Marketplace - American Public Media

UN says Syria donors aren't paying their pledges

Fri, 2015-07-24 02:00

Syria’s civil war is now four years old, and there is no end in sight. A variety of international efforts to halt the bloodshed have stymied some of the world’s most seasoned diplomats.

One group of people losing out most from this grinding war are Syria’s refugees. Of the millions displaced by the war, about 4 million people have left Syria entirely. Most of them have fled to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says that it’s again facing its recurring problem: donors don’t pay what they promise

UNHCR has only received about $1 billion of the nearly $5 billion it needs to provide basic assistance to Syrian refugees.

“Our income keeps growing but the problem is our needs keep mushrooming,” says Melissa Fleming, chief spokesperson for UNHCR.

She says only 23 percent of this year’s funding goal has been delivered so far. And winter is coming.

A quarter of the people who have fled Syria live in tiny Lebanon, which per capita has the highest number of Syrian refugees — today, a quarter of its population.

“It is always the case that funding received does not match the needs on the ground,” says Dana Sleiman, spokesperson for UNHCR in Beirut.

Sleiman says UNHCR proceeds with its plans whether the funding is there or not, because they have no choice. “If and when funding does not come through, the repercussions are severe,” she explains.

So severe that more and more Syrian refugees are again risking their lives on sea voyages to Europe.

Game over for Hollywood video game tie-ins

Fri, 2015-07-24 02:00

Pixels, a film debuting this weekend, features a rag tag team of gamers fighting against giant arcade game characters, like Pac-Man, who are attacking planet earth. And along with the movie, there are two free apps based on the flick where you can essentially play Pac-Man, Centipede, and Frogger.

This summer also saw a $50 Jurassic World console video game using the Lego game brand. So, why all the video game spin-offs of Hollywood movies? Marketplace's Molly Wood talks with Adrienne Hill about these video game tie-ins ... and their spectacular failures.

Click the media player above to hear more.

According to Hill, we've had video game tie-ins "almost as long as we've had video games. Back in the arcade days, even." However, Hill says, "a lot of these games have been average or really bad." 

One such game was the ET game for the Atari 2600. It was so bad, it's credited with being part of the reason the industry tanked in the 80's. Jon-Paul Dyson, the director of the International Center for the History of Electronic Games at the Stong Museum of Play, reveals the story behind the ET game:

"The developer Howard Scott Warshaw had only about a month to translate this movie into a console game for the Atari 2600, which was the most popular video game console of the time. And it was really an impossible task. It was the story of this alien trying to make his way home. There was not really the battles or other things people knew how to make for video games at the time"

The disaster of the ET game reveals a lot about why movie tie-in games still struggle. Hill explains that the "developers don’t have enough time to work in these games. They often don't have the budget that a really good game requires because these things don't ever sell great." Also to blame? The games often seem more like a marketing ploy than an attempt at making a quality game. 

With video games becoming more cinematic than ever and movies using graphics to create virtual worlds, it might be game over for video game tie-ins.

UNHCR says Syria donors aren't paying their pledges

Fri, 2015-07-24 02:00

Syria’s civil war is now four years old, and there is no end in sight. A variety of international efforts to halt the bloodshed have stymied some of the world’s most seasoned diplomats.

One group of people losing out most from this grinding war are Syria’s refugees. Of the millions displaced by the war, about four million people have left Syria entirely. Most of them have fled to Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says that it’s again facing its recurring problem: donors don’t pay what they promise

UNHCR has only received about $1 billion of the nearly $5 billion it needs to provide basic assistance to Syrian refugees.

“Our income keeps growing but the problem is our needs keep mushrooming,” says Melissa Fleming, chief spokesperson for UNHCR.

She says only 23 percent of this year’s funding goal has been delivered so far. And winter is coming.

A quarter of the people who have fled Syria live in tiny Lebanon, which per capita has the highest number of Syrian refugees — today, a quarter of its population.

