steps the government has taken to preserve jobs, and will continue taking to create them. He mentioned how the Recovery Act has helped to save jobs that would have otherwise been lost, expanded unemployment insurance, and cut taxes for the American people.

    The President discussed the escalating need for health care reform to increase coverage while lowering overall health care costs, especially when people are seeing rapidly rising premiums and risk losing their coverage.

    What we're proposing has nothing to do with a government takeover of a health care.  Most of you would have the exact same health care that you've got right now, but you'd be more protected and more secure.  And if you don't have health care, you'd have a chance of getting health care. And, by the way, it would actually save us money in the long term, because all those wasteful dollars that we're spending right now, the experts estimate we'd actually save a trillion dollars by passing it.

    President Obama Listen to Senator Reid in Nevada

    President Barack Obama listens as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaks during a town hall meeting at Green Valley High School in Henderson, Nev. February 19, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

    During the discussion with the audience he also made a forceful case for handling climate change by capping carbon and the benefits of a clean energy economy.  He pointed out that other countries are already moving in that direction, and America shouldn't be left behind, using the issue as a prime example of what American leadership can really mean.

    What does it mean to lead?  It means countries that out-educate us today are going to out-compete us tomorrow.  And that means America has to lead in education.  That's why we're working with educators to transform our schools, and make college more affordable, and prepare our kids for science and engineering and technical degrees -- because those are going to be the jobs of the future.

    And because the future belongs to countries that create the jobs of tomorrow, we've got to lead in energy.  That's why we're investing in companies right here in Nevada and across this nation that produce solar power and wind power and the smart, energy-efficient electric grids the investments that are giving rise to a clean energy economy.  It's vital that we do that.    

  • Yesterday, I had the opportunity to travel to Cincinnati, Ohio for the one year anniversary of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.  While in Cincinnati, I visited the Forest Square development, which is a low-income housing development under construction using $1 million in Recovery Act Tax Credit Assistance (TCAP) funds.  When complete, this project will consist of 21 affordable apartments for Cincinnati’s elderly residents.   

    In early 2009, when the project owner was unable to secure financing, the owner applied to the Ohio Housing Finance Agency (OHFA) for TCAP and Treasury Tax Credit Exchange (TCE) funds, both provided through the Recovery Act, to fill funding gaps.  After OHFA awarded the project $1 million in TCAP funds and a TCE grant of $248,566, the project owner was able to close the financing and begin construction.  Without the Recovery Act, the project owner may not have been able to move forward with the completion of the project.  A total of 70 jobs are currently being created as a result of the project.

    But most importantly, I was able to see firsthand how the Recovery Act has directly impacted many American families.  I had the incredible opportunity to meet a construction worker named Will Straw while touring the project.  Will was hired 5 months ago by the project developer, the Model Group, specifically for the Forest Square project.  With 30 years of construction experience, Will had been unemployed a year and a half before joining the Model Group. He expressed to me how he, his wife and 3 sons are incredibly gratefully that the Recovery Act has enabled him to find work again.

    Since day one, the Recovery Act has been working to address the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression and lay a new foundation for economic growth.  According to the Congressional Budget Office, the Recovery Act is already responsible for a many as 2.4 million jobs at the end of 2009.  The Recovery Act funded- TCAP program is just one example of how recovery is already happening in communities across the country.  TCAP is restarting stalled construction projects, creating jobs, revitalizing neighborhoods and providing affordable housing for low-income residents throughout the country.  What I saw in Cincinnati yesterday is just one example of the economic recovery America is beginning to experience. 
     

    Secretary Donovan in Cincinnati

    Secretary Donovan meets construction workers while touring Forest Square, an affordable housing project in Cincinnati under construction as a result of Recovery Act funding. February 18, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Greg Miller)

  • As families across the country struggle to make ends meet in this troubled economy, many are getting difficult news: their health insurance premiums are rising. Significantly.  And a new report today indicates that premiums for seniors in Medicare Advantage plans will continue to rise. This is the continuation of an unfortunate trend. Seniors who remained enrolled in their Medicare Advantage plans between 2009 and 2010 have experienced rapidly increasing premiums, at 32 percent on average, with a steeper 78 percent average increase for enrollees in private fee-for-service plans.

    But while seniors are suffering, insurance companies are doing better than ever. Humana earned $452.3 million in the fourth quarter of 2009 from its Medicare Advantage plans, compared with $267.3 million a year earlier, a 70 percent increase. At the same time, these companies are being vastly overpaid by the federal government, making huge profits and sticking seniors with higher bills.

    This news comes just one day after we at the Department of Health and Human Services released a report showing how insurance companies are driving up premiums at unnecessary, alarming rates.   In California, beneficiaries recently received letters from Anthem Blue Cross announcing their rates would go up as high as 39 percent. Elsewhere, in the last year alone, large insurers have requested premium increases of 56 percent in Michigan, 24 percent in Connecticut, 23 percent in Maine, 20 percent in Oregon and 16 percent in Rhode Island.

    What makes this harder to take is that insurance premiums aren’t the only numbers on the rise -- insurance industry profits are also growing by leaps and bounds. The five largest health insurance companies – WellPoint, UnitedHealth Group, Cigna, Aetna, and Humana – earned combined profits of $12.2 billion in 2009, 56 percent more than the previous year. Moreover, the CEOs of these same companies are each taking home up to $24 million per year.

    Insurance companies say that if consumers don’t like it, they can shop elsewhere. Yet we all know that finding a policy on the individual market is not as easy as it sounds. In many cases, insurers can slash your coverage when you need it most. If you have a pre-existing condition, they may deny you coverage altogether.

