Friday, November 14, 2014

Rural hospitals, especially in states that didn't expand Medicaid under ACA, in critical condition

Rural hospitals, especially those in the South, are in big trouble, Jayne O'Donnell and Laura Ungar report for USA Today. "Since the beginning of 2010, 43 rural hospitals—with a total of more than 1,500 beds—have closed, according to data from the North Carolina Rural Health Research Program." Only three rural hospitals closed in 2010, but the number jumped to 13 in 2013 and 12 so far this year. In Georgia, a state that did not expand Medicaid under federal health reform, five rural hospitals have closed since 2012, and six more are struggling to remain open. (USA Today map: Where rural hospitals have closed in the U.S. since 2010)
"The Affordable Care Act was designed to improve access to health care for all Americans and will give them another chance at getting health insurance during open enrollment starting this Saturday," O'Donnell and Ungar write. "But critics say the ACA is also accelerating the demise of rural outposts that cater to many of society's most vulnerable. These hospitals treat some of the sickest and poorest patients—those least aware of how to stay healthy. Hospital officials contend that the law's penalties for having to re-admit patients soon after they're released are impossible to avoid and create a crushing burden."

With so many rural hospitals in poor shape, the only hope is often to partner with big health systems, that is, if the health systems will take them, O'Donnell and Ungar write. Douglas Leonard, president of the Indiana Hospital Association, told USA Today, "I'm not sure they can get anyone to answer the phone when they call."

That often puts the responsibility on local officials, many of whom have little to no health care experience, "on whether to raise taxes in poor towns and counties that depend on their hospitals for care as well as good jobs," O'Donnell and Ungar write. "Some rural hospitals, even their advocates acknowledge, are in such bad shape and serve so few people that they probably don't deserve to stay open. But what about those still providing good and needed care? In those cases, rural residents lose out."

"Half of the rural hospitals that shuttered since early 2010 closed completely," O'Donnell and Ungar write. "Many of the rest now operate as rehabilitation and nursing facilities or outpatient clinics. A few operate as emergency departments or 24-hour urgent care centers, offering some—but far from all—the services the former hospitals did. But Lewis and others say that while these 24-hour facilities could stabilize stroke or heart attack victims before they head on to larger hospitals, they are even less financially viable, given the poor, uninsured populations they serve and the fact that emergency rooms are the most expensive parts of hospitals." (Read more)

GOP-led Congress may be powerless to stop President Obama's environmental agenda

Despite Republicans' gaining control of the Senate during the Nov. 4 elections, the GOP may not be able to do much to slow down President Barack Obama's environmental agenda, which is about to kick into high gear, Andrew Restuccia and Erica Martinson report for Politico.

The coming rollout includes a Dec. 1 proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency "to tighten limits on smog-causing ozone, which business groups say could be the costliest federal regulation of all time; a final rule Dec. 19 for clamping down on disposal of power plants’ toxic coal ash; the Jan. 1 start date for a long-debated rule prohibiting states from polluting the air of their downwind neighbors; and a Jan. 8 deadline for issuing a final rule restricting greenhouse gas emissions from future power plants," Restuccia and Martinson write. "That last rule is a centerpiece of Obama’s most ambitious environmental effort, the big plan for combating climate change that he announced at Georgetown University in June 2013."

Obama also has announced that he and Chinese President Xi Jinping have agreed to an initiative to curb each nation's carbon emissions during the next two decades, Restuccia and Martinson write. "And on top of all that, the administration is expected in the coming weeks to pledge millions of dollars—and possibly billions—to help poor countries deal with the effects of climate change."

Advocates of action to fight climate change say Obama made a wise decision to partner with China, one of the world's most powerful countries and also one of its biggest emitters of carbon dioxide, William Mauldin and Amy Harder report for The Wall Street Journal. "China’s move to lower reliance on fossil fuels to 80 percent of its energy raised the prospect of a huge expansion in the market for alternative energy."

Fred Krupp, head of the Environmental Defense Fund, told the Journal, “It’s a game-change on two fronts: It’s a diplomatic breakthrough and a huge boost to the clean-energy market. Those two fronts are more important than the numbers.”

Because the U.S. and China are on board to cut carbon emissions, other countries may follow, Chris Mooney reports for The Washington Post. "If the agreement lays the groundwork for a broader global agreement—one that encompasses other major emitters like India, Japan and Russia—then that is the real payoff. That agreement could happen in Paris in late 2015, when the nations of the world gather to try to achieve a global agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions."

Robert Stavins, an environmental economist at the Harvard Kennedy School, told Mooney, "I take what happened (Tuesday) as really one of the most important developments that I’ve seen in the international negotiations over the last five to 10 years," because the move lays the groundwork for more movement in reducing the emissions of other developing nations. (Washington Post graphic)
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said before the Nov. 4 election that if Republicans gain control of the Senate and he is elected Senate majority leader (he was elected on Thursday), then he would make it his mission over the next two years to do everything in his power to stop Obama's environmental agenda. But that could be easier said than done, James Bruggers reports for the Courier-Journal in McConnell's hometown of Louisville. 

