Friday, February 26, 2016

New Yorkers don’t need another health insurance tax

Health Republic Insurance of New York was the largest of the 23 non-profit cooperatives created under the Affordable Care Act. It started up in 2013 after receiving $174.4 million in seed money from the feds. At its peak, it was serving 200,000 New Yorkers. Despite such a massive customer base, its business model wasn’t sustainable, so, under fear of insolvency, it was shut down by state regulators last year after losing $77.5 million in 2014 and another $52.7 million in just the first half of 2015.

The failure of Health Republic left many doctors, hospitals and other providers hung out to dry. They’ll never have the chance to collect nearly $200 million in unpaid claims.

Because of that, there’s a concerted effort by led by various health organizations to bring a health guaranty fund to New York. The Empire State is the only one in the union lacking such a system which would reimburse doctors and hospitals if a health plan went belly up. This is being championed in the legislature by Senator David Valesky (D - Oneida) as bill S.6667 and Assemblyman Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan) as bill A.9311.

While my heart goes out to the healthcare providers who remain unpaid for services rendered, it’s not the job of the government or taxpayers to mitigate a business’s risk or make one whole in the event of a severed business relationship. Risk and the management thereof are inherent parts of being an entrepreneur and doing business.

No matter what business you are in, customers will go bankrupt and you account for that as uncollectibles in your books and/or you do everything possible to prevent your firm from entering into or continuing to do work with customers who are difficult payers or show a chance of going out of business.

Despite your best efforts, you still end up getting hurt every once in a while. We’ve had customers go bankrupt on us. When they did we never asked for the state to bail us out. Nor do we want it to. Nor can it. Manufacturers aren’t afforded the privilege of a guaranty fund and neither are farmers or retailers -- and none of us should be. So, why should such protection be granted to doctors and hospitals?

Money doesn’t grow on trees, either. Under their Valesky/Gottfried proposal, the state’s new account would be funded by an alleged one-time assessment on all health insurance companies. One-time? What if many more insurance companies go under due to the Obamacare model?

Even if they don’t, one assessment is one assessment too many; New York employers and the insured are taxed enough as it is. The state collects $5.6 billion annually in fees and assessments (read “taxes”) on health insurance. It’s a key reason why health insurance costs so much and is increasingly expensive every single year. When you see premiums rising by 5 to 10 percent per annum and employers putting high deductibles on their workers, there’s no more wiggle room. Everyone’s already paying enough. As a matter of fact, we’re already paying too much.

From the 29 February 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Thursday, February 25, 2016

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Ice volcanoes and oldsquaws

Last year, an installment of this column looked at the awesome spectacle that is the ice volcano (link). Ice volcanoes are mountains of ice that can be found along the Lake Ontario shoreline and they get their name from the icy waters that are spewed from them due to wave action.

Last year’s frigid winter made for some good ice volcanoes. One would think that an unusual winter like this with little snow or recurring warm spells would keep them at a minimum this year. But, it hasn’t. I’d say that this winter’s volcanoes are much better than last winter’s – maybe because the ice sheet doesn’t extend as far into the lake and the near shore wave action is better.

Once again, if you want to see them, your best bet is to go to the boat launch area of Golden Hill State Park.

If you go, make sure you take your binoculars with you for some bird watching. The frigid waters of Lake Ontario are being enjoyed by oldsquaws which are incredibly beautiful ducks whose attractiveness is rivaled only by the gaudy wood ducks that frequent the Niagara summers.

The male oldsquaw is told by its striking black and white plumage, the contrast of which makes them easily identifiable from a distance. If you look at them through field glasses, you will notice a pink band around their beak. The photo above shows just how attractive they can be.

The females, on the other hand, are a little dreary-looking compared to their mates. The stark contrast is gone and their white cheeks, throats and undersides are complemented by brown/black tops.

Oldsquaws have rather unique call. It doesn’t sound anything like a quack. It’s a loud, nasal – even piercing -- call that some field guides describe as "ow-owooolee." Males will repeat this call incessantly, and that’s where the bird gets its rather politically incorrect name from – their talkative behavior reminded people of old women who just didn’t know when to be quiet. In only the past few years, that has led the birding community to change the bird’s name to long-tailed duck.

Oldsquaws spend their summers in the Far North, living in large lakes of the tundra and along the shore of the Arctic Ocean. They are incredibly abundant there, with populations numbering in the millions. As the north freezes over, they head south (just not as far south as most birds) and spend their winters in Hudson Bay, the northern Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and here in the Great Lakes.

These seas ducks are some of the most accomplished divers of the bird world. Although most of their feeding takes place at depths under 25 feet, they have been known to dive down to 200 feet for food.

