TIME politics

Why Veterans Affairs Can’t Root Out Its Corruption

VA Secretary Shinseki Testifies Before Senate On State Of VA Health Care
U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki testifies before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee about wait times veterans face to get medical care May 15, 2014 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images

Eric Shinseki may be gone, but there are still indefensible civil service rules in place that put failing bureaucrats' job security ahead of the safety of the veterans they should be serving.

A pair of scathing reports last week on the growing scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that wait time schemes and data manipulation are systemic throughout the VA, putting veterans across the country at risk.

The independent VA Inspector General’s report was brutal in its assessment. Department officials at the Phoenix VA Health Care System used tricks to hide months-long delays faced by veterans seeking appointments. This fraud increased hospital administrators’ chances of netting cash bonuses and salary increases while jeopardizing veterans’ health, the report implied. According to the IG, similar scams are taking place at VA hospitals throughout the country.

A second report, done by the VA itself, was even bleaker. Many VA medical centers are plagued by a systemic lack of integrity, it said. Schedulers were pressured into manipulating data in order to make appointment wait times appear shorter, and staff at nearly two-thirds of 216 VA medical facilities reviewed were instructed to cook the books.

Clearly the VA’s entire system for providing timely medical care is in dire need of reform. A number of lawmakers, including me, are in the process of introducing legislation that would do just that. But those reforms will be impossible to implement if the people responsible for this corruption remain entrenched in the VA’s bureaucracy.

As the reports make painfully obvious, the environment in today’s Veterans Health Administration is one in which some VA health officials are so driven in their quest for performance bonuses, promotions and power that they are willing to lie, cheat and put the health of the veterans they were hired to serve at risk. These are not people who deserve a second chance. They deserve a swift exit from federal employment, and possibly an entrance to federal prison. Any VA administrator who ordered subordinates to purposely manipulate appointment data should be fired immediately.

Unfortunately that is currently impossible due to indefensible civil service rules that put the job security of failing VA bureaucrats ahead of the safety of the veterans they are charged with serving. In his last speech as VA Secretary, Eric Shinseki essentially admitted this when he said he had “initiated the process for the removal” of the Phoenix hospital’s senior leaders.

The process Shinseki was referring to can drag on for long periods of time, involves miles of red tape and does not guarantee the removal of anyone, as it is subject to review by something called the Merit Systems Protection Board, a quasi-judicial agency with complete power to overturn federal personnel actions on the basis of “due process violations” and other legal technicalities.

Last month the House of Representatives passed a bill that would give the VA secretary the authority to sidestep this arcane process and immediately fire VA senior executives based on performance. By an overwhelming bipartisan 390-33 vote, lawmakers sent the Department of Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act, which I introduced, to the Senate, where it faces an uncertain future amid concerns that it would trample on the “rights” and “protections” of failing VA executives. Ironically, the same lawmakers voicing these concerns do not afford similar “rights” and “protections” to their own employees, making their opposition to the Department of Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act all the more incomprehensible.

The VA is in the middle of the biggest healthcare scandal in its history. At least 42 VA medical facilities are under federal investigation for lying about the extent of the VA’s delays in care problem, and by the department’s own count at least 23 veterans are dead due to recent delays in VA medical care. To date, despite numerous requests from the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs regarding disciplinary actions in response to these deaths and more than a dozen other recent preventable fatalities at a host of VA medical facilities around the country, there is no indication that any VA executives have been fired. Instead, department officials have pointed to non-disciplinary actions, such as employee transfers, resignations and retirements, or bureaucratic slaps on the wrist, such as temporary written warnings, in order to create the appearance of accountability.

When mismanagement and negligence of this scale go essentially unpunished, it sends a message of cold, hard indifference to veterans seeking care at the VA, as well as the hundreds of thousands of dedicated department employees who go to work every day trying to do the right thing.

In order to pave the way for serious and substantive reforms that will help the VA to effectively deliver the care and benefits our veterans have earned, we need to root out the culture of corruption and complacency that has taken hold within the department and is contributing to all of its most pressing challenges. The only way to accomplish this is by getting rid of the VA leaders whose negligence and dishonesty have enabled these problems to fester.

The only right executives who contributed to the VA scandal should have is the right to be shown the door. It would be a grave mistake for the Senate to stand in the doorway, blocking their exit.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, a Republican from Chumuckla, Fla., is the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

TIME politics

I Spent More Than Six Years as an Innocent Woman on Death Row

Frank van den Bergh—Getty Images

I was 18 when I was convicted of murdering my baby and sentenced to death, and 25 when I was finally found innocent.

The new season of Orange is the New Black will be available on Netflix starting next weekend. I won’t be watching it. I lived it.