"McConnell's and his fellow Republicans' six-year war on the president's environmental agenda could slam into a brick wall during Obama's last two years, despite the GOP's new, larger margin in the House and Senate take-over, experts and political observers agreed," Bruggers writes. Melissa K. Merry, assistant professor of political science at the University of Louisville, told Bruggers, "I don't see Congress accomplishing much in any policy area over the next two years. There is significant gridlock."

Some rural schools lack resources to keep up with urban schools in teaching STEM skills

A shortage of qualified teachers and updated equipment has some rural schools lagging behind urban ones when it comes to teaching science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills, Alexandra Ossola reports for The Atlantic. Science has been a particular problem, with many rural districts having a shortage of funds, teachers and necessary classroom space.

"With fewer students per school and limited funding to match, rural school districts have been behind in STEM education," Ossola writes. Denise Harshbarger, the supervisor for special projects at the North East Florida Education Consortium, an organization that represents the shared issues of 15 rural districts, told Ossola, “Rural districts are particularly concerned because as we’re getting into 21st century learning, they’re having a hard time keeping up, largely due to money as well as [teacher] recruitment and retention issues."

One of the biggest problems is finding qualified teachers willing to re-locate to rural areas, Ossola writes. Harshbarger told Ossola, “I think our biggest challenge has been finding teachers who are willing to work in a rural community, which traditionally means their salary will be slightly lower than in nearby larger districts. And if you don’t have the teachers who are really able to know STEM subjects and be able to transfer that to students, then you’re not going to be able catch students up with the curve.”

Another problem is a lack of labs, denying rural students hands-on experience to understand science, Ossola writes. Diane Ward, vice president for student learning and chief academic officer for Roane State Community College in Harriman, Tenn., told Ossola, “In very rural areas, for middle schools in particular, there simply are no labs.” Another problem is updated digital technology, which can be costly, especially in rural areas that lack broadband. (Read more)

Small Business Saturday is Nov. 29; opportunity to support and promote local businesses

With nearly every major corporation preparing to offer shopping deals in preparation for Black Friday and Cyber Monday and all the other days in between when prices are too low to resist, it's important for holiday shoppers to remember local and small businesses.

This year marks the fifth year of Small Business Saturday, when shoppers are encouraged to head out the Saturday after Thanksgiving—Nov. 29—and support local businesses. It's easy to participate. Small businesses can register on the Small Business Saturday website, and shoppers can use the same website to look for small businesses in their area.

Small Business Saturday was launched in 2010 by American Express, which this year added Small Business Saturday Night to its resume, in an attempt to encourage shoppers to keep patronizing small businesses even after the sun goes down. (Read more)

Coal executive indicted on mine-safety charges

Don Blankenship
"Don Blankenship, the longtime chief executive officer of the old Massey Energy company, was indicted Thursday on charges that he orchestrated the routine violation of key federal mine safety rules at the company’s Upper Big Branch Mine prior to an April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners," reports The Charleston Gazette's Ken Ward Jr. A federal grand jury "charged Blankenship with conspiring to cause willful violations of ventilation requirements and coal-dust control rules—meant to prevent deadly mine blasts—during a 15-month period prior to the worst coal-mining disaster in a generation."

The indictment "also alleges that Blankenship led a conspiracy to cover up mine safety violations and hinder federal enforcement efforts by providing advance warning of government inspections," Ward writes. The probe into the explosion has already led to four convictions. The maximum penalty for the three felonies and one misdemeanor is 31 years of imprisonment. Massey is now defunct, but its successor, Alpha Natural Resources, agreed to pay $10.8 million for the explosion.

The indictment states: "Blankenship knew that UBB was committing hundreds of safety-law violations every year and that he had the ability to prevent most of the violations that UBB was committing. Yet he fostered and participated in an understanding that perpetuated UBB’s practice of routine safety violations, in order to produce more coal, avoid the costs of following safety laws and make more money.”

UPDATE, Nov. 17: The indictment doesn't actually charge Blankenship with causing the disaster, Ward notes, offering "a few things that readers may have overlooked and are worth knowing" about the case. Also, the judge has essentially sealed the record.

"The indictment alleged that the mine’s own regular safety examinations revealed 'near-constant' violations of dust-control rules that were seldom corrected by the company," Ward writes. "Blankenship pressured Upper Big Branch management to violate safety standards in favor of maximizing production and profits, the indictment alleges."

"One mine manager received a handwritten note from Blankenship in March 2009 'chastising him' for 'insufficient attention to cost-cutting,' telling the manager, 'You have a kid to feed. Do your job,' the indictment alleged," Ward writes. "That same mine manager at Upper Big Branch was told, when he wasn’t producing as much coal as Blankenship demanded, 'I could Khrushchev you. Do you understand?'"

"The indictment alleges that, after the Upper Big Branch explosion, with Massey stock prices—and thus Blankenship’s personal worth—dropping," Blankenship made false claims to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the investing public about Massey's safety measures before the explosion, Ward writes. "According to the indictment, Blankenship directed the drafting of an SEC filing and a press release that defended Massey’s safety efforts."

