Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. June 28, 2022.

Editorial: Nursing home crisis demands state action

Three-quarters of homes in Pennsylvania at-risk of closing

Owing to staff shortages, 75% of nursing homes in Pennsylvania are at-risk of closing — and half are operating at a financial loss. The business model for these homes is broken. With the health and welfare of nearly 80,000 elderly people at stake, state government must help fix this crisis.

Pennsylvania’s 683 nursing homes face unprecedented financial stresses, including a Medicaid reimbursement rate that hasn’t changed since 2014, large numbers of employees who left during the pandemic, increased costs for workers from temporary staffing agencies, and higher utility and supply costs.

Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed adding $91 million in Medicaid funding to raise daily reimbursement rates for nursing home residents. Nursing home owners say current rates do not even cover their operating costs.

Additional money from the state through Medicaid reimbursements, along with additional state oversight, will help nursing homes sustain acceptable levels of care. We urge the General Assembly to approve it.

Still, a small increase in Medicaid reimbursements is, at best, an interim measure, a band aid on a gaping wound. More fundamental changes are needed to keep nursing homes afloat and providing high-quality care.

Nursing home regulations must be updated to better protect patients. Lax staffing requirements, for instance, have led to numerous complaints from families of patients. In the worst instances, large numbers of residents have died from COVID-19, partly due to thin staffing and poor safety protocols.

One year ago, the state Department of Health proposed new regulations to improve patient care, including requiring a minimum number of hours for staff to have direct contact with patients. Those regulations were generally ineffective, however, partly because nursing home operators did not receive enough money to cover the costs of increased staffing.

In raising standards for patient care, the state must also ensure nursing home operators have enough money to meet them. Conversely, If the state provides $91 million in new funding, it should, in return, ask more of nursing home providers.

Corporate and nonprofit owners of nursing homes should not resist government oversight, as government pays for 79% of their residents, mostly through Medicaid. Increased oversight could include requiring higher minimum staffing levels, and even living-wage compensation for nurses and aides. Higher Medicaid reimbursement from the state should also eliminate, or alleviate, another problem in the nursing home industry: Accepting patients based on whether they’re covered by Medicare, which provides higher reimbursement rates.

Legislators should regard Gov. Wolf’s proposed $91-million increase in Medicaid funding as an essential interim step that will enable them, and the industry, to work out more fundamental reforms to sustain nursing homes in Pennsylvania and improve their quality-of-care.

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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. June 29, 2022.

In 2019, a list of pay raises in the Pennsylvania governor’s office brought criticism.

Gov. Tom Wolf handed out increases to some of his top staffers, ranging from 7.7% to 36%.

It wasn’t that anyone questioned the work. People questioned the timing, which came just after the governor’s second inauguration, when he didn’t have to run for office again and political criticism didn’t sting quite the same way.

There also was the fact that high-ranking government officials don’t exactly make the median state income, which was under $32,000. The highest salary increase was more than that — about $33,000.

So this is definitely the kind of thing other elected officials would heed when giving out raises, right?

Allegheny County says otherwise.

Since 2019, several county staffers have posted considerable increases, which definitely can be attention-grabbing in the midst of a financial crisis that is hitting the area — and the nation — hard.

County Manager William McKain has seen his pay increase by more than $75,000 since 2019, now topping $235,000. Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s chief of staff, Jennifer Liptak, has gotten a total of more than $56,000 in raises in that time, now sitting at $182,000.

Senior Deputy County Manager Stephen Pilarsky saw his salary increase $44,000 to $160,000, while budget and finance director Mary Soroka’s raises total nearly $25,000 to sit at $143,750. That’s a total of $200,000 in increases for four people who now, collectively, make more than $720,000.

The totals are important because they show the percentage — averaged together, up 38%. McKain’s is more than 46% alone.

Are these employees worth that much? Not for us to say and also not the point.

What is a problem is that county council members say they were unaware of the increases, which were merely mixed into the stew of Allegheny County’s $360 million 2022 budget, which is more than 40% salaries.

“I voted for this budget, yet I had no idea that these raises were included,” council President Pat Catena, D-Carnegie, said. “I would not have voted for the budget had I known someone was going to get a (large) increase.”

Another issue is top salaries like McKain’s and Liptak’s are purely the prerogative of the county executive. Fitzgerald, like Wolf, is term-limited, which makes the bumps seem like parting gifts that will cost the county taxpayers for a longer time as they will impact pensions.

Catena introduced a bill to add more transparency to the process, saying council members should have the information before voting, which is true. But that puts all the onus on the staff that prepares and presents the budget and none on the council members who should be asking questions about not just what they are seeing in the budget numbers but what they aren’t seeing, too.

