A new report says the nation’s five biggest insurance companies set an all-time record for combined profits last year. According to Health Care for America Now, the companies WellPoint, CIGNA, UnitedHealth Group, Aetna Inc. and Humana posted cumulative profits of $12.2 billion. That marks a $4.4 billion, or 56 percent, increase over 2008 and amounts to an average profit margin of 5.2 percent. CIGNA saw the highest profit jump, with an increase of 346 percent. Health Care for America Now says the insurers’ record year was aided by three factors: dropping customers with costly medical needs; diverting spending from medical care to administrative costs and margins; and a higher enrollment in public programs, like Medicare Advantage, that pay insurers higher fees. Overall, the insurance companies dropped 2.7 million customers from their rolls last year. The report’s release comes ahead of a day of nationwide rallies next Wednesday organized by Health Care for America Now.
New figures show the improving fortune of major corporations isn’t leading to a simultaneous creation of new jobs. Bloomberg News reports a majority of the Standard & Poor 500 have increased revenues to a combined $1.18 trillion — a $518 billion increase over the year before. But capital expenditures, or investments that could have helped create jobs, were down 43 percent.
Around 8.4 million jobs have been lost since December 2007. According to economists surveyed by the Wall Street Journal, around a quarter of the lost jobs are gone for good. The survey comes as the White House released an economic forecast projecting job growth this year will be too low to significantly address unemployment. The projection says employers will add just 95,000 jobs per month, a number just below what economists say is needed just to keep up with population growth.
As the figures were released, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced the Senate will soon vote on four provisions aimed at creating new jobs.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: “The American people need a message. The message that they need is that we’re doing something about jobs. We have — we don’t have a jobs bill; we have a jobs agenda. And we’re going to move forward on that jobs agenda.”
Reid’s announcement abandons a bipartisan jobs bill drafted with Republicans. The bill had come under criticism for appeasing lobbyists while failing to sufficiently create jobs.
The Labor Department has unveiled new regulations it says will increase wages and labor protections for American and temporary immigrant farm workers. The new rules restore several provisions revoked in the waning days of the Bush administration, including a new method for calculating farm workers’ wages. The Labor Department says the Bush-era rules ended up reducing the wages by an average one dollar an hour for the year they were in effect.
Democrats in both congressional chambers have introduced new legislation to counter the Supreme Court’s recent ruling allowing corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on US elections. On Thursday, Senator Charles Schumer and Representative Chris Van Hollen introduced a measure that would restore some of the restrictions on corporate campaign spending overturned by the Court. The measure would bar foreign corporations, government contractors and firms receiving government aid from election spending and force corporate executives to deliver disclaimers at the end of campaign ads they help fund. Candidates on the receiving end of corporate-funded attack ads would be allowed to purchase ad time at the lowest possible rates to issue a response.
In other news from Washington, Democratic Congress member Patrick Kennedy has announced he won’t seek reelection in November. Kennedy’s announcement comes months after the death of his father, Senator Ted Kennedy. With Patrick Kennedy’s departure and no other Kennedy relative expected to run, Congress would be without a member of the Kennedy family for first time in over six decades.
Haiti has been struck with its first heavy rainfall Thursday since last month’s earthquake. The coming rainy season has raised fears of disease outbreaks and worsening misery for the hundreds of thousands of people still without shelter. Hours after the rain began, hundreds of people marched on the Port-au-Prince airport to protest a lack of tents. The UN estimates nearly 750,000 people have yet to receive any tents or tarps. Even the temporary shelter provided to an estimated 250,000 people will likely be unable to protect them from the rain. Despite those figures, the coordinator for US relief efforts in Haiti, Lewis Lucke, said the US is aiming to address plastic sheeting needs, not in the coming weeks, but by May 1st.
In other news from Haiti, the judge overseeing the case against ten US missionaries says he thinks they should be released while awaiting trial. The missionaries were charged last week with child kidnapping after they were caught trying to leave Haiti with a bus load of children.