"The statement said that Massey officials 'do not condone any violation' of safety rules and 'strive to be in compliance with all regulations at all time,'" Ward writes "The indictment charges that at the time those statements were issued, Blankenship knew that they were 'materially false, fraudulent, fictitious and misleading' and that the statements 'would act as a fraud and a deceit upon purchasers' of Massey stock." (Read more)

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman: Democrats have lost small towns and rural America

Democrats lost the Senate majority because they have lost touch with rural America, former Secretary of Agriculture and Kansas congressman Dan Glickman opines in the Huffington Post. Here is Glickman's piece in its entirety.

Dan Glickman
"But since the Democrats had a rough night on Nov. 4, it is worth focusing on one of their structural weaknesses and one I believe is being ignored by many of their party leaders. And that is the longer-term difficulties that face Democratic candidates in small towns and rural America. Notwithstanding the very strong farm and agricultural economy the past few years, the Democratic Party and its leadership are having a great deal of trouble connecting with farmers and rural citizens and small-town America.

The reasons may be cultural or economic, but whatever they are, they reflect the feeling that in many cases Democrats have become the exclusively urban party. Ironically, many—if not most of—the issues rural and urban folks care about are the same: good jobs, economic growth, a sound environment and access to decent and affordable health care. But the urban/rural divide has become a steep one over the past two decades, and it is often overlooked. Vigorous efforts have been made by Agriculture Secretary Vilsack to focus on rural development, jobs, trade, technology, energy and effective Farm bill implementation, but President Obama himself is often viewed, fairly or unfairly, as uninterested in farm and rural issues. Certainly President Clinton's Arkansas political background and personal attention to these issues was helpful to Democrats in Congress fighting to hold on to rural districts. But an astonishing fact is that there are very few Democrats representing primarily rural districts left in the entire country. Certainly most of this is due to factors beyond the president's control. While rural Americans represent a diverse political group, by and large over time they have reflected more conservative political views. But a sustained effort at the highest political level by Democrats to connect with rural issues and concerns is necessary if they want to broaden their popularity and build bigger and more successful electoral coalitions and succeed in this country's many rural congressional districts.

In the Senate, states with large farm and rural populations (South Dakota, Colorado, North Carolina, Georgia, West Virginia and others) have lost Democratic senators in part because of the loss of the rural and farm vote. These are states that used to be much more bipartisan on rural and farm politics but have now, much like the rest of the country, have become much more ideologically sorted and pure. A classic example is Virginia, where the strong rural vote almost cost Senator Mark Warner his re-election victory.

The votes of rural and small-town Americans remain key in statewide and presidential elections. It is no secret that casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan were borne by a disproportionate number of young men and women from these areas. The economic recession has also hit rural America very hard and many towns have not seen much impact on their lives from the rebounding American economy.

The White House and Democratic Party gurus need to recognize that they are failing to connect with rural America. There are no magic solutions, but at a minimum the president needs to make some personal farm and rural visits in the heartland early next year and listen to the concerns of these folks. I suspect that part of the problem for Democrats is that rural Americans often think the national party is ignoring them completely and dismissing their importance as constituents whose voices should be heard. Reaching out to rural America just might be a good first step to reinforce the bipartisan traditions of rural America.

Finally, these observations are not merely political or tactical. Historically, food, farm and rural development legislation including national nutrition programs and global food security measures have required a national bipartisan support base. This coalition involved lawmakers representing urban, suburban and rural communities creating a national policy on food issues. The last farm bill demonstrated how tenuous the nature of this coalition has become and the vulnerability of numerous important legislative initiatives on these issues. The future of American leadership on nutrition, farming and hunger is in jeopardy without positive action to rebuild and maintain these bipartisan coalitions." (Read more)

Agriculture firms, farm groups reach deal on how major companies use crop data

Agriculture firms and farm groups reached a deal that some feel could eliminate growing concern over "the expanded use of data on specific fields in planting technology and other services sold to growers," Jacob Bunge reports for The Wall Street Journal. The deal, expected to be announced today by the American Farm Bureau Federation, would put to rest fears of how major companies like Monsanto are using crop data.

"The deal seeks to unite the industry on practices for collecting, storing and using information ranging from planting dates to pesticide applications and crop yields," Bunge writes. "Tractors and combines collect this information on thumb drives or beam it to remote computer servers. Agribusinesses then analyze the data to provide services that help farmers choose what seeds to plant and how to plan harvests." American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman told Bunge, “We want to allow farmers the confidence they need to adopt these game-changing technologies."

The Farm Bureau "has warned that seed companies may have an interest in persuading farmers to buy more seeds or that services could direct farmers to purchase certain sprays and machinery," Bunge writes. "While a data-driven approach to farming has boosted some farmers’ production and helped them save money on sprays and fertilizer, others have expressed reservations about giving big agricultural companies a deep look into their businesses."

