- Associated Press - Monday, December 4, 2017

Des Moines Register. November 30, 2017

Concerns with Koch investment in Meredith are overblown, but data laws weak

Meredith’s purchase of Time Inc. is likely good news for Des Moines, potentially bringing more jobs, strengthening the company and creating a higher profile for the community.

Some commentators are troubled, however, by the involvement of the Koch brothers. Their private equity arm, Koch Equity Development, is investing $650 million in the $2.8 billion deal. Meredith now must fight skepticism that the Kochs aren’t just in it for the money, but that they would try to influence editorial operations at Meredith-Time magazines, television stations and other media outlets.

Much of those concerns are overblown. Even if the Koch brothers have a secret plan to cook up their conservative agenda at Time, People or Ladies’ Home Journal, most readers and journalists would get a whiff of it and walk away. Besides, Charles and David Koch are not the first politically powerful billionaires to invest in a media company; note Democratic-leaning businessmen Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett.

We believe another aspect of the deal deserves discussion. Koch Industries and Meredith Corp. have one thing in common: They are highly skilled at collecting data on almost every one of us.

Meredith has stood out among competitors.

The Koch brothers have a different type of data operation, called i360. In 2016, Time magazine, coincidentally, profiled Michael Palmer, “the Koch brothers’ data guru.” The piece explained how i360 has gathered reams of information on each American in its effort to help Republicans get elected. “No magazine subscription is too insignificant, no online purchase too small to note,” the story said. “All of it adds up, with the help of the nine PhDs on his staff, to predict voter behaviors and perhaps determine the outcome of races up and down the ballot.”

Is there any chance that Koch could mine Meredith’s consumer data?

“Absolutely zero,” says Meredith spokesman Art Slusark. Meredith does not make the data available to political candidates, super PACs or special interest groups, and nothing will change under the Koch investment, he said. “The last thing we want to do is alienate our customer base,” he said.

Slusark said Meredith carefully vets any requests for its data, and sells it only to businesses that offer services or products in line with its customers’ interests, such as parenting, homes and food. Investors have no special access to the data, he said.

Moreover, Slusark said Meredith talked with 10 equity firms, and Koch Equity Development had the least restrictive covenants. It will have no board seat nor any say in operations. Koch Equity has a track record of making “passive investments” and has invested in an array of companies, from greeting-cards company American Greetings to glassmaker Guardian Industries.

Many businesses, including the Register, collect and use consumer data. Such information can be used to serve customers better and direct the right content to the right audience. But with such benefits come risks, and all businesses have a responsibility to protect data. They must be as transparent as possible about how they use our information.

Concerned consumers should read Meredith’s privacy and data policies on its website - as well as the polices of other data collectors such as Facebook, Google, Snapchat, direct-marketing companies and internet-service providers. The policies show consumers how to opt-out of being tracked and targeted by the companies and its advertisers.

But the policies also make clear that not all consumers are protected equally: If you live in California, you have more right to learn who is getting access to your information.

Do we believe Meredith would misuse consumer data? No. Ultimately, however, most consumers have to rely on trust, which is in short supply. A Consumer Reports survey found that 65 percent of Americans lack confidence that their personal information is private and safe from distribution without their knowledge.

Our representatives in Washington haven’t helped. The Obama administration proposed a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights Act to give Americans more information and control over their personal data, but it went nowhere.

This year, Congress stopped the Federal Communications Commission’s rules on online privacy, allowing internet providers to mine customer data. While other states have stepped in to propose protections, Iowa officials have done little.

Meredith might be correct: The Koch investment presents nothing to worry about. But when consumers lack legal protections and if they remain in the dark, conspiracy theories sprout and flourish.


Sioux City Journal. November 29, 2017

Sign online petition in support of historic tax incentives

Protection of the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives Program during congressional tax reform debate is crucial for Sioux City.

You can help send this message to Washington in loud and clear fashion.

Elimination of the program, administered by the National Park Service and Internal Revenue Service in partnership with state historic preservation offices, is part of the proposed U.S. House tax reform bill, called the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. A Senate tax reform bill retains the program, but cuts the credit in half.

Through the program, a 20 percent income tax credit is available for the rehabilitation of buildings determined by the Interior Department, through the National Park Service, to be “certified historic structures.”

Earlier this month, the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce began a Change.org online petition in support of the program, called “Save The Historic Tax Credit.”

We encourage not only Sioux Cityans, but Siouxlanders to sign the petition, which will be delivered to all members of Iowa’s congressional delegation, both House and Senate.

According to the Sioux City Economic Development Department, 257 Iowa projects reflecting more than $1 billion in total development costs received federal historic tax credits between 2002 and 2016. During that period of time, credits were used for $60 million in Sioux City redevelopment projects, including the Orpheum Theatre, the former Martin Hotel building, the former Central High School, Municipal Auditorium, the Williges building and several Historic Fourth Street structures.

This year, developers have announced plans to seek federal historic tax credits for additional high-profile projects, including renovation of the former Warrior Hotel building, the Davidson Building, the Commerce Building, a building most recently occupied by Hatch Furniture and the former Methodist Hospital building. Those planned projects represent more than $100 million in capital investment, according to the city’s Economic Development Department.

Without federal historic tax credits, it’s hard to imagine any of the completed or planned projects happen.

Retention of the federal historic tax credits program isn’t only in the interests of Sioux City and Iowa, but it’s in the interests of the country. If anything, in our view, this program - in addition to local and state economic benefits, these credits produce $1.20 to $1.25 in revenue to the U.S. Treasury Department for every dollar invested - should be expanded by increasing the credit to something more than 20 percent.

By any measure, the program is a winner.

Tell our lawmakers on Capitol Hill as much.


