Editorial Roundup: New England

Hearst Connecticut Media. September 15, 2022.

Editorial: CT should welcome fight on gun laws

When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a New York state gun law earlier this year, Connecticut officials were quick to assure state residents of its limited scope. It’s true that Connecticut has some of the tightest gun laws in the nation, but the specifics of the New York law, which had to do with carrying firearms outside the home, were not applicable here.

What should have been clear, however, was that the High Court’s actions would not be the end of the story.

As with the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, which protected a federal right to abortion, advocates for change have no plans to stop. Even as Connecticut law protects a woman’s rights to bodily autonomy, a push is on for a national abortion ban. The fight will continue.

So it is with gun laws.

In three months, Connecticut will mark a decade since the worst crime in state history. The killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown led to a wholesale change in state gun laws, with the banning of high-capacity magazines, institution of universal background checks and an end to sales of AR-15-style rifles of the type used in Sandy Hook.

Since then, the Democratic-led General Assembly and a pair of Democratic governors have shown no interest in revisiting those laws. But challenges have arisen through the court system, and the increasingly conservative bent of the nation’s highest court shows this is not a threat to be taken lightly. There’s no telling where this could go, and just because Connecticut residents appear to support the laws does not mean they will necessarily stand.

Opponents of Connecticut gun laws were embarrassed when it was revealed that their lead plaintiff, who was recruited by the out-of-state National Association for Gun Rights in order to have standing to sue, was not, as initially described, a gun owner, nor does she aspire to be. How this error was made is unclear, but the suit was refiled using a different state resident as a plaintiff. One of the original lawyers on the case has also dropped out.

But it shouldn’t be assumed that such a comedy of errors will have a lasting impact. The New York outcome shows that Connecticut will have to fight to protect its laws.

To their credit, state leaders have promised to do just that. Led by Gov. Ned Lamont and Attorney General William Tong, Connecticut officials say they welcome the opportunity to defend the state’s strict gun laws, which they believe protect rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution will also promising a measure of safety to state residents.

It’s telling that people who spend so much time talking about states’ rights in other contexts have little to say here. A state like Connecticut wants to have strict gun laws, and is being challenged in court on that issue. It would seem a good opportunity for those who favor states’ rights over the federal government to take a stand on Connecticut’s side. That has yet to transpire.

So it will be up to Connecticut. Our case is strong, and the benefits to the public are clear. This is a fight we should welcome.

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Hartford Courant. September 15, 2022.

Editorial: Every Connecticut child must be protected against lead poisoning

Seventy-one children with lead poisoning.

That means 71 children who face or might face brain or nervous system damage, growth and development issues, learning or behavior difficulties and myriad other life-altering health concerns.

Those 71 children lived in Hartford in 2020 when the city ranked fourth in the state with children under 6 with lead levels greater than 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood, according to the state Department of Public Health’s surveillance reports. New Haven had 171 children in that terrible category at that time, Bridgeport, 148 cases; Waterbury, 81; and Meriden, 35.

Those numbers, which totaled more than 1,000 Connecticut children in 2020, are better than they were in previous years, state data shows, but they still add up to many children in Connecticut who could face serious health risks that experts say stem mostly from homes that contain lead paint used before it was banned in 1978.

“We know that there’s no safe amount of lead for any child to be exposed to,” Dr. Jennifer Haile, a pediatrician at Connecticut Children’s Lead Treatment Center, told The Courant.

The federal government clearly recognizes that safety issue: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has lowered the minimum level of lead in blood that will trigger health care workers and others to take action from 5 mcg to 3.5 mcg. The state also recognizes the problem: A law adopting that blood level will take effect on Jan. 1.

Both of those measures mean the number of children and dwellings subject to lead treatment and abatement will rise.

Given that health care experts and municipal, state and federal officials are well aware of the danger lead poses to children, and have active programs addressing it, it begs the question: Why does the problem persist?

A large part of it is the age of housing in Connecticut, experts say. Older houses deteriorate, and as that occurs dust from old lead paint can be inhaled or swallowed.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some water pipes also could contain lead, those living near airports could be exposed to lead from aviation gas and some products such as toys and jewelry can contain lead.

A case of lead poisoning was reported in 2003 in a child who swallowed a pendant from a necklace sold in a toy vending machine, according to the CDC.

In light of the persistence of the lead problem, Connecticut decided to use most of $30 million in recent federal money to help reduce the toxic effects of lead, including case management and remediation, assisting with municipal costs of meeting the revised standards, and property owners and landlords to abate lead. The state Department of Public Health and Connecticut Children’s have programs to address lead, and Hartford also is using $3.4 million in federal money and other programs and housing codes to address lead in the city. It has abated about 1,400 units since 2001, but officials acknowledge there are about 1,800 dwellings that need remediation.