I was 17 and living in Columbus, Mississippi, in 1989. One night, I went to check on my beautiful 9-month-old son, Walter. He wasn’t breathing. I scooped him up and frantically rushed to the neighbor next door, who could not help me. I ran downstairs where another girl took my baby, started CPR, and advised me what to do. I performed CPR all the way to the hospital. The CPR left bruises on his chest. At the hospital, the doctors said they had done all they could.

The next morning, I went down to the police station as I had been asked to do. When I got there, a detective yelled at me, “You know you killed your baby. You stepped on him with your feet and smashed him on the floor. You killed him.”

I was alone with no lawyer or parent with me. I told him I tried to save my baby. He wrote down what I said and threw it in the garbage. He yelled at me for three hours. No matter what I said, he screamed over and over that I had killed my baby. I was terrified. I was put in jail and not allowed to attend Walter’s funeral.

When I was 18, I was convicted of murdering my baby and sentenced to death. As a death row prisoner, I was alone in my cell for 23 hours a day. It was a good thing: if the other women could have gotten near me, they would have killed me because they thought I deserved to die. In prison, you have to constantly watch your back.

Around the time my other son Danny was five years old, he asked me on the phone, “Are they going to kill you with a needle?” It is a question no child should ever have to ask his mother or father.

My own mother fought to prove my innocence. I was lucky: attorneys Rob McDuff and Clive Stafford Smith took my case pro bono. They got me a new trial and called witnesses who said I had been trying to resuscitate Walter with CPR. That’s where the bruises came from. My new attorneys also showed that my son died from a hereditary kidney condition. There was no murder at all.

I was 25 years old when I was finally found innocent. I am the only woman ever exonerated and freed from death row in the United States.

I wish I could say that it is rare for innocent people to be convicted and sentenced to death. But it’s not. Since 1973, 144 people have been exonerated and freed from death row in the U.S. I provide support to many of these men through my job at Witness to Innocence, a nonprofit organization that helps people who have been exonerated from death row and their loved ones.

A study published by the National Academy of Sciences found that more than 4% — one in every 25 — of the death sentences in the U.S. are imposed on people who are innocent. This should be a cause for outrage. If one in 25 bank transactions were inaccurate, no one would stand for it.

Recently, a group of former governors, judges and other important people got together and issued 39 recommendations to make the death penalty more fair and accurate. Even if every reform was adopted, innocent people would still get convicted and sent to death row. As long as human beings are in charge, they will make mistakes. If we can’t get the death penalty right every time, we shouldn’t do it at all.

You can change the laws, but you can’t change some things about human nature. There will always be people who want to advance their careers by putting people to death. Some of those people will be innocent, like me, and most of them will be poor, isolated and African American or Latino.

I was a teenager who, less than 24 hours before, had lost my precious baby boy. Ambitious men questioned, demoralized and intimidated me. In that state of mind, I signed the lies they wrote on a piece of paper. I signed my name in tiny letters in the margin to show some form of resistance to the power they had over me. People who say they would never sign a false confession have never been in my shoes.

When I first went to prison, I hated the people who railroaded me onto death row. Then I realized that I could be bitter and angry, but the only person it would hurt was me. I made a decision to fill my heart with love, try to be happy every day, and help other people. You can choose to be positive or you can choose to be negative. And that’s the choice that makes all the difference in the world.

Sabrina Butler is the Assistant Director of Membership and Training at Witness to Innocence. She still lives in Columbus, Mississippi, with her husband of 19 years and three children.

TIME politics

Sandy Hook Father on Gun Violence: ‘It’s Not Too Late to Protect Your Children’

UCSB Holds Memorial Service For Shooting Victims At Harder Stadium
Students mourn at a public memorial service on the Day of Mourning and Reflection for the victims of a killing spree at University of California, Santa Barbara on May 27, 2014 in Isla Vista, California. David McNew—Getty Images

Last week in Santa Barbara, six more families joined that terrible club of parents who have lost children to shootings.

When each of my three children were born, I held them in my arms and imagined who they would one day become. Even at birth, James, Natalie and Daniel each had very distinct and unique personalities, and I thought their futures would be limitless. It was unimaginable that sweet little Daniel’s future would be violently cut short by a rampaging young man whose brain was clearly broken. But it happened. I can still feel the softness of his 7-year-old cheek when I kissed him and put him on the school bus to go to Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012, never to see him alive again.

My story, my anguish is shared by more parents than you can imagine. Not just those who lost children and loved ones at Sandy Hook Elementary, but the tens and hundreds of thousands of parents who have lost children to gun violence before and since, families across the country whose grief is no less because their tragedy didn’t make headlines. Last week in Santa Barbara, six more families joined that terrible club. I don’t personally know Richard Martinez, but when he said in an interview “you never think it can happen to you,” I hung my head and cried.

