28 February 2006

On the Backs of the Poor

One thing that you have to admire is the mindless gall with which a supposedly pro-business Republican Administration can ride roughshod over contract law when it comes to the public sector. Consider that Medicare has decided to cut back its reimbursements for psychological services - get this - retroactively. Now I can understand the need to save money, and the need to change a reimbursement schedule. But the heart of Capitalism is that "a deal is a deal." Changing the deal after the fact between private parties is a tort, in this case a breach of contract, which is an invitation to a lawsuit by the damaged party. Were I running a psychological services center, I would refuse to refund the money. I would also refuse to take any new Medicare clients until the matter is resolved.

But this attitude of, "We can do what we want, we're the government," doesn't end there. Consider that it is not unusual for the Social Security Administration to make errors in determining how much money a recipient should get, and further, to fail to discover the error for months or even years. Upon discovery, it is standard procedure to demand immediate back payment, with interest, of any excess amount given in error to the recipient. If the recipient were a business, then the recipient's accounting department could have detected the error and notified the Social Security Administration. But businesses don't get Social Security. People do. And often enough, the person getting Social Security is living a hand-to-mouth existence. There is no way he or she is going to be able to decipher the complex formulae that would show that the pittance he or she is receiving is too great. There is also no way that he or she going to set aside some portion of that pittance as insurance against some bureaucrat's miscalculation. In other words, it is perfectly reasonable to warn him or her that the pittance is about to be reduced. But it is not reasonable to ask for any of it back.

Instead, I recommend improving the system so that the bureaucrats don't screw up as often. If I were part of the Administration I would seek to make government a little less high-handed when dealing with the down on their luck.

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