Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category

Mandatory Vaccinations

June 3, 2021

Interesting but pretty low-key coverage last week of an announcement from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that employers can mandate employees to get COVID vaccinations. Most news reports I read emphasized how employers could incentivize employees to get the vaccine, but the far more concerning aspect to me is that they can mandate the vaccine. No vaccine? No continued employment. How does that not qualify as “coercive”, something employers are supposed to avoid in their incentive programs? About the only part of the reports that make sense is that there will be a lot of lawsuits as employers and employees try to navigate whatever the EEOC is trying to accomplish but prefers to do so through the private sector rather than Federal decree.

What is the rationale for allowing employers this broad degree of control over the personal health choices of their employees? Will this be used in conjunction with future possible COVID-related shutdowns, so that companies that require their employees to be vaccinated will be allowed to continue operations while other similar companies with no such policy will be shut down if non-essential?

If an employer can mandate COVID vaccinations, what else can they mandate in the realm of personal choice regarding health care? Can they mandate flu vaccines? Under what conditions? The EEOC’s own website acknowledges that public health guidelines are subject to fluctuation, so what about companies that mandate the COVID vaccine (or any other vaccine) only to have public health guidelines alter or reverse? You can’t undo an injection.

Section K is the relevant section of the EEOC’s most recent COVID-related guidelines, and section K.1 stipulates that employers may require all employees to obtain vaccination as a condition for physically returning to a workplace. What this means is that in terms of Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) there is no grounds as interpreted by the EEOC for claiming some sort of discrimination towards protected classes. It isn’t discriminatory of a company to mandate all employees be vaccinated. But that’s a rather narrow criteria for determining whether a company should be allowed to make such a requirement in the first place. All the EEOC is really focused on is whether such a mandate would be unfair to protected groups, and it’s pretty obvious that it wouldn’t be if it’s being applied evenly to all employees (instead of targeting certain groups) and accommodations are made for those who may have legally protected exceptions from such a mandate.

But shouldn’t all Americans be legally protected from being forced to get a vaccination (or any other specific health procedure) to keep their job? It might be easy to say from the outside that if you don’t like that particular policy, quit and go work someplace else. But anyone actually working (or who ever has actually worked for someone other than the government) understands that it’s hardly that simple. And if all employers decide to require such a vaccination, how does that impact personal liberties?

These are all questions unique to America. Many Americans don’t seem to understand this. It makes life as an American in America more complicated. But those complications are deemed warranted in order to protect something valuable – personal liberty. As we’ve learned after 9/11 and today in an age where fear is increasingly being promoted and used to drive people towards approving certain policies, personal liberty is difficult to obtain, easy to cede, and effectively impossible to take back once ceded. So these questions and issues are important to think through carefully, and to ensure that what is required of people either by the private sector or the government is as narrow and limited and carefully defined as possible. Precedents are being set in a time of panic, and once that panic is over the precedents will remain and will be used as justification for further erosions of personal liberty in the name of safety or convenience or whatever else seems effective.

“How Do You Spell Billiyuns?”

May 21, 2021

Shout out to my all-time favorite comic strip, Bloom County for the title and Carl Sagan for the inspiration beyond that.

Just a little side note to the whole discussion of making vaccines near mandatory, if not by government fiat then by the private market (insistence on proof of vaccinations in order to fly, etc.). There are nine new individual billionaires in the world, executives at major pharmaceutical companies who created and are selling COVID vaccines. The article doesn’t mention how many new millionaires there are related to vaccine production but it seems reasonable to assume there might be more than nine. The article also doesn’t indicate how close these nine people were to the billionaire mark prior to the COVID vaccine production, which I personally would have found relevant and interesting.

I’m not against companies and executives making a profit. I think this is a good incentive to innovate, create, etc. I don’t have definite thoughts on what sort of profit margins are reasonable (like the 30% profit margin the article cites for COVID vaccines). But it does make me itchy when there’s heavy public pressure and possibly even insistence to buy or use a particular product that someone is profiting off of. And I’m sure that 30% profit margin keeps some poorer nations from having access to the vaccines, something some of the companies try to address later in the article by promising 2 billion doses for poorer countries later this year.

I’m trying to think of another situation where people are pushed hard or required to purchase a product or service near universally. Car insurance is the first thing that comes to mind, though I suspect that market is somewhat regulated (does anyone know if this is true?). Still, I could opt not to drive and not have to pay for car insurance then. There are other transportation options available that make this realistic (depending on where you actually live).

