Downtown D.C. traffic gridlocked as taxi drivers protest Uber, Lyft, Sidecar

Downtown D.C. traffic gridlocked as taxi drivers protest Uber, Lyft, Sidecar

By Lori Aratani, Washington Post, June 25

A taxi caravan of hundreds drove slowly and honked car horns as they held up traffic on Constitution Avenue on Wednesday. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

A taxi caravan is seen on Wednesday along Constitution Avenue. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

This post has been updated.

Drivers in and around downtown D.C. were gridlocked in traffic Wednesday as a caravan of angry taxi drivers made its way from East Potomac Park to Freedom Plaza — in a protest against app-based ride sharing services such as UberX.

Authorities said Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest opened in both directions around 1 p.m. The roadway had been closed from 15th to 9th streets Northwest because of the protest. The street closure caused other delays in the downtown area. Ironically, because of the protest, some people reported difficulty hailing cabs.

The drivers are members of the Teamster-affiliated D.C. Taxi Operators Association and the target of their protest is digital dispatched ride-sharing services such as Lyft, UberX and Sidecar, where regular people give rides to others using their private vehicles. The cab drivers have been at odds with the new services saying they have an unfair advantage over regular cabs since they don’t have to follow the same rules and pay the same fees.

Organizers said they planned to deliver a letter and petition to city officials asking them to impose a “cease and desist” order on the services.

Services such as Uber and Lyft have become popular alternatives for people looking for a ride, but such services have faced opposition from the taxi cab industry as well as some state officials. Virginia recently issued a cease-and-desist order to Lyft and Uber, barring the services from giving rides in the state (trips that originate in D.C. and Maryland, however are permitted). The app-based ride-sharing services have received a warmer reception from the D.C. Council where a bill currently under consideration would allow such services to operate in the District as long as they meet certain insurance requirements and follow safety rules. A separate set of proposed regulations by the D.C. Taxi Cab Commission, however, would place limits on the number of hours drivers for these services could operate unless they have a taxi license.

In a statement, the D.C. Taxicab Commission said the commission is working on updating regulations that will ensure “a fair, balanced, competitive, and safe system for passengers and drivers.”

D.C.’s taxi cab drivers aren’t alone in their protests. Such actions have taken place in the U.S. and around the world as cab drivers struggle to compete against these new companies.

Lori Aratani writes about how people live, work and play in the D.C. region for The Post’s Transportation and Development team.

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Huffington Post: Passing the DC Health Care Buck

Passing the Health Care Buck

Posted: 06/25/2014 3:40 pm

By now, we’ve all heard about the challenges and the ups-and-downs of the new health care law. From cancelled plans to delayed programs and technical glitches in online applications, the Affordable Care Act has had its share of problems. However, in the end, the Affordable Care Act — or ACA — has turned out to help millions of Americans young and old. Far from perfect, the Department of Health and Human Services declared success with over eight million people enrolled, and over 30 percent being young Americans aged 18-34.

The reality of the new law is that if it is a "success" or not oftentimes depends on where you live. While some states are having problems implementing their own state-based exchange program, other states are relying on the Federal Government to carry its citizens. And in Washington, DC, a disturbing unintended consequence is taking place: The D.C. City Council recently passed a new law that applies a new health care tax on health insurance carriers. The D.C. City Council passed the Health Benefit Exchange Authority Financial Sustainability Emergency Declaration Resolution of 2014 in May that leverages a 1 percent tax on all health-insurance carriers with gross receipts of $50,000 or more within the District of Columbia.

Why? Washington, D.C. and the board of D.C. Health Link — the Washington, D.C. health care exchange — are concerned about the financial well-being of the exchange and needs a new revenue stream to help support its program. In fact, there is a growing list of sales taxes

DISB Press Release: Insurers File Proposed Rates for 2015 Health Plan Offerings on DC Health Link

DISB Banner
For Immediate Release
June 23, 2014
Contact: Kate Hartig, (202) 442-7753
kathryn.hartig

Insurers File Proposed Rates for 2015 Health Plan Offerings on DC Health Link

Washington, D.C. (June 23, 2014) – The D.C. Department of Insurance, Securities and Banking received proposed health insurance plan rates to sell on the District of Columbia’s health insurance marketplace, DC Health Link, for plan year 2015.

Four major insurance companies – Aetna, CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, Kaiser Permanente and UnitedHealthcare – have proposed rates for individuals, families and small businesses.