Called the “Privacy and Security Principles for Farm Data,” the agreement echoes one signed earlier this week by the Data Privacy and Security Committee of AgGateway, "a consortium of more than 200 ag-related businesses and organizations" who released a similar document designed to help the agriculture industry incorporate the best practices for data privacy into their operations, reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. (Read more)

Conservatives are rooting for Supreme Court to rule against ACA, costing millions health insurance

How much do many conservatives hate federal health reform? Many Republican lawmakers are eyeing a Supreme Court case that could lead to millions of Americans losing health insurance they otherwise wouldn't be able to get or afford, Simon Maloy reports for Salon.

The case,  King v. Burwell, includes the argument "that the wording of a single provision of the ACA prohibits the government from offering subsidies to consumers who purchase health insurance through the 36 state exchanges run by the federal government and that this was the intention of Congress when it wrote the legislation," Maloy writes. "If the plaintiffs win, the practical effect of the ruling would be to strip millions of people of the ability to pay for their health insurance."

"That’s no small consideration, given that these subsidies are saving the lives of people with serious illnesses who otherwise can’t afford insurance," Maloy writes. "Conservatives tend to dance around this and instead cast their support for similar cases as a high-minded commitment to 'enforcing the law as written' (or, more precisely, enforcing an absurdist interpretation of one provision of the law and ignoring the other provisions that contradict it). Getting rid of the Obamacare 'cancer' remains the most important consideration, and if a few million people have to lose the ability to pay for coverage . . . well, let’s just focus on what really matters." (Read more)

Meeting to discuss smoking ban in rural Mass. town shut down after crowd gets unruly

A Board of Health meeting to discuss a proposed smoking ban in a rural Massachusetts town was shut down after 23 minutes when tensions grew heated between vocal advocates and critics, Anna Burgess reports for the Sentinel & Enterprise. A crowd of 400, including local and national news, packed the Westminster Elementary School to hear about the proposed ban in the town of 7,000. (Sentinel & Enterprise photo by Ashley Greene: Rick Sparrow and Nate Johnson protesting the ban)

"The board's opening statement was given at 6:30 p.m., and by 6:53 p.m., Chairwoman Andrea Crete declared the hearing closed due to an unruly audience," Burgess writes. "Resident and merchant Brian Vincent said he wasn't surprised by how the hearing ended." He told Burgess, "This has been brewing so long, and it finally blew up. I'm just really disappointed. I feel like hundreds of people have wasted their time."

While the board said the ban would be good for the health of local residents, many people showed up to the meeting to protest the move, Burgess writes. Pete Valera, one of only four people who had a chance to speak before the meeting was shut down, told the board, "I'm surprised, and I'm appalled by what's going on in this town. I've been a resident in this town for many years, and I support my local business 100 percent. Taking money out of their pockets is like taking a spoon of baby food away from a crying baby."

With each speaker, boos and cheers continued to grow louder to the point that the audience was deemed unruly, and the meeting halted, Burgess writes. "Crete said the Board of Health will make a final decision on the proposed ban at a future meeting. It will allow written comments on the issue until some point after Dec. 1 and vote at some point after that date. Asked if the board would consider allowing a public vote on the tobacco ban, Crete shook her head and said this is the board's decision alone." (Read more)

If you can't keep Asian carp out of waters, might as well eat them; 2nd processing plant to open in Ky.

Invasive Asian carp have been threatening the Great Lakes, including the region's $7 billion annual fishing industry. While officials have considered various ways to stop the flow of Asian carp in America's waters, in May Kentucky agreed to allow a Chinese company to open the first American Asian carp processing plant. Asian carp is a delicacy in Southeast Asia.

This week, it was announced that a second Asian carp processing plant will be built in Kentucky, with Riverine Fisheries International planning to open a plant in Fulton County that "will catch, clean, process, package and transport various species of Asian carp found in Kentucky's waters," The Associated Press reports. "The company plans to create 110 new jobs and invest $18.7 million into the project."

"Riverine Fisheries will focus on Asian carp that are invading Kentucky Lake, the Mississippi River, Cumberland River, Cumberland River and Tennessee River," AP reports. "In addition to targeting Asian carp, the company will also process other seafood products brought in from other areas of the U.S." (Read more)

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Most Americans, including 85 percent of Republicans, support net neutrality, survey finds

Republican lawmakers who are critics of Internet neutrality may be exceptions among their party. A survey by the University of Delaware's Center for Political Communication found that 81 percent of Americans "oppose allowing Internet providers like Comcast and Verizon to charge websites and services more if they want to reach customers more quickly, that is, allowing what are often called 'Internet fast lanes,'" Max Ehrenfreund reports for The Washington Post. Even more surprising, 85 percent of Republican respondents said they support net-neutrality, while 81 percent of Democrats support it.