“It is always the case that funding received does not match the needs on the ground,” says Dana Sleiman, spokesperson for UNHCR in Beirut.

Sleiman says UNHCR proceeds with their plans whether the funding is there or not, because they have no choice. “If and when funding does not come through the repercussions are severe,” she explains.

So severe that more and more Syrian refugees are again risking their lives on sea voyages to Europe.

States wavering on standards for renewable energy

Fri, 2015-07-24 02:00

Renewable Portfolio Standards are standards that tell utilities how much of their electricity has to come from renewable sources. Roughly 30 states have such guidelines. Back when many of these standards were put in place, they were seen as a way to hedge against the uncertainty of fossil fuels.

Now, thanks to the ready availability of natural gas, some states are considering freezing, rolling back or eliminating renewable standards altogether.

Michigan utilities met the state's standard this year, generating 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources. Now, to reduce carbon emissions, some people in the state want to see the bar raised to 20 percent or higher, but paying for it remains controversial.

“What we found is that doubling our RPS would add about $1.70 per month for a typical consumer,” says Jeremiah Johnson, a professor at the School of Natural Resources at the University of Michigan.

According to his research, the cost per household to double Michigan’s RPS is relatively small, as is the cost to industry, say for example, a car company.

“A Ford that was manufactured solely in Michigan, the cost of that doubling would be less than $10 per car," he says. "So, it’s not zero but it’s very small in the scope of the cost of an automobile."

But raising rates just isn’t something utilities like to do. DTE Energy, Michigan’s largest utility, has lobbied hard in the state legislature to freeze Michigan’s RPS in place.

“You know, we count pennies," says Dave Harwood, DTE’s director of renewable energy. "So when you're talking about three dollars, that's a big deal to us, to put that on a customer bill.”

“Can Michigan do more than 10 percent? Yeah, they can, and we will be doing more as we comply with future federal regulations on carbon emissions,” Harwood says.

Harwood notes that DTE is already moving to meet stricter federal standards for power plants, and adding state mandates on top of the federal guidelines that isn’t necessary.

Eliminating RPS targets has become key focus among conservative groups, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.

“It's the position of ALEC that renewable energy deployment and use should expand according to customer demand,” says John Eick, ALEC's director of energy, environment and agriculture.

Legislation bearing ALEC’s influence has been voted on by legislatures in Kansas, Texas, Ohio and North Carolina. Meanwhile California’s Governor Jerry Brown, drew headlines for his plan to increase California’s standard to 50 percent.

 

Monsnoozin’

Fri, 2015-07-24 02:00

This week, Actuality stays up past our bedtime to meet a man who slept just 4.5 hours a night for an entire year — and thrived. Then, we get soaked by the world's most economically important weather phenomenon. Plus, a Kazakh sleeping mystery.

You shoes, you lose

Fri, 2015-07-24 01:59
1.4 million

That's how many vehicles Fiat Chrysler has recalled in response to a Wired article detailing how hackers were able to successfully infiltrate a Jeep Cherokee. As BuzzFeed reports, the company says no real life hacking has occurred — the recall is a precaution now that the flaw has been revealed.

64,000

Speaking of cars, that's how many Outlander Sport utility vehicles were manufactured at Mitsubishi's American factory in Normal, Illinois, last year. That's below its capacity of 122,000 cars. As the Wall Street Journal writes, it's part of the reason Mitsubishi has decided to shut down production in the United States.

$4 billion

That's the disparity between how much is needed and how much has been raised for providing basic assistance to Syrian refugees, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It's part of a problem the office routinely sees: donors who don't pay what they promise.

$1 million

That's the median home price in Jackson, Wyoming, a resort town south of Yellow Stone National Park. Unfortunately, that prices out many teachers from home ownership. Jennifer Marlar, a high school teacher in Jackson, has to drive more than an hour from where she lives to her job. When it comes time to put her own child through school, she's accepted that she'll have to find work elsewhere. This lack of affordable housing is causing issues for schools trying to recruit and retain talented teachers.

