TrumpCare begins

Trump has been ranting about the failing ObamaCare market since before he was elected, and has been working tirelessly since to make his predictions come through. After spending months threatening to withhold the subsidies for low-income patients, he finally carried through on his threat last month, but it didn’t matter much. Months of threats and deadlines for the insurance companies to set their 2018 rates meant that without certainty in the rules, a withdrawal of subsidies would get priced into our 2018 rates. Behind the scenes, they worked to change the rules in ways that at best could be described as malicious. These changes have been disguised as much as possible, since they serve little purpose other than to reverse Obama’s policies on principle, with little to no upside for anyone who’s covered. On Nov 1st, 2017, open enrollment was started, and for many of us, it was our first opportunity to even see the rates and changes that we’d be signing up for in the year 2018. I’m a nerd and geek, although one blessed with good health, but nonetheless, I’ve been concerned about my coverage, and have been anxiously awaiting the details of the changes. I received those details yesterday, and the best way to describe them is that…. we’re all fucked.

The first changes that impact us are the changes in the open enrollment period. I didn’t realize the perniciousness of it until after seeing my new policy. The open enrollment period in the year 2016, which is when you were able to sign up for coverage for the year 2017, was available from Nov 15th 2015 to Feb 15th 2016. This was the period of time in which you could sign up for a new policy that would give you coverage in the year 2016. I’m not going to go into details as to why we have an open enrollment period, but essentially it’s there to prevent you from signing up for coverage only right before you get sick. In the year 2017, the open enrollment was changed to Nov. 1st, 2017 to Dec. 15th, 2017, for coverage in the year 2018.

They also reduced the advertising budget for the program advertising this open enrollment period. When I initially heard about these changes, it was obvious that the changes served no purpose other than try and discourage people from signing up, but I missed the sneakiest part of the whole deal. If there are changes in your existing health care policy, those can only be changed at the start of the new year, and I can only change plans to a new one during the open enrollment period. Those 2 events no longer overlap, meaning that I have to be aware that my plan might change, understand the consequences of those changes, and find a new plan before the new plans go into effect. This means I won’t see the first bill, or face the consequences of my new coverage until after the open enrollment period has closed. This incentivizes the companies to try and be as opaque as possible about these changes, so that I’m locked into my new, worse coverage.

The way I was notified about my coverage changes comes straight out of a Douglas Adams book. I’ve signed up electronic e-mail and text notifications, and fittingly, in early October, I received written notice by mail that my existing policy wouldn’t exist in the year 2018, and that I would be automatically moved to a new policy that does exist in that year. It also notified me that I would receive another written letter containing the policy changes in the near future. I logged onto the web page for my health care provider to see if I could read about the changes, and it said that details of my new policy wouldn’t be available until November 1st.

On November 1st, I logged into my health care provider’s web page, and sure enough, I was moved to a new health care policy. This new health care policy has the same name as the old policy, but a different ID number.  The old health care plan I was on was called “Blue Choice Preferred PPO”, and my new policy shows the same name, but shows as a different policy that’s pending for the year 2018. Clicking around in the portal, it didn’t seem like there were any changes. The portal shows me a copy of my health insurance card with helpful (full sarcasm implied with that word) information, which I’ve included here.

DEDUCTIBLE PER FAMILY $9000.00 CalendarYear

My new policy? It shows exactly the same limits. I clicked around to try and find what has changed on my new policy, but I was unable to find any detailed coverage details for the new policy. Any links showing my full coverage just displayed my existing coverage.

In my continued quest to find out how I’d be fucked, I clicked on the convenient online support link on their web page, which is only available from 8am to 5pm, CST, Monday through Friday. After several minutes of trying to figure out why the button wasn’t doing anything, I remembered that browsers now kill popup boxes, and managed to disable the popup killer, and started chatting with a customer service representative. I told him I wanted a list of all the changes to my health care policy that I’d been notified about, and he told me that they had sent me a letter detailing those changes on October 17th. They may have, but I had not yet received anything on November 1st, so I asked if he could list the changes. I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he didn’t entirely understand my question, but after several minutes of back and forth, he finally explained that he could have the system automatically re-send the letter listing the changes, or he could manually post them into the chat window. I told him I wanted both, and he obliged, up to a point. After several pages of changes, he followed up with “and there’s a bunch more like that, and you’ll be able to see them all on the brochure we send out”. None of the changes he showed me looked particularly promising.

