Editorials from around Pennsylvania

Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from Pennsylvania's newspapers:

Saving lives through organ donations should not mean murderers go free

The Patriot-News/PennLive.com

Nov. 19

Should keeping people alive take precedence over bringing criminals to justice?

Is it more important to prevent lives from being loss in the future or more humane to save those you can, now?

If you had to choose between taking organs from a brain-dead child to save eight other young lives, would you do it -- even if it meant her killer might go free to kill again?

These are the Solomonic questions at the core of the conflict between two sides each working for noble ends. CORE and Gift of Life are two federally certified organ donation organizations operating in Pennsylvania. They seek out organ donors to provide life-sustaining transplants to people facing the real threat of death.

Too often, they find themselves standing against county coroners and medical examiners, who want nothing to interfere with bringing murderers to justice, which they say is sometimes threatened in harvesting organs from crime victims.

PennLive Report John Luciew has spent months delving into the complex issues involved with organ donations in Pennsylvania. His in-depth investigation entitled “Human Harvest: Behind the Scene of Organ Donation” reveals some startling information about the realities of the processes that sustain life through death.

It’s a must read for anyone contemplating the laudable decision to become an organ donor, as well as for those who may one day be faced with the decision to authorize it following the death of a loved one.

But the most controversial issue Luciew’s reporting reveals is the tension between coroners and organ harvesting organizations.

The case of two-year-old Sophia M. Hoffman is a clear example.

Declared brain dead, there was no hope she would recover. But if doctors moved quickly, they could use her healthy organs to help as many as eight other children.

There was a major complication, however. Authorities in rural Clearfield County suspected foul play, and to prove it, they wanted an autopsy of the child’s intact body to provide an official cause of death.

It was the perfect showdown between two determined opponents committed to their unique roles in the equally important missions of saving lives, protecting the public and ensuring justice.

“Keep in mind, this is an ongoing investigation,” District Attorney William Shaw told PennLive. “This baby was victimized. This baby was beaten. And they’re trying to get consent to harvest her organs.”

The court indeed granted emergency consent to allow doctors to take the baby’s organs, which complicated the criminal investigation and almost allowed her 18-year-old murderer to walk free.

Shaw still believes Jennifer Medzie, the live-in girlfriend of Sophia’s father, should have been convicted of first-degree murder, rather than the third-degree conviction she received. He blames the aggressive tactics of CORE with complicating the criminal investigation of a baby who was brutally beaten to death.

Organ harvesting organizations in Pennsylvania have been aggressive in their efforts to win legislative support. Last year, legislators passed a law requiring Pennsylvania coroners and medical examiners to state in writing the reasons for their denials, resulting in significantly fewer of them.

But that only exacerbated tensions between law enforcement and organ harvesting organizations rather than bringing them together to serve both the mandate of justice and saving lives.

“A criminal investigation and organ donation are not mutually exclusive,” said Richard ‘Rick’ D. Hasz, Jr., vice president of clinical services with Gift of Life, which covers all of central and eastern Pennsylvania. “In fact, they happen on 90-odd-percent of our cases.”

But there are still the rare cases like little Sophia’s that require clear guidelines for both sides to follow.

In some parts of the commonwealth, coroners have forged understandings with CORE and Gift of Life, while in other areas hostilities are all too evident.

The real problem is, there is no universally accepted protocol in Pennsylvania to guide coroners and organ procurement organizations. But there needs to be one.

As Luciew states, “reaching this middle ground of collaboration and compromise is a coroner-by-coroner journey. And with no legislative guideposts to follow, getting there likely will be a slow slog.”

Working through the complexities of organ donations and ensuring justice should not be a slow slog. The issue is too important to be tackled with piecemeal legislation or duked out county by county.

Representatives of the organ procurement organizations, county coroners, medical examiners, as well as District Attorneys and law enforcement officials should work together to develop appropriate state-wide protocols from the best practices already established in some areas.

And the legislature needs to take a comprehensive approach, working with experts on both sides to draft legislation that protects the interests of law enforcement while supporting life-saving organ donations.