Are there other examples that come to mind?

Beyond this, it makes me wonder what kind of pressure comes into play from lobbyists for these companies to keep the vaccine push on as long as possible, including the boosters they are now starting to talk about. Although some people like to talk about just following the science (at least until science says it’s OK to not wear masks if you’re fully vaccinated) reality is a lot more complicated than that.

And a lot more profitable.

Handling Crises

December 9, 2020

COVID continues to surge around the world, including areas of the world that seemed previously to have contained it.

I’m curious – at least out here in California – why I’ve not heard any mention of expanding ICU bed capacity? China famously put together entire COVID hospitals in record time early on in the COVID crisis, drawing undoubtedly on experience with other outbreaks of SARS viruses since 2000. And granted, there are massive differences between what a totalitarian regime can dictate done in record time and what a democratic country can reasonably accomplish. Not to mention differences in building safety and any number of other issues. The first article referenced above talks about shipping containers being repurposed for ICU beds. It wouldn’t have to be building new buildings from scrath.

Considering the idle real estate scattered around the country and owned by various levels of government organizations, from school districts to the National Guard, it would seem we could spend money to actually expand our capacity to cope with increasing rates of COVID hospitalizations, enabling us to ease the economic disaster foisted on small and mid-sized businesses who can’t operate at anything near full capacity due to state restrictions.

By repurposing – even temporarily – properties already owned by cities, counties, states, etc. it seems as though we could expand ICU bed capacity at least in the major metropolitan areas that are hardest hit. We’re undoubtedly spending a lot of money already, what if some of it could be directed in this way?

Other COVID Effects

December 1, 2020

Just a reminder – COVID and related restrictions have other costs associated with them than just who gets sick and who doesn’t.

A fascinating article here about Japan, where suicide deaths in October alone exceeded COVID deaths for all of 2020. The mental health effects of COVID and associated isolation and lockdowns is being seen in real time in some countries.

Other effects of COVID and related restrictions include deepening levels of social awkwardness as people deal with their own fears of others and reciprocal fears. Traditional understandings of how to engage socially – shaking hands, smiling – are all being deconstructed when our faces are hidden behind masks and human touch as become a social faux pas.

Long term impacts on school-aged children during COVID will be gradually revealing themselves for another decade or more. At risk students has a whole new dimension to it in the age of COVID. I developed and taught online curriculum for over a decade when it was a brand new field of technology and Internet possibility. I witnessed firsthand that online education is not for everyone, and that means both teachers and students. For those with learning styles requiring more or different than what is possible through synchronous or asynchronous online learning platforms, the risk of falling through the cracks is even more prevalent now.

And of course the working world is changing. For the first time the reality of a large percentage of employees working remotely permanently seems to make sense. But of course, not all jobs have that option. Many jobs – particularly ones with lower salaries – require people to show up in order to bag groceries and cook food and harvest crops and any number of very tangible, real-time duties. How does our society deal with this shifting away from the idea that everyone goes to work? Is working from home a benefit to the employee, and as such should the employee be taxed for that benefit in order to provide additional funds to those who have no such option? Or should employers be taxed for this option, since it will inevitably enable them to save money through smaller office space needs and other very tangible, bottom line benefits?

A vaccine is not going to make any of these issues disappear. Damage has already been done, and changes in approaches to work and personal life will continue even if a vaccine is ready or herd immunity is reached or the virus simply quits infecting at the rates it has been. COVID is going to be with us a lot longer than the actual Coronavirus might.

When the King is Law in a Democracy

October 7, 2020

I’ve been battered by my news feed this morning. Issues local and larger driven not simply by a pandemic but by government fiat about how we must handle this pandemic. I’ve touched on this topic before, particularly on the issue of the goals of state policy over the last seven months being shifted from flattening the curve to driving pandemic cases to an arbitrarily defined minimal number.

California has led the way in this from the very beginning. And the rules continue to change. Rules that have not been presented for a vote to the population but rather are dictated by the governor for implementation at the county level. The governor has created a tiered system of restrictions based on criteria he defines – and is free to alter at any point.

Case in point, for the past two months there have been two major criteria determining how restrictive a tier any given county is in – case rate and test positivity. But now a third criteria has been added. It is no longer enough that a county drops below arbitrarily defined thresholds related to case rate and test positivity. Now counties must also demonstrate – by arbitrarily defined means – that their efforts to combat COVID-19 are adequately distributed among all population groups in their county.

