Monthly Archives: February 2011

Today’s Big Story: Affordable Health Care

Published February 17, 2011

Every time you go to the doctor and get a blood test, an MRI, a mammogram or an appendectomy, you pay for it. Actually, if you’re lucky, you have decent insurance and your insurance company pays for it. This is the way American health care has worked for a really long time.

Medical procedures are really expensive, and insurance companies need to make money. So they charge you higher and higher premiums to cover the cost.

Insurance companies bet on people getting sick, so there is little incentive to discourage these pricey procedures. Same with docs and hospitals, as long as they’re getting paid.

This is what people mean when they talk about health care cost containment. Today, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick introduced legislation that would seek to make health care more affordable by fundamentally changing the way we pay for it by 2015.

WBUR’s Martha Bebinger reports:

Patrick’s legislation aims to reduce health care spending by putting most doctors and hospitals on a budget, with bonuses tied to patient health.

“There is no financial incentive in the current system for good care, only for more care,” Patrick said.

A new state council would set rules for so-called global payments, and the administration is requesting more authority to limit insurance rate increases.

If there’s one bit of health-care jargon you should remember right now, it’s global payments. This system would essentially transfer the burden of payment away from the patient. (Also read Martha’s explainer on global payments.)

Critics of this idea say it could result in worse, not better, care, because doctors are less likely to prescribe tests and procedures that might break the budget. People also worry this will hurt choice — a doctor is more likely to insist on the least expensive treatment. Moreover, a lot of people don’t want the government to have so much control over the market — over their health.

Patrick says he will work with a broad coalition of providers, business groups and consumer advocates to get this right.

This is where I yield to the experts at WBUR’s CommonHealth blog, who have done a tremendous job digging into this new bill and explaining what it would mean for you and me. Follow along, and tell us what you think of the idea.

How Come I Can Never Get A Cab In Boston?

Published February 16, 2011

Anyone who has stood outside a bar at 2 a.m., freezing cold, knows how hard it can be to find a taxi in Boston.

Man hailing taxicab

Taxi! (Andy Cross/Flickr)

At any given time, only 1,825 cabs are allowed to pick up fares. For a city of more than 600,000 people, that doesn’t seem like a lot of cabs.

According to at least one economist, it’s not. WBUR’s Adam Ragusea pointed me to a 2005 regression model of the number of cabs in major U.S. cities. In the abstract, author Bruce Schaller writes:

Licensing either too many or too few cabs can have serious deleterious effects on the availability and quality of service and the economic viability of the taxi business. Yet local officials often have difficulty quantifying the demand for taxi service or tracking changes in demand.

The model considers the number of no-car households, subway commuters and airport taxi trips and predicts that Boston’s cab supply is underserved by 73 to 128 percent.

So why not just allow more cabs to operate?

To operate a cab in Boston, you have to have a medallion — the square plate nailed to the back of the car. And you guessed it, there are 1,825 medallions in Boston. The government sets that number.

If you own a medallion, you’re rich. The last medallion that went up for auction sold for $400,000. Cab drivers lease medallions from the handful of bankers and investors who own the medallions. If you own one of those medallions, you don’t want more medallions in the market, because yours will be worth less. The city could flood the market with new medallions, but medallion owners could take the city to court and with a good case, at least as far as Adam’s reporting turned up.

People have suggested a regional taxi authority that would eliminate the patchwork of regulations throughout Greater Boston. “That will never in a million years happen,” said Universal Hub’s Adam Gaffin in our live chat earlier today. It’s a matter of “politicians not wanting to give up control over something. It’s 350 years of home rule,” he said.

My best advice: Leave the bar at 1:30.

Brown Tells ‘60 Minutes’ He Was Sexually Abused

Published February 16, 2011

Sen. Scott Brown, in a “60 Minutes” interview scheduled to air Sunday, said he was sexually abused multiple times by a camp counselor when he was 10 years old.

Nothing was fully consummated, so to speak, but it was certainly back then very traumatic. He said, ‘If you tell anybody, you know, I’ll kill you. I will make sure that no one believes you.’ And that’s the biggest thing. When people find people like me at that young, vulnerable age, who are basically lost, the thing that they have over you is they make you believe that no one will believe you.

Brown said he never reported the abuse and has not told anyone — that is, until he told Lesley Stahl of CBS News. “That’s what happens when you’re a victim,” he said in the video. “You’re embarrassed. You’re hurt.”

Brown also said he was physically and psychologically abused by his mother’s many husbands.

The junior Massachusetts senator is scheduled to go on tour to promote his new memoir, “Against All Odds,” which goes on sale Monday, Feb. 21.

Update: The Globe obtained a copy of Brown’s book. The details are graphic:

Brown said the counselor who fondled him was in his mid-20s.

