Wash Post Poll: Kwame Brown Holds Big Lead in Council Chair Race

Kwame Brown has lead in D.C. Council chairman race, poll shows

By Ann E. Marimow and Jon Cohen
Tuesday, August 31, 2010; B01

D.C. Council member Kwame Brown (D-At Large) holds a commanding double-digit lead over former council member Vincent Orange in the race to succeed Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray for the District’s second-highest elected office, according to a new Washington Post poll.

Of all Democratic voters surveyed, 47 percent say they prefer Brown, compared with 25 percent for Orange, with 22 percent undecided. Among Democrats who say they are likely to vote in the Sept. 14 primary, Brown’s advantage widens to 31 points, 54 percent to 23 percent.

In a surprising development, the results also show that in the at-large council race, longtime incumbent Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) is trailing the District’s lesser-known shadow senator, Michael D. Brown. Many voters have confused him with At-Large Council member Michael A. Brown (I) in part because he is listed on the ballot simply as “Michael Brown.”

Brown, a late entry into the race who had raised no money as of the Aug. 10 campaign finance filing deadline, leads Mendelson 38 percent to 21 percent among Democratic voters and is receiving strong support from African Americans. Seven percent of Democrats favor a third candidate, Clark Ray, the former D.C. Parks and Recreation director. Among likely voters, Brown is clearly ahead of Mendelson, 41 percent to 29 percent.

The numbers in the at-large contest also show a significant number of undecided voters — nearly one-third of registered Democrats — who could sway the outcome. Interviews with poll participants underscore how the at-large and council chairman primaries have been overshadowed by the mayoral matchup between incumbent Adrian M. Fenty and Gray, with some respondents saying they do not yet know enough about the council candidates to make a firm decision.

Chairman’s race

In Kwame Brown’s home base of Ward 7 east of the Anacostia River, the poll shows him with a clear lead over Orange. A prodigious door-to-door campaigner, Brown has also made gains in the Northeast Washington communities of Ward 5 that Orange had represented on the council for two terms. There, the two candidates are more evenly matched with 39 percent saying they support Brown, compared with 35 percent for Orange.

On the campaign trail, Brown has said he would lead by consensus as the council’s “team captain.” He has won the backing of all but one of his council colleagues and a long list of major environmental, labor and business groups. Orange, until recently a Pepco vice president, has campaigned on his credentials as an attorney and an accountant, and to “stir things up” on the council. He has also raised questions about Brown’s fitness to oversee the city’s nearly $6 billion budget because of his personal debt.

Brown has been sued by three credit-card companies since December for alleged non-payment and fees totaling $55,000. Brown, who has said he worked out a repayment plan, estimated that his debts exceed $700,000 — a figure that includes the mortgage for his Hillcrest home. But Brown’s personal troubles have not appeared to affect his fundraising. In the two-month period that ended Aug. 10, he raised more than four times as much money as Orange.

“I am not happy with Kwame Brown because of his financial misdoings,” said Sonia Solmssen, 78, a retired bank executive who lives in Chevy Chase in Northwest. “It worries me.”

Whether Brown’s financial woes have an impact on the race depends on who is asked. But Lauren Pagel, 32, who lives in Southwest, said she does not think a candidate’s personal finances would affect how they vote or lead the council, adding, “I don’t judge people on their personal financial problems because that’s their business.” Pagel, who works for a nonprofit environmental group, said she favors Brown over Orange because of his endorsement from the Sierra Club and steady support for the legalization of same-sex marriages.

One of Orange’s challenges in the campaign has been to explain his evolving position on the issue of gay marriage, something he opposed when he ran for mayor in 2006 but now says he supports.

Sam Tornabene, 53, who lives in Ward 5’s Brookland neighborhood, called Orange’s tenure on the council “not particularly strong” and said his constituent services operation, for instance, was “not very responsive.”