And here's a longer read to enjoy over the weekend:

45 million

That's how many shoes TOMS claims to have donated through its one-for-one charity model: you buy a pair of shoes, another pair gets donated to a person in need. The popularity of the business model has spawned a number of similar companies that sell everything from glasses to "period-proof" panties. But as Vox points out, studies have shown that this kind of giving can have a negative effect and may not be the most substantial way to help those in need.

Silicon Tally: Kickstarting the Smithsonian

Fri, 2015-07-24 01:59

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news? 

This week, we're joined by Tom Merritt, host of the Daily Tech News Show.

Click the media player above to play along.

The Konami Code for vintage gamers

Thu, 2015-07-23 13:05

Even though it’s been years since arcades reached their peak of the '80s, there’s still a fondness for the classics. Whether it’s Pac-Man, Donkey Kong or Galaga, old-school arcade games still have an audience.

One store that celebrates that love is the Vintage Arcade Superstore in Glendale, California.

Gene Lewin is the owner. At the store he sells everything from pinball to Pong. He says his love for all things retro and arcade began when he was young.

"I started playing when I was 16 in 1972,” Lewin says. “All thorough my teenage years, I went to arcades and played pinball.”

After playing for a few years, Lewin decided that he had to own a piece of the arcade for himself. “I got my first pinball in '76, and I still have it.”

The machine was called Jumping Jack and was based on the Jack-in-the-Box restaurant. He eventually found out how to make money with his new machine. “I put my Jumping Jack into a billiard place,” Lewin says.  “And since my game worked better than all the other games, it made more money than anything else. So I talked the owner into letting me take over the whole location, and that’s how I got started.”

Lewin’s business plan ran into a major problem in 1985: The market for video games and arcades completely crashed. He managed to stay in business, but just as things started to pick up for video games in general, arcades could not return to their former prominence. The release for arcade games slowed, and the ones that did come out were derivative of ones that were released on consoles.

“[The developers] lost their creative edge," Lewin says. "I thought maybe it would come back, but it really didn’t.”  

With arcades struggling, Lewin decided to try a new business venture: selling games and pinball machines.

“I figured out these games would be collectible years before anyone else did,” Lewin says. “It started with pinball. I would go to pinball shows and see ‘Oh, these are worth money now!’ So I started thinking after a few years, ‘Oh, this is going to happen to video games too!’ ”

Lewin would buy the games for cheap prices and then collect them until their value increased. Then he'd sell them back to his fellow fans. The buyers would get them for restaurants or just for their homes. “They want to own a piece of their childhood,” he says.

Most of the machines go for thousands of dollars, and that price only increases as they become rarer.

Lewin doesn’t plan on retiring any time soon. “A lot of people hate their work,” he says. “I always end up staying late, and my favorite thing when I’m done working is to go over to the showroom and play pinball. It’s pretty awesome.”

The changing platform for YouTube stardom

Thu, 2015-07-23 13:00

YouTube is growing up, and the line between YouTube stars and celebrity is becoming blurrier. Thousands of screaming fans are out in force at VidCon, a conference for online video makers in Anaheim, California, on Thursday.

Freddie Wong will be among them. His YouTube channel, RocketJump, has more than 7 million subscribers, and he is one of the latest YouTube stars looking to move their production off YouTube.

Earlier this year, Wong signed a deal with Hulu for a half-hour comedy. He says the business of making video content is one that involves doing a little bit of everything.

"We produce and create, write, shoot, direct, edit, post production — everything is sort of all done in house," Wong says.

So, when you've got 7 million YouTube fans, why move to a different platform?

"It doesn’t really affect what we do on our end," Wong says. "At the end of the day, we still make the things that we make. And we found that the best strategy in this very fluid marketplace is to not be tied into any given platform, but to be able to make good content, and good content will be able to live anywhere."