So what changed in my plan, and why am I so angry about it? Here’s what I saw when I finally saw my new plan. They have auto-migrated me to a new plan that is “closest” to my existing plan, and there will be no break in coverage. The old plan used to cost me about $900 a month, had a deductible of about $3000, and most services would charge me either a fixed-cost fee or a 20% co-pay amount. The new plan costs $1200 a month, has a lower deductible of $1500, but charges me 50% co-pay on most everything. Looking at their web-page, I can “downgrade” my plan from a silver plan to a bronze one, and instead of paying $1200 a month, I’m back to paying $900 a month. My deductible goes up to $3000, as opposed to the new silver plan’s $1500, but $3000 is the deductible I had in the original silver plan, so no problem there. The interesting part is that my co-pay on everything is 40% instead of 50%. So I called my insurer, and told them that instead of being auto-migrated to the new, more expensive plan, I wanted to downgrade to the cheaper plan on Jan 1st, 2018. No problem, I can switch plans any time up to December 15th, without a problem, so I told them to switch me. They asked for a credit card, which I dutifully gave them, glad that I had found their switcheroo scam before December 15th.

My next shock came in a couple days later, when I noticed my bank balance was lower than I had expected. I checked the charges, and sure enough, right after December 1st, they charged me $900 for my old plan and the December coverage. If I had remained on the auto-switch plan, then I would have been charged again on Jan 1st. Since I called them a couple days after the 1st of December to switch to a plan that was cheaper and provided a lower co-pay than their original plan, they decided they needed to charge me ahead of time for that plan so that it could start on the 1st of January. Now I do reasonably well, and so I was able to afford the extra $900 it cost me early to switch my plan, but the whole thing just reeks of scaminess and profiteering.

The whole business plan is to give the least amount of coverage at the highest price possible, and you can see it at work here. The ACA requires them to provide (at least) a minimum set of benefits. Since Trump refused to make the CHIP payments, and his lack of commitment to even that principle, meant that insurance companies weren’t able to move forward on disclosures for their 2018 plans. However, insurance companies, never ones to leave profit on the table, also took this moment of confusion to create a new plan, significantly worse than my old plan, and more expensive as well. They then helpfully offered me a transparent switch-over to the new plan, while waiting as long as possible to disclose any of the terms of the new plan to me, and requiring a preemptive effort on my behalf to get them to tell me what the changes were. Finally, as a nail in the coffin, they structure the whole thing in a way where I have to absorb higher costs before Christmas, instead of waiting for the new year, to charge me for the switch over, even though they don’t charge me the same way if I stay on the worse, more expensive plan. The final product is then packaged up so that its not obvious to me what the changes and/or charges will be until 2 weeks after the deadline for me changing the plan. This is our wonderful free market at work, where as consumers, we can spend infinite amounts of time and energy to try and prevent companies from taking additional advantage of us, while the laws work in their favor to help obfuscate what they’re trying to do to me. It’s one thing when it’s a non-essential consumer product, like a new TV, or a gym membership, but its another thing when it’s literally our health that is at stake.

I am an immigrant

Just a few days ago, President Trump made an announcement repealing the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, which granted a temporary reprieve to the threat of deportation to immigrants who were not here legally, but arrived while under the age of 6 years old. Generally speaking, I’m a fairly callous person, and am not surprised or particularly emotionally impacted by Trump or politics in general (which is not to say I agree with most of it, I disagree with Trump very strongly on many issues, and am in *no* way in support of him as President), but I’ve been overwhelmed with a feeling of depression and anger, along with a feeling that it could be me.

