October 7, 2021

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

If you get a letter from the IRS that says you owe money because of a math error, pay attention. You could get one of four kinds of letters: CP 11, CP 12, CP 13, or letter 6470. None of them is likely to contain good news.

The Taxpayer Advocate Service says 9 million Americans have gotten notices from the IRS that say the government is billing them for payment due to a “math error.” 7.4 million of the errors were due to pandemic-era stimulus overpayments.

But wait, there’s more.

Financial experts warn that even more people are likely to get “math error” notices because of mistakes that inevitably have been made paying out monthly child tax credit payments.

Fast Company reports:

These letters began arriving in people’s mailboxes recently, leading many taxpayers to speculate on social media and in Facebook groups whether they might be a scam.

Fortune reports:

The best bet this year, though, is you’re getting the letter because of the economic stimulus payments. If your gross adjusted income exceeds $75,000 (or $150,000 if you’re married and filing jointly, or $112,500 if head of household), then you might have to pay some of that stimulus check back.

Fast Company zeros in on who is most likely to get a math error letter:

Specifically, these notices were sent to people who claimed the recovery rebate credit—that’s the credit that lets you claim your stimulus checks if you were eligible but never received one. In the vast majority of cases, the math error notices were likely informing people that they weren’t eligible for a recovery rebate that they’d tried to claim, or that the rebate amount would be smaller.

Can the IRS really do that? The short answer is yes. The Taxpayer Advocate Service explains:

To correct mathematical and clerical errors appearing on a return, the IRS may summarily assess additional tax using its math error authority as provided by Internal Revenue Code (IRC) § 6213. The IRS is currently correcting more errors on returns and issuing more math error notices than in previous years.

If taxpayers don’t agree with the math error adjustment, they have 60 days from the time the IRS sends a math error notice to request abatement of a math error assessment. If the taxpayer requests abatement, the IRS must comply and abate the assessment. After the abatement is made, the IRS must follow the deficiency procedures to reassess the tax. The IRS cannot collect the assessed amount during the 60-day period that the taxpayer has to request abatement.

If you have questions about one of these notices, good luck getting the IRS to respond. The Taxpayer Advocate Services say about 7% of taxpayers reached a human on the other end of the line during the 2021 tax season.

The federal government will forgive a half-million student loans

The Department of Education just announced that it is overhauling the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program and will now do what it said it would do: forgive student loans for people who work for the government or nonprofits and make loan payments for 10 years.

The program has been marred with problems for years that led to people thinking they had paid their debts only to learn they still owed thousands of dollars.

What the No Surprises Act means to you: Jan. 1

The Biden administration is putting the final touches on a new regulation that should begin Jan. 1 with the intent to end “surprise billing” from doctors and hospitals. The Associated Press puts it this way:

Patients will no longer have to worry about getting a huge bill following a medical crisis if the closest hospital emergency room happened to have been outside their insurance plan’s provider network. They’ll also be protected from unexpected charges if an out-of-network clinician takes part in a surgery or procedure conducted at an in-network hospital. In such situations, patients will be liable only for their in-network cost sharing amount.

The new Health and Human Services rules will force insurers and providers to work out their differences about billing without bothering the patient.

When an insurer and a service provider disagree over fair payment, either side can initiate a 30-day negotiation process. If they still can’t come to an agreement, they can take the matter to an independent arbitrator.

The arbitrator will use as a guide a set amount intended to balance the value of the medical services provided with goal of keeping costs from ballooning out of control. Clear justification will be required for the final payment to end up higher or lower.

The American Medical Association is calling the surprise billing regulations “an undeserved gift to the insurance industry that will reduce (health care) options for patients.” The AMA adds:

“The No Surprises Act ignores congressional intent and flies in the face of the Biden Administration’s stated concerns about consolidation in the health care marketplace. It disregards the insurance industry’s role in creating the problem of surprise billing at the expense of independent physician practices whose ability to negotiate provider network contracts continues to erode,” said AMA President Gerald A. Harmon, M.D.

If you want to know more about why physicians are complaining about the new rule, you can dive in here. The dispute mostly has to do with the process that will be used to settle on rates that an out-of-network health care provider can charge an insurance provider. You are going to see references to IDR — short for independent despite resolution process — which is the arbitration that will be used.

The American Hospital Association generally supported the IDR notion but is not happy about the final rule as it is shaping up.