Wong says it's a whole new world for content creators today. Back in the day, content creators had to ask big companies to fund their project and give them a platform. Now, you build your own audience — and people with money come to you.

HBO picks up former ESPN host Bill Simmons

Thu, 2015-07-23 13:00

ESPN has parted ways with a lot of its big-name talent recently, including Bill Simmons, whose contract was not renewed back in May. Simmons has landed at HBO, where he'll host a weekly talk show and work on sports documentary projects.

“Bill Simmons is a name that’s known in the sports industry, and he will have his followers come to HBO with him,” says Kenneth Shropshire, a professor at the Wharton School. Simmons was one of the most popular and controversial hosts on ESPN. Last year he was suspended for three weeks for criticizing NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. HBO may offer more creative freedom.

“For Simmons, HBO is kind of a blue ocean in terms of what he’s going to be able to do there," Shropshire says. "There’s a great deal of flexibility it appears in terms of how HBO lets its talent perform.” 

HBO has had a hand in sports for a while, and Shropshire is unfazed by the move. “They’ve done a lot in terms of documentaries, boxing and other programs, so going further in this space is not surprising.”

Click the media player above to hear more.

 

Celebrities are mastering the art of the group selfie

Thu, 2015-07-23 13:00

When I was talking to YouTube video creator Freddie Wong, who heads the channel RocketJump, he told me that today — far more often than signatures — fans want selfies.

So, these stars are coming up with efficient ways to take a bunch of them in a short amount of time. 

Apparently at some of these conventions, fans form big circles, with their phones out, and the stars runs around the back of the circle putting their head in shot after shot.

Whatever you think of selfies, you've got to admire the ingenuity. 

US companies adjust to a more mature Chinese economy

Thu, 2015-07-23 13:00

It’s not easy doing business in China these days.  Stocks have fallen — in some cases by 30 percent — and property values are down.  

“You know, all American companies are getting whip sawed in China to a certain extent,” says Barry Naughton, a professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Diego.

Naughton says U.S. companies are having to adapt to a more mature Chinese economy that is slowing down. But American businesses are reacting differently; some Wall Street investors are leaving China altogether.

“I see a big differentiation in views between portfolio investors and then the multinational companies," says  Nicholas Consonery, director of the Asia practice at Eurasia Group. "There tends to be a much more negative sentiment in Wall Street than in the corporate world today.”

Consonery says Wall Street is used to double-digit growth in the Chinese economy. Now he figures it’s growing about 5 percent, slightly less than official growth statistics from the Chinese government. Still, that’s nothing to sneeze at. U.S. companies just have to get used to a more mature, slower- growing Chinese economy.

“In the past, the biggest restraint on growth was maybe not having the capacity," says John Frisbie, president of the U.S.-China Business Council. "For many companies, that era is behind them, and now it’s more like you would see in other markets around the globe.”

Frisbie says consumer demand in China is holding up, so companies like Starbucks are doing OK. But things are tougher if you’re U.S. business catering to, say, the fickle housing market.

Exit Grexit, enter Brexit. Could the UK quit the EU?

Thu, 2015-07-23 13:00

A Greek exit from the eurozone has been averted – for now at least-  but another , even bigger crisis for the European Union  is still waiting in the wings:  not Grexit  but Brexit,  a British exit from the EU.

Graham Stringer

Stephen Beard/Marketplace

Over  the next 18 months the United Kingdom will attempt to negotiate an even looser arrangement with the EU than Britain currently enjoys   and then to hold a referendum asking the British people, “Do you want in or out?" 

"Out" campaigners believe that the treatment of Greece has given their cause a major boost.   

“The events in Greece have shown what the EU is doing to its member states, how badly it’s treating them and why it is important for nations to control their own destiny,” says Rory Broomfield of the Better Off Out campaign.

