Monthly Archives: February 2010

Health Care and Reality TV

I’ll admit it. I don’t watch all that much TV. And that’s not a critique of the programming — or a statement that points to a wealth of better things to do with my time. It’s just that most nights I’m dozing well before 10 with the TV flickering and providing soothing background noise. So I’m proud to say that yesterday I watched a few hours of the best reality TV show — ever.

Well, OK, maybe that’s overstating the health care summit a little. But if you like to see how our government works — or not — it certainly provided a glimpse of the reality.

And I appreciate that Prez O scheduled the health care summit to accommodate my somewhat quirky schedule and that CNN and other networks broadcast it live for most of the day. I’m fairly cynical — and questioning — about most things these days. Maybe that’s a character trait you nurture as you approach eligibility for Medicare. So I really didn’t expect that this gathering of elected officials and others — Democrats and Republicans — would produce a consensus that would resolve the contentious debate over health care reform.

The writers of editorials in The Washington Post and New York Times this morning opine that the forum didn’t do much to change views and now it is time for the Prez and Democrats in Congress to move on. Fair enough.

And I know that many view the forum as nothing more than political theater — a way for the Prez to give the Republicans their moment in the spotlight and then move on. That may be true.

Still, as a nation I believe we are better off when important issues are discussed openly. And I was encouraged by the overall civility of the comments.

So here are some of the realities that I took away from viewing the health care summit yesterday.

  • Reforming our health care system is exceeding important and extremely complex. And at some level you have to address the issues of cost and access to care.
  • There really are big philosophical differences between the Prez, Democrats and Republicans on this and other issues.
  • We tend to discount the importance of leadership in government (and elsewhere) and how difficult it really is to make tough decisions. There really are a lot of smart, sincere and honorable people that are facing some tough choices. That was evident yesterday.
  • No easy answers here. Let’s hope they get it right.

Anyway, I thought the summit provided an insightful look into the realities of the health care debate and how our elected officials approach big issues in general.

Now, from the standpoint of TV and ratings, I’ll offer a modest suggestion.

Why not end these shows — issues forums/summits, budget debates, Congressional hearings and so on — by giving viewers the opportunity to call in and vote?

Hey, I’m told it works pretty well for American Idol.

Lordstown: Some Good News About Jobs

I know that three topics dominate the 24/7 news cycle: Toyota, Tiger and health care. But from my perch on the treadmill belt, getting people back to work — and creating good jobs for those young people and others who want to enter the workforce — remain the key issues. And clearly, those issues aren’t going to be resolved anytime soon.

First instance, Janet Yellen, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, this week joined the chorus of those pointing to the possibility of a jobless recovery. As reported by the NYT — “She predicted that unemployment, now at 9.7 percent, would fall to 9.25 percent by the end of the year and 8 percent by the end of 2011.” Sigh.

Unlike the Jameson I was sipping while reading that article in the dead-tree edition of the NYT, those numbers are hard to swallow.

Yet at about the same time, I glanced from the paper and watched a TV news report that had some good news. GM announced it was adding 1,200 jobs to its Ohio manufacturing facility at Lordstown, near Youngstown. That’s great news for some currently laid-off GM workers, for others looking for work and certainly for the local economy.

Here’s the story from this morning’s Akron Beacon Journal.

What adds to the interest of this story is that Lordstown — in the midst of tough times — has become a model for employee-employer relations and cooperation. And something tells me that this played a role in GM’s decision to add jobs at the facility.

Here’s from a NYT article written in January, “A Once-Defiant U.A.W. Local Now Focuses on G.M.’s Success“:

LORDSTOWN, Ohio — For the better part of three decades, the car plant here was a seemingly endless source of trouble for General Motors.

In the 1970s, the factory’s 7,000 workers were so bitter toward management that thousands of Chevrolet Vegas rolled off the assembly line with slit upholstery and other damage. The hostility eventually led to a 22-day strike in 1972 that cost G.M. $150 million, and the term “Lordstown syndrome” became shorthand to describe rebellious American factory workers.

So as we continue to work our way out of this terrible recession and period of high unemployment, let’s consider Lordstown some very good news about jobs.

And maybe working together toward common ends really does matter in the long run.

Let’s see if this applies to the current debate over health care reform as well.

Toyota and Tiger: Do Apologies Matter?

I’m still not sure that Tiger Woods owes anyone — beyond his wife and family — an apology. I was thinking about that again this morning while grinding away on the elliptical trainer and watching early morning TV. Tiger may want to apologize. And he may need to apologize — to rescue his career, endorsements, reputation and marriage. But I don’t believe he really owes me an apology.

And does his apology really matter all that much beyond his personal situation? Nah. Not in the long run. We’re talking about golf — and a professional athlete.

