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Posts published in September 2011

Denial reviews: Some more than orders

In the

One of the usually-obscure state agency rules changes in Idaho last week concerns something that could be of life-altering concern to some Idahoans: The rules covering external review of denials, policies and other details of health insurance provider consumer relations. The changes, many coming at the request of insurers, provide for reviews "to include denials based on appropriateness, health care setting, level of care and effectiveness."

The reviews mean that when a policy holder has a complaint, an external review can be undertaken to sort out the situation, rather than the highly expensive resort to a lawsuit. This grows out of federal health care law; the general provisions were put in place in Idaho last year, covering policies issue or renewed since the start of 2010. State generally have been doing this; Idaho is among the states which have received a federal approval for its program, run through the state Department of Insurance.

Considering the numbers of complaints people have had about health insurance, one might expect this to be a very busy area. But in Idaho, not so much. Eileen Mundorff, who works on the program, said that in the first calendar year of the program (2010), the department received 13 requests for external review; of those, two company denials were overturned by independent review organizations. So far in 2011 the department has received 22 external review requests, and as of September 8, an estimated $284,821 was recovered for policyholders. Idaho has been approved by the federal government as meeting requirements for external reviews.

Not a lot of requests, though the money recovered when inquiries are undertaken can clearly be substantial.

Oregon, whose insurance division has been tracking all insurance complaints though differently (more comprehensively and for more years) reports in 2010 that there were 912 total complaints and 555 "confirmed complaints." (Of the 912, Regence BlueCross BlueShield accounted for 162, which may be one reason Northwest stat regulators had a recent sit-down with the firm in Salem recently.)

Similarly, the Washington insurance commissioner's office reports that for 2010 (as in Oregon, the most recent figures available) health insurance complaints totaled 562 (of which the Washington and Oregon Regence organizations accounted for more than half).

Are these somehow apple and orange comparisons? If not, what accounts for the difference in numbers of complaints? Is there a reason Idahoans are much less inclined to report health insurance complaints?


Oregon's allowance of early candidate filing allows for some really early warnings of campaign strangeness to come. The first two days of filing, on Thursday and Friday, were enough to provide one.

Most of the filings (and remember this is the opening of filing - the deadline is many months away) were by incumbent legislators, with a smattering of judges and district attorneys. Just one for Congress, so far. But what a filing it is.

Remember Art Robinson, the Republican candidate for District 4 - against Democratic incumbent Peter DeFazio, from 2010? Well, he's back for another go-round in 2012.

He gave bloggers and others much to work with in 2010. We reported on him on several occasions (on notable quotes, on education views and a good deal else. His interview - if you can call it that - with Rachel Maddow on MSNBC was something of a classic.

And this time he's getting an early start.

Jeremy Hill and the grizzly

grizzly bear

For some weeks now, Idahoans have been hearing howls of anguish in a bvear shooting case - howls from their elected officials, Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter and the congressional delegation among them. “Many, including me, feel Mr. Hill did what a concerned parent would do. Now, Jeremy and his family must endure the cost of a trial,” Otter remarked last month, after sending a letter to the Obama administration decrying the prosecution. The case became a conservative cause celebre.

What was known at the time essentially was this: A grizzly mother and two cubs had wandered onto Jeremy Hill's property at Porthill, and he shot one of them. Shooting an endangered grizzly is against the law, although you'd naturally want to cut some slack to someone acting to defend himself or another person.

Because of that, any useful assessment of Hill's case needs to turn on the specific details, on exactly what happened. Because the case was in litigation, with possible criminal charges involved, Hill wasn't saying much publicly - we had little basis for working out the right and wrong. But on Wednesday, he and the feds worked out an agreement. Hill agreed that he violated the Endangered Species Act and paid $1,000 fine, and any criminal case was dropped.