If council really wants to show attention and action, it shouldn’t just be about transparency. There should be policy and limits about specific approvals for pay raises beyond certain numbers or percentages.

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Uniontown Herald-Standard. June 26, 2022.

Editorial: Pennsylvania’s fireworks law needs to be revisited

Fireworks are plenty of fun on the Fourth of July, when you are sitting in a lawn chair and the night sky is being illuminated by the rockets’ red glare and the bombs bursting in air.

Fireworks are a lot less fun when one of them sets your neighbor’s house ablaze or blows off somebody’s hand.

And, unfortunately, accidents caused by consumer fireworks have become more and more common as Pennsylvania and other states have loosened laws surrounding their use. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, there were 136 deaths as a result of fireworks from 2005 to 2020. In 2020 alone, more than 15,000 people were taken to emergency rooms to be treated for burns, lacerations and other injuries caused by pyrotechnic mishaps. An 8-year-old boy died in York County in a house fire last year caused by fireworks, and a Wilkes-Barre family lost their home after a firework went astray and landed on their porch.

A hefty price tag is also attached to irresponsible amateurs playing around with fireworks. More than 1,300 structure fires occur every year on average because of fireworks, and there are more than 18,000 fires overall, costing $43 million in property damage.

Let’s not forget, too, that fireworks being set off deep into the night can be plenty annoying for neighbors who would like to get some sleep and not have to worry that a skyrocket is going to land on their roof.

In 2017, Pennsylvania made fireworks beyond sparklers and novelties available for purchase so it could reap the benefits of a 12% tax attached to them, on top of a 6% sales tax. Now, however, a measure approved by the state House earlier this month would restrict the use of consumer fireworks from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, with the exceptions of New Year’s Eve and July 2 to 4, and increase fines from $100 to $500 for those who violate fireworks regulations. Perhaps more importantly, it would give individual municipalities the right to place their own restrictions on the use of consumer fireworks.

The bill was approved on a bipartisan basis, and also would direct the revenue generated by fireworks sales to fire and emergency services and away from the commonwealth’s general fund.

As a general rule, it’s best to leave the fireworks to professionals. But if they are going to be available, we should allow municipalities the latitude to prohibit their use if officials believe they will pose a danger to residents, particularly those in densely packed neighborhoods.

State Sen. Ryan Aument, a Republican from Lancaster County, explained last year, “Every year around major holidays, I hear from my constituents who are rightfully frustrated by the unenforceability of the expanded fireworks law in our state, and I agree with them. We must fix this law to keep our communities and first responders safe.”

The 2017 fireworks went too far in making consumer fireworks widely available in Pennsylvania. For safety’s sake, particularly as we approach the Fourth of July, a reset is in order.

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Wilkes-Barre Citizens' Voice. June 26, 2022.

Editorial: With Roe gone, time for critics to step up

Many conservative state legislators cheered Friday when the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated the constitutional right to abortion that an earlier court had affirmed in Roe v. Wade in 1973.

The 6-3 majority also overturned the 1992 decision, Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, under which the justices at that time further affirmed the abortion right but found that there is a legitimate public interest in regulating abortion.

Pennsylvania is not among the 13 states that immediately will outlaw and, in some cases, criminalize, abortion within the next 30 days. But there is no doubt that some Pennsylvania lawmakers will move that quickly to introduce such measures.

In doing so, they will answer the question raised by Gov. Robert P. Casey when he crafted the Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act, the law that led to the Supreme Court decision in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey.

Casey was condemned from the left of his own Democratic Party due to the law’s restrictions on abortion, and from the right, which wanted him to push a law that would lead to a direct challenge of Roe at the Supreme Court.

Though Democrats to his left viewed Casey as a conservative, he argued that eliminating abortion should be an aspect of progressive social policy.

He argued that abortion policy and expansive family-sustaining social policies regarding health care access, education, affordable day care, livable wages and similar policies were of one piece. Asked at a press conference during the 1992 Democratic National Convention why he did not just become a Republican due to the abortion issue, he replied that he and Republicans “parted company at birth.”

Here in Pennsylvania — the land of corporate tax cuts and gas industry subsidies, the $7.25 hourly minimum wage and woefully underfunded public schools in poor communities — the question for GOP legislative majorities is if, 30 years later, they still part company with Casey at birth.

Tragically, the answer to that is just as predictable as this conservative court supermajority’s decision to overturn what two of its members, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, had assured Sens. Susan Collins and Joe Manchin was “settled law” as they sought confirmation of their appointments.

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