  • UnitedHealthcare proposed rate decreases of eight percent for all of their 2015 plans;
  • Aetna and Kaiser Permanente proposed a mix of rate increases and decreases resulting in a slight overall net decrease for Aetna and a slight overall net increase for Kaiser; and
  • CareFirst proposed rate increases for all plans. Most of the individual plans and all small business or “SHOP” plans reflect increases greater than 10 percent.

The department will review the rates and may make adjustments to what was filed. Insurers can also file revised rates. Last year, three of the four insurance companies (Aetna, Kaiser Permanente and UnitedHealthcare) lowered rates after their initial rate filing. When final, the rates will be posted on the department’s website at disb.dc.gov.

Based on the 2014 market experience, some insurers modified or discontinued plan offerings. Forty-two new plans are proposed for 2015; all in the SHOP market with the exception of one individual plan. UnitedHealthcare and Aetna also eliminated some plans that had little or no enrollment in 2014, resulting in a total of 227 proposed plans.

The links below include tables of proposed rates for individual and small business plans to be offered on DC Health Link in 2015. The tables and more information can also be found at this link or at http://disb.dc.gov/2015rates. The tables show low, high and average premiums by company, product type and metal level for ages 27, 40 and 55.

Individual Proposed Rates for Health Insurance Products Sold on DC Health Link for 2015

Small Business (SHOP) Proposed Rates for Health Insurance Products Sold on DC Health Link for 2015

Since some plans offered in 2014 are no longer available and new plans have been added, this chart shows the average rate changes for the 185 plans still available in 2015.

“The insurers proposed various modifications in plans and rates for 2015 which demonstrates that they are committed to competing for District insurance business,” said Acting Commissioner Chester A. McPherson. “This healthy market activity benefits those shopping for health insurance in the District, both in terms of choice and cost.”

“I am pleased to see new products and real price competition,” said Mila Kofman, J.D., Executive Director of the Health Benefit Exchange Authority. “I would like to see insurers compete more aggressively by further lowering proposed rates similar to what they did last year.”

The Affordable Care Act, the federal health-care law, requires all insurance plans to cover a set of essential health benefits including doctor visits, hospital stays, prescription drugs, maternity care, and mental health and substance use treatment. Insurers are no longer allowed to reject people with pre-existing conditions or charge them more for coverage. Preventive tests for cancer, diabetes, and other conditions must be covered without cost-sharing.

Many people with low and moderate incomes will qualify for help paying their premiums through federal tax credits available to those who shop on DC Health Link. Some small businesses will also be eligible for tax credits that will reduce their cost of coverage for themselves and their employees.

For more information about the 2015 proposed health insurance plan rates including the rate filings, follow this link or at http://disb.dc.gov/2015rates.

D.C. tax cuts are in question after budget passed by council is challenged by CFO

D.C. tax cuts are in question after budget passed by council is challenged by CFO

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) talks to reporters before the tax-cut vote on May 28 (Aaron C. Davis/The Washington Post)

By Mike DeBonis June 17 at 7:33 PM

Elements of a $160 million-a-year tax-cut package passed by the D.C. Council last month may not take effect as planned after financial officials balked at the proposal, saying the revenue losses could throw the city’s long-term budget out of balance.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said Tuesday that planned cuts in income taxes, business franchise taxes and estate taxes will be “triggered” to take effect only if city revenue rises above current projections, making them dependent on the District’s continued economic growth.

Mendelson acknowledged that the changes were made at the behest of Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey S. DeWitt and deputies, who have yet to certify that the budget deal passed May 28 is balanced and comports with city law.

But he characterized the changes as minor and said he was confident that future revenue growth would allow for the tax cuts to take effect: “They may happen earlier. They may happen later. But they will happen.”

While tax cuts set to take effect on Jan. 1 — including a lower-middle-income tax bracket and a higher standard deduction — are not threatened, deeper cuts scheduled for future years could be delayed.

The changes follow an initial budget vote that was taken less than a day after Mendelson made significant changes to the spending plan, incorporating tax cuts that had been proposed by a blue-ribbon commission but eschewed by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) in his budget proposal.

To pay for the tax cuts, Mendelson tapped spending on future capital projects, including hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked for a planned streetcar system. A total of $225 million in cuts is offset by about $67 million in new taxes — including a controversial expansion of the sales tax to cover health clubs, car washes and storage rentals.

“We do not rely on triggers or hopes of increasing future revenues for full implementation,” said a staff report circulated the night before the vote. “Instead, the Council reallocated existing resources to fully fund the plan. . . . [F]uture revenue growth will instead remain available to enhance District programs and services.”

But the plan was not fully vetted by DeWitt’s staff before passage. The main complication, according to city hall officials familiar with the issue, is the District government’s debt cap.

