Thinking About Health: Shopping around can’t bring health costs down

Early in December, David, a reader who lives in the foothills west of Denver, sent me an email. “It’s scary when you go into any health care facility and don’t know whether to bring your checkbook, loan application papers or bankruptcy processing papers,” he said. “Nobody seems to care or be concerned about it.” He wanted to know why we aren’t told all costs up front so we can make informed decisions.

David had a point. When we go in for a procedure, most of the time we don’t know the total price or even what we will pay after insurance covers its share. In the last few years, the lack of transparency has provided opportunities for entrepreneurs to create websites aimed at giving patients some price information for the handful of procedures that you can actually shop for. But it’s one thing to shop for a low-cost stress test or a spinal X-ray. It’s a lot trickier when you need heart bypass surgery or a back operation.

Here’s what’s top of mind for Rep. Jason Brodeur: Health insurance …

Bills at the top of my legislative agenda for 2016, and why:[This year] will be my third try at reformation of the state group health insurance plan. Families want choice in the their health care coverage, and it is about time the state started offering innovative solutions for its employees and their dependents. Health care will become more affordable and more accessible for everyone when the industry is more transparent with all costs associated with care. The hope is that in changing the way we cover 300,000-plus lives in this state, the commercial industry will begin to follow suit by offering more choices of plans and more information about the costs in health care.

It would be nice if people paying the premiums could participate in savings if they actually saved the plan (and the overall industry) some money by shopping around for common procedures instead of just going wherever they are told. Consumers will win, costs will come down, and health care will be more accessible to all. I know there is no silver bullet in fixing health care, but this is at the heart of the overall problem.

The companion to this bill has already been filed by Sen. Jeff Brandes. The bill has passed the House in previous years, and I am hoping to pick up more steam in the Senate this year and deliver it to the governor.

Next Health Care Enrollment Deadline Friday

Next Health Care Enrollment Deadline Friday

Image Courtesy HealthCare.Gov The federal Health Insurance Marketplace opens Sunday, Nov. 1 for coverage that begins Jan. 1. Arkansans can expect to see a 4.3 percent average increase in health care plans, but shopping around could garner a better deal than last year.

Next Health Care Enrollment Deadline Friday

Image Courtesy HealthCare.Gov The federal Health Insurance Marketplace opens Sunday, Nov. 1 for coverage that begins Jan. 1. Arkansans can expect to see a 4.3 percent average increase in health care plans, but shopping around could garner a better deal than last year.

After membership dwindles, Zion Church in Manvel prepares to close doors for good

One of the churchs founders, Charles Olson, was Lois Kinneys grandfather. Co-founder Frank Middletons legacy has been carried on by his grandson, David Middleton and his wife, Marcene.

In 1958, the church was moved just north of the original site and placed on a new foundation, one with a basement.

When the congregation observed its centennial in 2001, it had 45 members. That was a far cry from the 100 or more that traveled by horseback or horse and buggy to attend Sunday services in its earliest days.

The church flourished through the first half of the 20th Century and beyond, building a tradition of serving the community.

But like others in rural America, it has struggled to survive, as young family members have migrated to larger cities and congregations have aged.

Im the second youngest member, said 58-year-old David Kinney, Lois son. When I was in Sunday School, there were probably 20 kids. Then it gradually got smaller. They get married and then they probably start going to the other ones church.

Manvel has had three churches for most of its existence: St. Timothys Catholic, Trinity Lutheran and Zion.

Some church members havent decided yet how they will spend their Sunday mornings. Family of God in East Grand Forks is an option, but some are looking closer to home.

Barb Leeson has been attending Trinity in Manvel for the past few Sundays.

Im just short of shopping around, she said.

David Kinney, who has sung in the church choir virtually all of his life, also is looking just down the street to St. Timothys.

They said I can sing in their choir, he said. And I like the fact that theyre constantly working in the community. Thats what weve always tried to do, to make the community better.

Buy More Than Minimum Liabilities Auto Insurance If You Can

Large number of motorists buy full coverage instead of liabilities coverage only. Generally, people understand the importance of insuring their investments on cars. Also, they understand that they need a lot more coverage than the amount imposed by their states. The mandatory coverage is not open for negotiations and you will get fines if you dont buy the cover and drive. You can choose to increase the minimum amounts and buy additional coverage.

Some choose to insure their own damages and forget the others. Though this is so, there is no way they can be allowed to go away without paying for any damage that they may cause. That is why legal responsibility is there. This tells you that if people were to be left to follow their own mind how spoiled the world can be. This is because many care so much about themselves.

