Saturday, June 25, 2011

FCC report on state of local journalism suggests some federal advertising be moved to local outlets

The recent Federal Communications Commission report about the state of local journalism included an interesting nugget spotlighted by Megan Garber of Nieman Journalism Lab: a suggestion that the federal government steer more of its advertising to local news outlets. She cites this passage:

"In 2005, the amount spent was $1 billion, according to the General Accounting Office. Currently much of this spending goes to national entertainment media. Some local broadcasters have argued that this could be targeted to local news enterprises without undermining the cost effectiveness of the campaigns, and perhaps even saving taxpayers money. We agree. Targeting existing federal advertising spending to local news media could help local news media models — both commercial and nonprofit, online and off-line — gain traction and help create local jobs, while potentially making taxpayer spending more cost-effective. In the past, it may have been more cost effective to buy national rather than local, but technological improvements have made it possible to easily buy local media placements on TV, in print and online — so that shifting ads to local news media could prove more cost-effective for taxpayers."

Garber's piece includes several links to related articles and reports.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Des Moines paper lays off perhaps the best agricultural-policy reporter in Washington

UPDATE, Aug. 31: Brasher has joined the Washington Bureau of Gannett Co. newspapers, which owns the Des Moines paper. "He’ll specialize in food and agricultural policy as he did in the Register Washington bureau," Agri-Pulse reports.

The important cause of Washington reporting on agriculture and rural issues is taking a major blow with this week's revelation that the 700 layoffs by Gannett Co. Inc. include Philip Brasher, left, the correspondent for The Des Moines Register.

"It has become increasingly rare for a Midwestern paper to keep an agriculture reporter in Washington, and in fact he was one of the last reporters left reporting solely on national food and agriculture policy for a major media outlet," Paula Crossfield notes on Civil Eats, a blog that says it "promotes critical thought about sustainable agriculture and food systems as part of building economically and socially just communities."

Crossfield writes, "Brasher was one of the only reporters who was not working for agriculture industry-sponsored outlets in the room at Senate and House Agriculture Committee hearings, and played a key role in informing the public about these as well as the inner workings of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. For the most part, the agriculture industry will now have a free reign over coverage of national food policy issues in the Midwest."

Perhaps Crossfield meant "free rein," a common mistake, but in this case she might be accurate, for the lobbying interests do often reign over Washington. There are still several reporters for agricultural trade publications in the capital, but few focus on food or take the independent, incisive tack that we could always expect from Phil Brasher, who has been in the Register bureau since 2002. That's why his name is familiar to readers of The Rural Blog.

Brasher told Crossfield, “This is a critical time for food and agricultural policy because of the deep budget cuts that are coming and the choices that Congress is going to have to make … about what money there is available. It’s vital that the public understands the impact of those policy choices and the tradeoffs they involve.”

We will keep trying to do that, and help rural journalists do that. But it will be more difficult without Phil Brasher.

New website makes it easy for journalists to gain access to research on a broad array of subjects

The Rural Blog often reports on new scientific studies, but journalists usually aren't ready to write a story about the subject of the latest study, and there are often several other studies to consider. Now there is an easy way to search for studies on a topic or issue, and it's designed for journalists.

Journalist’s Resource is designed to "make scholarly research more accessible for journalists, journalism educators and students," writes Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. "Our objective is to encourage journalists to utilize high-quality scholarship in their daily reporting, and we intend for the site to make that as easy as possible." Jones and his brothers publish community newspapers in East Tennessee and he is on the advisory board of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

Researchers delve into an almost infinite array of topics, many relating to everyday matters of broad concern. For example, here's a study on the risks of brain injuries for high-school football players. In addition to a searchable database, the site has articles on research references and journalism skills. To learn more, click here.

Kansas raising speed limit to 75 on some roads

More than 800 miles of Kansas highways will have a speed limit of 75, up from 70, one week from today, following passage of a law by the legislature and selection of the freeway segments by state transportation, turnpike and police officials. "The measure received little, if any, public opposition. But two concerns remain, and it will be the responsibility of individual motorists to address them," the Lawrence Journal World says in an editorial today.

The concerns are safety and cost. "A 75 mph speed limit doesn’t mean you should drive 83 mph," even though it won't count as a moving violation on your driving record, the editorial advises. "Second, driving faster costs more. If you are willing to drive 75 mph, know that each 5 mph over 60 mph is the equivalent of paying an additional 30 cents per gallon of gas, according to the U.S. Department of Energy." Good advice for us all. (Read more)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

19 million rural people still lack access to high-speed Internet, FCC and USDA say in new report

"Approximately 28 percent of rural residents still lack access to the kind of broadband that most Americans take for granted," Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski said today as the FCC and the Department of Agriculture released a report calling for more federal help for bringing broadband, or better broadband, to rural areas.

