Wellness programs don’t really work … except for employers

I’m a little slow on this but it seems companies really want to get genetic information on employees:

A little-noticed bill moving through Congress would allow companies to require employees to undergo genetic testing or risk paying a penalty of thousands of dollars, and would let employers see that genetic and other health information.

Employers got virtually everything they wanted for their workplace wellness programs during the Obama administration. The ACA allowed them to charge employees 30 percent, and possibly 50 percent, more for health insurance if they declined to participate in the “voluntary” programs, which typically include cholesterol and other screenings; health questionnaires that ask about personal habits, including plans to get pregnant; and sometimes weight loss and smoking cessation classes. And in rules that Obama’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued last year, a workplace wellness program counts as “voluntary” even if workers have to pay thousands of dollars more in premiums and deductibles if they don’t participate.

That doesn’t sound very good but at least it helps the health of employees:

Rigorous studies by researchers not tied to the $8 billion wellness industry have shown that the programs improve employee health little if at all. An industry group recently concluded that they save so little on medical costs that, on average, the programs lose money. But employers continue to embrace them, partly as a way to shift more health care costs to workers, including by penalizing them financially.

and from here:

The so-called “Safeway Amendment” was added to the ACA. Now, if you fail, or refuse to take part in, your employer’s “voluntary” wellness test, it can increase your premium by 30 percent — or, if you’re a smoker who refuses to quit, by 50 percent.

There is no evidence that this new rule produced a significant drop in America’s health-care costs. And that isn’t terribly surprising — since Burd’s column was composed almost entirely of lies.

“[A] review of Safeway documents and interviews with company officials show that the company did not keep health-care costs flat for four years, the Washington Postreported in January 2010. “Those costs did drop in 2006 — by 12.5 percent. That was when the company overhauled its benefits … the decline did not have anything to do with tying employees’ premiums to test results. That element of Safeway’s benefits plan was not implemented until 2009.”

In other words, Safeway reduced costs for a single year by raising its employees’ deductibles. It didn’t save money by encouraging its workers to lead healthier lives — it saved money by making its workers pay a larger portion of their health-care costs.

Gee, it doesn’t help the employees but does help the employers. What a shock. And it gets better:

The privacy concerns also arise from how workplace wellness programs work. Employers, especially large ones, generally hire outside companies to run them. These companies are largely unregulated, and they are allowed to see genetic test results with employee names.

They sometimes sell the health information they collect from employees. As a result, employees get unexpected pitches for everything from weight-loss programs to running shoes, thanks to countless strangers poring over their health and genetic information.

So, to summarize, Obama and Congress were convinced to put a provision into the ACA that did basically shifted costs from the employer to the employee for little or no health benefits and now the GOP wants to expand that provision. You have to love it.

But it helps the rich

It seems the Trump administration is contemplating a tax break so corporations will repatriate cash:

Drug makers are promising to create tens of thousands of American jobs if President Donald Trump follows through on his promise to give them a big tax break if they “repatriate” cash they’ve stashed overseas.

The article points to a Senate report: repatriatingoffshorefundsreportoct202011wexhibitsfinal. Here are the conclusions in the executive summary:

1. U.S. Jobs Lost Rather Than Gained. After repatriating over $150 billion under the 2004 American Jobs Creation Act (AJCA), the top 15 repatriating corporations reduced their overall U.S. workforce by 20,931 jobs, while broad-based studies of all 840 repatriating corporations found no evidence that repatriated funds increased overall U.S. employment.
2. Research and Development Expenditures Did Not Accelerate. After repatriating over $150 billion, the 15 top repatriating corporations showed slight decreases in the pace of their U.S. research and development expenditures, while broad-based studies of all 840 repatriating corporations found no evidence that repatriation funds increased overall U.S. research and development outlays.
3. Stock Repurchases Increased After Repatriation. Despite a prohibition on using repatriated funds for stock repurchases, the top 15 repatriating corporations accelerated their spending on stock buybacks after repatriation, increasing them 16% from 2004 to 2005, and 38% from 2005 to 2006, while a broad-based study of all 840 repatriating corporations estimated that each extra dollar of repatriated cash was associated with an increase of between 60 and 92 cents in payouts to shareholders.
4. Executive Compensation Increased After Repatriation. Despite a prohibition on using repatriated funds for executive compensation, after repatriating over $150 billion, annual compensation for the top five executives at the top 15 repatriating corporations jumped 27% from 2004 to 2005, and another 30%, from 2005 to 2006, with ten of the corporations issuing restricted stock awards of $1 million or more to senior executives.
5. Only a Narrow Sector of Multinationals Benefited. Repatriation primarily benefited a narrow slice of the American economy, returning about $140 billion in repatriated dollars to multinational corporations in the pharmaceutical and technology industries, while providing no benefit to domestic firms that chose not to engage in offshore operations or investments.
6. Most Repatriated Funds Flowed from Tax Havens. Funds were repatriated primarily from low tax or tax haven jurisdictions; seven of the surveyed corporations repatriated between 90% and 100% of their funds from tax havens.
7. Offshore Funds Increased After 2004 Repatriation. Since the 2004 AJCA repatriation, the corporations that repatriated substantial sums have built up their 5 offshore funds at a greater rate than before the AJCA, evidence that repatriation has encouraged the shifting of more corporate dollars and investments offshore.
8. More than $2 Trillion in Cash Assets Now Held by U.S. Corporations. In 2011, U.S. corporations have record domestic cash assets of around $2 trillion, indicating that that the availability of cash is not constraining hiring or domestic investment decisions and that allowing corporations to repatriate more cash would be an ineffective way to spur new jobs.
9. Repatriation is a Failed Tax Policy. The 2004 repatriation cost the U.S. Treasury an estimated net revenue loss of $3.3 billion over ten years, produced no appreciable increase in U.S. jobs or research investments, and led to U.S. corporations directing more funds offshore.

So it worked very well for the rich. I can see why the Trump administration would be for it.

Let’s cut jobs so we can increase pollution

In a shocking move (or, you know, the opposite of that), the Trump administration has already taken down the page on climate change at whitehouse.gov (I’m taking this from the Vox article, because I’m not going to link to a Trump anything today):

For too long, we’ve been held back by burdensome regulations on our energy industry. President Trump is committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule. Lifting these restrictions will greatly help American workers, increasing wages by more than $30 billion over the next 7 years.

Sound energy policy begins with the recognition that we have vast untapped domestic energy reserves right here in America. The Trump Administration will embrace the shale oil and gas revolution to bring jobs and prosperity to millions of Americans. We must take advantage of the estimated $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves, especially those on federal lands that the American people own. We will use the revenues from energy production to rebuild our roads, schools, bridges and public infrastructure. Less expensive energy will be a big boost to American agriculture, as well.

The Trump Administration is also committed to clean coal technology, and to reviving America’s coal industry, which has been hurting for too long.

Well, let’s look at the job report for the energy sector:

The 2017 U.S. Energy and Employment Report (USEER) finds that the Traditional Energy and Energy Efficiency sectors today employ approximately 6.4 million Americans. These sectors increased in 2016 by just under 5 percent, adding over 300,000 net new jobs, roughly 14% of all those created in the country.

Hmm, looks like the energy sector is doing ok already.

Electric Power Generation and Fuels technologies directly employ more than 1.9 million workers. In 2016, 55 percent, or 1.1 million, of these employees worked in traditional coal, oil, and gas, while almost 800,000 workers were employed in low carbon emission generation technologies, including renewables, nuclear, and advanced/low emission natural gas. Just under 374,000 individuals work, in whole or in part, for solar firms, with more than 260,000 of those employees spending the majority of their time on solar. There are an additional 102,000 workers employed at wind firms across the nation. The solar workforce increased by 25% in 2016, while wind employment increased by 32%.