When you become a first time insurance applicant because you have bought your first car, there are several things to consider. At this time you are probably young with not much experience in things to do with auto insurance. You are most likely to make some mistakes. You may choose to go for the cheapest quote because you have already spent a lot of money purchasing a new vehicle.

Another reason for buying a cheaper vehicle insurance policy is because people dont have much savings. However, cheaper policies may be achieved by compromising on the coverage offered. When people start earning more money and buying nicer automobiles they start thinking about insuring their vehicles properly. That would be the time most people would say goodbye to basic coverage.

You can increase coverage or rearrange the policy completely any time you want. Most companies are happy to make changes to policies and recalculate the premium. Remember that your car insurance liabilities are not limited to minimum amount set by your state. You are responsible for the entire damages and injuries you caused. And people will come after you if your insurance coverage runs out.

Generally minimum liabilities cover is really kept low to avoid policies being too expensive for low income drivers. Therefore, it is advisable to increase the amounts insured. Then, there is a high chance that all the losses you caused will be covered by insurance. When they are fully compensated nobody will be thinking of suing you for any shortfalls.

Many people who have good earnings from their jobs and businesses wouldnt want to risk their wealth by not having enough liabilities cover. They know that the victims wont forgive and forget when they suffer a loss as a result of their actions. They will chase you until they are fully compensated. That is why it is important to increase minimum coverage because it will be great at such a time.

Many people ignore this possibility not knowing what may follow them later if an accident happens. You should also consider what would happen if you and your family members get injured in accidents. If you dont have sufficient health insurance to pay for hospital bills you may consider buying personal injury protection coverage. Paying medical bills on your own and at once may be tougher. Financial stress of where you are going to get the funds will be added to your pain.

If you own a fairly new car consider insuring it comprehensively. There are two types of cover that you should not ignore. These are the collision which pays for the accident that may happen on the road and cause damages. The other one is comprehensive which is there to cater for damages which may be caused by storms, theft, fire, vandalism and anything similar.

Generally, there are good package policies in the market that you can buy at reasonable premium. You shouldnt ignore shopping around for the best deal. Potential savings can really be high that you will lose out on them by accepting the renewal quote without comparing with alternatives.

This article previously published on my blog here.

FCA data raises annuity shopping around concerns

The number of people using the pension freedoms to access their retirement pots dropped 13 per cent in the second quarter, but concerns remain the annuity market is continuing to fail consumers.

FCA data for the three months to September 2015 reveals 178,990 pensions were accessed in the second quarter of the freedoms, down from 204,581 between April and June.

Of these, 120,969 (68 per cent) were fully cashed out, although the vast majority (88 per cent) of these were people with small pots worth less than pound;30,000.

Uncrystallised funds pension lump sums remains the most popular withdrawal method, with 60,600 taking this option, down from 73,063 in the previous quarter.

Some 54,604 (30 per cent) used income drawdown, down from 71,455 in the previous quarter, while 23,385 annuities were sold during the period.

While the annuity sales figure is significantly higher than the previous quarter, the FCA says providers under-reported in Q1 of the reforms partly due to firms misinterpreting the way in which we were asking them to report the data.

Just 3,381 3rd way products which includes variable annuities, fixed-term annuities, with-profits annuities and unit-linked annuities were purchased between July and September.

Here Are 3 Ways to Get Out of Credit Card Debt Now

The holidays may have been weeks ago, but the hangover has just begun.

Credit card bills showing how much you spent in December are starting to roll in this month, and many Americans are finding that their holidays were a little too jolly.

In 2013 and 2014, balances on credit cards increased around 4 percent in December, according to an analysis by credit reporting agency TransUnion on behalf of TFT, reflecting the rise in shopping around the holidays. That growth rate is more than four times the growth rate observed in non-holiday months.

If you’re shell-shocked by the large number staring back at you from your credit card bill, consider these three strategies to pay it off as quickly as possible.

Related: Why Millions of Millennials Can’t Get Credit Cards

1. Bite the bullet. The most responsible and fastest way is to just pay the entire balance off, even if you need to suspend contributions to your retirement account for a few months, says John Ulzheimer, a credit expert formerly with FICO and Equifax. The interest is just too expensive and can add up the longer you wait.

“The faster you can exhaust your holiday debt, the more enjoyable 2016 will be,” he said. “You don’t want to get statements in April with purchases from the holidays still on them.”