At that point, he released his description of what happened:

After having family over for dinner on Mother's Day, I was outside at the basketball hoop with four of my children. I went into the house to take a shower. When I finished showering and was getting dressed, my wife, Rachel, looked out the bedroom window and saw three grizzly bears at the edge of our yard, but very close by, standing near a small pen that held the children's 4-H pigs. The last time I saw my children they were outside. I grabbed a rifle and ran out on the deck. I yelled for the children, but did not hear a response. The bears did not move away from the pen as I was yelling. Fearing for the safety of my children, I shot the bear that was closest to the house. The other two bears ran across part of the lawn and into the brush. The wounded bear followed into the yard, but stopped and turned toward the house. I shot the bear again. About this time, Rachel told me that the children were safe inside the house. The bear I shot was badly wounded, and I believed at that time that it would be very dangerous to leave the bear wounded, possibly posing a threat to others. I also thought the humane thing to do was to put the wounded bear out of its misery.

We do not live in the wilderness. We live in a rural farm community. I have never seen grizzly bears near our home before. I shot the grizzly bear because I was fearful for the safety of my family. I thought I was doing the right thing to protect them. Once I shot the bear, I immediately called Idaho Fish and Game to report the incident.

Impressions will vary. Ours, assuming the accuracy of the story and nothing important left out (the size of yard, the amount of time elapsed), is that Hill was more justified than not. There are gray areas. Since the bears were not near or attacking anyone at the moment, and he was some distance away, presumably he could have waited them out for a few minutes to see if they went away. Or he might have fired a warning shot to see if that would scare them off. That said, he evidently didn't know quite where his children were (might shooting one have driven the others in his children's direction?) and - this is critical - grizzlies are extremely unpredictable and dangerous, and fast, and he was inexperienced with dealing with them. All of these points are easier to contemplate at a distance and in hindsight. Might Hill have acted in a way that would have preserved both bears and safety? Maybe. But his actions were certainly not unreasonable either; a danger was clear and present and foraging in his back yard.

Something like the resolution that emerged seems reasonable. Criminal charges might be fitting for someone headed out into the woods to hunt grizzlies, but surely not in a defensive case like this. At the same time, Hill had options, and okaying simply killing grizzlies on sight doesn't seem right either. The tone of the statements coming out of both sides on Wednesday seemed subdued, and that feels generally appropriate.

The best you can get

On this day when not one but two lawsuits - both aimed at doing the same thing, which is re-cranking the Idaho redistricting process - were filed at the Idaho Supreme Court, may be a good time to pause and ponder the question of partisan advantage. Just how much partisan advantage were the Republicans and Democrats on the just-disbanded Redistricting Commission really wrangling over?

Prompted in part by a tweet just up this afternoon from John Foster, the one time Walt Minnick campaign manager: "Dear Idaho Redistricting Commission Democrats: Take the ***ing deal! This map is GOOD for you."

He appeared to be referring to the congressional district plan C38, one of the Republican plans submitted, which creates two U.S. House districts which look a lot like those at present, with the same roster of counties in each district, and with Ada County split just a little differently (a few precincts bumped) to account for population differences.

And why not? Creative proposals were offered that would keep Ada intact - we drafted ad posted one ourselves, before the process even started - but they make no practical sense, butting together vast regions of eastern and northern Idaho that are divided by immense wilderness and mountain areas and historically have had nothing to do with each other. Of course Ada was going to be split; as a practical matter, it's what has to happen. And given the vast disparities between the two parties, neither Democrats nor Republicans gain a tremendous lot however the line is specifically drawn. Something fairly similar to C38 is almost certain to become law, one way or another.

The legislative plans (which didn't seem to be Foster's point) are a different matter. Because Republican majorities in the state are so strong, it would be possible (though it would take some genuine gerrymandering) for Republicans to eliminate Democratic advantages in any of the 35 districts. In their appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court, the three Republican commission members touted four of their last legislative proposals: L68, L76, L77 and L82, as having notable merit. Let's take a look at L82, which was submitted in the commission's last hour Tuesday afternoon.