Above all, we need to put an end to the regrettable power struggles that Luciew says, “too often play out at the hour of death all across Pennsylvania.”

Online: https://bit.ly/3385TzI


Major cuts in road funding hurt Berks

The Reading Eagle

Nov. 18

The news that PennDOT has shelved plans for a badly needed overhaul of Route 422, among other projects, is hardly a surprise but it still feels like a gut punch.

Berks County is facing a $68 million reduction in transportation funding during the next four fiscal years, beginning Oct. 1, 2020. A $240 million reduction is anticipated over the next decade. As a result, instead of having the badly outdated West Shore Bypass widened and its most dangerous interchanges reconfigured, all that's left is a bridge replacement and ramp reconfiguration at the Interstate 176 interchange.

Fortunately most of the critical Route 222 work north of Reading is still on track, though plans to widen the highway between Blandon and Kutztown have been put aside due to the cuts.

We're pleased to see that state Sen. David G. Argall, is looking into the matter. He has scheduled a meeting of the Senate Majority Policy Committee, of which he is chairman, Thursday at 10 a.m. at the Maidencreek Township Municipal Building. Panelists are expected to include state and federal officials, representatives from area planning organizations and other groups affected by the change in funding plans.

Argall is a Schuylkill County Republican who represents parts of Berks County. In his announcement of the meeting, he spoke of promises being broken to residents of his district.

The longtime legislator surely is aware that this is a sore subject around here. There is a long, painful history of this area's residents being treated like second-class citizens when it comes to highway construction. While neighboring counties see vast improvements, big road projects here either take a seeming eternity to happen or never get done at all. One can't help but notice how the quality of some major highways changes for the worse at or near the Berks line.

Perhaps Argall's meeting will make a difference, but the problem here isn't so much how transportation money is divided, it's that there's not enough of it.

This latest cut is the result of a decision by a panel of state and regional transportation planners gathered to set priorities as available funding dwindles. The group concluded that interstate highways are the top priority. State roads such as Route 422 are going to the back of the line.

We're not going to argue against putting a high priority on interstate highways. It's understandable. What's really needed is more money to ensure other necessary work also gets done for the sake of public safety and the health of our state's economy.

Yes, Pennsylvania has a high gas tax, but that can only accomplish so much. Federal gas tax revenue has been flat for more than 25 years because the rate has been left unchanged. The growing popularity of hybrid and electric cars has cut back on gasoline usage, as have changes in travel habits such as the growing reliance on ride-sharing services. While these are positive developments from an environmental point of view, they hurt a funding system that is dependent on taxing gasoline.

We certainly encourage leaders to try to free up more funds for badly needed projects in Berks, but they also must do a better job of funding infrastructure. That means ensuring state taxes collected for transportation are used for that purpose rather than being diverted to fund the state police. Alternative sources of funding also should be sought. That could mean assessing highway taxes based on miles driven rather than fuel consumed. It could mean establishing tolls on more state highways or establishing partnerships with private investors.

Federal leaders need to finally get a bill passed that makes more funds available for infrastructure improvements and increases the gas tax, which has failed to keep up with inflation.

It's time for a better approach to infrastructure, and for some much-needed good news for communities such as ours.

Online: https://bit.ly/2D088ul


HACC's remedy for student mental health counseling is not good enough


Nov. 19

Two months after abruptly eliminating on-campus mental health counseling, HACC announced its remedy for the situation Thursday. Pennsylvania’s largest community college, which has a Lancaster campus, has contracted for one year with Harrisburg-area firm Mazzitti & Sullivan Counseling Services Inc. to provide students counseling in-person, by phone or by video. However, none of the in-person services will be offered on HACC campuses, Spotlight PA’s Aneri Pattani reported for Friday’s LNP.

We’ll get to our thoughts on HACC’s handling of mental health counseling in a moment. But first we want to praise the persistent reporting by Spotlight PA’s Pattani that first highlighted this issue and then kept it from fading into the background. (Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer. Its partners include LNP and The Caucus, an LNP Media Group watchdog publication, as well as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, PennLive/Harrisburg Patriot-News and PA Post.)