This new Equity Metric theoretically intends to make sure that disadvantaged groups in a county do not lag “significantly” behind other groups in the county in terms of case rate and test positivity. But in reality, the Equity Metric requires that disadvantaged groups report case rate and test positivity scores below the mandated metrics for the county as a whole. In other words, the county as a whole could meet case rate and test positivity requirements to move into or remain in a lower tier of restrictions, but if the disadvantaged groups in that county (which the county itself must identify) have higher rates in either of these two categories, the entire county will not be allowed to progress into the lower-restriction tier, or could be pushed up into a more restrictive tier.

On the flip side, the Equity Metric could potentially help a county move into a lower-tier of restrictions. If a county hasn’t met the requirements yet for the next lower-restriction tier, but the county’s lowest quartile disadvantaged groups not only meet that criteria but the criteria for the next level in lower down restrictions, the county would be allowed to move into the next lower tier.

Obviously, the intention is to encourage (force?) counties to invest more money in treatment, education, etc. for their most disadvantaged groups. At the same time, since these groups often consist of ethnic minorities known to be impacted by COVID at higher rates than less-disadvantaged groups, it means an entire county could be prevented from progressing to a lower-restriction tier just because one small subset of the population is struggling with higher rates of reported cases and test positivity ratios.

All of which may or may not make sense, but all of which is also a completely arbitrary addition to what the counties in our state (and country) have been focusing on for the last seven months. It smacks of ideological profiteering – taking advantage of a situation to distribute wealth and resources differently, rather than a strictly “scientific” approach to limiting the spread of a worrisome contagion.

I’m sure the governor had advisors on this, but I’m also pretty sure those advisors are similarly inclined to him, ideologically. And once again, we the citizens have to deal with the effects of his laws without getting any say in them. Presumably then, “science” in a very loosely defined sense supercedes rule by law and the American concept of rule by the people. Since these rules are ostensibly “for” the people (as defined by an unidentified subset of the people), it is apparently not necessary to get our feedback and approval on these rules.

For a short-term emergency situation this can be dealt with and accepted. That’s what we all more or less agreed to back in March. But seven months on, the restrictions are only piling up, and the impacts are being borne solely by the citizens of counties and states and not by the people elected to run the government. As I argued months ago, if our elected representatives are not impacted by the rules they make, there is no natural braking system for just creating more and more rules and restrictions.

For instance, our governor dictated that law enforcement was not allowed to enforce any laws regarding overnight camping on public property (beaches, parking lots associated with beaches, etc.). Citizens have frequently been banned from going to the beach on major holidays due to concerns about crowds and contagion, but if you pitch a tent on the beach and sleep there over night, nobody is allowed to bother you. Increasing numbers of tents are cropping up on beaches. Again, the governor can issue his order – don’t enforce the law – but he doesn’t have to deal personally with the ramifications of his ruling.

Presumably this is because of an acknowledgment by our elected leaders that homelessness is going to increase as a direct result of the economic restrictions they’ve put in place for the last seven months. Rather than mandating the protection of the most vulnerable populations, they’ve simply shut down – arbitrarily – large swaths of society. Small and mid-sized businesses are being devastated by not being able to open or only being allowed to open at a far reduced capacity (25% or 50%). Any economics major or businessperson can tell you that a business owner determines the viability of renting or buying a space and hiring workers and offering goods or services based on a certain minimum threshold of business. You can’t arbitrarily slash that threshold and expect a business model to still work. It might, for a short time. As long as stimulus loans are out there, for instance, but it isn’t sustainable.

I’ve heard predictions that anywhere from 30%-60% of restaurants will close and never reopen. The figures are as high as 85% for small, independently owned restaurants. They won’t be able to stay in business. The economic impacts of COVID restrictions are going to start cascading into the coming months. It will be a devastation of our economic landscape the likes of which haven’t been seen before. Could unemployment reach Great Depression rates? It wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

And when a restaurant closes it isn’t just the owner who loses – everyone they employ loses. The community that enjoyed or relied on their service loses. The community also loses tax revenues from that business. The impacts are massive on this scale.

And this is just one particularly business sector.

So we’re going to have more homeless, our leaders presume, and therefore we just aren’t going to enforce laws against homelessness in communities. Never mind that beaches don’t have bathroom facilities or running fresh water. Never mind the trash and debris that accumulate under these conditions. Instead of mandating (and providing) resources for counties to address this grim reality proactively, the governor’s order to not enforce laws simply creates new or exacerbates existing problems while simultaneously limiting the ability of any given community to deal with them.

