Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The federal government wants your health records

By Bob Confer

Most everyone is familiar with the basics of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, best known by its acronym, HIPPA. Among its more popular features is the preservation of your privacy in regard to your health records.

HIPPA has added some burdens and cost to the administration of health care, but it’s been well worth it. No one but you, the physician you most trust, and certain functions and personnel of your insurance and/or care providers should know – or do know - the sometimes touchy and embarrassing details of your physical, mental and sexual histories.

HIPPA has held businesses -- from insurance companies and medical doctors to pharmacies and nursing homes – to a high set of standards. Even government-run medical coverage (like Medicaid and Medicare) has fallen under the privacy umbrella. But, confidentiality may be changing for the worse, led by the very agency charged to enforce HIPPA no less.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has proposed regulations (HHS-OS-2011-0022) that would require health insurance companies to break the obligations to their customers and share the individuals’ records with the federal government. HHS says it wants to track the health status of each and every American as a means of ensuring that insurance companies are meeting the new standards that came from Obamacare which state that insurers cannot discriminate against the uninsured or those suffering from pre-existing conditions.

HHS doesn’t yet know if these records will be collected by the federal government or by the states, which will then share the data with HHS. Any way that it’s achieved, too many people – and the wrong people – will see your records.

My wife is a doctor of psychology and based on her strong belief in, and adherence to, ethical and legal standards, she and I never discuss her clients. Her work is a mystery to me. Quite frankly, bureaucrats aren’t held to, nor do they live by, the same set of standards as my wife and other professionals. Government employees don’t take an oath of privacy. They aren’t schooled on such matters. They aren’t licensed. They won’t lose their jobs or the support of their peers were they to breech confidentiality. Because of that lack of accountability and enforcement, there exists in volume the chance for corruptibility. Clerks and administrators at all levels of government will have ready access to all of your records. They may find humor or tragedy in your plight and share your stories with their loved ones, friends and coworkers. Your diseases, weight, and mental issues may become water cooler and dinner table conversation. And, let’s not forget: It’s a small world; word gets around.

Your privacy will be compromised and, without a doubt, other rights will follow suit. Are we really supposed to believe that the government will use your data only to hold HMOs to account? Just think about the scenarios that could be…

For starters, the federal government has declared war on obesity. What if, upon discovering reports that you and your children had high body mass indices, it forced your family into a healthy eating program and told you what you could and couldn’t eat under the auspices of “child protection”?

What if you were identified to have a mental illness that you kept in control? Couldn’t the government identify you as a threat, “just in case”?

Suppose you have a sexually transmitted disease. It wouldn’t be a stretch to think the feds would tell you that you couldn’t pursue a love life without the threat of prosecution.

These conspiracy theories could easily come true. Look at what happened with the Patriot Act and other anti-terror measures. They started off as simple systems that were supposed to protect Americans from international threats. Instead, they turned on the people and government - not religious fanatics - became the biggest threat to our liberties.

Similar abuses are guaranteed to come from the public sector’s ingestion of your personal matters. While HIPPA protects you from private sector mistreatment of your privacy, the Constitution guarantees the same when it comes to government involvement in your life. So, take the time to call Congress and ask them to focus on the constitutionality of the HHS measures and stop this federal nightmare from becoming a reality.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. E-mail him at


This column originally ran in the 03 October 2011 Greater Niagara Newspapers

NLRB pushes unions' destructive agenda

NLRB pushes unions' destructive agenda
By Bob Confer

Although rarely looked at as such by the typical person, labor is an economic transaction. It’s a simple trade — one where the worker willingly gives to his employer, in exchange for monetary and benefit compensation, the use of his physical and mental services. As with any free market economic activity, either party can prevent ongoing transactions, whether such termination is based on dissatisfaction with what the exchange garners or on the influence of supply and demand in the micro- and macro-markets.

Basically, the act of employment is really no different from making a purchase at the local grocery store.

Unions, though, don’t see it that way. Whereas non-unionized employment sees equal strength and value between worker and the company, unionized plants are different. There, the workers are granted dominance in the transaction and the standard rules of fair and equal trade are thrown out the window. Through its perverse leftist outlook, organized labor views any given job as a right rather than a privilege.

This union stranglehold, coupled with unwavering support from a government that creates laws and regulations granting favor to collective units, can have an adverse effect on employers, forcing them to enter long-term contracts which can signal the death knell for even the most vibrant of businesses.

