Friday, September 15, 2017

Cassidy-Graham ACA repeal bill gains steam; hospitals alarmed, but bill has a rural skew

Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana have offered up what may be the GOP's last-ditch effort to offer up an alternative to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Sens. Dean Heller of Nevada and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin were also involved in the planning. The Republicans must repeal the ACA by Sept. 30 if they want to do so by a simple majority. Sarah Kliff of Vox says the Graham-Cassidy plan is, in many ways, "the most radical one yet."

"The proposal would eliminate the health-care law’s subsidies for private insurance and end the Medicaid expansion. States could allow for waivers that let insurers charge sick patients higher premiums and stop covering certain benefits required under the Affordable Care Act, like maternity care or prescription drugs. The health insurance marketplaces would no longer exist as they are envisioned to continue under other Republican proposals," Kliff reports. "The federal government would convert some (but not all) of that spending into a lump-sum payment to states. States could choose to spend this money on providing insurance — or they could use it to fund high-risk pools, or do other activities to pay the bills of patients with high medical needs. States wouldn’t get this money for free: They’d be required to kick in a small percentage themselves."

Kliff writes that the plan leans toward rural states. "The complex funding formula used to divvy up the big pot of money would tilt more funding toward sparsely populated states. It advantages rural states that have fewer people per square mile than those with denser, more urban populations." As a Senate bill, that is not surprising.

Some hospital groups say the plan alarms them at first blush, but say they're still studying it, Harris Meyer reports for Modern Healthcare. "It will decimate the Medicaid program in California," said Jan Emerson-Shea, vice president for external affairs at the California Hospital Association, who estimated that as many as  5 million people in her state could lose coverage under the bill. "The redistributive effect of this proposal is worse than any other proposal surfaced this year."
L-R: Sens. Dean Heller, Bill Cassidy, Ron Johnson, and Lindsey Graham at a press conference this morning to discuss their bill. (Associated Press photo by Andrew Harnik)
Trump has guardedly supported the plan, saying in a tweet that he "applauds the Senate for continuing to work toward a solution to relieve the disastrous Obamacare burden" and "sincerely hopes that Senators Graham and Cassidy have found a way to address the Obamacare crisis."

In an interview with Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the bill will come to the floor if his allies can find the votes. "There’s a lot of discussion, but the time is running on that," he said. "It could well come up. If we have 50 votes, we’ll go to it." At a press conference this morning, Cassidy "said his informal whip count stands at '48 or 49' GOP votes," Tom Howell reports for The Washington Post. With 50, Vice President Mike Pence would break the tie for passage. The last repeal-and-replace effort got 49, with Graham's running buddy, John McCain of Arizona, casting the deciding vote against it.

How the ACA affected every state, in 51 graphs

The Washington Post has offered a real treat for data wonks with a story compiling how the Patient Protection And Affordable Care Act affected each state in 51 graphs--one graph per state. The 51st graph highlights how the percentage of uninsured Americans has dropped more in states that expanded Medicaid, though the rate dropped in both groups.
Washington Post graphic
Philip Bump points out interesting trends in the data, such as how Delaware had a slower rate of decline in its uninsured rate than other states, but that may be because it had a lower rate of uninsured people to begin with: "In only three of the above graphs did the lines go up between years: South Dakota had an increase in 2015, and D.C. and Nebraska had increases in 2016. Every other year in every other state, the rate of the uninsured fell."

Verizon drops thousands of rural wireless customers, on grounds they're using too much data

Verizon is disconnecting wireless service to rural users in several states, including Maine and Montana, saying they use too much data to make service profitable. The issue centers on Verizon's LTE in Rural America program, which Verizon says has brought coverage to more nearly 2.4 million people since its inception in 2010. Verizon partners with 21 small rural carriers around the country and pays them when its customers end up roaming off Verizon's cell network and onto the rural carriers' network. The affected customers have Verizon's "unlimited" data plan, but don't live in Verizon's native service area. Verizon may be losing money on these perpetually roaming customers, Jon Brodkin reported for Ars Technica in June, when Verizon first began cutting off rural customers.

That brings us to now, when Verizon just announced it is dropping 2,000 customers in Washington County, Maine, and dozens of small towns in Montana. And on a discussion board about mobile services, posters from several states, including Kentucky, have also claimed that rural users are being kicked off their Verizon plans.

In Maine, the announcement comes three years after Verizon signed a multimillion dollar deal with Portland-based Wireless Partners to upgrade and improve cellular service in Washington County. To hold up its end of the deal, Wireless Partners built 13 new cell towers in the county, the easternmost in the U.S. "Customers are now getting notices in the mail that tell them they’ve been using a significant amount of data while roaming off the Verizon Wireless network. The letters then informed the customers that their service is being terminated," A.J. Higgins reports for Maine Public Broadcasting. Affected customers have until Oct. 17 to sign up for another wireless service if they want to keep their current numbers. A Wireless Partners spokesperson told Higgins that the company plans to hold Verizon accountable for not holding up its end of the deal after all the money Wireless Partners has invested in improving infrastructure.

In Montana, it's the same story, but over a larger area. "The list of towns affected by the contract termination is in the dozens, from Alzada to Homestead to Zortman," David Erickson reports for The Missoulian. Verizon spokesperson Meagan Dorsch told Erickson that the company sent out notifications this month to 919 Montana customers with 2,035 lines that Verizon will no longer service. One, Kyle Wasson, a farmer near Loring, said his farm uses cell data to check water in cows' tanks, order new parts when machinery breaks down, and communicate with hired hands. "It’s amazing how much we use cellphones and data out here,” he told Erickson. "It’s what we gotta do." Montana lawmakers are criticizing Verizon for the move. U.S. Sen. Steve Daines said Verizon's actions were "unacceptable" and that "This is yet another example of the rural-urban divide and choosing a bottom-line over a commitment to Montanans."

