May 22, 2019

Calling all politicians who pretend to care about miners: prove it

Politicians around the country have shed a lot of crocodile tears for coal miners and their families in recent years. I suspect that many of these have been theatrical in nature.

Now there are a couple of chances to find out who’s for real and who isn’t. Two bills have been introduced in Congress that could make a real difference for coalfield communities.

One is Senate Bill 27, the American Miners Act of 2019, introduced by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and supported by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.

It’s basically about keeping promises.

The bill would modify the federal Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act of 1977 to allow funds to be transferred to the 1974 United Mine Workers Pension Plan, which was originally created by President Harry Truman in 1946 to ensure health and pension benefits to the miners who put themselves at risk for decades to build the country’s industrial might and raise the standard of living. It would impose no new costs to taxpayers.

The UMWA pension fund has taken hits over the years. One of these was the most recent recession, which hit hard around 10 years ago. Even worse has been the steady stream of corporate bankruptcies.

(Sad to say but, these days, it seems like it’s easier for coal companies to dodge paying promised benefits than it is for an ordinary worker to get relief from student loan debt.)

According to Manchin, “In the past two years, contributions into the plan have dropped by more than $100 million, leaving less than $25 million per year still coming into it. The average pension is $600 per month, modest by most standards, but still critical to the 87,000 beneficiaries who depend on it.”

Capito told WV MetroNews: “These retirees are not getting rich on their pension plans and they are not taking lavish expenditures. Without this monthly benefit, many of them would be living on the edge of poverty, if they are not already.”

The bill would also prop up funding for black lung benefits for miners and their families by extending the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund tax for 10 years. This step is urgently needed because the problem is getting worse.

According to a 2018 NPR news report, “One in five working coal miners in central Appalachia who have worked at least 25 years now suffer from the coal miners’ disease black lung ... . It’s the highest rate in a quarter-century and indicates that the disease continues to afflict more miners in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia.”

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Labor estimated that black lung has killed more than 76,000 people since 1968. Unfortunately, we can only expect those numbers to increase in the future. In 2018, more than 25,000 miners and dependents received benefits from the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.

Another bipartisan measure that could benefit coalfield communities is the RECLAIM Act (House Resolution 2156), which stands for “Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More.”

RECLAIM would release money from the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Fund to help communities clean up some of the damage caused by mining—and its decline. It could also help put former miners and other dislocated workers back to work.

Both of West Virginia’s senators have supported the principles of the RECLAIM Act. A version of the bill cleared the House Natural Resources Committee on May 1.

These bills obviously aren’t a total fix to undo the harm done to workers, communities and environments over the last 100 or so years, but they would be steps in the right direction. And a promise is a promise.

(This ran as an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.)

May 21, 2019

New law opens SNAP eligibility to people with drug felonies

Today is a big day in West Virginia. People with drug felony convictions have been unable to get SNAP food assistance since federal welfare "reform" passed in 1996. During the past session of the legislature, WV opted out of the ban.

According to this MetroNews article, deputy secretary Jeremiah Samples of the WV Dept. of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) estimates that as many as 15,000 people could benefit from this change. (I think it could be even more over time.)

Ending the ban was our top priority in the session. It was nice when co-conspirator Lida Shepherd sent this press release out this week:

Charleston, WV –  House Bill 2459, which lifts the federal ban on people with drug felony convictions from receiving food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (otherwise known as SNAP or food stamps), goes into effect May 21st, 2019. 

Now people who were previously ineligible for SNAP due to a drug felony conviction will be able to apply for SNAP through the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR).  People whose drug felony crime resulted in a person’s injury or death, or that involved the fraudulent use of SNAP, will still be ineligible.

The exact number of people who will now be eligible to apply for SNAP under the new law is difficult to pin down. However, according to DHHR, in 2016 alone over 2,100 people applied for and were denied SNAP due to the ban.  This number does not account for people who never tried to apply because they were aware they were ineligible due to their conviction or those who were denied in other years.

Lida Shepherd with the American Friends Service Committee said, “This new policy going into effect is a big deal for thousands of people in our state, especially for those in recovery and who have just been released from prison, who are trying hard to put the pieces of their life back together.  Food security for these individuals is vital to their success reintegrating back into their community.”

I guess we can put "Mission Accomplished" on our aircraft carrier...That always turns out well, right?

May 17, 2019

Time to stop playing games with public education

The results are in.

The West Virginia Department of Education recently sought the input of students, teachers and other school workers, parents and caregivers and other stakeholders about how they wanted to improve education in the state. Over 20,000 people participated.

The goal was to provide information for legislators to consider before the coming special session on education.

The results of the input from public forums, an online survey, and comment cards were published in a 33-page summary titled “West Virginia’s Voice.”

The top priorities are pretty much what you’d expect — unless you’re paid to think otherwise.

Here are the greatest hits:

*There was overwhelming support for increased compensation for teachers and school workers, at a rate of 77 percent of survey respondents and 95 percent for comment cards from forum attendees.

*There’s strong support for public school reforms, such as innovation zones and more flexibility BUT that doesn’t translate into support for charter schools, which basically work like publicly funded private schools: 88 percent of forum respondents were opposed to charter schools, while only six percent supported them.

*If charter schools are unpopular, so are education savings accounts, which would give parents tax dollars for non-public education — by another majority of 88 percent.

*One issue that showed up in different ways in the report was mental health and emotional support for students. The idea of embedding social services in schools was supported by 75 percent of survey respondents and 93 percent of those who submitted comments.

High levels of support were also expressed for increasing the number of student support personnel (counselors, psychologists, and/or social workers).

Educators were also interested in training on how to deal with issues related to trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which is only to be expected given the state’s addiction crisis and persistent child poverty. Tellingly, many educators expressed the need for help addressing the secondary trauma they are experiencing.

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, which was created by congress in 2000, “Secondary traumatic stress is the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another. Each year more than 10 million children in the United States endure the trauma of abuse, violence, natural disasters, and other adverse events. For therapists, child welfare workers, case managers, and other helping professionals involved in the care of traumatized children and their families, the essential act of listening to trauma stories may take an emotional toll that compromises professional functioning and diminishes quality of life.”

I’m sure that would be the situation experienced pretty much daily by most public school teachers in West Virginia.

While we’re at it, despite the claims of astroturf groups funded by out of state billionaires that West Virginia’s schools are “broken,” 76 percent of public school parents agree or strongly agree that they are satisfied with their child’s school.

My suggestion is that those who want to fix broken things might do better to start with a 100-plus year old colonial economy that has sucked out wealth and resources and left behind poverty, despair, addiction, poor health, and environmental degradation. Or political priorities that have favored unproductive corporate tax cuts over investing adequately in children and families.

Those problems didn’t start in our public schools, although education workers seem to be magically expected to fix them all. It’s no wonder that many state teachers are feeling disrespected and demoralized.

I don’t always agree with conservative commentator Hoppy Kercheval, but I think he was right to say in a recent commentary that “The value we place on public education and teachers is not equal to the outcomes we expect.”

It’s time to stop playing games with public education and bring those values and expectations into alignment.

(This ran as an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.)

May 14, 2019

Not all bad

There were some rough and embarrassing moments in the last legislative session, but some good things came out of it.

One that surprised me was the passage of Senate Bill 564, which raised the Medicaid eligibility threshold for pregnant women to 300 percent above the federal poverty level. The bill also provides coverage for the mother for 60 days after birth.

That’s a big deal for several reasons. Obviously, it can improve the health of both the mother and child. More importantly, it can significantly reduce the chances of infant and maternal mortality. Unfortunately, the maternal mortality rate in the U.S. has been increasing.

According to Dr. Jessie Ice of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, the U.S. has the highest MMR level among advanced industrialized nations. It’s one of only eight countries where the MMR is actually increasing — and it’s the only industrialized nation in that group. Globally, MMRs have declined by 44 percent between 1990 and 2015.

