Saturday, August 26, 2017

Cecil Andrus, conservationist, Carter interior secretary and longest-serving Idaho governor, dies

Photo by Katherine Jones, Idaho Statesman
Cecil Andrus, who took on mining interests as the longest-serving governor of Idaho and Jimmy Carter's interior secretary, died of lung-cancer complications at his Boise home Thursday, one day short of his 86th birthday.

Andrus "may have been the first governor or either party to win on an environmental issue," opposition to a molybdenum mine in the White Cloud Mountains, writes William Yardley of The New York Times. As interior secretary, "He helped reduce the impact of mining in Appalachia," helping Carter pass and then implement the Surface Coal Mining and Reclamation Act of 1977.

Perhaps his greatest national legacy was getting Congress to protect 103 million acres of Alaska, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is still a target for energy companies. Carter said Friday, "Together we made conservation history."

Andrus returned to Idaho and served another eight years as governor. "He returned to the preservation fray in recent years to help Rep. Mike Simpson protect his beloved Boulder-White Clouds as wilderness in 2015, and he fought with the federal government to get nuclear waste out of Idaho his entire career," Rocky Barker writes for the Idaho Statesman. "Andrus will lie in state in the Idaho Capitol rotunda from noon Wednesday until noon Thursday. A private funeral is planned for Wednesday; a public memorial service is set for 2 p.m. Thursday in the Jordan Ballroom of the Boise State University Student Union."

Friday, August 25, 2017

Disney settles 'pink slime' lawsuit for $177 million

Illustration by Sam Woolley for Splinter
The Walt Disney Co. was potentially on the hook for almost $6 billion in the largest defamation lawsuit in history, but has reportedly settled with Beef Products Inc. for $177 million, Rich Duprey reports for The Motley Fool. It's the largest payout for a libel claim against a media company that the Media Law Resource Center has recorded. BPI had sued ABC-TV (owned by Disney) after a 2012 investigative report on "pink slime," the term a former U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist used for BPI's "lean finely textured beef" added to ground beef. The report said it previously was used only in dog food or cooking oil. The program created an instant uproar, and major supermarket chains announced they would drop any beef that contained the product, while Walmart, Kroger and others began offering shoppers ground beef without it, Duprey reports.

"What’s striking isn’t just the size of the sum, or that ABC agreed to it before its lawyers started making their case at trial," David Uberti writes for Splinter. "It’s that the network continues to stand by its reporting (no retraction, no corrections, nada), which remains on its site. In a world where the free press is under attack from politicians, the public, and billionaire Silicon Valley vampires, one of the few companies with the resources to mount a legal defense of journalism instead chose to pay its assailants to shut up and go away."

Jonathan Peters, a media law professor at the University of Georgia, told Uberti that the case was alarming because it could encourage corporations to sue: "No matter how many times ABC says that it stands by its reporting, the settlement itself undermines that message."

Research group helps local newspaper dig deep into a rural Virginia county

Rappahannock County
(Wikipedia map)
Rural issues can be tricky to cover. The who, what, when and where of a story can easily fill column inches, but it's much harder to distill down the whythe complicated, interconnected factors that provide context for the news. That's what makes this ongoing series in the Rappahannock News so satisfying: it puts a rural northern Virginia county under a microscope and examines it from all angles: health and safety, environment, economy, culture, connectivity, everything. It's as complete a picture of a community as we've ever seen and a must-read.

The series is a partnership between Rappahannock Media newspapers and a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization called Foothills Forum, made up of local citizens who say they want to improve how journalists research and report local news. Foothills Forum started out the project by mailing a survey to every resident of Rappahannock County to ask them about themselves and what they care about. The survey was conducted by the Center for Survey Research at the University of Virginia and got a high response rate: 42 percent of the 3,258 households filled out the surveys.

The results found that respondents love the county's natural beauty, the privacy they enjoy as rural residents, and the way their neighbors help each other. And "while respondents are mostly satisfied with the quality of services and amenities in the county, they also are anxious about housing affordability, the dearth of jobs, the availability of services for elders, and preserving farms," Christopher Connell reports for the News. Larry "Bud" Meyer, a former newspaper editor who chairs the Foothills Forum, told Connell that "the survey backs up something many of us already felt: everyone loves this county of ours, but we’re aware there are some big challenges ahead."

Three other sets of stories in the series by Randy Rieland examine other community issues. The first discusses the need for better cell phone and internet connectivity, how it could benefit the community, and the obstacles that residents are having to deal with in making it happen. The second set of stories covers how the county plans to grow and update infrastructure in the future. And the fourth set looks at health care, poverty, and the county's aging community.

More stories are forthcoming, and Foothills Forum plans to host feedback forums and gather more research. Stay tuned.

All counties in now have individual Obamacare insurance options for 2018

Dozens of counties, mostly in rural areas, were at risk of having no individual private insurance options in 2018 after companies like Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield pulled out of the markets. But a few insurance companies have filled gaps in coverage, and now there are no areas in the U.S. without coverage. Paulding County, Ohio, was the last "bare" county until CareSource committed to offering coverage in 2018 to the 380 customers who need it, Dylan Scott reports for Vox. CareSource also filled coverage gaps for next year in other bare counties in Ohio and Indiana this summer.
Click for interactive county-by-county Kaiser Family Foundation map via Bloomberg.
Click on the map to enlarge it.
This summer there were dozens of counties that had no individual insurance options for 2018. President Trump threatened not to pay insurers the federal cost-sharing payments that make it possible for them to offer low-cost plans to the poorest citizens. Because of that and the general uncertainty surrounding Congressional Republicans' fight to repeal and/or replace the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, some insurers decided it would be safer to withdraw from markets that depended heavily on federally subsidized plans. That left some areas with no coverage options.