In four articles over the course of a month, starting in mid-October, Pattani detailed the controversial cutback by HACC — one that wasn’t initially announced to the student body or the public — and then followed that with stories about how the decision was affecting some of HACC’s 17,000 enrolled students.

For example: the story of Jennifer Beachtel, which appeared in Thursday’s LNP. She was feeling overwhelmed by her classes and with raising her children. She knew she was having a mental health crisis and needed to talk with someone. Beachtel walked into a counseling office at HACC Gettysburg to ask for help.

She was told no one was available.

That she’d have to find a therapist on her own.

“I was devastated,” Beachtel told Pattani. “I should have been able to speak to somebody, at least anybody who could have directed me so I didn’t have to go home and feel like that.”

We believe Beachtel — and any HACC student needing help with mental health issues — should be able to speak to someone on campus.

And so we’re all better off that this issue hasn’t remained in the dark. Local journalism matters, and Spotlight PA’s coverage is another example of journalism’s ability to raise public awareness.

That said, we’re far from satisfied with HACC’s response to having a spotlight directed at this issue.

Our stance is clear: “On-campus mental health counseling is right for both students and colleges,” we wrote Oct. 24. “It is indeed ‘short-sighted’ to stop offering counseling when providing such services can help with recruitment and retention of students.”

And Nov. 5 we urged HACC administrators to listen to their most important customers — students. “This is a reversible decision,” we argued. “The (counseling) infrastructure that was in place mere weeks ago can be reinstituted. Budgetary funds can be moved around.”

But HACC didn’t listen to its students. We find that extremely disappointing.

Instead, as part of the new agreement with Mazzitti & Sullivan, “HACC will pay for students to receive up to three sessions per semester, but it will not provide space on any of its five campuses,” Pattani reported.

Having to leave campus can be a major burden, in terms of time, transportation or money, and many students don’t — or can’t — follow through on their referrals, experts say.

So we don’t find HACC’s solution to be a very good one.

Frankly, it doesn’t even seem to be an efficient one, from the financial perspective HACC admits has driven part of this change.

Earlier this month, HACC President John Sygielski told Spotlight PA that HACC hasn’t yet saved any money by ending on-campus mental health counseling, because the advisers — who also offer academic and career counseling — are under employment until October 2020, when their positions will be eliminated.

In the meantime, HACC will also be paying Mazzitti & Sullivan over the next year. That seems like an unnecessary redundancy.

If the HACC advisers are being employed until October 2020, why not have them continue to provide on-campus mental health counseling until that time? Or at least through the end of this academic year.

And this raises another serious question: What are HACC’s plans, if any, for providing academic and career counseling after October 2020? It would make a bad situation exponentially worse if HACC follows the elimination of on-campus mental health counseling with the elimination of all advising of students.

HACC, alas, has been painfully vague about its plans. Its administrators should reassure students immediately that it would not make the egregious mistake of eliminating, or even severely cutting back, academic advising services.

Community college students — especially first-generation college students — need professionals with whom they can talk. Many are also juggling jobs, families, and/or caring for older relatives. It can be a time of high stress and vulnerability. Pattani’s reporting has previously noted a 2016 study finding that about 50% of community college students deal with mental health issues — a higher percentage than that for students at four-year colleges.

We’ll say it yet again: Colleges should be bolstering mental health services, not eliminating them. HACC administrators should have been pragmatically viewing this as an opportunity to listen to students and market the college — amid tumbling enrollment — as a place that provides the needed support services for its students.

Instead, HACC has missed a major opportunity.

And it is failing to provide crucial services on campus for the most at-risk members of its student body.

Online: https://bit.ly/37qATy7


Room left to be gifted

The Scranton Times-Tribune

Nov. 20

It is the sad nature of governance in Pennsylvania that a law is necessary to preclude elected representatives and their publicly paid staffs from accepting cash from entities seeking favor with the state government.