The executives at Toyota have a bigger hurdle to get over. And how they couple a sincere apology — with responsible corporate action — has huge implications for car owners and buyers, employees, communities and the economies of the United States, Japan and other countries.

Toyota is a company that is in deep doo-doo.

Here’s from a WaPo article, “Congress says Toyota misled public about runaway cars, engine electronics“:

Congressional investigators Monday accused Toyota officials of making misleading public statements about the causes of its runaway cars and faulted federal safety regulators for conducting “cursory and ineffective” investigations because of a crippling lack of expertise.

The charges from House members amplify the unprecedented scrutiny focused on the beleaguered automaker and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In addition to three congressional committees, which are holding hearings beginning Tuesday, a federal grand jury has subpoenaed company documents relating to unintended acceleration, and so has the Securities and Exchange Commission, Toyota announced Monday.

So it will be interesting to see how this all plays out — in Congress, perhaps in court, in the media and with the public.

James Lentz, Toyota’s U.S. sales chief, becomes the company’s lead-off big hitter, appearing before a Congressional committee today. Here’s from his testimony, released in advance of the session and reported by WSJ.com:

In his prepared testimony, released by Toyota ahead of a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Tuesday morning, Mr. Lentz apologized for the company’s failure to move more quickly to address safety problems.

“Put simply, it has taken us too long to come to grips with a rare but serious set of safety issues, despite all of our good faith efforts. The problem has also been compounded by poor communications both within our company and with regulators and consumers,” Mr. Lentz is expected to say, according to the prepared testimony.

“We acknowledge these mistakes, we apologize for them and we have learned from them. We now understand that we must think differently when investigating complaints and communicate faster, better and more effectively with our customers and our regulators,” Mr. Lentz is expected to say. Mr. Lentz will cite recent actions by Toyota to recall Toyota Prius and other hybrid models and certain Toyota Tacoma pickups to address safety concerns.

Setting aside any possible legal/criminal issues, Toyota faces the challenge of regaining trust. And as we used to talk about in public relations classes at Kent State, that’s why ethical conduct and decision-making are so important.

And not only does Toyota owe many an apology — it needs to demonstrate responsible action and responsibility in a situation that really is important.

So here is a case where an apology does matter — but only as an important first step in what might be a long journey to regain trust.

Health Care and Fringe Benefits

Well, here I sit early Monday a.m. in the midst of the winter of my discontent — from the standpoint of running and other matters. The temps managed to climb above freezing over the weekend in NE Ohio, and I should have been able to get outside to run for the first time in months. But nah. I managed to injure a calf muscle while chasing the treadmill belt last week.

So while limping around the house and brooding over this latest admittedly minor setback my thoughts turned to health care — and what medical benefits and affordable coverage really mean to me and certainly to millions of others.

If you are fortunate enough to have medical benefits and coverage — do you really know what it costs you and your employer?

I remember when I used to consider employer-paid medical coverage — and employer costs for pensions, vacations, disability protection, paid sick leave and so on — to be fringe benefits. You kinda took them for granted, without really recognizing the value. And I’ve been fortunate — much more so than most people — to have been in that position throughout my working lifetime.

That’s why I believe the current health care reform debate (debacle?) will turn on the issue of cost. How much will it cost to provide some level of coverage to those who are uninsured? And how do we control the health care costs that really are a burden to government at all levels, employers and individuals?

For instance, I live in a small community, Copley, Ohio. I read an article in the Akron Beacon Journal this morning saying that Anthem Blue Cross of Ohio is planning to hike premiums by 39.1 percent for township employees. Some of that cost most likely will be passed along to employees. The rest will be subsidized by taxpayers.

The point: these really aren’t costs and benefits the are on the fringe for employers and employees — and they aren’t sustainable under present conditions.

So this should be an interesting week as the Obama administration unveils its proposal for health care reform — and our elected officials and others come together Thursday to sort out this mess under the watchful eye of TV cameras and the American public.

And that should provide another fringe benefit: a look at government in action.

Or not.

Cleveland: In Defense of Misery

I guess I should be fretting about something important this morning. Instead, I can’t quit thinking about why I’m not more miserable. After all, I live in Northeast Ohio relatively close to Cleveland — the community that Forbes.com has topping the list of “America’s Most Miserable Cities.”

Hey. We’re No. 1! Oops.

And with Akron, Canton and Youngstown high on the list it’s almost a regional clean sweep. Sheesh.

Certainly we have our share of problems in Northeast Ohio: unemployment, an aging population, and pretty much a total lack of sunshine during the winter months among them.

But most miserable place to live? C’mon!

I’ll save some keystrokes and let others defend Cleveland and the region. That’s important. The reputation of a city/region matters when it comes to attracting employers, employees, students, investments and so on.