Critical to the Democrats are the places where they have been running competitively, if not always winning, in the last few cycles. Those would include: central Coeur d'Alene; Shoshone County; Moscow; Lewiston; the city of Boise; Blaine County; Pocatello; and debatably, central Idaho Falls. The small-population Indian reservations also are Democratic. Democrats would be disadvantaged when these areas are split up, diluted, between districts. Their problem is that these areas generally have not grown as fast as most of the rest of the state, making it harder to avoid dilution.

L82 keeps Shoshone County intact and maintains a central Coeur d'Alene district. It divides Moscow, but links one part of it to Shoshone and the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation, and the other part to Lewiston, which generally appears to be maintained intact. In Boise, Democrats have a strong majority in current District 19, which would be maintained in an analogous District 19. Three others (15, 16 and 18 in the proposed plan) could be competitive, which matches to the current three-district-competitive picture in Boise. Democrats could make out unexpectedly well so far under that plan.

Much of the last-minute debate at the commission on Tuesday concerned the eastern Idaho districts, and for good reason: This is where Democrats would have a tougher time. The Blaine County-based district, where for nearly 30 years Democrats have been competitive or (more recently) dominant, would be shaken up, with more conservative territory added to it. A review of the numbers suggests, though, that Democrats still could win there, though the margins would be much closer. And the hottest debate concerns Pocatello, which three decades ago anchored three Democratic districts, then two, currently one and debatably two, and under the new plan ... probably one, conceivably two, or maybe none - all the seats in the Bannock County area would be highly competitive. Pocatello itself would be split into three districts.

You can see why that might be a sticking point for the Democrats on the commission. But otherwise, this look at L82 also suggests that the two sides might not be all that far apart - as commission members kept insisting on Tuesday - and that Democrats might no do as badly even under Republican proposals as they might have.

Carlson: A first-ever?

Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

Odds are heavily against it happening soon. Stars would plausibly all have to align perfectly to create a first ever in Idaho politics---the election of a woman as governor.

Looking around the northwest, though, one quickly realizes odds are growing that a qualified female will someday lead even Idaho. Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Montana and Utah are neighboring northwest states that have had female chief executives.

In Idaho, each party possesses at least one talented, intelligent, articulate, qualified female who, while they might have to be “drafted,” could plausibly run for and win the nomination of their party to be governor, as soon as 2014.

On the Republican side the nominee could be veteran Sandpoint State Senator Shawn Keough. On the Democratic side the nominee could be freshman State Senator Michelle Stennett, from Ketchum.

While there are clear differences between them, they share much in common: both are smart, tough, knowledgeable, non-ideological, pragmatic problem solvers. They share an abiding belief in the importance of education as well as its priority place Idaho’s constitutional writers said it should have. (more…)

Gone but not forgotten

"In five minutes, we don't exist as a commission," Chair Evan Frasure said. It felt a little surreal, as if an anti-bomb were ticking.

Another motion came up, and then the commissioners voted on C50, a Democratic-backed congressional redistricting plan. It failed on a tied 3-3 vote. (At no point, evidently, did any commissioner from either side break with their party.)

"And we are dissolved here in about three minutes," Frasure said.

Frasure, who has been probably the most dominant figure on the commission (and was a major figure in the last two reapportionments), said that if the commission is called back by the Idaho Supreme Court, he may not be back, owing to health concerns. He and others said their goodbyes.

And then at 5 p.m. mountain, they turned into a pumpkin. More than two months of effort, review of more than 100 congressional and legislative map proposals (the highest-numbered legislative proposal was 82), came to an end. The commission's deadline expired. Next, it gets sued for nonperformance, a case that goes to the Idaho Supreme Court.

The need for new congressional and legislative maps will not go away, of course, and now either the Supreme Court will draw its own maps or - more likely - call the commission back for another shot.