When they are in a foraging mood, they can spend four times as much time underwater as they do on top of it. That can make watching them an interesting experience – just when you’ve found one with your binoculars he will disappear for a long time, long enough that you’ll find yourself asking, “Where did he go? Did he drown?”

While down there, the ducks feed mostly on mollusks and crustaceans. That makes them a beneficial snowbird as they eat the zebra mussels that have plagued Lake Ontario for far too long. This weekend, while the winter beauty of ice volcanoes and oldsquaws are still here, make it a point to go out to the lake. You want a crummier, windier day so the waves can do their thing to the volcanoes, so dress warmly…and take a camera and binoculars.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where potholes are the closest thing his town has to ice volcanoes. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 25 February 2016 East Niagara Post

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers deserve free sporting licenses

Last summer, an installment of this column posited that we are entering, if not in, a public safety crisis due to the lack of volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers.

From 1990 to 2010, the number of firefighters in New York dropped 24 percent while, over that same period, the number of calls across the state doubled. When you have fewer men and women saving lives and property while more people are in need, tragedies will happen through no fault of those who are ducking out of family dinners and little league games and forgoing sleep to save the day. There’s only so much these Supermen and Superwomen can do; they’re spread thin.   

A question has been posed many times by fire chiefs and policymakers: How do we attract – and retain – people to the ranks of volunteerism? Many benefits have been offered in response to that, from paid training to property and income tax credits to tuition assistance. Many more could be and should be offered.

Among the suggestions that have been tossed around the past couple of years is the idea that the state should provide free hunting and fishing licenses to them. Why hunting and fishing licenses? It’s the demographic of the volunteers. While cities have paid departments, it’s the rural towns and villages that rely on unpaid services, and the outdoor pursuits comprise the hobbies and quality of life for most of those small town firefighters, EMTs, and drivers. 

The latest iteration of this suggestion comes in a bill introduced by Senator Sue Serino (R- Hyde Park). Bill S6690 would not issue free licenses outright. Instead, it would issue tax credits to the volunteers that are equal to the value of the licenses.

Filing for and receiving tax credits might seem like a lot of red tape, but it’s necessary given the political and policy structure of Albany. There is no means in place by the state to fund the Conservation Fund in the absence of revenues that would have been received from license sales now made free.

There are over 100,000 fire and EMS volunteers in the state. The Conservation fund -- which already lost $8 million between 2013 and 2014 alone -- could potentially and perpetually lose $6 million per year if it were to cover all-in licensing (hunting, fishing, archery tags, and doe and turkey permits). That would adversely affect campgrounds, boat launches, fish stocking and pheasant rearing….the very realms and objects of enjoyment that we were supposed to be given to the public safety volunteers.

In the perfect world, volunteers would receive the licenses for free up front and the state would fully reimburse the Conservation Fund for the full value of all free licenses. But, Albany is an imperfect world, and its power brokers have on many occasions robbed the Conservation Fund for use in the General Fund (yet, somehow, the inverse is impossible).

While tax credits might not be the very best gift for the volunteers, they are the best that we can give them given the state government we have…and it’s, above all, the least we can do for all that they do for us. 

So, if you value the peace of mind and safety that your local fire and medical crews bring to you and your family, encourage your senator or assemblyperson to support Sue Serino’s bill and extend a small but meaningful benefit to them.  

From the 18 February 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers  

Friday, February 12, 2016

Business owners: Are you ready for the CO detector mandate?

It’s not often that you’ll find this columnist being in agreement with new laws and regulations (we already have more than enough of them), but there is one in play right now that I can wholly agree with.

That would be Part 1228.4 of Title 19 of the New York Codes, Rules, and Regulations. Simply put, it mandates the use of carbon monoxide detectors in all commercial buildings. Old standards applied only to new builds, which severely limited the point of the law, that being the guarantee of public safety.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is known as the “silent killer” as it is an odorless, colorless gas produced by the incomplete combustion of any fossil fuel or wood. If you breathe it in at levels as low as 35 parts per million, you will be subjected to headaches. If above 800 parts per million (which is a small amount), you’ll be suffering from flu-like symptoms such as headaches and lethargy. Continued and higher exposure will lead to insensibility, convulsions, respiratory arrest, and death, all of which can occur in a rather short period of time. It is such a deadly and efficient killer that the Nazis used CO alone to kill 750,000 Jews during the Holocaust.

More than 400 Americans die from accidental exposure to CO every year, while 20,000 more end up in emergency rooms to combat CO poisoning. Some of my dear friends lost their loved ones to CO over 20 years ago. It’s tragedies like that that led to the encouraged – and ultimately mandated -- use of CO detectors in all residences. The law was finally expanded to commercial properties after years of proven success of CO detectors in homes saving lives.  