Most people who look at me would have absolutely no idea that I am an immigrant (unless I told you). I’m privileged enough to be a white male who arrived here when I was young, so I don’t carry any accent of my home country, even though I speak the language. I’m additionally blessed with the lucky circumstance of being born in Helsinki, Finland. The way US immigration policy tends to work is to have various quotas for each country, with the quotas having an absolute percentage cap. This means that if you come from a country with either a large population or a large number of immigrants to the US, then immigrants have to enter a lottery to be able to get things like a Visa, or a green card (officially known as a Permanent Resident card). Finland has a relatively small population, and a relatively low number of immigrants to the US, and so I’ve never had to enter a lottery. I can’t say my experiences with the US immigration system have been particularly pleasant, but I also haven’t had any particularly negative experiences beyond just dealing with a bureaucracy.

I came to the US when I was very young, when my dad was a graduate student. I’ve always spoken native languages with my parents, so luckily for me, I’ve retained my non US citizenships, as well as my foreign languages. Since then, I have become a US citizen. I’ve participated in every major election that I’ve been eligible for, and it’s something I’ve never taken for granted. I have a new found respect for working inside the system, and taking advantage of the opportunities that US society and government has offered me. I’ve paid my taxes, and although I never like doing it, I also understood that paying taxes was the way that the US government operated, and how it funds infrastructure and other services that we all count on. I don’t always agree how our tax dollars are spent, but I’ve always considered that part of the bargain in return for not having to worry about whether the roads are going to be driveable, or whether the police will show up when called, or any number of other services that are regularly provided through the taxes the US collects. I always understood this obligation, even before I could vote, and therefore had no political say in how my tax dollars were spent.

I’ve certainly had my issues with how America is run, but during all of my life here, I also believed that America was a land of opportunity. I liked the system that gave us the freedom to do what we want (within the law), and believed that opportunity was something that we all experienced to varying degrees, but was nonetheless available to us.

I’ve also been aware that I’m privileged to be a white male who grew up around computers, and that while my skill with computers is certainly something I’ve contributed to and worked hard to achieve, but given a different time, or place, or parents, I might not be so lucky. I might have been born in 1900, when a computer programmer’s skills might not have been as useful. I was born as a white person, with blond hair to boot, so I haven’t had to deal with oppression from those around me, and I’m well aware that I’m given a much higher benefit of doubt than if I’d been born with a different skin color. I also might have been born as a woman instead of a man, and that might have made my career in technology play out very differently, even given the same set of skills.

I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t feel like I have contributed to my own success, I do feel like I play a large role in it, but I’m also well aware that given a number of different circumstances that could have played out, that luck also played a very large in my success. This awareness also tends to drive my own generosity (I’m not claiming to be a particularly generous individual here, but I do try and be generous within my own capabilities, and I’m talking about what drives that generosity). I firmly believe that a rising tide lifts all boats, that very few things that we do in life are zero sum. I also believe that if I can contribute to my neighbors doing well, than that improves their lives, and mine as well. I get to live on a nicer street, and I have a good relationship with them, and I can, with some degree of confidence, rely on their own good will when I need help. I recently asked my neighbor to help me move a heavy desk upstairs, and I’m sure he obliged because he’s a nice guy, but he also obliged because I try and be a good neighbor. If he asked me to do the same, I wouldn’t hesitate to help him out either.

I participate in this sort of reciprocity because it benefits me. I know when I’m out town, my neighbors will report suspicious activity. If I need a tool, or help moving a table, I can ask one of my neighbors, and get a hand. It means that when I want to move that table upstairs, I don’t need to hire movers to do it, and I don’t need to buy every tool I might ever use. It also means that I pay my taxes so that I don’t have to think about repaving the street in front of my house, or putting out a fire, or taking the garbage out any further than the alley behind my house. It means that if I have a dispute with someone, there’s a court system and law enforcement that I can turn to (in an ideal world). Not having to worry in particular about every potential bad outcome means that I can spend my day doing things like writing this blog post, or programming computers to make a living, instead of defending my house from intruders, putting out fires, and taking my garbage to a landfill/dump. I want to live in a society where people don’t assume the worst about me, and I don’t have to assume the worst about them.

