Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Fixing for a MedAdvantage/health care fix

Since turning 65 earlier this year I have entered the uncertain world of Medicare. Stories about Medicare, it seems, are part of the lore of aging.

My transition from my pre-senior Kaiser Permanente coverage to Regence Blue Cross MedAdvantage was seamless back in February, when I entered seniordom.

I signed up for the Regence program because it looked like a pretty good deal at $45 a month, plus the $93.50 I pay monthly for Medicare.

But about a month ago I realized that each year I would be buried under a blizzard of fliers from competing Medicare Advantage programs, which envelop and supplement Medicare’s spartan coverage. No doubt Regence has been out trying to woo other seniors away from their own coverage and over to the Blue Cross/Regence program.

Of course the advertising blitz comes at a price, born by us, the enrollees. The marketing campaigns have absolutely nothing to do with our health care. Trust me, they don’t do this in Sweden, Denmark, New Zealand and Canada.

Then, in the middle of this flurry of brochures and sales pitches, I received in the mail my “2008 Annual Notice of Change” from Regence. That’s innocuous sounding until you realize that the primary change was in what I would be paying.

Starting January 1, my monthly rate will go from $45 to $75.

I blinked, but my eyes did not deceive. That’s a 67 percent increase. Over the year, I will fork over an additional $360 to Regence. An extra dollar a day.

Did someone say “bait and switch”?

Suddenly I realized why I was getting all those fliers from the competition.

Fortunately, I can afford to pay more. But where will this stop? Will Regence gouge me another 60 or 70 percent next year?

And what about all those folks who can’t afford the increase?

“Fixed income.” means exactly what it says, “fixed.” I’ll bet the CEO of Regence isn’t on a fixed income.

The health care system clearly is in a fix and needs desperately needs one.

I decided to give Regence a call.

My ploy was to play stupid. “There must be some mistake,” I said to poor Amanda, a Regence customer services representative who answered the phone. (Good news — she didn't sound as though she was fielding my call in sunny Bangalore.)

“You have to understand we are a non-profit company," she explained. "We base our rates on what we paid for claims in the previous year. If we save this year, our premium will go down.”

“Will it go back down to $45?” I asked.

Amanda, wouldn’t commit.

“Has it ever gone down?”

Amanda didn’t know. She’d only been a customer rep for 18 months, but, she added, “A lot of people don’t understand how insurance works.”

“Well,” I said, “either Regence isn’t making itself very understandable or I’m beginning to understand all too well.”

She agreed that the rate increases were tough to budget for. I suggested that Regence customers be warned well in advance that big rate hikes like this one were possible, even inevitable.

She said she would pass my “excellent” suggestion on to her supervisor.

Finally, I asked her whether she had been getting many calls like mine.

Oooooh, yeah,” she said wearily.

Weep, Lyndon Johnson, who signed Medicare into law in 1965. Clearly the days of free or low-cost medical care for seniors are numbered, at least under the Bush administration and probably under any administration beholden to the insurance industry.

And, looking to 2008, which candidate is least likely to be so beholden? Here's a clue. Watch for others.

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Doris Gunn remembered

Doris Gunn's smile often had a playful mischievousness about it. If she suspected you of being susceptible to her thinking, her grin took on a hint of sly conspiracy. She was about to weld you to what was on her mind.

There was always something on Doris’s mind.

For behind her good humor and ease with others, burned a passion for reform that warmed all she met.

She was a spirit on fire for a better world.

Her fire went out, after 84 years, early in the morning of Oct 30 while she slept.

Family and friends gathered at her son’s house near Capitol Hill School on Saturday to recount the many ways Doris touched and inspired us.

Parked outside was her old white Ford Escort station wagon, a tired, old stallion bereft of its knightly driver.

It was plastered with peace and alternative energy bumper stickers, badges of honor. “I’m for Solar Energy and I vote!” read one. “War is not the answer!” proclaimed another.

The car still bore Oklahoma plates (888 MGS to be exact) even though the car and Doris had been in Oregon for five years. She came here because she wanted to be near her family. Here, she found a spiritual home.

Those of us from Hillsdale met Doris not long after she arrived here. She wanted to be with like souls and, laser-like, she sought them out.