2. Prioritize payments. If you can’t pay off your credit card bills with one big check, then pay off the most expensive balances first, says Ulzheimer. Start with the credit cards with the highest interest rate–often store credit cards–and move your way down to ones with lower rates, throwing as much money as you can at the balance. But don’t forget to pay more than minimum on the other cards, too.

“It’s the lesser of a variety of evils because most credit cards have high interest rates,” he says.

Related: Do Americans Have a Credit Card Problem Again?

3. Try a balance transfer. Another strategy is to transfer the balance to a card that offers a zero-percent interest rate for an introductory period like 12 to 18 months, says Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com. Consider the length of the intro period–will you be able to pay off the entire balance before the intro period expires? If not, know what the interest rate will be after the intro period lapses. Calculate any balance transfer fees to make sure the transaction makes financial sense. Also, don’t forget to see if there are any deadlines for completing the balance transfer, Schulz says.

“There are a lot of quirks and rules with balance transfer cards,” he says.

Meet China’s Killer Drones

Iraqi officials revealed last weekend that one of their armed drones carried out an airstrike which mistakenly killed nine members of a Shiite militia near Tikrit in a friendly fire incident. The news came as a surprise, mostly because many people didnt know Iraq had armed drones.

Iraq, for the record, very much does. And so do a number of countries, especially in the Middle East, thanks to the rise of China as a prolific developer and no-questions-asked exporter of armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Chinese exports are now helping to loosen the door policy of the once-exclusive club of countries with drones capable of destroying targets on the ground. Unmanned Chinese aircraft like the armed Caihong, or Rainbow, series of drones are fast becoming the Kalashnikovs of the drone world — entry-level alternatives for countries eager to achieve a basic unmanned strike capability quickly and cheaply.

Turns out there are a lot of eager buyers. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt have bought armed Chinese drones, as have Pakistan, Nigeria, and Iraq. Actually using the robotic aircraft hasn’t always gone smoothly: Nigerias armed CH-3, short for Caihong-3, drones first became public when one of them surfaced in photos of a crash in the northeastern part of the country, though its unclear whether the aircraft went down due to technical problems or ground fire. Two CH-4 drones also reportedly crashed in Algeria while undergoing testing by the Algerian military, which has been weighing a purchase.

Those countries are turning to Chinese drones because they’re easier to buy — and much cheaper — than their American counterparts. Washington has strict limits on which countries can buy US-made armed drones. China is willing to sell them to anyone with cash to spend.

Chinas drone marketing revolves around a three-pronged strategy of price, privacy, and product, according to Ian Easton, a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute, an Arlington, Virginia, think tank focused on Asian security issues.

On the product side, armed drones had been the almost exclusive and rarely exported preserve of Western countries like the United States and Israel. But China has spent years working to develop its own UAV industry to catch up with the United States, in part to ensure it could keep pace with American military technology in the event of a future conflict between the two superpowers.

“This is a sector they’ve been investing in heavily since just after 2000. There are anywhere between 75 [and] 100 UAV-related companies, both private and state-owned, building things out to meet demand, says Richard Fisher Jr., a senior fellow on Asian military affairs at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, a think tank in Alexandria, Virginia, focused on international security issues. The Chinese government gives them all lunch money, and they just work building new things. Sometimes the government will buy them. Sometimes they’ll let these companies export them.”

That investment has helped the Chinese drone industry market cheaper, albeit somewhat less capable, versions of the iconic American Predator and Reaper drones to a wide international market — all without forcing buyers to jump through the political and regulatory hurdles that exist in the United States. In addition to US national arms export regulations, the United States abides by the voluntary international Missile Technology Control Regime, which asks members to apply a strong presumption of denial to exports of drones that can carry a 1,100-pound payload more than 185 miles.

Chinese drone companies also spare buyers some of the controversy associated with armed drones by making the actual transactions as opaque as possible. Easton says Chinese drone makers are protective of their clients privacy, revealing little about buyers or prices.

Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have reportedly bought the armed GJ-1 variant of the Wing Loong drone, developed by Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group. But its the CH-3 and CH-4B armed drones, made by China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC) and marketed by Aerospace Long-March International Trade (ALIT), that appear to be the most popular models so far.