“I can remember how he looked, every inch of him: his long sandy, light brown hair; his long, full mustache; the beads he wore; the tie-died T-shirts and the cutoff jeans, which gave him the look of a hippie,” Brown writes in the book, “Against All Odds.”

Brown said the abuse occurred when he went to the camp infirmary, not feeling well. The counselor followed him into the bathroom, according to Brown’s account.

“I was standing there with my pants down and he came right up next to me and asked me if I needed help, and then he reached out his hand,” Brown writes, continuing with a graphic description of the encounter. Brown said he screamed and ran outside. The counselor told Brown later, “that if I told anybody, ever, he’d hurt me badly,” Brown writes.

Brown said he continued to see the counselor at camp for years after he was abused.

Live Chat: Questions, Kvetching On Boston Cabs

Published February 16, 2011

WBUR’s Adam Ragusea has become something of an expert at navigating Boston’s maze of cab regulations. He reported two stories for Radio Boston about why they are so expensive for you and me, the consumer. (Part 1, Part 2)

Readers joined Adam, Universal Hub’s Adam Gaffin and me for a live chat Wednesday at 12 noon. We answered questions (and heard your complaints) about why things are the way they are in Boston cabs.


Woe, The Boston Cabbie

Published February 15, 2011

One block from downtown crossing, January 2010

One block from downtown crossing, January 2010 (Michael Krigsman/Flickr)

I got a ride to work this morning from Cambridge cabbie Frantz Victorin, a Haitian immigrant who says he used to make $80,000 in wealth management until his doctor ordered him to change professions because of his high blood pressure. He started the new gig this week.

Why on earth he chose the taxicab business, I don’t know.

Boston cab drivers have bad reputations. He knows this. Passengers don’t like cabbies, so they’re rude. This makes cabbies rude to passengers.

Boston cab fares are the most expensive of any city in North America.

Boston cabbies are subject to the most progressive (or aggressive) regulation in the country. This is precisely why Victorin says he chose to lease a Cambridge, not Boston, medallion.

Boston requires all cabs be brand new. And all of the city’s 1,800 or so cabs must be equipped with credit-card machines — but there’s no rule preventing drivers from giving you a guilt trip whenever you use plastic.

Depending on the length of your ride, Boston's cab fares can be the most expensive in North America.

Click To Enlarge: Depending on the length of your ride, Boston's cab fares can be the most expensive in North America.

Why do the cab drivers complain about credit cards? Because they’re stuck with the 6 percent processing fee — even though those fees are factored into Boston’s exorbitant fares. (See above.)

Moreover, because the Boston metro area is broken up into cities and towns, cabbies licensed in one city can’t pick up passengers in another. For example, if Victorin drives someone to Logan Airport, he has to drive all the way back to Cambridge without picking up a fare. (Well, he could, but he risks a steep fine.)

Since WBUR started pressing its reporting force on the taxicab business, the comments have been rolling in:

@ValentinaMonte: BOS cabbies ALWAYS feign credit probs & ARE liars. period.they’re RUDE about it & shouldnt hav a machine then!!

Blogger Mitch Blum wrote a beginner’s guide for Boston cabbies. (“By law, you are required to keep the ‘check engine’ light lit at all times.” Etc.)

Again, why Victorin chose the taxicab business, I don’t know.

“Atttiude is ev-er-y-thing,” he tells me, in a Haitian accent, stretching the word “everything” into five.

Victorin exhibits the best attitude about Boston driving I’ve ever seen. He is totally Zen about it. Never uses the horn. At one point, the man tells me his wife’s favorite song is “Beautiful” by Christina Aguilera, and he starts singing the chorus (while we’re stuck at the BU Bridge rotary).

Victorin’s cab was new and clean, tricked out with Wi-Fi and a shiny credit-card reader. That costs money, but he clearly thinks he can make up for it in fares. He works 12-hour shifts and has to make at least $80 a day to break even.

Frantz Victorin is just a guy trying to make a living. I gave him a nice tip. If you get a driver like him, I suggest you do the same.


Tomorrow: Hubbub and Universal Hub take your questions and complaints in a live chat with WBUR’s Adam Ragusea.

Tuesday Morning: Newsapalooza

Published February 15, 2011

Good morning! After a brief preview, Fake Spring returns tomorrow and should last till the weekend. Today, however, is cold.

Lots of news today, so I’m going to use bullets:

What are you reading today?

Celtics Legend Bill Russell Receives (2nd) Highest Honor

Published February 14, 2011

Boston Celtics center Bill Russell and the late coach Red Auerbach celebrated their eighth straight NBA Championship, in Boston, after defeating Los Angeles in 1966.

