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Monday, March 3, 2014

Medical bills are the leading cause for American bankruptcy

Medical costs and bankruptcy are a problem for millions
Many medical related bankruptcies effect insured Americans
By Kenneth Gray

As many individuals as well as government officials are attempting to analyze and curb instances of bankruptcies and severe financial problems, many economists and government officials are taking a look at what is causing major financial issues such as bankruptcies and discovering that the leading cause of bankruptcies is not credit card bills or unpaid mortgages, but rather unpaid medical bills.

The issue of unpaid medical bills is so serious and far reaching that 2 million people file bankruptcy because of them on a yearly basis, and countless others may teeter dangerously close to the same predicament. As many as twenty percent of Americans between the ages of 19 and 64 are reportedly facing major financial problems related to medical bills.

Health insurance is not full protection against bankruptcy

While lack of insurance may surely be a major factor for many people whose bills have spiraled to the point of bankruptcy, the unfortunate reality is that even people who are insured are among the individuals facing financial catastrophe because of their doctor and hospital bills.

Many policies that come at lower price points or that may be available to individuals who are purchasing their own plans may come with higher deductibles that mean even an insured person may face extremely high costs out of pocket. Some policies, for example, may come with deductibles as high as five or ten thousand dollars, which can present a high financial burden for the average household.

When these out of pocket expenses are not paid, they may balloon to even greater amounts, placing many patients at great risk for forcing their bills to go unpaid, which may then lead to bankruptcy.

Affordable Care Act not a cure all

The issue of medical bills and major financial hardship is not a new one, and legislation like the Affordable Care Act has sought to minimize instances of bankruptcy and  other major problems related to medical debt.

The Affordable Care Act expands coverage to millions of Americans in a number of ways, by eliminating many of the reasons that coverage could previously have been denied and by offering policies to individuals at lower price points, as they are subsidized by the government.

The Affordable Care Act has already greatly reduced the number of uninsured Americans, but many economists argue that this is not necessarily a total fix for the problem of medical billing related debt. As it is, many of the people filing bankruptcy are already covered by a policy of some kind.

Some hope for change

Although medical debt remains a serious problem for many, there is some positive information that the steps being taken to reduce instances of major financial problems related to medical debt are having some impact on the number of individuals facing bankruptcy.

The numbers of medical debt related bankruptcies have gone down in the last year, and it does seem that more accessible health care, along with requirements to make bills more manageable may be helping more people keep their financial and physical health in tact. 

About the author: Kenneth Gray has spent years helping people resolve outstanding medical bills for individuals and providers and is always happy to answer medical billing questions at A-Fordable Billing Solution.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Bitcoin: The future is now

By Dr. Matthew B. Candelaria

One of the last barriers to a truly multinational, virtual economy is being removed. Up until now, all virtual economies were limited by one major impediment: they were still tied to the financial systems of the users. Where you lived and the currency you used created huge inequalities for people in countries with unstable currencies. Now, though, the virtual economy has its own currency. Bitcoin is becoming a more visible and more accepted currency, moving from the realm of Internet oddity to mainstream value.

Bitcoin history

Bitcoin was first described in 2009 as a digital currency that is created and monitored by a peer-to-peer network of trading computers. These computers work together to verify the number and status of bitcoins. They confirm transactions and wallets to ensure that bitcoins are accurately counted and transferred.

Why Bitcoin works

Bitcoin works because all currencies are virtual. Although we're used to having pieces of paper or metal to track currency, the true place where money exists is in the minds of the agents involved in a transaction. Both transactors have to believe in the value of the currency they are exchanging. Otherwise, an exchange can't work.

Bitcoin can work because it has created a system that transactors believe retains and protects the value of the currency. As long as people are able to come to an agreement about the value of the currency, it can be useful.

How Bitcoin works

The future of Bitcoin
Bitcoin devaluation was very high in early 2014
In Bitcoin, the confidence in the currency is provided not by the guarantee of a government, but by the security of its algorithms. This is provided by the intense cryptographic cooperation in which all participating users engage. They work together to secure the currency and ensure that every transaction is authorized and verified. An attempt to create or pass forged or illegitimate Bitcoins is detected by discrepancies in the records. If the computers don't all agree, the transaction isn't legitimate.