Unlike homes which don’t really get inspections from governments to verify compliance, businesses do receive regular inspections from any number of entities such as code enforcers, OSHA, and the Departments of Health and Labor who will all enforce the new rule which became law in June of last year, but was granted an unusually-long transition period that ends on June 27th of this year. Business owners can expect inspectors to look at the presence or CO detectors as being the “low-hanging fruit” in their governmental reviews later this year and into the future.

Property managers shouldn’t look at that as a threat to their livelihood. It’s a good law. And, it’s a practice that should be used with or without the existence of a law. People spend a lot of time (8 to 10 hours a day) in hospitals, schools, stores, factories, garages, and other occupied facilities which, at this latitude, use incredible amounts of fossil fuels to heat those premises. They can get sickened by and succumb to CO in the workplace just as easily as they can in the home.

There are some nuances of the law that you should be aware of: All new builds have to have the detectors hardwired into the electrical supply and, at the same time, have a backup battery in use; existing buildings or those without electrical power can use battery-powered detectors but they have to have 10-year batteries; they are required on every story and primary work/occupancy area, not just adjacent to the furnace or heater;  and, for the most part, you are not allowed to use combination smoke and CO detectors.

If you haven’t prepared your commercial property for this law, do it. Don’t wait till June to meet the standards, either. Now is the time when heaters are running non-stop…now is the time when disasters can and do happen.

 From the 15 February 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Could negative interest rates be coming to US banks?

A week and a half ago, the Bank of Japan shook up the markets when it announced that, for the first time, they would be imposing a negative interest rate on financial institutions. The move smacked of desperation as the once-proud archipelago continues to struggles against deflation, an economic battle it has waged since the 1990s.

Negative interest rates are nothing new in the arsenal of economic policy. Less than two years ago the European Central Bank took up the cause and, in turn, Denmark, Sweden, and Switzerland followed suit.

You’re guaranteed that more nations and central banks will jump on the bandwagon as the global recession intensifies.

Among those entertaining the idea is our own Federal Reserve. The Fed is asking banks to think about what they would do if negative interest rates were brought to the States as a sort of long-term policy. Under the Fed’s allegedly-theoretical plan, the three-month Treasury bill rates would go negative in the second quarter of 2016 (bottoming out at 0.5%), staying there until the first quarter of 2019 if not beyond.

The Fed’s consideration of this proves something that they and the Obama Administration deny, but manufacturers, farmers, retailers, and job seekers have been saying for months: The US economy is being battered by a recession. Policymakers pull out negative rates only when they feel that all other attempts to resuscitate an economy have run their course. It’s a last-ditch effort.  

It is believed by economists that an economy is enticed to grow under a negative interest rate scenario because banks are penalized for holding reserves and, therefore, are encouraged to lend in volume at lower rates and with looser reins. Allegedly, businesses intent on growing will take them up on that offer and investment in people, plant, and equipment.

You might be thinking that this makes no sense, because businesses aren’t keen on borrowing now, even at the incredibly-low rates enjoyed by our economy for the past half-dozen years. Businesses aren’t borrowing because the banks won’t let them; instead, they aren’t borrowing because their customers haven’t given them the incentive to grow.

That’s where a secondary domino effect of the policy is supposed to kick in. The banks will be forced into penalizing their clients for saving and a negative interest rate will be charged on all savings and checking accounts and certificates of deposit. You -- the average account holder – will be charged a fee for keeping your money in the bank. Policymakers believe that this encourages people to take their money out of banks and spend it, thus exciting the economy.

Any businessperson or head of household worth their salt will tell you that this is economic suicide. It was our nation’s corporations, banks, governments and consumers spending beyond their means and not saving that led to the economic collapse that fed the Great Recession. Here we are just eight years removed from the start of that horrific event and the “great minds” who are the puppeteers of our monetary policy and economy have magically forgotten that.

Japan and the Federal Reserve have warmed up to negative rates because it is believed that there were no negative repercussions from such practices in Europe. Give it time and there will be – as a matter of fact, Switzerland is already seeing an impact in the form of ballooning mortgage rates as desperate banks look for ways to actually make money.

What would negative interest rates do to the American economy? Would you really be spending more if you were hit with a penalty for saving? Many of you wouldn’t, and you would lose money for that very reason. What could you do with your money if you didn’t spend it? If you took it out of the bank, it’s certainly not safe under the proverbial mattress.

Simply put: It’s insane. Negative industry rates would be deadly if they worked according to plan and led people to blow their money. It would encourage the same behaviors that led to the economic chaos of 2008 and 2009. The US economy nearly died then. Its death would be certain this time around, as it’s patently obvious that we never recovered from that nightmare.

 From the 08 February Greater Niagara Newspapers