"These findings raise the question of why Republicans in Congress have been so quick and so forceful in their responses to President Obama's call for strict net neutrality rules," Ehrenfreund writes. "There is a convincing conservative case for net neutrality regulations. While that might be an attractive position for the GOP, some suggest that Republicans are just dependent on campaign donations from the cable industry." (Read more) (University of Delaware graphic)

Coal was a hot topic during elections, but black lung disease gets little attention from politicians

Coal played a significant role in Senate and House campaigns in Central Appalachia, with candidates in areas like West Virginia and Kentucky discussing returning jobs to economically depleted coal areas or attacking the so-called "war on coal." However, the dangers of coal were not adequately discussed, Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward writes in a piece that appears in Environmental 360.

"Politicians and media pundits often conveniently forget that fact when they’re chattering away about the Environmental Protection Agency’s new rules on coal-fired power plants or the latest study showing climate change’s impact on sea level rise," Ward writes. "Major mining disasters get a lot attention, especially if they involve heroic rescue efforts, with worried families gathered at a local church and quick-hit stories about long lists of safety violations and inadequate enforcement." (The LIFE Images Collection: Former miner Albert Perry lying in bed, hooked up to an oxygen machine in 1991 because of black lung disease contracted through years of inhaling coal dust.)

"But most coal miners die alone, one at a time, either in roof falls or equipment accidents or—incredibly in this day and age—from black lung, a deadly but preventable disease that most Americans probably think is a thing of the past," Ward writes. "Coal-mining disasters get historic markers. Black lung deaths just get headstones."

"Experts at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reported that by 2012, the rate of severe black lung had reached 3.2 percent of workers in the Central Appalachian coalfields of southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky," Ward writes. "That’s a nearly tenfold increase over the disease prevalence 15 years earlier—a shocking statistic." 

"Fifteen years ago, the rate of PMF had dropped to about 0.08 percent among all miners participating in a government monitoring program and 0.33 percent among active underground miners with at least 15 years of work experience," Ward writes. "Since then, the national prevalence of PMF has increased dramatically, and the rate of increase in Appalachia has 'been especially pronounced,' the researchers reported." Researchers said, “Excessive inhalation of coal mine dust is the sole cause of PMF in working coal miners, so this increase can only be the result of overexposures and/or increased toxicity stemming from changes in dust composition."

More than 1,100 miners were wrongly denied black lung claims after the doctor at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions who interprets X-rays in black-lung claims failed to find a single case of severe black lung in more than 1,500 cases decided since 2000 in which he offered an opinion. However, media and politicians seem to largely ignore both those findings and the study.

"For two decades, the prevalence of black lung dropped continuously—from 6.5 percent in the 1970s, to 2.5 percent in the 1980s and 2.1 percent in the 1990s. But then the trend reversed, with rates climbing to 3.2 percent in the 2000s," Ward writes. "No one knows for sure exactly what is causing black lung’s resurgence. But it’s likely that, with the thicker coal seams mined out in southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, operators are going after thinner seams with faster-moving machines that churn out more dust from silica-laced rock that surrounds the coal." But still, black lung remains an issue pushed into the background, if it's even discussed at all. (Read more)

Barges carrying bumper crops delayed because Corps shutting down stretch of Mississippi River

It seems that farmers can't catch a break. Rail delays—blamed on a bad winter, a bumper grain crop, increased competition from oil and coal shipments and an improved economy that is jacking up the amount of consumer goods—led many grain farmers to store crops or risk selling them at lower costs. Now, farmers trying to move supplies via water before cold temperatures shut down waterways are facing a new threat. The U.S. Corps of Engineers is closing a three-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Memphis, Tenn., and Greenville, Miss., to reinforce a flood-damaged river bank with concrete mats called revetments, Sara Wyant reports for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter.

The Waterways Council said in a statement: “With little proper notice to operators and shippers, the Corps' work performed at this time has impeded transportation on the nation's busiest waterways during the most critical part of this record harvest season," Wyant writes. The Army Corps responded that they had to do the repairs now, while water levels are low.

The National Corn Growers Association "urged the Army Corps to delay its planned mat-laying work along the Mississippi River," Wyant writes. NCGA President Chip Bowling told her, “This comes at a terrible time for U.S. corn farmers. We produced a record crop in 2014, much of which will be transported along the Mississippi River. It is imperative that barge traffic not be impeded and as much grain as possible is transported before winter.”

The Army Corps has been working to help free up space to allow barges to get past but has yet to make a final decision about whether or not to postpone work, Wyant writes. "The agency reported that a northbound 24 barge test tow successfully passed through the widened river section, and 'we understand the urgency to quickly open for larger tows,' the Corps said in their release." (Read more)

President Obama, FCC head Tom Wheeler at odds over net-neutrality rules

President Obama and Federal Communications Commissions chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat appointed to the position by the president, are not seeing eye-to-eye on net-neutrality, which could create chaos on an issue about which Democrats hold the majority decision, Brian Fung and Nancy Scola report for The Washington Post.

Hours after President Obama called for the FCC to pass tougher regulations on high-speed Internet providers, Wheeler was in a conference room with representatives from Google, Yahoo and Etsy saying he "preferred a more nuanced solution," Fung and Scola write. "That approach would deliver some of what Obama wants but also would address the concerns of the companies that provide Internet access to millions of Americans, such as Comcast, Time Warner Cable and AT&T."