Look no further than General Motors for a prime example. The company went into bankruptcy for a variety of reasons, none greater than the issue of legacy costs which were brought on by decades of union bullying. The United Auto Workers forced GM into a cradle-to-grave approach for their human resource activities, making the company pay lavish pensions and provide lifetime health care. From the start, this business model (which smacks of Social Security and Medicare) was doomed. Matters worsened as GM lost a great deal of its market share when foreign manufacturers came to the United States and, without the union influences that saddled GM, were able to provide high-quality vehicles at lower prices while maintaining American-based manufacturing (despite the foreign label). As this occurred, GM saw its employment drop from 811,000 to 324,000 over the 20-year period from 1985 to 2005. That left the output of every worker to somehow provide for every 2.5 retirees. In 2006 retired workers accounted for two-thirds of GM’s health care costs.

As we well know, that was impossible to maintain. GM went bankrupt and was subsequently bailed out — or rather the UAW workforce was bailed out — by the federal government to the tune of $50 billion. It should be noted that union-led socialism killed a once powerful private enterprise while federal-led socialism forced it back to life utilizing the resources of a formerly strong economy. Such is the perpetual self destruction associated with market intervention. Had the free markets been left to flourish from the start — i.e., with no unionization — GM as we knew it would have been a sustainable company which could have survived without government assistance.

It’s patently obvious that unions are dangerous. This is true not only at GM, but also in workplaces across America, including the public sector where unions have financially doomed such states as New York and California. Even so, this basic economic concept is not understood by — nor is faith in the free market held by — the federal government. Instead, the government assumes that the economy cannot flourish on its own and that government and union control over the markets is best for what ails us (ironically, the government cannot see that such a mindset is exactly what ails our sickened economy).

The Obama administration has taken this union protection and promotion to unprecedented heights. It’s common knowledge that President Obama and the National Labor Relations Board have wreaked havoc upon many an employer as we attempt to crawl out of the recession.

None of the NLRB’s haphazard efforts has been so widely scrutinized and justifiably-derided as its attempt to squash Boeing’s ongoing development by penalizing the company for choosing right-to-work South Carolina for expansion rather than Washington State, where unions have been a thorn in Boeing’s side for years.

While focusing intently on this NLRB misstep, many media outlets have missed something as equally sinister that will affect every employer in the United States. The NLRB, under its regulation introduced August 30 which will take effect November 14, will require that all employers who engage in interstate commerce post at their worksites an 11” x 17” poster which lists employees’ rights.

Of course, the rights enumerated on the poster are pro-union. The signage must indicate that employees have the right to join a union, engage in collective bargaining, and go on strike. Similarly, it must also say that employers cannot take adverse action against union supporters, prohibit union talk during non-work hours, or threaten closure if a union is formed.

The NLRB has never before required employers to post notices at their facilities; it’s debatable if it even has the power to do so. The purpose of the organization is to oversee union elections and investigate unfair labor practices.

It’s obvious that the NLRB’s intent — as illegal and unconstitutional as it may be — is to promote unionization. This comes at a time when private sector union enrollment has reached a low (6.9 percent) not seen since the inception of 1929’s Wagner Act which says employers must allow and negotiate with unions. The NLRB and the Obama administration want to reverse that trend and make the private sector unionization rate match that of the public sector (36%).

This poster will serve as free advertising for unions — mandated advertising no less — by planting the seed for their consideration in workplaces where they may never have been contemplated. With the mainstream media painting corporations as “evil,” our President identifying the high achievers as “too rich,” and layoffs always on the horizon because of market uncertainty, there may be many young, scared, or easily-brainwashed workers who, upon seeing the union ad, might strive to bring such an organization to their workplace. Up to six million employers could be impacted by this ruling and its consequences. Frankly, these are dangerous times in our economy and the NLRB is making them more so.

With less than two months to go, there still is time to stop the NLRB’s insanity from becoming a reality. It’s imperative that entrepreneurs, managers, and workers who understand the harsh reality of unionization contact their Congressmen and ask them to support Representative Ben Quayle’s bill, HR 2833. Introduced earlier this month, it would reverse the NLRB’s decision. Considering that the House on September 15 (in defense of Boeing and other companies facing similar obstacles) passed a bill to prevent the NLRB from mandating where employers can and cannot set up shop, there is traction to overturn the poster requirement.

If the requirement isn’t overturned, thousands of these posters will soon be replaced by “closed for business” signs, furthering the decline of our economy — one that is unable to achieve the wonders of free market capitalism because we have Big Government and Big Labor working together to do everything they can to ensure that it doesn’t.