But insurers like CareSource and Centene saw an opportunity in the bare coverage areas and have stepped in to fill the gap. Both are niche insurers that specialize in managing Medicaid programs for the poor. "This isn't a perfect solution, especially for people who don't receive subsidies and therefore aren't protected from premium increases in a monopolized market," Scott writes. "It's also possible that Trump does something in the next few weeks to disrupt the market again — insurers have until the end of September before they are truly locked into selling plans in 2018."

Scott writes that the country should now focus on counties that have only one insurer in 2018. He's not worried so much about insurers with monopolies charging outrageous prices, but more about customers not being able to shop around for plans that fit their needs.

Interior secretary: Shrink 3 national monuments

The Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Oregon (BLM photo)
"Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended Thursday that President Trump alter at least three national monuments established by his immediate predecessors, including two in Utah, a move expected to reshape federal land and water protections and certain to trigger major legal fights," Juliet Eilperin and Darryl Fears report for The Washington Post. Zinke recommends shrinking the footprint of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah, as well as the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Oregon. He also wants to change land management rules to allow fishing in sites off the coast of New England and Hawaii.

Zinke submitted the report after President Trump ordered him to examine 27 protected areas established by presidents Clinton, Obama, and George W. Bush under the 1906 Antiquities Act. The review was spurred by the Trump administration's desire to free up some federal lands for industries such as fishing and mining. Zinke said in a statement that the targeted monuments would still be federal land and protected under federal environmental regulations, but shrinking them to give industries access to choice parts of the land would also "provide a much needed change for the local communities who border and rely on these lands for hunting and fishing, economic development, traditional uses, and recreation," the Post reports.

The best example of that is probably Bears Ears, a 1.35 million acre expanse in southeastern Utah that President Obama designated as a national monument in his last days in office. Archaeologists and nature fans pushed for its designation because it's one of the richest sources of dinosaur bones in the country. But mining companies want more access to it because it's also a rich source of uranium. The Daneros Uranium Mine already operates in Bears Ears, but the national monument designation prevented new mines from opening. That's a problem for the mine's owner, Energy Fuels, since it wants to expand the mine, Carolyn Gramling reports for Science magazine. Grand Staircase-Escalante is in the same boat: it has amazingly preserved prehistoric flora and fauna, but sits on big uranium and coal deposits.

The Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Oregon, which Zinke had also recommended shrinking, is coveted by timber companies and ranchers for logging and grazing, The Associated Press reports. Ethan Lane, executive director of the public lands council at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, told the Post that "Quite frankly, previous administrations got a little too greedy" in making these lands off-limits for industry.
Zinke reviewed the highlighed areas along with marine sites off the
coast of New England and Hawaii. (Washington Post graphic)
Environmental groups plan to challenge any changes to the monuments in court, possibly referencing a U.S. attorney general's formal opinion in 1938 saying that the Antiquities Act allows presidents to establish monuments but doesn't give them the right to abolish them. The Post writes that "While Congress can alter national monuments easily through legislation, presidents have reduced their boundaries only on rare occasions." Woodrow Wilson, for example, reduced the size of Mount Olympus National Monument by almost half.

Zinke didn't recommend changes to all of the monuments he reviewed. "The administration plans to leave six designations in place: Colorado’s Canyons of the Ancients; Idaho’s Craters of the Moon; Washington’s Hanford Reach; Arizona’s Grand Canyon-Parashant; Montana’s Upper Missouri River Breaks; and California’s Sand to Snow. In each case, according to Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift, there was 'very little, to no, local opposition,'" the Post reports.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Mo. audit of rural hospitals uncovers $90 million billing scheme at one that outsourced operations

Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway is auditing the finances of the state's rural, county-owned hospitals, Samantha Liss reports for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It's the first time an initiative from the state's auditor has focused solely on rural hospitals, but Galloway says it's important to make sure they are efficient and honest. "These are major employers in these rural counties," Galloway told Liss. "Additionally, they might be the only resource to health care that people have. And if these facilities close because they’re financially in bad shape they might have to drive an hour or more to get access to health care."

Rural hospitals all over the country are struggling, since rural residents tend to be older, poorer, and need more medical care, straining hospital resources. They're more likely to depend on Medicaid and Medicare, and Medicaid isn't very profitable for hospitals — especially in states like Missouri, which did not expand Medicaid under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

The audit is already seeing results. One review uncovered a $90 million billing scheme at Putnam County Memorial Hospital. The five-person hospital board had agreed to hire independent contractor Hospital Partners for the hospital's day-to-day operations but didn't run the contract by legal counsel. There were no stipulations in the contract to limit the salary of Hospital Partners' CEO, who has since increased his own salary from $160,000 to $200,000, Liss reports. Auditors found out-of-state employees on the payroll who were supposedly working for the hospital's lab, and "the vast majority of the laboratory’s billings are for out-of-state lab work for patients who never went to Putnam for care," Liss reports. State and federal officials have been notified about the audit's findings at Putnam.

Gun sellers in New Hampshire try to decrease suicides by firearm with voluntary program

How do you reduce the number of suicides by firearms without infringing on Second Amendment rights? Gun dealers like New Hampshire outdoors-store manager John Yule have taken a novel approach by joining the New Hampshire Firearms Safety Coalition. The group encourages gun shops to display suicide-prevention materials and keep an eye out for shoppers who might be purchasing a gun for suicide. They say "their goal is to keep guns, the most common method of suicide, out of the hands of those they deem at risk," Shefali Luthra reports for Kaiser Health News. "We’re not trying to step on anyone’s toes or deny them any rights. [But] you can guide them, or suggest to them or talk them into a different approach," Yule told Luthra.

It's a problem worth studying. Suicide rates are higher in general in rural areas, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and suicide by firearms may be the cause of the disparity. When researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health analyzed suicide deaths in Maryland, Luthra reports that they found that "when gun-related suicides were excluded, there was no significant difference in rates between rural and urban areas."