Incredibly, American women today are twice as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than their mothers were. According to Ice, “The average age a woman gives birth in the United States for the first time is a little over 26 years old. A 26-year-old giving birth in 2014 would face an MMR of 18 out of 100,000, while her mother — 26 years prior — was faced with an MMR of 9.4 out of 100,000.”

American women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy- related issues than Canadian women and six times more likely to die than Scandinavian women.

According to Amnesty International, American women living in low income areas are twice as likely to die than those from more affluent communities. African-American women are three to four times more likely to die than white women.

Something is wrong with this picture, but access to health care during and after pregnancy can help reverse the trend. According to an analysis by several MMR review committees, 63 percent of deaths could have been prevented with access to health care.

It’s hard to estimate how many West Virginia women will benefit from this legislation, but 535 mothers gave birth without health insurance last year.

West Virginia has made some major progress in health care over the last few years. Thanks to Medicaid and CHIP, the state is a national leader in insuring kids. Then-Gov. Tomblin’s decision to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act is now bringing coverage — including treatment for addiction — to 160,000 state residents. Covering more pregnant women is another step in the right direction.

In the future, the Legislature should consider extending postpartum Medicaid coverage to at least one year since not all pregnancy-related physical or mental health issues emerge in the first 60 days. Throw in universal access to voluntary in-home family education or home visiting programs for the first two years after birth and we could go far in preventing all kinds of problems and improving outcomes for kids and families for generations to come.

West Virginia is losing population, especially young parents and children. We could all benefit from taking better care of the kids we have and making the state a great place to live and raise a family.

May 10, 2019

Golly, who could have seen this coming?

Remember all the hype about President Obama's "war on coal" and how Prince Joffrey President Trump would make coal great again?

This is from an AP report:
U.S. demand for coal to generate electricity will continue its slide in coming months despite efforts by the Trump administration to prop up the struggling industry, federal officials said Thursday.
Renewable energy sources are expected to fill much of the gap left by coal's decline, according to the Energy Information Administration...
Under President Donald Trump, officials have sought to ease coal plant regulations and mining restrictions. But after production briefly bumped up in the year after Trump took office, almost all coal mining states are now experiencing production declines.
This summer, coal's share of energy production is expected to be 25 percent, down by around half over the last 10 years. And it's market driven.

Maybe we should sacrifice another generation or two of West Virginians to the industry just to make sure?

May 08, 2019

Getting priorities right for WV's young people

“This could be a really beautiful state, if we fix it.”

Those words were spoken by a young man at a juvenile day report center in Southern West Virginia. They sum up the results of over 100 interviews and surveys of young people conducted over the past year about mental health issues.

They say a lot about how things are now and how they could be.

It’s never easy to come of age — and living in West Virginia has always had its challenges. But today, many young West Virginians are facing a toxic brew of obstacles, from the addiction crisis to the explosive growth of foster care placement to a changing economy to new technology and social media. Then there are the old problems of persistent poverty and misplaced priorities.

Over the past year or so, my co-workers and I conducted a statewide listening project on young people and mental health issues as part of our work with the American Friends Service Committee. We were motivated, in part, by disappointment at the lack of action of our Legislature to address these issues over the past several years. Some of those who helped conduct interviews were themselves high school students concerned about these issues and frustrated by inaction.

It wasn’t a randomized scientific survey, but we did try to interview young people who varied in age, geographic location, race, ethnicity, social class and sexual orientation. We also spoke with adults who worked with them. The most surprising finding was strong agreement on several key points:

*Young people here face serious and multiple stressors, and many are dealing with undiagnosed and untreated mental health issues and trauma. “There’s no point trying to talk to somebody who doesn’t understand.”

*Things have gotten worse. Stressors identified included addiction, economic hard times, family stability, poverty, overexposure to social media, bullying and various types of discrimination. “It makes you give up hope. You feel like there is nothing in the world that can change the way things are.”

*Many young people with undiagnosed mental health and trauma issues might wind up facing disciplinary proceedings, such as suspension, out-of-home placement or confinement, or they might wind up engaging in destructive decisions. “We need to figure out the root of the problem, instead of shipping them away. Is it drugs? Bullying? Abuse?”

* Existing systems are not prepared to deal with the situation. “I think more money should be spent on counseling for young people. More community involvement would also be good. Instead of people thinking, ‘oh poor thing,’ people should be thinking ‘what can I do to help this person?’”

*Something needs to be done. “We need more people who care.”

Strange to say, nobody asked for charter schools or education savings accounts or the privatization of public education.

It’s no surprise to me that those same themes showed up in the education forums conducted around the state by the West Virginia Department of Education, in which nearly 2,000 stakeholders participated.

Early in April, state schools Superintendent Steven Paine told WV MetroNews, “Overwhelmingly, there was almost unanimous support for social, emotional supports for students. In other words, recognizing that kids are coming from some very, very difficult backgrounds and some of those needs need to be met before we can address their academic needs. That’s probably the one that stood out the most to me.”

There are several policies the Legislature could enact that might help with this situation. Obviously, one step would be to increase the number of mental health professionals who work in schools. With that investment, it would be easier to assess and address issues before a student is suspended or sent to court.

A worthy long-term goal for our state would be to ensure that students in danger of entering the juvenile justice system are assessed and referred to community-based programs whenever possible and appropriate.

Another could be creating a task force to address juvenile mental health and trauma-related issues. West Virginia has already created strategic plans to address chronic diseases, such as asthma and diabetes. These help stakeholders tackle issues by assessing needed services, setting goals, and assigning responsibilities.

Such a task force could not only identify unmet needs but also highlight success stories and best practices that could be replicated elsewhere.

To state the obvious, we’re losing a lot of young people in the state, but many of those who remain have serious, unmet needs. When the Legislature goes back into special session, I hope they don’t use kids as a political football, but, instead, deal with the real problems.

This really could be a beautiful state, if we fix it.

(This ran as an op-ed in last week's Charleston Gazette-Mail)

May 01, 2019

Born in the USA

Around the world but not here so much (yet), May 1 is celebrated as International Workers' Day. Ironically the roots of this observance began right here in the USA. A major struggle in much of the 19th and 20th century has been to reduce the hours of the working day, which could run as long as 14 hours or more in the early days of the industrial revolution.

A slogan of the movement was "eight hours for work, eight hours of sleep and eight hours for what we will."

Trade unionists in Chicago declared a strike for the eight hour day on May 1, 1886. One May 4, as police attempted to disperse a protesting crowd of workers at Haymarket Square, an unknown person threw a bomb which killed several police officers. The remaining police in turn fired at the crowd, killing four.

The bomber was never brought to justice. The only thing most historians agree on is that the eight people arrested and sentenced for the bombing weren't the guilty parties, several of whom weren't even there at the time. Of these, four were eventually executed. They are known as the "Haymarket martyrs."

The struggle to limit the working day didn't end there and was eventually won for many US workers by trade union organization and by the political reforms in the New Deal era and beyond, although some laws exempted protections for some of the most exploited workers, such as farm and domestic laborers.

Like everything else in the history of the struggle of working people for basic human justice, the fight goes on. In fact, as new forms of automation enter the traditional workplace, it may take new forms, such as limiting reducing working hours in order to share the available work.

The fight has always been about more than wages, hours and working conditions, as important as these are. It's also been about the need for culture, rest, leisure, education and dignity.

Lately, this hasn't been going so well, as you may have noticed. But it's not over yet.

(This is a from an earlier May Day post here a couple years ago.)

April 30, 2019

WV teachers and school workers brace for round three

West Virginia teachers and schools support workers have won two major victories over the last year or so.The successful 2018 strike help set off a wave of similar rebellions around the country, and the dominoes are still falling.

