By Sabrina Morello

“If equity and social solidarity in access to health care and financing health care were fundamental goals of a health care system, the single-payer system provides an ideal platform for achieving these goals” said Tsung-Mei Chen, MA Health Policy Research Analyst at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Health at Princeton University. Last week, Chen and other experts, including those from Canada, Denmark and Taiwan, provided testimony outlining the benefits of single-payer health care systems in their respective countries to members of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee’s Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging.

Subcommittee chair U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) began the hearing by laying out an array of issues with our current fragmented health care system, with an emphasis on the fact that we are the only major industrialized nation that does not guarantee health care as a fundamental right. Senator Sanders cited 2012 data showing 15 percent of our population (more than 48 million Americans) are left uninsured and even more have high deductibles and co-pays or caps on coverage that end up driving citizens into bankruptcy.

This statistic stands out sharply from countries like Taiwan, which established a single-payer system in 1995, and currently has more than 99.6 percent of its population covered by national health care, according to Dr. Ching-Chuan Yeh, former Minister of Health for Taiwan, Professor at the School of Public Health, College of Medicine at Tzu-chi University. Dr. Yeh’s testimony was a poignant example of a far more equitable system than exists in the U.S.: “[a]ccess to health care is an inalienable right in [Taiwan’s] constitution. Residents living in remote mountainous areas and offshore islands, and the poor, the disabled, the aged get pretty much the same access and health care as anyone else.”

In addition to being inequitable, the care we do provide in America seems to lag behind single-payer nations in regards to health outcomes. Victor Rodwin, PhD, MPH, Professor of Health Policy and Management at the Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service at NYU, notes that among 19 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations, France, a single-payer nation, has the lowest rate of avoidable mortality (an important indicator of quality of care) while the U.S. has the highest rate. Our nation could avoid about 101,000 deaths if we were able to decrease our avoidable mortality levels to those seen in France.

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Yesterday we joined with our friends The Utility Reform Network and the National Consumer Law Center to protest a motion by a group of power plant owners and Shell Oil to increase household electric utility bills by millions of dollars in California. Here’s the deal: just as Public Citizen predicted, the fracking boom does not guarantee cheap natural gas, as prices skyrocketed from December to February with the cold weather snap. Because natural gas fuels 27% of electricity production, that means some generators saw their costs increase. Under complex reliability rules, some of these generators and power marketers claim they haven’t been able to recover all of their costs in the marketplace, and petitioned the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for an emergency waiver from market rules to allow them to recover 100% of their rising natural gas costs.Shell As we point out, this proposal shifts all the risk away from the owners of power plants an onto household consumers, while at the same time allowing these same generators to pocket excess profits should gas prices fall. But the really outrageous component of this brazen plan is that one of the petitioners is Shell Energy, a major seller of electricity in the marketplace. We write: “Shell Energy’s inclusion as one of the suppliers seeking the emergency waiver is particularly egregious because of Shell’s unique role as a global leader in natural gas production. Shell Energy’s parent company, Royal Dutch Shell plc, is one of the largest natural gas producers in the world and in the U.S. It is outrageous that an affiliate of such a major natural gas producer seeks relief from perceived high natural gas prices—particularly when affiliates of Shell Energy are enjoying stronger profits from the increased natural gas prices from sales of gas produced from thousands of Shell’s drilling wells.” In addition, affiliates of other suppliers requesting the emergency waiver are also sophisticated energy price hedgers, with companies like NRG and Dynegy veterans of dealing with natural gas fuel price volatility through the years, including the 2000s. And some of the owners of La Paloma, notably the investment banks Morgan Stanley & Credit Suisse, are among the most erudite proprietary financial traders of natural gas contracts in the world, and should therefore be quite capable of managing commodity price risk. We demand that FERC reject this outrageous request to shift big energy company’s risks onto working families utility bills.

Tyson Slocum is Director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program. Follow him on Twitter @TysonSlocum

We just filed a protest at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission challenging a group of financial institutions’ efforts to create a new loophole. First, a little background:

On February 27, a group of private equity and investment bank lien holders of a collection of US power plants called MACH Gen filed for permission to restructure. The lien holders are the private equity firms Angelo Gordon (through its control of Silver Oak); Cayman Islands-based Solus, and Deutsche Bank.

