Archive for October, 2009

Vampire culture rises from the dead (again)

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

Every so often, those scary undead creatures of the night arise from their coffins and suck more cash out of the public, whose appetite for vampires and other paranormal creatures never dies.

We are hot and heavy into another wave of vampire culture, sparked by the immense popularity of the Twilight young adult romance novels and movie. There is the HBO series True Blood, other films or TV shows about witches or those with unusual abilities (Eastwick, X-Men, Heroes), and yet more vampire movies, such as 30 Days of Night.

Vampire camp is nothing new. During the 1970s, the undead novels of author Anne Rice were major bestsellers, and in 1979 two vampire films also made a pop culture splash. One was a comedy, Love at First Bite, and the other a remake of the 1897 vampire novel, Dracula, by Irish author Abraham “Bram” Stoker. Stoker’s novel came to the big screen again in the 1990s remake, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, while that decade also witnessed the long-running TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

So what’s behind this current fascination with things that go bump in the night? Part of the explanation, perhaps, is our utter disgust with last year’s Wall Street bailout. We the taxpayers know we are being bled dry by corporations that are “too big to fail” and their enablers and abettors in Washington, D.C. On top of that mess, state and local governments are only too willing to give huge tax cuts to businesses that face zero consequences for not living up to their part of the bargain. So we might as well enjoy some horror while we struggle with lost jobs, endless unemployment, sinking salaries, mounds of bills, and zip bailout from anywhere for ordinary working stiffs.

Beyond that, our mounting anxiety over Dec. 21, 2012, is also a factor in this latest wave of vampire/paranormal chic. The date, which is approximate, represents the end of a 26,000-year cycle on the Mayan calendar. Not that many of us really understand the actual significance of this date or what the Mayans intended when they ended their calendar on it. We’ve just heard about it from somewhere and presuppose that it means disaster. Call it Y2K glitch/millennium jitters, Part 2.

Enter Hollywood stage right; there are always megabucks to be made in exploiting fear. The film 2012, to debut on Friday, Nov. 13, appears from the previews to gob up destruction with all the outsize special effects that Tinseltown can throw on the big screen. Last fall it was another film called Knowing. Same theme: worldwide destruction depicted by high-tech wizardry, just a different big-name star.

The more pertinent question becomes, why do we invariably expect the worst? What’s in our psyche that leads us to assume that some date or deadline always spells disaster? As just one example, almost every human culture has a variation on a global flood myth.

Despite our so-called modern mindset, the religious meme of judgment day is just like those vampires: it never really dies and cannot be killed off readily. While only a minority still professes to believe in an actual Day of Judgment, the concept of doomsday still haunts most of us, even if we do not acknowledge it. That gnawing, deep-seated unease sets us up to fear the worst in the form apocalypses now framed in lay terms, such as human-made global warming destroying the planet. In this secular scenario, an outraged planet instead of vengeful deity assumes the triple role of judge, jury, and executioner.

Even when times are relatively prosperous, our deep-seated apocalyptic terrors still shake us to the core. The Y2K glitch was supposed to cause havoc with worldwide computer time-keeping when the year 2000 rolled around. Half a decade of media hype and millions upon millions of dollars in programming fixes later, Y2K was a bust. And all the related jitters and handwringing took place during the 1990s dot.com boom.

The apocalypse mindset may well be hard-wired into human genes. Perhaps we all walk around harboring distant, cellular-based memories of an era when our lives consisted of minute-by-minute struggles with the elements, large carnivorous animals, and hostile neighboring tribes.

A different slant: We have lived through such mass destruction before, and the possibility haunts our soul memories. These diverse explanations are not mutually exclusive even while appealing to very different views of human existence.

Most likely we will carry on, dreading our demise right up until our sun in the very distant future shrinks to a dwarf star incapable of supporting life on our planet or anywhere else in our solar system. By then our restless, curious selves will have built space arks that have taken us far beyond the confines of this solar system to new suns and new worlds.

We will still bring our fears and limitations with us, however, unless we learn to grow beyond them. Ultimately, Dec. 21, 2012 may have far more impact on inner change and growth than anything else. And that will be something to celebrate, not dread.