Or consider the law in our state preventing landlords from evicting tenants because they are no longer able to pay their rent due to being unemployed because of COVID. Why are property owners expected to bear the burden financially for problems created directly by executive orders from governors? How are property owners expected to remain viable leasing property to people who aren’t paying them? How is it fair for one group of people to create a situation where another group of people bears the exclusive repercussions and losses for decisions the other group of people dictated?

If our elected leaders are not directly and immediately impacted by the results of their decisions – especially their directed decisions that don’t go to popular vote – then we’ll continue to suffer under laws and rules arbitrarily conceived and applied. I don’t doubt the intentions of most of these laws and rules is good. I do doubt whether good intentions equate to actual benefits or the desired results – it’s notoriously tricky to directly correlate closing a broad section of the economic sector with reduced transmission rates of COVID. You can argue for a correlation but it’s hard to prove causation. There are just too many variables. And again, for a short period of time correlation may be enough. Is it enough seven months later? At what point – if any – does it cease to be enough?

I maintain that if our elected officials are going to declare that certain businesses simply aren’t allowed to open, then the salaries of these officials should be directly affected. I’m sure a smarter person could determine an effective ratio. I’m sure it’s rather draconian to say that if you arbitrarily shut down any one kind of business for an entire state or county you oversee, your entire salary as an elected official should be withheld. But then again, maybe it isn’t too draconian.

Of course, elected officials would not be penalized for laws approved by their electorate.

Not until our elected officials personally and directly feel the devastating effects of the rules they are making up on the fly can we the constituents be assured they are really, really, really grapping with and making the best possible choices rather than the easiest ones. If they’re personally having their life’s savings drained away by the very policies they’re demanding the electorate abide by, I would feel a lot more confident they’re trying to find the best way forward. A way that doesn’t simply create an explosion in homelessness when they’re in no danger of living in a tent themselves.

We’ve allowed our elected leaders to extricate themselves from real life as the average citizen experiences it for too long. Whether it’s a separate retirement plan from Social Security, or a separate healthcare package from what citizens have available to them (even with the ACA!), or salaries guaranteed from tax dollars and therefore only secondarily linked to the decisions made in state capitols or Washington D.C., we shouldn’t be surprised our leaders seem unsympathetic to the plight of their constituents if they are not dealing personally (and financially) with the effects of the rules they put into place.

Convenience Costs

September 15, 2020

Online ordering and delivery was a Thing long before COVID-19, but I can only imagine how much more money is being poured into Internet-based shopping options instead of traditional brick and mortar stores. Correspondingly, the push for faster and faster delivery times is driving not just technology but policy as well.

Amazon has received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to begin delivery of small (under five pounds in weight) packages to customers. It has been testing such delivery systems since 2013.

I’m curious how this might impact home designs. Could homes have designated rooftop or balcony landing spots where drones could leave packages instead of leaving them by the front door where they are more vulnerable to theft?

Food for Thought

September 14, 2020

I know there is no perfect system. But awareness of flaws in a system can help us improve it. Awareness of abuses in a system can help us fine tune it. Awareness of inefficiencies in a system can help us remember we’re likely paying for those inefficiencies, and maybe we should be more concerned about them.

Case in point.

Encouraging Community

September 7, 2020

She came in person to ask for help.

We chatted for a few minutes in the office. She was new to the area. She made a bad decision and purchased a car “as-is” from a private seller for $2000. Then she found out the car needed another $2000 in repairs. Perhaps our community could take up a collection to assist her. She had documentation she was enrolled in a city safe-parking program – she could sleep in her car in a designated lot somewhere in the city where she wouldn’t be hassled and would hopefully be safe. She was homeless, but not without resources and was open to assistance. She had applied for employment. Her area code was on the East Coast, but she declined to divulge where she was from.

I told her I’d make some calls and get back to her. I knew I wasn’t willing to try and come up with $2000 for her. But perhaps I could get her a free second opinion on the repairs, or perhaps a discounted rate on the repairs. I called a congregational member in his final year of law school to see if she might have any Lemon Law recourse in our state. I apprised my Elder of the situation to get his feedback. He thought the congregation could provide some limited assistance from a benevolence fund we have set up, but was skeptical of extensive help – and rightly so. When she called back later in the afternoon I didn’t have more information and told her I’d be in touch the next day. When asked, she was pretty confident the seller of the car wasn’t going to be of any help in defraying expenses.

The next day I had word back from the law student that her options were slim. When she called – very proactive! – I explained the situation.

