Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Pennsylvania Stalled in Efforts to Get Health Insurance to Children

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

The number of uninsured children declined 16 percent nationally in 2014. Credit: skeeze/pixabay.com
The number of uninsured children declined 16 percent nationally in 2014. Credit: skeeze/pixabay.com
HARRISBURG, Pa. - Pennsylvania did not keep up with national averages in reducing the number of children without health insurance last year.

A new study by Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children and Georgetown University's Center for Children and Families found that despite offering health-care to all documented children, the number of children without insurance declined only slightly to 5.2 percent. According to Mike Race, vice president for communications of Pennsylvania Partnerships, some other states did far better.

"One reason that is," he said, "is many of those states that have outpaced us chose to expand Medicaid in 2014 or earlier. Pennsylvania did not."

Nationally, the number of uninsured children fell by 16 percent in 2014, with some states achieving twice that amount.

Many people don't think of the Medicaid expansion as a children's issue. But according to Joan Alker, director of the Center for Children and Families, getting affordable health insurance to adults helps children, too.

"We know from past research that covering parents results in what we call a strong 'welcome-mat' effect for kids," she said. "That means when the parent learns about their own coverage opportunity, they may learn their child is also eligible."

The study found that children of the working poor and those living in rural areas are most likely to not have health insurance.

This year, Pennsylvania has expanded access to Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. There are no statistics available yet on how that has helped, but Race believes it will make a significant difference.

"Based on what we've seen on other states that have had some time to watch Medicaid expansion take effect, we're optimistic that we're going to see a reduction in the number of uninsured children once those numbers become available."

Research shows that getting health insurance to children has far-reaching benefits, from improved school performance and graduation rates to better economic success as adults.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Single-Payer Health-Care Bill to be Introduced in PA

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

The Pennsylvania Health Care Plan would cover every resident of the state. Credit: Healthcare4ALL PA
The Pennsylvania Health Care Plan would cover every resident of the state. Credit: Healthcare4ALL PA
HARRISBURG, Pa. - A bill to create a single-payer health-care system in Pennsylvania will be introduced in the state Legislature by the end of the month.

The legislation is being introduced by Representative Pamela DeLissio of Philadelphia and was crafted with the assistance of HealthCare 4 ALL PA, a not-for-profit advocacy group. David Steil, past president of that organization, says the bill is simply called the Pennsylvania Health Care Plan.

"What it does is create a health-care system that includes every resident of Pennsylvania, that is publicly funded and privately delivered," says Steil.

The cost of the program would be covered by increased taxes, which Steil acknowledges may present a significant obstacle to passage by the state Legislature.

The plan would increase the state personal income tax by an additional three percent, substantially less than most pay for private insurance. It would also add a 10 percent payroll tax on businesses which, as Steil points out, is much less than what businesses spend on health insurance now.

"The average cost for health care benefits for companies that provide health care is about 17 percent of payroll," he says. "So at 10 percent of payroll, the saving is significant."

Similar legislation has been introduced in each legislative session since 2007.

Most recently it was introduced as Senate Bill S-400. None of the earlier versions have not gotten very far. Raising taxes is a hard sell, especially to conservative lawmakers. But Steil insists they're asking the wrong question.

"The question each one has to ask is not just 'look at the taxes' because there are taxes to it, it's not free," he says. "The question is, 'How much less than you're currently paying is this plan to you?'"

Steil says the bill would also eliminate health-insurance costs on pension plans and vehicle insurance, making the potential savings even larger.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

As State Budget Impasse Continues, Schools Go Deeper in Debt

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Without a budget, teachers may be asked to work without pay. Credit: Michelle Collins/ Wikimedia Commons
Without a budget, teachers may be asked to work without pay. Credit: Michelle Collins/ Wikimedia Commons
HARRISBURG, Pa. - Pennsylvania schools have received no state money since July, when the budget impasse began, but the bills keep piling up.

Schools in low-income districts are being hit hardest. Delores McCracken, vice president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, recently was in Erie County, which may be forced to send students home if funds don't come through. The district superintendent told her it's not just a question of lessons that would be missed.

"His students qualify for breakfast served at school every day," McCracken said, "and what he said to me really hit hard. He said, 'I'm not getting any money. Am I supposed to stop feeding them?' "

According to a report by the Auditor General, school districts around the state had borrowed almost $350 million by the end of September to keep their doors open.