Yet experts say that’s not enough. Other steps that must be taken are for parents and health care providers to ensure all children are screened at the right ages, that parents and caregivers are given correct information about lead, where it can be found and how to avoid their child ingesting it, that homeowners and landlords are made aware of the need to remediate lead, and that broad programs exist to help in this cleanup.

Hartford deserves credit for lowering its number of children with lead poisoning and the dedication of people in different departments to address this issue.

But if $30 million in federal money the state has earmarked for this problem is not enough, the state should seek further funding or think about spending some of that multibillion dollar surplus now sitting in state coffers.

Every child must be protected.

Brian Mathews, housing director in the city’s Department of Development Services, had it right when he told The Courant: “We try not to let cost get in the way of successful outcomes.”

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Bangor Daily News. September 14, 2022.

Editorial: Regulators need more analysis and input to get lobster rules right

Even as lobstermen scramble to meet recent regulatory requirements aimed at protecting North Atlantic right whales, federal regulators are moving ahead with a new round of additional restrictions. The National Marine Fisheries Service is proposing another round of rules that could require even more gear changes from lobstermen in Maine and other New England states and put more of the region’s waters off limits to lobster harvesting to reduce the risk of right whales becoming entangled in fishing gear.

In addition to moving forward on a rapid timeline with limited opportunity for input, federal regulators are considering these additional restrictions without adequate assessment of the impacts of changes that have already been made and without sharing needed information with fishermen and other interested groups that would show how and where the fisheries and right whales interact.

Given the extent of the proposed changes, and the potential gravity of their impact, the agency should slow down and strongly consider viable alternatives presented by fishermen, who spend their days on the ocean and are knowledgeable about their gear.

The urgency is driven in large part by recent court decisions that have found that the National Marine Fisheries Service is not doing enough to protect right whales, which are endangered.

In July, a federal judge ruled that federal regulators are failing to adequately protect right whales, which is a violation of the Endangered Species Act. The judge asked the parties to the lawsuit – conservation groups, lobster industry groups and regulators – to come up with better ways to protect the whales. That work is ongoing through court filings.

Meanwhile, NMFS is now moving at lightning speed to seek a 90 percent reduction in the risk to whales posed by the lobster and crab fisheries, mainly through entanglement in lines connected to buoys and traps. NMFS is looking for ideas on how to meet this target, which is a much higher risk reduction in a much shorter time than was set by the agency just last year.

The most direct way to reduce risk is to put areas off limits to these fisheries and to reduce the amount of rope that they use. One proposal NMFS is considering is a complete closure of the lobster fishery in federal waters. This would impact about 1,100 Maine lobstermen. Another proposal calls for a 50 percent reduction in lines and rolling closures of lobstering areas.

The agency has set an extremely short timeline for public comment on these proposed changes. It has scheduled only one online meeting for public input. Comments can be submitted online through Oct. 11.

Gov. Janet Mills and all four members of Maine’s congressional delegation have asked the Department of Commerce, which includes NMFS, to extend the public comment period and to hold in-person meetings in the state, which is home to most of the nation’s lobster fishing.

“The opportunities for public comment are completely insufficient given the potential for extraordinary impacts that are likely to be felt by fishermen and communities up and down the eastern seaboard, and especially here in Maine,” Mills wrote in a letter to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo on Tuesday.

The governor also asked the agency to share a modeling tool that overlays fishing data with data on right whale activity to try to assess how changes in the fishery will impact whales.

This is a reasonable request that the agency should agree to.

“NMFS should not prioritize expediency when doing so compromises the very survival of Maine’s lobster fishery. This approach will also undermine stakeholder faith in the process and may ultimately yield a new regulatory framework that does not provide additional protections for right whales while potentially shutting down the entire lobster industry,” Reps. Jared Golden and Chellie Pingree, and Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, wrote in a letter to NMFS on Tuesday.

We understand the urgency that recent court orders have placed on the agency and that further restrictions are meant to better protect right whales. But, we remain troubled that such drastic measures are being taken without better evidence of the impact of lobster harvesting on the right whale population.

Last year, for example, federal regulators closed 950 square miles of ocean off the coast of Maine to traditional lobster fishing from October to January. Requirements to use ropes and links that break when significant pressure is applied, as would happen when a whale is entangled, were also enacted.

These rules were implemented even though the agency itself said it was unclear how most right whales died and for those that were entangled in fishing gear, where that gear came from. Many are killed in collisions with ships. Federal regulators have proposed new restrictions on vessel speeds on some areas to reduce these collisions that are available for public comment until Sept. 30.