The greater likelihood of suicide by firearm in rural areas may be partially due to the simple fact that people living in rural areas are more likely to own guns. That widespread support for gun rights in rural areas makes legal restrictions on gun purchases a tough sell, even if they're targeting customers with mental illness. Alan Morgan, executive director of the National Rural Health Association, told Luthra that "proposals for any government action related to firearms are politically loaded." That makes voluntary efforts like the one in New Hampshire much more likely to succeed. "With more barriers, a person’s impulse to kill oneself can pass, or they may use other means, such as pills, that have lower fatality rates. And, research shows, if an attempt is foiled, that person is ultimately less likely to die by self-harm," Luthra writes.

NHFSC Co-Chair Elaine Frank says the group's efforts are targeting the "low-hanging fruit," since most people who commit suicide by firearm own their guns for more than a week. Longer-term solutions would include more community education about suicide prevention and improving access to mental-health care.

Dept. of Energy report: More use of renewables could threaten reliability of power grid

The Department of Energy released a controversial study Aug. 23 that says too much electricity from renewable energy and natural gas could make the U.S. power grid less reliable in the future. "The 187-page study, commissioned by Energy Secretary Rick Perry in April, recommends that federal regulators make changes to wholesale electricity markets that could potentially benefit existing coal and nuclear plants. Revenues for many of these facilities have slumped in recent years as electricity prices have declined, mostly because of cheap natural gas, the study said, but also as a result of low electricity demand growth and the rise of wind and solar power," Brad Plumer reports for The New York Times.

The study says the grid is fine right now because gas and hydropower can easily shore up gaps caused by the intermittent nature of wind and solar, but that could be threatened if more coal and nuclear plants shut down because they can produce electricity around the clock. The study is open to public comment.

Critics of the study say it's an effort by the Trump administration to help the ailing coal industry. Sierra Club officer Mark Kresowik told NPR's Jeff Brady that "coal and nuclear interests are making a last-ditch attempt to try and preserve their market share, that is being taken up by fast-growing, clean, reliable, affordable resources like wind and solar." And Richard Graham, chief executive of clean energy company coalition Advanced Energy Economy, told Plumer that diversifying America's energy sources makes the power grid "more flexible, reliable, and resilient."

Whether or not the study is biased, it's still a boon for the coal and nuclear industries. Utilities buy electricity from energy producers in what's known as a "power purchase agreement." The gas boom and subsidized wind power have driven down the prices coal and nuclear plants can get from utilities. Some believe the study is the administration's way of  "laying the groundwork to justify subsidies for coal and nuclear power plants," Brady reports. Neil Chatterjee, the new head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said coal plants should be "properly compensated to recognize the value they provide," Plumer reports. Nuclear power plants in some states have already received subsidies.

Acting mine-safety chief's credentials questioned

Wayne Palmer
(LinkedIn photo)
Longtime Capitol Hill staffer Wayne Palmer has been named acting assistant secretary of labor, to run the Mine Safety and Health Administration, but some are wondering if he's qualified for the position, Dylan Brown reports for Environment & Energy News. Before his appointment, Palmer was the chief of staff for Secretary Alexander Acosta. He once served as chief of staff for former Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, and was a lobbyist, Jordan Barab writes on Confined Space, a blog about workplace safety and labor issues.

A colleague says Palmer wanted the position because he's a Pennsylvania native with family members who were miners. But Palmer has no direct experience with mining, and that worries United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts. The position of assistant secretary "needs to be filled by someone who is an expert in the field, so that miners can have confidence that their government is putting the best people in positions to watch out for them on the job. I am not sure this appointment meets that test," Roberts said in a statement. "What does he know about the need for ventilation, roof control, rock dusting, and a hundred other things that the person in charge of keeping our miners safe and secure needs to know?"

The mining industry, eager to work with a more coal-friendly administration, seemed optimistic about Palmer's appointment. "We've not worked with Palmer, but have worked with the Senate offices that have employed him and have enjoyed constructive relations with them all," National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich told Brown, "so we look forward to working with him in his very important post." It's unclear when the administration will nominate a permanent MSHA chief.

Big study finds Appalachia falling behind rest of the nation in health; rural areas often worse off

This county-by-county map of premature deaths, from the report, outlines in red the Appalachian region, where the rate is 25 percent higher than in the nation as a whole.
By Melissa Patrick
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

When it comes to health, Appalachia is falling farther behind the rest of the nation. So says a comprehensive report from the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and a Kentucky foundation, looking at a range of health measures in Appalachia.

"We can't underestimate the importance of accurate and timely data in understanding the issues that lead to the health disparities in Appalachia," said Ben Chandler, president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, which co-sponsored the study.

The report, “Health Disparities in Appalachia,” not only paints a grim picture of the region's health status, but also shows that even in the areas of improvement, the region hasn't kept up with the rest of the nation, and continues to fall behind.

The researchers found that over the last two decades, Appalachia and the rest of the U.S. saw improvements in seven of the eight health measures examined: deaths from heart disease, cancer and stroke; infant mortality, the supply of primary-care doctors, education levels and years of potential life lost. Poverty was the only measure that increased.

But when compared to the rest of the nation, Appalachia's improvements lagged behind in all but one of those measures: the number of primary-care physicians.

The greatest gap was in life expectancy, the most fundamental measure of a place's health. The report measured it in "years of potential life lost." Over the last two decades, the U.S. saw a 24 percent decrease in premature deaths, while the Appalachian region only saw an 8 percent decrease. The Appalachian rate was 25 percent higher than the nation as a whole.

A news release about the study noted that the nation's improvements have often outpaced those in Appalachia.

For example, in the 1990s, the cancer death rate in Appalachia was only 1 percent higher than the rest of the nation, but more recently it is 10 percent higher. The infant mortality rates were 4 percent higher in Appalachia in the '90s, but are now 16 percent higher.

