Archive for June, 2013

In Tokyo, all garbage is not created equal

Monday, June 24th, 2013

Why am I blue?: Trash in city-mandated garbage bags waiting to be collected

Why am I blue?: Trash in city-mandated garbage bags waiting to be collected

Two weeks ago the city of Chiba announced that it would start charging noncommercial residents for garbage collection in February. Like many municipalities throughout Japan it will use a garbage bag system: All refuse must be deposited for collection in special bags sold by the city. Presently, Chiba only charges businesses for refuse collection, but the cost of processing garbage continues to go up. In the beginning, residents will pay ¥36 for a 45-liter bag, regardless of whether the trash is burnable or non-burnable. That comes to about ¥0.8 per liter, which will only put a very small dent in the city’s revenue problems. Three years ago Chiba was spending ¥13.3 billion a year on refuse processing, and estimated that 45 liters worth of burnable trash cost ¥280 to dispose of. The same amount of non-burnable trash cost ¥220 to process.

According to Tokyo Shimbun, local governments started charging their residents for refuse collection around the turn of the millennium. Now, about 55 percent of municipalities in Japan do so, and most use the garbage bag system, which only pays for part of the cost. However, the burden on residents varies widely from one place to another, even within the prefecture of Tokyo.

People who live in the 23 wards don’t pay any extra for refuse collection, but those who live in the cities and towns of the Tama region of Western Tokyo pay a lot A woman interviewed in the article recently moved from Ota Ward to Mitaka City. Where she used to live she paid nothing for trash collection, but Mitaka requires that refuse be placed in bags, otherwise it won’t be picked up. A package of 10 purple 40-liter bags costs ¥750.

Continue reading about garbage regulations →

With refrigerators, bigger is better in more ways than you think

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

High end: a 603-liter refrigerator with a five-star rating and 244 percent energy efficiency that uses ¥5,500 of electricity a year

High end: a 603-liter refrigerator with a five-star rating and 244 percent energy efficiency that uses ¥5,500 of electricity a year

Over the past decade or so our diet has changed slightly. We almost never eat meat at home and have gradually eliminated most dairy products. Consequently, the volume of food in our refrigerator has decreased over time, and since we bought it in 2002 it is already considered obsolete, inefficient even. Refrigeration technology has improved markedly in the past 10 years to the point that devices made now use as little as one-fourth the amount of energy used by an equivalent sized refrigerator made in the ’80s or ’90s. And since we are contemplating moving sometime in the future we decided it might be a good idea to buy a new, smaller model when we do in order to take advantage of this greater efficiency.

So we went to our local discount electronics store and looked at all the models. Of course, smaller refrigerators cost less than larger ones, but when we looked at the energy consumption specifications we became confused. The bigger the volume of the refrigerator, the less energy it used. In some comparisons the difference was startling. If you look on the inside of the main compartment door of a refrigerator there is a sticker with the pertinent specifications, one of which is the average amount of kilowatts the appliance uses in a given year when operating continuously. We saw one 500-liter model that used only 40 percent of the energy that a 350-liter model used. The manufacturers make the comparison even easier by printing the average amount of money you will pay in electricity for a year on the outside of a given model. Moreover, there are star ratings, from one to five, that indicate energy efficiency in relative terms, with five stars indicating the most efficient.

We asked a salesman if there was a smaller refrigerator that was as efficient as a large one and he quickly said there wasn’t. The difference he said was that larger refrigerators used inverters to control the operation of the compressors in a smoother fashion, while smaller refrigerators used conventional compressors that simply went on and off to control interior temperatures. The inverter, however, also makes the refrigerator itself more expensive. When we said our present refrigerator was 415 liters and that we wanted something smaller, he said rather presumptuously, “I can tell you which size you need.”