Broomfield directs the campaign from his headquarters on a former British warship moored in the Thames. He believes it’s an entirely appropriate headquarters. “Churchill  once said that if Britain faced a choice between Europe and the open sea, Britain would always choose the open sea,” says Broomfield. “And he was right. We want to face outwards, towards the United States and the rest of the world and not get bogged down in a stagnant, failing Europe.”

Opposition in Britain to EU membership stems traditionally from a conservative concern about the loss of national sovereignty. But after the turmoil over Greece, the British left is also beginning to voice skepticism about Europe on the grounds of social policy.

Rory Broomfield

Stephen Beard/Marketplace

“The EU is supposed to be a caring, compassionate organization, but its treatment of the Greeks has been brutal,” says Graham Stringer, an opposition Labour member of Parliament. “The EU is dictatorial and deeply unpleasant, and many of my friends and colleagues in Parliament are now telling me they will vote against EU membership in the U.K. referendum.”

Stringer argues that the “harsh” treatment of the Greeks could help drive Britain towards an "out" vote. 

But that’s not the message from the opinion polls. The "in" campaign still retains a clear lead, with a majority of Brits still believing that the benefits of being part of a large single European market outweigh the disadvantages. In reality – since Britain is not part of the eurozone and has opted out of a number of EU measures – many Brits seem to believe they are Better Off Half In and Half Out.

Better off with the best of both worlds: Europe and the open sea.

 

Jobless claims reach 40-year low. Is wage growth next?

Thu, 2015-07-23 13:00

New jobless claims fell to 255,000, their lowest weekly level since November of 1973, the U.S. Department of Labor said Thursday.   

One would expect that this is an indication of labor market tightening. Fewer people getting laid off, fewer people in line to do your job, possibly for less than you. There should, theoretically, be less restraint on workers’ demands for a raise.

“It’s all about supply and demand,” explains Harry Holzer, professor of public policy at Georgetown. 

“The tighter the labor market, the harder it is for employers to attract or retain the workers they want or need, so they have to raise wages.”

But hourly wage growth data don’t seem to be bearing that out yet. 

Wage growth has sat at around 2 percent for the past five years, says Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute. 

“That’s pretty slow,” she says. “That’s far below any sort of reasonable wage target that would be consistent with the [Federal Reserve’s] inflation target of 2 percent and productivity growth we’ve seen. That should put wage growth more like 3.5 to 4 percent.”

The monthly wage data may not be telling the whole story, however. Gad Levanon, managing director of macroeconomic and labor market research at the Conference Board, says the average hourly earnings number can be skewed by changes in the composition of the labor market. 

“If there are more low paid occupations joining the labor market or if employment is growing faster in low paid positions, that would pull down the average paycheck increase,” he says.

Levanon looks at something known as the employment cost index, which looks at compensation while weighting the value of specific industries so it’s more of an “apples to apples comparison.” 

The most recent increase by that measure is 2.7 percent, and it has been growing faster than average hourly earnings since 2014. 

Levanon also points to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's Wage Growth Tracker, which looks at wage growth among a consistent group of individuals over time. That measure of growth is 3.2 percent.   

Will health insurance mergers help or hurt consumers?

Thu, 2015-07-23 13:00

Health insurer Anthem appears ready to throw down nearly $50 billion to purchase rival Cigna. This would be the second proposed mega-merger in the industry in less than a month.

Welcome to healthcare’s version of an arms race, where hospitals and insurers vie for supremacy. As these titans battle it out, the threat is that consumers end up losing no matter who winds up on top.

Carnegie Mellon economist Martin Gaynor says there’s a simple question we shouldn’t lose sight of in this new wave of potential deals.

“Are these mergers going to make us better off?” he asks.

Will a merged Humana and Aetna be able to do things more cheaply? Will a merged Anthem and Cigna be able to do something new?

University of Minnesota economist Steve Parente says the answer is probably yes. If these deals go through, companies will expand their business into different types of insurance, giving them better intelligence about what hospitals are willing to take.