Rural Florida residents, crops still reeling from Irma

Rural Florida is still reeling from Hurricane Irma, with many still waiting for aid. "Florida's rural counties say they are facing unique challenges created by Irma and don't want to be overshadowed by the concerns of larger, urban areas," Jake Stofan reports for WCTV, which covers the Gulf Coast's Big Bend, where the peninsula meets the panhandle. As of Sept. 13, many gas stations were still dry and grocery stores depleted of supplies.

In Monticello, Fla., many businesses and residents are still without power, WTXL-TV reports. A spokesperson for the Tri-County Electric Co-Op says "We were advising our members to prepare for that, for seven to ten days." As of Sept. 13, power was still out for about half of the homes and businesses affected by Irma, about 4.3 million customers. "The total number of customers still out, representing about 9 million people in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, dipped from a peak of more than 7.8 million customers, or over 16 million people, on Monday," Scott DiSavino reports for Reuters. The largest utility in Florida, Florida Power & Light, warned customers it could take weeks to restore the power in some areas.

Electricity isn't the only problem. In the rural southern town of Immokalee, near the Everglades, the storm destroyed the homes of many impoverished farm workers. "Many homes — mostly uninsurable trailers — are gone or heavily damaged. The fields where they work have been flooded or scoured by wind. They have families to support, mouths to feed, trailers to fix, looters to watch out for and no idea when they’ll have an income again," Kate Irby and Lesley Clark report for The Miami Herald.

The damage to Florida's crops is another long-term possible problem. Florida is the second-largest produce grower in the U.S. and accounts for almost 10 percent of the nation's land dedicated to fresh fruits and vegetables, Alan Bjerga reports for Bloomberg. Irma "could devastate the farm economy of Florida, a state with a unique history as a producer of winter fruits and vegetables given its warmer climate. Damage to croplands could affect U.S. food prices and farmer finances in the months and years to come."

Read more here:

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Using rural examples, Economist writer says Trump misuses his 'rare understanding' of Americans

"America remains an indispensable nation" for the world, but each generation of Americans must be reminded of that, and President Trump is only dividing the country and making it look inward, our British friend David Rennie writes in his final "Lexington" column for The Economist, as he leaves Washington for a posting in China.

David Rennie
"A natural demagogue, he spotted how, after years of the war on terror, America was weary of trying to fix an ungrateful world," Rennie writes. "He grasped how, at home, millions could conceive of no benign explanation for economic and social changes that worried or disgusted them, and heard no argument from the two main parties that reassured them. He sensed that voters are more than adding machines, weighing the costs and benefits of this stale tax plan or that tired promise of help. He won in part by understanding how much people need to feel that they are useful, respected and heeded. A better man than Mr. Trump could have done great things with that insight."

Rennie uses some rural examples to illustrate voters' feelings: dislike of federal land-management policies in eastern Oregon, and a study of "why middle-aged men were buying fewer licences to hunt deer" in Wisconsin. "With women gaining economic and social power, the study found, men feel less able to head to the woods for a week’s deer camp, supremely confident in their authority as breadwinners. To be good fathers, they feel less able to skip children’s sports. 'The ladies all hollered at me,' one research subject recalled after a deer-related conflict, in tones of baffled hurt. . . . Partisans on the left sometimes scoff at conservatives ascribing voter anger to 'economic anxiety,' arguing that this is really prejudice at work. In real life, differing forms of anxiety cannot easily be separated."

Rennie concludes, "There are plausible scenarios in which Mr. Trump, a cynical and undisciplined bully, brings catastrophe to the country that Lexington was raised to love, and where both his children were born. For now consider a disaster that is already certain. Mr. Trump has a rare understanding of how change has left millions feeling disrespected, abused and alienated from mainstream politics. Alas, he has used that gift only to divide his country, for selfish ends. This is a tragic waste." (Read more)

What Hillary Clinton, in her new book, has to say about rural America and why she lost it so badly

Hillary Clinton did terribly in rural areas in the 2016 general election against Donald Trump, and lost them in the 2008 primaries against Barack Obama. In her new book, What Happened, Clinton promises to offer an unflinching account of what went wrong in her last campaign. Part of that was a disconnect with rural America. Does she acknowledge the role it played in her loss?

The answer is: sort of. Clinton writes that she has spent a great deal of time since the election thinking about why she failed to connect with "working-class whites," meaning those without college degrees, which can be a rough analogue for rural residents. Some commentators, she says, talk as though it was because of her weaknesses and Donald Trump's populist appeal, pointing out all the rural voters who switched from Obama to Trump as evidence. But she believes the problem is older than that, and notes that Democrats have steadily lost ground in rural areas since 2000. Part of that, she acknowledges in a different section of the book, is because socially conservative voters are dismayed at the changing culture of America. Research bears that out.

While rural areas are increasingly Republican strongholds, Clinton may be too quick to gloss over her personal lack of appeal in rural areas. After all, she lost rural areas by 2.1 million votes to Obama in 2008. Rural votes for Trump may have also stemmed from her lack of personal appeal than general anti-Democrat sentiment.