The report uses as a standard high-speed Internet service of 3 megabytes per second, and says 26.2 million Americans lack access to such service. Of that number, 73 percent, or 19.1 million people, live in rural areas. Here is a summary of the report; here is the full report.

The National Rural Assembly, set for Tuesday through Thursday in St. Paul, Minn., will address the need for rural broadband. An advocate for it, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, will speak Wednesday, June 29.

"People may not think of high-speed Internet access as a necessity, but if your community doesn't have it, your businesses are not going to be able to compete, you're not going to get access to the same heath care, and your kids are going to be at a disadvantage in school," said Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies and chair of the assembly steering committee. For more information go to

GAO says ban on horse slaughterhouses has contributed to increases in neglect and abuse

The effective ban on horse slaughter for human consumption in the United States has contributed to an increase in abuse and neglect of horses, the Government Accountability Office said in a report yesterday. It recommended that Congress either restore funding for inspection of horse abattoirs or ban horse slaughter outright.

The GAO, an independent arm of Congress, found that since Congress enacted the ban in 2007, exports of horses to Mexico and Canada for processing have increased 660 percent and 148 percent, respectively. "Nearly the same number," almost 138,000, went to slaughter in those countries in 2010 as were slaughtered before U.S. slaughter ended, the report said.

However, because of transportation costs and lower prices in Mexico, "the plant closings were also responsible for an 8 to 21 percent decline in market prices for low- and medium- priced horses, or those that are most likely to be brought to slaughter," writes Pat Raia of

The GAO noted increased reports of neglect and abuse, and said "State, local, tribal, and horse industry officials generally attributed these increases in neglect and abandonments to cessation of domestic slaughter and the economic downturn," Raia reports. For a summary of the report, click here. For a PDF of the full report, go here.

The House Appropriations Committee voted narrowly to continue the ban, and an amendment to repeal it was debated but withdrawn in the full House last week. For the Congressional Record transcript of the debate on the issue, from United Horsemen, click here

Cellular buyout reduces service in a rural town; could your community be next?

A recent buyout of cellular telephone contracts left residents of Montello, Nev., population 216, with unreliable cell service, Alex Cabrero of The Deseret News in Salt Lake City reports. Residents say they haven't been able to get reception for about six months as a result of AT&T's purchase of Alltel's contracts.

"When the tower is not working, we have to pack the baby up, pack our computer, get our phones and chargers, and drive," Montello resident Ellen Goldsborough told Cabrero. Her husband, Geoff Goldsborough, added, "It's been a very frustrating situation for us. . . . In a rural environment, cellphones are more than just a convenience for us. They're security. They're safety."

A spokeswoman for AT&T said its tower is ready but "The company is still working on infrastructure to carry the signals from the tower to a switching station," Cabrero reports. When the tower isn't working, Verizon customers are also affected. (Read more)

Searchable farm subsidy database updated

As reports continue of possible changes to farm subsidy programs, the Environmental Working Group has released its latest update to its subsidy database that lists recipients of subsidies by ZIP code and county and allows searches of individual and business names.

The group says the latest data confirm that reforms like the 2008 rule limiting payments to those "actively engaged" in farming have not prevented urban residents from receiving payments and "The largest farm operations still receive the vast majority of payments," EWG said in a release. To see the 2010 collection totals and number of recipients for other 100,000+ cities, click here.

EWG says the data shows from 1995-2010 that the largest and wealthiest operations, equaling about 10 percent of subsidized farms, "collected 76 percent of all commodity payments, with an average total payment over 16 years of $447,873 per recipient. Despite the 'reforms' that supporters of the subsidy system claimed were incorporated into the 2008 farm bill, the top 10 percent of recipients still harvested 63 percent of commodity subsidies in 2010."

House Republicans moving bills to limit EPA power over coal ash, mountaintop mining, wetlands

The U.S. House of Representatives is staying busy this summer, moving all kinds of legislation that reflects the views of its new Republican majority. The Rural Blog has reported relatively little of it because it hasn't come to a floor vote and most of it is probably doomed in the Democratic-controlled Senate. But now things are starting to get more real.