“These data bring attention to the growing health gap between Appalachia and the rest of the country,” Hilary Heishman, senior program officer of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said in the release. “The U.S. can’t be healthy as a whole if we are leaving whole regions behind.”

The report also analyzed 41 health indicators and how the 420 Appalachian counties compared to the rest of the nation in those measures, as well as how parts of the region compared to one another. The data is also broken down by state.

One of the greatest differences between Appalachia and the rest of the nation is the number of deaths caused by injury, which are 33 percent higher in the region. Injury deaths include things like motor vehicle accidents, falls and drug overdoses.

Injury deaths were more than twice the national rate in Central Appalachia – 81.4 injury deaths per 100,000 people compared to 39.5 nationally. Central Appalachia is the most rural sub-region as defined by the Appalachian commission.

Poisoning mortality rates in Appalachia
(Boundaries of sub-regions are in red.)
The overdose, or poisoning, deaths were a whopping 146 percent higher in Central Appalachia and 79 percent higher in North Central Appalachia than in the nation as a whole.

The premature death rate in Central Appalachia was much higher than the other sub-regions, 69 percent higher than the national average.

Appalachian suicide rates were also higher than the national rates by 17 percent, and were 31 percent higher in Central Appalachia.

“In measure after measure, the Central Appalachian region—including Eastern Kentucky—faces greater health challenges, and gaps are widening at a faster rate, than in the rest of Appalachia and the nation,” Chandler said in the news release. “Appalachia’s economic livelihood is absolutely dependent on improving these health measures."

The report also notes that Appalachia's rural counties have higher death rates than the region's large metro counties for each of the mortality measures, "signifying a stark rural-urban divide in the region": in rural counties, heart disease is 27 percent higher, cancer is 15 percent higher, COPD is 55 percent higher, injury is 47 percent higher, stroke is 8 percent higher; suicide is 21 percent higher, and diabetes is 36 percent higher. Premature death rates are 40 percent higher in rural Appalachia.

It comes as no surprise that many of the risk factors for poor health are also more prevalent in the Appalachian region, including fewer health care providers, higher rates of diabetes and obesity, higher rates of physical inactivity and higher smoking rates. The region also has lower incomes, higher poverty rates, more people on disability and lower shares of residents with some college education.

One bright spot is the Appalachian region's high rate of social associations, at 33 percent. This is a measure of the number of social organizations available and may very well end up being part of the solution to improving the region's health. "Greater levels of social relationships and interaction positively affect a number of outcomes, included those associated with both mental and physical health,” the report says.

The region also has lower incidence of chlamydia, lower prevalence of HIV, higher student-teacher ratios, and better diabetes monitoring among Medicare patients than the rest of the nation as a whole.

“This report begins to identify key health challenges confronting Appalachia,” ARC Federal Co-Chair Earl F. Gohl said in the release. “Now we need to understand the implications these findings have for Appalachia’s economy so we can continue working towards a brighter future for the region.”

This report is part of multi-part research project titled “Creating a Culture of Health in Appalachia: Disparities and Bright Spots.” The next report will explore “bright spots,” Appalachian communities that have better-than-expected health outcomes given their resources, with the goal of identifying activities, programs or policies that other struggling communities could replicate.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Big farm supplier is rocked by allegations of fraud among family owners

Dunnville is on US 127.
A family business in Southern Kentucky that says it is North America's largest maker of farm gates and animal-management equipment is embroiled in a racketeering lawsuit, after some family members accused relatives and their associates of using trade secrets to personally profit on deals with a Chinese company.

Tarter Farm and Ranch Equipment began in 1945 with handmade wooden gates, eventually expanding into several different companies under Tarter family ownership. Today it has 1,400 employees, many more people than live in its headquarters town of Dunnville, which is so small it is unincorporated.

"Anna Lou Tarter Smith and her children, Luann Coffey and Douglas Tarter, who are all shareholders in Tarter companies, are suing Smith’s nephew, Josh Tarter, president of Tarter Industries; a Hong Kong firm called QMC Industry Co.; and an executive named Thomas Lewis Gregory, who resigned last year from the Tarter companies," Greg Kocher reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. The suit says the defendants diverted $70 million over the past seven years.

The details get complicated, but here's the simplified version: The Tarter companies buy components to create finished products from various vendors. They employed a man named Xiaofeng Chen to represent them in component purchases in China. But Chen, Josh Tarter and Gregory formed a shell company in Hong Kong called QMC and installed themselves as a middleman that existed solely to inflate the price of goods. Tarter would order components from QMC, then QMC would have the components manufactured elsewhere in China and shipped to Tarter. "The Chinese suppliers bill QMC for the true cost of the components. But the suit says that QMC then 'substantially inflates' that cost and invoices the Tarter companies for the goods at higher prices, diverting savings that belong to the Tarter companies," Kocher reports.

The lawsuit also alleges that the components were often of very low quality in addition to being too expensive. Unhappy customers returned to Tarter more than 200 lawn mowers made with the defective parts. Family shareholders were shocked when they heard about plans to move the companies' entire manufacturing process to China instead of Casey County. Though Josh Tarter had initially denied being involved in QMC, he eventually admitted that he and Gregory were owners. He apologized to the family but refused to return his profits from QMC or give them a full accounting of how he was involved with QMC. The lawsuit alleges that Gregory and Tarter lived large on the profits they made from QMC.

"According to the suit, Gregory purchased a boat and is building a house near Key West, Fla. Josh Tarter purchased luxury automobiles and a house valued at $5 million in Park City, Utah," Larry Rowell reported for the Casey County News, which broke the story. Here's his lede: "International travel and intrigue. Luxury cars and houses in exotic locations. An overseas factory that didn’t manufacture products though millions of dollars of orders were placed. Accusations of financial mismanagement and fraudulent wire transfers. Knowingly selling defective equipment at a profit. Although these allegations read like a novel, they form the basis for a lawsuit among family members of Casey County’s largest employer."