Originally appeared in the 20 September 2011 The New American at:

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A warning about the WARN Act

By Bob Confer

Entrepreneurship has always had its basis in the understanding and handling of the unknown. No business owner has ever known exactly what his customers want, what the markets hold, or what his competitors are doing. But, they’ve always had a good idea about what might happen and, from the theoretical standpoint, what should happen.

Things are quite different today. Since the dawn of the Great Recession in 2007 and through the economic malaise that followed, the unknown has become, well, even more unknown. Entrepreneurs now, more than ever, are unsure of what the future holds for them due to the tenuous conditions of the financial and housing industries, stubbornly high unemployment and low consumer confidence that have robbed them of old and new customers, uncertainty associated with the fiscal vitality of governments from the EU to the USA, and the lingering financial instability of countless firms both large and small.

The simple yet profound question of strategic planning, “what will tomorrow bring?” goes increasingly unanswered because no one knows anymore. Find a businessman who, in this economy, is confident where his company will be one year - let alone three months - from now and you can count yourself as having encountered a prophet.

That uncertainty, from even the best and brightest, is what makes New York’s Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act so dangerous to the economic viability of any business already struggling to survive. WARN requires an employer of 50 or more workers to give them 90-day notice of a closing or mass layoff if it affects 33% of the workforce or 25 or more employees. Failure to do so requires the company to pay the affected workers 60 days of back pay and benefits. The business is also required to pay a penalty of $500 per day of violation to the state (at 90 days that’s $45,000).

The WARN Act is flawed in so many ways.

For starters, no business knows with any certainty what the size of their workforce will be in 3 months. They may think they’ll be doing fine, but their biggest client could go belly-up without notice or Wall Street could collapse again (both of which could happen easily in this day and age), facilitating the need for immediate downsizing as means to keep the company alive. So, how can a business warn its workers if in most cases it can’t even warn itself?

Secondly, the fact that WARN requires payment of back wages is stupefying. The employer had let go personnel as an emergency measure to cut costs and remain able to pay suppliers and meet payroll for the remainder of the workforce. Layoffs are legal and necessary. Employment is, in its simplest terms, an economic transaction that sees the trade of physical and mental efforts for cash and benefits; so, why should individuals be rewarded for work they never accomplished? Because of that, the penalty defeats the purpose of a layoff. And, ironically, the WARN Act actually defeats its own purpose of maintaining a semblance of wage confidence/awareness for workers: In many cases, enforcement would kill the employer, which, as direct result, would see the rest of its workforce lose their jobs.

Last, but certainly not least, the WARN Act makes the assumption that all layoffs are done with evil intent. That shows the unmatched ignorance of the political class. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: federal statistics show that 99% of all businesses are small businesses, owned by folks like you, me, and our neighbors. Do you really think any of them enjoy seeing their companies lose business and have to cut back? Do you really think they get their kicks out of terminating peoples’ employment? They don’t, on both counts. Job cuts pain entrepreneurs immensely, creating unbelievable amounts of stress, worry, and health problems, anything but devilish enjoyment. As a matter of fact, they try to prevent or delay closings and layoffs as long as possible.

Like a slap in the face, the WARN Act went into effect 2 years ago, during the darkest depths of the recession when many businesses had no choice but to shrink or die. It’s high time that the WARN Act itself died, especially with a recessionary double dip looming. If there’s anything that is known in this tricky economy, it’s that regulations like these are harmful to every business and worker in the state.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. E-mail him at


This column originally ran in the 26 September 2011 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Let's recognize our hometown heroes

By Bob Confer

If you haven’t driven through Brockport this summer you’ve missed quite a sight. The light posts and electrical poles throughout the village and along Route 104 are adorned with Hometown Heroes banners. Each one recognizes someone from the 14420 zip code who is actively serving in the military. The attractive banners are 72 inches tall and about half as wide and each one is adorned with a large photo of the serviceman/woman along with his or her name and branch.

The first time I saw them I was awestruck. It was awesome to finally see our brave warriors get the recognition they deserve 24/7, not just during Veterans Day when most Americans seem to develop a sense of appreciation – and temporarily at that – for the sacrifices these souls can and do make every single day when stationed in far off lands.