At-large bid

The poll results in the at-large race present a significant hurdle for Mendelson, who was first elected in 1998 and won more votes in the at-large Democratic primary four years ago than Fenty in his mayoral bid. Mendelson, who leads the council’s Public Safety and the Judiciary Committee, has until recently run a low-key campaign — one paid campaign aide and $12,000 in expenses during the two-month period that ended Aug. 10, despite raising more than $200,000.

But in recent weeks Mendelson has shown he is taking seriously the threat from Michael D. Brown. The incumbent has tried to overcome the apparent confusion among voters by distributing fliers that include photos of the two Browns: Michael A., who is black, and Michael D., who is white. A Mendelson mailing sent last week includes a “voter alert” with a photo and message from Michael A., who is not on the ballot this year and has endorsed Mendelson.

According to the poll, Michael D. Brown scores highest among African Americans: 49 percent of black Democrats say they would vote for him, compared with 14 percent for Mendelson. Among white Democrats, Mendelson’s lead comes from those who are age 50 and up, with younger whites splitting about evenly between the two, and more than one-third of all white Democrats saying they are undecided, according to the poll of 780 District residents conducted by telephone Aug. 19-26. The results among all registered Democrats have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points; it is five points among likely voters.

The numbers also show Michael D. Brown, who lives in Ward 3’s American University Park in Northwest, registering his strongest support from residents who live east of the Anacostia in Wards 7 and 8. More than half (51 percent) of polled voters there say they favor Brown; 11 percent say they back Mendelson. More broadly, support for Michael D. across the city tracks almost exactly with Michael A.’s showing in the 2008 election results.

Michael A., the council member and son of the late U.S. Commerce secretary Ronald H. Brown, has accused Michael D. of “political identity theft.” Michael D., a former political consultant, was elected four years ago to the non-voting shadow senator position that lobbies for congressional representation. Michael D. said he would not be participating in candidate forums if he wanted voters to think he was the other Brown.

But this is not the first time Brown’s identity has been an election issue. In the 2006 Democratic primary for shadow senator, candidate Philip E. Pannell, a well-known Ward 8 Democratic activist, blamed his defeat by Michael D. on confusion about the two Browns.

And there still appeared to be much confusion among voters heading to the polls next month. A 47-year-old resident in Ward 7 assumed that the Brown on the ballot was Michael A., the current council member. When told that the Brown campaigning for the at-large seat is the shadow senator, she was surprised. “Oh, I don’t know anything about him,” said the federal government worker who spoke on condition of anonymity because of her employer’s restrictions on political activities. “That’s not the Brown I’m thinking of.”

Likewise, Darlene Bostick, 46, who lives in Ward 7, said she planned to vote for “Brown” until she was told in a follow-up interview that Michael D. is not Michael A.

“Now, I’m not sure,” she said.

Assistant polling analyst Kyle Dropp contributed to this report.

Kevin S. Wrege, Esq.


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Wash Post Poll: Gray Leading Fenty by 17 Pts Among Likely Primary Voters

Poll shows D.C. Mayor Fenty getting more credit than support in primary race against Gray

By Nikita Stewart and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 28, 2010; 12:01 AM

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty is foundering in his reelection bid against his chief opponent, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, despite a widespread sense that the city is heading in the right direction, according to a new Washington Post poll.

With early voting beginning Monday in the Sept. 14 primary, Gray is clearly ahead, leading Fenty 49 to 36 percent among all Democratic voters surveyed. Gray’s advantage swells to 17 points, 53 to 36 percent, among those most likely to vote in the primary.

Although most of those Democrats polled credit the mayor with a record of accomplishment and say he brought needed change to the District, many doubt his honesty, his willingness to listen to different points of view and his ability to understand their problems. The criticisms are especially deep-seated among African Americans, who are likely to make up a majority of primary voters.

Nearly six in 10 black Democrats see Fenty as caring primarily about upper-income residents; more than four in 10 see him as disproportionately concerned about whites in the District. In predominantly black Wards 7 & 8, east of the Anacostia River, where Fenty carried 54 percent of the primary vote four years ago, just 14 percent of all Democratic voters there now back him against Gray.