So why does she think she lost in rural America? "The most prominent explanation, though an insufficient one on its own, is the so-called war on coal," she writes. "Democrats' long-standing support for environmental regulations that protect clean air and water and seek to limit carbon emissions has been an easy scapegoat for the misfortunes of the coal industry and the communities that have depended on it." The Obama administration, she says, did not do enough to combat the zero-sum narrative of environment vs. coal jobs.

And too, she acknowledges the disastrous fall-out from her notorious gaffe about putting coal miners out of work. In the tradition of memoirs, she's anxious to set the record straight about that, insisting that context was essential to understanding the meaning of her remark. "Stripped of their context, my words sounded heartless," she writes. In context, that sentence is part of a larger point about how she wanted to make sure that coal miners who had lost their jobs to the increasing popularity of natural gas and renewable energy were not forgotten.

Overall, Clinton comes off as very knowledgeable about rural policy, but also still very angry about the results of an election she felt she deserved to win.

Senate deal to fund Children's Health Insurance Program would end federal support for it in 2021

The Children's Health Insurance Program pre-dated the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act by more than a decade, but the ACA boosted it and made it part of the overall plan for coverage of populations that had difficulty getting it. Now Senate negotiators have come up with a five-year plan that would cut federal contributions to the program in half in 2020 and eliminate them in 2021, leaving states to fend for themselves.

"The announcement from Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and ranking member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) came with Congress careening toward an end-of-the-month deadline to extend federal funding for a program that covers roughly 9 million low-income children," reports Rachana Pradhan of Politico.

The House has yet to come up with its approach to the issue. Without reauthorization by Sept. 30, some states would have to start winding down the program. Here's a map from the Kaiser Family Foundation, which has more background on the program here.

Air Force spraying insecticide over 6 million acres in Texas to combat post-Harvey mosquitoes

Texas is using huge U.S. Air Force planes to spray 6 million acres for mosquitoes breeding in the standing water left by Hurricane Harvey.

Devika Krishna Kumar reports for Reuters, "C-130 cargo planes began spraying insecticides over three eastern Texas counties over the weekend and will expand to other areas over the next two weeks, officials from the Texas Department of State Health Services said. . . . Most mosquitoes that appear after floods are not the disease-carrying varieties but can hurt recovery operations by swarming residents and disaster workers during cleanup efforts."

The spraying is using naled, an insecticide banned in the European Union but commonly used in the U.S. and supported by American health officials. "Both the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stand behind naled, saying the small amount of the insecticide sprayed from planes doesn’t expose people enough to pose a health concern," Zoe Schlanger of Quartz writes for Route Fifty. "The chemical has caused controversy in recent years. In 2016, naled spraying inadvertently caused millions of honeybee deaths in South Carolina."

EPA postpones Obama-era limits on toxic metals in wastewater from coal-fired power plants

Federal regulators have delayed until 2020 an Obama-era rule that set new limits on pollutants such as lead, mercury and arsenic in the wastewater of coal-fired power plants.

"The Environmental Protection Agency’s move 'resets the clock' for the effluent guidelines for power plants, providing relief to the plants from existing regulatory deadlines while the agency studies the regulation, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in a statement. The plants now will have until Nov. 1 2020 to comply with the rule, instead of Nov. 1, 2018," Timothy Gardner and Eric Walsh report for Reuters.

Pruitt announced plans to delay the rule back in August. The Small Business Administration and the Utility Water Act Group had both petitioned the EPA to delay the rule, which environmental groups supported. "EPA estimates that annual compliance costs to coal plants, once the rule goes into effect, will be $480 million. Benefits associated with the pollution reductions will be worth $451 million to $566 million a year, it estimates," Gardner and Walsh report.

The delay is one of several by President Trump's administration to walk back President Obama's tougher environmental standards, some affecting farmers, some affecting coal and oil industries.

4 senators (2 Rs, 2 Ds) offer 19 recommendations to boost economy and health in Appalachia

"Four U.S. senators and the nonprofit Bipartisan Policy Center on Wednesday proposed 19 measures to boost the economy in Appalachia, including expanded broadband and telemedicine and tapping the region's 'vast' natural gas reserves for chemical and advanced manufacturing facilities," Michael Virtanen reports for The Associated Press.

Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mark Warner of Virginia, along with Republicans David Perdue of Georgia and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, each led one of four policy roundtables with regional and national stakeholders to introduce and discuss ideas for improving the region. Those and other data gathering led to the recommendations in the report, which relies heavily on data gathered by the Appalachian Regional Commission. Here's a brief summary of the report's recommendations:
  1. Provide flexibility, incentives and leadership to empower local leaders to build education and workforce development strategies and programs. In most cases, the report says, successful education and job training programs are built at the local level.
  2. Reform Pell Grant eligibility to include more non-traditional students, such as part-timers, older students, students in community college credentialing programs, and students enrolled in apprenticeships or other work-and-learn programs.
  3. Legislators and the departments of Labor and Education should include virtual learning options in new grant programs that target high-demand skills and post-secondary credential attainment.
  4. Regional and town leaders, or the private sector, should foster "domestic study abroad" programs to share innovative ideas and build connections across the region. An exchange program "that pairs leaders and students from newly prospering communities with counterparts from distressed communities, could increase learning and help build regional connections."
  5. Provide a tax credit to companies that provide professional development training to help workers gain more skills.
  6. Reduce overlap and duplication in the federal government's financial regulatory structure, and give regulators more flexibility to decide when more regulatory supervision is need.This could help ease the burden that stricter banking regulations have placed on small community banks, which are more likely to lend to small businesses.
  7. Establish a Senate Task Force on Intergovernmental Affairs, like the House just did. This would be a bipartisan group focused on balancing the interests of federal, state, tribal and local governments. It could help figure out where the government could lessen regulations to help rural entrepreneurs and business owners.
  8. Expand federal programs that facilitate workforce-related public-private partnerships. The lack of skilled workers is a barrier to job creation in Appalachia; private companies could work directly with universities to develop workers with the skills needed to succeed in jobs there.
  9. Identify barriers that prevent Appalachian businesses from accessing existing workforce programs. The Senate task force recommended above would be ideal for this effort, the report says.
  10. Use Appalachia's natural-gas reserves to build up chemical and advanced manufacturing industries. The first step would be to develop a storage and trading hub for natural gas liquids. This could help Appalachia become a natural gas hub that could one day rival the one on the Gulf Coast.
  11. Conduct more federal research to develop widely useable technology to extract rare-earth elements from coal byproducts. The U.S. currently relies on other countries like China for rare-earth elements, which are important for national defense, electronics, and medications. Researchers say Appalachian coal has some of the highest concentrations of rare-earth elements in the country.
  12. Accelerate the commercialization of carbon capture, utilization and storage technologies. The report says that's necessary to ensure that American coal is competitive in domestic power generation markets and that the U.S. will be a leader in exporting clean coal technology to developing nations.
  13. Complete the Appalachian Development Highway System to help distressed rural communities improve their infrastructure. The system is 90 percent complete. 
  14. Improve and streamline the complicated and often-lengthy federal permitting process while maintaining environmental protections.
  15. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of County and City Health Officials should combine forces with local affiliates in rural Appalachia to improve local health outcomes.
  16. Direct federal agencies to take action needed to expand and require opioid training for health-care professionals. Too many opioid prescriptions are being issued, and for too long, at too high a dose, the report says. 
  17. Improve nutrition in rural Appalachia through evidence-based policies and programs.
  18. Local and state officials should consider policies and initiatives to promote lifelong dental hygiene.
  19. Support telemedicine and efforts to stretch the health professional workforce in innovative ways.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Trump's election spurs colleges and universities to seek more rural, white and poor students

Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (Glamour photo)
"A sizable share of college admission directors say they have intensified efforts to recruit in rural areas and find more white students from low-income families following Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in the 2016 presidential election," Nick Anderson reports for The Washington Post, citing a poll-based story in Inside Higher Ed.

"The 2016 election and President Trump’s statements and actions since taking office posed challenges for higher education in multiple ways," Anderson writes. "His campaign capitalized on heavy support from rural America and from white voters without college degrees — sectors of the population many colleges historically have struggled to reach."

Inside Higher Ed and The Gallup Organization surveyed college and university admissions directors and found that 38 percent of the respondents said they had "stepped up recruitment in rural areas since the election," Anderson notes. "Thirty percent reported the same about recruiting students from poor white families. . . . Eight percent said their schools are seeking more politically conservative students."

A plurality of admissions directors in the survey supported "the view that the election shows colleges, especially elite colleges, should do more to recruit in rural areas," Anderson reports. "Thirty-six percent agreed with that idea, while 22 percent disagreed. A large majority — 76 percent — agree that Trump’s statements and policies have made it harder to recruit international students." The survey was taken July 20 to Aug. 16. "Of more than 3,500 invited to participate, 453 completed the surveys," Anderson reports. "Two hundred were from public colleges and universities, 245 from private, nonprofit schools, and eight from the for-profit sector."

Inside Higher Ed Editor Scott Jaschik told Anderson that Trump’s win caused “soul-searching” among college officials political disconnection between campuses and their neighbors. “There are college towns all over America, where most people who work at or are enrolled in the college voted one way, and they woke up and realized that people in the surrounding towns and counties voted another way,” Jaschik said, adding that some are now reaching out to those rural areas for students. “It is not good if you’re a public or private institution and if only suburbanites think of you as a great place to go to college,” he said.

Harvey aid bill also helps agencies fund wildfire fighting

A helicopter with a water bucket battles
a blaze near Stevenson, Wash. (Associated
Press photo by Randy Rasmussen)
Weary Westerners have complained that the public has largely ignored the wildfires that are decimating the region, but their lawmakers are listening. "A bipartisan group of 12 senators from western states sent a letter this week to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, urging that the wildfire provisions be included in the bill with the hurricane recovery funding," Bill Lucia reports for Route Fifty

The legislation was needed because of an issue known as "fire borrowing." Normally, when a federal agency uses up the money budgeted for firefighting, it must borrow money from other accounts, some dedicated to wildfire prevention. The appropriations bill passed in May provided $4.2 billion for wildland firefighting and prevention programs, but costs for fighting this year's fires are estimated to cost $300 million more than that. The senators asked that the borrowed funds be replenished promptly when the new fiscal year begins in October so that those agencies will not face long-term budget shortfalls. President Trump signed the bill on Sept. 6.

This year has been the worst wildfire season in years. Wildfires have burned across about 8 million acres of the U.S. this year, mostly in Western states. "That total exceeds the average number of acres burned annually during the prior decade, which is 5,558,384. As of Saturday, there were 67 large, active fires, affecting roughly 1.6 million acres," Lucia reports.

How many cruise ships is too many in an iconic town surrounded by a national park?

On Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park (Boston Globe photo by John Tlumacki)
Perched on the rocky northeast shore of Mount Desert Island and surrounded by Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, Maine, has long been known for its natural beauty. In recent years more cruise ships have made shore stops, and some locals see them as a means of economic stability, pumping in tourist money. But others think that the ships are ruining iconic viewsheds, and that more cruise-ship tourists on day trips would drive away more valuable long-term tourists who spend more money, Jenna Russell reports for The Boston Globe.

A proposed pier that would attract more and bigger ships has become a lightning rod for the issue, sparking fierce debates among locals. The Bar Harbor Town Council had advanced the idea, saying the pier could be built at the abandoned site of a defunct ferry terminal nearby. The council must decide before November whether to buy the terminal.

Charles Sidman organized the Bar Harbor Residents Association last month to fight against the pier. "This is natural beauty as magnificent as it gets — to put a bunch of cruise ships in the middle of that is like putting a McDonald’s in the middle of the Grand Canyon," he told Russell. Another group opposing the pier, Friends of Frenchman Bay, launched an online petition that has more than 1,000 signatures.

Owners of the waterfront mansions that made Bar Harbor famous have complained that the cruise ships spoil their view of the water. The owners of two of those homes filed suit against the recent zoning change that would allow the pier. The Mount Desert Islander said in an editorial, "The prospect of ships anchoring on MDI’s much-ballyhooed 'quiet' side, only to whisk away the visitors to Bar Harbor, seems grossly unfair. It is a blatant attempt to make an end run around the cruise ship cap in Bar Harbor. . . . The time appears to have come to establish limits on where cruise ships can go before a vital part of this island’s heritage and quality of life is spoiled forever."

Opponents of the ships also cite frequent overcrowding in Acadia National Park in recent years. The statewide "CruiseMaine" marketing initiative has helped cruise ship traffic more than double since 2003. And Bar Harbor business interests like it.

"Town Council Chairman Paul Paradis, who owns a hardware store downtown, said he supports the development of a cruise ship facility because it would allow Bar Harbor to acquire, and pay for, a valuable waterfront site, while also strengthening the local economy, where merchants have to hustle to eke out a year-round living from a five-month business season," Russell reports. “This is not an inexpensive place to live, and it gets harder and harder for our kids to stay here,” Paradis said. “The only way they can stay is with a viable local economy, and I see this as a part of that economy.”

Some other local business owners agree, saying their businesses would not have survived without cruise ships, "especially in September and October, when visits by ships sharply increase and the land-based tourism of summer falls away," Russell reports.

USDA announces more funds for program to encourage diversity among agriculture students

Multicultural Scholars students at North Carolina
State University. (Photo submitted to university)
The Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture announced $945,000 in grant funding to ensure a more diverse farm workforce. The grants will be awarded through NIFA's Higher Education Multicultural Scholars Program, which "helps colleges and universities recruit and retain multicultural scholars who may pursue degrees in food and agricultural sciences disciplines or the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree. Projects may involve scholarships to support recruiting, engaging, retaining, mentoring and training of committed, eligible multicultural scholars," USDA says.

NIFA director Sonny Ramaswamy says "It is important to develop the most diverse talent pool possible and show these students the abundant opportunities in the agricultural sector." The program has seen success so far. North Carolina State University's Poultry Department, for example, "has seen a steady increase in its ability to attract and retain additional students from underrepresented groups, and the program is now comprised of approximately 20 percent underrepresented students."

The deadline for higher learning institutions to apply for the funding is Oct. 31. Click here for a list of eligible institutions and application instructions.

Some rural California counties have more opioid prescriptions than people living in them

The opioid epidemic is notorious for ravaging Appalachia and other rural areas in the East, but a story from The Sacramento Bee shows that rural and semi-rural California are being hit hard too. "There were 1,925 opioid-linked overdose deaths in California last year, according to recently updated state data, and thousands of emergency room visits, Jim Miller reports. In Trinity County, the state's fourth-smallest with just under 14,000 people, residents filled 18,439 prescriptions for opioids in 2016, the highest per capita rate in California.

Read more here:

An interactive map shows the number of
prescriptions per 1,000 residents in California
counties. Trinity County is the northernmost
dark-blue county. Click on image to enlarge.
Part of that may be because rural California tends to be demographically similar to Central Appalachia. According to a report released in July by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "The following characteristics were associated with higher amounts of opioids prescribed: a larger percentage of non-Hispanic whites; higher rates of uninsured and Medicaid enrollment; lower educational attainment; higher rates of unemployment; (small-town) status; more dentists and physicians per capita; a higher prevalence of diagnosed diabetes, arthritis, and disability; and higher suicide rates."

The opioid crisis has triggered state legislators to act, but few of the proposed bills seem likely to pass. A bill from Assemblywoman Marie Waldron (R-Escondido) would require California to create a public awareness campaign about opioid abuse. It passed the Assembly unanimously but stalled in the state Senate Appropriations Committee last week because of the cost. A bill by Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) would levy a fee on opioid manufacturers and generate an estimated $88.1 million to pay for addiction treatment and prevention, but it did not advance.

"One of the few prescription painkiller bills still moving would require the state Department of Public Health to convene a working group to craft guidelines for the prescribing of opioid pain relievers. It has had no opposition," Miller reports. The Trump administration has allocated $45 million to California to pay for opioid abuse.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Study for tribes argues for giving the Columbia River and its tributaries a more natural flow

"The Columbia River and its tributaries could generate an additional $1.5 billion a year in economic activity if U.S. and Canadian agencies change the way they manage the numerous dams and reservoirs in the Pacific Northwest, a new study shows," Bryce Oates reports for The Daily Yonder.