In addition, all transactions are kept in the public record, so that the computers all know which Bitcoins were used when and where and by whom.

How you get Bitcoins

There are two basic ways to get Bitcoins. You can buy them, or you can mine them. Buying Bitcoins is just like buying any other currency. You transfer money from one currency to another, based on the agreed-upon exchange rate. This can be done via a number of Bitcoin exchanges, such as Coinbase, which is what Pro Impressions used to purchase their first Bitcoin.

The other way is Bitcoin mining. Mining serves a twofold purpose. First, it confirms the transaction records, so that all computers can come to a consensus about the current state of Bitcoins. Second, it creates new Bitcoins. People who do the mining receive not only a transaction fee, but also a supply of new Bitcoins.

Bitcoin's remaining challenges

Bitcoin is saddled with a number of challenges. First, its ostensible identity as a cryptocurrency has attracted an illegal element that may serve to bring the entire system down. As one of its celebrities was arrested last month for money laundering and other charges, so could many of the other people involved in these types of exchanges, which will scare away both legitimate and illegitimate users. And then there's the question of whether Bitcoin will retain any value. As we noted above, Bitcoin is a pure fiat currency--there's nothing to back it up other than faith in its value. As a result, the currency can fluctuate wildly. Recently, it's seen growth, but when the Mt. Gox exchange announced it had to halt withdrawals, there was a run on the currency, causing it to drop rapidly from $831 a coin to $658 and ended the day in the area of $720. Any currency that can lose 20% of its value because a website goes down may seem like a bad investment.

Bitcoin's moment is now

Although Bitcoins have been around as an oddity for a long time, it seems that they are finally ready to make the leap into mainstream currency. One of the biggest signs of this transition is that several major online retailers now seem open to using them. WordPress was among the first household names to start accepting the currency, after PayPal blocked people in certain countries because of fraud and unstable currencies. Overstock.com is the largest retailer to begin accepting Bitcoins.

But what is really telling is how people outside of retail are now regarding Bitcoin as a viable currency. Recently, a Texas Senatorial candidate has declared he will accept Bitcoin contributions. The Sacramento Kings have recently started accepting Bitcoins, and even My Hills Dentist in Sydney has announced they would be willing to take Bitcoins.

If Bitcoin is ever going to become a practical system of exchange, it must do it now, and if you want to join the Bitcoin economy, your time is now, too. About 75% of Bitcoins will be mined by 2016. Now you need to make a decision. Are you going to support Bitcoins or hope that something better comes along?

About the author: Dr. Matthew B. Candelaria (PhD, U of Kansas 2006) is a freelance writer and futurist who writes frequently about issues of technology, including Internet security, cloud computing, learning content management systems, field service management systems, mobile computing, and other business computing problems and solutions.

Image license: Satoshi, US-PD

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Use the thermostat to save on winter heating costs

Programmable thermostats have the potential to save money with accuracy
Small habit changes can add up to substantial long-term savings
 Household budgets account for a wide range of expenses, including food, shelter, clothing and transportation. Energy costs are another large budget category for homeowners, who pay for electricity and heat for their homes.

While year round costs associated with powering household electronics, heating bath water, and creating heat to cook with are substantial in their own right, winter weather poses even greater cause for alarm, requiring additional resources to pay for the costs of keeping your domicile warm.   

Energy conservation and overall consciousness about responsible energy use are among the world's primary shared concerns.  To remain sustainable, planetary inhabitants are all in line for energy use adjustments, correcting a system that does not have sustainable parameters. In addition to acting in the collective good, responsible energy use leads to personal gains as well. 

By controlling waste, and remaining mindful of the energy we use, each individual stands to save money on overall energy costs. Powering down electronics, even unplugging them from the wall when not in use, ensures the greatest level of efficiency using electric powered devices.  Multiplied by the number of plugs going in to your wall outlets, and it is easy to see why substantial savings are on the table when energy conscious protocols are followed.

The actual price of energy is beyond the control of consumers, who must pay the going rate at the petrol pumps, and meet provider prices when buying electricity and heating energy.  What is possible for each energy customer to change is the commitment to change behaviors to more energy conscious practices.  While several fronts exist for savings, heating appliances are prime targets for reducing energy use.  Creating heat uses lots of fuel, so reducing your call for higher temperatures results in immediate savings on energy costs.