Anti-gay policy toughest on U.S. service women

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

The U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy (DADT) toward homosexual members of the armed forces is more accurately described as “snitch and ditch.”

Under this odious law, passed by Congress in 1993, the military command is not to look into the sexual orientation of potential recruits or active service members (“don’t ask) without evidence of disallowed behavior. Recruits and service members, for their part, may not engage in homosexual conduct or talk openly about their sexual orientation or gay/lesbian relationships (“don’t tell”) while serving in the military.

President Barack Obama cannot change this situation with an executive order. The enabling federal legislation removed the president’s authority to set it aside. Only when the law is changed can this absurd policy be eliminated.

DADT was supposed to outlaw harassment of gays in the military. It hasn’t. The mere suspicion of homosexual orientation usually sets off a career-ending investigation (“snitch and ditch”). DADT also falls most heavily on enlisted women, according to The Palm Center, a think tank at the University of California-Santa Barbara that specializes in research on gender, sexuality and the military.

Since 1993, females have received 61 percent of total Air Force DADT-related discharges, even though they represent just 20 percent of that service branch; women received 36 percent of DADT-related discharges in the Army, where they are 14 percent of personnel; 23 percent of such discharges in the Navy, where they comprise 14 percent; and 18 percent of DADT-related discharges in the Marines, where they are just 6 percent.

There are two possible explanations for these disproportionate discharges, says Nathaniel Frank, senior fellow at The Palm Center. The first is that a higher percentage of women enlisting are gay. The other explanation, and the one Frank thinks is more likely, is the “macho” culture that is pervasive and enduring throughout all branches of the armed forces and that leads to sexual harassment. A male colleague or officer makes advances toward a woman, and if she does not respond, accuses her of being a lesbian, setting off an investigation into her sexual orientation.

“The military regards women and gays as a threat to a fragile male identity,” says Frank, author of Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America. “Women are at much greater risk of being outed by an angry male” than men, he adds. It’s known as lesbian baiting.

One former service member profoundly affected by this poisonous policy is Lt. Col. Edith Disler, who used to be an instructor at the United States Air Force Academy. As Congress and the military’s top brass discuss ending the ban on gays, Disler invited a group of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender academy graduates into her class for a talk with students. Disler told The Palm Center that she received approval to do so from her course director and that no written policy requiring approval from a higher level existed.

The week after the visit, Disler was removed from the classroom after a 25-year career, investigated for having possibly violated policies, procedures, or “classroom decorum,” and reprimanded with a letter of counseling inserted into her record. She has since retired from the military.

“What happened to Edie is a disgrace,” says Michael L. “Mikey” Weinstein, an Air Force Academy graduate who knows Disler and is the president and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. “They turned her into a sacrificial whipping boy.” He praised Disler as an outstanding career officer and the embodiment of the sacrifice and commitment to country required of members of the armed forces.

“The day we finally get rid of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is the day I go out and buy some Dom Perignon,” Weinstein adds. The 75 percent of Americans who support gays serving openly in the military will raise a glass with him.

From jobless to the boss: Creating our own employment

Monday, October 19th, 2009

The statistic was plastered all over the news recently. Candidates for jobs outnumber the positions available by six to one.

We’re right where our corporate masters want us. Scratching and clawing for what few jobs still exist in this country or terrified that our current employment will vanish any day now.

So we keep our mouths shut, put our heads down, and work endless hours of unpaid overtime in the vain hope of staving off the pink slip. The only guarantee in today’s workplace, however, is that jobs in businesses of all sizes are flooding out of this country, never to return.

Have we had enough of this nonsense?

It’s way past time to start thinking of ourselves as self-employed no matter what title or position we hold at present. Instilling that entrepreneurial mindset in the working public is the mission of Gil Effron, the New York-based founder of ThinkSelfEmployed.com.

Effron, whose 30-year business background includes advertising-marketing and consulting, recently published a booklet packed with outstanding advice for the jobless, and even for those who still have a job. And none of it involves looking for another position with a different employer.

Instead, Effron’s 12-page tome explains in plain English what it takes to be self-employed successfully. It is blissfully frank, upbeat, and devoid of all the off-putting business jargon and puffery that permeate most discussions of entrepreneurism.