KUSA in Denver has been reporting on surprise billing for years. Over and over, the station has featured people who went to an in-network hospital for an emergency only to get billed by an out-of-network physician who works at the hospital and who the insurance company refuses to pay for that reason. One of those stories helped change state law.

The big money behind false-hope COVID-19 ‘cures’

A chemist displays hydroxychloroquine tablets in Mumbai, India, Tuesday, May 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

The Intercept took the wraps off an investigation into the network of health care providers that made millions of dollars selling hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin and online consultations while badmouthing public health authorities and vaccinations. Here are two key passages in the reporting, which was based on information obtained by an anonymous hacker who handed information involving 281,000 patients to The Intercept:

America’s Frontline Doctors, a right-wing group founded last year to promote pro-Trump doctors during the coronavirus pandemic, is working in tandem with a small network of health care companies to sow distrust in the Covid-19 vaccine, dupe tens of thousands of people into seeking ineffective treatments for the disease, and then sell consultations and millions of dollars’ worth of those medications. The data indicate patients spent at least $15 million — and potentially much more — on consultations and medications combined.

The Intercept has obtained hundreds of thousands of records from two companies, CadenceHealth.us and Ravkoo, revealing just how the lucrative operation works. America’s Frontline Doctors, or AFLDS, has been spreading highly politicized misinformation about Covid-19 since the summer of 2020 and refers its many followers to its telemedicine partner SpeakWithAnMD.com, which uses Cadence Health as a platform. People who sign up then pay $90 for a phone consultation with “AFLDS-trained physicians” who prescribe treatments such as hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin to prevent and treat Covid-19. The drugs are delivered by Ravkoo, a service that works with local pharmacies to ship drugs to patients’ doors. Of course, that’s if patients ever get the consultation; many customers told Time they never received the call after paying.

The Intercept says in two months, patients paid $6.7 million for consultations and $8.5 million for drugs.

Forty-six percent of the prescriptions are for hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin, and another 30 percent are for zinc or azithromycin, two other ineffective medications that the SpeakWithAnMD physicians, who America’s Frontline Doctors claims it trains, prescribe in their Covid-19 consultations.

The report also explains the connections that the Intercept says involved top election campaign workers connected to Donald Trump and a GOP activist group that originated the medical group that backed Trump’s efforts to reopen businesses and fight COVID-19 restrictions.

‘17 is the new 15’

NPR produced this smart piece that looks at how the pandemic sidetracked quinceañera celebrations and how the venues that usually host the events are now flooded with this year’s parties in addition to those that got delayed. Yes, there will be celebrations, and there will also be recognition that the pandemic has claimed many lives — people who would have been there for the party.

Will the Biden plan for family and medical leave survive?

The pandemic magnified the need for so many people to be able to take paid time from work to care for loved ones. COVID-19 moved the conversation about paid leave away from younger workers starting families and older workers nursing illnesses to something everybody can relate to.  President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act would promise the family and maternity leave that most Americans do not have right now.

In a speech about the plan this week, Biden did not mention the paid leave parts of the plan, which is raising a question about whether the benefit will survive negotiations to lower the total cost of his plan. It is notable that he didn’t mention it because it has always been a cornerstone of BBB.

The Kaiser Family Foundation clarifies its important sections:

Effective July 2023, the proposal would guarantee 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave annually to all workers in the U.S., including those working for private employers, state, local, and federal governments, as well as self-employed and gig workers.

Workers would be covered through either the new federal program or a qualified existing employer or state paid leave program.

The proposal would replace 85% of wages for earnings up to $290 per week ($15,080 annually)

  • plus 75% of average weekly earnings between $290 and $659, plus 55% of average weekly earnings between $659 and $1,385,
  • plus 25% of average weekly earnings between $1,385 and $1,923,
  • plus 5% of average weekly earnings between $1,923 and $4,808 (about $250,000 annually).

Qualifying reasons for leave include:

  • Welcoming a new child by birth, adoption, or foster care. Research suggests that under this new proposal, the average American worker taking 12 weeks of paid leave would receive nearly $9,000 of pay.
  • Recovering from a serious illness.
  • Caring for a seriously ill family member (by blood or affinity)
  • Addressing issues arising from a loved one’s military deployment or serious injury.

What family members could workers take leave to care for?

  • Spouses, parents and guardians, and children.
  • Siblings, grandparents, and grandchildren; in-laws; and any other association by blood or affinity that is equivalent to a family relationship.
  • The proposal also allows for three days of paid bereavement leave following the death of an immediate family member. There is currently no national bereavement leave policy.