Boston Celtics center Bill Russell and the late coach Red Auerbach celebrated their eighth straight NBA Championship, in Boston, after defeating Los Angeles in 1966. (AP)

Bill Russell already won the NBA’s highest honor. After winning 11 championships in 13 years with the Celtics, Russell was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1974. Six years later, Russell was voted the greatest player in NBA history.

On Tuesday, President Obama will award Russell the nation’s highest civilian honor, a Presidential Medal of Freedom.  “(Russell) almost single-handedly redefined the game of basketball,” the White House said in a statement.

“The first African American to coach in the NBA — indeed he was the first to coach a major sport at the professional level in the United States — Bill Russell is also an impassioned advocate of human rights.  He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and has been a consistent advocate of equality.”

And yet none of the accolades tops Russell’s highest honor, he says — the day his dad told him he was proud. Russell talked to the New York Times over the weekend:

“He said: ‘You know, you’re all grown up now, and I want to tell you something. You know, I am very proud of the way you turned out as my son, and I’m proud of you as a father.’

“My father is my hero, OK, and I cannot perceive of anything topping that.”

Russell spoke with On Point about his life and career in May 2009.

Among tomorrow’s other Medal of Freedom recipients is Yo-Yo Ma, the Boston cellist (and WBUR listener).

Cartographer Travels 10,000 Smoots For A Valentine

Published February 14, 2011

Boston cartographer Andy Woodruff walked and boated through Boston, Somerville and Cambridge — GPS unit in hand — to create this nerdy valentine. It’s a Google Map.

[googlemap height=”400″ title=”A Cartographer’s Valentine”],-71.069355&spn=0.070783,0.137157&t=p&z=13[/googlemap]

Woodruff documented the journey in words and pictures, too. He learned a lot about our city in the process:

First of all, finding a decent-sized heart shape in the local street system is not quite as easy as I expected. It is certainly much easier than in a city with a strict rectilinear grid, but a heart requires something like an octilinear (transit map style) system, ideally with ample curves. Boston’s streets may not be well-organized overall, but they do follow some order within neighborhoods and don’t leave a lot of options for hearts. As it turns out, the key here—and totally the best thing about this project—was to make use of the Charlestown Navy Yard–Long Wharf ferry, something I had yet to experience in my time living here.

So why do this? Apparently this is a thing with map makers. “After concluding that simply projecting or arranging maps into heart shapes has been played out, I decided to work for it this time,” Woodruff says on his cartography blog.

Speaking of nerdy Valentines, NPR has some for you die-hards out there.

A New Mystery In Warren’s Long-Lost Letter

Published February 14, 2011

In 1775, Joseph Warren asks that his letter be shared with someone -- it's not so clear whom.

In 1775, Joseph Warren asks that his letter be shared with someone -- it's not so clear whom.

There’s a new wrinkle in the story of Joseph Warren’s long-lost letter, and it doesn’t come until the tiny postscript. In that letter, Warren reports Continental victories at Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point.

Last week the state recovered Warren’s letter, dated May 1775, some 60 years after it was stolen from the Massachusetts Archives. The secretary of state provided me with one transcript of the letter, which concludes:

PS you will be kind enough to communicate the contents of this Letter to General Knox as I love to give Pleasure to good men

That would be Boston revolutionary Henry Knox, right?

Boston history buff and blogger J.L. Bell isn’t so sure:

  • I’m eager for any evidence of when Henry and Lucy Knox left Boston. The earliest statement of a date appears in Francis Drake’s 1873 biography, which says they departed “Just one year from the day of his marriage,” which was on 16 June 1774. That meant the couple was out just in time for the Battle of Bunker Hill. Thus, if the Committee of Safety was in a position to pass news to Knox on 25 May, then he must have been out earlier.
  • However, Knox did not become a general until 1776. In May 1775, he held no rank in the New England army, and had been only a lieutenant in his prewar militia company.

Warren’s handwriting is hard to decipher — he was a doctor, after all — but he might not have written “Knox” at all. Bell posits the PS might have actually said “General Room,” “the general’s room,” or “General Thomas.”

Interesting. You can try to decipher the letter for yourself by viewing the super high-res version on Flickr.

Grammy Awards Prove Boston’s Got Talent

Published February 14, 2011

Berklee College of Music grad Esperanza Spalding won big at the Grammys, stealing the distinction of best new artist from Justin Bieber. NPR Music featured Spalding in a Tiny Desk Concert just two days ago:

[youtube url=”sBZa7-2bG2I”]

WBUR’s Andrea Shea laments that none of the local talent featured in her Grammy’s preview won a prize. Eminem won for best solo rap performance and best rap album, for “Recovery,” but his songwriter, Berklee grad Makeba Riddick, went empty-handed.

Brookline harpist Sarah Schuster Ericsson and Boston Modern Orchestra Project Artistic Director Gil Rose were also nominated.