Effron outlines what he calls seven key indicators that a person has what it takes to be self-employed. These include passion, determination, self-discipline, faith, willingness to talk to lots of people (networking), admitting that we don’t know what we don’t know, and willingness to move out of our comfort zone. Then he offers an expanded explanation for each of these indicators, reassuring readers that each can be learned, and that none of us will be proficient in all of them. Until, of course, we start putting them into practice.

“The only way you can fail is when you stop trying…when you give up,” Effron writes about determination, the second indicator. “I don’t know any business owner who got it right the first time. If it doesn’t work, they try a different approach.”

Then there is his practical definition of faith, indicator No. 4. “Having faith isn’t the same as ‘hoping’ that things will work out. It is doing all that needs to be done and then believing good things will happen.”

One key indicator of success that he doesn’t include is creativity. The successfully self-employed dare to think in unusual ways. In a phone interview, Effron cited his personal knowledge of two partners who started importing leather handbags from Korea and selling them to stores. Then they were inspired to set up shop at flea markets, and started making more over one weekend than they made all month selling to retailers.

“If you don’t think you’ll be at your current job forever, start thinking now about being an entrepreneur,” he advised the still employed. There are big advantages to learning the fundamentals of self-employment without the pressure of having to replace lost income right away.

He also cautioned that most people who decide to start their own business begin in the wrong place, such as ordering business cards or starting a website. They really need to go through three basic steps. First: a frank analysis of their own skills and abilities. Second: planning what they intend to sell and who they intend to sell it to. And third: talking to lots of people to gauge real-world interest in their business idea.

Effron predicted the U.S. economy will bounce back, but not to the same levels as before.  The likelihood of workers getting their old jobs back — at their old levels of pay – is slim to none, especially for those in their 40s and 50s.

There’s no time like the present to transition from unemployed or about to be unemployed to being the boss.

(Cross-posted at The North Star National)

Shoddy business practices cause malpractice insurers’ woes

Monday, October 12th, 2009

The insurance industry whines constantly that runaway, frivolous medical malpractice lawsuits and excessive payouts are the cause of rising U.S. healthcare costs.

We’ve already disposed of that pernicious myth in a previous column. Now it’s time to focus on the insurance industry’s own shoddy business practices and just plain old greed. Carriers having problems with medical malpractice payouts have primarily themselves to thank for their woes.

Let’s do a simple analogy. When a person wants to buy auto insurance, the first thing the insurance company does is use that person’s driver’s license to obtain the person’s driving history. Too many accidents or moving violations on the record, and the insurer declines to issue a policy.

This is a business process known as underwriting. The insurance company gathers information to make an informed decision about whether or not a person is a good candidate to take the risk of issuing that person auto insurance. The record of the person’s driving behavior is a major component of that assessment.

A similar record exists in the case of physicians and other state-licensed healthcare providers. It’s known as the National Practitioner Databank (NPDB). Overseen by the Bureau of Health Professions within the Department of Health and Human Services, the NPDB tracks certain information about physicians and all licensed healthcare providers in every state. It was set up by 1986 federal legislation and began operating in late 1990. By law, medical malpractice insurers are required to report to the NPDB every payment they make on behalf of any licensed healthcare practitioner tracked by the NPDB.

According to Maryland resident Bob Oshel, associate director for research and disputes at the NPDB for 15 years before retiring a year ago, federal law does not allow malpractice insurance companies to query the databank directly.  But, he points out, there is nothing in the law that prohibits insurers from requiring that a physician or other licensed practitioner self-query the NPDB and then provide a copy of the report to the insurance company as part of the underwriting process. (The cost for an individual record is $4.75.) This is the professional equivalent of the driver’s license record, and there is a legal way to obtain it up front, before any malpractice insurance policy is ever issued.

Oshel also says that in most states, roughly 2 percent of all licensed practitioners account for more than 50 percent of all malpractice payouts. Malpractice insurers thus may cut their payout risk in half simply by requiring the NPDB record as part of their underwriting process, then refusing to issue malpractice insurance in those cases where that record shows a risky pattern of professional behavior.