The latest example is the delay of a bill that would restrict the Environmental Protection Agency's power to regulate the disposal, often rural, of ash from coal-fired power plants. The Energy and Commerce Committee was scheduled to pass it today, but the chairman, Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., said he would wait until after the July 4 recess in the hope that it can "get much stronger bipartisan support," reports Manuel Quinones of Greenwire, a service of Environment & Energy News.

Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., chairman of the panel's Environment and Economy Subcommittee, "appeared skeptical about the prospect of drawing significant Democratic support for the bill, but said it was worth the effort," Quinones writes. The measure would let states "oversee their own coal ash disposal oversight programs as long as they follow minimum federal guidelines. But many Democrats have expressed concerns with the approach." (Read more; subscription required)

Yesterday, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee "approved a fast-tracked bill that would shift regulatory powers over water, wetlands and mountaintop-mining regulation from U.S. EPA to the states," Paul Quinlan of Greenwire reports. The vote was 35-19, with only four Democrats voting for it, so its prospects in the Senate are very chancy. EPA said the bill would keep it from protecting water quality and public health. (Read more, via The New York Times, which carries some Greenwire stories)

Top labor officials set call with journalists today to discuss heat dangers to outdoor workers

Meteorologists and journalists who cover the weather are invited to participate in a conference call this afternoon about the U.S. Department of Labor’s campaign aimed at educating outdoor workers and their employers about the dangers of extreme heat. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis and Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, will cover the basics, offer tips for protection and encourage news coverage to help spread the word to viewers and listeners everywhere.

Their message is simple: water, rest and shade. "Each year, thousands of outdoor workers experience heat illness, which often manifests as heat exhaustion. If not quickly addressed, heat exhaustion can become heat stroke, which killed more than 30 workers last year," the department said in a news release. The conference call will be held from 1:45 to 2:15 p.m. EDT. the call-in number is 888-324-9652 and the passcode is 8880516.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

First Rural Computer-Assisted Reporting workshop Oct. 21-23 in Johnson City, Tenn.; apply by Sept. 1

Daniel Gilbert won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for public service for the Bristol Herald Courier with his reporting on the mismanagement of natural-gas royalties in Southwest Virginia. He was able to crack the case with computer-assisted reporting skills learned at a CAR boot camp of Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc. Now journalists in the region will have a chance to gain most of the same skills, at the first Rural CAR Mini-Boot Camp, to be held Oct. 21-23 at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City (one of the Tri-Cities, along with Bristol and Kingsport).

With funding from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, IRE and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues will select 12 applicants for fellowships that will include meals, lodging and travel assistance.

Applications are due no later than Sept. 1. To download a PDF of the application, click here. For more background information, go here. For information on the Fund for Rural Computer-Assisted Reporting, created at the Institute by a gift from Gilbert, click here.

Knight Foundation gives UNC grant to help rural N.C. newspapers publish digital government data

A project to help rural North Carolina newspapers digitize government information was among the winners in the latest round of grants from the Knight News Challenge, announced today by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The University of North Carolina received $275,000 to create OpenBlock Rural, which will "work with local governments and community newspapers in North Carolina to collect, aggregate and publish government data, including crime and real estate reports, restaurant inspections and school ratings," the foundation said in a news release. "Rural news organizations often struggle to move into the digital age because they lack the staff to make public data digestible. In addition, the project aims to improve small local papers’ technical expertise and provide a new way to generate revenue."

Justin Ellis of Nieman Journalism Lab has a detailed report on the project. For more from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill, click here. Here's a short video description of the project from its leader, Ryan Thornburg:

Congress may overturn court decision requiring second permit for pesticide spraying over water

UPDATE, July 8: "Facing what appears to be stiff opposition from Senate Democrats as a deadline closes in, House Republicans are trying a new legislative tactic" to pass the measure, Jacobs reports. "They've tacked it on to an appropriations bill." (Read more, subscription required)

Congress is nearing final passage of a bill that would keep pesticide applicators from having to apply for a second permit when spraying over public waters, Jeremy Jacobs of Environment and Energy Daily reports.

On a voice vote, the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee approved a bill to overturn a 2009 federal appeals-court ruling that required a secondary permit for spraying over water. The Senate is moving a House bill instead of one sponsored by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., because the Environmental Protection Agency is "facing an Oct. 31 deadline for establishing the new permits," Jacobs writes.