“You now get to see in a sense exactly what providers are willing to take for a Medicaid patient that’s low income, and a commercial insurance patient that is basically the best reimbursement you are going to see,” he says.

That leverage may be why Anthem’s CEO Joe Swedish says this deal would bring in $2 billion in “annual synergies,” business speak for cost savings. Companies say that could get passed on to consumers.

But professor Leemore Dafny with Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management says if past is prologue, when insurers merge, premiums go up.

“This is a highly consolidated industry that has not delivered a lot of innovation historically,” she says. “And to believe that more consolidation is going to serve us is to put a lot of faith that increased scale will bring us improvements.”

What really troubles Dafny is that it’s hard to enter the insurance business. So if insurers fail to deliver on these merger promises, it’s not clear if anyone can step up and provide consumers with another choice.  

For background on the proposed merger, check out Mitchell Hartman’s story here.

Everyone's getting the music streaming business wrong

Thu, 2015-07-23 11:19

Taylor Swift picked a pretty big fight this summer. No, not that one.

The pop megastar took on Apple over allegedly skimping on royalties during Apple Music's free trial period, and got the company to change its tune. This wasn't the first time Swift and others had spoken out about low royalty payments from music streaming services like Spotify, from which she pulled her catalog last year. Meanwhile, Spotify argues it has paid out over $2 billion in royalties.

But a new report from the Berklee Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship says these squabbles miss the point. In fact, there are a bunch of other players, complex accounting and backroom deals that stand between the royalties services pay out and the artists' paychecks.

"We were trying to figure out what exactly happens in the value chain from the minute I [listen] to music, to the minute the creator on the other end gets paid," says Allen Bargfrede, Berklee associate professor and one of the authors of the report.

Berklee has launched a new initiative, Rethink Music, to untangle all the streams of money, dispel misconceptions about the business and propose more transparency. Let's do the numbers:

70 percent

That's the portion of revenue the iTunes store and streaming services pay out in royalties. It's tempting to think of per-stream royalties — often a fraction of a cent — as piddly contrasted with a 99 cent song or $9.99 album, but you can't really compare the two business models. The report notes someone could easily stream a song enough times to generate far more in royalties than they would have ever paid to own it. As streaming grows, what's more important is the way businesses split revenue, Bargfrede says.

"They're still paying 70 percent of their revenue, so what do you expect them to do? Do you expect them to pay 140 percent of their revenue, so you're getting twice as much? Twice as much would still be a fraction, maybe a penny or two," he says. "What exactly can a digital service do beyond what they're already doing, and waiting for the market to grow?"

700,000

That's about how many streams of royalty revenue a single song can have, according to music data company Kobalt. That's all the internet and terrestrial radio stations, streaming services, digital music stores, physical sales, licencing and so on. As more music becomes available online and services start paying royalties by-the-stream instead of by-the-sale, the amount of micro-transactions increases exponentially, Bargfrede says, and it's harder for the existing technology to keep up with all that information.

68 cents

That's the portion of a $9.99 monthly subscription to a streaming service actually makes it to artists, according to the Berklee report, and all told, labels keep about 73 percent of royalties from streaming. But that doesn't even tell the whole story.

Here's the rub: those royalties are passed down a line of rights groups, publishers or third-party distributors before they make it to the label and then the artist. These players are supposed to divvy up the royalties companies like Spotify are paying out, which is complicated; the composition and recording are usually two separate copyrights, or there might be several co-writers or publishers. All the agreements dictating those payments are secret, and researchers found that royalty statements were difficult to parse.

Bargfrede says Rethink Music got a hold of one statement from a "platinum-selling artist" signed to a major label and traced back the average royalty rate per stream, but it's difficult to know how accurate those numbers are if a sizable chunk of royalty payments don't make it to artists at all.