For so many workers, this would be a significant new benefit. Most of the nations of the world have some sort of universal paid family leave law, leaving the U.S. as an outlier. Right now, only one in five (21%) workers has access to paid family leave through an employer.

(Kaiser Family Foundation)

A report published by the National Bureau of Economic Research pointed out that our current family leave laws date back to 1993. In most states, leave is guaranteed but income during leave is not:

The history of family leave legislation in the United States dates to 1993, when the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was enacted to guarantee 12 weeks of unpaid job-protected leave for qualifying workers. Only larger business with 50 or more employees are covered by the FMLA, and take-up of the benefit has been low, especially among low-income workers who can’t afford to take unpaid time off.

In 2004, California became the first state to pay workers on leave a portion of their salary through the state’s employee-funded disability insurance program. Today, nine states and the District of Columbia offer some form of paid family leave. In 2019, the Trump administration extended the benefit to most federal employees. And when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Congress passed a temporary provision for paid family leave.

The Washington Center for Equitable Growth looked at how family leaves affect workplaces:

Although employers are not responsible for paying employees during the leave, extended absences are costly in other ways. The productivity of firms, for example, may decrease if it is difficult to reassign tasks or hire a replacement while an employee is on leave for several weeks. Employers who find leaves particularly costly may discriminate against groups most likely to take up the leave—new mothers or women of childbearing age—by being less likely to hire them or offering them lower wages.

Surveys of selected firms in California and New Jersey find that the vast majority of employers report either positive or neutral effects on employee productivity, morale, and costs. These studies do not find much evidence that program administration has been challenging or that employees resent their co-workers who take leave.

A new Stanford study says outright, “Paid family leave does not hurt employers.”

The National Diaper Bank Network says supplies are tight, prices rising

Stacks of diapers are shown at Curley’s House of Style, Inc., food bank, Thursday, April 23, 2020, in Miami. Curley’s House of Style, along with The Children’s Trust and the Miami Diaper Bank, distributed diapers and baby items to families financially impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

One in three American families has a “diaper need,” according to the American Diaper Network. What is a diaper need, or for that matter what is a diaper bank? The nonprofit group explains both:

What is diaper need?

  • Diaper need is the lack of a sufficient supply of diapers to keep a baby clean, dry and healthy.
  • Infants require up to 12 diapers per day, at a cost of $70 to $80 per month per baby.

How many families struggle with diaper need?

  • 1 in 3 American familiesstruggle with diaper need.
  • 5 million infants and toddlers live in poor and low-income families.
  • Government programs—including food stamps & WIC—do not provide funding for diapers.

What is the impact of diaper need?

  • Diaper need impacts the physical, mental and economic well-being of children and families.
  • The poorest 20 percent of Americans with infants and toddlers spent nearly 14 percent of their after-tax income on diapers in 2014.
  • Most child care centers require parents to provide a day’s supply of disposable diapers (four to six changes during the day). Without diapers babies cannot participate in early childhood education. Without child care, many parents cannot go to work or school.

(National Diaper Bank Network)

  • The National Diaper Bank Network (NDNB) is comprised of more than 200 community-based diaper banks, diaper pantries, and food banks working to help babies and their families in 50 states and the District of Columbia.

To find a diaper bank in your area, and/or information on how to start a diaper bank, log on towww.nationaldiaperbanknetwork.org.

The New York Times found:

Diaper banks across the country have reported recent surges in families who couldn’t afford diapers. WestSide Baby, which is based in Seattle, distributed 2.4 million diapers last year, up 60 percent from 1.5 million in 2019, according to Sarah Cody Roth, the organization’s executive director. WestSide Baby is on track this year to meet or exceed last year’s total, she said.

Diaper banks in Oklahoma and Pennsylvania have reported similar trends. Many banks give families 50 diapers per month, which covers about two weeks, said Cathy Battle, the executive director of the Western Pennsylvania Diaper Bank. That’s often not enough for families who can’t afford diapers.

States have taken different approaches to get diapers into the hands of parents.

These diaper networks are connected but run separately as nonprofits. Here’s just one example in Nashville:

(Nashville Diaper Connection)

I particularly like the Nashville Diaper Connection’s slogan:

(Nashville Diaper Connection)

I am off for a couple of days. See you Tuesday morning.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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