    To show how out of touch insurance companies are with middle-class families, a recent study found that nearly 75 percent of consumers looking for coverage on the individual market never bought a plan – and most of them cited cost as their primary reason. Yet insurers are turning a blind eye. As reported in Arkansas, one Blue Cross plan wanted to increase rates by 28 percent, but regulators forced the plan to settle for just 11 percent. In a broken health care system without competition, transparency, or choice there is little stopping insurance companies from jacking up rates, and putting greater costs onto the backs of working Americans.

    Our broken system is working for insurance companies, not families. While profits and premiums are going up, coverage is going down. And three of the top five insurers cut the proportion of premiums they spent on customers' medical care last year, committing more to salaries, administrative expenses, and profits.

    Without health insurance reform, we will continue to get more of the same. That is unacceptable.

    Reform will protect consumers from abusive insurance industry practices. It will encourage competition among insurance companies in order to drive down costs and offer consumers choices to get the coverage that’s right for them. Reform will also bring down premiums and limit out-of-pocket costs that eat into the family budget.

    These efforts won’t just help our health care system – they will also help our economy. Lowering health care costs through reform could generate between 250,000 and 400,000 jobs a year.

    It's time we put the health of American families back in the hands of consumers – not the insurance industry.

    Kathleen Sebelius is Secretary of Health and Human Services

  • This Monday your relationship with your credit card is going to change a bit, as the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure (CARD) Act of 2009 goes into full effect. The law bans unfair rate increases, prevents unfair fee traps, requires plain language in plain sight for disclosures, increases accountability all around, and institutes protections for students and young people just for starters.

    But of course any time a relationship changes, it's natural to have questions about it. So we invite you to join us for a live video chat with Austan Goolsbee of the Council of Economic Advisers on Monday at 2:00PM EST. We'll be going through CreditCards.com to take questions live on video, and you can even get a head start submitting your questions over there now.

  • At the beginning of the school year, the President encouraged students to take responsibility for their education, study hard and graduate from high school. That’s why the President and I are proud to announce the Race to the Top High School Commencement challenge. The challenge encourages schools to show how they are making great strides on personal responsibility, academic excellence and college readiness. In your application, tell us why your school is special and why it should be a model for other schools around the country.

    Following the application deadline, six finalists will be selected by the White House and Department of Education. These schools will then be featured on the White House website and the public will have an opportunity to vote for the three schools they think best meet the President’s goal. The President will select a national winner from these three finalists and visit the winning high school to deliver the commencement address to the class of 2010.

    Download Video: mp4 (40MB) | mp3 (1MB)

    Applications must be submitted no later than Monday, March 15th at 11:59 pm EST. Learn more about the challenge at www.WhiteHouse.gov/Commencement. You can also check out our facebook page at Facebook.com/racetothetop.

    Arne Duncan is Secretary of Education

  • Today, President Obama is announcing $1.5 billion in funding for innovative measures to help families in the states that have been hit the hardest by housing market stress and unemployment.  States where house prices have fallen more than 20% from their peak will be eligible for this funding. Such price declines, coupled with the effects of high unemployment, means that many working and middle-class families in these areas are facing serious challenges.  The effort we are announcing today will provide support for state housing finance agencies (HFAs) to design programs tailored to the urgent needs of particular communities.

    Eligible HFA programs will aim to help homeowners in areas hardest hit by unemployment and home price declines, helping responsible but struggling homeowners stay in their homes.

    The $1.5 billion fund will be available for State Housing Finance Agencies and similar organizations to develop innovative programs help address the problems facing their communities.  Housing markets vary considerably from state to state, and often within a single state.  Housing Finance Agencies are very familiar with their local housing markets, and will take the lead role in determining what sorts of programs are most appropriate to local conditions.  The types of programs that may be funded include: measures for unemployed homeowners, programs to assist borrowers owing more than their home is now worth, programs that help address challenges arising from second mortgages,; or other programs encouraging sustainable and affordable homeownership.

    There will be a formula for allocating funding among eligible states that will be based on home price declines and unemployment.  Eligible HFAs that would like to participate must submit a program design to Treasury.  Program designs must meet funding requirements under the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 (EESA). The Department of the Treasury will announce maximum state level allocations in the next two weeks, along with rules governing the submission of program designs by HFAs, and provide a period thereafter for HFAs to submit their program designs in order to receive funding.

    The state specific nature of the fund will allow HFAs to design programs focused on the priorities in their local markets.  The program will be under strict transparency and accountability rules.  All program designs and measures of program effectiveness will be posted online, creating a public web forum for interchange of innovative ideas developed through the program.

    This new funding for increased HFA initiatives will support families in the hardest hit markets markets, combining with the numerous other steps the Administration has taken to help support US homeowners and housing markets.

    Sarah Apsel is a Policy Advisor at the Treasury Department

  • First Lady and British Essay Winners

    First Lady Michelle Obama meets with British students, from schools across the London borough of Islington, in the Old Family Dining Room of the White House. The students, who won an Islington Black History Month essay competition, were rewarded with a trip to the United States sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in London. February 18, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

    On Thursday morning, The First Lady hosted ten students from schools across the London borough of Islington in the Old Family Dining Room. The students were winners of the Islington Black History Month essay competition, and rewarded with a trip to the White House sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in London.

    The First Lady congratulated the kids and told them that if they continue to work hard, the opportunities are endless. “President Obama didn't wake up to become who he is.  It was a lot of practice early on, of getting things done.  You're going to slip and fall and trip along the way.  He certainly did,” she said. “I did a little less than he did,” she laughed.

    She talked about the importance of young people exchanging ideas and influencing other people’s lives. “Think about who you're going to help along, and never stop doing that.”

    The students read excerpts from their winning essays and toured the White House.
     

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