Analysis shows big increase in diagnoses of food allergies, especially in rural children

A new analysis of private insurance claims shows that more people are suffering from allergies these days, and that those allergies are more severe especially in rural areas. The analysis was conducted by the nonprofit organization FAIR Health, which maintains a database of billions of medical and dental claims from 150 million people with private insurance. The search showed that anaphylactic reactions, especially to peanuts, have increased by almost five times from 2007 to 2016. Anaphylaxis is a systemic allergic reaction that can be fatal if not treated quickly.

An interesting result of the analysis was that there was a larger increase in claims from rural areas than in urban or suburban areas. Though both urban and rural allergy-related claims decreased in 2016, rural claims increased 110 percent while urban claims increased 70 percent over the entire 10-year period. That is intriguing because numerous studies have shown that children growing up in rural areas are less prone to allergies, possibly because the increased exposure to nature gives their immune systems a workout and makes them less likely to react to environmental triggers such as peanuts or eggs.

FAIR Health Inc. chart; click on it to enlarge it.
The analysis doesn't examine whether rural residents had increased rates of private health insurance coverage over that time period, and if so, how that affected the incidence of insurance claims. The rural rate climbed above the urban rate in 2014, the first year that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was in full effect. FAIR Health plans to release a white paper in October examining "geographical and gender variations and costs of services, among other factors," Sumathi Reddy reports for The Wall Street Journal.

Experts have plenty of theories about the cause of the increase and severity of allergies. "The increase could be related to the increasing use of antibiotics, rising rates of Caesarean sections that affect the microbiomes of babies, and an increasingly sterile environment, says Hugh Sampson, director of the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. All have altered the good bacteria in our intestinal tracts, which alters the programming of our immune systems," Reddy reports. Sampson says another problem is that parents have been told to avoid giving highly allergenic foods such as peanuts to small children, an approach that appears to have backfired. Allergies to peanuts and tree nuts have at least doubled in the U.S. over the past 20 years.

Invasive pigweed seeds found in most birdseed mix

Palmer amaranth, better known as pigweed
Researchers at the University of Missouri found out that commercial birdseed is giving Palmer amaranth, an invasive pigweed species, a sneaky ride into farms and gardens across the Midwest. Palmer amaranth is a frequent annoyance in the South, but was found "popping up in pollinator plots across the Midwest last year. Missouri scientists have also pointed to waterfowl contributing to the continued spread of the weed as the birds eat and subsequently poop the undigested and still viable pigweed seeds far away from the point of initial consumption," Pam Smith reports for The Progressive Farmer. The weed has spread to 39 of Missouri's 114 counties in recent years.

Mizzou weed expert Kevin Bradley says that the spread of the plant is usually blamed on contaminated livestock feed, bedding, or seeds clinging to machinery. His findings about the birdseed vector were presented at the university's recent Integrated Pest Management field day.

It's research worth noting, since some kinds of Palmer amaranth can resist several kinds of herbicides. The tiny seeds were present in almost all of the birdseed the researchers screened, but seed mixes that contain millet tended to have the most. One sample "contained nearly 8,000 pigweed seeds in a single pound bag. That's a lot of pigweed since birdseed often sells in 50 lb. bags," Smith reports. Seeds for other weeds were also common in the birdseed samples, including ragweed, velvetleaf, and morning glory.

Va. farms embrace agritourism, which is growing
The Parrish Pumpkin Patch in southern Virginia. (Parrish Farm photo)
Who doesn't love a visit to the farm? From pumpkin patches and hayrides to U-Pick-Em strawberries and wine tastings, there's something for everyone -- and savvy farmers know they can bring in extra revenue by hosting such events. "Farmers searching for ways to diversify their portfolios have added tourism to the mix as a way to bring in new business and new exposure to the industry. Agritourism now has several trends going for it: the growth of the experience economy and the popularity of farm-to-table foods, leading to a renewed interest in where food comes from," Tiffany Holland reports for The Roanoke Times.

Agritourism has become a big moneymaker over the past 10 years in Virginia, according to a study published in April by the Pamplin School of Business at Virginia Tech. It looked at the financial impact of agritourism in the state, and found that visitors to the state's more than 1,400 agritourism destinations spent about $1.5 billion in 2015 alone. "In total, agritourism accounts for about $2.2 billion in economic activity and it’s growing. The most growth for agritourism venues has been from 2010 to the present, with more than one-third of the venues opening in the past seven years," Holland reports.

State agencies have published materials to help guide farmers who want to get in on the trend. And rural counties are embracing it, even hiring coordinators to see to the industry. Big events such as tractor pulls or festivals can bring in profit to the whole community. And farmers who offer agritourism destinations say they love giving city dwellers the opportunity to learn more about farming and where their food comes from. Holland writes that "Carolyn Reilly, who opened Four Corners Farm in 2011 in Franklin County, said she and her husband offer farm tours to expose people to farming and show the public where the food comes from, in addition to making a living at it."

There are a few downsides to agritourism. it tends to be dependent on weather, so a festival getting rained out can cost a community thousands of dollars in lost income. Safety and liability are also a concern for farmers, as well as zoning issues and local ordinances. In short, the grape-picking expedition might get rained out, the on-site wine tasting bar at the vineyard might not be allowed, and the farmer might need to buy extra insurance in case a tourist gets hurt. But many farmers believe the promise of extra income in an increasingly cash-strapped industry is often worth the trouble.

What led EPA to decide farmers could keep using a pesticide banned for residential use since 2000?

Here's a story that highlights the importance to reporters of Freedom of Information Act requests and meticulous research.