I am asked for help on a somewhat regular basis. Sometimes it’s by phone. Sometimes they stop by the office. Sometimes they want $20 in gas or help with food. After nearly a decade of working in the recovery community here, I’m more aware of both the myriad issues that can drive people to ask for help as well as some of the local resources available to assist them. So rather than reaching for my wallet I often refer them to one of these resources. They invariable are uninterested. Usually that’s the end of the encounter.

But I’ve also taken up the practice of suggesting they join us for worship, that they meet our community. After all, I’m convinced that the underlying issue for many people in dire need is a lack of community. For whatever reason(s), they don’t have people around them who know them and care about them and can be of help. We can try to target mental health or housing or substance abuse or any number of presenting problems for homelessness, but without a community, any solution is going to be temporary at best.

So I invited her to worship with us on Sunday and said I’d talk with her then about how we could help. At the very least I’d be willing to purchase her a bus pass so she could get around if her vehicle proved unreliable. She thanked me and said she’d be there. She remained calm and didn’t argue or protest.

She actually came on Sunday.

Forty-five minutes early, but she was there. She was greeted by various people in the congregation as she sat enjoying the sun on the hottest day of the year. She listened to the musicians warming up. I walked her out and got her a bulletin and made an introduction or two. Just a few moments before worship started there was a knock on my door. In the hallway was my wife and this woman, both smiling and talking. The woman asked again for financial assistance. She had spent the previous night making a list of her most pressing needs. She had a line on someone willing to help her out with her car repairs, and the biggest need she identified was fees to have a background check run on her and to apply for work as a home health care assistant. I told her I’d cover those expenses the next day.

I assumed she was leaving before the service started, once she had a pledge of assistance. But to my pleasant surprise she stayed through half the service. I had committed to help her and I was going to do that whether she stayed or not. But her willingness to participate at least somewhat was very heartening.

However the next day was Labor Day and her potential employer was closed.

Tuesday she was in touch again and we coordinated to meet at a notary and then at the employment office. I paid her fees for her and she thanked me. I cleared it with my wife first – who agreed it was a good thing to do and had appreciated meeting the woman on Sunday morning. I notified my Elder of what I was doing.

I don’t know if we’ll see her again. I’m hoping we will. She indicated she had some sort of church background but didn’t elaborate or explain. But she read through our statement of faith regarding Holy Communion. And she engaged me on part of it she misread as saying we needed to be worthy to receive Holy Communion. I clarified it was a warning against receiving it unworthily – presuming our deserving of God’s grace or in denial of our sinfulness. She seemed satisfied by this. She left shortly after I started my sermon, but by that time she’d been there for nearly an hour and a half, so I can’t entirely blame her.

I think people were friendly and let her know she was welcome so I hope she’ll be back. I hope she’ll appreciate that she was responded to not simply in terms of a financial need but in terms of community and a place to belong and be safe. I know the odds of this all working out are slim. That doesn’t bother me in terms of money spent. It worries me for her and her future. Because what she needs ultimately isn’t just a job or a reliable car but people around her who love her. And more deeply than that, she needs a relationship with the God who created her and loves her more deeply than anyone else ever can or will. Maybe we can be a part of that story, her return to faith or nourishment in the faith or whatever it is. I can’t control that part of her story, I can only seek to be faithful and open to whatever part in her story our congregation can fulfill.

Times are hard all over right now. We can and should be open to the needs of others, even when we’re trying to socially distance and protect one another. One of the ways we do this is through hospitality. It’s a curious word that is difficult to work with in our American culture that, even before COVID-19 struggled with hyper-individualism and a heightened level of distrust and fear of anyone beyond immediate family members.

So hospitality is complicated for us. We like the idea but frequently because we define it improperly. A seminary professor teaching on 1 Timothy 3 once glossed over hospitality as being nice. A recent article in a denominational publication mentioned ordering food via GrubHub or tipping additional when picking up food during our COVID-19 pandemic as forms of hospitality. But being nice isn’t hospitality, although a host will be nice as they are being hospitable. And being generous is not being hospitable, though a good host almost by definition is a generous one. Hospitality involves a relationship established when an outsider is invited to become an insider. Into the home or family or community. And we struggle with that as American Christians.

Yet we’re called by God to be hospitable (Isaiah 58:7, Genesis 18, Romans 12:13, 1 Timothy 3:2, Hebrews 13:2, just to name a few) both by exhortation and command as well as by example. So being of help to people isn’t necessarily just a matter of writing a check or handing out some cash. That may be part of the equation as well, but we have the opportunity to establish a relationship that goes beyond giver and recipient, beyond excess and need, and instead that crosses the chasm between insider and outsider.