The committee's approval upset environmentalists. "Congress should be making sure that our water is safe for drinking, swimming and fishing, not giving pesticide users carte blanche to continue poisoning the water we all depend on," Jason Rylander, a senior attorney for Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement. (Read more, subscription required)

Study indicates that mountaintop coal mining may be increasing risk of fatal birth defects

"Children born in counties home to mountaintop coal mines had a 26 percent higher risk of suffering" a fatal birth defect "compared to ones born in non-mining regions," says a new study reported by Dan Vergano of USA Today. The study, led by health economist Melissa Ahern of Washington State University in Spokane, will appear in the upcoming Environmental Research Journal. (Map shows counties with coal mines in 1996-2003, darker gray shows mountaintop-mine counties as identified by satellite imagery and acreage criteria specified in study)
Links to air and water pollution from mountaintop mining led Ahern and her colleagues "to look for health effects on infants" in West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, Vergano reports. The researchers found birth defects in mountaintop mining areas were elevated above non-mining areas in six of seven categories, including heart, lung and gastrointestinal. Because of an already established connection between poverty and birth defects, the researchers then "controlled for social factors such as smoking, drinking, mother's education, race and other poverty-related factors" and found a 26 percent increased risk of birth defects in mountaintop-mining counties, Vergano reports.

A spokesman for the National Mining Association "suggested adding more demographic factors to the study might remove the elevated birth defects," Vergano writes, then quotes environmental and pediatric-health expert Lynn Goldman of George Washington University as saying "It isn't proof of cause and effect" and paraphrases her: "Because the study is the first of its kind, public health researchers will need to reproduce the study results to feel confident it has uncovered a real link, she cautions. Further studies will be needed to show how exposures in mountaintop mining communities could lead to more birth defects." (Read more)

UPDATE, June 23: John Cheves of the Lexington Herald-Leader has a better story on the study.

Aging wind turbines have some rock climbers turning their hobby into a career

With more than 36,000 wind turbines in the U.S. and 197,000 worldwide, outdoor enthusiasts are finding job opportunities in new and unusual places, Joey Peters of ClimateWire reports. (Rope Partner photo)

Josh Crayton, an avid rafter and rock climber, has been repairing wind turbines for five years with Rope Partner, a Santa Cruz, Calif., company. His duties include repairing, cleaning, and painting wind turbines at a variety of locations across the Midwest and as far south as Texas, Peters reports. But extreme weather like high winds leaves Crayton grounded some days. "It's difficult work," he told Peters. "You receive an itinerary, jump on flight and travel to the spot. Assuming all of your materials and bags make it with you, you'll start work the next day."

Employing rock climbers is only one repair method in use. Some repair contratcors use "machinery like cherry pickers to reach the blades," Peters reports, but using workers like Crayton is becoming more popular because there is no need for expensive equipment. "It's far more cost-effective and generally safer, because you have a main line and a safety line," Christyne Mortensen, office manager at Ropeworks Center of Excellence in Reno, Nev., told Peters. "We have easier access and can go anywhere on the turbines." (Read more)

Nine fish hatcheries in danger of closing

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers are trying to figure out a way to keep the Wolf Creek National Fish Hatchery in Southern Kentucky open next year despite cuts in the service's budget, James Bruggers of The Courier-Journal in Louisville reports. (Hatchery photo)

Similar efforts may be under way around the country. "The issue came to light earlier this year, when President Barack Obama's proposed budget for fiscal year 2011 cut $6.5 million from the fisheries budget, potentially dooming as many as nine hatcheries across the nation," Bruggers writes.

The Kentucky hatchery is just below Wolf Creek Dam, a Corps facility that impounds Lake Cumberland. It produces about 1 million rainbow, brook and brown trout annually with a budget of $900,000. Ron Brooks of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife told Bruggers that the Corps offered to cover 80 percent of the cost of fish released below its dams." He added, "That could mean about 85,000 fewer fish might be produced, but it could keep the hatchery open."  (Read more)

The Cumberland River below the dam is a major trout fishery supplied by the hatchery, which also supplies fisheries in Georgia, North Carolina, and Indiana, the hatchery website reports.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Skepticism about climate change builds even as science grows more confident about human cause

Over the last five years, Americans have become "less likely to believe in global warming" but "scientists are more confident than ever that climate change is real and caused largely by human activities," Richard Harris of National Public Radio reports. But in an illustration of how scientific research is never-ending, a new study disputes a long-held belief that reforestation can help mitigate climate change.

Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale University Project on Climate Change Communication asked participants "what they thought of climate change," and "to estimate how climate scientists feel about global warming," Harris reports. The results shocked him. Only 13 percent of participants guessed correctly that "about 97 percent of American scientists say that climate change is happening," and another third said they didn't know.

Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences, a science review board, told NPR, "The consensus statement is that climate changes are being observed, are certainly real, they seem to be increasing, and that humans are most likely the cause of all or most of these changes." (Read more)

A recent publication by two Canadian researchers refutes the notion that planting trees is an effective measure against climate change, but supports previous findings that climate change is real and increasing. St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia researcher Alvaro Montenegro and Environment Canada researcher Vivek Arora "found that even if 100 percent of the world's cropland were to be reforested or afforested, the Earth's temperature would drop by less than half of 1 degree Celsius by the end of the century," ClimateWire reports.

While the study reveals dark leaves and needles on trees absorb the sun's radiation at a higher rate than cropland, negating the trees consumption of carbon dioxide, ClimateWire reports, "both researchers emphasized that planting trees did have numerous other positive environmental impacts, including increased habitat for wildlife and protection against erosion." (Read more)

Critics question fracking disclosure rules' effectiveness; latest law to pass is in Texas

Five states now have rules requiring energy companies to disclose some chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas production, but critics and some toxicologists say without full disclosure of all chemicals and the amounts of each chemical, "the requirements fall short of what's needed to fully understand the risks to public health and the environment," reports Nicholas Kusnetz of ProPublica, which has focused much attention on fracking.

"It's a shell game," Theo Colborn, a toxicologist with TEDX, an organization that examines the long-term health risks of chemicals used in drilling, said before Congress. "They're not telling you everything that there is to know."

Most regulations allow proprietary chemicals to remain secret from the public and, in some states, from regulators, Kusnetz reports. Some environmentalists and toxicologists believe these state rules allow "too much discretion," Kusnetz reports. Companies can seek trade-secret protection, and many do. In Wyoming, which currently has the toughest reporting rules, "100 such exemptions have been granted," Tom Doll, Wyoming oil and gas supervisor told ProPublica, "though most of the exempt products haven't been used."

Other critics, like the Sierra Club's Cyrus Reed, supporter of a new fracking-disclosure law in Texas, believe regulators are gradually moving forward. "It's just a step in the process," he told ProPublica, referring to the Texas legislation. (Read more) In July 2012, drillers must "disclose the chemicals they use when extracting oil and gas from rock formations," The Associated Press reports.

Lack of cell-phone coverage hampers economic development in some rural towns

Sparse cell phone coverage around Bridegport, Ala., population 2,728, is hurting its prospects for economic development because current prospective employers dissatisfied with the lack of cell service choose other locales, Andy Johns of the Chattanooga Times Free Press reports.

"They found out we don't have any service, so they went somewhere else," city council member Leon Dave told Johns. "We feel like we're getting left out."

Steve Berry, CEO of the Washington-based Rural Cellular Association, told Johns, "Bridgeport's frustrations are valid, and the same thing is happening in sparsely populated areas nationwide." He added, "There are coverage gaps nationwide where large cellular companies have decided it's not profitable to build towers. It's tough for small companies to come in and fill those gaps . . . because their phones won't work with the larger networks outside their small areas."

Sharing of towers among cell-phone companies is "not likely to happen anytime soon, because opponents argue that sharing towers would take away companies' incentive to expand and forfeit the money industry leaders have spent to gain commercial advantages," Johns reports. Berry suggests that Bridgeport and other small communities "contact the carriers and offer city cell contracts to any provider that gives reliable service. That would give a cell company some guaranteed customers before it brought its system online." (Read more)

Rural telecoms ask FCC to probe calling problems

Four rural telecommunications associations are asking the Federal Communications Commission for an investigation into declining telephone service to rural customers. This request comes following an increase in reported calling problems from 78 in April 2010 to 1,811 in March 2011, D.R. Stewart of the Tulsa World reports.

"We are running into problems on call-termination issues in rural parts of the state," Bob Stafford, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Telephone Association, which represents more than 40 rural telephone companies, told Stewart. "A person will call from out of state to a rural area in Oklahoma, and the calling party hears the phone ring and ring, but the call is not getting to the local telephone company."

In the letter to the associations share stories of rural customers who learn of the uncompleted calls only after their friends, family, or business associates reached them through e-mail or cell phone and several "small businesses losing tens of thousands of dollars in sales because their customers can't reach them," Stewart reports. The letter says some reported calls never went through or the call rang several times with no answer. Some customers even reported "their caller ID devices display unintelligible information" or they received a false message about the failure of the rural local exchange carrier.