Under city law, the government is barred from spending more than 12 percent of its general-fund budget on debt servicing. The council’s tax cuts effectively lessened the amount of principal and interest the city can pay off in a given year. At the same time, the council passed a generous capital spending plan that could not be supported under the reduced levels of debt servicing. Capital spending is largely funded by debt.

Spending levels were set in one piece of legislation subject to a single vote that passed May 28, while taxing measures are contained in a separate bill still before the council. As a result, only the revenue side can be addressed at this point.

“Triggers” are not unprecedented for the D.C. Council; an even larger tax cut that was passed in 1999 was delayed three years later after economic conditions declined. While city financial officials have routinely upgraded revenue projections in recent years, such growth is not certain. DeWitt and his predecessor, Natwar M. Gandhi, have warned about ongoing risks to the city’s economic health, including an “unfolding era of federal austerity.”

The questions about the budget’s viability have contributed to an unusual delay in the revenue vote, which was initially set for June 11, then was postponed to last Thursday, then postponed again until this Thursday. The spending bill has not yet been sent to Gray for approval and transmission to President Obama, as required in the District’s unique form of governance.

A spokesman for Gray, Pedro Ribeiro, expressed “serious concerns that the council has passed an unbalanced budget” for the first time since a congressionally mandated financial control board was in place.

Mendelson brushed off the suggestion that the council had botched the budget, saying “there are some folks in the executive [branch] who really want to bash what the council did.” Gray and his aides have been deeply vexed by the council’s moves to cut back not only the streetcar commitment, but also funding for a new hospital in Southeast Washington.

“It’s really creating a counterproductive atmosphere,” he said.

Mendelson said financial officials were also uncomfortable with Gray’s decision to book roughly $180 million in as-yet unrealized and unproved savings in 2016 and beyond — contributing to the need for the tax-cut triggers.

DeWitt on Tuesday declined to address specifics of his negotiations with the council, but he said a solution was near. “We’re a few days away from getting everything worked out,” he said.

CareFirst’s $865 million surplus goes back under D.C. regulators’ microscope

D.C. Politics

CareFirst’s $865 million surplus goes back under D.C. regulators’ microscope

By Mike DeBonis, Washington Post, June 13

District regulators are considering whether CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield should be required to spend as much as $500 million on community health needs, reigniting a decade-long battle over the cash holdings of the Washington region’s largest health insurer.

The District’s acting insurance commissioner will hear testimony this month on whether CareFirst’s holdings are too large. If the commissioner, Chester A. McPherson, finds that they are, he is empowered under city law to force the insurer to come up with a plan to spend the excess funds for the public benefit.

The new review is the latest round in a fight that has been led by the D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. The nonprofit group has argued that CareFirst has improperly hoarded policyholders’ premiums, building financial reserves well beyond those necessary to protect against even the most unlikely losses.

According to a recent regulatory filing, CareFirst reported a surplus of $865 million as of March 31 for the subsidiary in question. The company reported serving about 772,000 members in the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia.

Appleseed successfully lobbied city lawmakers to require periodic reviews of CareFirst’s surplus and won a series of rulings from the District’s highest court in 2012. The organization now hopes that regulators will take money from the insurer’s coffers — funds that could be used to build community clinics, pay for public wellness programs or otherwise improve health-care access.

“We are in the end game,” said Walter Smith, Appleseed’s executive director. “These are public assets. . . . This is money beyond their reserves that they’d like to have in addition to their reserves.”

CareFirst has been specifically targeted because, unlike for-profit insurers, its subsidiary operating in the District — known as Group Hospitalization and Medical Services Inc., or GHMSI — is a not-for-profit entity chartered by Congress in 1939 as a “charitable and benevolent institution.”

Appleseed and its allies have argued that an excessive surplus conflicts with that mission, and the D.C. Council passed a law at the group’s behest in 2009 requiring regular examinations. The excess, the law says, must be used for “community health reinvestment.”

“The question is how to strike the balance, and in our view they have not struck the balance appropriately,” Smith said.

CareFirst chief executive Chet Burrell told insurance regulators in a 2009 proceeding that the surplus is “an essential requirement that represents amounts held for the protection of subscribers to assure that, come what may, their claims will be paid.” The company has noted that its surplus might seem large, but dwindles against the amount of claims it pays — well over $3 billion in 2013.

A CareFirst spokeswoman declined to comment on the most recent attempt to force the company to spend down its surplus. But in its filing this week, it renewed long-standing defenses, saying the holdings are justified, given the risks the company must manage.