It doesn’t always work and hosts can’t force people to be guests, can’t force people to receive hospitality, and can’t force people to come in from the outside. But we can and should create that opportunity when and how the Holy Spirit prompts us. Because there’s more going on than a meal or repairs for a vehicle. God the Holy Spirit is at work seeking to draw all people back to the God the Father who created them and God the Son who redeemed them. The Holy Spirit’s care and concern goes beyond the immediate to the eternal, and beyond the physical to the totality of a person’s body and spirit. And the Church and the people of God are the place where the Holy Spirit’s work should be most prominent and eminent and palpable.

My decision to help this young woman financially was practicing generosity. But the invitation to her to join us and meet more of our folks and potentially find connections that would stick and begin to form a network of support, a community, a home – that’s part of hospitality. That’s part of trusting you are a piece of someone else’s puzzle in the hands of the Holy Spirit as He seeks to bring wholeness to a broken world. And miracle of miracles, in doing so, we find that those we open ourselves to are pieces in our own puzzle.

Buyer Beware or Unaware?

August 19, 2020

One of those nagging little facts I retain for no particular reason is a phrase I learned in my high school economics class my senior year – caveat emptor. A Latin phrase which means let the buyer beware. The basic concept is that in any given transaction, the one handing over money for goods or services should beware to the best of their ability they are not being taken advantage of. This could be in purchasing a faulty product or not studying the terms of service carefully (a common problem these days when Terms and Conditions of products can be very lengthy and very small print!). If you aren’t careful about how you buy, you might be taken advantage of. Don’t simply trust blindly.

It’s an important concept, as it presumes the buyer is capable of being wary. That they have the requisite skills and understanding to make decisions regarding who they give their money to and in exchange for what. It was a fundamental, undergirding principle of our country for a long time, though I’m not so sure it is any longer.

Of course the buyer can’t possibly know everything. Laws have been created and passed to give buyers protections. Did that new big-screen TV not work out of the box like promised? The seller or the manufacturer or your credit card company – and likely all three – provide you with some level of protection from the reality that despite best intentions and through no deliberate attempt to defraud, goods and services don’t function the way they should.

That’s a far cry from assuming consumers are too stupid to know what they’re doing. But more and more, the assumption seems to be that consumers shouldn’t be held at all responsible for the decisions they make, and that experts should take that responsibility for them.

One example of this is in the field of health care and insurance. Since costs for health care and healthcare insurance continue to skyrocket (perhaps because the system is faulty?!?), and because more and more health insurance companies are covering procedures that are elective in nature and passing the costs on to others (gender change surgeries, abortions, etc.), it’s an important arena for consumers to be aware in. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of taking whatever your employer provides. Other times, you have options or choices, either through your employer or because you are self-employed. Even with your employer, there are usually various options and plans to select from a given provider, and so the consumer is still required to beware what they are purchasing or paying for is really what they want and need.

For seven years now my family has been a member of a health sharing ministry. This decision was made because of concerns of the changes in health insurance in terms of what they decided they would cover (and therefore what we would be helping to pay for), particularly in terms of abortions. We did our research, I talked with at least one person who had been a member for years already, and we read and reread the fine print. Samaritan Ministries did a good job then and now of clearly stating what we were and were not getting and what was and was not covered. We understood not everything was covered, and we understood that our membership and ability to submit needs for coverage was based on a shared set of Christian principles in terms of how we live our lives.

Had our health situations changed substantially (we’re all basically healthy), this might not have been a good option or an option we needed to leave behind. But we’ve so far not ever regretted the decision to move to Samaritan Ministries, and we genuinely feel good, knowing we are helping other Christians in their needs.

But, caveat emptor. And so when I saw this article pop up in a news feed the other day warning against such programs, I naturally read it. After all, regardless of how I feel about something, I want to be well informed.

Firstly, the article is primarily politically motivated, in opposition to a move by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to allow health sharing ministries to be considered a form of health insurance and therefore allowing participants to potentially claim their expenses as deductions on their taxes. The article perceived this as an attack on Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act) since it could entice more people to leave traditional health insurance plans and participate in health sharing ministries instead. This would reduce the number of healthy people paying into insurance plans and drive up insurance costs. The goal of the author is to protect the costs of those participating in health insurance plans, rather than to honestly evaluate whether there might be viable alternatives to such plans that could – using market forces – pause or reverse some of the spiraling costs of health care and health insurance. The author’s irritation that health sharing ministries are less expensive than many health insurance plans is palpable.