A judge’s ruling last week makes it clear that NMFS can move ahead with further restrictions on the lobster industry. However, making sure those restrictions actually protect right whales is an important part of any analysis. NMFS can’t do that without better information, some of which will come from lobstermen, who need to be more fully involved in this process.

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Boston Globe. September 9, 2022.

Editorial: Mercy in short supply for frail, incapacitated inmates

SJC to take another look at how the state is implementing its medical parole law.

Convicted murderers James Carver, 57, and Martin McCauley, 65, have each spent nearly four decades in prison, but they long ago ceased posing any threat to the public. During that time, McCauley has had four back surgeries and now uses a walker and a brace. Carver was operated on for a brain tumor, a procedure that left him incontinent. He is reliant on a wheelchair and “needs assistance with dressing and feeding when he shakes with tremors.” He has also attempted suicide and been back and forth for stays at Bridgewater State Hospital twice.

But Carver and McCauley have both been denied medical parole by Correction Commissioner Carol Mici. The state’s highest court will hear arguments Friday in the two cases, which raise the question of whether the commissioner is abiding by a 2018 law, designed to provide an exit ramp for terminally ill or permanently incapacitated prisoners, or whether she’s going out of her way to avoid doing so.

“By the commissioner’s standard, no prisoner would qualify for medical parole unless they were debilitated to the point of being completely immobile, with no use of their hands or limbs,” according to an amicus brief filed in the cases by Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, the Disability Law Center and the Committee for Public Counsel Services.

“The Legislature did not envision medical parole as a release mechanism only available in the most extreme cases, but rather as an essential tool for dealing with the Commonwealth’s rapidly aging prison population. The statute was designed to alleviate the Commonwealth’s burden of caring for dying or frail elderly prisoners, and to allow them to live out their final days in a more humane and medically appropriate community setting,” the brief notes.

Now, for the third time in as many years, the Supreme Judicial Court will be asked to judge the seriousness of the Department of Correction’s efforts at implementing a policy that this state was among the last in the nation to adopt.

The numbers alone are an indication that DOC isn’t exactly throwing open the prison gates for those who believe they qualify under the law. Between July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021, the most recent year for which data is available, 203 inmates filed petitions for medical parole, of which 17 were granted. Two of those petitioners died prior to their release. Since the program began in 2018, only 56 prisoners have been granted medical parole. Among those, only two have been returned to custody — not for committing any criminal offense but for violations of the terms of their parole.

Among those who had their petitions denied, 44 have appealed their cases to superior court as allowed under that 2018 law. And that volume of appeals might have been what attracted the attention of the SJC to take yet another judicial look at the law’s implementation.

That, and at least five cases where superior court judges overturned the commissioner’s ruling and ordered DOC to release the inmates on medical parole. They included:

▪ Henry Bys, 71, imprisoned since 1973, confined to a wheelchair with “severe avascular necrosis in both hips” who required assistance for dressing and toileting. The court faulted Mici for focusing on Bys’ 1973 crime — the brutal murder of a hitchhiker in Northampton — as “the sum and substance of the commissioner’s public safety analysis,” adding “it is hard to imagine how he (Bys) could pose a public safety risk today by virtue of the details of that crime, committed nearly half a century ago.”

▪ Epiphany Lazarre’s petition was denied although he was diagnosed with an aggressive cancerous brain tumor that had already confined him to a wheelchair and was deemed terminally ill by two DOC physicians. The court found Mici’s decision arbitrary and capricious and directed his release.

▪ Dennis Daye, 71, imprisoned since his 1986 conviction for three murders, was paralyzed by a stroke, required the use of a wheelchair, and was dependent on nursing care in a DOC infirmary but was denied medical parole for disciplinary infractions brought against him “during his early years of incarceration.” A single justice of the SJC, raising issues about whether that was “consistent with statutory criteria,” sent the case back to the superior court.

Mici’s record is replete with similar instances — several prisoners suffering from dementia and requiring round-the-clock care, another who suffered a traumatic brain injury while in prison resulting in “severe cognitive impairment” — none were deemed fit for medical parole. Mici, who has been with the department since 1987, was named commissioner by Governor Charlie Baker in 2019.

There will always be those convicted of crimes so heinous that it would be tempting — say, for a correction commissioner, to look for a rationale to keep them locked up forever. Carver, for example, was convicted of starting a rooming house fire in which 15 people lost their lives. But then again his case is also being appealed with the help of the Boston College Innocence Program and that of the public defender’s Innocence Program on the basis that it used now “scientifically unfounded” theories on how the fire started.