The company, according to the filing, “works to strike the right balance with its surplus, holding only a prudent amount that accounts for all of the risks faced by the Company.” Under a policy adopted by the firm’s board of trustees, it continued, it “strives to hold surplus in an optimal range and increases or decreases premium rates as needed to keep surplus in that range.”

CareFirst has also defended its level of corporate giving. In its filings this week, it reported spending $22.5 million on community benefits and paying another $15.4 million in District taxes in 2013.

In considering the pre-hearing filings and testimony set to be delivered June 25, McPherson will have to sort through competing claims as to what level of surplus is adequate.

Appleseed argues in its filings that no more than about $530 million, and perhaps as little as $385 million, is necessary to keep CareFirst in sound financial condition. But CareFirst argues that it should carry surplus equal to 10 to 13 times its “authorized control level” — a reserve minimum below which regulators can take control of the company. That calculation would permit a surplus of more than $1.4 billion.

Insurance regulators commissioned their own analysis of the CareFirst surplus last year, which concluded that the company should target a surplus level of $925 million. Appleseed has aggressively questioned that study, noting that the firm that did the analysis — Rector & Associates — concluded in 2009 that CareFirst’s adequate surplus was more than $400 million less.

Hanging over the analysis is the Affordable Care Act. CareFirst argues that the federal health-care law has significantly increased its business risks in the past five years, creating “dramatic market changes . . . which will act to drive surplus down and prevent rebuilding of surplus once lost.” The company notes that its surplus has declined in recent years — due, it says, to the costs of implementing the law.

Smith said that CareFirst has inflated the risks posted by health-care reform and that the assumptions made by both Rector and the company are unjustifiably conservative. “They have conceived remote, improbable, extreme adverse events all happening at once,” he said.

It is unclear how quickly after the June 25 hearing McPherson might rule. Kathryn Hartig, a spokeswoman for the D.C. insurance department, said there is no set timeline.

Muriel Bowser wins endorsement of gay Democrats

Muriel Bowser wins endorsement of gay Democrats

By Mike DeBonis, Washington Post, Updated: June 10 at 11:36 am

In the end, there was really no debate at all — just a lot of Robert’s Rules of Order.

Backers of independent mayoral candidate David A. Catania failed to keep the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the city’s preeminent LGBT political organization, from delivering its formal endorsement to Democrat Muriel E. Bowser on Monday night.

Endorsing the Democratic nominees who had not been previously endorsed before the primary has typically been a pro forma process for the Stein Club. Not so this year, with Bowser, the straight Democratic nominee, facing Catania, the openly gay independent.

Catania adherents among the Stein membership had hoped to prevent the club from extending a formal endorsement, which would have been a noteworthy micro-political victory for Catania. A small group came to Monday night’s meeting at the Human Rights Campaign headquarters downtown primed with arguments — and fliers dissecting the Stein bylaws — about how the club, despite its name, owes no special fealty to the Democratic nominee.

But the grand debate that they might have envisioned about the club’s past, present and future never happened. Instead, there was a quick motion for a vote to endorse all the remaining unendorsed Democratic nominees, and the vote was called. Another half-hour of parliamentary maneuvering ensued, led by longtime activist Don Haines, who suggested that the endorsement and future endorsements would be tarnished by the club’s actions.

“We have a choice here: We can make the Stein participation in the election pristine, or it can be clouded,” said Haines, who accused the club leadership of “changing the rules to turn us into an appendage of the Democratic Party.”

But Angela Peoples, the club president, ruled Haines’s objections out of order, and with the backing of the bulk of the roughly 50 members present, the matter moved to a vote, which passed 35 to 8, plus some abstentions and a spoiled ballot.

That prompted Paul Kuntzler, a co-founder of the club and a Catania supporter, to walk to the front of the room and discuss how the club was founded in his living room in 1976 before announcing, “Decisions made tonight are irrelevant; this club is irrelevant,” and walking out of the building.

Bowser participated in a Q&A session before the vote where the internal politics of the endorsement did not come up, but she sat quietly as the parliamentary drama played out.

“The Gertrude Stein Club endorses Democrats, and we’re proud to represent them,” she said afterward.

© The Washington Post Company

Carol Schwartz, former D.C. Council member, launches independent mayoral campaign

Carol Schwartz, former D.C. Council member, launches independent mayoral campaign

By Mike DeBonis, Washington Post, Published: June 9

Carol Schwartz, a mold-breaking politician who served 16 years on the D.C. Council, said Monday that she will launch a late-breaking independent campaign for mayor — her fifth bid for the District’s highest office.

