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THIS WEEK IN AMERICA - August 30, 2013

National Nurses United, 8/30/13

Fast Food Workers On Strike in 60 Cities.   They were out in Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Denver, Peoria, St. Louis, Chicago and dozens of other cities-- 60 in all, the biggest fast food strike to date, reported Daily Kos Labor this week and appearing on Portside.  They want a living wage -- $15 an hour – and the right to form a union without intimidation or retaliation.   The facts are bare: many fast food workers earn $8 an hour or less, simply not enough money on which to live.  Their schedules are unpredictable, leaving those with  children home vulnerable. 

A decent, living minimum wage has been elusive for decades.  The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, whose 50th Anniversary was celebrated this month, included demands for an increase in the wage. 

The value of the minimum wage peaked in 1968 at $1.60, which is about $9.44 measured in today’s dollars; the current minimum wage of $7.25 is 23 percent less than it was in 1968 in real terms.  That wage has not been raised since 2009.   That was the same year Wall Street paid out $140 billion in bonuses. 

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Record Bank Profits Reported. The $42.2 billion in profits registered by U.S. banks in the most recent reporting for 2013 is the highest on record, said the Associated Press in Huffington Post this week.  These profits, up 23 percent from the same period a year ago, were cheered on Wall Street, where this year’s compensation is expected to exceed that of 2009, a huge year for banker pay and bonuses, as reported.  

Meanwhile, for the first three months of 2013, hourly wages for nonfarm workers fell 3.8 percent, the biggest quarterly drop since the government began reporting these figures in 1947.  “Yet CEO pay continues to steadily rise,” reported the AP, “with total compensation growing by 876 percent between 1978 and 2012.  

Banks with assets exceeding $10 billion make up only 1.5 percent of U.S. banks. Yet they accounted for about 82 percent of the industry's earnings in the April-June quarter, the report provided.  Including in this group of mega-banks are Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., JPMorgan Chase. and Wells Fargo. Most have recovered with help from federal bailout money and record-low borrowing rates.

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Universal Care Ranks at the Top.   A survey of healthcare systems carried out by Bloomberg news and reported in Huffington Post this week places Japan near the top.  Mandatory participation funded by payroll taxes paid by employer and employee, income-based rates for the self-employed and cost control of medications and procedures are cited.  While hospitals are privately owned in that nation, government regulations “ensure that the system remains universal and egalitarian.” 

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For-Profit Dialysis Companies Flex Muscle in Congress.  Two companies control 80 percent of the chronic dialysis treatment industry in the U.S.- Davita Healthcare of Denver and Fresenius, headquartered in Hamburg, Germany.  Both have wrestled with the government over allegations of overcharging, undercutting quality care of patients and overuse of drugs.  Both have paid substantial fines as a result of actions brought against them. 

Eight months ago, reported the New York Times this week, the government cited them for eliciting $500 million a year in excessive drug charges.   Much of these over-charges, dating to 2011,  are owed Medicare, which by law funds dialysis treatment of Americans inflicted with End Stage Renal Disease, regardless of age. 

But, says the Times, due to the “lobbying muscle” of these firms, the repayment is on pause.  More than 100 members of Congress are working “to reverse it or water it down,” according to the Times.

For years, anti-anemia medicine was reimbursed in the range of $250 per vial, making dialysis drugs the number one pharmaceutical cost in the Medicare system.  (And helping make stockholders of the drug maker Amgen very wealthy.)  Finally, amidst cries of abuse and profiteering, Medicare sought to bring that rate into line, insisting that approximately $30 per vial was appropriate and proposing “flat-fee” usage rules.  The dialysis companies, that run about 5,000 clinics in the U.S. – under monopoly-like conditions in many areas – threatened to shutter facilities. 

In a “flat-fee” system, regulators took note that use of the drugs plummeted, suggesting that when costs were high drugs may well have been overused.  Several leading nephrologists in the field confirmed this suspicion.

Dozens of lobbyists, including several former members of Congress, have been hitting back hard, in behalf of an industry which has donated at least $8 million to lawmakers since 2009.

“The excessive payments to the companies since 2011 came about, in fact, as the federal government tried to create a single bundled payment for each patient visit,” wrote the Times. “The idea was to eliminate the incentive to prescribe too many doses of Epogen, which medical research showed was harming patients.”

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