We all have to make our peace with the dangerous realities in our lives. And sometimes it’s just easier to look the other way and go about your routine. But just as I buckled my children into their car seats and taught them to look both ways before crossing the street, there are things we can do to make our children safe. And if we can agree that safety for our children is just common sense, then we must agree to come together, put aside petty political differences and do the things we all say we agree on.

We can’t look to Washington to solve all our problems, but two things are happening in Congress this week that can make a real difference in the lives of our children. I pray that we have the strength to accomplish them both.

What use is a law without adequate resources to enforce it? The House votes Thursday on appropriations proposed by Congressmen Pete King and Mike Thompson that would add more money to the National Instant Criminal Background Checks System (NICS) to ensure that the felons, domestic abusers and the seriously mentally ill who are legally prohibited from owning firearms are registered in NICS and prohibited from purchasing firearms from authorized dealers. It’s unbelievable that some seriously mentally ill people pass the NICS check because states can’t afford to keep their NICS list updated. Who doesn’t want to ensure that firearms are kept out of the hands of the severely mentally ill? This is already a bi-partisan bill and should have overwhelming bi-partisan support.

Another bill being introduced just this week, the Promoting Healthy Minds for Safer Communities Act, would reduce gun violence both by keeping guns out of the hands of the dangerously mentally ill and providing access to treatment for those with mental illness across the country. This bill would strengthen provisions already in the law that keep firearms out of the hands of those who have been determined to be a danger to themselves or others. The law now says that you can’t purchase a firearm if you’ve been involuntary committed to a mental institution, but it doesn’t include people who have been involuntarily committed to outpatient treatment. If people are a danger to themselves and others, they should be prohibited from purchasing guns whether they have been committed to a formal institution or not.

Despite my pain and grief, I have great faith we can find a way through this terrible morass with enough voices joined together: voices from the political left and the right, voices of gun owners and those who don’t own guns, millions of parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles around the country who look at their children and think, there is something I can do to protect you. We don’t risk any of our freedoms or values. We do it in the shared belief that America is a stronger country when we make common sense choices to protect our innocent children. It’s too late for my sweet little Daniel or for Christopher Michaels-Martinez, or the hundreds of thousands of children already gone, but it’s not too late to protect your children and the children that you love. Please join us.

Mark Barden is the Advocacy Director at Sandy Hook Promise.

TIME health

You Say Potato, Mrs. Obama. I Say, Please Stop Micromanaging Our Diets and Our Schools

If you’ve ever wondered just where the role of government ends and where the ability of adults to choose things for themselves and their children begins, don’t bother. The answer, at least according to First Lady Michelle Obama, is nowhere.

Marching under the banner of Science with a capital S, Obama believes the federal government should be able to tell you what to eat. Or, more precisely, not eat. At least if you’re poor enough to be on relief or if you’re remanded to the custody of a K-12 public school.

Writing in the New York Times, Obama warns that “right now, the House of Representatives is considering a bill to override science by mandating that white potatoes be included on the list of foods that women can purchase using WIC dollars.”

Don’t get the wrong idea, though. Obama agrees that “there is nothing wrong with potatoes.” It’s just that according to the Institute of Medicine (a.k.a. “science”), the “low-income women and their babies and toddlers” served by the WIC program would be better off if they chowed down on “nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables.”

When it comes to schoolkids, Obama is just as emphatic that decisions are best made in Washington, rather than in the countless cafeterias of the nation’s 100,000 public schools. Some House members, she writes, “want to make it optional, not mandatory, for schools to serve fruits and vegetables to our kids. They also want to allow more sodium and fewer whole grains than recommended into school lunches.”

The First Lady believes that the various programs she’s championed over the past few years (like Let’s Move!, which hectors kids to exercise) are producing “glimmers of progress” in the War on Fat People, especially among children ages 2 to 5. The fact is, however, that there is no clear link between any of the programs she promotes and the trends she applauds.

According to a new Centers for Disease Control study, the obesity rate among kids that age is 8%, down from 14% in 2003. That’s all well and good, but the authors caution that one year doesn’t make a trend, especially since that group makes up “a tiny fraction” of the population. Indeed, the same report also notes that obesity rates among Americans 19 years old and younger had already stopped climbing by 2003 and have been flat ever since, at about 17%. Other accounts suggest that youth obesity rates peaked even earlier, in 1999. Over the same general time frame, adult obesity rates have stayed steady, at around 30%. This all came after a tripling of rates between the 1970s and 1990s.

