Editorial Roundup: New England

Hearst Connecticut Media. June 3, 2021.

Editorial: No excuse for legislative lag on marijuana

Connecticut has had years to plan this. Why can’t the Legislature figure out how to finally legalize a marijuana marketplace for all adults?

One big holdup is over payback to communities of color that were wronged by a century of prohibition.

Come on, lawmakers. The state learned how to vaccinate 2 million people — over half the population — against COVID-19 in just a year. Surely you can work out how to license cannabis establishments while being fair to the communities that suffered the most in the war on drugs. There will be plenty of tax revenue for all.

Legislators who represent the cities targeted by the 50-year-old drug war do have a valid point: Many constituents have gone to prison because of marijuana. Lives were disrupted, if not destroyed, by harsh sentencing. In 2003, the sentence was up to a year in prison for getting caught with a few ounces of pot.

Now state government wants a cut of the cannabis traffic that will flow from legal sales to anyone over 21. It would levy taxes of about 20% on recreational marijuana if the bill in the General Assembly ever gets passed.

With all that money coming in, there should be restitution to the communities hurt by decades of criminalization. So, yes, some of the $75 million that the state is expecting to earn in taxes on legal marijuana sales ought to go to righting that old wrong.

Hearst columnist Dan Haar more details on the evolving bill in his column today. Those details include such sticking points as requiring marijuana sellers to sign union agreements. Connecticut could doom this new venture before it even gets started with such costly obstacles.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts is eating our lunch on this, financially. Our neighbor just to the north opened marijuana stores in 2018 and collected $122 million in taxes in the first two fiscal years of sales, according to the Boston Business Journal. Massachusetts grants home-delivery licenses to members of communities that have been disproportionately harmed by drug laws.

Another neighbor, New York state, voted to legalize recreational marijuana earlier this year. Rhode Island is looking at legalization as well. Don’t miss this cruise, lawmakers. Call a timeout from the partying that’s reportedly going on in the legislative garage to get this bill passed.

A majority of Connecticut residents support legalization, according to polls. The Connecticut State Medical Society does oppose it, saying states that have legalized pot have more car accidents and more teenage use. However, other studies show no statistically significant difference in teen use. The Connecticut bill would allow recreational marijuana for adults only.

The bill is now before the state Senate. It has the governor’s blessing. (It’s his bill.)

What do you say, senators? Can we do this?

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Portland Press Herald. June 6, 2021.

Editorial: Stop shutting immigrants out of health coverage in Maine

A lesson of COVID that we should never forget is that we all have a stake in each other’s health.

We all should have learned a lot of lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic. A few important ones involved the way our health care system treats immigrants. Such as:

• Many essential jobs in our economy, including those in agriculture, food processing and direct care, provided in both facilities and home settings, are filled by recent immigrants.

• Because some groups of immigrants are not eligible for programs like MaineCare, they came into the pandemic with the kinds of underlying conditions that made COVID much more dangerous.

• When large numbers of people get very sick, there are reverberations throughout the health care system and economy that affect everyone, whether they are sick or not.

Maine has a chance to act on these lessons by passing L.D. 718, sponsored by Assistant House Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland. It would end the exclusion of people from the MaineCare and the Children’s Health Insurance programs just because of their immigration status.

Current law carves thousands of newcomers out of these programs, and not just undocumented immigrants. Asylum seekers with work permits are denied coverage while they wait for action from the immigration courts that can take years.

People with permanent resident status – “green card” holders who are a step away from citizenship – are denied access to needs-based programs for five years.

Of course, no one is completely locked out of the American health care system. Hospitals and other providers are required to deliver emergency care to everyone who needs it, but preventive and follow-up care is provided on a cash basis for people without insurance.

That means that we all pay, because the cost of uncompensated care is factored into the prices charged to people with private insurance and is reflected in their premiums. It also means that we will pay for emergency heart surgery for an immigrant who is ineligible for MaineCare, but we won’t pay for the cholesterol-lowering drugs and primary care visits that could have prevented the emergency in the first place.

That’s not only cruel to the individuals who are affected, but also a waste of resources that could be used more productively.

Lawmakers are still waiting for a price tag on the bill, but it’s estimated to cost $7 million over two years. Gov. Mills has proposed policy changes that would partially lift the immigrant exclusion, adding coverage for pregnant women and people younger than 21. While we normally support compromises that make incremental progress, in this case halfway is not enough.

All the groups of immigrants who would be covered by this bill were eligible for the programs before 2011, when then-Gov. Paul LePage scapegoated these vulnerable families as part of a broader ideological attack on social welfare programs.

LePage and others claimed that it was unfair to help newcomers when so many native-born Mainers were in need. But LePage did not help those other Mainers gain health coverage. In fact, he vetoed legislation five times that would have expanded Medicaid eligibility to low-income working families. It took a referendum vote and Mills’ election in 2018 to finally get those people covered.

Restoring coverage for immigrant families would not create a new entitlement; it would just undo the damage done a decade ago. Leaving out some of the people who lost their coverage in 2011 would endorse, at least in part, LePage’s wrong-headed policies.