A number of countries began adding those drones to their fleets in 2015. The Nigerian Air Force showed off its own CH-3 during a visit from its chief of air staff in July. Pakistans Burraq drone, reportedly based on the CH-3, carried out its first strike in September. Iraq revealed itself as a CH-4B customer in October, and in December IHS Janes published an analysis of satellite imagery which appeared to point to a CH-4B on the runway at Saudi Arabias Jizan Regional Airport.

Iraqs CH-4B rollout ceremony in October:

Thus far, though, Pakistan and Iraq are the only two countries with confirmed airstrikes carried out by Caihong drones, with Iraq launching its first reported CH-4B strike in December.

A December CH-4B strike in Iraq: 

Kelvin Wong, an Asia-Pacific analyst for IHS Janes, has seen both CH-3 and CH-4B drones up close at international airshows, where CASC and ALIT company officials have been happy to talk up their products, often to curious delegations from Middle Eastern countries.

The CH-3 debuted in 2008, followed by the CH-4B later in 2012, and Wong says that in the years since, CASC has continued to improve [its] features as well as develop new and compatible sensor and weapon payloads since those were publicly introduced.”

The CH-3A, an updated variant, is a smaller, tactical drone. Its official specifications list an ability to carry just over 130 pounds of missiles and bombs on the two hardpoints under its wings. However, Wong has seen the drone displayed with two of Chinas roughly 100-pound AR-1 missiles, a sign that the actual payload capacity might hold a heavier load of weapons than the specifications suggest. The small size of the CH-3A comes at the cost of a shorter endurance, however, with the ability to loiter in the air for just around six hours.

By contrast, the CH-4B is a larger drone that closely resembles the bulb-nosed, V-tail, American MQ-9 Reaper. The CH-4Bs larger size gives it the ability to carry more missiles and bombs and stay in the air over targets for up to 40 hours. In addition to making it available for export, China has also integrated the CH-4B into its own Peoples Liberation Army Air Force.

Its the added loitering time and armaments capability that make the CH-4B an attractive purchase; the drone can carry both AR-­1 laser-guided missiles and FT-9 guided bombs. The AR-1 is the Chinese equivalent of the ubiquitous [American] Hellfire air-to-ground missile seen on the Predator and Reaper drones, Wong said.

The weapon can pierce through about 40 inches of armor, making it an effective weapon when used on certain structures or lightly armored vehicles. The 110-pound FT-9 is a small precision bomb that can find targets either through satellite navigation systems like GPS or be guided to them by a laser and clocks in at a little heavier than the 99-pound AR-1 missile.

In November, CASC also teased the debut of another armed Caihong drone, the CH-5, with a small model at a defense industry conference in Shenzhen, China. The CH-5 is reportedly designed to carry a larger payload of weapons and will reportedly be available for export alongside its predecessors.

Model of a CH-5 (photo credit to China Daily):

Specific pricing information for Chinas armed drones is hard to come by, but experts believe the aircraft are much cheaper than their Western counterparts. The Wing Loong, an apparent copy of the US Predator drone, reportedly costs as little as $1 million per UAV, whereas an actual Predator has a $4 million unit cost. CASC literature advertises its armed drones as affordable for small to medium countries and available for just the price of a modern main battle tank.

There are some hints that the relatively cheap price for Chinas armed drones comes at the cost of less capability or even perhaps quality. Jeremy Binnie, an IHS Janes analyst focused on the Middle East, notes that while pictures of Iraqs CH-4B sitting in a hangar first leaked in mid-March 2015, Iraqi officials didnt officially announce the purchase until October. It seems a bit surprising to me that the Iraqis took so long to get their [drone] operational, says Binnie. That suggests to me that there are some teething problems.

Leaked photo of Iraqs CH-4B (photo credit to Iraqimilitary.org): 

Other incidents could point to reliability issues with the Caihong drones. Nigerias armed CH-3 first became public when one of them surfaced in photos of a crash in the countrys northeast. Two CH-4 drones also reportedly crashed in Algeria during tests by the Algerian military, though the incidents may not have dampened the countrys enthusiasm for a purchase. Algeria is also rumored to have expressed interest in purchasing an armed CH-4 to help in its war against domestic al Qaeda-linked militants.

Wong also points to Chinas historic struggles with self-sufficiency in engine technology as a sign that it may not have yet reached complete parity with the United States. I was told that the current turboprop engine installed in the CH­-4 is a ‘mature and reliable’ indigenous design, but I have my doubts about this claim.