Unsure of where the problem lies, the FCC plans to start its investigation with the originating carriers, Stewart reports. "There are some suspicions that when the calls go from more traditional technologies to VoIP [Voice Internet Protocol] technology, there may be issues there, Bob Gnapp, director of demand assurance and network analysis for the National Exchange Carriers Association, told Stewart. "We certainly know the scope of the problem, where the calls originate, but yet it's difficult to say with any assurance exactly what is happening in the middle of the telephone route."

Joining the association in the request to the FCC were the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association, the Organization for the Promotion and Advancement of Small Telecommunications Companies and the Western Telecommunications Alliance. (Read more)

Monday, June 20, 2011

Tenn. opts for tracking system, not prescription law, to fight meth; officials say 'smurfs' will prevail

Tennessee pharmacies have until Jan. 1 to comply with a new law requiring participation in NPLEx, a free regional tracking system for pseudoephedrine purchases, Brian Haas of The Tennessean reports. Legislators declined to make methamphetamine's key ingredient, pseudoephedrine, prescription-only, instead opting "for a system used in Kentucky, as stricter cap on how much pseudoephedrine-based, over-the-counter drugs a person can buy in a day."

While the new law does include "new limits on pseudoephedrine purchases, new fines for manufacturing meth and strengthening child endangerment laws to include meth laboratories," Haas reports, some say it "will do little to curb the meth-manufacturer practice of 'smurfing'– recruiting other people to buy small amounts of pseudoephedrine to contribute to a meth batch."

"We basically have a whole cottage industry out of here of people who do nothing but go around and buy ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, " Tommy Farmer, director of the Tennessee Methamphetamine Task Force, told Haas. "They run under the radar by not exceeding those legal limits, those thresholds." (Read more)

Most rural ER patients are low-income adults, and few result in admissions to the hospital

A new report from the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality shows that low-income adults accounted for 56 percent of the 8 million rural emergency room visits in 2008. In non-rural hospitals, low-income adults accounted for only 30 percent of emergency room visits.

According to the report, 44 percent of adult visits to rural emergency departments were paid for by Medicaid, were uncompensated, or billed to uninsured patients. Only 31 percent were paid for by private health plans. In non-rural hospitals, 37 percent of adult visits were paid for by private health plans, and 42 percent were paid for by Medicaid, uncompensated or billed to uninsured patients.

Emergency business is mainly just that for rural hospitals. Only 8.3 percent of rural emergency department visits resulted in a hospital admission, compared to 16 percent of non-rural emergency department visits.

The report also noted the lack of rural hospitals with trauma-level emergency departments. Nationally, only 2.4 of rural emergency departments held any level of trauma designation. Among non-rural emergency departments, 35.5 percent had a trauma designation. Read more here.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Life expectancy declining in some counties; trend seems common in Appalachia and the Black Belt

Life expectancy is declining in an increasing number of U.S. counties, and some rural areas stand out, according to a study covering the two decades from 1987 to 2007. In the first decade, life expectancy declined in 314 counties; in the most recent decade, it dropped in 860. Most of those counties, 561, are rural, the Daily Yonder reports: "Nearly one out of four rural Americans live in counties where women in the last decade can expect to live shorter lives."

"The region where life expectancy is lowest, and in some places declining, begins in West Virginia, runs through the southern Appalachian Mountains and west through the Deep South into North Texas," writes David Brown of The Washington Post, who apparently doesn't recognize the Black Belt when he sees it (see maps at bottom). "Places of high life expectancy are more scattered." (Click on map for interactive versions with county data)
Declines in life expectancy were more common among women. Counties that also had declining life expectancy for men included Pike in Kentucky, Grundy in Tennessee, Walker in Alabama, Baker in Florida and La Paz in Arizona. "There are several possible reasons for the slowing of longevity in parts of in the United States," Brown writes. "The rising rate of obesity and plateauing of the smoking cessation rate among women are two. Poorly controlled blood pressure and a shortage of primary-care physicians are two others." Here's another version of the interactive map, showing in yellow the counties where women's life expectancy declined from 1987 to 2007:
Brown explains, "Life expectancy is an abstract concept that summarizes the health and threats to longevity that exist at a particular moment in history. It is not an actual measure of how long people are living." For a further explanation of that, and the rest of the story, click here. For the press release about the study, go here; for the full study, which includes larger versions of the maps below, from Population Health Metricshere. The Yonder story by Bill Bishop, with lists of the rural counties where life expectancy is shortest and longest for men and women, is here.