Obama is welcome to take credit for a general flattening of trends that began years before her husband became President. However, when she starts urging the federal government to limit individual choices and centralize control in the federal government, attention should be paid. “As parents, we always put our children’s interests first,” she writes. “We wake up every morning and go to bed every night worrying about their well-being and their futures.”

If she really believes that, then why not treat poor people with the same respect that we treat middle-class and upper-middle-class folks? If we’re going to supplement their incomes, why not give them a cash payment and let them figure out how to make the best use of it?

Similarly, if we can’t trust our schools to figure out how best to fill their students’ stomachs, why the hell are we forcing our children to attend such institutions in the first place? When is the last time you heard kids who attend schools of choice—whether private, religious or public charters (which enroll disproportionately high numbers of low-income students)—even mention food?

During the debate over Obamacare’s individual mandate, we had a fiery national conversation over whether the government could force you to buy broccoli. But even when the Supreme Court effectively said it could, nobody believed it could make you eat the stuff. That debate, it seems, took place in a simpler time.

TIME sexism

The Toxic Appeal of the Men’s Rights Movement

As this poster shows, rape culture is alive and well in #yeg. A sad commentary & poor reflection on men everywhere pic.twitter.com/CZkLVCebEi

— Dr. Kristopher Wells (@KristopherWells) July 9, 2013

A growing movement driven by misogyny and resentment is pulling in frustrated men struggling with changing definitions of masculinity. A men's fitness columnist on why they should walk away.

Imagine a kid who got a cone with three scoops of ice cream in it. Good flavors, too. Like peanut-butter chocolate, plus a scoop of cookie dough. In a waffle cone. And then this child whines about the lack of chocolate sprinkles on top.

Welcome to the men’s rights movement.

Wait, what? Men’s rights? That’s a thing? Yes, it’s a thing, and while there are certain legitimate aspects to men’s rights activism, or MRA, it’s overwhelmingly a toxic slew of misogyny. This world of resentment and hate speech has been brought to light in recent days as we learned about the vitriolic forum posts and videos left behind by Elliot Rodger, the 22 year-old accused of killing six people in Santa Barbara last week. But it’s hard to comprehend from Roger’s delusional rants how potent the movement’s message can be for ordinary men.

MRAs believe the traditionally oppressed groups have somehow seized control and taken away their white male privilege. They tap into fear and insecurity and turn it into blame and rage. Often the leaders of these groups are men who feel as though they got screwed in a divorce. They quote all sorts of statistics about child custody and unfair alimony payments, because in their minds, the single mother who has to choose between feeding the kids or paying the rent is a myth. They believe passionately in their own victimhood and their creed goes something like this: Women are trying to keep us down, usurp all our power, taking away what it means to be a man.

One popular MRA site is AVoiceForMen.com, with a mission to “expose misandry on all levels in our culture” and “denounce the institution of marriage as unsafe and unsuitable for modern men” as well as “promote an end to chivalry in any form or fashion” and “educate men and boys about the threats they face in feminist governance.” They also want an “end to rape hysteria” and promote “civil disobedience.” In their defense, AVFM does support nonviolence, but with all the inflammatory rhetoric, do readers always take heed?

There are Reddit threads and other Internet forums dedicated to men’s rights, and the language and vitriol towards women and especially towards feminism is appalling. Any messages of nonviolence seem lost in the hate mongering. These groups spew logically faulty statistics about the prevalence of male rape and spousal abuse, and how there really is no glass ceiling or pay inequality, and general complaints about how “that bitch got my promotion because she has a uterus.”

Men’s Rights Canada made headlines again recently with their classless response to an anti-sexual assault campaign called “Don’t be that guy.” Posters went up across the nation implying women aren’t punished enough for infanticide, stating, “Women can stop baby dumping. “Don’t be that girl.” This was a follow up of the same campaign from last year alleging many women made false rape accusations because they felt guilty over a one-night stand.

As a white man who writes about fitness, I’m very aware of the pressures on men and the many ways that these kinds of hateful messages reach my audience, both overt like the Canada ads and the less blatant claims of male victimhood in mainstream media. It’s clear that the definition of masculinity is in flux, and for some men that’s frustrating, especially with near-pornographic ad campaigns promoting women as objects of sexual conquest. And while there are aspects of MRA that are worth bringing to light, as a movement it can suck a good man down a rabbit hole of resentment. It is backward-looking and pining for good old days that never were.

Are there some problems with specific instances of unequal treatment? Yes. Is there some anti-male sentiment out there? Yeah, that happens too. But turning these issues into a movement is laughable. It is a like a multi-millionaire who whines that a tax loophole was closed and he’s losing 0.5% of his annual income.

