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Tennessee editorial roundup

July 5, 2017

Recent editorials from Tennessee newspapers:

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June 30

The Daily Times on the need for health care debate to be grounded in facts:

Health care. Two little words with too little truth these days. With all of the conflicting information coming out of Washington from all the politicians of every ilk and inclination, it’s nice to have hard facts to work with as a starting point.

Despite all the efforts — not just over the past seven years but well back into the 20th century — for all practical purposes we’re still at the beginning of negotiations to establish a sustainable system of health care that will provide quality, affordable and equitable coverage to Americans.

It may be that as Washington is at loggerheads, an opportunity will emerge at state levels for authentic discussions resulting in responsible actions.

Tennesseans have already endured the shock of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, the largest health plan provider in the state, announcing it was withdrawing individual coverage in the state’s largest metropolitan areas under the health care exchange market in 2017.

Then came the word that Humana, the last insurer operating in the 16-county Knoxville region, including Blount County, would leave the individual exchange in 2018.

Thankfully in May came the sigh of relief when BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee announced it was in negotiations with the state about returning to the Knoxville area market next year.

On Thursday, BCBST reported a new study by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association finds nearly 24 percent of its commercially insured members in Tennessee filled at least one opioid prescription in 2015, compared to 21 percent nationally.

Data also show 5.5 percent of Tennessee members were on a long-duration opioid regimen in 2015, compared to 3.8 percent nationally, and 32 percent of members with opioid use disorder received medication-assisted therapy in 2016, compared to 37 percent nationally. There are 16.5 per 1,000 members who are diagnosed with opioid use disorder in Tennessee, compared to 8.3 nationally.

Facts. With all of the emotion involved in health care — and no wonder since it’s a matter of life and death and economic security, individually and nationally — why not start relying on facts to drive negotiations on health care options for Americans?

Lord knows what’s happening now isn’t working.

Online: http://www.thedailytimes.com/

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July 2

The Bristol Herald Courier on persistent regional use of methamphetamine:

Take notice of the following local stories:

—Michelle Renee Boardwine, 34, was charged Jan. 26 with two counts of possession of methamphetamine in Glade Spring, Virginia.

—Lisha Ann Hamilton, 51; Shawn Dwayne White, 37; and Anna Renee Duncan, 28 were arrested March 2 with numerous methamphetamine-related charges in Big Stone Gap, Virginia.

—Thirty-two people were arrested in April after a 15-month drug sting in Smythe County, Virginia — 28 of whom had methamphetamine-related charges.

—Four people were arrested May 1 for drug-related charges, including methamphetamine, during a traffic stop in Bristol, Tennessee.

—Joey Hensel Large, 34, and Christina Marie Large, 32, were arrested Tuesday for a total of five methamphetamine-related charges in Pound, Virginia.

Must we go on to illustrate the pattern?

The commonalities in these occurrences are obvious. What might not be immediately apparent is that these have all transpired since just the beginning of this year.

News stories involving meth busts and arrests have taken a notable rise in Northeast Tennessee and particularly Southwest Virginia over the past few months. While not a new problem, the seemingly unwavering meth numbers also continue to persist, with legislative limits and lack of scope and in light of new challenges from more potent meth transported from the Southern border — but it’s not completely impervious.

Efforts to thwart an incline in meth creation and usage have had some success but continue to experience shortcomings — and both Tennessee and Virginia laws hindering access to pseudoephedrine, a key precursor in meth preparation, are no exception.

A 2014 Tennessee law imposing requirements with pseudoephedrine sales, for example, included maintenance of a purchase registry and monthly limitations on purchases. After the discovery of both a failed prevention of almost 800 sales to people on the Meth Offender Registry and the fact that some names weren’t even being added to the registry, we, like others, question the law’s efficacy.

Even the net of enacted laws doesn’t capture the meth problem. In Virginia, a number of new laws regulating opiate sales went into effect as of Saturday — but no new laws were passed regarding the sales of pseudoephedrine. According to a 2016 report from the National Association of State Controlled Substances Authorities, Virginia meth lab seizures have tripled from 2004 to 2014. While legislative focus “chases the dragon,” to borrow Cantonese slang for opium use, it neglects to recognize meth use itself as a growing demon.