This weekend I had the pleasure of attending a presentation by Eric Blanc, author of the new book Red State Revolt: The Teachers' Strikes and Working-class Politics. Blanc was in West Virginia at the time of the 2018 strike and has followed the wave around the country. It was nice to hear how great the reputation of WV school workers is around the country.

I'm starting to get anxious about round three, which will be the special session of the legislature that could begin on May 22. This Metro News article highlights some of the issues. It's not clear how much of SB 451, the bad old "ominous omnibus" bill will be brought back. During many hearings around the state, stakeholders called for more mental health services, small class sizes and such.

Aside from outside astroturf groups, there has been no groundswell in support of privatization.

Still, I think a lot will depend on how teachers, school service workers and their allies stay engaged on this one. As the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass said, "Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them.”

April 24, 2019

Rat cage or rat park?

Like many people in West Virginia today, I’ve been thinking, listening, talking and reading a lot about issues of addiction and recovery.

Along the way, I’ve been struck by some interesting research that suggests there’s a lot more to it than the effect of certain chemical molecules on the brain. There’s a social dimension that could well be decisive in overcoming this crisis.

An amazing example of how social conditions affect addiction was found in the Vietnam War era. As the war continued, drug use — particularly heroin — became something of an epidemic among soldiers serving there.

That wasn’t surprising, considering the realities they faced.

According to some research, as many as 35 percent of soldiers had tried heroin at least once, and 20 percent were fully addicted.

At the time, Connecticut Sen. Robert Steel said after visiting the war zone, “The soldier going to South Vietnam today runs a far greater risk of becoming a heroin addict than a combat casualty.”

Obviously, many people were concerned about what would happen when these veterans returned to their communities. But something surprising happened when they got home. Fully 95 percent of veterans with addictions stopped using and never relapsed.

How could this be? Author Dan Baum summed it up pretty well: “Take a man out of a pestilential jungle where people he can’t see are trying to kill him for reasons he doesn’t understand, and — surprise! — his need to shoot smack goes away.”

To state the obvious, the situations in which people live have a lot to do with their life choices, including those related to addiction and recovery.

I think we could learn a lot from a fascinating experiment conduced by researcher Bruce Alexander with rats under laboratory conditions.

It was long known that, if you put a rat in a cage and gave it unlimited access to addictive drugs, it would hit the drugs pretty hard, often to the point of death.

Alexander decided to try something a little different. As Johann Hari explains in his book “Chasing the Scream”:

“With a few of his colleagues, he built two sets of homes for laboratory rats. In the first home, they lived as they had in the original experiments, in solitary confinement, isolated except for their fix. But then he built a second home: a paradise for rats. Within its plywood walls, it contained everything a rat could want—there were wheels and colored balls and the best food, and other rats to hang out with and have sex with.”

He called the second place Rat Park.

The rats in the isolated cage used up to 25 milligrams of morphine a day. The rats in Rat Park used less than 5 milligrams, despite having a 24-hour supply of the drug.

In a variation on the experiment, he took addicted rats who had been in isolation and placed them in Rat Park. In a short time, they stopped using morphine.

It’s probably not just a rat thing.

According to Alexander, “When I talk to addicted people, whether they are addicted to alcohol, drugs, gambling, internet use, sex, or anything else, I encounter human beings who really do not have a viable social or cultural life. They use their addictions as a way of coping with their dislocation: as an escape, a pain killer, or a kind of substitute for a full life. Maybe our fragmented, mobile, ever-changing modern society has produced social and cultural isolation in very large numbers of people, even though their cages are invisible.”

He argues that “today’s flood of addiction is occurring because our hyperindividualistic, hypercompetitive, frantic, crisis-ridden society makes most people feel socially and culturally isolated. Chronic isolation causes people to look for relief. They find temporary relief in addiction to drugs or any of a thousand other habits and pursuits because addiction allows them to escape from their feelings, to deaden their senses and to experience an addictive lifestyle as a substitute for a full life.”

It’s probably no accident that waves of addiction seem to hit populations going through extreme stress, hard economic times and declining community and social capital.

While there is an urgent need for other forms of prevention, intervention and treatment, it’s pretty clear that we could take a lesson from our friends the rats, re-weave our broken connections and re-dedicate ourselves to constructing a society worthy of human beings.

Less cage. More park.

(This appeared as an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.)

April 20, 2019

Holy Saturday and the Harrowing of Hell

This was originally posted here in 2013, with a few updates:

The time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is an interesting part of the traditional Christian calendar. It symbolized the only day of the year in which Christ is thought of as being dead. By tradition, it is also the only day of the year in which the Holy Eucharist is not celebrated (except in cases of emergencies).

In Christian tradition, lots of interesting legends developed around this day. Some passages in the New Testament suggest that Jesus descended to the realms of the dead to bring liberation to captive spirits. Apocryphal gospels from the second and third centuries elaborated this theme. In the late classical and medieval period, legends bloomed about the "Harrowing of Hell" in which the spirit of Jesus trashed the place while freeing the souls of the virtuous. In Dante's Inferno, both the architecture and geography of Hell show the aftershocks of that cataclysmic event nearly 1300 years later.

I love the image of captive spirits who have long ago given up hope being suddenly and unexpectedly rescued by a power far greater than themselves or the forces that hold them down. We could use a good bit more of that.

Right now.

April 19, 2019

The right way to promote work

During the last legislative session, the West Virginia House of Delegates came dangerously close to passing a bill that could have taken away health insurance coverage from 46,000 or more West Virginians covered by Medicaid expansion.

The bill was framed as a work requirement for the 160,000 or so people who gained coverage by the expansion. Actually, it would have been more of a paperwork reporting requirement that would have created an extra layer of bureaucracy and done a lot of damage without actually promoting work.

There were several things wrong with the bill, the most obvious being that the vast majority of adults who gained coverage are already working the many low-wage but necessary jobs that don’t come with benefits like health coverage and paid sick days and are often only part time.

That’s the real problem.

The Kaiser Family Foundation reported in 2017 that 48 percent of private-sector jobs don’t provide health coverage. Making life more miserable for the people who hold down those jobs would accomplish nothing.

If policymakers really want to help this population move ahead in employment, rather than punish them for being poor, they might look at an innovative and nonpunitive work program being piloted in Louisiana with bipartisan support.

The state’s governor, John Bel Edwards, expanded Medicaid in 2016. Louisiana was the first deep Southern state to take that step. The rate of uninsured Louisianans declined by half over the next year. By early 2019, around half-a-million state residents gained coverage.

As is the case in West Virginia, most of those people hold down jobs, but some might only be working part time or going to school or caring for a relative with a disability.

As an effort to help people move up the economic ladder, the state recently unveiled a voluntary work training program for Medicaid expansion recipients to be piloted in Monroe and West Monroe via a collaboration between the Louisiana Department of Health and Louisiana Delta Community College.

The program will offer training to prepare people for real jobs that need filled in the local community. At this point, offerings include Certified Nurse Assistant/Behavioral Health Technician (239 hours), Commercial Vehicle Operations (160 hours), Environmental Services Technician (120 hours), forklift and OSHA 10 training (24 hours) and Mortgage Documents Specialist (18 hours).

The long-term goal is to expand the program statewide, again offering voluntary training targeted to local labor-market conditions.

In today’s climate, it’s pleasant to note that people reached across the aisle to make something work.

According to Democratic Rep. Katrina Jackson, who authored the bill, “This is not just about training but about helping our people transition to a work environment that gives them a hand up and enables them to get to the point where they can take care of themselves and their families by being gainfully employed.”

Republican Rep. Frank Hoffman, who earlier had proposed similar legislation, was equally supportive, saying, “The goal of my legislation was never to cause anyone to lose their Medicaid coverage, but rather to help them find solid employment. I am pleased that we have reached this point and anticipate great success for those who participate and make the most of this opportunity.”