If we, as a society and as a country, decide to view everything through the lens of a zero sum game, then all of the ideals I talk about above become less relevant. It means that I need to worry about what anyone I interact with is going to take from me, and it also means that as a society, I don’t know that in the event I’m wronged, that society will (generally speaking) help protect me or do right by me. When I’m feeling particularly pessimistic, it’s hard not to see it becoming a death spiral. In the grim future, we all trust our neighbors a little less, and they trust us a little less. We’re all opportunistic, and if it benefits them to be shitty to me, they’ll do it, and I’ll do the same. We can no longer count on the justice system, or the police, or the the city government, to do the right thing.

I know that there are a ton of things that Trump has said or done that horrify people, and people who support Trump will complain that once again the left, or the liberals, or the SJWs are just being whining and complaining, and look nothing has happened yet! It is happening, it just hasn’t happened to *you* yet.

So looping all of this around to the present, I’ve become incredibly disheartened by the decision to repeal DACA. I’ve been horrified and hugely concerned about quite a number of Trump’s decisions, but when expressing those concerns, I’m often told that as a white male, I don’t personally need to worry about these things much. Those things may give solace to those who make the statements, but they have never done much to console me. When I mention that, my concerns are nonetheless dismissed as something that “we” (white males) don’t need to worry about. But this is something that affects me, and it is something I take personally, and it is something that gives me a huge amount of concern. I may not be an illegal immigrant, but I am an immigrant, and I stand with those affected by DACA. Those are my people, I’m one of them, and not one of you (Americans) despite my American citizenship. I came to this country as a child, and I didn’t have any choice in the matter. I only happen to be lucky enough to come from a country where legal immigration is easier, and happen to have parents that went through those steps. But I am nonetheless an immigrant who didn’t have any choice in the matter, an immigrant who was brought here as a child;  I’m just more fortunate than the DREAMers are.

These decisions that the Trump administration is making are not just affecting the “other”, but it is affecting the people you know. It affects the people around you, whether you choose to see it or not. It’s not just brown people, or black people, or women, or any other group. It’s your neighbors, your friends, your family, and your co-workers. And maybe you are “lucky” and don’t know anyone affected by these things. You don’t know anyone yet. But one thing I am certain of, you’re not one of Trump’s peers. And that means that he hasn’t fucked you yet. But have no doubt, he will. It’s your job, as one of the people privileged enough to be able to speak out to do so, because there are many that cannot. If you choose not to see, then that’s on you, but I hope this post forces you to look.

A Turning Point

This has been a busy last few weeks in the world of politics. It started with the dismissal of James Comey, the FBI director, before his 10 year term is up. His firing, according to Trump, was because of his persistence in investigating the Russian connection to the election. Simultaneously, the disorganisation was made evident by his staff speaking to the press, making the claim that Comey was fired because his mistakes leading up the election. The irony of that statement is clear, given that Trump repeatedly thanked the FBI Director for assisting in clearing the air about Hillary’s campaign.

The firing, which caused quite a stir in the press and excuses and cover from the Republicans in Congress and the Senate, already looked bad in the press. Trump managed to invite the Russian Ambassador to the White House (which is already quite unusual) while the firing was occurring. Hardly a week had gone by before it was followed by more mistakes and missteps from the administration (or, as some of us call it, fucking crazy shit).  It’s now come out that Trump managed to leak highly classified intelligence, intelligence that even our allies were not privy to, to the Russians during the visit.