Our regional meth problem is compounded by a growing influx of the drug from Mexico. According to Sullivan County District Attorney General Barry Staubus, meth with greater strength exacerbates the numbers of addiction and overdoses.

So what’s to be done?

We might push for stronger penalties for first-time offenders. Tennessee hands up to a one-year imprisonment for first time possession offenders; in Virginia, they earn one to 10 years.

However, we frankly don’t need more offenders in taxpayer-funded jails and prisons, so stiffer penalties aren’t the answer.

Instead, we should focus more on preventative efforts that also keep the issue visible. Lori Phillips-Jones, former Tennessee 8th Judicial District attorney general, suggests initiating a statewide replacement of pseudoephedrine products with only meth-resistant pseudoephedrine products. Similar efforts made in other states, such as West Virginia, she notes, have nearly cut their meth lab seizures in half the first year of implementation. Though this would only impact meth creation in our neighborhoods, it’s a start.

Reducing the demand for meth coming from Mexico may also help dwindle the number of meth users, but a firm tactic for now is undetermined.

Hope is not lost, though: If we can keep the meth problem within our field of vision, an informed legislative discourse toward solutions can occur — but we just hope it doesn’t mutate into another oversized drug epidemic before that happens.

Online: http://www.heraldcourier.com/

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June 30

The Knoxville News Sentinel demands the release of wildlife records:

Now that a judge has lifted the legal smokescreen state and local officials used for months to withhold government records on the response to the deadly Gatlinburg wildfire, the documents should be released immediately.

Those same officials have had public records requests from the media, the families of victims and others for nearly seven months and that is a sufficient amount of time to review the records and to process the requests. It’s unacceptable for them to say they don’t have a timetable for releasing the records or they need time to review the judge’s ruling.

Since the Nov. 28 wildfire, those same officials have not only refused to provide records, they have refused to answer questions — for the most part — unless they fit the narrative that a big wind rained hellfire on Sevier County and everyone did the best they could.

That may be true, but the answers lie in public records that document what the officials knew, when they knew it and what they did about it.

The whole shroud of secrecy over the records emanated from a judge’s order forbidding prosecutors, defense attorneys and court staff from releasing information about the criminal case against two teenage boys accused of playing with matches and starting a fire Nov. 23 on Chimney Tops Trail that eventually swept across Sevier County. No one else was bound by his order.

Even the judge’s order was secret, but the USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee obtained a copy of it through a public records request — no less.

Fourth Judicial District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn used the order Dec. 15 to write his own script that would give cover to officials receiving public records requests. Dunn declared that any release of information about any details of the wildfire could somehow “compromise” the criminal case. All public records requests have been in limbo since.

In March, Deputy Attorney General Janet Kleinfelter, representing the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, asked the same judge if TEMA could disclose public records in response to public records requests. The judge said yes in a ruling June 5 — also obtained through a USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee public records request. In his ruling, the judge did not order nor preclude TEMA from fulfilling its duties under the Public Records Act.

We haven’t heard from the deputy attorney general about our public records requests, even though she was sent a copy of the judge’s ruling. Neither have the families of the 14 people who died in the wildfire. Gatlinburg and Sevier County officials say they didn’t know about the judge’s ruling until we made them aware of it this week.

We haven’t heard from Dunn, who was quick to craft his memo to the media in December and whose office was sent the judge’s ruling as well.

Dunn asked for “patience” and “understanding” in December when he was abridging the Public Records Act. Well, we’ve been patient, but we’re no longer understanding.

We and everyone else who witnessed the catastrophic wildfire that spanned 17,000 acres, killed 14 people, hurt nearly 200 more, destroyed or damaged more than 2,400 buildings and resulted in nearly $1 billion in property damage claims deserve the truth about the blaze that Gov. Bill Haslam called the worst in a century.

We are fed up with the secrecy and duplicity and delays. We expect and deserve better from government officials who should be working for the people and not against them.

Online: http://www.knoxnews.com/

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