"In the weeks before the Environmental Protection Agency decided to reject its own scientists’ advice to ban a potentially harmful pesticide, Scott Pruitt, the agency’s head, promised farming industry executives who wanted to keep using the pesticide that it is 'a new day, and a new future,' and that he was listening to their pleas," Eric Lipton and Roni Rabin report for The New York Times.

The Times found this information after obtaining more than 700 pages of internal agency documents through an FOIA request. The documents show that EPA staff appointed by President Trump were instrumental in getting long-time staff to agree to reject a petition from environmentalists to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos. Chlorpyrifos has been produced by Dow Chemical since the 1960s and is still widely used, but it has been banned for residential use since 2000 because of evidence that it damages the brains of fetuses, infants and children. Because chlorpyrifos dries up and drifts on the wind after it has been sprayed on crops, it is being blamed for causing sickness in 47 farmers near Bakersfield, Calif., on May 5.

"Three days before Donald J. Trump’s inauguration, Dow Chemical had separately submitted a request to the agency to reject the petition to ban chlorpyrifos, calling the scientific link between the childhood health issues and the pesticide unclear," the Times reports. The trail of internal memos and emails seems to show that new EPA staff were listening — not just to industry executives, but to interested parties in the White House and the Department of Agriculture, which tends to be more industry-friendly than the EPA. Melanie Benesh, a legislative attorney at the Environmental Working Group, told the Times, "What is clear from these documents is that Administrator Pruitt’s abrupt action to vacate the ban on chlorpyrifos was an ideological, not a health-based, decision."

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Job growth in rural areas continues to lag

"Job growth in rural America continues to lag the rest of the country, according to the latest figures from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics," Bill Bishop reports for The Daily Yonder. While jobs increased about 2 percent in large metropolitan areas from June 2016 to June 2017, rural areas overall only increased 0.29 percent, and the 924 counties that are farthest away from cities didn't gain jobs at all; they declined by 0.02 percent.
Daily Yonder map; click on it to enlarge
"Moreover, rural areas have been losing workforce, the total number of people either working or looking for a job," Bishop reports. "From June 2016 to June of this year, the rural workforce has shrunk by just over 105,000 people, or about 0.5 percent. That has helped keep rural unemployment rates low, but it indicates that the economy in many rural areas is hollowing out."

Rural areas have struggled to add jobs since the end of the Great Recession in 2009. There are new jobs to be had, but they're mostly concentrated in America's largest cities. "Seventy percent of the growth in employment since last June took place in the metropolitan areas with a million or more people," Bishop reports. Click here for a zoomable county-by-county map detailing job growth trends in America.

Voters say local news is less biased than national

A poll last week found that voters put more trust in their local news outlets than they do national news media, Edward Graham reports for Morning Consult, which commissioned the poll with Politico. It found that 41 percent of registered voters in a nationwide sample trust the local news more than national news to tell the truth, while 27 percent said they trusted national news more (32 percent didn't know or didn't have an opinion).

Democrats were slightly more likely to trust national news more than local news, while Republicans (especially Trump voters) and independents were almost twice as likely to trust local news over national news. On the question of bias, 54 percent of the respondents said they believed national news is liberally biased, while only 16 percent said it was conservatively biased and 7 percent said it was nonpartisan. The perception of liberal bias was seen less in local news: 40 percent said their local news leans liberal, while 25 percent said it is conservative and 11 percent said it was nonpartisan. The poll was conducted online Aug. 10-14 among 1,997 registered voters, and results were weighted to produce a target sample of registered voters based on age, race/ethnicity, gender, educational attainment, and region. The margin of error is plus or minus 2 percentage points.

Natalie Jomini Stroud, an associate communications studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said local media may be more trusted by viewers because there is evidence that local newspapers tailor coverage to readers' preferences.

The poll takes on added weight when considering the controversial ascent of conservative news conglomerate Sinclair Broadcasting Group. "Sinclair, already the largest owner of television stations across the United States, is in the middle of a proposed $3.9 billion purchase of Tribune Media that would see the company add 42 new stations. The Federal Communications Commission is currently reviewing the proposed merger," Graham notes. Some have criticized Sinclair for requiring local news stations to frequently run segments of conservative commentary.

Vilsack says U.S. doesn't appreciate its rural areas, which could draw more value-added manufacturing

Tom Vilsack (right) spoke at the Iowa State Fair.
(Des Moines Register photo by Angela Ufheil)
Americans don't appreciate rural America, and small towns could attract many more manufacturing jobs, former agriculture secretary and Iowa governor Tom Vilsack said at the Iowa State Fair Aug. 19.

Vilsack, a Democrat, is president of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. He said the U.S. can create more jobs by putting processing and manufacturing facilities near where natural resources are harvested or extracted, instead of shipping raw materials elsewhere. The rhetoric could resonate with Iowa cattle ranchers reeling from the loss of a promised meat processing plant, after the U.S. withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Angela Ufheil reports for The Des Moines Register, which sponsored Vilsack's appearance as part of its Political Soapbox at the fair.

"Another challenge facing Iowa, Vilsack said, is the lack of appreciation for rural America. He noted almost all food produced in the U.S. comes from rural areas. Yet those living in cities and benefiting from inexpensive food are so far removed from its production that they don't understand the challenges farmers face," Ufheil reports. He suggested that state and federal regulators use incentives that would lighten the financial burden on farmers, saying that they can't easily absorb increased costs due to regulation.

The Political Soapbox is an extension of the paper's Changing Iowa series, which explores the "demographic, cultural and economic changes taking place across the state, including the pressure being put on mid-sized farmshow automation is reshaping Iowa's workforce, and how Iowa's smaller cities have been left behind," Ufheil reports.