This is a good example of what can happen if people put ideology aside, focus on problem solving and give what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” a turn at the bat.

(This ran as an op-ed in yesterday's Charleston Gazette-Mail.)

April 11, 2019

Fat city?

I love the city of Huntington. I'm no doubt biased. It's my county seat and it was always the city we could go to when we need a break from our small town. It's home of Marshall, my alma mater twice over.

It's been hit by tidal wave after tidal wave. Major deindustrialization, bad health, ground zero for opioid overdoses. But it keeps fighting back.

Usually any national attention it gets has to do with the opioid epidemic. This would be a case in point. Things are still bad there, but the fact that the city has made major progress in reducing overdoses doesn't always get the same level of attention.

I was pleasantly surprised to see this Washington Post story about how Huntington turned the corner from being America's most obese city. According to the CDC, the rate dropped by 13 percentage points over the last decade.

Some may remember when Jamie Oliver did a Food Revolution TV series about Huntington, with plenty of made up drama, but the heroes and heroines of this story are local.

And the city keeps plugging away.

April 08, 2019

Breece Pancake's last day

Breece Pancake, 1952-1979. For my money West Virginia's greatest writer

Forty years ago on this date, I showed up at the Milton Library to perform my duties as a janitor, a job for which I showed no great talent and little diligence. It was Palm Sunday.

I was surprised to see Toney Reese, the main librarian and one of the greatest people I've ever known, show up. She was visibly upset.

When I asked, she told me that Breece Pancake, son of my co-worker Helen, had died of a gunshot wound in an apparent suicide. They had been close.

I was stunned. I knew that the ripple effects of that day would last for years, but I had no idea just how strong they would be.

I can't say I knew him. We'd met a time or two. He was about my brother's age. Both of our fathers were WWII combat veterans who had a little trouble with their homecomings. I knew Helen as a kid when she worked at the local Island Creek store.

Like many people from Milton who were paying attention, I was excited and maybe a little  jealous to learn that he'd  had a couple short stories published by The Atlantic.

At the time and for several years to come, Helen and I worked together at the library each Tuesday evening and every other Saturday. I had no idea what to say or do when I saw her again.

Needless to say, she was traumatized. But over the next several years that we worked together, she healed after a fashion. Partly I think this was due to her determination to see that a book of his stories would be published. "The day they put him in the ground," she told me, "I swore I'd see his book published."

The odds were against it. Books of short stories by new and unknown writers don't often catch on, even with living writers to promote them. It was a great experience to see it come together. Every time I saw Helen, she'd share the latest letters from the dozens of people who helped the book come together and show the latest stories that were posthumously published.

It finally came out in 1983 as The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake under the Atlantic Little Brown imprint. The next year a paperback edition came out. Since then, the book has never been out of print and has been translated into several languages.

Helen and I became very close in those years, but I held off reading the book for several months. Finally I sat down one evening and cracked it open. I wound up reading it straight through. The stories were hard as nails through the wrists. I had the same feeling of awe that I'd had after reading other classics, from Aeschylus to Shakespeare.

Many of the stories were set in and around our town, thinly disguised as Rock Camp, with the others scattered around the state. Breece wrote about those lost and left behind, a number which would only grow over the next several decades. And is still growing today.

He saw it coming.

The overall impression reminded me of a line by Bob Dylan:

"everyone of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin' coal
 Pourin' off of every page
Like it was written in my soul
From me to you"
Tangled up in blue indeed.

April 05, 2019

Doing the math: what repealing the Affordable Care Act would mean for WV

At the risk of being a downer, I feel the need to point out what’s at stake for West Virginia in the latest effort on the part of the president (and the state attorney general) to kill the Affordable Care Act in court.

Spoiler: a lot.

Let’s start with recovery from addiction and mental health. Back in 2017, state officials said that the ACA, and particularly Medicaid expansion, helped bring treatment for addiction to 50,000 West Virginians. That number has no doubt gone up since then.

Recently, Lori Kersey reported in the Gazette-Mail that low-income West Virginians got $90 million worth of mental health and substance abuse treatment last year and almost $300 million over the last four years.

She cited data from the state Department of Health and Human Resources that the state’s expanded Medicaid program provided around $58 million in mental health and substance abuse treatment in 2015. It increased to $61 million in 2016, $79 million in 2017 and $90 million in 2018.

I’ve talked with people who are convinced that access to that treatment saved them from death or worse and brought them back to the land of the living. Now they’re clean, putting their lives together, taking care of their children, holding down jobs and paying taxes.

As Jesus said in one of his most famous parables, “be glad for this, your brother was dead, and is alive again. He was lost and is found.” (Luke: 15:32)

Now imagine all that gone.

Then there’s this: According to the DHHR, as of April 1 of this year, 160,356 West Virginians were covered by Medicaid expansion, a state option under the ACA. Most of these people are holding down jobs. Another 22,600 state residents bought coverage under the ACA exchange. Then there are around 12,000 young people in the state who can stay on their parent’s insurance until age 26, another ACA provision.

Then there’s the fact that the ACA helped reduce prescription drug “donut hole” costs under Medicare Part D for the approximately 240,170 West Virginia seniors who participate in the program. The icing on the cake is the fact that the ACA brings hundreds of millions of dollars to our economy, creating thousands of jobs and helping to keep rural hospitals and health care providers going.

The Urban Institute has estimated that repealing the ACA could result in the loss of 16,000 jobs and $9.1 billion in state economic impact.

Imagine all those dollars and jobs, too.

Then remember that those are just the numbers, but behind the numbers are real people, families and friends, people we know, work with and love.

Screwing over that many people of all ages with one stroke would be quite an accomplishment, even by today’s standards.

It would be the next worst thing to a natural disaster of biblical proportions, except the harm would be caused by the deliberate action of a handful of people.

If it comes to that, I don’t think it will be forgotten anytime soon.

(This appeared as an op-ed in today's Gazette-Mail.)

April 04, 2019

Great moments in presidential rhetoric

Presidential speeches can have lasting impact. Think of Lincoln's "better angels of our nature" or Roosevelt's "Four freedoms" or Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you" or even Bush I's "thousand points of light."

Then there's this from President Trump's talk to a Republican National Committee audience. It's actually not the weirdest part:
Hillary wanted to put up wind. Wind. If you ― if you have a windmill anywhere near your house, congratulations: Your house just went down 75 percent in value. And they say the noise causes cancer. You tell me that one, OK? “Rrrrr, rrrrr” ― you know the thing that makes the ― it’s so noisy. And of course it’s like a graveyard for birds. If you love birds, you’d never want to walk under a windmill because it’s a very sad, sad sight. It’s like a cemetery. We put a little, we put a little statute for the poor birds. It’s true. You know in California, if you shoot a bald eagle, they put you in jail for five years. And yet the windmills wipe ’em all out. It’s true. They wipe ’em out. It’s terrible. And I told the other day at CPAC. Great people at CPAC. We had an incredible thing. I had nothing to do. It was early on a Saturday morning. I had just gotten back from dealing with Kim Jong Un. We had a walk. He wasn’t ready for a deal but that’s OK because we get along great. He wasn’t ready. I told him, you’re not ready for a deal. That’s the first time anybody has ever told him that and left. It never happened to him before. Nobody’s ever left. But I said you’re not ready for a deal, but we’ll make a deal. We have a good relationship. We have a good relationship. But I told a story about, at CPAC. The woman, she wants to watch television. And she says to her husband, “Is the wind blowing? I’d love to watch a show tonight, darling. The wind hasn’t blown for three days. I can’t watch television, darling. Darling, please tell the wind to blow.” No, wind’s not so good. And you know, you have no idea how expensive it is to make those things. They’re all made in China and Germany, but the way, just in case you’re ― we don’t make ’em here, essentially. We don’t make ’em here. And by the way, the carbon, and all those things flying up in the air, you know the carbon footprint? President Obama used to talk about the carbon footprint, and then he’d hop on Air Force One, a big 747 with very old engines, and he’d fly to Hawaii to play a round of golf. You tell me, the carbon footprint.
I kinda miss W these days.