Citywide, most black voters doubt Fenty’s honesty and say he doesn’t understand their problems. Four years ago, just 17 percent of African Americans expressed unfavorable views of Fenty; now, that number has leapt to 56 percent.

The poll results show not only a dramatic drop in support for the mayor, but also the steep climb he faces in the two weeks left before the primary. Despite a recent promise to be more inclusive and more attentive to residents, Fenty’s last-minute appeal may have come too late to change the minds of voters.

The mayor appears to have lost considerable ground to Gray, who entered the race at the end of March and only recently started running television ads. Gray, 67, who has run on a theme of “One City,” says he is better suited to overcome the city’s racial and class divides. In the poll, Gray is broadly seen as honest, open to various viewpoints and empathetic, all areas of perceived weakness for Fenty. Overall, Democratic voters give Gray the edge when it comes to being an effective leader and divide about evenly on which of the two candidates has a clearer vision for the District’s future.

2006 vs. 2010

Comparing the latest poll results with the results of Fenty’s unprecedented citywide sweep in the 2006 primary shows a significant drop in support everywhere in the District except wards 2 and 3. In those largely white wards, Fenty would get 55 percent of the vote now, matching his showing four years ago.

Fenty’s most dismal poll showing is among African Americans, with 19 percent of black Democrats saying they would support him, compared with 64 percent for Gray. Among white Democrats, Fenty leads Gray by 64 to 28 percent.

African Americans typically make up about six in 10 city Democrats, and this year, they account for 63 percent of the likely primary electorate, according to the poll, conducted by telephone Aug. 19 to 26. Even if the turnout was evenly split among blacks and whites, Gray would have an advantage because he scores higher among whites than Fenty does among blacks.

Gray’s support is highest in Ward 7, on the city’s east side, which he represented for two years before he was elected council chairman in 2006. There, 70 percent of Democrats say they prefer Gray, compared with 14 percent for the mayor. Gray holds a similar lead in neighboring Ward 8.

By contrast, Fenty is struggling to hold on to his home base of Ward 4, in Northwest, which he represented as council member for six years and where he won 69 percent of the primary vote four years ago. Now, Fenty leads Gray by 46 to 40 percent, among all registered Ward 4 Democrats and has a similar edge in Ward 1.

The poll included interviews with 780 registered Democrats in the District. The results for those 780 voters have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points; the margin of error is five points for likely voters.

The perception that Fenty favors wealthier and predominantly white neighborhoods persists despite his administration’s efforts to build or renovate schools, parks and recreations centers across the city.

Danielle McDonald, who lives off East Capitol Street in Ward 7, said the mayor was too focused on “putting up high-rises and condominiums” and has not done enough to improve life in her neighborhood.

“The big bucks go downtown where the rich people are,” said McDonald, 66. “He’s for all that, and then throws a little something on the side to us and says, ‘Oh, we gave you this.’ ”

McDonald said she likes Gray because he performs well in the council sessions she watches on the government cable access channel. “He seems to be for neighborhoods and was always willing to question what the mayor was doing to hold him accountable,” she said.

Northwest of McDonald’s home, William Herron, a Ward 2 resident, disagreed. Herron, 68, said he is satisfied with the improvements made in his Dupont Circle neighborhood under Fenty. “I like the new bike lanes,” said Herron, a retired personnel manager. “He’s as good as it gets. . . . I just think it’s a healthier city.”

A change in attitude

In recent weeks, Fenty has taken a humbler, more contrite stance after receiving negative feedback from some voters. He acknowledged shortcomings to some voters one-on-one, and his campaign spread the apologetic message in advertising, debates and interviews.

His initial TV ad campaign featured supporters trying to put a positive spin on his reputation as “arrogant.” They said Fenty was a leader whose tough attitude yielded improved services and made city projects move faster. Fenty coupled that effort with attacks on Gray’s record as head of the Department of Human Services in the 1990s, saying that Gray was a failed leader.