Men, especially white men, aren’t marginalized, we aren’t under attack, and we not in danger of losing the overwhelming privileges society bestows upon us for having pale skin and a penis. However, MRAs have been described as whining children by the women they call “feminist bitches.”

So to any man who feels like he’s getting caught up in such a movement because they feel emasculated or are just having trouble relating to women and perhaps sympathizing with Elliot Rodger, I will tell you this: Life isn’t fair. Life is NOT fair.

Women will judge you. Some will judge you based on your appearance, your height, your width, you genitalia, your wealth, your car, your clothes, your acne. In other words, they will judge you the exact same way you judge them.

Fell is a syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. He blogs at http://www.SixPackAbs.com. You can follow him @bodyforwife

TIME Healthcare

The Hidden Cliffs in Obamacare

As the Affordable Care Act becomes reality, so do some of its little-known inequities

A hypothetical couple whom we’ll call Barbara and Harry Jones are 52 years old and have two children, and their household income is $94,200. She’s a freelance marketing consultant and he’s a plumber, so neither has health insurance from an employer. They live in Lancaster, Ohio, and they signed up for Obamacare just in time to make the deadline at the end of March.

Great news: based on their income, Barbara and Harry will get an annual $2,904 subsidy from the government to help pay an insurance bill that will be $12,288 a year for moderately good coverage. Obviously, the Joneses are not poor. But health care is now so expensive that President Obama’s law was designed to give even them help buying insurance.

Alice and Bob Smith (another hypothetical couple) and their two children live next door to the Joneses in Ohio. They too work in jobs–day care for her, light construction for him–that don’t provide health insurance. Their income is $94,300–meaning they’re keeping up with the Joneses and, in fact, beating them by $100. The Smiths will get no subsidy at all.

Now that enrollment in Obamacare has ended for the year, some of the quirks–maybe they should be called potholes–embedded in the complicated and heavily lobbied law are going to start to become visible. First among them may be the “cliff” problem that penalizes the Smiths to the tune of $2,904 for making $100 more than the Joneses. I can already see the headline on Fox News: “Obama’s Health Care Bureaucrats Tax Ohio Couple 2,904% for Making $100 More Than Next-Door Neighbors.”

It will be true. That’s because the Smiths’ income is just slightly more than four times $23,550, the amount defined by the government as living in poverty for a family of four. Under the Affordable Care Act, families like the Joneses who earn up to but not more than four times the poverty level get subsidies. After that, there is no subsidy. Sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Going over $94,200 is like going over a cliff. Unlike the way the federal graduated income tax is calibrated so that the Smiths never lose money by earning more, the subsidy doesn’t decline step by step. It plunges to zero.

Even steeper cliffs are possible. Suppose the Johnsons, each 63 years old, live in Florida and their kids are grown. They make $62,040 (four times the poverty line for a family of two adults) from the charter-boat business they run. They’ll get a subsidy of $9,024 to pay for their insurance. But they will lose it all if in 2014 they sell just one extra charter. If they make a dollar more (or $100 or $1,000 more) the entire $9,024 federal subsidy goes away. If their over-the-ceiling earnings are $100, that’s like a 9,024% tax on that $100.

“For hourly workers or freelancers who cannot predict their income with complete accuracy, this could be an anvil that comes down on them next year,” says Barry Cohen, an insurance broker in Lancaster who helped me model various scenarios. A middle-class couple, Cohen notes, could get a surprise $5,000 or $10,000 tax bill next April because they received a subsidy but then earned just a few dollars more than they estimated, pushing them above the income ceiling. As with much about the 906-page Affordable Care Act, you had to be in the room–actually many rooms, over hundreds of meetings over many months–when the law was written to understand how these startling cliffs came to be.

One of Obama’s goals, shared by many congressional Democrats worried about conservative opposition, was to keep the cost of the subsidies to the Treasury as low as possible. But in dozens of intense meetings, Obama and his staff, along with the congressional committee staffs, also struggled to make the insurance that people would be forced to buy as affordable as possible for as many people as possible.

Obviously, those two goals pulled in opposite directions. Lower federal subsidies meant higher premiums, but it also meant that the new law would cost less and therefore be easier for Congress to pass. So White House and congressional aides worked up two formulas to balance the competing pressures. The first mapped out how much the subsidies would be. The second defined who would qualify for them.

To determine the amount of the subsidies, the staffs adopted a graduated scale, like the income tax. Those earning at the poverty level would not be required to pay more than 2% of their income for the second lowest so-called Silver plan premium. (Those below the poverty level would qualify for Medicaid, a completely free program.) The plans on the insurance exchanges range from Bronze to Silver to Gold to Platinum depending on the amount of expected expenses–from 60% to 90%–you want the insurance company to pay, with you paying the rest.