April 02, 2019

What's at stake for WV in the health care fight

If you want to know what's at stake for West Virginians in the fight to preserve the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which is once again under attack by Prince Joffrey President Trump, consider this info by Gazette-Mail reporter Lori Kersey:

Low-income West Virginians received $90 million worth of mental health and substance abuse treatment last year, and nearly $300 million over the last four years, under a law the Trump administration is trying to repeal, according to West Virginia health officials.
Under the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, West Virginia expanded its Medicaid program to those who make up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line.
According to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, the state’s expanded Medicaid program spent about $58 million on mental health and substance abuse in fiscal year 2015, $61 million in 2016, $79 million in 2017 and $90 million in 2018.
Then there's this: according to the WV Department of Health and Human Resources, as of April 1, 160,356 West Virginians were covered by Medicaid expansion, a state option under the ACA. Another 22,600 state residents got coverage under the ACA exchange. Then there are around 12,000 young people who are able to stay on their parent's insurance until age 26, another ACA provision.

Then there's the fact that the ACA brings hundreds of millions of dollars to our economy, creating thousands of jobs and helping to keep rural hospitals and health care providers going.

Those are just numbers, but behind each number is a story. Here's a link to some collected from people who gained coverage thanks to Medicaid expansion.

This is our concern, Dude.

March 29, 2019

Making federal education policy a joke

The antics of the US Secretary of Education would be funny if they were a Saturday Night Live skit.

Oh wait...that already happened...let me rephrase that. It would be great if they were JUST a Saturday Night Live skit.

Alas, it's not a joke. Even in an administration as whack as this one, I still can't get over someone in that position who was never a student in any public education institution and who wants to defund the Special Olympics, have bigger class sizes and fewer teachers, and who is devoted to the idea of paying for private schools public money.

I keep hoping for a "Just kidding!" announcement but I don't think one is forthcoming.

March 28, 2019

Needed: a real second chance

One of the biggest victories in the last WV legislative session has the passage of Senate Bill 152, which allows for the expungement of some misdemeanor and felony convictions. Recently, the New York Times reported on a Michigan study of what that can mean to people.

Here's the good news:
"...people who get expungements tend to do very well. We found that within a year, on average, their wages go up by more than 20 percent, after controlling for their employment history and changes in the Michigan economy. This gain is mostly driven by unemployed people finding work and minimally employed people finding steadier positions."
"...contrary to the fears of critics, people with expunged records break the law again at very low rates. Indeed, we found that their crime rates are considerably lower than those of Michigan’s general adult population. That may be in part because expungement reduces recidivism."
The bad news was that only small percentage of eligible people actually got the expungements, as in around 2,500 out of possibly hundreds of thousands. Also, they took a long time to get. Only 6.5 percent got them within five years of becoming eligible.

We've had experiences like that here, where legislative or policy victories don't reach as many people as we'd like. The takeaway is that the process needs to be as simple as possible and that people need to know they are eligible.

That may be where the real work begins.

March 25, 2019

Just say no to federal hunger games

Late last year Congress passed the latest version of the Farm Bill with bipartisan support. Members of both houses had the chance to impose requirements that would have cut benefits for literally hundreds of thousands of Americans--and they had the good sense not to.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration is trying to make an end run around congress by proposing USDA rule changes.

This is up for public comment and the deadline for making them is 11:59 pm on April 2. 

Please consider taking a few minutes to make an online public comment. It's the best chance we have at present to protect benefits for an estimated 755,000 Americans. And please also consider getting this information around to people you know who might be willing to comment.

Here's a link with all you need to know to make comments. And, for an example, here are the comments I submitted: 

Greetings, I am writing to request that the USDA not implement the proposed changes to SNAP regarding work requirements. A similar policy was implemented in West Virginia in the nine counties with the lowest unemployment rate. The results were stark: over 5400 people cut off with no noticeable increase in people actually working. In many cases, the people who would be adversely impacted by this policy are homeless, lack transportation, are dealing with untreated and/or unacknowledged mental or physical disabilities, or are working but can't get enough hours to meet the requirement. Many are also non-custodial parents who provide some support to children and some are veterans dealing with PTSD. Congress had the opportunity to pass such legislation as part of the Farm Bill and chose not to do so after hearing from thousands of constituents. I urge the USDA to do the same. These changes won't increase employment; in fact, by reducing the SNAP caseload, they will actually take money out of local economies and away from the local businesses that do provide jobs. I am attaching the WV report on the nine pilot counties which was prepared by the WV Department of Health and Human Resources. Thanks for your consideration.

March 24, 2019

A belated birthday

Sometimes I miss a birthday by a day or even a few. Such is the case this time with the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Affordable Care Act. 

Personal note: I have put my time into that puppy, from supporting its passage, to pushing for Medicaid expansion to defending it from attacks. It was a far from perfect piece of legislation, but it was what we could get at the time.

Just for fun, below is an excerpt from a Goat Rope post I wrote at the time. The title was Signed. Sealed. Delivered.
It's official. President Obama signed the health care reform bill into law yesterday.
He told those in attendance that "We have just now enshrined, as soon as I sign this bill, the core principle that everybody should have some basic security when it comes to their health care."

Critics of the bill may point out that this isn't exactly the case, but there's no denying that this is a landmark piece of legislation that will extend health coverage to millions who have been doing without it. The New York Times calls it "the federal government’s biggest attack on economic inequality since inequality began rising more than three decades ago."

It remains to be seen whether the immediate benefits (political and otherwise) will outweigh the blowback. This item from Politico argues that the former will come before the latter, but I'm not sure I agree. It always seemed to me that a major drawback of the legislation was that the major expansion of health coverage via Medicaid and subsidies won't hit until several years down the line, meaning that the risks might hit earlier than the benefits.
Still, it probably will be hard for those who want to repeal it to win much of a crowd by saying "Bring back the donut hole" for Medicare Part D, or "let's cut those young people off their parent's insurance" or "Bring back denials of coverage for pre-existing conditions!"
The game has changed, although it's hard to guess just how or how much.

March 18, 2019

Because we must please our overlords

During the legislative session, HB 3142 made it through both houses. The bill calls for slashing coal severance taxes by $64 million. Here's some coverage of the debate at the time.  And here's an op-ed by my friend Sean O'Leary about why this is a bad idea.

Industry lobbyists claim it will pay for itself zillions of times over. Hmmm...where have we heard that kind of thing before? And how did it go?

It's unlikely that passing such a tax cut would have much of an effect on reversing the long term decline in coal jobs, but it's certain that it will take money away from other things. Reportedly, WV Governor Jim Justice is feeling conflicted about signing the bill into law.

WV people who want to do a good deed should consider calling his office 1-304-556-2000 and urging a veto. You can also contact his office online here. Throwing stuff out on social media wouldn't hurt either.

March 15, 2019

Speaking of democracy...

...maybe a small town in Vermont has finally gotten it right by electing a goat, Ms. Lincoln, as mayor. According to this news story,

That idea to elect an animal as mayor came from the town manager. He thought it would be a fun way to raise money for the school to build a new playground and get kids to start thinking about local politics.
On voting day, the kids took to the polls with their parents and had their very own ballot with 16 candidates ranging from cats and dogs to a goat! Lincoln won by three votes...
"We were really pleased to see it was a civics lesson for the students and that they could be involved and decisions made in the town and it something that we hope to continue in the future getting the kids voting with their parents on a regular basis," said Christopher Stapleton, Lincoln's owner.
The election was also intended to be a fundraiser, but only $100 was raised instead of the $70,000 hoped for.