$42.5 million

That's the advance royalty payment stipulated by a 2011 contract between Sony and Spotify that leaked this spring. According to the Berklee report, if royalty payouts add up to less than an advance, it's typical for labels to pocket the remainder. And that's not the only way royalties get stuck in between services and artists.

When streaming services or rights organizations don't know where to distribute royalties, they're put in a "black box" account that's eventually paid out to labels according to market share. 

How could rights groups not know whom to give royalties to? Songs are often not registered in a consistent way, and sometimes titles are incorrectly translated, Bargfrede says. The disconnect could come down to a simple spelling issue — the difference between "Beyonce" and "Beyoncé."

Some have pushed for standardizing codes assigned to each composition and recording to more easily distribute royalties, but the report notes these standards — along with better technology for tracking royalties — haven't been widely adopted yet.

"There are a lot of things that could be fixed here, and there's a lot of foot-dragging," he says. "You're looking at a legacy business that's decades old, and it takes time to adopt new technology. But it's time to say, 'OK lets march forward, we need to do this,'" Bargfrede says.

$48 billion Anthem-Cigna deal could be close

Thu, 2015-07-23 03:00

Multiple news sources report that Indianapolis-based health insurer Anthem is in final negotiations to acquire competitor Cigna of Bloomfield, Connecticut. The deal would value Cigna at approximately $48 billion, or $188-per-share, according to unnamed sources.

Aetna announced earlier in July that it would buy rival Humana for $34.1 billion in cash. Both deals would face extensive scrutiny by federal antitrust regulators at the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission. Many analysts consider it unlikely that both deals would be approved, since they would reduce competition for health insurance customers and concentrate more pricing power in insurers' hands. 

The wave of proposed mega-mergers comes as insurance companies face financial pressures under the Affordable Care Act, which has been reaffirmed in recent Supreme Court decisions that turned back major legal challenges to the law.

If the mergers succeed, the number of major national health insurers would be reduced from five to three: Anthem, Aetna and UnitedHealth Group.

Management professor J.B. Silvers at Case Western Reserve University says there are compelling benefits to the bottom line for insurance companies to consolidate under Obamacare. He says the financial risk of healthcare is being shifted away from insurers, onto healthcare providers and the government. That leaves insurers needing to make more of their profits from paying claims. “Paying claims is a volume business, so this gives them some economies of scale, and it will lower their costs,” says Silvers. “Plus, the fact there are a lot more people buying health insurance because of Obamacare makes it a more lucrative market than it's ever been.”

Healthcare economist Vivian Ho at Rice University says insurers are being driven to merge by another key constituency in the rapidly-changing healthcare industry: healthcare providers. She says Obamacare has driven hospitals to merge, doctor’s groups to get bigger, and hospitals to acquire doctor’s groups. That’s increased the providers’ power to negotiate favorable deals with insurers. She says insurers are trying to consolidate to even the playing field.

Ho points out that even if the biggest insurers succeed in merging and cutting costs, they can claim some of the financial benefit won’t go to their bottom line, because of complicated rules on profit-taking under Obamacare. “I think the insurance companies are going to say, ‘We have to pay 85 percent of our premiums on health care expenditures, so that means cost savings will be passed on to the consumer,’” says Ho.

Ho says insurers have figured out ways to get around these Obamacare limits, for instance, by categorizing more client services as ‘health care expenditures.’

Antitrust regulators, meanwhile, will closely scrutinizing these proposed deals, to determine whether the merged insurers are likely to end up with too little competition — nationwide, or in specific geographic and medical markets, such as Medicare — or whether the merged insurers will gain too much power to set terms and prices for consumers, hospitals, doctors, and employers.

PODCAST: Improving infrastructure with bikes

Thu, 2015-07-23 03:00

On today's show, we'll talk about news that the number of people signing up for unemployment benefits fell to a low not seen in four decades. Plus, we'll talk about the merger between two health care giants: Anthem and Cigna. And Portland Oregon’s two defining cultures – tech and bikes – have come together to improve transportation infrastructure using a new app that will anonymously track behaviors, and preferred routes of cyclists, with or without the app. The data from these combined technologies will act as a guide for decision-making when planning bike lanes, routes, and signals.