Let’s assume that you’re a family of four with $24,000 in annual income (just above the poverty line), and the second cheapest Silver plan available to you costs $800 a month. Two percent of your annual income is $40 a month. That means you will get a $760 monthly subsidy ($800 minus $40), or $9,120 a year for health insurance. Those earning 200% of the poverty level (about $47,000), however, would be required to pay up to 6.3% of their income before they would get a subsidy. Those earning 300% to 400% would have to pay 9.5% of their income before the premium subsidy would kick in.

In other words, the more money you make, the less the government subsidizes your premium, which is just like the graduated-plan income tax in reverse.

However, when it came to who would get subsidies and who would not, the people who wrote the law provided for no sliding scale. Once the Smiths or the Johnsons score an extra construction job or boat charter that pushes their earnings over 400% of the poverty line, they get nothing. One way to have chiseled the subsidy cliff into a gentler slope would have been to keep some set of gradually declining premium subsidies for those earning over 400%. But when the staffers calculated the cost of extending the premium to people like the Smiths or the Johnsons, it was intolerably high.

Another way to chip at the cliff would have been to lower premium-subsidy percentages still more, beginning at the 300%-above-poverty level and gradually decreasing the subsidy to zero when 400% above poverty was reached. There would still be no payouts above 400%, but the declining slope of subsidies from 300% to 400% would have eliminated the cliff because those at 400% would be losing little by earning more. That would have pretty much evened up the fortunes of the Jones and Smith families. But as it is, the weakest part of the subsidy formula is that people who make three or four times the poverty level get subsidies that are arguably not enough to make their premiums affordable. In fact, the burden on those at the 300%-above-poverty level is another looming pothole in the details of the subsidy formula.

For example, even with their current $9,024 subsidy, the Johnsons in Florida, whose earnings are $62,040, are still paying about $5,000 a year in premiums (depending on the plan they choose). On top of that, they will also face a deductible and out-of-pocket costs of about $12,000. That means the Johnsons’ total medical costs (premium and amounts paid to meet the deductible) could take $17,000, or 27%, out of their $62,040 in pretax income. That’s better than the $26,000 it could cost them if they earn $63,000 and don’t get any subsidy. But it’s a stretch to call something that diverts 27% of a family’s pretax income the Affordable Care Act. After taxes, that’s probably about 50% of their disposable income.

Does all this mean Obamacare is going to backfire on its designers? Not necessarily. Only 1% or 2% of people signing up for the exchanges will fall off the cliff. They will mostly be older people, like the Johnsons, in expensive-health-care states, whose income is at or near 400% of the poverty level. Younger people, whom insurance companies charge lower rates, or people in lower-health-care-cost states, where all premiums are likely to be lower, probably won’t be affected much, if at all. But in a program that signed up 8 million people, that could still leave tens of thousands on the exchanges who will come close to or fall over a steep cliff. That’s a lot of families–and a lot of ammunition for the President’s opponents.

Complicating things, as a recent report in the Washington Post notes, is a little-known problem with the notorious (but mostly fixed) Obamacare website. The site’s system for verifying the incomes people have claimed in order to get subsidies is so gummed up that it may take months or years for the government to verify who deserves what subsidies. Many Obamacare patients will have to submit additional documents or face demands that their subsidies be returned to the IRS. That won’t be popular either. “I’m already advising some clients who may be at or near the cliff to watch their incomes toward the end of the year,” says Cohen. “Maybe they can stop working overtime or take a month off. If not, they could get hammered with huge tax bills that they never expected.”

Obamacare took a complex new law with complicated formulas involving big dollars moving in and out of peoples’ wallets and grafted it onto a health care system that was already impossible for most people to understand. In the most public-spirited age of bipartisan fellowship, that would not have been easy. So long as the Affordable Care Act is the Republicans’ favorite whipping boy, it’s likely to get just plain ugly.

TIME politics

GOP Senate Candidate Declares War on Sexism: ‘Our Country Has a Problem’

Conservative women fight back

A Republican Senate candidate from South Dakota has a message for the people calling her vulgar names on the Internet: conservative women fight back. Annette Bosworth, a current state Representative and medical doctor, held a press conference Tuesday openly condemning the misogyny she says she’s encountered throughout her campaign for the U.S. Senate, largely at the hands of “supposedly tolerant liberals.” Bosworth’s passionate diatribe hit a nerve at a moment when much of the country is turning its attention to misogyny in the wake of a mass killing in California, where a young man stabbed and shot his way through a college town, driven by his sexist views.