The study, conducted by Earth Economics, advocates releasing more water from the Columbia and its tributaries during the spring and summer to make the flow more natural. The change would reduce the amount of hydro-generated electricity, causing a $69 million drop in power revenue, but would increase fish populations, expand wetlands, make water cleaner and increase the size and health of forests, the study says. That would boost outdoor recreational activities, commercial fishing, and improved economies for Native American tribes in the area, which the study says would make up for the drop in power revenue.

The study was commissioned by a group of tribes that want to change how the river is managed as they prepare to renegotiate the Columbia River Treaty among the U.S. and Canadian governments and various tribes, which is due for an update in 2024.

Insurers tell Congressional committee what they need to improve the ACA

Large and small insurers will testify before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee this week to ask for measures they say will help stabilize the volatile health insurance market. Governors and insurance commissioners testified last week, Carolyn Johnson reports for The Washington Post. The committee is seeking a bipartisan solution to stabilize the exchanges set up under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Millions of Americans depend on federally-subsidized marketplace plans for their health insurance, but major insurers have withdrawn from many mostly-rural counties, citing uncertainty about health care laws. Lawmakers may still attempt to repeal the ACA, but must do so by Sept. 30 to pass it with a simple majority. But insurers must submit their finalized plans for 2018 by the end of September, and are unsure what laws will be in effect next year. The current uncertainty doesn't just affect plans available for 2018. Insurers are already planning what plans will be offered in 2019.

Johnson lists some things insurers will probably ask for in testimony this week:

1)  Commit to paying the cost-sharing reduction subsidies that defray the cost of plans for lower-income Americans. This is a top priority for many insurers, Johnson writes. President Trump has threatened to stop paying these subsidies, projected to be worth $10 billion in 2018.

2) Extend a reinsurance program that provides payments to plans for people who have high medical costs. The program has been essential in keeping premiums down on those plans.

3) Enforce the individual mandate for health insurance and (possibly) reinstate the former advertising budget for ACA enrollment. Health insurers say they need a larger pool of insured people to keep premiums down for people who have high medical costs.

"Health insurers have plenty of other things on their wish lists. They'd like to abolish a tax that they say drives up premiums. They’d like to see states get greater flexibility and control over their marketplaces," Johnson writes. But the thing they want most from Congress and the administration is certainty.

Here's help for writing about DACA 'dreamers'

Most communities in America, including many rural ones, have young immigrants who have benefited from Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a policy that President Obama established by executive order and that President Trump has abolished -- effective in six months, to give Congress time to enact the policy into law, in what has been called the DREAM Act, for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors.

Nearly 800,000 immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children have registered under DACA. Each one has a story to tell, and some are willing to tell it. Denise-Marie Ordway of Journalist's Resource at Harvard University offers a primer to help reporters, editors and producers tell those stories.

She starts with some helpful resources: A report showing the number of people who requested and were granted or denied DACA from 2012 to 2017; a Q&A from the Department of Homeland Security with a breakdown of how many DACA work permits will expire in 2017, 2018 and 2019; the letter in which Attorney General Jeff Sessions explains his reasons for recommending the program be phased out; and a Q&A from the Department of Education about financial aid for undocumented students.

Ordway also gives summaries and links for research about the program, including state responses and campus responses. Journalist's Resource is a service of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

'Seven Days of Heroin' is an outstanding portrait of opioid epidemic, and an example to other papers

The magnitude and impact of the opioid epidemic can be difficult for journalists to convey. What prose can adequately describe a mother struggling to stay sober for her baby, born addicted? What statistics can really show the hopelessness of a small town ravaged by drug overdoses? The Cincinnati Enquirer took on this task in an unconventional way, by sending out more than 60 reporters, photographers and videographers to the city and region to capture the effects of heroin. The carefully edited result, called Seven Days of Heroin, was published as a 20-page special section on Sunday, Sept. 10. "It deserves all of the attention it has been getting," Pete Vernon writes for the Columbia Journalism Review.

"Told in spare, chronological snapshots of one week in July, the cumulative effect is an overpowering portrait of a region struggling to confront a crisis. The piece’s subhed reads, 'This is what an epidemic looks like,' and that’s what it delivers," Vernon writes. The Enquirer's departing editor, Peter Bhatia, wrote that the paper was careful not to take sides on the cost of battling addiction. "Rather, we set out to understand how it unfolds day in and day out."

Pregnant inmates walk into the Northern Kentucky Med Clinic in Covington where they receive methadone and counseling. (Cincinnati Enquirer photo by Liz Dufour)
Terry DeMio, who has been covering the Enquirer's heroin beat full-time for the past two years, teamed up with reporter Dan Horn to assemble the piece. One of the editors was Amy Wilson, a former writer for The Rural Blog. Though the Enquirer staff also did most of the field work, reporters from Gannett Co.'s Media Network of Central Ohio contributed.

Vernon says their work has created a template that other Gannett papers should emulate in covering other large, difficult-to-encapsulate topics. And there's no reason that non-Gannett, non-chain papers can't do similar work, if they have the resources and the commitment. The Enquirer shows the way.

A moving portrait of faith at work in rural Texas after Hurricane Harvey

Kevin Sack of The New York Times provides a moving portrait of the role of faith in helping a group of people cope with the damage done to their lives by Hurricane Harvey. It's notable as a non-judgmental effort to help urban readers understand the lives and worries of rural residents in a time when the media has been increasingly criticized for ignoring rural concerns.
Volunteer Michael Beard (R) helped clear Angie Klimple's home.
(New York Times photo by Christopher Lee)
The story zeroes in on Wharton County, Texas, which was ravaged by floods four days after Harvey hit the Texas coast. Angie Kimple, 80, was able to ride out the floods at a friend's house, but most of her belongings were not salvageable. But even in this tragedy, friends, family, and even strangers came together to help her clear out her home. And in their help for their neighbor, in the Biblical sense, we see how faith carried the community through.