The 2017 USEER also shows that 2.2 million Americans are employed, in whole or in part, in the design, installation, and manufacture of Energy Efficiency products and services, adding 9133,000 jobs in 2016. (Energy Efficiency employment is defined as the production or installation of energy efficiency products certified by the Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR® program or installed pursuant to the ENERGY STAR® program guidelines or supporting services thereof). Almost 1.4 million Energy Efficiency jobs are in the construction industry. In addition, construction firms involved in the Energy Efficiency sector have experienced an increase in the percentage of their workers who spend at least 50% of their time on Energy Efficiency-related work, rising from 64.8 percent in 2015 to 74.0 percent in 2016. Finally, an improved USEER survey methodology identified almost 290,000 manufacturing jobs, producing Energy Star® certified products and energy efficient building materials in the United States.

Hmm, it looks like clean energy production is doing really well. It seems to be the wave of the future. Of course, this means Trump will concentrate on oil and gas, thus not only increasing the amount of pollution but allowing other countries to jump ahead in the sectors of energy production that are growing by leaps and bounds. Good job.

What cutting costs means

I can see that people on the MBTAs Control Board don’t know how things work:

When the two cleaning companies contracted by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority cut costs this fall, they slashed the hours — and in the process, health insurance — for dozens of their employees, the agency’s general counsel said Monday.

For months, workers have protested the changes before the MBTA’s fiscal and management control board, saying many of their fellow employees have lost health benefits and don’t have enough cleaning supplies to do their job.

John Englander, general counsel for the MBTA and the state Transportation Department released figures confirming that close to 80 workers for the two companies, about 25 percent of the staff, were laid off or lost health insurance when their hours were reduced.

This came out of this:

Shortsleeve told Boston Public Radio Friday that he believes the administration of Charlie Baker’s predecessor, Deval Patrick, overpaid the companies the MBTA contracts with to clean its stations. He thinks the stations can be maintained for $36.5 million, instead of the $53.1 million that has actually been paid out.

“For the last three years, the prior administration, for a variety of reasons, had been overpaying against those contracts as opposed to enforcing them on a performance basis,” Shortsleeve said. “What we’ve done, and what we’ll start on August 31, is simply to enforce those contracts on a performance basis, which means those companies are on the hook.”

Shortsleeve said that the MBTA does not employ janitors directly, and so any resulting layoffs will be the decision of the cleaning companies the agency contracts with and their labor unions–not the MBTA’s.

The reason they added money to the contract the last time was the private companies made big cuts in pay and benefits last time. This means that Brian Shortsleeve agreed to these cuts knowing it would lead to layoffs and cuts in benefits and he didn’t care.

It also comes straight out of the attitude of one Charlie Baker:

“I don’t care if a service is provided publicly or privately. What I care about is performance, productivity,” and that public money is “well spent,” Baker said.

Notice there’s nothing about treating employees well. He doesn’t care.

A conundrum

The conventional wisdom (which is often wrong, but I’m too lazy to look this up) is that Donald Trump did well among people who are worried about stagnant wages, loss of benefits, and the loss of jobs overseas. This is why he did better with union households than the last few Republican candidates.

There is one set of groups whose purpose is to protect workers–unions.

And Donald Trump and the newly ascendant Republican Party are anti-union:

Trump has expressed support for so-called right-to-work legislation, which allows workers to avoid paying union dues. Republican leaders in Congress have consistently sought such a change at the national level.

Among his concerns, he listed a Supreme Court case this year in which public-sector unions scored a victory related to funding organized labor – but only because the court deadlocked 4-4. The appointment of a new conservative judge by Trump to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia could change that.

in September the Obama administration finalized an executive order requiring federal contractors to provide sick leave to workers, as well as rules expanding the types of data employers are required to provide on pay. A separate Labor Department rule expanding which employees are eligible for overtime pay is scheduled to take effect next month.

Those actions drew criticism from business groups, and all could be reversed under a Trump administration.

Steven Bernstein, a partner at law firm Fisher Phillips, which represents employers, said the Trump administration and Congress may also target recent NLRB rulings that allowed workers to picket on private property, expanded the type of worker activity protected by federal labor law and gave graduate students the right to unionize.

“It’s also fair to assume that Trump will be inclined to repeal a host of executive orders supporting unions,” particularly rules that apply to federal contracts, Bernstein said in a statement.

I guess I don’t understand how these people think: they are worried about their jobs, benefits, and pay so they vote for someone who is against the groups that are fighting for workers? Do they think that businesses will just give them higher pay and better benefits out of the goodness of their hearts?