“Good morning, and welcome to the state of political discourse in 2014, “ Bosworth said while standing in a profane graffiti-covered room. She called the exhibit a representation of what’s facing women who “dare to challenge the status quo.”

“What you see around you are the words which have been written about me on blogs, on the Internet throughout this campaign,” Bosworth said. “They are hateful, they are hurtful and no person should have to endure it. It is its own form of abuse.”

Bosworth, who is challenging former Gov. Mike Rounds in the upcoming June primary, said she asked local artists to Google her and “pick a name. Spell it just as it’s spelled on the Internet and represent that on my campaign signs.”

“The Democrats talk about a war on women, but much of what you see is written by the supposedly tolerant liberals. Their message is clear: conservative women are fair game. If you are a female and a Republican, anything goes. Look at these signs. Look at the messages sent by our country. We have a problem, and it’s not being talked about.”

She called attention to the Santa Barbara massacre:

“I would like you to try and find a word that correlates to that in a man with the same connotation and the same disrespect that when their children Google it, it makes them cry. The misogyny is real. Go to the shootings in California. Look around. South Dakota is not unique. Our country has a problem.”

She may be considered a “long-shot” as a Senate candidate, but her powerful stance against the vulgarity sends a much needed, powerful message to hatemongers: enough is enough.

Watch the full video at Talking Points Memo.

TIME politics

Where the War on Pot Will Go to Die

Republican lawyer and marijuana advocate.
Some pot and a pipe from one of the first medical marijuana stores in California. The Washington Post—The Washington Post/Getty Images

In some states, there's an untenable mismatch between the crime and the time, but does anyone think that pot—medical or recreational—will still be illegal in 10 years?

Now that a majority of Americans—54% and climbing, according to Pew Research—believe that marijuana should be treated like beer, wine and liquor, it’s time to ask: Where does the war on pot go to die?

What episode will trigger that final skirmish that kicks over the hollowed-out edifice of marijuana prohibition like the Berlin Wall? What will be the final outrage against common sense and common decency that triggers an Arab Spring for weed in these U.S.? Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia already have medical marijuana (with more to come), and full legalization has gained 13 percentage points in just the past five years.

Ironically, whatever ends the war on pot won’t happen in Colorado or Washington, which have already legalized recreational pot and have received vague promises from Attorney General Eric Holder that the feds won’t bust people and businesses who comply with state laws. Colorado is further along in the retail process than Washington (where pot shops won’t open until mid-July), and so far the only problem of note is that the state is raking in 40% more tax revenue than originally projected.

Look instead to places such as Round Rock, Texas, where 19-year-old Jacob Lavoro faces a sentence between five and 99 years for allegedly selling a 1.5-lb. slab of hash brownies. Under state law, selling up to five pounds of plain old pot is punishable by no more than two years in the clink and a $10,000 fine. But hash, a concentrated form of pot, is considered a controlled substance, and even the tiny amount in Lavoro’s brownies qualifies him for what amounts to a potential life sentence. Through a convoluted rationale, you see, the law can count all the brownie ingredients—the eggs, butter, flour, cocoa—as hash.

Oh well, everything’s bigger in Texas, including the unconscionable mismatch between the crime and the time. If he were only a couple of states away, Lavoro wouldn’t be facing jail, he’d be a successful entrepreneur. That sort of mind-blowing disjuncture is exactly the sort of thing that takes the fight out of the war on pot.

Or look to recent comments made by FBI director James Comey, who admitted that he can’t hire the 2,000 cybercrime fighters the bureau needs to protect America because of workplace drug tests. “I have to hire a great workforce to compete with those cybercriminals, and some of those kids want to smoke weed on the way to the interview,” Comey said. He was upbraided by Senator Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.) for providing yet “one more example of leadership in America dismissing the seriousness of marijuana use.” Whatever you can say about Comey, he’s in good company in acknowledging the ubiquity of pot smoking in today’s America. According to the latest government data, 43% of Americans—including the three most recent Presidents—have tried pot at least once. And when asked whether alcohol or marijuana is more harmful to society, fully 63% say booze and just 23% say pot. How much longer can the Jeff Sessionses of the world hold back the tide of public opinion?

And, finally, look to California, which passed the nation’s first medical-marijuana ballot initiative way back in 1996 and saw 46.5% vote in favor of recreational pot in a 2010 proposition. In 2011, federal agents raided the operations of business of dispensary owner and medical grower Aaron Sandusky. This came after repeated promises by the Obama Administration that it wouldn’t go after medical-pot providers who were operating within state law. And even though officials from the city of Upland, which had tipped off the feds, later admitted in court that Sandusky was operating properly within state law.

