Legislative Update December 2007

Interim CEO Appointed

Amtrak CEO Alex Kummant resigned earlier this month, allegedly because of differences with the National Railroad Passenger Corporation Board of Directors. Joseph Boardman, a nationally recognized transportation industry professional, has been appointed by the Board to assume the position of president and CEO for the next year, effective November 26. Boardman’s nearly 34 years of experience in the surface transportation industry at city, county, state, and federal government levels—most recently as the Administrator at the Federal Railroad Administration—make him well qualified for the position. A search for a permanent CEO will be conducted in the next few months.

Coalition Seeking Stimulus Package Funds for Amtrak

Using the argument that funds invested in intercity passenger rail projects could create thousands of good-paying jobs, meet the growing passenger demand, and help lift the country out of its current economic slump, the States for Passenger Rail Coalition is calling on Congress to commit part of its Stimulus II economic package for passenger rail and has identified $1.4 billion in “ready-to-go” projects nationwide in which funding could be put to immediate use. The coalition has identified dozens of infrastructure upgrade projects in 16 states throughout the country that are ready to be funded.

Whistleblower Protection Enforced

Amtrak has been ordered to pay back pay, interest, and punitive damages to an employee suspended in violation of the whistleblower provision of the Federal Rail Safety Act of 2007. The complaint alleged that a Seattle-based Amtrak employee was suspended for 30 days for reporting a work-related injury to her employer. It further alleged that, following the filing of a complaint with OSHA’s regional office in Seattle to protest the suspension, the employee was terminated. An investigation conducted by OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program determined that there was merit to the employee’s allegations of reprisal. The case sends a clear message that OSHA will not tolerate retaliation against whistleblowers.

HIGH SPEED RAIL

S 3700, a bill to fund high-speed rail lines along the East Coast and in several other key areas of the country, was introduced in the Senate by John Kerry (D-MA) and Arlen Specter (R-PA) on November 19, 2008. The bill would provide money for tax-exempt bonds to finance rail projects which reach a speed of at least 110 miles per hour. It would include $10 billion over 10 years to fund improvements in the Northeast and California, and $5.4 billion over a six-year period for 10 rail corridors, including connecting the cities of the Midwest through Chicago, connecting the cities of the Northwest, connecting the major cities within Texas and Florida, and connecting all the cities along the East Coast.

MEDICARE OPEN ENROLLMENT NOV. 15 – DEC. 31

Changes to Medicare Part D Mean Rise in Drug Plan Premiums & Co-Payment Costs

Open enrollment for Medicare Part D drug coverage runs from Nov. 15-Dec. 31. In recent weeks, people enrolled in the program have been receiving information about changes in their plans for next year. Premiums for the 10 largest drug plans are expected to rise 31% on average next year, with some increases topping 60%. And some insurers are also sharply adjusting co-payments. Adding to the difficulty, the package of enrollment information sent to enrollees is huge and confusing to most, and it may be difficult to determine expected costs. Enrollees are advised to call their insurer to find out exactly what they can expect. The online tool at medicare.gov may also be helpful to determine which plan offers the best deal.

Private Medicare Advantage Plans

Recent studies questioning the value of some private plans, both for Medicare beneficiaries and for taxpayers, have been issued as President-Elect Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats consider cutting the payments these plans receive.

During the open enrollment period, Medicare beneficiaries can sign up for private plans offered by companies like United Health and Humana, and by many Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies. Under a formula adopted in the 1980s, Medicare pays the private plans 95 percent of the projected cost for each beneficiary in traditional Medicare, on the theory that the private plans would save money by coordinating care and being more efficient. The private plans, which frequently offer additional benefits like vision and dental care, have proved popular. Enrollment in these private plans has doubled in the last five years.

Over the years, Congress has increased payments to private plans, as an incentive to enter more markets. Beneficiaries can choose from an average of 35 private Medicare Advantage plans in each county, but, according to analysts from the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, growth in private plans has driven up costs because the government pays them 13 percent more on average than what it would spend for the same beneficiaries in traditional Medicare.

Not surprisingly, insurance company executives and the Bush administration defend the role of private plans; however, in a campaign statement, President-Elect Obama stated, “We need to eliminate the excessive subsidies to Medicare Advantage plans and pay them the same amount it would cost to treat the same patients under regular Medicare.” In an October 15 debate, Obama described the subsidies as a giveaway to private insurers. Tom Daschle, Obama’s choice for Secretary of Health and Human Services, has expressed similar views, stating that, “Medicare’s solvency is now threatened by overpayments to private insurers.”

NEW TOLL-FREE NUMBERS FOR RAILROAD RETIREMENT BOARD

The Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) will begin phasing in nationwide toll-free telephone service starting this month. A single toll-free number, 1-877-772-5772 (1-877-RRB-5RRB) will provide RRB customers with easy access to the agency’s field offices.  In addition, the new toll-free number will offer options for self service through automated menus and automatic routing of calls to claims representatives in nearby offices during emergency and peak periods.

Twelve of the RRB’s 53 field offices will participate in the initial implementation of nationwide toll-free telephone service.  The 12 field offices areSt. Paul and Duluth, MN; Fargo, ND; Des Moines, IA; Jacksonville and Tampa, FL; Atlanta, GA; Birmingham, AL; Oakland, Sacramento and Covina, CA; and Mesa, AZ. Nationwide toll-free telephone service will be available in additional RRB field locations after the initial implementation phase has been completed. Until then, RRB customers who reside outside of the service areas covered by these initial 12 offices should continue to use the telephone number for the field office providing service to their area by calling the automated RRB Help Line at 1-800-808-0772, or by looking online at www.rrb.gov.  The new toll-free service is scheduled to be implemented nationwide in all RRB field offices by March 2009.