I could have told them that goats were a money pit. On the other hand, the last few years have shown that could could do a lot worse when it comes to elected officials. 

March 14, 2019

The meaning of democracy

Recently I've been listening to a book with the cheery title How Democracies Die. Golly, reckon how come anybody'd write a book like that these days?

Anyhow, the book contained a WWII era reflection on what democracy means by writer E.B. White.  Apparently, in July 1943, smack-dab in the middle of the conflict, the Writers' War Board wanted a statement on the meaning of democracy. Here's his response:

We received a letter from the Writers’ War Board the other day asking for a statement on “The Meaning of Democracy.” It presumably is our duty to comply with such a request, and it is certainly our pleasure.
Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don’t in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It’s the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.

March 11, 2019

Unfinished business: addressing WV's youth mental health needs

The WV legislative session ended Saturday (thank God!), but Gov. Justice has called for a special session to address "education betterment." One thing we hope to address in improving mental health services for young people. Here below is an op-ed from the Beckley Register-Herald on the subject:

“This could be a really beautiful state if we fix it.”

Those words were spoken by a young man at a juvenile day report center in southern West Virginia. They sum up the results of over 100 interviews and surveys of young people conducted over the last year about mental health issues.

That sentence speaks to the great potential of the state to be a welcoming home for its children and young adults. It also speaks to a sense of brokenness that many young people expressed when they described things as they are.

Coming of age is never easy, even in good times. And living in West Virginia has always had its challenges. But the combination of a public health crisis in the form of the opioid epidemic, the explosive growth of foster care placement, a changing economy that has left many behind, new technology and social media, persistent poverty and misplaced priorities makes this a particularly difficult time to grow up.

My co-workers and I decided to conduct a statewide listening project on young people and mental health issues as part of our work with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). We were motivated in part by disappointment at the lack of action of our Legislature to address these issues over the last several years. Some of those who helped conduct interviews were themselves high school students concerned about these issues and frustrated by inaction.

We surveyed young people who varied in age, geographic location, race, ethnicity, social class and sexual orientation. The most surprising finding was strong agreement on several key points:

● Young people here face serious and multiple stressors, and many are dealing with undiagnosed and untreated mental health issues and trauma. “There’s no point trying to talk to somebody who doesn’t understand.”

● Things have gotten worse. Stressors identified included addiction, economic hard times, family stability, poverty, overexposure to social media, bullying and various types of discrimination. “It makes you give up hope. You feel like there is nothing in the world that can change the way things are.”

● Many young people with undiagnosed mental health and trauma issues may wind up facing disciplinary proceedings such as suspension, out of home placement or confinement, or may wind up engaging in destructive decisions. “We need to figure out the root of the problem instead of shipping them away. Is it drugs? Bullying? Abuse?”

● Systems are not prepared to deal with the situation. “I think more money should be spent on counseling for young people. More community involvement would also be good. Instead of people thinking ‘oh poor thing,’ people should be thinking ‘what can I do to help this person?’ “

There are several policies the Legislature could enact that might help with this situation. One would be creating a task force to address juvenile mental health and trauma-related issues. West Virginia has already created strategic plans to address chronic diseases such as asthma and diabetes. These help stakeholders tackle issues by assessing needed services, setting goals, and assigning responsibilities.

Such a task force could not only identify unmet needs but also highlight success stories and best practices that could be replicated elsewhere.

Another promising approach is to help public schools address mental health issues before a student is suspended or sent to court. Several interviewees pointed out that acting out is often a symptom of deeper problems, which often go undiagnosed and untreated. Increasing the number of mental health professionals who work with schools is an obvious step.

A worthy long-term goal for our state would be to ensure that students in danger of entering the juvenile justice system are assessed and referred to community-based programs whenever possible and appropriate.

It may be that there are some juveniles who constitute a major threat to the public and/or themselves. It only makes sense that out-of-home placement and treatment should be reserved for such people as a last and, one hopes, a temporary resort. The rest should be treated, whenever possible, in their homes and communities.

As state leaders, communities and families become more informed about why mental health matters and what can be done about it, West Virginians of all ages will be better able to draw upon our vast reserves of resiliency, caring and compassion.

March 03, 2019

Words of wisdom from ancient Greece

We hear a lot--and are starting to see more of--the dangers of overheated political polarization. Here's a quote from Thucydides' Peloponnesian War about how Greek democracies and city states went off the rails in his day:

"Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any.Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected...
The fair proposals of an adversary were met with jealous precautions by the stronger of the two, and not with a generous confidence. Revenge also was held of more account than self-preservation. Oaths of reconciliation, being only proffered on either side to meet an immediate difficulty, only held good so long as no other weapon was at hand; but when opportunity offered, he who first ventured to seize it and to take his enemy off his guard, thought this perfidious vengeance sweeter than an open one, since, considerations of safety apart, success by treachery won him the palm of superior intelligence."

March 01, 2019

What a week

Is it over yet? I'm kind of over this session of the WV legislature.

It hasn't all been bad. Ending the lifetime ban on SNAP was a great win that will help thousands of people. Some other promising criminal justice stuff may be in the pipeline.

The good guys won a huge fight this week in defeating a bill that would impose Medicaid work requirements, really a way of taking away health care from as many as 46,000 people.

Teachers, school service workers and allies helped defeat the ominous omnibus education bill, which would have been bad news for public education.

But there's also stuff like this, as if the image of the state hasn't been tarnished enough already by stuff like this.

As if all that wasn't enough, the house passed a bill that would allow firearms on campus. What could possibly go wrong?  At the same time, the senate passed  a bill raising the age to purchase tobacco products to 21 at about the same time.

Several commentators have pointed out that, if both these bills go through, 18 year olds will be able to bring guns to class but couldn't buy cigarettes.

As I've often said, it's time to change the state motto from "Mountaineers are always free" to "You can't make this **** up."

February 27, 2019

Urgent alert for WV people: save health care for thousands

WV people, please consider calling your delegates and ask they vote NO on HB 3136. It would cost money, create bureaucracy, cut off around 46,000 people from Medicaid, most of whom work. It's up for a vote today. Thanks!

Here's the roster and here's a reminder of why the bill is a bad idea.

February 25, 2019

It's past time for bail reform

On May 15, 2010, Kalief Browder and a friend were walking home from a party in the Bronx when they were stopped by police officers. He was accused of stealing a backpack stuffed with a camera, an iPod Touch, a credit card and $700 in cash.

Browder, a 16-year-old African-American, had no incriminating evidence against him and denied stealing anything. He was arrested and charged with robbery, grand larceny and assault.

Because he was on probation for taking a bakery truck on a joyride, Browder was not released. Instead, he was sent to a juvenile facility on Riker's Island known for "a deep-seated culture of violence."

Bail was set at $3,000, a sum his family could not pay.

He wound up spending three years at Riker's, much of that time in solitary confinement. During this time, he was brutalized by guards and other inmates, some incidents of which were captured on video.

Not surprisingly, he was traumatized by the event. He attempted suicide on more than one occasion in and out of custody. On June 16, 2015, he succeeded.

He was never placed on trial and never convicted of the offense. Charges against him were eventually dropped.

This example of what I can only call bureaucratic murder makes me feel sick every time I think about it. It also makes a travesty of the promise of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, according to which no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.

As far as I know, nothing on that scale of awfulness has happened in West Virginia, but we have similar issues with low-income, low-risk nonviolent offenders wasting away in regional jails because they can't afford bail.

It causes untold suffering, clogs up the jail and prison system and costs a lot of money.

Speaking of money, the Gazette-Mail's Phil Kabler recently reported, "Counties paid the Regional Jail Authority more than $1.9 million in 2018 to jail individuals unable to post bond of $1,000 or less for misdemeanor charges."