Fort Dodge Messenger. November 30, 2017

Traditional shopping has rewards

You miss out on much if you only seek to find gifts online

On Monday, did your children or grandchildren get to tell a virtual Santa Claus what they want for Christmas? Did you try to guess how the magician you watched on your smartphone made the rabbit disappear? And, how about that ice-skating app?

Pardon our sarcasm. It is aimed, if you hadn’t guessed, at the big “cyber Monday” online shopping day.

Lots of people seem to have become hooked on doing their Christmas shopping through internet stores. That is a shame, for more reasons than one.

First, online merchants do not support worthy causes in our communities, pay taxes to keep schools open, or provide jobs for local people.

But there is much more they do not offer.

Much of it is on display during special events held in local retail areas. There can be musical performances, magicians and other entertainment for the kids - and, of course, Santa Claus. Sometimes, his reindeer even make an appearance.

None of these things were available to “cyber Monday” shoppers.

Individually and through group endeavors, many local stores provide exciting events throughout the holiday season. They are reminders that, if we just let it happen, Christmas shopping can be fun.

They are one more reason why you ought to try doing your gift shopping in local stores, rather than from your easy chair, via the internet.

You may be surprised at how much you enjoy doing it the old-fashioned way.


Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. November 27, 2017

Iowa must right Medicaid ship

Iowa once envisioned four private companies managing its formerly state-run $4.3 billion Medicaid system, which serves 600,000.

That’s down to two with one at capacity, leaving 215,000 people recently abandoned by a departing company in the lurch. Federal rules require more than one choice.

The Medicaid health program was established in 1965 (along with Medicare) to assist those with low incomes, the disabled, children and people living in nursing homes.

The federal government and states share costs. The program initially was administered by state employees, but is now managed by private companies in various degrees in 39 states, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The PwC consulting firm reported 54.7 million of the 70 million enrolled in Medicaid were in privately managed programs in 2016.

Iowa’s switch from a well-run state program to privatization was the brainchild of former Gov. Terry Branstad - without legislative input - in December 2015. He cited undocumented savings of $51 million in the first six months, $110 million the first year and $232 million the next - fanciful then and now.

Companies were required to spend at least 88 percent on health services - a monthly allotment for each person managed determined by numerous factors, including disability level. The remaining 12 percent - around $500 million - was for administrative expenses.

Iowa contracted with WellCare, AmeriHealth Caritas, Amerigroup Iowa and UnitedHealthcare of the River Valley to manage Medicaid.

Before the transition in April 2016, WellCare was out.

An administrative law judge recommended rejecting it for failing to disclose three executives were convicted of misusing Medicaid money and it had paid $138 million to resolve overbilling Medicare and Medicaid.

Earlier this year, the remaining three companies complained about staggering losses, each exceeding $100 million during the first year: AmeriHealth Caritas nearly $300 million; Amerigroup Iowa, $133 million and UnitedHealthcare of the River Valley more than $100 million.

Now AmeriHealth Caritas is gone, too.

The Philadelphia-based company managed care for 215,000, including most of the severely disabled. Its departure followed a dispute with the Iowa Department of Human Services, which wouldn’t provide the data to justify Medicaid payment rates.

According to the Des Moines Register, AmeriHealth market president Cheryl Harding wrote then-DHS Director Chuck Palmer in June that the state’s rates “do not support a sustainable Medicaid managed-care program.”

The dispute focused on 11,250 people in the Intellectual Disability Waiver program requiring expensive services, including adult daycare to remain at home. Based on a consultant’s report, AmeriHealth - which managed 80 percent of that group - maintained it was shorted $53 million for nine months in 2016.

On the other hand, AmeriHealth didn’t make a great impression.

It had threatened to stop reimbursing the 2,000 physicians and practitioners in the Mercy Health Network, a group of Catholic hospitals and clinics including Covenant Medical Center in Waterloo and Sartori Memorial Hospital in Cedar Falls.

Neal Siegel, a former West Liberty financial consultant who suffered severe brain injuries after a hit-and-run bicycle crash, sued the state after AmeriHealth cut his home health-care reimbursement from more than $7,000 to nearly $3,000. Six other Medicaid recipients are part of that action.

Amerigroup has informed the state it can’t take any AmeriHealth’s patients, which - even if UnitedHealthcare can - violates federal rules requiring more than one option.

Meanwhile, privatization complaints have abounded, including the failure to pay providers in a timely fashion and cuts in services. During a three-month period ending last March, they soared from 343 to 1,268.

Earlier this month, UnityPoint Health, which includes Allen Hospital in Waterloo, notified its nearly 54,000 Medicaid patients they could need new health-care providers because of a contract impasse with Amerigroup. (The Mercy Health Network resolved contract differences with AmeriHealth last spring after warning its 123,000 Medicaid patients.)

Now the DHS has given the Medicaid reins to Michael Randol, formerly head of KanCare, Kansas’ privatized Medicaid program, which the Obama administration determined was “substantially out of compliance.”

The Wichita Eagle reported, “The state’s failure to ensure effective oversight of the program put the lives of enrollees at risk and made it difficult for them to navigate their benefits, the investigators found. They cited concerns about the transparency and effectiveness.”

Among the findings, “Public feedback consistently describes a lack of engagement and adversarial communication from the state.”

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback blamed political bias, but Rachelle Colombo, the Kansas Medical Society’s director of government affairs, disagreed. “These are not new issues that are being brought to light. They deserve serious reconciliation,” she said.

That doesn’t inspire confidence in Randol, aside from Kansas’ mind-boggling governmental incompetence.

With Gov. Kim Reynolds predicting, “We are anticipating another tough budget year,” it will be imperative for privatization supporters to right the Medicaid ship as soon as possible.


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