Sandusky refused on principle to cop a plea because he thought he was in the right. Tried in federal court, he was unable to offer a defense based on California state law. Sandusky ended up pulling a 10-year sentence. In March of this year, he lost his final appeal. If he’s lucky and stays on good behavior, he’ll be out in 2021. Does anyone think that pot—medical or recreational—will still be illegal by then?

As it happens, Sandusky is doing time in Texas’ Big Spring Federal Correctional Institute, which is only a four-hour drive from Jacob Lavoro’s hometown of Round Rock. As Lavoro ponders whatever deal prosecutors might offer him, he’d be smart to visit Sandusky and ask what life behind bars is like. Because while the war on pot is surely in its final stage, there will still be plenty of casualties before peace is declared.

MORE: Inside a Christian Pot Shop

TIME Viewpoint

Modi and the World

Narendra Modi addressing a rally in Vadodara
PM-designate Narendra Modi addressing a rally in Vadodara, Gujarat, after the BJP won the Lok Sabha elections on Friday, May 16, 2014. The India Today Group—India Today Group/Getty Images

A crisis could force the hand of India’s new leader as he navigates Asia’s shifting geopolitics

Often fiery and intermittently reasonable, sometimes banal but occasionally innovative, Narendra Modi’s statements on foreign policy over the past few years have been so meager and uneven that they cannot readily serve as a guide for how he will act as India’s Prime Minister. Wonks call him a realist. Political admirers and critics both say he’s hard-line. But the specifics of what he might do in office are unclear.

In the past, Modi has berated the Manmohan Singh government for being weak in its dealings with Pakistan and China, two of India’s most important neighbors. During the election campaign, however, he was careful not to paint himself into a corner. In his first major foreign policy speech, he gave pride of place to a corny slogan—“Terrorism divides, tourism unites”—but also showed a capacity for out-of-the-box thinking, saying India should convene a global summit with countries interested in developing solar power as a major source of future energy.

While there is likely to be continuity in many aspects of India’s foreign policy—its stand on major international issues, its bilateral and multilateral partnerships—Modi’s tenure will be defined by how he responds to four specific challenges.

The first is economic, where everything depends on his ability to boost growth. Besides strengthening India’s economic partnerships with the U.S., Europe and Asia, a stronger economy will give the country the heft it needs to play a larger role on the world stage.

Politically, the big challenge for Modi will be to move away from his Bharatiya Janata Party’s rhetoric of “Hindu nationalism” and find ways of forging closer ties with India’s two Islamic neighbors, Bangladesh and Pakistan. In opposition, the BJP attacked Singh for his initiatives on this front. During the campaign, Modi played on the sentiment of Hindus living near Bangladesh, describing Muslim migrants as “infiltrators” out to destroy India. The reality is more complex. While there are large numbers of Bangladeshi migrants in India, many Indians work in Bangladesh and send back nearly two-thirds of the amount of money that Bangladeshis in India transmit out of the country every year, according to the World Bank. Closer ties with Dhaka, and Islamabad, are clearly in New Delhi’s interest. Inviting neighboring leaders, including Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif, to his inauguration is a good first step by Modi.

On the strategic front, the shifting geopolitics of the wider Asian region will present Modi with difficult choices. His instincts may lead him to seek closer ties with a more assertive Japan and a U.S. officially committed to the Asia “pivot.” But the economic pragmatist in him will be wary of fanning Chinese fears about encirclement. As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi visited China several times, and China’s President Xi Jinping is due to visit New Delhi in the fall. The Shinzo Abe government is keen for Modi to visit Tokyo before that, and the new PM will meet with President Barack Obama in New York City in September. Striking a balance between the three will require great dexterity.

When it comes to Washington, much has been made of the denial of a U.S. visa to Modi when he was chief minister. In campaign interviews, the Prime Minister–elect chose to strike a philosophical tone, saying one should look forward and not back. And although the chances that Modi and Obama will hit it off are close to zero, both leaders know the stakes are too high to let feelings come in the way.

The greatest—and most immediate—foreign policy challenge for Modi is likely to be on the crisis-management front. What happens if Lashkar-e-Taiba, al-Qaeda or other Pakistan-based terrorist outfits stage an attack against India? Modi would come under enormous pressure from his party’s rank and file to react in a muscular manner, though the country’s diplomatic and security establishment is likely to drive home the absence of any neat military options. A crisis may also come up on the Chinese side if there is a repeat of the kind of intrusions Chinese military patrols have engaged in along the yet-to-be-settled international boundary between the two countries. Vague as Modi’s positions have been thus far, he will have to get very specific, very quickly. n

Varadarajan is a senior fellow at the Center for Public Affairs and Critical Theory at New Delhi’s Shiv Nadar University

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