Many school districts have delayed paying vendors, some are considering closing one day a week to save on heating and lighting costs, and, as McCracken pointed out, teachers may go without paychecks.

"Our Chester Upland staff in Delaware County agreed to work without pay in August," she said, "and other districts are also thinking about asking their employees to work for IOUs. It's crazy."

In 2003, when there was another impasse, no budget was passed until December, when schools were on the verge of closing.

The money is there, but it's not getting to the schools, and McCracken said money from Pennsylvania sources aren't the only funds being withheld.

"There are also federal funds that are not being distributed," she said, "because when the federal funds come into Pennsylvania, they're put into the general fund. Without a budget, that money is not released to the school districts."

With no budget in place, the amount of state money withheld from school districts is expected to reach about $3 billion by the end of this month.

PA Revives Its Office of Environmental Justice

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

About 489 gas wells have been drilled in environmental-justice communities. Credit: U.S. Geological Survey/Wikimedia Commons
About 489 gas wells have been drilled in environmental-justice communities. Credit: U.S. Geological Survey/Wikimedia Commons
PITTSBURGH - The state Office of Environmental Justice finally is getting a new director, and fracking for natural gas will be on the agenda.

The office reviews the environmental impact of projects set for poor and minority communities, but it's been without a director for three months. Now, the Department of Environmental Protection says gas-drilling permit applications once again will trigger extra notification and community involvement in areas with few of the resources needed to say no.

That's good news to Larry Schweiger, president of the environmental group PennFuture.

"So now, putting that on the trigger list gives us an opportunity to know what's going on in advance," he said, "and hopefully those who are involved in agency decisions can step up and challenge bad choices."

Close to 500 wells have been drilled in environmental-justice communities - areas where 20 percent or more live in poverty, or 30 percent are people of color.

Schweiger pointed to studies showing that fracking can affect unborn children in communities close to drilling sites, and added that that's just the tip of the iceberg.

"We have the evidence now that fracking is a threat to residents," he said, "and it needs to be regulated to prevent those kinds of harm."

Just how effective the office will be remains a question. Under state law, environmental-justice concerns cannot be used as grounds to deny a gas drilling permit.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Big Premium Hike in Store for Many Medicare Recipients

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

Nationally 7 million people on Medicare could see their premiums go up 52 percent in 2016. Credit: Bill Branson/Wikimedia Commons.
Nationally 7 million people on Medicare could see their premiums go up 52 percent in 2016. Credit: Bill Branson/Wikimedia Commons.
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Medicare premiums could go way up for many seniors next year.

People who have Medicare Part B and are not receiving Social Security, or who have high incomes or are newly enrolled in the program, could see premiums 52 percent higher.

According to Ray Landis, advocacy manager for AARP of Pennsylvania, this will really hurt low-income people getting Medicare for the first time.

"Because suddenly they're looking at a $159 a month Medicare Part B premium when others who are already enrolled are paying $104 a month," he points out.

The increase would affect about one out of every seven people enrolled in Medicare. That's about 7 million people nationally.

Landis says the increase is so large because of a provision in the law that is meant to protect those who are already in the system from sharp increases.

"If those folks do not receive a Social Security cost-of-living increase, their Medicare premium cannot increase in that year," he explains.

Since no Social Security cost-of-living increase is expected in 2016, the entire burden of increased health care costs falls on those not covered by that provision of the law.

As Landis points out, the Part B premiums aren't the only cost borne by seniors on Medicare.

"Individuals who have a Part B premium also have to go out and buy a supplemental policy," he says. "That makes health care very expensive."

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey is proposing legislation to prevent such a large increase by putting more federal money into Medicare, but AARP says finding the funds to do that will be a challenge.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Budget Vote Could Shape Pennsylvania Education for Years

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Past cuts to school funding have hit poor school districts in Pennsylvania the hardest. Credit: Cole Stivers/Pixabay.
Past cuts to school funding have hit poor school districts in Pennsylvania the hardest. Credit: Cole Stivers/Pixabay.
HARRISBURG, Pa. – On Wednesday the state House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on a package of revenue sources that could help restore past cuts to education funding.

Budget cuts imposed on education in 2011 have made educational inequality worse in the state.

According to Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center, Pennsylvania now has the widest gap between rich and poor districts of any state in the nation.