It has been an intensive, sometimes emotional and angry, effort. On the last day flashes of anger and accusation cropped up. (Frasure, for example, essentially accused the Democrats of "holding hostage" plans containing only minor differences between the sides.)

In the end, the differences were not enormous, but they were instructive: They seemed to center around those few areas of the state where Democrats are at least somewhat competitive.

A northern Idaho piece of the legislative plan seemed to have won support that was unanimous or nearly so, and did elegantly resolve the Moscow-Lewiston problem: Those two cities traditionally each have, intact, anchored a legislative district, but no longer have the population to do so as they once did. Lines were skillfully drawn keeping Lewiston whole and Moscow nearly so.

But arguments over the lines in Ada County proved less tractable. Democrats were pushing for proposals which would keep Ada County whole (Republicans submitted one that did so, in nine districts), but keeping as many competitive districts as at present is tougher. Democratic Blaine County was a problem area too, as Republicans and Democrats each wanted to match it up with a different collection of nearby Republican counties to form a districts. And the Pocatello area, and the southeast rural areas near it, led to lots of inconclusive back and forth.

The problem, of course, is that any single change reverberates around the rest of the map. Someone winds up getting nailed.

So, next stop: The courts.

ANOTHER THOUGHT So, in Northwest redistricting, we so far have the following results: In Oregon, the legislature produces maps with bipartisan support well ahead of deadline; the Idaho redistricting commission deadlocks on partisan lines and runs out the deadline. Washington's (commission) up next.

Payday loans in review

Along one of the main streets of our nearst commercial center, McMinnville, there's a yellow-front storefront offering payday loans. It has been quietly going about its business for some years, after a big batch of others folded tent a few years back, in the wake of a new Oregon law limiting how much such lenders could charge for their loans.

A state fact sheet from 2006 said that "In Oregon, the number of locations increased from 184 in 2001, when the "short-term personal loan license" was created, to 323 as of Dec. 31, 2004, and 360 as of Dec. 31, 2005. The dollar volume of payday loans in Oregon increased from $63.8 million in 1999 to $250 million in 2004. The number of Oregon payday loans extended annually increased from approximately 285,000 in 1999 to 747,542 in 2004. Charges or fees for these loans, when expressed as an Annual Percentage Rate (APR), can often exceed 500 percent." It said that of 1,221 borrowers examined, 59% took out five or more payday loans in the previous year - were using the service repeatedly.

That was shortly before the legislature passed the law limiting how much the payday loan businesses could charge. The law limited the annual interest rate from 528% to 156% and drew out minimum loan duration from 14 to 31 days, along with some other changes. After the limits, most of the businesses left Oregon - an indicator of how much they were charging - though some remain, and evidently thrive.

All this was before the massive economic turndown, and you might expect a call for more laxity in payday loan regulation. But there hasn't been much, save for an August 31 blog post by the Cascade Policy Institute.

"Ready, Fire, Aim for Oregon's Payday Lending Policy" make the argument that "Legislators have jumped the gun in banning traditional payday lending in Oregon. They aren’t protecting vulnerable consumers as much as denying a necessary service. Furthermore, there has not been a major push to provide consumers with a convenient, viable alternative."

This seems worthy of note, because of the economic environment, on several grounds.

First, the service isn't being denied - payday loan operations are active businesses in locations around Oregon (as elsewhere); they evidently can function under the current limitations. More could set up shop if they chose; but evidently few have chosen. That may speak too to demand for the service.

There are other peculiarities. Angela Martin, executive director of Economic
Fairness Oregon
, noted one: When the lending rates at these shop dropped per the state law, the norms of supply and demand would suggest a spike in the demand to take advantage of the lower numbers. The spike never happened. Martin suggested that some of the activity in payday lending represented a "false demand" of consumers borrowing from one payday lender to pay off a loan from another, and similar activity.