She liked action. We first met her in the Hillsdale Farmers Market — her kind of place. When we decided to hold peace walks to Multnomah Village and back, Doris joined us. Her pace was understandably slower than ours. We adjusted. With Doris, you adjusted, always. In her good-humored way, she was irrepressible.

She grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, in an upper middle-class family. She lived most of her adult life in Oklahoma where she raised her three children. She is survived by them, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Her background left her with a hybrid Southern/Oklahoma accent, a down-home wisdom and a raw sense of humor.

At the gathering, we learned from her children that Doris had run for lieutenant governor of Oklahoma in 1970. If it was a surprise to us, it was a shock to her husband back then when he learned about her candidacy in the newspaper. Years later, their lives divided and they divorced.

In the Democratic Party primary, she came in fifth in a field of eight. But, oh, to have heard her on the stump!

Doris was never, ever at a loss for words. Her children recounted how she would fill the phone answering machine with seemingly endless monologues and lectures. She would always end them with a curt notation of time and date.

She opposed the construction of a nuclear power plant near Tulsa and became involved in the Karen Silkwood trial. Swept up in the ‘60s civil rights movement, she spearheaded the integration of the Oklahoma City’s public schools. John noted her children were among the first whites to attend an integrated school there. The Gunns chose to live in a predominantly black neighborhood. She fought for the rights of native Americans in the state, for the welfare of the blind, for the Equal Rights Amendment. She belonged to the NAACP.

She was a prolific writer of letters to the editor and guest opinion columns. Her children spread Xeroxed samples of her writings out on the coffee table before us.

“Phyllis Schlafly’s mind twisted about World War” was the headline on one long letter written in 1983. “As a woman whose brother and several friends were maimed and murdered in World War II,” Doris began, “it is impossible for me to understand Phyllis Schlafly’s belief that war is jolly good for men but bad for women and children.”

A 1986 opinion piece in the liberal Oklahoma Observer bore the headline: “Righting America’s Wrongs” and began: “I have decided not to lie down and die of despair at the disgraceful behavior of my country. I am a U.S. citizen as Ronald Reagan and his space cowboys are citizens.”

The thought of Doris ever lying down in despair is not possible. Three days before she died, she directed her children to go to the post office to mail the actor/activist Ed Asner a letter opposing nuclear power. Because they didn’t or couldn’t always do all she told them to do, she insisted they return with a certification that the letter had been posted.

When she wasn’t writing for the media, she was hounding them to do their job. She was known to command networks in New York to come out to Oklahoma to cover one story or another.

In 1996 she wrote in one of her letters to the editor: “We are all one and can do a part in restoring the commons: common good, common decency, common sense, common courtesy, and common bonds to all life.”

On the table in front of us was a petition she had been circulating in the month before she died. It called for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Also on the table were scores of greeting cards she had bought over the years but never sent. They urged peace, harmony and citizen involvement.

Before we left, we passed around the petition and signed it. I chose seven cards from the pile. Yesterday I sent the cards and copies of the petitions with our signatures on them to the seven members of the Oregon Congressional Delegation.

I included a brief explanatory note. It read:

The friends and family of Doris Gunn, who died on Tuesday, Oct 30, have signed the enclosed petition in memory and honor of her passion for social justice and peace. Doris had prepared this petition and bought the card we also enclose. Doris’s passion was to make the world a safe and just place for her children and grandchildren — for all children and grandchildren, forever. We ask that you make her cause yours by supporting HR-2647, the Nuclear Disarmament and Economic Conversion Act. For the Doris Gunn petitioners,

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Monday, November 05, 2007

Inequity in Oregon

When I think of America's grotesque income inequity, I think of hedge fund managers or shamelessly rich corporate CEOs back East, whose moral bankruptcy is reflected in their compensation's being 400 to 500 times what their average worker makes.

Here in Oregon no such thing could happen, right?

Don’t count on it.

The Oregon Center for Public Policy has looked into what has happened here over the last few years.

The recently released results aren’t pretty.

For an elite group of Oregonians, the New Gilded Age has arrived. For nearly everyone else, this is a tarnished era of stagnation or worse.

For more, take a look here.