Meeting attendees, who described Wheeler as visibly frustrated, quoted the chairman as saying, “What you want is what everyone wants: an open Internet that doesn’t affect your business. What I’ve got to figure out is how to split the baby," Fung and Scola write. (Associated Press photo by Jaquelyn Martin: President Obama and then-nominee for FCC chair Tom Wheeler)

"The president wants clear rules to prevent Internet service providers from auctioning the fastest speeds to the highest bidders, a scenario that could favor rich Web firms over start-ups," Fung and Scola write.  "Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the cable and telecommunications industry, has floated proposals that aim to limit the ability of service providers to charge Web companies, such as Netflix or Google, to reach their customers. But critics have argued that his approach would give the providers too much leeway to favor some services over others."

That could put Obama and Wheeler at odds, Fung and Scola write. "A growing source of frustration for White House and congressional Democrats is that they have three of their own on the five-member commission at the FCC, a majority that should give them the power to push through a policy of their liking. But if Wheeler charts a different course, he could bring the other members along with him.
And, as Wheeler reminded participants at his meeting with Web companies Monday, the FCC does not answer to the Obama administration." According to officials, Wheeler said, “I am an independent agency." (Read more)

As a joke, Dartmouth College buddies write-in frat brother for public office, and he wins election

A common perception is that the rich, powerful big wigs dominate public office—and that candidates with the most money and their hands in the most back pockets win elections. But an election in Hanover, N.H., showed that the American way is alive and well, even if it might have started out as a joke. (Valley News photo by Sarah Priestap: Mick Wopinski)

When Dartmouth College senior Sam Todd saw that no candidates were running for the office of Grafton County register of probate, he wrote-in the name Mick Wopinski, one of his frat brothers, Nora Doyle-Burr reports for the Valley News. Todd asked his friends to also vote for Wopinski, and when votes were tallied, Wopinski won the election with 20 votes, beating out other write-in candidates, Philip Hanlon and Keggy the Kegger.

Wopinski, who didn't vote for himself, told Doyle-Burr, “For me, it was a joke. I had no idea it was possible that I could win.” Wopinski, who plans to graduate in June with a double major in economics and Russian, is currently researching the position to find out what the job entails and whether he will accept it. He said he does have plans to move out of state after graduation, which would make him ineligible to retain the position. (Read more)

NPR to air series on delinquent mine safety fines; first show is at 4 p.m. (ET) today

Beginning at 4 p.m. (ET) today NPR will begin airing a series on delinquent mine safety fines as part of its show All Things Considered, NPR's Howard Berkes said in an email to The Rural Blog. "We’ve documented what happens at mines that get away with not paying millions in safety fines while they’re delinquent, most for years, some for decades," Berkes writes. Additional shows will air on Thursday and Friday morning on All Things Considered.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Obama wants Internet regulated like utilities; Sen. McConnell says move would stifle innovation

President Barack Obama said on Monday that because the Internet is as important in Americans' lives as electricity and telephone service, it should be "regulated like those utilities to protect consumers," Edward Wyatt writes for The New York Times. Obama said the Federal Communications Commission should make this change to keep broadband companies from slowing down legal content or allowing content providers to pay extra for a fast lane. This discussion is especially important for rural areas, many of which do not have adequate broadband access to begin with. Also, innovation and start-ups can be particularly beneficial to rural people, so considering whether this change would promote that is important.

Tom Wheeler, chairman of the FCC
Many see the president's move as support of Tom Wheeler, F.C.C. chairman, who is working on a plan to protect open Internet—called net neutrality. "The debate may hinge on whether Internet access is considered a necessity, like electricity, or more of an often-costy option, like cable TV," Wyatt writes. Netflix, Democrats in Congress and consumer advocacy groups are the move's primary supporters, but leading providers of Internet access, Republicans and some investment groups do not like the idea and say this regulation is too heavy-handed and will hurt online investment and innovation.

Companies that make routers and servers, represented by the Telecommunications Industry Association, said they "strongly urge regulators to refrain from reclassification that will guarantee harm to consumers, the economy and the very technologies we're trying to protect." Senator John Thune of South Dakota said the effort "would turn the Internet into a government-regulated utility and stifle our nation's dynamic and robust Internet sector with rules written nearly 80 years ago for plain old telephone service."

U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell sent a statement in response to Obama's announcement about the regulations. He wrote that the Internet currently allows innovators to create and sell products people like and makes jobs "without waiting around for government permission." The President's decision "to abandon this successful approach in favor of more heavy-handed regulation that will stifle innovation and concentrate more power in the hands of Washington bureaucrats is a terrible idea. The Commission would be wise to reject it." (Read more)

Veterans can serve as leaders on America's farms; programs offer opportunities

Approximately 45 percent of armed services members are from rural America, and a chart from the USDA's Economic Research Service (ERS) shows that 3.9 million veterans live in rural areas now, as opposed to 6.6 million 20 years ago. "However, in spite of a decline in the number of rural veterans, because they are aging in greater numbers than the general population, those who have served still make up 10 percent of the rural population," Ann Tracy Mueller writes for Agri-Pulse.