The broader point is, Carver’s guilt or innocence is immaterial to the issue of medical parole. The law says the commissioner shall release those deemed so incapacitated that their further incarceration is both inhumane to them and a burden on the taxpayers.

Whatever future guidance comes from the SJC could be enormously helpful. But just as critical will be a fresh approach at DOC, which could be around the corner. The Democratic nominee for attorney general, Andrea Campbell, has made increasing transparency at the department, which she called a “black hole” of information, part of her election platform. She has pledged to make the department “more accountable” for its policies. Backed up by a new governor — who can name a new correction commissioner — that’s what it will take to enforce a law that cries out for better enforcement.

But those political changes will take time. Sadly, for some of those behind bars today, time is already running out.

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Rutland Herald. September 13, 2022.

Editorial: Painful cuts

UVM Health Network CEO John Brumsted has pushed back on the Green Mountain Care Board, which recently completed its review and approval of the fiscal year 2023 budgets for the state’s 14 community hospitals. We are grateful he is standing up for Vermonters in need of care.

“We are extremely disappointed and concerned that the Green Mountain Care Board has dismissed the severity of the financial situation facing Vermont’s hospitals — and with it, our patients’ ability to access the care they deserve,” Brumsted said. UVM Medical Center is the largest hospital in the state. Its sister hospital — Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin — serves the Barre-Montpelier area of the state.

“These budgets included what was needed to protect critical services while continuing vital work to improve access. After finding reductions, tightening our belts, and significantly dipping into our reserves, these were the most responsible budgets possible given ongoing steep inflation in the cost of providing patient care,” he said in a statement released on Monday.

According to VTDigger, in July, the University of Vermont Health Network projected increases of requested commercial insurance rate increases of 19.9% for the University of Vermont Medical Center and 14.52% for CVMC. The board voted to approve increases of 14.77% for the University of Vermont Medical Center and 12.5% for CVMC.

VTDigger reports earlier this month, the board voted to approve Middlebury’s Porter Medical Center’s request for an 11.5% rate increase. VTDigger also reported other Vermont hospitals saw their proposed rates approved as requested or reduced by only fractions of a percentage point.

According to Brumsted, since 2017, the GMCB has refused to approve budgets that keep pace with inflation, resulting in the UVM Health Network’s operating margin shrinking from 3.26% in fiscal year 2017 to a projected negative margin of -3.39% at the end of this fiscal year.

“As a nonprofit organization, the operating margin is how we invest in our people, equipment and facilities,” he wrote. “(The GMCB) decisions were based on an inconsistent and illogical process, not grounded in reasonable measures of hospital financial health, and not anchored in the actual cost of providing care.”

He chastised the board stating: “Our patients, families, and incredibly hard-working teams need a regulator that puts patient care at the center of its decision-making. Today’s decisions are a severe blow to our ability to serve our patients, improve access, and increase health equity. It leaves our hospitals weaker in the face of challenges being experienced nationwide. …We will review all of our options in light of the decisions the board made today, including potential appeal, changes to services we provide, and further expense reductions. Further expense reductions, such as not hiring additional staff to meet increasing patient need, will have a negative effect on access to care.”

The board issued its own statement on Monday: “Like households and other businesses, Vermont hospitals have been challenged by historically high inflation rates, supply chain breakdowns, and workforce shortages. …The continuing impacts of COVID-19 have led hospital costs to outpace revenues, with 9 of our hospitals currently experiencing operating losses. Every year, we work hard to balance cost containment with the need to ensure that Vermont’s hospitals have the resources necessary to provide high-quality care in their communities. This year, we paid close attention to restoring the financial stability of the hospital system and preserving access to care,” according to Jessica Holmes, the GMCB’s interim chair.

According to the release, during two weeks of hearings, hospital leaders presented budgets, highlighting both the “financial headwinds they face and the initiatives underway to mitigate cost growth and improve health outcomes in their communities.”

“During the deliberations, Board members raised growing concerns about two critical areas — the impact of health care costs on Vermont’s commercial rate payers and patients’ access to care,” the release states. “The board … will engage directly with hospitals and their communities to identify opportunities to ensure the long-term sustainability of the hospital system while enhancing affordability, equitable access, and the improvement of health outcomes for Vermonters.”

The GMCB will issue written hospital budget orders no later than Oct. 1.

Cuts being made to Vermont hospitals are going to be passed along. While we feel the need to health care reform would be the ideal answer, no such reset is anywhere near our reach. So in the meantime, we want all parties making decisions about budgets to be thinking of everyday Vermonters first. To cut into their wallets would be a grave — and inexcusable — solution.

END