It was good, as well, to see each person singularly recognized. We so often hear how it is an “Army of One” or about how the collective is more important than the individual. But, let’s get real: It’s the individual who makes the collective and it’s the individual who commits acts of heroism to save a comrade, protect an innocent, or preserve our national integrity. Were it not for the accomplishments of one man in war– fighting for the common cause or the goal of the moment – our armed forces wouldn’t be the greatest on Earth. And, neither would our nation. So, it’s incredibly important to recognize the man, the woman who has volunteered to maintain the American spirit.

We need more communities to follow Brockport’s example. Many local towns and cities (Niagara Falls first comes to mind) think nothing of putting up banners and more for their hometown football and basketball heroes. So, why not do it for the real heroes, those whose adventures play out on a battlefield, not on a football field or basketball court?

If we did, more folks would gain an appreciation for - and better understanding of - the commitment of our armed forces.

Most people have for some time been indifferent to the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts and occupations. They see the political football between the Democrats and Republicans. They hear of the death toll on the evening news. They occasionally read of the deployments of local units. But, they are numb to the reality of it all. As it’s commonly said, they don’t have any skin in the game. Without the draft hanging out there and without a dear friend or loved one in the military, they don’t seem to be emotionally invested in what theatre our men and women are thrown into.

These banners would, like they have done in Brockport, fix that disconnect, by showing that that a classmate or the neighborhood Eagle Scout or the local church’s altar boy is now overseas. Most Americans don’t realize how close to home the sacrifice of mind, limb, and life can be. They seem oblivious to the fact that those being sent to war were raised right here in our community. They went to our schools, churches, restaurants and markets. Now, they’re out there protecting that community and similar ones around the country and around the world. The signs would help alter perception, develop an appreciation for the commitment of war, instill patriotism and, who knows, maybe even spur some volunteerism.

Brockport’s banners were created and installed by a team effort that featured its local veterans organizations, town and village officials, military parents, private businesses and dedicated citizens. The question is, how do we nurture similar involvement here and ultimately recognize the hometown heroes in the villages, hamlets and cities across Niagara and Orleans counties?

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. E-mail him at


This column originally ran in the 19 September 2011 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Tax cuts for the middle class

By Bob Confer

In an attempt to stave off financial ruin and strengthen the economy, Washington has invested more than $2.5 trillion in the economy since 2008 in an ongoing series of bailouts that continue to this day. $1.6 trillion has been spent on the purchase of private-sector debt and mortgage-backed securities from private enterprises and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. $330 billion was dedicated to insuring bad debt and risky investments undertaken by those same enterprises. Over a half trillion more was put into the expansion of lending to the financial industry. It doesn’t end there: There’s still another $10 trillion in promised support out there yet to be utilized.

There has been so much attention paid to – and so much money thrown at – unscrupulous financial institutions that the powers-that-be seem to have forgotten about the most important part of our economy: the middle class. This has led to well-deserved derision from the people. Every time Washington has opened its wallet over the past 3 years, there has been a collective cry from the masses: “What about us?”

But, that question is a little disconcerting. We aren’t deserved of a bailout. No one is. Not the banks. Not the auto industry. Not any one of us. Bailouts are a recirculation of other people’s money or the creation of debt. It’s wrong to steal from Peter to pay Paul. It’s as equally corrupted to saddle future generations with mountains of debt. So, we can’t think of economic salvation in terms of unlimited unemployment benefits, tax credits, government-sponsored training and stimulus packages. If free money was wrong for the banks, why on Earth would it ever be right for us?

Instead of having access to other people’s money, we need access to our own money. That’s the magical elixir for what ails us. We’ve been told time and again that consumer spending makes up 70% of our economy. So, it only makes sense that the consumers be empowered to spend. To make that happen, we have to put more money in the pockets of the middle class. We needs tax cuts. Not gimmicky tax credits that require kids or mortgages. Not tax cuts that have a defined sunset just a few years down the road. No, we need honest-to-goodness permanent cuts of reasonable size.

To start, it would behoove Uncle Sam to cut the tax rates (and the accompanying federal spending) by 5 percentage points per each bracket. That would put an extra $2,000 into the pockets of a family that earns $40,000. A $100,000 household would have another $5,000 to spend. That would put billions back into the productive sectors of the economy (where it belongs) which would incite the sale, production and transport of an equal amount of products and services and, therefore, put people back to work. Then, they too will spend.

Spending begets growth, which begets more spending and growth. It’s elementary economics. Increased personal spending is the very best way - the only way - to jumpstart the economy and put people to work. It’s really that simple.