Many of those who work on farms are older veterans, and they are "well situated to take on leadership roles in rural communities," according to the ERS's November 2013 brief. By 2050, American agriculture will be expected to help feed a world population of 9 billion people, and more farmers will be needed. Various organizations help provide "training, marketing and financial help to soldiers wishing to return to the nation's agrarian roots," Mueller reports.

For example, the Farmer-Veteran Coalition assists returning veterans in finding work and training on farms and ranches. Veterans Farm helps bring veterans back into society by offering a Beginning Farmer fellowship program, during which veterans can gain the education needed to start their own farms or work for larger farming organizations. Other examples of such programs are Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training, Armed to Farm and the Veteran Farmers Project.

The USDA is supporting veterans through a variety of projects to assist those who wish to get involved with agriculture. For example, more than $9 million is available for outreach and technical assistance for veterans who are new to farming and ranching. "Known as the 2501 program, [it] will help community-based organizations and partners work with these groups to acquire, own and operate farms and participate in USDA programs," Mueller writes. (Read more)

Rural hospitals deal with shortages of specialists

Many rural areas struggle with doctor shortages. Lack of specialists is also a problem. In southwestern Virginia, "rural health care is a long and winding road for many patients," Joe Dashiell writes for WDBJ-TV.

For example, Wendy Welch, the director of the Graduate Medical Education Consortium in southwestern Virginia, said, "We are facing a massive shortage of dentists and dental care. We're facing a continued dearth of endocrinology care, people who work particularly with diabetes and kidney function." Bill Jacobsen, the administrator of Carilion Franklin Memorial Hospital, said Franklin County is six psychiatrists short and that the 52,000-citizen region doesn't have even one full-time psychiatrist.

At the Edward Via Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine in Blacksburg, hospitals in Virginia and nearby states were promoting their residency programs and regions to prospective doctors. Vicky Hill, the director of physician support and recruitment support services at Wythe County Community Hospital, said Southwest Virginia is a beautiful place, ". . . so we use the beatuy and the many things that are outdoors to do, as well as the convenience of the two interstates" to encourage doctors to consider working there.

Lots of medical students graduate with more than $200,000 in student loans, and that often is a determining factor when new doctors decide where to work. Jessica Hovancik, a third year student at VCOM, said she's considering practicing in a rural area. "I'm on OB/GYN right now, and we travel 45 minutes to a place called Chase City just to see five or six patients," Havancik said. "But they're so thankful that we take the time to come out there. And it gives you a good feeling at the end of the day."

The doctor and specialist shortage will become even more of an issue if appropriate actions aren't taken.  What can be done? "Rural health care advocates would like to see debt forgiveness programs expanded and applied more evenly across rural Virginia, more nurse practitioners and physician assistants deployed in rural communities and expansion of tele-medicine to assist rural doctors and connect patients to health professionals in other areas," Dashiell writes. (Read more)

Danville, Ky., newspaper converts archives into digital files

Old newspaper stories used to disappear into the archives perhaps never to return. However, The Advocate-Messenger of Danville, Ky., donated its old contents—from as far back as 1871—to the Boyle County Public Library. Assistant research librarian Mary Girard is converting them into digital files, Todd Kleffman writes for The Advocate-Messenger.

Mary Girard and her mother, Annabel Girard, look through the archives.
"We are very happy to have the library take on a project like this,"said John Nelson, the Advocate's executive editor. "These were records the public didn't really have access to." He said their more recent records are already electronic, and it will be useful for the public to have digital access to the older files.

Changing brittle newspaper pages into digital files is "tedious and detail-oriented," Girard said. But as a self-described "history geek," she said she enjoys the work. "Things discovered in Danville's past can shed new light on the present," she said.

One specific article that caught her eye was a piece from 1905 about Danville merchants concerned about losing customers to out-of-town competition. "Back in 1905, they were talking about shopping local. We are having that same conversation today," Girard said. "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

The project will likely take two years to complete. Girard posts some of what she finds in a Facebook group called "You might be from Boyle County if..." People who are part of the group enjoy looking at what she has posted and often help her identify individuals in some of the old photos.

"One of the early beneficiaries of the on-going digitalization of the old Advocate clips has been Michael Hughes, president of the recently formed Boyle County African American Historical Society," Kleffman writes. He was researching history of Danville's black community, so he visited the Advocate, and when he saw the archives, he knew it would take a long time to look through them. Browsing the digital files is much easier. "It's been a great help," he said. "It's just a treasure chest of information that the younger generation didn't know anything about and the older people had mostly forgotten about." (Read more)

Monday, November 10, 2014

What to expect new Congress to do about the ACA

Now that Tuesday's election has passed and Republicans have control of Congress, many are speculating about how they will challenge the Affordable Care Act, Drew Altman, president and chief executive officer of the Kaiser Family Foundation, writes for The Wall Street Journal.