The number of Democrats holding favorable views of Gray has moved higher since the beginning of the year; public assessments of Fenty’s trustworthiness have not improved since a Post survey in January. In the latest poll, 39 percent of Democrats say Fenty is honest and trustworthy, compared with 61 percent who say so about Gray.

Thelma Harris, who lives in Michigan Park, in Northeast, said she recently decided that “Fenty hasn’t been honest from the get go” and that she will vote for Gray. Fenty “seems to represent the interest of only a select few, and he is arrogant,” said Harris, 52, a social worker at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. “I know his commercials say he appears arrogant. Well, he is arrogant.”

Elsewhere in Northeast, Carol Holston, 52, who lives in Benning Heights, credited Fenty with providing recreational centers and football fields, but she said they remind her of the ongoing investigation into whether the administration unfairly awarded tens of millions in construction contracts to his friends and fraternity brothers.

Harry Gates, 71, a resident of the Palisades, in Northwest, is a defector from the Fenty camp who said he volunteered for Fenty’s 2006 mayoral run. “We did have a team, but there was always a wall up between the rest of the team and Adrian. I always wondered if he was listening,” Gates said. “The pat answer everyone has is the day he moved into the Wilson Building, he turned his back on everyone who put him there.”

Among Democrats who say they voted for Fenty in 2006, fewer than half are backing his reelection.

Emphasis on education

To a large extent, Fenty has staked his reelection on education reform, and he has repeatedly promised to retain Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. He has faulted Gray for declining to say whether he would keep Rhee in her post should he unseat Fenty.

Education is the top voting issue in the poll and one that works toward Fenty’s advantage, particularly among whites. White voters overwhelmingly see the District’s schools as better than they were four years ago. But black voters are as apt to say schools have deteriorated as improved.

Talk of Rhee’s performance and future is a constant on the campaign trail, but the deep polarization over the chancellor does not give either candidate a clear advantage. In the latest poll, 41 percent of Democrats say her record is a reason to vote for Fenty; 40 percent say it is a factor against Fenty. Among white voters polled, 68 percent say Rhee is a reason to support Fenty, but 54 percent of African Americans consider Rhee a strike against him.

Marilyn Barrette, 43, a Capitol Hill resident with three children in public schools, said she will vote for Fenty because of the work he has done on education. “I’ve seen some improvements in the facilities themselves. As far as the curriculum and bringing in Michelle Rhee, things are moving in the right direction,” said Barrette, an elementary school teacher in Prince George’s County who has taken time off to be with her children.

But McDonald said Fenty lost her vote after Rhee fired 266 teachers and gave what she considered a misleading reason for their dismissal. “He really plucked my nerves when he messed with the schools and fired the teachers,” said McDonald, who holds Fenty and Rhee responsible for the firings.

Beyond the schools, Gray wins among voters who emphasize most other issues, including the economy and jobs. Most recently the Gray campaign has focused on the issue of endemic unemployment in wards 7 and 8.

Although Democrats generally see quality of life improving in the city, only about a quarter of them say their families’ financial situations are better now than four years ago.

In the homestretch

Fenty’s army of paid canvassers and sizable campaign war chest give him an opportunity to reverse the tide in the race, but organization and money may be not be enough to change the dynamic.

As an incumbent, he must overcome seemingly settled opinions about him and his leadership style. Another challenge is that Gray supporters appear more committed and passionate than Fenty’s are. In the poll, nearly half of Gray supporters say they are “very enthusiastic” about his candidacy, compared with only about a quarter of Fenty’s.

One opportunity for Fenty will come Wednesday, when the two candidates are scheduled square off in a highly anticipated debate at the Newseum. But more information isn’t necessarily the answer for the mayor: Voters who have been contacted by the Fenty campaign are as likely to call the contact annoying as helpful.

Wild cards for both campaigns are new, potentially consequential changes to D.C. voting rules. For the first time, voters can cast ballots at designated locations before primary day, and eligible adults can register at the polls.