Why this hasn’t been done is utterly confounding. The furthest that Washington has gone with this recently is the temporary suspension of a portion of the Social Security tax. That was a flawed plan from the start because it was good for only one year and it cut the revenues for a Ponzi scheme already destined for bankruptcy.

It’s no wonder that the once-indestructible Barack Obama is suffering from low approval ratings as the unemployment rate lingers above 9% and families everywhere (both the unemployed and the underemployed) struggle to get by. It has become painfully obvious to even his most ardent supporters that the man doesn’t have a clue about what makes our economy work. Neither does our equally inept Congress. There’s little hope for our economy until the political class can see the economic value – and social importance - of the working class.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. E-mail him at


This column originally ran in the 12 September 2011 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The real story behind your power bill

By Bob Confer

As long as the Public Service Commission allows a pending rate change from National Grid - and there’s no reason they wouldn’t - the electric company’s customers will see significant savings come January 1st. The bill for the typical household/apartment will be nearly $9.50 lower per month, while homeowners with families (who use more power) drop by almost $16. That’s $114 and $192 in extra spending money per year. Not too shabby.

Commercial and industrial users will see even bigger savings. A warehouse or department store could save a few thousand dollars per month. Manufacturers will be faced with a windfall. Confer Plastics, for example, will save $24,000 each month. Over a quarter million in annual benefit is incredibly good news. Think of how many other plants are in the same boat.

When folks read news of the rate cut’s passage you might hear a collective, “it’s about time!” accompanied by some accusatory fingers pointed in National Grid’s direction. A lot of people might assume the high rates existed only for the financial benefit of the power company; after all, corporations are widely reviled for being “greedy”.

It should be known, though, that these long-held higher rates had been in place for the financial preservation of National Grid. If the rates hadn’t existed, National Grid wouldn’t exist, either. You see, the government intervened in the electrical markets over 30 years ago and what it did has haunted power companies and their customers ever since.

Thanks to federal grants and 1978’s Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA), cogeneration facilities became wildly popular across the United States. A co-gen plant creates electricity (typically with gas) and shares its waste (steam) with a nearby industrial firm or farm that can put it to use. PURPA mandated that the utilities buy co-gen electricity. That’s bad enough. Then, the federal government left implementation and enforcement of PURPA to the states. What New York State did was insane, far rivaling what other states had committed. It required companies like Niagara Mohawk (since purchased by National Grid) to buy co-gen power at 6 cents per kilowatt-hour (even though it was touted by Washington as being cheaper, more efficient energy). At the time, Niagara Mohawk was producing and/or buying power at 3 cents. So, just like that, a private company was forced into a financially imprudent situation, one where it was destined to lose.

After seeing some utilities suffer, New York rescinded the 6-cent rule. But, the pre-existing contracts with the co-gen plants were grandfathered. So, the bleeding continued; it just wasn’t allowed to get any worse. Facing potential bankruptcy, Niagara Mohawk in 1997 used billions in junk bonds to buy-out those government-mandated contracts. That investment in its preservation had to be passed onto its customers. Here we are now, 14 years later, and they’ve finally recouped the expenditure.

In theory, that government intervention into the markets had the same effect as tax. Putting aside the higher electrical costs from 1980 to 1996, think about what that pseudo-tax has meant over the past 14 years alone as Niagara Mohawk/National Grid tried to right itself. A couple in small home or apartment wasted almost $1,600 on it. A family of four blew $2,700. But, realize that’s just your cost for your home. What about the hidden costs in the economy? You paid more for goods and services at every company in New York because their electrical bills were higher. Worse yet, you probably knew someone (or maybe it was you yourself) who lost a job when a manufacturer closed shop and moved to greener pastures because of higher power bills. Look at the plight of Confer Plastics because of it. Over those 14 years we threw $4 million at it, a huge sum that could have been spent on personnel or equipment or any other part of our business. Think about the big boys who use far more power than we: with such high costs is it any wonder local employment in the automotive industry is but a fraction of what it was just 20 years ago?

This should send a clear message about how disastrous government intervention can be. Everything done by Washington and Albany has a domino effect. So, before you go thinking Health Care Reform, the EPA’s greenhouse gas rules and any myriad regulations recently instituted or proposed won’t affect you, remember this: Regulations can be just as dangerous as taxes and have the same effect on your pocketbook. Your power bill, what it has been and what it will be, proves this succinctly.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. E-mail him at


This column originally ran in the 05 September 2011 Greater Niagara Newspapers