"There will be early 'statement legislation' to repeal the law and possibly to repeal the ACA's individual mandate, a linchpin of the law that spreads risk and makes its insurance market changes work," Altman reports. However, if the statement legislation passes, President Barack Obama will veto it.

That attempt will likely be followed by legislative efforts to undermine the ACA in more subtle ways. One example might be, John Boehner said Thursday, repealing "the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a not-yet appointed commission with power to trigger reductions in Medicare payments if spending increases exceed certain levels and Congress does not come up with an alternative approach," Altman writes. Also the requirement for larger employers to cover their workers or pay a penalty could be repealed, possibly by changing the definition of full-time workers for 30 hours per week to 40. Sen. Mitch McConnell mentioned Wednesday that they may try to get rid of a medical device law that currently helps finance the law.

However, these proposals don't change the main functions of the ACA: its coverage expansions and insurance reforms, which will probably continue, even if some changes are made. "For most people, opposition to the ACA isn't about the details; Obamacare is mainly a proxy for their dislike of the president and their unease about the nation's direction," Altman writes. Business and medical device makers and insiders would be the ones primarily concerned about the specificities of the legislative proposals to chip away at the ACA.

Currently, small businesses do not have to provide insurance for their workers, and most large companies do that anyway. It's important to keep the changes in perspective because repealing the employer mandate, for example, would not have that much of an impact. "As proposals to modify the ACA are introduced in the new Congress, it will be critical for the media to provide perspective, explain what proposals mean for people and distinguish between small changes and ones that would cut to the core of the law," Altman writes. (Read more)

Communities try to circumvent state laws that divide broadband access

In 19 states, state laws curb the municipalities from building or expanding high-speed Internet service networks. Supporters say the reason for the laws "is to limit taxpayer exposure to projects that at times fail and for which there may be little demand," Edward Wyatt writes for The New York Times.

However, Tom Wheeler, the Federal Communications Commission chairman, said providing broadband Internet access is important and that the commission can override the state laws. This contributes to the debate about how much authority the federal commission has over the states and raises the question of whether local government or private companies should take responsibility for providing the service.

Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., have both requested that the commission override their state laws, and the F.C.C. is expected to respond next year. "If you want to have economic development in a town like this, you've got to have fiber," said Gregory Bethea, the town administrator of Pinetops, a town of 1,300 people approximately 20 miles northeast of Wilson.

In most cities, more pressing issues exist—like the need for more or better roads and bridges, said Charles M. Davidson, a director of the Advanced Communications Law & Policy Institute at New York Law School. Broadband "is not where we have the most compelling need for investment. And when government networks fail, the failure is on the backs of the people," he said.

However, those who support community broadband say "the level of opposition the systems provoke from cable and phone companies is evidence that they work," Wyatt writes. "If the people, acting through their local governments, want to pursue competitive community broadband, they shouldn't be stopped by state laws promoted by cable and telephone companies that don't want the competition," Wheeler said.

The FCC will have to get past a United States Supreme Court precent if it wants to invalidate the state law. "I am pretty confident that if the F.C.C. pre-empts state laws, they ultimately will lose those cases," said Randolph J. May, president of the Free State Foundation and a former associate general counsel for the F.C.C. "The Supreme Court jurisprudence is pretty clear."

However, Wilson and Chattanooga have contended that broadband service is considered an information service rather than a telecommunication service, so the Supreme Court's rule may not apply. (Read more)

Parents spanking children: research, prevalence, possible effects

In 2012, more than 70 percent of Americans agreed that "it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard spanking," according to a study sponsored by the National Science Foundation under the direction of Tom W. Smith, Richard V. Reeves and Emily Cuddy write for Brookings. Corporal punishment is still permitted in 19 states. Usually the goal is to correct bad behavior through physical punishment, which is generally quite effective short term. But what are the long term effects?

Some research studies show that children spanked often are more likely to develop mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and alcohol and drug abuse. Physical punishment may teach a child to associate violence with power over others. Important to note is that these studies deal with how regular and/or severe physical punishment correlates with child behavior.

Other studies indicate that corporal punishment is linked to decreased cognitive ability in early childhood. For example, a 2009 study within the National Longitudinal Study of Youth showed that children who received little or no corporal punishment gained cognitive ability more quickly than the children who were spanked. However, the reason for this may be that "parents who spank their children may be weaker parents overall, and spanking is simply one way in which this difference in parenting quality manifests itself," Reeves and Cuddy write.

According to a study using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Children of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a significant gap in parenting quality does not exist between those who do and don't hit their children. However, most studies show that spanking "becomes problematic with increased frequency and/or intensity," Reeves and Cuddy report. A significant difference exists between spanking a child once per month and spanking multiple times per day and between spanking lightly with an open hand and spanking aggressively with a belt.

Overall, the writers suggest that U.S. policy-makers focus on encouraging positive parenting behavior such as reading to children rather than focusing on spanking prevention. Many child development experts believe that "alternatives to spanking can be just as effective in terms of regulating behavior," Reeves and Cuddy write. (Read more)