Some good news

Given the dystopia that Donald Trump paints for the current state of the US, it’s good to look at actual statistics to see what’s really happening:

  • Violence is way down from its peak in the 1990’s (although there is some sign that it might have increased a bit in the last year or so):

From 1993 to 2014, the rate of violent crime declined from 79.8 to 20.1 per 1,000.

Since 1993, the rate of property crime declined from 351.8 to 118.1 victimizations per 1,000 households.

The number of murders in New York City really drives this home: there were 2262 murders in 1990 and 352 in 2015. That is an astonishing drop.

The national teen pregnancy rate has declined almost continuously over the last two decades. The teen pregnancy rate includes pregnancies that end in a live birth, as well as those that end in abortion or miscarriage (fetal loss).* Between 1990 and 2010 (the most recent year for which data are available), the teen pregnancy rate declined by 51 percent—from 116.9 to 57.4 pregnancies per 1,000 teen girls.

For the fourth straight year, the U.S. high school graduation rate has improved — reaching an all-time high of 82 percent in the 2013-2014 school year, the Department of Education announced Tuesday.

  • The private sector has been adding jobs for the longest stretch ever:

The White House is right about the numbers. The “longest streak” claim was true in 2014, as the Washington Post’s Fact Checker found back then, and the streak has only grown. This was the 73rd straight recorded month of private sector job growth (barring revisions).

  • Drug use is down among teens (this is from June 2016):

This year’s Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey of drug use and attitudes among American 8th, 10th, and 12th graders continues to show encouraging news, with decreasing use of alcohol, cigarettes, and many illicit drugs over the last 5 years—many to their lowest levels since this survey’s inception; no increase in use of marijuana among teens; decreasing use of synthetic drugs; and decreasing misuse of prescription drugs. However, the survey highlighted continuing concerns over the high rate of electronic cigarette (e-cigarette) use and softening of attitudes around some types of drug use, particularly a continued decrease in perceived harm of marijuana use.

For many substances, past-year use has declined to the lowest levels since the MTF survey began. This includes heroin, synthetic cannabinoids, Vicodin®, methamphetamine, amphetamines, inhalants, Ecstasy, alcohol, and cigarettes, among all ages surveyed; hallucinogens, Ritalin®, OxyContin®, bath salts, and over-the-counter cough medicines among 8th and 10th graders; cocaine among 8th and 12th graders; and prescription pain relievers (narcotics other than heroin), sedatives, and crystal methamphetamine in 12th graders (the only grade sampled for these substances). Past-year use of illicit drugs was reported by 23.6 percent of 12th graders.

There are still large problems in the US, but, in many ways, the US is in better shape than ever.

Trump is a great prognosticator

Elizabeth Warren has hit on a wonderful quote by Donald Trump from 2007 just before the market really crashed:

Mr. Trump said he is poised to invest in depressed property as the downturn moves through individual cities. “People have been talking about the end of the cycle for 12 years, and I’m excited if it is,” he said. “I’ve always made more money in bad markets than in good markets.”

It shows what a lovely man he is, but there’s more:

Donald Trump almost lost his shirt 15 years ago when the North American real estate bubble burst. The 2007 version of that disaster will be much more benign, the real estate magnate predicts, although there is softness in some urban markets, such as Toronto and San Francisco.

“We’re talking very minor [problems]compared with the depression of the early 1990s,” Mr. Trump said yesterday in a phone interview from Los Angeles.

Mr. Trump shrugged off concerns that a crisis in U.S. subprime mortgage lending, which caters to poor credit risks, would spread to the wider property market, including Mr. Trump’s luxury buildings.

“I don’t see the subprime problems affecting the higher-end stuff,” he said. In fact, he is advising investors that there are now great deals in buying subprime mortgages at a discount and repossessed houses at low prices.

He said that two years ago, when the market was at an all-time high, he was telling people not to buy real estate. “Now I’m telling them to do it.”

So, I guess the idea is to do the opposite of what Donald Trump says–he was badly wrong about housing in the early 1990s and did even worse in 2007.

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