Interior halts study on health effects of large-scale surface mining in Central Appalachia

A surface coal mine (Herald-Leader photo by Charles Bertram)
The Interior Department has ordered to halt a $1 million study of whether large-scale surface mining in Central Appalachia has caused health problems. The U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement had hired The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to do the study. It included a public meeting in Hazard, Ky., on the day the halt was announced. The meeting, and one in Lexington the next day, were held.

Interior said it halted the study because it is reviewing all its grants and cooperative agreements of more than $100,000, Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. OSM had commissioned the study in August 2016, charging a panel of experts to review what it said was a "growing amount" of academic research on the topic.

Opponents of surface mining say they fear the study will be scrapped completely, citing the Trump administration's recent efforts to turn back some environmental regulations. "This was something that we had considered and feared given the change in administrations," Erin Savage, a program manager for Appalachian Voices, told Estep.

Studies have shown that mountaintop mining is associated with higher rates of cancer, heart disease, and other health issues. "However, the coal industry has fiercely disputed the studies, and a 2012 industry-funded study by a Yale University researcher and others concluded that 'coal mining is not per se the cause of increased mortality in rural Appalachia,'" Estep notes.

William Kearney, executive director of the National Academies, said in a press release that the agency believes the study is important and is "ready to resume it as soon as the Department of the Interior review is completed." At the Hazard meeting, residents told National Academies researchers that they hope OSM will allow the study to continue, Estep reports in an update. "Science isn't going to hurt us. What we don't know very well could," said Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg.
Rad more here:

Monday, August 21, 2017

Virginia is the latest state to help military veterans promote their products with special logo

Virginia is the latest state where military veterans who are farmers can use a special logo to promote their products. The logo is a combination of the "Virginia Grown" label and the national "Homegrown by Heroes" logo. The state label has been used by farmers for 15 years to advertise locally-grown produce and products; the other logo "is the official farmer veteran brand image developed in 2013 by the national Farmer Veteran Coalition," reports the Bristol Herald Courier. Gov. Terry McAuliffe unveiled the joint logo July 26. Several states, including Arkansas and Kentucky, have also developed joint logos in the past few years.

Army Col. (Ret.) John Fant, a retired cattle rancher, is president of the new Virginia chapter of FVC. He says the logo may help encourage more young veterans to get started in farming. "From a food security perspective, the average age of a Virginia farmer is 58½ years. So as current farmers transition into retirement, we need to replace them," he says. "We think many veterans have the specific skill set to do that, and this marketing tool can help them. Anyone who’s ever sold something knows you can have a great product, but if you can’t sell, you won’t succeed."

Farmers who want to use the logo must be certified as former military personnel through FVC. The first training program for interested farmers will be Oct. 27 and 28 at Hudson Heritage Farms in Halifax County. For more information contact Rebekah Slabach of Virginia Cooperative Extension at or (434) 476-2147.

Rural Alabama hospital closes, highlighting struggles of rural hospitals nationwide

On Sept. 1 a hospital serving some of Alabama's poorest counties will close its doors, making it the seventh rural Alabama hospital to close in eight years. The J. Paul Jones Hospital in Camden had been open for 60 years, Christopher Harress reports for That puts Alabama third on the list of states with most rural hospital closures. Georgia is in second place with six closures and Texas is in first place.

Rural hospitals all over the country are struggling, partly because many rural residents rely on Medicaid, but Medicaid is not a big money maker for hospitals. That's especially true in Alabama, where a complex federal formula gives hospitals less reimbursement for treating Medicaid patients than almost any other state. Republicans in Congress want to cut Medicaid, which may worsen the problem. Hospitals that remain open in rural areas are coping by cutting back on expensive specialized services such as obstetrics, as these maps show: graphic
"Alabama is without doubt facing a rural health crisis," says Jim Carnes, policy director at Alabama Arise, a non-profit advocate group for low-income residents. "The hospital closures, along with other medical facilities, have already had and will continue to have dire consequences for residents in rural areas." Dale Quinney, executive director of the Alabama Rural Health Association, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the health of rural Alabama citizens, told Harress that 34 of the 46 rural hospitals that report annual income were operating at a loss.

An increased rural population and better jobs that offer private insurance would help improve the issue, but barring that, an expansion of Medicaid, building hospitals with fewer beds, allowing nurse practitioners to take over routine medical care, and embracing telehealth could help. Telehealth is becoming an increasingly popular solution to rural health, but implementation in Alabama may be difficult because of two things: there is no required telehealth reimbursement law, and rural areas may not have the necessary access to broadband internet.

Experts to hold Twitter chat Thursday to discuss agricultural health and safety issues

The Rural Health Information Hub will host a Twitter chat at 2 p.m. EDT Aug. 24, to discuss "barriers to the health and safety of farmers, ranchers, and farmworkers and explore some of the innovative ways these barriers are being addressed in rural communities."

Farmers and farm workers often face danger at work because of machinery, repetitive stress injuries, and exposure to pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals. They also often have limited access to health care or health insurance. The RHIhub will chat with experts.

The chat will be about 60 minutes long and will use the hashtag #RuralHealthChat. You can follow on Twitter or use a client such as TweetChat for ease of use. Click here for a list of the participating experts and directions for how to participate.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Missouri rejects big Midwest power line

On Aug. 16 the Missouri Public Service Commission rejected a proposed 780-mile-long high-voltage power line that would carry electricity from Kansas wind farms through Missouri and Illinois to Indiana, where it would connect to a power grid serving the Eastern U.S.