And a sizable number of voters – about a third of those most likely to vote – are either undecided or say they could change their minds between now and the primary election.

Marion Buelken, 74, a Ward 6 resident, said she is struggling to make a choice between the two leading candidates. She said that improvements in the school system have been impressive but that she has been turned off by Fenty’s style. “Fenty’s very abrasive,” she said. “I don’t appreciate his handing contracts to his cronies without going through the proper channels, running roughshod over teachers.”

Catherine Magruder, 59, a poll respondent from Anacostia, in Ward 8, summed up her choice: “There is a lot of things [Fenty] did do good, but I prefer, what’s his name? Gray.”

stewartn@washpost.com cohenj@washpost.com

Staff writer Tim Craig and assistant polling analyst Kyle Dropp contributed to this report.

Kevin S. Wrege, Esq.


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Bloomberg News — Small Biz HC Tax Credit Limited

Focus On Entrepreneurs, August 2010 August 26, 2010, 3:33PM EST text size: TT

Small Businesses Skip the Health-Care Tax Credit

Insurance brokers say response is low because the value of the benefit declines quickly for companies that pay average annual wages of more than $25,000 or employ more than 25 workers

By David Lerman and Liz Smith

Sales are off by 20 percent this year at Image Computer, which repairs printers in suburban Detroit. So President Steve Olis is worried about whether he can continue paying the $71,000 a year it costs him to provide health insurance for his employees.

The Obama Administration’s answer for Olis and other small-business owners: a tax credit of as much as 35 percent of the insurance premiums they pay for employee medical coverage, a signature part of the health-care reform bill signed into law in March. Image Computer, however, doesn’t qualify for the credit because Olis pays his 15 employees an average of $55,600 annually, and companies with average salaries above $50,000 aren’t eligible. “At some point I can’t do this any longer,” Olis says of his rising health-care premiums.

Eager to promote the new small-business tax credit, the government this spring mailed 4 million eligible companies postcards with highlights of the program. The response has been tepid, according to insurance brokers who sell small-group policies. The reason, they argue, is that the credit starts to phase out for companies that pay average annual wages of more than $25,000 or employ more than 25 workers. The value of the benefit declines quickly, so many business owners in high-cost states get no tax break, and those elsewhere often say the credit is too small to make much of a difference. Sales of health plans have gotten “very little traction so far,” says James Stenger, director of business development for BenefitMall, which sells small-group plans in New Jersey.

Stenger says most of his clients pay their workers more than $25,000 a year, so the average tax credit he’s seeing for the few who qualify is about 10 percent of the cost of the policy. That’s less than $200 per worker—not enough to spur many business owners to start providing coverage. Brokers across the country report a similar response. JLBG Health in Warrenville, Ill., contacted 460 small businesses about the tax credit. Roughly 40 percent were eligible, though only seven of those companies qualified for the full benefit. Not one of the 400 New England employers served by Hampstead (N.H.)-based Landmark Benefits is eligible, the broker says. The legislation “is just not doing what we had hoped,” says Steven Selinsky, the incoming president of the National Association of Health Underwriters.

U.S. Small Business Administration chief Karen Mills says complaints about the tax credit are premature. “This is all still in anecdote land,” Mills said in an interview. She maintains that the income cap was needed to keep a lid on the cost of the tax credit and that the people with the greatest need—low-paid workers at the smallest companies—will be able to get coverage. Companies “want to provide health insurance [because] they’re losing good employees when they don’t,” Mills says. “The math says [the program] is likely to be positive.”

One company that has had success selling policies under the program is Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City, which launched a marketing push to promote the tax credit when the law was enacted. Although less than a quarter of small businesses in the Kansas City area qualify for the credit, the ad campaign paid off. Blue Cross has sold 227 plans to small businesses in the past three months—80 percent more than in a typical three-month period, says Tom Bowser, chief executive officer. Now, Blue Cross affiliates in other states are hoping to replicate the Kansas City marketing strategy—a combination of print ads, radio spots, and direct mail explaining the program’s advantages. The success “is tangible evidence that this legislation is having some effect,” Bowser says, “and we’re cashing in on it.”

