While much focus around Congress’ return has been around the “fiscal cliff” and Benghazi, Congress faces a whole host of unfinished business.
The farm bill, which sets agriculture policy and funds the food stamp program, expired Sept. 30. Its expiration hit farmers immediately, especially dairy farmers who have not received their supplemental payments. If Congress doesn’t act by January 1, the cost of milk is expected to skyrocket and dairy farmers would have to comply with decades-old regulations that don’t conform to the modern industry. As for crop farmers, they have been in limbo, unsure of what sort of subsidies and priorities Congress will set for next year. The Senate passed a bill but the House has not. Analysts say a one-year extension is possible during the lame duck session but a full-fledged five-year reauthorization is unlikely.
The U.S. Postal Service is another area in need of Congress’ attention. The broke quasi-government agency is not government funded but lacks autonomy to make much needed changes in service and pension payments as it’s constrained by the heavy hand of Congress. The service has been unable to meet $1.1 billion in payments for future retirees’ pensions and is asking Congress to act. The Senate passed a bill but the House has yet to act over wrangling over the high cost of the food stamp program.
Congress also faces deadlines to extend the post-9/11 surveillance bill, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, funding for the intelligence community and a bill to authorize defense spending and programs.
he Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will announce Tuesday that it’s considering new rules aimed at mortgage servicers to help protect consumers against “costly surprises.”
The bureau’s new rules will require servicers to issue mortgage statements that are more clear, as well as better disclosures about any fees or changes in a loan’s interest rate.
“For too long, mortgage servicers have not been held accountable to their customers, and the result has been profoundly punishing to homeowners in distress,” said Richard Cordray, director of the consumer bureau in a statement issued Monday. “It’s time to put the ‘service’ back in mortgage servicing.”
This would be the federal government’s first major move to crack down on the entire mortgage servicing industry, including big banks that service mortgages, since the housing bust and resulting financial crisis.
Does mortgage principal reduction work?
The new rules coincide with new standards set forth by a large settlement deal between states attorneys general and the five largest mortgage servicing banks. Those standards only impact the five largest banks and are aimed at halting robosigning and other improper foreclosure practices on homeowners who are late with payments.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s rules would ask all servicers to ensure better transparency for all borrowers — not just those whose loans are delinquent. The rules would take effect next January, according to the bureau.
Imagine yourself in front of your computer, looking up information about a drug prescribed by your doctor. Your Internet search tells you that there is a cheaper, maybe even a generic version available, but you have just paid top dollar for the brand name drug. You also learn that another treatment may be safer than the prescription you just filled. Now imagine you discover that your doctor gets paid by the manufacturer to promote the drug to other doctors.
There are various words for this sort of financial transaction, when, say, a radio disk jockey is paid by a recording studio to play a song or a broker is paid to tout a stock — both of which, by the way, are illegal. In medicine it’s called a financial conflict of interest, although “pharmapayola” is in some ways more accurate. It’s perfectly legal, and it’s rampant. In a survey published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2010, 28% of physicians reported that they received some kind of payment from a drug company to serve on a speaker’s board, as a consultant, or on an advisory board. Other bennies handed out by companies included free drug samples, tickets to sporting events, meals at five-star restaurants and all-expenses paid trips to medical meetings in nice locales.
As of this year, doctors who accept gifts and payments from drug and device makers will see their names on the web, the result of the 2010 Physician Payment Sunshine Act, one of the most controversial provisions in the health care reform law. Companies will be required to report any gift or payment to a doctor or academic researcher over $10, whether it’s in the form of stock options, speaking fees, box seat tickets, knickknacks for the doctor’s office or travel to a medical conference. Doctors will also be required to disclose payments and gifts.
Some critics complain that the Sunshine Act will stifle innovation — that money and time better spent on coming up with better treatments will be diverted to nitpicking bureaucracy. The “pharmascolds” who support the legislation, they say, are demeaning doctors. One such critic is Tom Stossel, a Harvard physician (he takes money from Merck and Pfizer), who claimed in a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that conflicts of interest don’t matter to patients and don’t harm them.
Drug companies have long kept secret details of the payments they make to doctors and other health professionals for promoting their drugs. But 12 companies have begun publicizing the information, some because of legal settlements. ProPublica pulled their disclosures into a database so patients can search for their doctor. Accepting payments isn’t necessarily wrong, but it can raise ethical issues.
I went thru the pages for Illinois and found 5 doctors I or my family has seen. Interestingly enough, they are all doctors we think highly of and from whom we feel we’ve received excellent care.
So, I’m not sure any knee-jerk opinions can be drawn from such information, but it is good to have it disclosed.