The case highlights a major roadblock in making renewable energy more mainstream: "Although converting wind and sun into electricity is increasingly affordable, it can be hard to get the regulatory and legal approval needed to transmit the power from remote areas where it's produced to the places where it's most needed," David Lieb reports for the Fort Wayne, Ind., Journal Gazette. "Other large-scale renewable energy projects in the Midwest, South and West also have faced denials or delays in transmission line approvals from federal and state regulators and courts." All the other states along the proposed path had already agreed to allow the Grain Belt Express Line, which would cost $2.3 billion and be one of the nation's longest transmission lines.
High Plains Public Radio map; click on it to enlarge; for state maps click here.
This is the second time in two years the Missouri utility regulators denied a request from Clean Line Energy Partners to build the power line project through the state. The first time, in July 2015, the commission rejected the proposal because they believed it didn't benefit Missouri residents enough and would be burdensome to landowners on whose land the line would be built. Clean Line tried to fix those objections in their revamped proposal, offering more protections to affected landowners and renewable energy deals to dozens of Missouri utilities along the line that serve hundreds of thousands of customers.

Four out of the five commission members said they thought the new proposal was a good idea, but "felt compelled to vote against it because of a recent state appeals court ruling. The judges in that case said utilities must first get the consent of counties to string a power line across roads before state approval can be granted. Clean Line lacks approval from several Missouri counties where its line is opposed by local residents," Lieb reports.

The future of the project is uncertain. "The Houston-based wind energy company could appeal the denial in court. It could try to win support from counties and apply again to Missouri regulators. Or it could attempt to circumvent Missouri by seeking federal approval to build the line through the state, as it did for an Oklahoma-to-Tennessee power line after Arkansas regulators ruled against it in 2011," Lieb reports.

Journalists explore ways to serve and connect with their communities in politically polarized times

Carolyn Powers of Internews listens to Lee Bratcher, who runs The Ohio County Monitor,
an online news outlet in Western Kentucky, during a workshop Friday in Bowling Green.
By Jennifer P. Brown
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Community journalists who want to report stories that help build trust with readers and listeners, while also addressing political polarization, can find help from the non-profit organization Solutions Journalism, which offers free training to newsrooms.

"We didn't invent this. We basically put a structure around this idea," Carolyn Robinson told a few dozen participants at a workshop stemming from the "From Polarization to Public Sphere" study, a project of Columbia University's Tow Center for Digital Journalism. The researchers are Andrea Wenzel, a journalism professor at Temple University, and Sam Ford, an independent media consultant and research fellow at MIT who teaches at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, where Friday's workshop was held.

The researchers recommend Solutions Journalism as one approach to bridge the gap that result from political polarization.

Solutions Journalism puts problem-solving at the center of a story, Robinson explained. For example, a story about the difficulty freed prisoners have in re-entering public life would focus on successful programs and why they work, not just the failures of the system.

Robinson said news consumers complain they are overwhelmed with reports that focus on negative aspects of American life, and "We can't afford to have people tuning out." She said journalists who focus on solutions are "guide dogs" rather than "watchdogs."

Also presenting ideas at the workshop in were Jeremy Hay, co-founder of Spaceship Media, and Carolyn Powers of Internews.

Spaceship Media was established after the 2016 election. Its projects create space for people with opposing political views to have a sustained conversation. One example was a two-month discussion via a private Facebook group between 15 women who voted for Donald Trump and 15 who voted for Hillary Clinton.

Internews helps train journalists to understand their communities and get beyond stereotypical reporting. One effort is the Listening Post Collective, which gets newsrooms involved with their communities and spurs interaction with people whose stories help explain how a community works.

"From Polarization to Public Sphere" collected data from residents of Bowling Green and nearby Ohio County to begin studying new approaches for local journalists. Wenzel and Ford said they will use input from the workshop to make additional recommendations.

Jennifer P. Brown is former editor and opinion editor of the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville, Ky., and a member of the national advisory board of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

Wisconsin starts nation's first rural residency program for obstetrician-gynecologists

The University of Wisconsin has started the nation's first rural residency program for obstetrician-gynecologists, Dr. John Torres reports for NBC News, after noting that 54 percent of rural counties lack obstetric services, up from 45 percent in 2014.

"This is a national crisis," Dr. Ellen Hartenbach, who designed the program, told Torres. "I want this program to be a blueprint for increasing training spots in the country." It tries to "recruit doctors who have already embraced rural life and who have some experience in small community hospitals," Torres reports.

Sperling's Best Places map
The first resident is Laura McDowell, practicing in Monroe, a town of 11,000 near the Illinois border. "Just because docs are leaving doesn't mean the need isn't still there," she told Torres. "Women shouldn't have to think twice about getting good, quality health care in their small, rural town."

The report aired on "NBC Nightly News" Saturday, Aug. 19, starting at 13:10 in this video.

Coal industry's decline leaves E.Ky. schools crying for help, but lawmakers focus on state pensions

Stinnett Elementary School (H-L photo by Michael Reaves)
The decline of the coal industry in Appalachian Kentucky has school districts "struggling to keep the doors open," reports Valarie Honeycutt Spears of the Lexington Herald-Leader. The industry's poor prospects have caused devaluation of unmined coal, cutting tax revenue, and "Education officials are calling on Kentucky’s General Assembly to look for new ways to fund" the coalfield districts.

“If they don’t come up with something we may survive this year. But then we will either be running in the red or we will have to shut down,” Knott County Supt. Kim King told Spears. Harold Morgan, assistant school-finance director in Leslie County, "said students in third through ninth grade have Chromebooks — laptop devices — but because of the loss of money, school officials could not afford to purchase them for kindergarten through 2nd-graders or for all 10th- through 12th-graders," Spears reports

Linda Rains, the new superintendent in Leslie County, told Spears, “It’s so scary. People in Eastern Kentucky are used to being successful by pure grit, they’ve always had to depend on their determination and grit to get the job done. That’s what we’ll continue to do. But it sure would be nice to have some funds and to give these kids the same chances that all students in Kentucky have.”

But it's a bad time to be asking for help from the legislature, which is looking for money to shore up the state's pension system, by some measures the worst-funded in the nation. Sen. Chris McDaniel, chair of the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee, said pension reform will have to come first. “If we don’t get pension reform there’s just no way to help them,” he told Spears.