The bottom line: Many small businesses can’t take advantage of a tax credit designed to reduce the cost of providing health insurance.

Lerman is a reporter for Bloomberg News. <a href=”mailto:esmith583 is a reporter for Bloomberg News.

Kevin S. Wrege, Esq.


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WSJ Piece on University Health Plans & Nat’l Reform

Big Foot on Campus

Why colleges want a waiver from ObamaCare.

In the movie “Animal House,” the hilariously loathsome Dean Wormer announces a pointless campus crackdown with the classic line, “The time has come for someone to put his foot down. And that foot is me.” Democrats seem to have had a similar inspiration and targeted student health insurance in ObamaCare. Along comes word that the bill “could make it impossible for colleges and universities to continue to offer student health plans.” That’s how the American Council on Education and a dozen other higher-ed lobbies put it in a recent letter to the Obama Administration, warning that the insurance coverage they offer may get junked by ObamaCare’s decrees.

Between 4.5 million to 5.5 million students annually are insured by short-term plans sponsored by their schools, which are tailored to upperclassman who have aged out of their parents’ coverage or to international and graduate students. These plans are very low cost because the benefits are designed for generally healthy young people and often organized around campus health services and academic medical centers.

All of which means these plans aren’t likely to qualify under ObamaCare’s “minimal essential coverage” rules that mandate rich benefit packages, even if colleges have the flexibility to make exceptions for special needs. And given that insurance must now be sold anytime to everyone, colleges may be required to continue to cover students after they’ve graduated—leaving this type of coverage unaffordable.

It doesn’t help that the regulations governing student health plans are as carelessly written as the rest of the bill, and the uncertainty is holding up insurance contracts and plan design for the coming academic year. Not surprisingly, the colleges are asking federal regulators for a blanket ObamaCare waiver. (Can everyone else apply too?)

All of this is no accident. The liberals who wrote the bill despise these campus health plans because they think every plan in the country should be designed in Washington and have been calling for a regulatory crackdown for years. Other Democrats probably had no clue about these rules, even as they voted for a bill that was so large and convoluted that no one could truly understand it. Either way, count this as another of ObamaCare’s really futile and stupid gestures, with many more to come.

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A14

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Nat’l Media: DC Claims Out Front Role in HC Reform

D.C. In Front Of The Health Reform Curve, Officials Say

Topics: Health Reform, Medicaid, States

By Jessica Marcy

KHN Staff Writer

Aug 24, 2010

As states across the country scramble to meet the requirements for national health reform, the nation’s capital is “way ahead,” according to Dr. Julie Hudman, director of the Department of Health Care Finance and a member of the city’s Health Reform Implementation Committee. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty created the panel last May to explore how best to implement federal health reform.

At a recent public meeting, officials eagerly highlighted some of the city’s accomplishments. They noted that the District’s uninsured rate of 6.2 percent of residents is the second lowest in the country, only behind Massachusetts, a state that voted for near-universal health insurance almost four years ago.

They pointed out that Washington has already expanded Medicaid coverage, a key component of the new health care reform law that will be required in four years.

The city embraced an invitation by federal administrators to make people eligible for the program at up to 133 percent of federal poverty guidelines. As a result, D.C. officials successfully converted 32,000 residents from the D.C. HealthCare Alliance, a city program that had covers low-income residents who don’t qualify for Medicaid, into the program on July 1. Now, 188,220 residents are covered by Medicaid while 29,280 are covered by the Alliance, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. (KHN is a program of the foundation.)

The D.C. government also sought federal permission to transfer an additional 4,000 residents who fall between 133 and 200 percent of the poverty level into Medicaid, an expansion Hudman said was a “win-win” scenario.