Since we aren’t newlyweds and found his manner condescending we decided to look into the matter ourselves. The star system is administered by the Energy Conservation Center of Japan, a government organ, and is based on the energy savings achievement rate (sho-ene taseiritsu) established by the 2006 Energy Conservation Law. The unit used for comparison’s sake is Annual Performance Factor, a means of measuring energy efficiency. In order to come up with an efficiency rating, the ECCJ currently uses “the most efficient product” on the market in terms of energy consumption in 2010. The efficiency percentages on the store sticker are based on APF and thus only indicate relative values. For instance, an energy efficiency finding of 110 percent means that the model is 10 percent more efficient than the 2010 model chosen by the ECCJ as the standard, and which is not publicly disclosed. The stars are more or less a means of making these comparisons even easier. However, comparing refrigerator prices against money saved on electricity bills may require a certain algebraic capability that most consumers don’t possess or, if they do, probably don’t want to bother with.

Conventional compressors, which use electricity and chemicals to cool the interior of the refrigerator, turn off when the desired temperature is reached and then turn on again when the temperature rises above that level. It takes a lot of energy to turn a compressor on. The inverter works on a kind of fuzzy logic principle. It keeps the compressor working all the time but at variable levels, using less energy in the process. It also produces much less noise since conventional compressors tend to get loud when they start up again. That’s why an older refrigerator, or a smaller new one, suddenly kicks into high gear whenever you open the door. An inverter will add at least ¥20,000 to the price of a refrigerator, and according to one website we saw electronics manufacturers don’t think people will buy smaller refrigerators if the price is above a certain threshold, so they don’t bother putting inverters in them.

Of course, some people simply think that the small-big energy-saving paradox is a scheme by these manufacturers to compel consumers to buy refrigerators that may be too big for their homes or their needs, since profit margins rise almost exponentially with the price of the unit. If that’s the case then it seems to be working. Last year, the only household appliances whose recycling rates increased were air conditioners (up 0.8 percent) and refrigerators (2.7 percent).

Insurance companies main beneficiaries of scheme to protect obstetricians from malpractice suits

Thursday, June 13th, 2013

In late May, 1,041 former obstetrics patients of 28 medical facilities submitted a plea to the National Consumer Affairs Center (NCAC) to arbitrate a settlement with the Japan Council for Quality Health Care (JCQHC) that would partially refund money they had paid during their pregnancies for insurance purposes. The JCQHC is a foundation that carries out third-party evaluations of hospitals and clinics, but it also oversees a special compensation system enacted by the government in 2009 to protect obstetricians from career-threatening malpractice suits.

The system allows for a form of insurance that all obstetrics patients, meaning pregnant women, pay into. If a fetus or baby suffers brain damage before or during delivery, the insurance pays up to ¥30 million in damages over the next 20 years to the child and his or her parents. This no-fault insurance system was put in place because fewer medical students were opting to become obstetricians, partially because the dwindling birthrate has made obstetrics less profitable, but mainly because malpractice awards in the cases of babies born with disabilities have been extremely high. It was just too financially risky to go into the field.

Pink is the color of the obstetrics department

Pink is the color of the obstetrics department

Unless a pregnancy threatens the well-being of the mother, childbirth is not covered by national health insurance. Though in theory the obstetrics insurance is optional, if a pregnant woman patronizes a medical facility that pays into the insurance system (meaning 99.8 percent of them) they automatically charge her the ¥30,000 premium and incorporate it into her bill. What complicates the matter is the so-called “public aspect” of the system, according to a recent article in Aera magazine.

To encourage women to have babies, local governments compensate them for the money they spent on childbirth after the fact with something called shussan ikuji ichijikin (one-time payment for childbirth), a handout administered by the National Health Insurance Union (NHIU) of up to ¥420,000 per birth, regardless of how much money the patient spent.

This amount includes the ¥30,000 premium that the woman paid for the obstetrics insurance, so in effect the public is paying for the insurance since the NHIU uses taxpayer money as well as national health insurance funds for payments. In that regard, Aera has characterized the JCQHC as an amakudari institution; in other words, a bureaucratic entity whose main purpose is to justify its own existence.

Since the insurance system was launched in 2009, it has paid out about ¥4.1 billion in compensation for damages suffered during childbirth. At the end of the last fiscal year there was still about ¥80 billion in the reserve pool of funds and it is estimated the pool, which is controlled by the five insurance companies, will increase to ¥100 billion by the end of the present fiscal year.