As COVID should have taught us, we all have a stake in each other’s health. Programs that keep people from getting sick and manage chronic conditions put downward pressure on everybody’s health costs, and make the people who are covered less likely to suffer a catastrophic – and expensive – health emergency.

Closing this coverage gap would give us a more humane health care system and one that uses our shared resources more efficiently. Lawmakers and Gov. Mills should find a way to make it happen before the Legislature finishes its business this month.

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Boston Globe. June 6, 2021.

Editorial: Deadline looms for keeping state voting reforms

Boston’s upcoming election should force lawmakers to pick up the pace.

Around the nation too many states are racing to hold back the tide of voter demand, tighten restrictions, make the sacred act of voting more difficult. Massachusetts, by contrast got through a crucial presidential election in the midst of a pandemic by making long overdue reforms in its election procedures — but only on a temporary basis.

Now once again the clock is ticking down. Those pandemic reforms are about to expire at the end of the month.

Few, however, want election reform to turn back into a pumpkin, a la Cinderella’s coach, when the clock strikes midnight on June 30. But that means coming to agreement on the shape of those already tried reforms — early voting, no excuses absentee voting, drop boxes — and adding to them same-day voter registration. It also means providing the funds to local election officials to make sure all this goes smoothly — now and into the future.

Oh, and doing that in a timely fashion — something the Legislature has, well, not always done terribly well. Elections, after all, take a good deal of preparation — even when they don’t involve shipments of masks and gloves for personnel manning those polling places.

Secretary of State Bill Galvin said he’s already “concerned” about the narrowing window for legislative action — concerned enough that he’s urging lawmakers to at least approve yet another stopgap measure to extend the most important pandemic era reforms through the end of the year. That would allow cities like Boston (with its scheduled Sept. 14 preliminary election), Lawrence, Holyoke, Lynn, and Framingham to plan for their fall elections without worrying about a potential rollback of those clearly popular reforms.

“It’s a shame that while other states are extinguishing voter rights that we can’t light a flame here,” Galvin said in an interview. “Why can’t we be an example by going in the right direction?”

There is a good deal of consensus around the basic parameters of what will constitute the future of voting in Massachusetts — especially after the great, albeit unintended, pilot program of 2020. After all, if a record 3.6 million people, representing 76% of registered voters, can make their voices heard in the middle of a pandemic, then that ought to point lawmakers in the right direction.

Nearly 42% of those who voted used mail-in ballots, 23% went to early-voting centers and slightly more than 35% cast ballots on Election Day, according to the secretary of state’s office.

So for Galvin the stage was set. The bill he asked Election Laws co-chair Senator Barry Finegold to file would extend all of those options:

▪ Make no-excuse voting available for all elections, allowing any mailed ballot to be counted if postmarked by Election Day and received within three days of the election.

▪ Authorize early voting for seven days before a primary (or preliminary) and 14 days before a general election.

▪ Allow Election Day voter registration for those who can produce any one of a number of proofs of residence — from a Massachusetts driver’s license to a utility bill to a student fee statement.

Same-day voter registration is perhaps the only new and somewhat controversial part of the bill with some voting rights advocates pushing to allow registration during early voting days rather than just on Election Day. But that is a dispute around the margins. And with at least 20 other states and the District of Columbia having same-day registration, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, its time has surely come. (Only two of those states, by the way, offer registration during some early voting days.)

But Galvin has made it clear that the issue shouldn’t be a deal breaker in making sure the reforms now in place stay in place — certainly for the upcoming municipal elections and into the future. A stopgap measure to cover elections through the end of the year should certainly be part of the Legislature’s post-pandemic emergency extension bill, due for consideration as early as next week.

The right to vote early and vote by mail may not be as much fun as outdoor dining — already included in the bill — but it is far more critical to the state’s political well-being.

That, of course, is only a beginning. Making those voting rights reforms part of the “new normal” — and expanding on them — will indeed make Massachusetts a beacon of hope to people in states where those hopes have grown ever dimmer.

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Boston Herald. June 7, 2021.

Editorial: Mass. chemical contamination a growing concern

Chemicals used to improve our quality of life also can conspire against our sense of well-being.

That’s the conclusion of federal and state regulators in the case of a manmade chemical class known as PFAS, which linger far after their commercial use has expired.

They’re found in a range of products, from firefighting foams to nonstick cookware to food packaging. They have also been found to leach from packaging into Anvil 10+10, a pesticide the state has used to combat mosquito-borne illnesses.

As evidence of PFAS contamination grows, state regulators cite the need to expand PFAS monitoring into waste-disposal landfills and the atmosphere, amid concerns about potential health risks from the chemicals.

The most recent regulatory updates for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, targeted drinking water because it’s already a “well-understood exposure pathway and an area where we could make an important, immediate impact,” Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Martin Suuberg told lawmakers and officials.

Amid what Suuberg called “growing attention” about the presence of “forever” PFAS chemicals, a new intergovernmental task force began work Tuesday to analyze their impact in Massachusetts and craft recommended steps to limit contamination.