One particular critique is that health sharing ministries aren’t as comprehensive in their coverage. This is very true. There are many things our membership with Samaritan Ministries don’t cover. This is part of the appeal for us, in some ways, as we don’t want to be funding abortions if we can help it. In other ways, it does serve as a reinforcement to pay attention to our membership and potential needs. If we developed a health condition not covered by our membership, we’d need to evaluate whether we could remain members or not. Likewise, when I’ve been asked by others about our experience, I’ve emphasized that while it works for us, it may not work for everyone and they need to pay attention very carefully to the fine print.

Also as our needs have changed, I’ve been proactive in asking questions of Samaritan. When our oldest son left home for an internship a few weeks ago, I needed to ensure he was still considered part of our family plan, or else we’d need to help him get his own individual plan with Samaritan (or a different insurance plan if he decided to go that route). In all such communications Samaritan has been clear and forthright and prompt. Sometimes less coverage is exactly what you want, because you know you aren’t ever going to need some of the things that aren’t covered.

Yes, this means that someone with a pre-existing condition who opts for a health sharing ministry could end up with some substantial bills they need to pay on their own. That’s why they need to read the fine print very carefully. Yes, someone could simply see the lower monthly share amount and decide it was best to switch out of traditional health insurance to save some money on a monthly basis, and because they ignored the principle of caveat emptor, they could end up hurting themselves financially when things they assumed would be covered aren’t covered. This isn’t because the health sharing ministry is being dishonest or attempting to defraud people. Rather, it’s because health sharing ministries by default and design cover fewer things than traditional health insurance does. That’s not bad (at least it doesn’t have to be) but it does require paying attention to details.

Not that this keeps people from insulting health sharing ministries and, by extension, those who find them valuable.

The Los Angeles Times ran a rather bitter column on the topic of the proposed IRS changes. “Healthcare experts” are invoked nebulously as disapproving of health sharing ministries because of “substandard coverage”, ignoring the fact some such health sharing ministries are intentionally providing less coverage for certain things deemed necessary and essential by experts, such as abortions and elective surgeries for gender reassignment.

I’ll assume the columns assertions that sometimes these plans are marketed in less than honest ways might sometimes happen. Frankly, I don’t see many advertisements for these plans out there, but still, I’m sure it could conceivably happen. That doesn’t mean the plan or ministry itself is dishonest. Unless of course they’re deliberately misleading people, in which case they should be held accountable as any provider of goods or services should be – and not simply because they’re health sharing ministries.

Nineteen state attorney generals think the proposed IRS changes are illegal because of a lack of analysis of the outcomes, and because it could be damaging to existing health insurance markets. Why is it that we are guarding against potential competition in this market? Oh yeah, that’s right. Because this is a government mandated and controlled market to some extent now, and the government apparently didn’t consider the possibility of competition messing up the amazing numbers it used to convince our lawmakers to approve it. Gee. I guess we should just stick with the status quo despite there being potentially good alternatives that give the power and decision making back to the people rather than the government.

Because people apparently aren’t capable of being wary or informed in their decision making. So let’s just eliminate options for them. Much simpler. Very American. Not.

The author asserts that my health sharing ministry is offering me junk, and I’m stupid enough to buy it. While that’s always potentially true (even of insurance companies) my experience thus far is that this is not the case. To assert otherwise in such broad brushstrokes displays the very type of willful or unavoidable ignorance the author is accusing me of possessing and seeks to protect me from.

Unfortunate.

The New York Times weighed in as well with an emotional piece about a young boy with a tragic illness. The implication in the article is that this poor family is going to be ruined because they are members of a health sharing ministry instead of an insurance company. The article has multiple compelling photos of the young boy in various stages of health, and essentially paints the picture this family is being left out to dry by their health sharing ministry – Samaritan Ministries, the same one we use.

But nowhere is that specified in the article.

Instead, the severity of the boy’s situation and treatment and the likely costs of such treatment will likely exceed the cap on per incident issues. Ignoring the fact that Samaritan negotiates with healthcare providers for reduced charges because they will be paid via cash rather than having to jump through insurance hoops hoping for reimbursement. And despite the specific fact – mentioned but lost in the shuffle in the article – that Samaritan has a program specifically to help in such extreme situations. The boy’s family hasn’t been cheated or misled or anything, and there’s no certainty yet the bills will exceed the incident cap, or that Samaritan won’t cover up to the cap, and that there may not be additional funds to help them.