New app aims to improve cycling in Portland

Thu, 2015-07-23 02:00

The city of Portland, Oregon, is known for its enthusiast support of cycling. With 345 miles of bikeways snaking around and through its urban core, Portland has more cyclists per capita than any other town.

 

Now a new project between the tech industry and city officials aims to make biking in Portland even easier.

 

Tech entrepreneur and cyclist William Henderson has created an app called Ride, which asks cyclists to collect data as they cruise around Portland. That data will then help the city to plan better cycling infrastructure, like signals, lanes, safer routes and where to avoid traffic.

 

Currently, 6 percent of Portland’s population cycles to work. But that number leaps to 25 percent in the inner city, which is well above the national average of less than 1 percent.

 

“Right now, we have some great infrastructure for biking and walking and transit in Portland,” Henderson says. “But we’re really not going to get any more space for our roads as the city grows, so we have to make more efficient use of it.”

 

Software developer Chris Jones is using the app during this pilot phase. Jones says he likes it because it automatically starts tracking his route as soon as he starts pedaling.

 

“It’s nice to not have to open the app and say, ‘OK, here we go, I’m starting my commute now.’ I want to just get on my bike and go where I’m going,” says Jones.

 

The goal is to have between 5,000 to 10,000 cyclists using Ride by the end of the summer.

 

In addition to the app, Henderson is installing wireless bike-counting sensors around the city to count cyclists. The idea is to replace Portland’s old methods, which includes volunteers on street corners making pen-and-paper tallies.

 

For Margi Bradway, active transportation manager at the Portland Bureau of Transportation, this new technology offers exciting possibilities.

 

“One of the reasons I’m really interested in this data is to understand cyclist types and cyclist behaviors. So when is someone willing to go on a busier street for a more direct route, versus a local street that’s further away?” Bradway says. “When we get this data, we’ll start to see patterns to help us shape the future for cycling.”

New app to improve cycling in Portland

Thu, 2015-07-23 02:00

The city of Portland, Oregon is known for its enthusiast support of cycling. With 345 miles of bikeways snaking around and through its urban core, Portland has more cyclists per capita than any other town.

Now, a new project between the tech industry and city officials is hoping to make biking in Portland even easier.

Tech entrepreneur and cyclist William Henderson has created an app called Ride, which asks cyclists to collect data as they ride around Portland. That data will then help the city to plan better cycling infrastructure, like signals, lanes, safer routes and where to avoid traffic.

Currently, 6 percent of Portland’s population cycles to work. But that number leaps to 25 percent in the inner city, which is well above the national average of less than 1 percent.

“Right now, we have some great infrastructure for biking and walking and transit in Portland,” says Henderson. “But we’re really not going to get any more space for our roads as the city grows, so we have to make more efficient use of it.”

Software developer Chris Jones is using the app during this pilot phase. Jones says he likes it because it automatically starts tracking his route as soon as he starts pedaling.

“It’s nice to not have to open the app and say, ‘Okay, here we go, I’m starting my commute now.’ I want to just get on my bike and go where I’m going,” says Jones.

The goal is to have between five to ten thousand cyclists using Ride by the end of the summer.

In addition to the app, Henderson is installing wireless bike-counting sensors around the city to count cyclists. The idea is to replace Portland’s old methods, which includes volunteers on street corners making pen-and-paper tallies.

For Margi Bradway, active transportation manager at the Portland Bureau of Transportation, this new technology offers exciting possibilities.

“One of the reasons I’m really interested in this data is to understand cyclist types and cyclist behaviors — so when is someone willing to go on a busier street for a more direct route, versus a local street that’s further away,” says Bradway. “When we get this data we’ll start to see patterns to help us shape the future for cycling.”

Pages