Experts caution that PFAS exposure can cause health problems, particularly for those who are immunocompromised, pregnant and infants, Suuberg said.

In May 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency updated its health advisory with a lower PFAS concentration threshold of 70 parts per trillion.

Massachusetts went even further.

Last October, the Baker administration announced a new drinking-water standard for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances deemed hazardous.

The administration established a contaminant limit of 20 parts per trillion for six compounds called “PFAS6.”

Concerns over PFAS compounds in drinking water accelerated in 2018 after traces were detected in well water surrounding the former Fort Devens. Contractors for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tested and sampled the groundwater in Ayer, Shirley and Harvard, eventually determining the compounds could have seeped into nearby wells over time.

Since implementation of that new, stringent state standard, a growing number of water systems have detected concentration of the compounds at levels requiring notification and response.

Fifty-one public water systems have found PFAS chemicals at a concentration above the maximum contaminant level in at least one test, according to a DEP online map.

The Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker included funding in two different supplemental budget bills to support sampling for PFAS contamination. To date, Suuberg said the state has made $180 million available for 16 projects, mostly through the Clean Water Trust.

Over the coming months, the task force, which must complete its work and file a report by Dec. 31, will delve into how PFAS chemicals impact the environment, responsibility for contamination and remediation, and what steps Beacon Hill can take to address the growing concern.

Unfortunately, state regulators may have only uncovered the tip of this chemical-contaminant iceberg.

As in all discovery efforts, we don’t know what we don’t know.

Fortunately, PFAS have been identified as a potential public-health hazard.

Further investigation will determine just how widespread that threat is.

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Rutland Herald. June 7, 2021.

Editorial: For all

Last week, Connecticut joined the ranks of states that declared racism a public health crisis.

Last month, The Vermont House voted 135-8 in favor of the non-binding resolution. Two weeks later, the Senate adopted it by a vote of 29-1.

The resolution says that systemic racism affecting public health impacts economic, employment, education, housing and health opportunities and outcomes of minority populations, even in Vermont.

It also says the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened those inequities, and Black and Latino people are three times as likely as white people to die of the disease.

According to the American Public Health Association, “Racism is a system of structuring opportunity and assigning value based on the social interpretation of how one looks (which is what we call ‘race’), that unfairly disadvantages some individuals and communities, unfairly advantages other individuals and communities, and saps the strength of the whole society through the waste of human resources.”

According to APHA, racism structures opportunity and assigns value based on how a person looks. The result: conditions that unfairly advantage some and unfairly disadvantage others. Racism hurts the health of our nation by preventing some people the opportunity to attain their highest level of health.

Racism may be intentional or unintentional. It operates at various levels in society. Racism is a driving force of the social determinants of health (like housing, education and employment) and is a barrier to health equity.

APHA notes that to achieve health equity and create the Healthiest Nation in One Generation, we must address injustices caused by racism. We must support actions at all levels to ensure equal opportunity for all.

How do we do that? APHA calls it racial healing. “That means using a healing and heart-centered approach to get rid of the false belief that any people are superior to others based on their skin color,” the association states.

Across the country, more jurisdictions are adopting resolutions declaring racism a public health crisis, citing growing research linking racism to poor physical and mental health outcomes, as well as data showing Black Americans are many times more likely than whites to be killed by police.

Nearly 200 states, cities and counties had passed declarations.

In its editorial on the vote, Hearst Connecticut Media noted, “Connecticut becomes a better state when it questions its identity. Children of color should see reflections of themselves in classrooms, in workplaces, in the ranks of public safety and in health care.”

It went on: “Lack of representation is one of many challenges in addressing equality, which will never improve through neglect. That’s why we applaud lawmakers showing boldness by declaring racism a public health crisis in Connecticut. … This bill can’t address all manifestations of racism, but health is a wise place to start. This initiative will, among other things, mandate data collection on race and ethnicity in health care; and require the public health commissioner to explore recruitment and retention programs for state health care workers who are people of color.”

Like many states, a commission will submit reports to lawmakers to review what progress is being made.

The Connecticut editorial points out all of this is a valuable history lesson. “There have been eras of profound, but hard-fought, progress in our nation. The 14th Amendment in 1868 granted equal protection to the Black population. President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802 on June 25, 1941, opened jobs to all Americans. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 promised equal employment and integrated public facilities. Each of those measures faced opposition, so perhaps it should not be surprising that Connecticut’s latest action was not universally embraced either,” it states.

Tia Taylor Williams, director of APHA’s Center for Public Health Policy, which tracks and shares such declarations in an open-access database, said there were relatively few such declarations on the books before the police killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. However, the combination of his murder and racial disparities in COVID-19 deaths has helped expose the structural nature of racism and accelerated the pace of adoption.

“There are people who will view these declarations as purely symbolic — and in some cases, that’s true — but that symbolism is still very important,” said Williams, who noted that the APHA policy center is working on a visualization project to map racism declarations. “For far too long, as a country, we’ve danced around and flat-out denied the impact and existence of racism.”

We hope these declarations signal a meaningful change — for all.

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