According to Aera, the JCQHC originally estimated that between 500 and 800 babies would suffer brain damage every year out of the country’s 1.2 million births, but real statistics for fiscal 2012 show that only about 200 babies suffered such damage. The mothers who requested arbitration from the NCAC are claiming they overpaid for the insurance and are demanding ¥20,000 each in refunds from the JCQHC. If they win, the organization will have to pay a total of ¥20.8 million. As Aera notes, more than 50 million women have paid this premium since 2009, though, strictly speaking, it is the public who has paid the premiums.

One obstetrician interviewed by Aera says that the reason all medical institutions sign up for the insurance is that part of the law mandates that any medical facility which applies for “high-priced medical care” compensation to the NHIU cannot be approved if it doesn’t pay into the obstetrics compensation insurance plan. Otherwise, the facility can only receive maximum compensation of ¥400,000 for each delivery, regardless of what it cost the facility. That’s too risky for smaller clinics.

The main beneficiaries of the system are the private insurance companies that participate. The premiums are practically free money since the companies are allowed to collect and administer the funds. Also, brain damage resulting in cerebral palsy is difficult to diagnose in an infant, and there is a five-year time limit for insurance claims.

In many cases, developmental disorders arising from brain damage don’t manifest themselves until the child is older and the time limit has passed. However, the insurance companies are also using this aspect to explain why they need such a huge pool of money.

Of children born in 2009 who were eventually found to suffer from cerebral palsy due to brain damage, 12 were discovered in 2009, 100 in 2010 and 158 in 2011. Diagnoses are thus progressive, so the insurance companies say they need this huge surplus to meet future claims. But there has already been discussion in the Diet that the funds should be administered by a government body so as to relieve some of the public burden associated with medical care.

In any event, as some pediatricians have noted, ¥30 million over 20 years is insufficient to take care of most people who suffer from cerebral palsy. They tend to require 24-hour care the older they get. As one mother who is part of the arbitration claim told Aera, a system for compensating brain damage victims directly would be cheaper, more efficient and more humane than the obstetrics compensation insurance, which benefits administrators more than doctors or patients.

The widening income gap is affecting higher education

Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

Students from lower income households have always been able to turn to public institutions of higher learning to make their dreams come true. Public universities, whether national, prefectural or municipal, offered high quality education for much less money. However, a recent survey by a research group at the University of Tokyo has found that the well-publicized widening income gap is now being reflected in public university enrollments.

todai

University of Tokyo

The survey received 1,064 responses from parents of children who graduated high school in the spring of 2012. Households where the annual income was ¥4 million or less were classified as low income, while those whose annual income was ¥10.5 or more were classified as high income.

The percentage of low income students who advanced to a public university last year was 7.4, while the percentage of high income students who did the same was 20.4. In other words, the enrollment rate for higher income students was almost three times that of lower income students.

The research group conducted the same survey in 2006. In that year, 9.1 percent of the lower income students went on to public universities while 11.9 percent of higher income students did, a negligible difference. At the same time the ratio of lower income to higher income students who went on to private universities hasn’t changed significantly since 2006, when the research group concluded that public universities were fulfilling their mission of providing educational opportunities for lower income students. The group can no longer draw such a conclusion.

The reason for the widening gap is that more higher income students are applying to public universities because even they feel the need to save money. Public universities have a limited number of openings for new students, and higher income students tend to do better on entrance tests because they can afford supplemental education, such as juku (cram schools), which lower income students can’t afford.

The survey also asked those parents who thought their children’s academic achievements were “high” whether or not their children actually went on to university. Among these respondents, in 2006, 67 percent of lower income students and 72.9 percent of higher income students advanced to university; while in 2012 the respective portions were 53.3 percent and 76.9 percent.

The research group has called on the education ministry to provide more financial assistance to lower income students so that they can attend and afford university. In 2011 the average annual tuition for a public university was ¥540,000 and for a private university ¥860,000.

RSS

Recent posts