Wharton County, Texas
(Wikipedia map)
"Across the flood zone, the water's victims have endured the first two weeks of dislocation with the help of Samaritans of all cloths -- family members, friends, co-workers, volunteers from near and far, and an array of faith-based groups," Sack reports. "Some did not know one another, or for that matter, the Klimples. It mattered little. Each felt called by faith to lend their hands -- and legs and backs, which would soon ache with soreness -- to an elderly woman in distress."

"Faith-based" doesn't necessarily mean evangelical. One of the volunteers who came to help was Michael Vowell, the senior rabbi of a Messianic synagogue in Houston. All the volunteers prayed for Klimple and thanked God for the blessing of being alive, of being able to help each other. It was tempting to wonder why such devastation happened, but they were too busy to dwell on it, and Vowell said it wasn't so important. "My theology is that if I can see God moving through people, neighbors helping neighbors, I can shelve the bigger question of why is this happening," he said. "That there are still people caring for each other is evidence enough that God is in this world."

Monday, September 11, 2017

Washington Post media columnist salutes the work of rural journalists

As national media is focusing on national stories that tend to be urban-centric, a column from The Washington Post's media columnist lauds journalists who are doing the hard field work of reporting on crucial rural issues such as wildfires, harmful herbicide spraying, or the lack of rural health care. "Big-city reporting — on politics, government, Wall Street and technology — is indispensable. But so is its oft-neglected rural counterpart," Margaret Sullivan writes. Her news peg is the Texas Observer's new Rural Reporting Project, which aims to send reporters out to get the pulse of rural Texas.

Rural news is more under-reported than ever. As metropolitan dailies have tighten their belts in the last decade, rural bureaus were early casualties, Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky (publisher of The Rural Blog), told Sullivan: "Larger regional papers used to do this as a public service even though there was no advertising base for it."

Now, Sullivan writes, "Rural reporting rarely is seen as the most critical mission. But that leaves huge swaths of the United States without coverage. And the buying up of small papers by chains, more beholden to stockholders than to local concerns, has hollowed out the journalism even more. . . . In many communities, there’s no one to cover government meetings, hold officials accountable, or report on events, large or small."

Tommy Thomason, director of the Texas Center for Community Journalism at Texas Christian University, told Sullivan the watchdog journalism done by small community papers is critical. "These are the papers that nobody has heard of, but that do such important work. Some of these small-town officials think they’ve been elected as deities." Thomason tells the journalists who come to his center for professional development that what they're doing is critical: "If you’re not doing it, nobody is doing it."

'There is no escape. The entire state is burning.'

A wildfire burned in August in the Lolo National Forest in Montana.
(Great Falls Tribune photo by Rion Sanders)
Hurricanes are getting the lion's share of news-media attention, but wildfires are raging across the Western U.S. and Canada right now in one of the worst wildfire seasons in recorded history, Linda Wertheimer reports for NPR. The fires are coming at a time of year when temperatures are usually cooling and the fire season is normally winding down.

"We currently have about 123 large wildland fires across the nation. They are primarily in the Northwest," Chris Wilcox of the National Interagency Fire Center told Wertheimer. "Montana is another state that has been under the siege that we've seen this year, as well. So we have currently about 2 million acres on fire across the West." Wilcox said the fire season has been particularly long, and that it really started in the fall of 2016 in states to the south, sometimes torching grasslands, not forests. It stayed active there over the winter and has spread north and west.

Wilcox said the NIFC has more than 25,000 responders working on fires, but they are stretched thin. All the nation's wildfire-fighting resources are committed to battling the blaze, and the National Guard has been brought in to help in several states. Not only is the fire dangerous, but the smoke is, too. A high-pressure system over the Northwest has kept the smoky air essentially trapped in the region.

The fire and smoke are making life miserable for residents, sometimes even dangerous. Nancy Wartik of The New York Times curated responses from readers who were asked on Facebook how the fires were affecting them. Readers were upset their kids can't play safely outside, angry at news media for largely ignoring the fires, concerned about climate change, appreciative of the responders who are fighting the fires, and worried about their health. Reader Amber Conger of Helena, Mont., told the Times: "There is no escape. The entire state is burning. The sun glows red. The air is polluted with thick smoke and ash falls like snowflakes from the sky."

West Virginia vacates water-quality permit for controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline

"Faced with a deadline to defend their permit approval against a federal court challenge, West Virginia regulators moved this week to back off their certification that the Mountain Valley Pipeline would not violate the state’s water quality standards," Ken Ward Jr. reports for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection said in a Sept. 7 letter to pipeline developers and state and federal agencies that the department "hereby vacates and remands" its water quality certification for the proposed natural gas pipeline.

"Scott Mandirola, director of the DEP's Division of Water and Waste Management, said in the letter that the move would allow DEP 'to reevaluate the complete application to determine whether the state’s certification is in compliance' with the federal Clean Water Act'," Ward reports.