The Obama administration has dismissed Iranian claims to having produced its first stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium. Declaring Iran a “nuclear state,” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made the claim Thursday at a rally marking the thirty-first anniversary of the Iranian revolution. But UN inspectors have concluded Iran is experiencing major setbacks in its uranium program. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs cast doubt on Ahmadinejad’s claims.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs: “We do not believe they [Iran] have the capability to enrich to the degree to which they now say they are enriching.”
Ahmadinejad’s speech came amidst a new crackdown on opposition protests. Numerous opposition figures reported police harassment Thursday, while Iranian forces were said to have fired tear gas and paint balls at protests in the capital Tehran. Meanwhile, back in Washington, Senator John McCain helped unveil a measure imposing new sanctions on Iran.
Sen. John McCain: “First, it will require the President to compile a public list of individuals in Iran who, starting with the presidential election last June, are complicit in human rights violations against Iranian citizens and their families, no matter where in the world those abuses occur. I want to stress, this would be a public list posted for the world to see on the websites of the State and Treasury Departments. We will shine a light on the names of Iran’s human rights abusers, and we will make them famous for their crimes.”
The European Parliament has voted to end a controversial data-sharing program that’s allowed the US to monitor millions of international financial transactions. The records have been obtained through SWIFT, which directs trillions of dollars in international bank transfers each day. The program has been accused of violating privacy rights since coming to light in 2006. On Thursday, European Union lawmakers voted 378 to 196 to reject a proposed extension of the program negotiated between European Union leaders and the United States. The Obama administration had lobbied heavily for the deal, with top officials including Vice President Joseph Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner making a series of phone calls to European officials and parliamentarians.
The website TomDispatch.com is reporting the number of military bases in Afghanistan now totals around 700. A spokesperson for the US-led NATO occupation force confirmed US and NATO bases outnumber those of the Afghan military by around 400 to 300. The bases range from small sites to mega-bases like Bagram Air Base, which boasts outlets of US fast food chains like Burger King and Popeyes Chicken. At least twelve more bases are slated for construction to host the additional 30,000 troops arriving in Afghanistan as part of President Obama’s escalation of the Afghan war.
The US military has announced it will discharge a single-mother soldier who refused to deploy to Afghanistan because she has no other family to care for her young son. Specialist Alexis Hutchinson was arrested in November and criminally charged last month. With her administrative discharge, Hutchinson will avoid a court-martial, but will still be demoted in rank and lose military benefits.
A new poll shows three-quarters of Americans continue to support allowing openly gay men and lesbians to serve in the US military. The Washington Post-ABC News poll’s finding is the same as from July 2008 and could aid calls from the Obama administration and top Pentagon officials for repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
The news comes as a high-profile gay servicemember facing discharge has resumed taking part in drills with his military unit. Lt. Dan Choi had been away from his unit since publicly defying “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” last March. Choi says he took part in drills with his New York-based unit last weekend at the encouragement of his commander. In October, Choi spoke out at a massive rally for gay, lesbian and LGBT rights in Washington, DC.
Lt. Dan Choi: “Like so many others, I joined the military because my country beckoned me. 'Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.' But when we’re telling the truth about our love, our country slaps us in the face and orders us, 'Don’t ask,' and orders us, 'Don’t tell.' Well, I am telling you that the era and the time for asking is over. I am not asking anymore! I am telling! I am telling! I am telling! Will you tell with me?”
(Related coverage: Love Is Worth It: Iraq War Vet Facing Discharge Helps Lead Massive Rally for Gay Rights)
And a Iraq war veteran is facing a court-martial for recording a song criticizing the US military stop-loss policy that forces soldiers into longer deployments than they’ve agreed to. Army Specialist Marc Hall was jailed in December after his superiors deemed his song “Stop Loss,” in which he raps, to be a threat. He had mailed the Pentagon a copy of the song after the military enacted “stop-loss” to order him to return to Iraq for a second deployment. Hall will likely be shipped to Iraq for his military trial.