Sunday, November 04, 2007

A hike into autumn

Late this afternoon I took one of those walks from our porch that soon have me deep in the quasi-wilderness up the hillside. The network of roads and paths drew me farther and farther from home so that I ended up being gone well into dusk and deep shadow.

For some of the walk my iPod provided a sound track. Bossa Nova’s syncopated lilt carried me along at first. Then I shut it off and listened to the sylvan stillness and my footfall,

Finally, after an hour of trail trudging, traffic on Terwilliger Parkway intruded.

I scrolled to Gene Harris’ lilting “Autumn in New York” as I walked along the parkway, thinking of my own first autumn in New York so long ago, in the fall of ’64.

I was in Peace Corps training at Teachers College, learning Swahili. We lodged at the old Paris Hotel on Amsterdam Avenue, 30 blocks from the Columbia University Campus. Occasionally I’d forsake the rumbling underground A-Train to treat myself to an ambling, leaf-shuffling stroll through Riverside Park.

Harris’ piano (the album is "Blue Gene," if you are interested) brought back memories of those long ago walks on the park's broad arcade. The moms looking over their toddlers at play in the sandboxes. The dog walkers. Roller skaters. The listless Hudson River. Leaves pin-wheeling down.

Autumn in New York.

Autumn on my walk today was patterns and signs. The rhythm of lingering leaves, notes on nature’s staff. A November melody on the black, meandering branches. Slanting sunlight filtered and flickering through yellow and orange.

The jarring 1-800-GOT-JUNK sign along the well-used Fairmount “linear park.” (Here’s a company with no shame.) A walk down Trail 1 on the darkening eastern slope. A worry about invasive ivy and then relief at happening on downed, trail-side piles of vines that volunteers had hacked and pulled from the forest.

A sign inviting hikers to pitch in on the first Saturday of the month. I made a mental note to help.

Street lamps now lit the the parkway and cars cruising its curves. How far I’d been lured by this beguiling autumn evening. I turned for home, back up the darkening hill. The day melted into darkness and night.

We'll soon be left with bones of trees invisibly preparing for rebirth. In that damp cold of December and January, we must find solace and warmth in the promise of spring.

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Saturday, November 03, 2007

Three hubcap day

Any SOLV/SWNI cleanup offers a morning of discovery and insight about who we are, or at least who our litterbugs are.

It’s not so much an archaeological dig as an archaeological scavenger hunt.

Orange-vested teams of us, fortified with poppy-seed muffins and full-alert coffee, set out for litter-strewn arterials around Southwest Portland.

My team, consisting of Mike Roach (sporting two “Vote Yes on 49” yard signs), Don Baack (wearing his trademark Australian Outback hat) and me, headed for our traditional hunting ground, the shoulders of Capitol Highway, east of Burlingame, and Barbur Boulevard, north of Capitol.

At clean-up time twice a year, our trio considers the much-traveled commuter route “ours.” We have come to know where to look to find its detritus.

Because it is early November, much of the trash is hidden beneath ochre, moldering leaves, but we raked around and filled a dozen or so white SOLV trash bags with precious artifacts.

Most of the trash is evidence of some kind of addiction: nicotine, sugar, alcohol, caffeine, pornography, automobiles and consumer consumption.

Let me be specific, but not gross.

The pornography took the form of a girly magazine. Some of the SOLV teams this clean-up day consisted of young teenagers. Fortunately they weren’t in our group, but then I’m told there’s no need to protect them from pornography in this “Death of Childhood” age. The Internet has inured children and young people to smut.

Alcohol was represented by scores of cans and bottles. I picked up a nearly full can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. It still sudsed up as I emptied it onto the ground. Why the rejected can was so full I can only guess. (“Hey, Fred, you ever heard of this stuff, Pabst? I think I’ll give it a try….Yeeech!”)

Candy wrappers, Starbuck’s cups and car parts point to other addictions.

You’d expect car parts along a road but how to explain a piece of plastic grill liner unless it was somehow extruded during hard cornering.

I score my day by hubcaps. Today was a three-hubcap day (Chrysler, Toyota and a generic Shucks). Don, who rises to every challenge, wrestled a fender off a guardrail. Later he was rewarded for his efforts by finding a usable hammer, which he figured fell off a truck. More hard cornering.