The controversial pipeline would extend 300 miles across the state. Environmental groups like the Sierra Club, the West Virginia Rivers Coalition and others requested a DEP hearing to appeal the agency's approval of the permit. The groups said the agency had not fully reviewed the project's potential to degrade streams, among other concerns. The DEP refused their request, so lawyers from Appalachian Mountain Advocates filed a brief on behalf of the environmental groups challenging that refusal. DEP must file a response by Sept. 14.

DEP Communications Director Jake Glance said the agency's decision to back off certifying that the pipeline wouldn't pollute water was done out of an abundance of caution to "to ensure that all aspects of the potential environmental impact" of the pipeline are considered. He also said that "DEP had suspended a second permit for MVP that had been issued under the agency’s program for stormwater pollution associated with oil and gas construction activities."

"It was not immediately clear what impact the DEP decision would have on the state agency’s mandate to meet a one-year deadline to review and act on a water quality certification like MVP’s or — by not acting one way or the other — waiving the state’s authority to do so," Ward reports.

Watchdog journalism helped retired coal miner get black lung benefits after 14 years; many others don't

Brock (R) meets with Black Lung Association of Southwest
Virginia. (Inside Climate News photo by Lathan Goumas)
David Hasemyer of Inside Climate News brings an outrageous story about a former coal miner's 14-year battle to get medical benefits for black-lung disease -- and what he did to make sure other sufferers can get the help they need. Bethel Brock, 77, lives in the small town of Wise, Va., and was diagnosed with early stages of black lung in 1982. In 2003 he filed for black lung benefits from the insurer for his former employer, Westmoreland Coal Co.

"The company successfully fought him 10 times by maintaining he is not seriously stricken with the incapacitating disease despite nearly two dozen findings to the contrary by his doctors—and one by a doctor hired by the company, which it did not disclose to a U.S. Labor Department examiner deciding his case," Hasemyer reports.

In early 2017 Brock thought he might finally get benefits when the examiner, Debbie Weyandt, ruled him eligible. But months later she changed her mind because the latest X-ray documenting the spread of his disease didn't have a date stamp. When Inside Climate News started asking questions about the examiner's reversal, the supervisor decided the decision had been "in error" and said Brock would get his benefits after all. Then "a U.S. Department of Labor spokeswoman then asked if ICN would be changing the focus of this story about the black-lung benefits system," Hasemyer reports.

There are thousands of other black-lung sufferers who have tried and failed to get the benefits they were owed. Over the last decade, "of more than 52,000 claims, fewer than one in 10 was granted a disability award, despite the legal presumption that a miner with 15 years or more of service in the mines with lung problems has black lung as a result of his work," Hasenmeyer reports. "While rules were changed in 2000 to help level the playing field for miners, advocates, lawyers and statistics show companies still winning." Coal companies hire big-gun lawyers and medical experts, then overwhelm the plaintiff with appeals until the miner or his or her family dies or gives up, according to Shannon Bell, an associate sociology professor at Virginia Tech. One medical expert hired by Westmoreland who said Brock was not suffering from black lung "had not confirmed a single case of severe black lung in more than 1,500 cases he evaluated between 2000 and 2013, according to an investigation by reporter Chris Hamby of the Center for Public Integrity. Hamby's series, 'Breathless and Burdened,' won a Pulitzer Prize in 2014," Hasemyer reports.

Brock's fight to receive his benefits inspired him to fight for others in the same situation. He went back to school at the University of Virginia for a degree in political science and credentialing as a paralegal, and spent the next eight years working for an attorney, helping other miners navigate the confusing process of getting black lung benefits. He's retired now, but still helps miners through the Black Lung Association of Southwest Virginia, a group he and other miners founded. At a recent meeting in Cleveland, Va., Brock said, "I am just one example of how the big coal companies use their money and influence to stand in the way of the benefits due miners who give their lives for coal company profit."

California marijuana farmers don't want to go legal

International Business Times map
California is facing a major stumbling block in the effort to regulate marijuana farming: The farmers don't want to grow it legally. "More than nine months after California voted to legalize recreational marijuana, only a small share of the tens of thousands of cannabis farmers in Northern California have joined the system, according to law enforcement officers and cannabis growers," Thomas Fuller reports for The New York Times. Only about 3,500 of the 32,000 pot farmers have applied for permits in the Emerald Triangle, the nation's largest marijuana-producing region.

The legal cannabis industry has attracted investors and growers from around the world, so more legal growers may enter the system in the future, but why don't more local growers want to go legal? Because they make huge profits exporting it illegally to other states where marijuana is still illegal, Fuller reports, noting that California is estimated to produce about seven times more marijuana than it consumes. Also, Hezekiah Allen, the executive director the California Growers Association, told Fuller that most put growers are reluctant to apply for permits because of the extensive paperwork, fees, and taxes required.

Illegal growers mostly don't seem worried about the legal repercussions of getting caught. "Critics said the framers of the law might have also miscalculated because many growers say there is little upside from getting a permit. If they stay out of the system, they face lighter punishments and avoid paying taxes, fees and the cost of meeting environmental standards," Fuller reports. Thomas Allman, the sheriff of Mendocino County, told Fuller "You could have 1,000 pounds in your hotel room right now and you might be charged with just a misdemeanor."

More serious crime associated with illegal marijuana operations is still a problem. Mendocino District Attorney David Eyster told Fuller that pot-smoking urbanites "don’t realize that out in the rural areas where the marijuana is being grown, there are people being robbed, kidnapped and in some cases murdered." Illegal operations can also damage the environment. In an effort to stay hidden, growers hide operations in public forests. They can erode hillside soil, siphon water from creeks, and introduce pesticides into the water. Growers also often leave trash.