"The revenue bill is not by itself the solution to our funding crisis," she says, "but it is a necessary step toward closing the gap between the wealthiest and poorest school districts."

Even if the revenue bill passes, it still doesn't guarantee that any increase in funds will go to education – that depends on passage of a budget bill.

Klehr says Pennsylvania's most vulnerable students, including those living in poverty, in foster care and in the juvenile justice system, as well as English language learners, need the legislature to pass a budget that increases school funding.

"These are the students that have been hardest hit by funding inequality," she says. "We must ensure that new dollars are directed to these schools by restoring funds lost in the 2011 cuts and shift towards a fair funding formula."

Without new sources of revenue, the state will face a budget deficit next year of more than $2 billion, which advocates say could lead to more cuts to schools and human services.

In June, the state Assembly passed a budget that included a $100 million increase in education funding. According to Klehr, that amount is inadequate.

"We support the adoption of a budget that increases basic education funding by at least $410 million," she says, "and begin implementation of the new funding formula that was unanimously adopted by the Education Funding Commission."

As the budget impasse continues, schools are being forced to borrow money to keep their doors open, adding an additional $11 million in interest and other costs to their operating expenses for the year.

Friday, October 2, 2015

EPA Rules for Power Plant Wastewater Called Step Forward

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

Heavy metals in power-plant wastewater can contaminate waterways. Credit: SusanUtley/morguefile.com
Heavy metals in power-plant wastewater can contaminate waterways. Credit: SusanUtley/morguefile.com
PITTSBURGH - Environmentalists are calling new rules for contaminated wastewater from coal-fired steam power plants a victory.

The rules finalized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this week set the first limits on the levels of toxic metals in discharged water. The old rules, last updated in 1982, only covered particulate matter in the water.

Adam Garber, field director at PennEnvironment, said contamination can include a number of different toxic metals.

"It varies by power plant and the source of the coal," he said, "but it can range from barium and selenium to arsenic and can cause problems for the local waterways."

PennEnvironment still is reviewing the new rules. Garber said he believes they are a significant step forward toward protecting the environment, but added that more still needs to be done.

The intake of fresh water and the discharge of hot wastewater into the environment also needs to be addressed, Garber said.

"That thermal pollution, as it's known, can stress the aquatic life and cause significant damage," he said, "and has even been known to cause massive fish kills in these waterways."

According to the power industry, the new rules may force some older power plants to close. The industry may challenge the rules in court.

The EPA rule is online at epa.gov.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Critics: State Pension Bill Would Make New Hires Pay for Past Mistakes

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Negotiations on public employee pension reform remain stalled.  Credit: Ad Meskens/commons.wikipedia.org
Negotiations on public employee pension reform remain stalled. Credit: Ad Meskens/commons.wikipedia.org
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Gov. Tom Wolf this summer vetoed a bill that would have radically altered the public employees' pension fund, but Republican state senators say they're still committed to the bill.

Negotiations on a compromise remain stalled.

Economist Stephen Herzenberg, who heads the Keystone Research Center, says if adopted in its current form,Senate Bill 1 would hurt new hires to the state workforce.

"The Senate Republican pension proposal would give teachers, nurses and other public servants in Pennsylvania the lowest retirement benefits of any large public pension plan in the country," he stresses.

According to a Pension Primer prepared by the research center, even with improvements, SB 1 would cut benefits by up to two-thirds for career workers, leaving many with annual benefits of less than $10,000.

Herzenberg says college educated public employees already are being paid more than 25 percent less than their counterparts in the private sector.

"If you add to that retirement benefits that are lower than the private sector, why are you going to be able to attract good folks?” he asks. “Why are mid-career people going to stay?"

Some provisions of SB 1 would apply to current employees, but the biggest impact would be on pensions for people just entering the workforce.

Wolf has indicated a willingness to compromise on several issues in the current budget impasse, including pensions. But according to Herzenberg, so far the governor is holding firm on maintaining a pension fund that works for all state employees.

"When we get a pension compromise, it will be one that makes sense,” Herzenberg states. “It won't be one like SB 1 that would hurt taxpayers, public employees and state agencies."

The Keystone Research Center's analysis finds that despite the reduced benefits paid to public employees under SB 1, it would provide no meaningful savings to taxpayers.