Lower your call for heat to save money immediately

There are many ways to trim household expenses, especially those relating to energy use.  Your thermostat regulates the temperature in your home by linking a thermometer with a device that fires your boiler.  When the temperature starts to fall below a certain point, the automated features kick-in, telling your heating unit it is time to start generating some BTUs.  As the temperature once again cycles into an acceptable range, the sending unit alerts the boiler to slow down on heat production until it is called for again.  The system regulates heat within your home over time, creating an average ambient condition selected on your thermostat.  The reality of most family schedules, however, leaves the house empty for long stretches during the day and has family members coming and going at all times.  As a result, boilers run too much, trying to keep up when heat is not even required by a home's occupants.  To save money on heating costs, lower the temperature setting on your thermostat.  Even minor adjustments, of a couple degrees, have dramatic impacts on overall utility bills over time.

Program thermostats for consistent winter savings

In addition to lowering temperature settings on thermostats, many modern energy conscious homeowners are moving toward the latest and greatest thermostat options.  Programmable models allow homeowners to input times and temperatures reflecting their families' heating needs.  When the kids are away at school, for example, settings can be lowered, for there is no one home to call for heat.  During the evening, when the entire family is gathering for dinner and leisure time, heat settings can be boosted to levels adequate for warming the whole gang.  There is no limit to the number of cycles programmed, so it is even possible to fire the boiler a short time before you are expected home, so that the house is toasty warm when you arrive.

Image license: Jill, jellidonut... what-ever, CC BY-SA 2.0

Is the UK construction finally on a long-term recovery to at least 2017?

By Nick Thomas

U.K. real industry news
Media City, U.K.
The past few years have undoubtedly been some of the worst on record for the construction industry. According to government data (from ONS), the gross value added of the UK construction industry in 2012 was £83.0 billion (in 2012 prices), the lowest level since 2002 in real terms. But it now looks as if we are finally turning the corner (although optimists have been proved wrong before); we see the seemingly ever-increasing number of job adverts for bid managers as surely a positive sign of an upturn. The anticipated economic growth of about 2.5% in 2014 will also help.  

One of the leading forecasters – Construction Products Association – has just produced its latest forecast and predicts that the industry is primed for five years of sustained growth. Following an estimated 2.4% increase in 2013, the CPA forecasts growth in output of 3.4% in 2014, followed by 5.2% in 2015, 4.4% in 2016 and 3.8% in 2017.

The recovery has largely been driven by the much-reported rapid expansion in house building, but in addition we are now seeing growth in new infrastructure and a recovery in London commercial activity. Road and rail construction will support significant growth, while offices and retail are also expected to increase.  

But this forecast comes with a health warning from the CPA, noting that “considerable uncertainties remain regarding the long-term sustainability of the recovery in the industry and wider economy in the latter years of this forecast post-2015… The largest constraint to industry recovery continues to be public sector construction. Public non-housing output fell 27.2% between 2010 and 2012 and the sector is not anticipated to recover until the impacts of capital investment growth feed through in 2015.”

This positive outlook is consistent with the global trend, as international construction markets in 2014 are expected to enjoy their best year since 2007 (prior to the financial crisis). This is according to a new report by Turner & Townsend. In particular they see growth in Brazil, Japan, Qatar, Russia, UAE and the US as well as in the UK. (Brazil, Qatar and Russia are “coincidentally” the venues of the next three World Cups).

Inevitably, perhaps, there are some caveats with this good news. Construction contract prices in the UK could jump in 2014 as volumes of work and costs grow, according to a new report by Deloitte. There are also already reports of skill shortages and increasing prices of materials. An FT article  has found that building contractors in London are warning of rising prices over the next 18 months as demand for construction collides with a shortage of building materials and labour. For example, brick prices rose by 15% in the year to Q3 2013, according to the EC Harris/Construction News Contractor Input Cost Index.

In conclusion, this outlook is obviously good news and with an election due in May 2015 the government will not want to see a key sector of the economy slipping again. For more information about our construction marketing expertise, please visit Thomas Consult.

About the author: This article was provided by Nick Thomas, the business growth specialist behind Thomas Consult.

Image license: Pit-Yacker, CC BY 2.0