Deutsche entered into a Total Return Swap with the private equity firm Energy Capital Partners which, among other things, gives Energy Capital Partners the ability to direct and control the way Deutsche’s MACH Gen board member votes. In their own words: “The Applicants do not concede that the indirect interest of ECP Polaris through the TRS equates to ownership or control of the voting securities of a public utility for the purposes of the Commission’s consideration of this . . . Application.”

So Energy Capital Partners, which will in fact control a board seat through its Total Return Swap with Deutsche Bank, is claiming at FERC that this Total Return Swap does not in fact constitute control.

Similarly, Citigroup, through an affiliate it created SOL, entered into a total return swap with Solus, providing Citi with 5.8% of the equity in MACH Gen. But this total return swap does NOT convey control over a board seat.

Determination that a Total Return Swap conveys control of a public utility is important, in part, because the U.S. Executive Branch, the Federal Reserve and Congress are actively engaged in a robust debate about defining and limiting control that certain financial institutions have over energy commodity assets. I first testified before Congress in 2008 about the dangers of financial institutions controlling energy assets, and testified again before the Senate in 2011.  The U.S. Senate Banking Committee held a January 2014 hearing, “Regulating Financial Holding Companies and Physical Commodities,” which included testimony by the Federal Reserve, FERC and the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission.  The U.S. Federal Reserve in January 2014 announced an Advanced Notice of Rulemaking concerning its authority allowing certain financial institutions to control physical energy assets.

If FERC allows this Total Return Swap loophole to stand, Public Citizen predicts expanded use of such financial agreements to undermine various federal government efforts to regulate control over energy assets. Allowing this loophole will establish a dangerous precedent that will harm the public interest.

Tyson Slocum is Director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program. Follow him on Twitter @TysonSlocum

This weekend I was honored to speak at the 2014 Public Interest Environmental Law Conference at the University of Oregon along with my colleague Scott Nelson. My presentation is here, and it details how hundreds of millions of dollars were spent by SuperPACs and other dark money groups focusing on ads and other strategies to attack EPA regulations and/or promote expanded fossil fuel production. While some wealthy climate activists, like Tom Steyer, are trying to keep up with the Koch’s and other fossil fuel-backed spenders, it’s clear that the solution is not trying to match them in an arms race, but rather focus on building the grassroots. For example, the amazing activists protesting the Keystone XL pipeline have, despite no big money ad campaign, managed to force the President to frequently address what otherwise would be an obscure pipeline permitting process. This kind of inspiring feat is what Steyer should be building, rather than spending $100 million on pricey consultants, advertising agencies and TV stations. In the meantime, let’s support Public Citizen’s Democracy is for People campaign to get unregulated corporate money out of our political system.

Tyson Slocum is Director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program. Follow him on Twitter @TysonSlocum

On our last webinar we delved into the ins-and-outs of organizations that spend money to influence elections without disclosing their donors, or as we like to call them, dark money groups.

Check it out below!

This webinar gets to the heart of the recent Internal Revenue Service (IRS) “scandal” and what you can do to help root out organizations that are gaming the rules.  The confusion around the existing IRS rules has allowed groups willing pour millions into manipulating elections to do so freely, while smaller groups dedicated to civic engagement have waited on the sidelines, too afraid to participate in our democracy as fully as they are allowed.

Public Citizen’s Bright Lines Project has been working for years to resolve dark money abuses and these IRS proposed rules will finally begin to tackle this huge roadblock to our democracy Thanks to the 25,000 Public Citizen supporters who took action to tell the government to shine a light on dark money groups, the IRS received a record response from individuals calling for meaningful reforms.

In the coming weeks, Congress will be moving forward with hearings to discuss the goings-on at the IRS, and we’ll be there to let you know about upcoming opportunities to get involved.

If you haven’t yet watched the webinar, check it out and get up to speed. Then stay tuned!

Make sure you get an invite to the next webinar by signing up today.

Kelly Ngo is the online advocacy organizer for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.

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