But, since that is the case, it’s a good thing that a law to accomplish that finally appears to be on its way to passage in the House, where the State Government Committee unanimously approved it Tuesday.

Cash “gifts” to legislators, remember, touched off the series of disastrous decisions by former state Attorney General Kathleen Kane that led to her resignation and conviction. She declined to prosecute four Philadelphia-area representatives who had accepted cash from an informant in a sting operation conducted by her predecessor — setting off internecine warfare that led to leaked grand jury information and her demise. Remarkably, the illegal thing about those representatives accepting the money and some material goods is not that they accepted them, but that they did not report them according to House rules.

Those payoffs were nearly a decade ago and they were first revealed nearly five years ago, yet the Legislature is just getting around to barring all cash “gifts” to lawmakers — even though Gov. Tom Wolf barred all “gifts” of any kind to executive branch personnel immediately upon taking office in 2015.

Lawmakers should simply adopt that executive branch standard — a complete ban on “gifts” of any kind — but they can’t seem to bring themselves to do it.

While forbidding cash payments, the bill approved by the committee still would allow gifts worth up to $50 and travel or lodging, or both, worth up to $500 from any one supplicant to any legislator in a calendar year.

The House itself should amend the bill simply to ban all gifts. If it does not, the Senate should do so, which would force House members to publicly double down on allowing themselves to be greased.

This is a case in which the simplest solution is the best one. Barring all gifts leaves no room for interpretation and clearly defines the appropriate relationship between elected representatives and private interests seeking public favor.

Online: https://bit.ly/37ksOuV


Take bolder steps: UAW leaders need new ideas to restore integrity, trust

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Nov. 20

The acting president of the 400,000-member United Auto Workers has announced a range of reforms to address the union’s yearslong corruption scandal. Without more teeth and without cultural changes at the top of the union, they are just window dressing.

The plan installs an ombudsman who would receive and review ethics complaints, establishes an outside ethics officer who could investigate allegations referred to him by the ombudsman or by the union’s executive board, launches an ethics hotline for union members to anonymously submit complaints, implements more independent audits of programs, and creates a policy to “enhance enforcement against those who have been found guilty of misusing funds” and to seek recovery of those funds.

A probe by the U.S. Justice Department, begun more than three years go, has indicted 13 people, mostly union officials. There have been 10 convictions; three cases are pending. In all cases, the charges related to misspent union or automaker-union training funds for self-enrichment, from hosting luxurious parties and buying expensive gifts to receiving kickbacks to pay for mortgages and other nonunion purposes.

Bolder steps are needed.

The reform package doesn’t ban, as it should, further union training trips to an upscale Palm Springs, Calif., resort, the place at which the indictments say tens of thousands of dollars of training money was used to buy expensive liquor, rounds of golf and other extravagances. It doesn’t provide, as it should, any authority the ethics officer would have to act on the outcome of his investigations, such as the ability to fire a union official.

And it doesn’t address, as it should, the entitlement and corrupt culture among top UAW leaders. It needs to require removal or resignation of other union officials — most of the top UAW leaders either were aware of or should have been aware of the corruption problems.

One dramatic move would be to find a competent official with another labor union to temporarily run the UAW, a strategy that could forestall a possible federal government takeover of the union, which some members think may happen. This person wouldn’t be tied to the bad UAW culture and could make honest decisions on allowed expenses and ethics requirements.

Two other actions that could shore up support from the rank and file:

Change the election process of top union leaders to be done by a membership vote instead of by votes of only delegates of local-level union officials, a change required by the federal government when it took over the Teamsters decades ago.

Reduce the union dues to eliminate the extra half-hour per month of payments imposed a few years ago to enlarge the UAW’s defense fund, which likely now is being used to defend the growing number of union officials being charged with corruption.

These out-of-the-box ideas might be tough for UAW leaders to swallow but are changes that would help restore the integrity of the union and help win back the trust of the membership.

Online: https://bit.ly/2OtkWPf