There’s not much incentive for the industry to tighten its underwriting when it comes to medical malpractice insurance, however. The premiums are huge and the actual risk of making a payout extremely low. In addition, Oshel says, the gap between an incident of malpractice and a payout averages more than four years nationally, and in some states can be as long as seven years.  That’s a lot of time to collect interest or other investment dividends on that money before having to fork it over.

In short, do not believe a word the insurance industry says about a supposed medical malpractice crisis. Its members could cut their already low exposure risk in half, if they weren’t so busy collecting inflated premiums to notice.

Even worse is the outrage of permitting a special interest’s group mere financial interest to rob American citizens of their constitutional right to their day in court when they have been maimed or their loved ones murdered by medical malpractice.

(Cross-posted at The North Star National, where StoneScribe is a political columnist.)

Medical malpractice costs drop to record low

Monday, October 5th, 2009

Never let pesky facts get in the way of a profitable myth. The myth in question: runaway medical malpractice lawsuits are causing outrageous hikes in U.S. healthcare costs.

Here’s the reality: Medical malpractice total costs were 0.6 percent of all U.S. medical costs in 2008. Actual medical malpractice lawsuit payouts have fallen to less than 0.2 percent of this country’s total healthcare spending. And the actual number of medical malpractice payouts in 2008 was the lowest since the federal government began keeping national records.

These numbers come from a report published in July by Public Citizen that analyzes medical malpractice payout data from the National Practitioner Databank (NPDB). Overseen by the Bureau of Health Professions within the Department of Health and Human Services, the NPDB tracks certain information about physicians and all licensed healthcare providers in every state. It was set up by 1986 federal legislation and began operating in late 1990. By law, medical malpractice insurers are required to report to the NPDB every payment they make on behalf of any licensed practitioner tracked by the NPDB.

In other words, the NPDB affords a reality-based look at medical malpractice costs versus convenient myths. “The facts flatly contradict the argument that medical malpractice costs have much, if anything, to do with the rise in health care costs,” the Public Citizen report states.

We keep hearing “tort reform” bandied about as a significant healthcare cost savings, however. Could it be that those singing this tune over and over want to evade all financial responsibility for their errors? “The costs of caring for these [medical malpractice] injuries are often borne by American taxpayers rather than those responsible for the injuries,” Public Citizen notes.

Even worse, the incidence of medical malpractice is rising sharply even as legal action is dropping.  A decade ago, a landmark Institute of Medicine study estimated that as many as 98,000 hospital patients were dying annually due to avoidable medical errors. A Hearst Newspapers study earlier this year estimated the number of annual medical malpractice deaths now at 200,000.

Yet the total number malpractice payouts, on behalf of physicians and all other healthcare providers tracked by the NPDB, has declined from 17,964 in 1991 to 14,157 in 2008.  Those raw numbers from the publicly available portion of the NPDB do not take into account increases in the U.S. population or in the ranks of physicians during those 17 years. The drop in malpractice payouts has been steep.

In the rare event that a malpractice payout takes place, it is not for frivolous reasons. Last year, 32.8 percent of payouts were for death; 5.3 percent were for brain damage or quadriplegia requiring lifelong care; 10.9 percent were for major permanent injury, and 15.5 percent were for significant permanent injury. That represents 64. 5 percent of total medical malpractice compensation in 2008. Just 1.3 percent of payouts were for emotional injury only.

One proposed alternative to lawsuits is “no fault” compensation for patients who suffer adverse medical events regardless of whether the injury or death was preventable (a common definition of malpractice). But Public Citizen points out that to keep the costs of these tribunals, sometimes called “health courts,” equal to the current system, only about one-third of those injured could be compensated and the amount of payment would have to be limited to no more than $100,000 for non-economic damages and no more than a two-thirds replacement for lost wages.

“Far from being broken, the current medical malpractice system works well,” says Joanne Doroshow, cofounder Americans for Insurance Reform and executive director of the Center for Justice & Democracy.

Indeed. The current system makes it possible for those injured by medical malpractice or the loved ones of those killed to have their day in court, as provided by the U.S. Constitution. Even so, it’s obvious that many of those who should be paying for their medical mistakes are literally getting away with murder and doing next to nothing to improve their medical practices.

Instead of limiting patients’ access to courts, we should let the trial hounds loose on these hospitals and physicians unless and until they clean up their acts.

(Cross-posted at The North Star National)