That year, 3,750 people jailed on misdemeanor charges spent an average of 11 days in jail before they were released or were able to post bail. One person spent 127 days in jail due to lack of money to post a $500 bond.

That added up to 41,058 days that the counties had to pay for, to the tune of $48.25 per person per day. Because that doesn't cover the full cost, they had to kick in an additional $18,750.

In human terms, this can have devastating effects on those incarcerated and their families. Even short of extreme violence and suicide, lots of bad things can happen behind bars, many of which are not conducive to improving civic behavior or promoting public safety in the long run. And overcrowded jails and prisons are unsafe both for those who work there and those who are incarcerated.

There is a further issue here. Our state prisons are already overcrowded. So much so, in fact, that hundreds of people (1,205 in 2016, for example) sentenced to state prisons are still warehoused in regional jails, which are not designed to be long-term facilities. Many cannot access educational and other programs offered in prisons that might make them eligible for treatment, training or parole.

To state the obvious, having hundreds of people doing time in the jails at public expense simply because they are poor only makes things worse all the way around.

Fortunately, there is a growing and bipartisan awareness of this problem at the legislature these days. A (very modest) bail reform bill, HB 2190, passed the House and is up for consideration in the Senate. It allows people charged with certain nonviolent offenses to be released on their own recognizance. It could have been stronger, but at least it's a step in the right direction.

Words written by then U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy in 1964 still ring true today: "The rich man and the poor man do not receive equal justice in our courts. And in no area is this more evident than in the matter of bail."

(This appeared as an op-ed in the Huntington Herald-Dispatch.)

February 23, 2019

Messing with Medicaid is a bad idea

Back in May of 2013, then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin made the decision to expand Medicaid coverage to low-income families earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

By that one act, I think he did more to relieve unnecessary human suffering than any number of his predecessors. Maybe more than all of them put together.

Medicaid expansion was an option under the Affordable Care Act. It was originally intended to apply to all states, but this provision was struck down by the US Supreme Court in 2012. Since then, it has become a state option.

That decision has been a lifesaver and a game changer for tens of thousands of West Virginians. As of Feb. 19, 158,137 West Virginians are enrolled in Medicaid expansion. That’s a little shy of one out of 10 state residents, but not by much. In any given year, around 200,000 people have received coverage due to Medicaid expansion.

Most people who gained health coverage came from working families not otherwise eligible for traditional Medicaid.

A lot of the credit for that goes to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, which did an amazing job of reaching out to and enrolling eligible citizens.

I’m not sure how much this weighed on Gov. Tomblin’s decision at the time, but the expansion opened the gates of treatment for addiction and, ultimately, recovery for thousands of West Virginians struck by the opioid epidemic.

In the words of Nan Whaley, mayor of Dayton, Ohio, a city that has made great progress in reducing overdose deaths, “If you’re a state that does not have Medicaid expansion, you can’t build a system for addressing this disease.”

Not only did West Virginia do something right, but it did it well. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that there’s a move in the Legislature to impose a policy that has failed elsewhere. The House Finance Committee recently voted to impose on West Virginia a policy that has caused a great deal of unnecessary suffering in Arkansas.

The failed policy sounds good, at a superficial level: Let’s impose work requirements on those who receive expanded Medicaid coverage.

I’ve used this Bible verse more than once, but it still fits: “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.”

Instead of promoting work, it increases bureaucratic costs and reporting requirements and results in cutting people off for no good reason.

By August 2018, over 18,000 enrollees out of 62,000 — nearly one out of three — in the Arkansas program had been cut off. There’s no evidence whatsoever that those people are doing more work, but it’s a safe bet that they are worse off.

Closer to home, Kentucky has applied for a waiver to impose a similar but more draconian work requirement on its Medicaid population. According to the research of Simon Haeder of West Virginia University’s Rockefeller School of Policy and Politics, if West Virginia would follow suit, this would impact 95,000 West Virginians, including those who are unemployed or who are working but can’t get enough hours to meet the requirement.

Even if we just assume that West Virginia’s results would be similar to those in Arkansas, we would see over 46,000 people losing coverage. That would be about the same as the entire population of Huntington or Charleston — or of Pocahontas, Doddridge, Calhoun, Pleasants, Pendleton, Tucker and Wirt counties combined.

Apparently, some people didn’t get the memo that having health care isn’t a barrier to employment, it actually helps you stay in the game. I know plenty of people, myself included, who are working and paying taxes today but would probably have been disabled or dead without health care.

For that matter, cutting people off from Medicaid doesn’t just hurt those individuals, it also affects local hospitals and health care providers, reduces money coming to local communities and can have a negative effect on employment. And it drives up health care costs for everyone else by increasing emergency room visits and uncompensated care.

The main support for this seems to come from the same kind of outsider-funded astroturf groups that gave us education “reform.” Last year, one of these types of bills succeeded, resulting in new state code that took basic food assistance away from homeless people.

It’s sad to say, but some people in power evidently derive some kind of weird gratification by imposing misery on those less powerful.

Somehow, however, I don’t think most West Virginians are into that kind of thing.

I hope the majority of West Virginia legislators ultimately agree.

(This ran as an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.)

February 21, 2019

What just happened with the 2019 WV education strike, anyway?

West Virginia teachers and school service workers just won another historic victory with their two-day walkout to kill Senate Bill 451, the "ominous omnibus" bill.

If I had to explain what has happened over the last few weeks to an intelligent person from somewhere else relying on memory alone, it would go something like this. Please jump in and correct me where I'm wrong. (Sneak preview: Putnam County bus drivers are heroes!):

1. WV education workers won an historic victory with their work stoppage last year and some people on the losing end (fill in the blanks) never forgave them for that.

2. This session, those same people ambushed the senate with radical ideas about education "deform," which included privatization, charter schools, educational savings accounts, punishments for union workers and such along with benign measures like a 5 percent raise and help with PEIA and retirement. The bad ideas were pushed by out of state big money groups like ALEC and others who want to take down public education.

3. Education workers and allies began to mobilize against this and to come up with alternative ideas.

4. Gov. Justice, to his credit, came  out against the senate bill, admitting it was partly motivated by revenge and pledging to veto it in its current form. Alas, the framers of WV's constitution apparently dozed off at some point and made it possible to override a governor's veto with a simple majority.

5.  The bill was rammed down the metaphorical throat of the senate education committee. And, when it looked like the bill wouldn't make it through the senate finance committee (thanks to the defection of two Republicans), leadership went around it to adopt a rarely used "committee of the whole" to get it through the senate. (Some of us thought of it as a "committee of the hole.")

5. Education workers voted to authorize a work stoppage if and when it seemed like the right thing to do to oppose 451.

6. SB 451 went to the house, which came up with an imperfect but significantly less evil version of the bill.

7. The senate refused to go with the house version and reloaded it with charters, educational savings accounts and other privatization measures.

8. At that point, education workers and their organizations called for a work stoppage which shut down schools in 54 of 55 counties, the outlier being Putnam.

9. Putnam bus drivers, service workers and many teachers heroically defied their bosses to hold the line, even though they may still face sanctions. All honor to them!

10. After one day of striking, the house refused to concur with the senate version, which seemed to kill the bad bill. There was much rejoicing, but nobody trusted the senate, so the strike continued for another day.

11. By day two of the strike, the deadline for reviving 451 passed. On the evening of day two, a return to work was declared by AFT, WVEA and WVSSPA.

12. All of which is to say, this was a truly historic victory! Of course, we can still expect dirty tricks and bad bills in the remaining days of the session. And we as in education workers and families and their allies need to get in front of this and come up with a real plan to improve education with all WV a way that freezes out privatization, charter schools, vouchers, and educational saving accounts and such.