But just the possibility that there could be a problem is enough to justify the attack article. Despite the fact the father defends Samaritan in terms of previous issues they’ve submitted for coverage. Still not good enough.

So, after reading these various articles, I come back to to what my high school economics teacher, Mr. Conway, taught me. Caveat emptor. Know what you’re doing to the best of your ability. But also recognize you can’t know everything, and nothing is guaranteed. The authors of these various articles all give the common impression that health insurance coverage is guaranteed, yet I’m sure we all know someone who was told their coverage wouldn’t be as extensive as they were led to believe, or who were denied coverage for a particular issue.

The New York Times article mocks the company’s exhortation for members to trust in God. But that’s just what it’s members do. Not simply a claim of Christian faith is required for membership but also reasonably verifiable evidence of regular church attendance. Members do trust God, and that’s part of the point of Samaritan Ministries – is faith not simply as a pleasant sounding mantra but something that guides the decisions we make and the money we spend and how we spend it.

I pray these authors never run up against the unpleasant truth that health insurance is not a guarantee of financial safety and security. And I pray they might reconsider whether deliberately opting for programs that don’t cover everything is the same thing as receiving “substandard” care, and whether the potential for misunderstanding is the same as duplicity.

Political Suggestion

July 27, 2020

Perhaps like you, my town is starting to be dotted with notices of businesses closing. Doors shutting for good after being forced to shut down as part of the grand social sacrifice to stop the spread of the coronavirus. I’ve heard little mention through official channels of remorse for these closures, the preliminary wave of what I expect will be a much larger wave continuing on into the years ahead of us. I’ll assume our leaders presume loan monies are adequate to sustain businesses shuttered for months on end.

The signs and notices around town tell a different story.

Of course most of our elected officials don’t have businesses to run. Their salaries as well as their premiere health benefits are guaranteed through tax dollars. They can literally weather the pandemic indefinitely, determining who closes and who opens without any serious personal risk themselves. I’m sure they know people who are affected. At least I hope they do. I hope somebody close to them has lost their business or their health insurance. Not out of vindictiveness but so our leaders have an accurate measure of the economic and psychological pain being caused through prolonged closures.

For an illness that is far less lethal than we originally feared.

In some ways I imagine it is like royalty in centuries past. While the masses of people beneath them might be struggling through catastrophe, the wealth of the aristocracy could effectively insulate them from those effects, or allow them to relocate for a period of time. Responsiveness suffers when there is sufficient buffer between the reality of the electorate and the reality of those elected.

So a suggestion.

For as long as some businesses must remain closed or at much reduced capacity, those elected leaders responsible for mandating the closures should endure a commensurate level of economic suffering as well. As long as there are businesses not allowed to reopen, all officials from the Governor down to the local elected leaders should not draw any salary. They should be entitled to unemployment benefits like everyone else, for which they must file like everyone else. They should have the same health insurance coverages – or lack thereof – of anyone else on unemployment. This situation should continue until mandatory closures are lifted and businesses can reopen.

If businesses are allowed to reopen (or continue operating) but at reduced capacity, all officials from the Governor down to locally elected leaders will only draw salary and benefits directly proportional to the reduction in capacity they are mandating for others. If restaurants can only serve half the customers, government officials should draw half salaries.

In the case of varying levels of closures or reductions in capacity mandated, government official compensation will be tied to the most restrictive mandates currently in force.

Again, this is not intended to be punitive. At least no more punitive than the existing closures and restrictions. But it is intended to lend an air of urgency to a very real and pressing catastrophe that many of our elected officials seem to be personally unaffected by. Their salaries continue as they order others into unemployment. Their benefits packages continue to operate without a blink while others are at risk of losing health coverage and any number of other benefits tied to employment and the overall economic health of an employer and the economy at large.

This would motivate our leaders to be more creative in addressing the issue than simply ordering people to stay in their homes and close down their businesses. It should motivate our leaders to be more creative than simply adding trillions of dollars to our national debt in bailout payments or destroying state budgets through loss of tax revenues.

If our leaders share our pain and our concerns, I have to believe they will be far more motivated to figure out solutions that everyone benefits from. This can’t go on indefinitely, or even through the end of the calendar year as some people (academics, government officials or others without any real skin in the game in terms of personal finances) are prone to warning us.

Thoughts?