Chinas drones may be cheap, capable, and discrete, but they still owe much of their market share to the tight restrictions that the United States, an early developer and prolific user of armed drones, has placed on exporting UAVs. While the United States has sold armed Reaper drones to countries like Britain, even close NATO allies like Italy have found that adding an armed capability to their unarmed Reaper drones can entail a lengthy and difficult approval process. In the process, the United States has been mostly left out of the global armed drone market, which represents a slice of the international military drone market expected to be worth up to $10 billion by 2024.

In a recognition of mounting frustration among American allies and defense contractors, the State Department announced last February that it would relax some export restrictions on US drone sales. But in November, outgoing Air Force acquisition chief William LaPlante noted that American allies at the Dubai Airshow were still grumbling that Chinese weapons, including drones, were a preferable option because of the difficulty in getting American sales approved.

The US-based Textron Systems has been working on an armed version of the Shadow UAV, which may pique the interest of international buyers and offer a less sensitive export option than American Reaper or Predator drones. In a statement to Foreign Policy, Textrons senior vice president and general manager of unmanned systems, Bill Irby, writes that the company has tested the Shadow® Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System (both M2 and V2 variants) with Textron Systems Weapon amp; Sensor Systems Fury lightweight precision-guided weapon successfully, noting that any exports of weapons, data link, and sensor technology would be subject to government approval.

Aside from the United States and China, not many other countries have jumped headlong into the armed drone export market. South Africas Denel has floated the prospect of selling an armed Seeker 400 drone for export. And Israel, a world-class drone producer, has offered its Heron TP drone, which can carry arms, to India and Germany. Nonetheless, Israels frosty relations with Arab countries make it an unlikely producer to meet the growing Middle Eastern UAV demand.

The popularity of the CH-4 system demonstrates that UAVs are less likely to be a flash in the pan than a relevant part of national military capabilities around the world moving forward, said Michael Horowitz, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies US drone export policy.

And that means more and more countries like Iraq are likely to be shopping around in the global UAV marketplace — and finding Chinese drones to fit their needs instead of American ones.

Top photo credit: Screengrab from YouTube

Quentin Sharp on shopping around

Quentin Sharp on shopping around

Posted by Quentin Sharp on January 6, 2016

Long ago banks used to have mobile branches in smart caravans that they corralled onto university campuses like frontier wagons in a Western, whilst the staff inside cocked their weapons ready to face waves of students banking their grant cheques (oh yes, we got a grant in those days).

The banks all had promotions such as a free piggy bank, book token or overdraft and since we were all promiscuous customers with time on our hands we signed up with all of them and collected all the freebies.

And thus started my long career as a serial bank account opener. What started with a lust for a £10 book token became a raging thirst for the best interest rate. Each week I would scour the list of best-buy accounts and shift the loot from bank to bank chasing down a quarter or half point advantage.

Then – oh joy of joys – came demutualisation, the transformation of the mutualised building societies into public limited company banks. Account holders got preferential treatment, even free shares – it was money for nothing and stuffing a few hundred pounds into every pint-sized building society up and down the country became de rigueur. What fun we had back in those days.

Then crazy foreign banks came into the market trying to lure us away from our British heritage with free travel insurance and foreign currency accounts and, by God, it worked. I opened more accounts and rejoiced in the gold- and platinum-coloured cards bestowed on me in an era where shopkeepers took note of your status through such things.

And then internet and online accounts happened – whoopee! You could now move cash around in the blink of an eye. The number of bank accounts I opened  grew exponentially. But there was a dark side to this account gathering; I began to lose track of where my money was.

A couple of years went by when I was fairly certain that I had a quarter of a million somewhere but couldn’t actually put my finger on where it might be. It turned up in an internet account I had forgotten about – and forgotten the password too (but that’s another story).

But if I forgot about accounts the blasted Inland Revenue didn’t. They had a funny habit of commenting on my tax return asking if I’d forgotten any bank interest? They knew perfectly well I’d forgotten some bank interest and exactly how much because it gets reported straight to them. But they like their little cat and mouse game.

After being banged on the head by HMRC, I decided it was time for a clear out. I would cut down to one UK private bank – small and very personal. But then I found it quite useful to have a second private bank in the Isle of Man; and some of my investments needed a Swiss private bank based in Geneva… and so now here I am right back where I started, and what’s more these private types don’t even offer a free piggy bank or book token. It leaves me longing for those simple student days again.

The career of “Quentin Sharp” includes banking, property finance, leveraged buyouts and mortgaged-backed securities. Search for “The best of Quentin Sharp” to find his musings on back-stabbing, the perils of computer models, and much more.