Although it has been more than five years since Schwartz appeared on a D.C. ballot, her surprise entry unsettled a mayoral race that had been shaping up as a duel between Democratic nominee Muriel E. Bowser and independent David A. Catania, both council members.

Shortly after Schwartz announced her intentions Monday afternoon, Catania’s campaign accused Bowser of playing a background role in Schwartz’s run in a bid to siphon votes that might otherwise go to Catania.

“I think it’s a clear signal of how worried and concerned the Bowser campaign is,” said campaign manager Ben Young, who noted that Schwartz supported Bowser in previous council runs.

Both Schwartz and Bowser denied any arrangement. “We knew she’s been interested in running for mayor,” Bowser said, a reference to Schwartz’s previous runs in 1986, 1994, 1998 and 2002.

Schwartz said Monday that she was compelled to join the mayoral race after becoming dissatisfied with both leading candidates. “I wanted somebody to vote for November 4 that I felt comfortable voting for,” she said. “I have known that since I have been around town for months that a lot of people feel the same way. So here is another choice.”

She declined to elaborate on her feelings toward either Bowser or Catania.

The fact that Schwartz, also a former Republican with years of name recognition, could cut most directly into Catania’s support raised the prospect that she may be running in part to deny the mayoralty to Catania, with whom she clashed frequently during her final years in office and whom she has blamed for her 2008 electoral loss.

Schwartz on Monday denied that Catania’s run had anything to do with her own decision: “This isn’t about anybody else running for office,” she said. “I want to be mayor. I’ve always wanted to be mayor.”

During her four terms on the council, Schwartz was an unusual presence in District politics — a Mississippi-born, Texas-bred white Republican in a mostly Democratic, African American milieu. But over three decades, starting from the city’s old elected school board to the council to her long-shot mayoral runs, she built one of the most memorable brands in city politics.

Schwartz, 70, has been out of politics since losing a 2008 reelection bid, falling to a Republican primary challenger backed by Catania, then failing to gain traction in a subsequent write-in bid. She has largely kept out of politics, saying she was happy to travel and spend time with family.

Schwartz said she decided less than two weeks ago to pursue the mayoralty and has little in the way of campaign infrastructure. She said she has no campaign chairman but has opened a bank account and has a treasurer. “My closest friends didn’t even know I was going to do this,” she said Monday.

Her announcement was e-mailed to reporters without forewarning Monday afternoon. It included a lengthy statement by Schwartz explaining why she is returning to politics and again pursuing the mayor’s office.

She cited the effects of the city’s explosive economic growth — “our glorious diversity is being threatened” — and the corrosion of public trust caused by recent political corruption.

“I want a leader who has the wisdom to recognize chicanery before the ‘you-know-what’ hits the fan and who has the courage to take it on and stop it before it hits,” Schwartz wrote. “I have not seen that leader in this general election. I may not be alone in this feeling, given the low voter turnout in the primary and the general lack of enthusiasm about this race.”

The closest Schwartz came to the mayoralty was in 1994, when she ran within 14 percentage points of Marion Barry, who was in the course of completing a comeback from his 1990 drug arrest. In her last run, in 2002, Schwartz finished 26 points and nearly 35,000 votes behind incumbent Anthony A. Williams.

But Schwartz was able to repeatedly win reelection to the council, taking advantage of not only her image as a socially liberal fiscal hawk but also a provision in the District’s charter that effectively reserves two at-large council seats for non-Democrats.

It’s unclear how much of her old voter base — such as the nearly 40,000 voters who cast write-in ballots in 2008 — will remain loyal today. Schwartz has been reticent to weigh in publicly on contemporary political debates.

On Monday, she was noncommittal when asked about several key issues now percolating through the John A. Wilson Building, including proposals to build a soccer stadium, redraw school boundaries and change firefighter work schedules.

Although Schwartz ran as a Republican in each of her council and mayoral races, she will run this time as an independent. She said she changed her voter registration from Republican back in December, a decision she declined to explain Monday: “If I talk about that, and I may, it’s not going to be a sound bite.”

Ron Phillips, chairman of the D.C. Republican Party, said he had asked Schwartz this year whether she would be willing to stand as the GOP nominee for mayor but Schwartz “respectfully declined.”

Phillips said the party plans to name its own nominee in the coming weeks, but he acknowledged Schwartz maintains support: “There are Republicans who have known her well through the years and will wish her well.”

Ballot petitions will be made available Friday for an eight-week circulation period. Independent hopefuls must collect 3,000 valid voter signature to secure a spot on the ballot.