We also picked up our usual assortment of Styrofoam chips and bubble wrap. If the planet is ever destroyed, these two substances may be all that survive, testimony that “higher” life forms once inhabiting the planet.

Each SOLV scavenging offers something to set it apart: a cocktail glass, a mysterious bone, a doily.

This year was no different.

I started finding strewn pages from a book featuring World War II German war planes just where cars whisk off Barbur and climb the hill on Capitol Highway. Every 10 yards or so I’d find a couple more pages. They and I worked our way up the hill, back through the war to 1939.

The pages ran out half way up the grade, at the outer fringe of our scavenging area. I had just gathered the white trash bags and stacked the orange safety cones to retrace my steps back down the hill when I spotted a page devoted to Dornier Do 17Z-2 bombers and MesserschmittBf 109e-1 fighters from Nazi Germany’s World War II’s air campaign in Poland.

I stuffed the Poland page in my pocket with the other pages, made my way back to my car, drove to our staging area at a mega-church parking lot.

There the teams reassembled, shared scavenging stories and ate 20 pizzas.

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Friday, November 02, 2007

Your car as "most favorite" room

Marketing people like to “reframe” products so that they appear to be more than what they are.

A skin lotion is an anti-age elixir. A diamond is a timeless message. An expensive watch symbolizes a successful career.

So it was that Robert L. Nardelli, the new head of Chrysler (formerly, and significantly, CEO of Home Depot) described today’s car as the “most favorite (sic) room under your roof.”

Then he told his audience, a group of magazine publishers, “It’s incidental that it gets you from Point A to B, right?”

To which I say, wrong. If it doesn’t get me from Point A to B, I don’t care what room it is, I’m not entering it.

Chrysler apparently isn’t any better at picking its executives that the rest of the oil-fixated American automobile industry. (Yesterday, Chrysler announced that it was laying off 13,000 workers. Since 2006 the automaker, counting the announced layoffs, will have cut 80,000 employees, a 30 percent reduction.)

But Nardelli did get me to thinking about all the other things cars have become other than, well, cars and “most favorite” rooms.

Here is a partial list:

Phone booths.

Real-world video racing games. (Weave at high speed in and out of lanes, then crash, likely die and kill or maim others.)

Love nests.


Bars or detox cells.

Escape modules. From whatever — the mundane, your 9 to 5, rush hour traffic).

Flashy clothing.


Sex surrogates.

Weapons of mass destruction (think car bombs).

Ego gratifiers.

Global warmers.

Oh, and incidentally, they get you from point A to B.


We can hope.

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Thursday, November 01, 2007

Wordstock Book Festival? Sure. Why not?

So I get an e-mail from a volunteer publicist asking me to mention in this very space the Wordstock Book Festival to be held at the Oregon Convention Center, Nov. 9-11.

So there, I did it. You're welcome.

I've never been the Wordstock Book Festival, now in its 3rd year.

Perhaps you have. Should I go? Should we go? Together? As a group?

Just so you know how the festival's e-marketeer (that's her term for herself) perceives you and me, here's why she thought we might be interested in the festival: "It might be of interest to you and your readers that there is a panel on investigative journalism on Saturday (Nov. 10) at 1:30 with Lance Williams, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Nigel Jaquiss."

She also offered the complete schedule for authors speaking at the festival.

I have now devoted far, far more space than intended to The Wordstock Book Festival.

My problem is that I don't have a policy for press e-releases, if that's what they are called. In the newspaper business, they have these things covered with a book's worth of policies. But this, obviously, isn't a newspaper. (I do put out an on-line newspaper, Hillsdale News, and, yes, I do have a policy. To make the cut, your event must pertain to Hillsdaleand be vaguely interesting.)

With blogs, especially ones as amorphous as this one, the blogger makes it up on the fly. But then that must be obvious. One day I'm slashing away at Jobdango signs in the public right of way or Flowmax ads during the World Series, the next I'm mired in the subject of consensus, Interstate Avenue and Christianity, and then, without any warning what-so-ever, it's a captioned photo of my hysterical Charlie Brown pumpkin.

So here, on the fly, is my policy regarding publicizing events: I welcome all comers, who will be mercilessly subjected to whatever whim strikes me.

My overall policy (at least for today) is: If it seems right, do it.

Wordstock Book Festival? Sure, why not?

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