In any event, even in the wake of the bum economy, "they can't point to any evidence that usage has gone up."

The Cascade post also pointed to an October 2008 Dartmouth University study on the Oregon loan rate cap, and said “The results suggest that restricting access to expensive credit harms consumers on average." The study, commissioned and paid for by the industry (a red flag), surveyed comments made by customers of payday loan operations (from lists provided by lenders), but there wasn't much look-behind - and such customers are naturally likely to rationalize their choices.

A January 2009 University of Washington critique of the study (which seemed to be longer than the Dartmouth study itself) said that "relies on a single, small-sample survey fraught with methodological flaws. Moreover, survey results do not support the claim that Oregon borrowers fared worse than Washington borrowers on any variable that can be plausibly attributed to Oregon’s 2007 payday-loan (PL) interest-rate cap legislation. In short, Zinman’s claim is baseless. In fact, Oregon respondents fared better than Washington respondents on two key variables: on-time bill payment rate and avoiding phone-line disconnects. On all other relevant variables they fared similarly to Washington respondents."

There are also out of state lenders, and Cascade does note a news report saying "there already has been a rise in complaints against out-of-state online payday lenders conducting fraudulent and illegal business practices." But does that suggest in-state operations would be better?

The ironic concern about the out of staters Cascade expressed was that "These are the real risk to consumers because the Oregon Attorney General’s office has little control over them." Actually, the state has been going after them. The state Department of Consumer and Business Services said on July 13 that it had "issued a cease-and-desist order against online lender Global Payday Loan LLC and fined the company $90,000 for violating Oregon’s payday lending laws. The unlicensed Utah company loaned seven Oregon consumers between $100 and $500 each through its website, The company then charged the consumers interest rates between 353 percent and 2,737 percent." In March, it "issued a cease-and-desist order against online lender E-Payday-Loan and fined the company $10,000 for violating Oregon’s payday lending laws. The unlicensed Utah company loaned an Oregon consumer $350 through its website and then charged the consumer approximately 842.31 percent interest on that loan over a 52-day period."

Not a real ringing endorsement for deregulation, in this arena at least.

Suzanne and the Brads

I the pilot episode of Mad Men, the ad firm is challenged with developing an ad campaign for a tobacco company just as new health warnings about cigarette smoking had been released - and companies could no longer advertise on the basis that their product was safer. In fact, all the products were the same. So how to differentiate this company's product?

Creative director Don Draper asks how the cigarettes are made. When told that, as part of the process, the tobacco is "toasted," he stops and circles the word on a blackboard. This company's cigarettes will be toasted. Never mind that everyone else's is, too. This particular brand will be sold as having that favorable attribute, and will be identified in the popular mind as such.

Not to be overly flip about the just-kicking-in Democratic primary in Oregon's 1st House district, but something of the same applies, pointed up by the arrival of Labor Day: All three main Democratic candidates, Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, state Senator Suzanne Bonamici and state Representative Brad Witt, all hope for support from unions. And each can make a case for being a logical recipient.

And it's why this paragraph in the Associated Press' new profile of Avakian (profiles of the others will be following) jumped out:

"Avakian has a unique challenge to differentiate himself from Witt — another Democrat named Brad courting support and money from unions. Bonamici calls her opponents "The Brads," and she stands to benefit if they appeal to the same constituency and split the vote."

Who are Avakian, Bonamici and Witt as distinguished from each other, in terms that matter and make sense to Democratic primary voters? We're about to see the process - or the attempt at least - of differentiation take hold.

Smoke at Eugene

Donna Nelson
Smoke at Eugene/Linda Watkins

Smoke from the wildfires in central Oregon jumped west a couple of days ago, leading to smokey skies across the Willamette Valley.

Some of that has cleared up in the northern valley, but to the south - such as Eugene, here - the smoke persists. The bridge span in this picture ordinarily appears red; the smoke today caused it to be grayed out.