13. But let's face it, y'all. WV just won another historic and inspiring victory for the labor movement and for kids and for working people. Last year's victory continues to inspire teachers and other workers (keep an eye on Oakland CA for the latest example). May this year's victory inspire more of the same.

February 20, 2019

55 still strong

"Money speaks for money, the Devil for his own
Who comes to speak for the skin and the bone
What a comfort to the widow, a light to the child
There is power in a union"

February 18, 2019

The die is cast-roll em!

"Alea iacta est!" or, in English, "the die is cast" as in the dice have been rolled. So said Julius Caesar when he crossed the Rubicon on his way to a date with history. It looks like West Virginia has another date with labor history and the dice have been rolled..

As WV senate Republicans seem determined to ram down an agenda of privatization, charter schools, and "education savings vouchers" down the throat of an unwilling state, WV teachers and school support workers have called a strike starting tomorrow (Tuesday, Feb. 19).  At this writing several counties have already closed schools. More are no doubt to come.

Nobody wanted this fight (aside from out of state AstroTurf groups funded by oligarchs) but all that matters now is solidarity.

Game the **** on-solidarity forever!

February 13, 2019

Two roads diverged

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood. ...” So begins Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.”

Ever since ancient times, people have been fascinated by the power of crossroads. They have been the subject of poetry, song, myth and folklore.

Examples range from Robert Johnson’s classic blues song of the same name back to the days of ancient Greece, where they were sacred to Hermes, god of boundaries, borders and exchanges, and to Hecate, a witchy goddess associated both with magic and the home.

The image shows up in both the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament) and the gospels. In Jeremiah 6:16, the prophet says, “Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.”

In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus says “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the way that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Metaphorically, I think most of us have come upon crossroads where a choice must be made that can have lifelong consequences.

I think West Virginia is at a major crossroads now, one that will have a lasting impact on its future. It has to do with the face we present to the world: will it be one of narrow-mindedness, fear, hatred and bigotry or one of openness, hospitality, solidarity and basic fairness?

Let’s just say that if the West Virginia Legislature is any indication, the jury is still out. We’ve had one delegate embarrass the state by comparing people who identify as LGBTQ to terrorists ... and worse.

The leadership of the majority Republican Party has condemned these remarks, yet they refuse to move legislation ending discrimination — and some have even attempted to pass legislation that would undo local anti-discrimination ordinances.

Still other lawmakers have sought bills that would keep out refugees and immigrants in a state largely composed of the descendants of refugees and immigrants that is also rapidly aging and losing population.

That kind of thing sends a message loud and clear both to young West Virginians who feel they have no place here and to other bright and energetic people who will think two or three times before moving here.

It discourages the kind of employers and investments that would provide good jobs while promoting a good quality of life.

That degree of closed-mindedness says that education isn’t valued here and that we are proud of what — and who — we don’t know.

That kind of thing sends a message that we should continue to be nothing but a sacrifice zone for extractive industries, whether they are those that take away our natural resources or those that strip-mine our public schools.

It doesn’t have to be that way. To paraphrase the last lines of Frost’s poem, we could take the road less traveled by, and that could make all the difference.

(This appeared as an op-ed in today's Charleston Gazette-Mail.)

February 12, 2019

Eye on the Ominous Omnibus education "reform" bill

I've been a bit under the weather lately so am behind on blogging the ups and downs of the Ominous Omnibus education "reform" bill in the WV legislature. Here's where I think we are:

SB 451, aka SB 666, passed the Senate 18-16 Feb. 4, with all Democrats and two Republicans voting against. It contained an infinity of charter schools, thousands of "education savings accounts" (ESAs) to siphon money away from public schools, anti-union "paycheck protection" measures, penalties for work stoppages and such. And a 5% raise for state workers. It was clearly an effort to punish teachers and school service workers for winning last year.

In the House education committee, amendments were made that took out some of the worst features, including paycheck, penalties, and ESAs. It limited charter schools to two.

Yesterday there were two public hearings at which teachers and parents vastly outnumbered  the out of state and astroturf bill supporters. I love it that one of the speakers against the bill compared charter schools to bedbugs. Bring two of them home and see how it goes...

THEN, the house finance committee apparently thought it was the REAL education committee and began putting more bad stuff back in the bill. THEN that failed and the earler, somewhat less bad, bill was sent to the floor, where it is now.

My friend and twitter critter Sean O'Leary of the WV Center on Budget and Policy dropped these gems during the process:

"Marathon public hearings, all night committee meetings, all for a bill that nobody but lobbyists want. Meanwhile, PEIA stuck with a band-aid of a one-year fix, with no permanent solution in sight."


"Lobbyists for charter schools and ESA's get called up to present to House Finance committee, while teachers and parents opposed get shuffled though a public hearing 70 seconds at a time."

It's still not clear what teachers and school service workers are going to do. I guess it depends on what goes down on the House floor...but we could be looking at an epic rematch. A rally in support of public education is planned for tomorrow at 6:30 on the riverside steps of the capitol.

And just to be clear, many teachers and school service workers are willing to give up a pay raise in order to kill a bill that threatens public education in this state.

February 08, 2019

Pop some popcorn

In the almost unimaginable case that you haven't seen it, check out the latest edition of Wonk's Work, the AFSC WV Economic Justice Project's irreverent look at the WV legislature. This week: education deform, SNAP, xenophobia, preemption, and a really cute cat picture. Click here to bliss out.

February 01, 2019

SB 451 is the third wave of the war on workers

Senate Bill 451 is the third wave of major attacks on working people in West Virginia. Each wave targeted a particular group of workers by weakening unions, the organizations that protect their interests. And many people may not realize that unions that help set work standards and advocate for policies that benefit all workers, not just their own members.

Here are the basics: there are three main types of unions: industrial, craft unions (often building trades) and public sector unions--and each in turn has been targeted. Here's how:

Industrial unions. When Republicans (just a fact) gained control of the WV legislature in the wake of the 2014 elections, they moved quickly to undermine industrial unions through so-called "right to work" (RTW) legislation, which is really right to work for less.

RTW undermines the democratic process. In a free labor state, workers vote whether or not to join a union. If the majority votes yeas, all are members and are covered in the contract the union negotiates. If the majority decides they no longer want to be union members, they can have another election to de-certify the union.

With RTW, workers can continue receive the benefits of union membership--wages, benefits, hours, conditions--without paying dues, even though the union is obligated to represent them in grievances. The end result is weaker unions, which ultimately leads to worse conditions for all workers, union or non-union.

Craft unions. For many decades, construction workers were protected by a prevailing wage laws, which was designed to ensure that workers on public construction sites were paid decent wages. This was designed to protect the public against fly by night contractors that use cheap and often unskilled labor and to protect local skilled workers. Building trade unions generally offer apprenticeship programs that guarantee a trained and skilled workforce. Non-union contractors are under no such obligation.

In 2016, the Republican-led legislature (again, just a fact) repealed West Virginia's prevailing wage laws.

That leaves...

Public employee unions. Probably the largest group of public sector workers protected by unions or workers' associations are those in the education field, including teachers and school service personnel. In some places, public sector workers have collective bargaining rights. In WV, they don't as of know, but still advocate for members and represent them in the workplace.

Senate Bill 451 goes after them by the so-called "paycheck protection" provision, which is more like "paycheck reduction. It makes it more difficult for workers to pay dues to the organizations that represent their interests. It also adds a penalty for work stoppages.

The biggest threat, however, is that of undermining public education altogether via charter schools, education savings accounts, and privatization. Teachers in charter schools aren't required under 451 to be covered by PEIA or the teachers' retirement system. Private entities can set their own payment and standards.

Conclusion: at least they're consistent. And working people need to be just as consistent, by showing solidarity with all workers, regardless of industry or type of union or any of the many ways rulers have tried to divide us. And, let's face it, it's high time to recognize the pattern.