This step makes the city and Connecticut the only two jurisdictions to have expanded Medicaid coverage early. Both previously covered people under their own low-income health programs, which were more generous than pre-reform Medicaid requirements.

But such comparisons involving the District and states are often problematic because the former has a smaller population than most states and is an entirely urban area. The District heavy relies on public programs to provide insurance to poor and disadvantaged residents. More D.C. residents receive public coverage — including through Medicare, Medicaid and the Alliance — than other areas in the country and the city government picks up a large portion of that cost, according to the Urban Institute. Approximately 32.8 percent of D.C. residents receive public coverage. Another 55 percent receive employer coverage and 6 percent access it through individually purchased plans and military, veteran and student health programs, according to the Urban Institute’s 2009 DC Health Insurance Survey.

While officials praised expanded coverage, they noted that some of the citys poorer residents still have difficulty getting access to doctors and health care facilities.

“We need to be pushing for greater access to care,” said Department of Health (DOH) Director Pierre Vigilance. He emphasized the need for more access in emergency rooms, school based health programs and primary care clinics and doctors’ practices.

This is one of KHN’s “Short Takes” – brief items in the news. For the latest from KHN, check out our News Section.

Fenty Administration Health Reform Web Page


The above link takes you to the District’s site on the local implementation of the federal health care reform law. While it’s a bit lean so far, I would expect it will be populated with more information as the reform process unfolds. Let me know if you have questions.

Kevin S. Wrege, Esq.


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Seattle Times Report: Protest Against Lobbyists at NAIC Convention

Health-care activists hold anti-lobbyist protest at gathering of state insurance regulators

By Keith Ervin

Seattle Times staff reporter

While many state insurance regulators wore business suits to their national meeting in Seattle on Saturday, they were approached by a smaller number of people wearing a different kind of suit.

Health-care-reform activists sported surgical gowns and masks as they chanted and handed out packets that offered to “disinfect” the gathering from a “lobbyist pandemic.”

The packets included soap, a hand wipe, a clothespin and a face mask to protect against “lobbyist lies … lobbyist germs … and lobbyist stench” — underscoring that emotions over health-care reform haven’t entirely subsided since President Obama signed a historic reform law in March.

A small group of protesters made it into a meeting of state legislators and regulators before they were escorted out.

Participants in the National Association of Insurance Commissioners’ summer meeting at the Washington State Convention Center mostly appeared to take the political theater in stride.

“As one of their targets, I did not feel too offended,” said Peter Rice, senior counsel for the Boston-based Dewey & LeBoeuf law firm. “It’s a free country,” he reflected, and, “A little disruption keeps us on our toes.”

“What I love about Seattle, it’s kind of a kooky town — very important messages, but they were done with levity,” said Beth Berendt, Washington’s deputy insurance commissioner for rates and forms.

The insurance commissioners’ association is filling in some key details that weren’t settled in the health-care act. With a new requirement that 80 to 85 percent of premiums paid into group health insurance be used to pay for medical care, the association is being heavily lobbied by the insurance industry and consumer groups over how it should define medical expenses.

Of the 1,600 people participating in the five-day Seattle conference, about 500 represent the insurance industry, organizers estimate.

Peter Koutoujian, chairman of the Massachusetts House of Representatives’ Committee on Financial Services, said he went out to a rally on the street to hear what protesters had to say about defining medical costs. “Everything I saw was an anti-lobbyist demonstration,” he said. “It did not have to do with the substance of the matter I went down for.”

When police officers asked a group of chanting protesters to leave a convention-center lobby, protester Robby Stern stayed behind to talk to officers. “I think that we have the First Amendment right to be in a public space and hand out leaflets,” he said.

“Not if they don’t want them,” responded Officer R.A. Christopherson.

Stern, a member of the Puget Sound Alliance for Retired Americans, said he went to the convention center to urge regulators “to carry out the intent of the Health Care Reform Act to cover as many people as possible. Don’t allow the insurance-industry lobbyists to influence you.”

The protest was organized by Washington state Health Care for America Now.

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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