I know these stories generate interest and comment. But shouldn’t we as we head into the weekend be focusing on more important matters? For instance, Tiger Woods is planning to make a no-questions-allowed TV appearance today that I expect will dominate the news for days to come.

And I imagine that at this point Tiger Woods knows something about misery.

The Olympics and Missed Opportunities

OK. I’ll admit it. I’m enjoying watching the Olympics. And most nights I’ve had both eyes wide open well past nine o’clock. That for me these days is a gold medal performance.

And I’ll also admit that I really don’t know much about winter sports or the international competitors who perform at such a world-class level. I generally have enough difficulty navigating my icy sidewalk — and there doesn’t appear to be any style points awarded for snow shoveling here in Copley, Ohio.

So I’m intrigued by the print, online and broadcast stories — I’ll call them personality profiles — about the athletes.  As best I can tell, the stories tend to follow a template: how the athlete got his/her start on the road to international competition, people who helped along the way, hurdles overcome or yet to be faced, how she/he defines success and so on.

The Olympic Games most certainly are a celebration of success. Yet it struck me yesterday — while watching the women’s snowboard cross race — that the competition also defines how athletes at the top of their sport deal with disappointment and missed opportunities. That’s something that most of us can more readily identify with. Ever come in second for a job you really wanted?

What got me thinking about that was Lindsey Jacobellis. Jacobellis was favored to win the gold in the women’s snowboard cross in Vancouver — after winning the silver medal four years ago. But the silver at the Turin Games was viewed as a major disappointment because of a mistake she made at the very end of the race while cruising for the gold.

Yesterday she finished fifth after a disqualification for veering off the course. Here’s from a NYT online story by John Branch, “Redemption, but Not for Jacobellis“:

This time, the finish line in sight, Lindsey Jacobellis landed the big jump and sailed cleanly to the end. But there was no joy in not making the same mistake twice.

The line Jacobellis crossed on Tuesday was for fifth place, a far more disappointing prize than the painful silver medal she won in 2006 at the Turin Games.

For four years, Jacobellis, an American snowboarder, has been haunted and hounded by a squandered golden opportunity. She had blown a huge lead in the final of the inaugural Olympic snowboard cross race, grabbing her board in a stylish twist as she soared over the second-to-last jump. She fell, then stood up in time to recover for what might be the most infamous silver medal in Winter Games history.

During the NBC broadcast, a reporter asked her about the silver medal finish four years ago. Jacobellis said — and hey, I wasn’t sitting there taking notes so this is a paraphrase — that she was young (20 at the time), did something she probably shouldn’t have done, but learned from it. Just like posting all those photos from the fraternity/sorority kegger on Facebook. Oops. I digress.

Here’s from the NYT article:

After her disqualification, Jacobellis made her way down the course, hit the last jump and grabbed her board in the air with a “nice, fun truck-driver grab,” she said. She landed cleanly and crossed the finish line about a minute behind the others.

“That’s the spirit that it is,” she said. “It’s a bummer, but, you know, I came off and I was like, Oh, I can still have some fun in some way.”

A bummer — and no doubt a huge disappointment. But, hey. Most of us have been there at one time or another — just not with the world watching.

Blog Posts: Like Pulling Teeth?

Nah, I’m not complaining today about writing this post. In fact, I’m happy to be back in front of the computer and grinding it out, word after word. Yesterday morning early a.m. I had a tooth pulled. Oh, mama.

In addition to not writing anything yesterday, the rendezvous with the dentist proved to be a real routine-buster. No exercise. No work. No nothing — except planting myself in a comfortable chair with eyes glued on the TV. And yes, thank you Evan Bayh for picking yesterday to announce your retirement from the Senate. It was actual news — at least for the first dozen or so times I watched the story being repeated on the cable news networks.

Anyway, I guess not a bad way to spend a blah winter day in Northeast Ohio during a month when we will most likely break a record for snowfall. But what if you were shut-in like this most days, or every day?

I was thinking about that yesterday.

And I expect that in the next few years many people — baby boomers in particular — will be giving some considerable thought to how we spend our days, how we keep active and engaged, and quite possibly, how we keep working well beyond what used to be viewed of as a normal retirement age of 65.

Why? It’s appealing when we are busy and stressed — with work, family commitments, whatever — to endorse the notion of doing nothing, or next to nothing. But something tells me it’s not much fun — or very healthy in the long run — to do that day after day after day after day. It may be inevitable because of age, illness or other circumstances, but I’m not so sure it’s a lifestyle option of choice.

So I’m back writing and fretting about other matters. And even on days like this when the words come slowly and it is akin to pulling teeth, it sure beats the alternatives.