I write all of this to just give background to my thoughts of the week. There’s quite a bit of schadenfreude among many who are not Trump supporters about the enormous gaffes by the administration this week. I’m looking at the situation with increasing concern, not because of what happened directly (I expect missteps and gaffes by the Trump administration, it was clear long before he was elected that he is incompetent), but because of the lack of outrage amongst the Republicans in Congress and the Senate. I’ve lived most of my life (all of it until now) with the Republicans being staunchly anti-Russian. When I was younger, there was always outrage about “the communists” and the USSR, and anytime any US president has met with Putin or other Russian leaders, there’s been quite the outcry.  Now we have an administration that may have been elected or helped by Russian propaganda during the election, and is actively disclosing secret information to the Russians in a way that endangers our relationship with our allies, and we have nary a peep from Republicans about these relationships.

The whole situation reminds me of the book “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”.  Before you start thinking that I’m about to compare the Trump administration with the Nazis, let me say that I’m not, so please hear me out.  The point of Rise and Fall was not to document everything the Nazis did during the war, which is well documented elsewhere, but was actually to document soon after the war what had actually happened in Germany among the citizens and the elites in power that enabled the Nazi regime to take power.  A common theme among the people interviewed in the book was that early on during Hitler’s rise to power, his rhetoric struck a chord with society at the time. Anti-semitism was rampant throughout the civilized world, not just in Germany, and so much of what he said was far less vitriolic than how it appears to us now.  Hitler would make outlandish statements about the Jews, and people would nod their heads in agreement, knowing that he didn’t mean what he said. As Nazi behavior got more extreme towards the Jews, people would excuse it as not commonplace, or things blown up by the media. Each step he took towards the holocaust was excused, with a general belief that if things got truly crazy, someone would step up to him. What was actually occurring is that each excuse would make everyone who defended him that much more complicit in his behavior, which lead to more excuses, and further atrocities.

Now I’m not claiming that Trump is a Nazi, or that the end result will be anything close to the Holocaust. What does concern me is that I see a similar excusing of behavior by Republicans in his party, each outrage making them a bit more complicit, and less likely to stand up to him when the next outrage occurs. If he had fired Director Comey at the start of his administration, it might have been a step too far, but after all the other excuses made for his behavior up to this point, firing the Director of the FBI doesn’t seem like such a big deal. After all his lies, misstatements, and just general incoherent rambling, disclosing top secret information to the Russians is excused either by minimizing the importance of the information or consequences of such disclosure.  I used to take solace in the belief that at some point he would do something so outlandish that republicans would have no choice but to speak out. Now I’ve come to believe that each time there isn’t outrage by Republicans at something he does brings us even further from anyone in his party ever speaking out about him. With all of the latest disclosures, there does seem to be some reticence from the Republicans about it, but we shall see if any of this ever leads to anything serious.

Settling With Power?

This is a place for me to put down some of the things I’ve been thinking about, and I’ll be writing on a more philosophical tip rather than a technical angle. Technical writing will go on my company web site.

So why Settling With Power? What does it mean? Settling with Power is a term from helicopter flight actually. The helicopter blades are blowing air downwards to help push the helicopter upwards. If you’re hovering, and begin to descend, you can descend the helicopter into the same air you just pushed down. Since you can’t generate lift from air that is moving in the same direction as you, the helicopter will begin to descend faster. If you try and stop the descent, by applying more power, you’ll generate more air moving downwards. The air will also be moving downwards faster, which once again, you descend into. The more power you try and apply, the faster you descend. To get out of this uncontrolled descent, you have to stop fighting the descent and move forward.

This seems analogous to how I see the world at this moment. There’s a lot of energy being spent fighting certain trends, like globalization, and immigration, and a changing world where coal mining and manufacturing are far less important. What we need to be doing is moving forwards out of our decline, instead of trying to fight the downward descent directly. I know how this is written may seem to disregard the people effected by these changes. I’m not advocating for a libertarian outlook where we abandon those who’ve are impacted by economic changes, I believe we can and should do something for people in our society who are affected by various declines. But I don’t believe that the solution is trying to maintain the importance of various declining industries.

I could go on, and I may in another post, but I’m going to leave this as an explanation of the name.