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Montana Editorial Roundup

July 24, 2019

Billings Gazette, July 23, on the aftermath of the University of Montana records case:

In all the recent attention given to the Montana State Supreme Court and its split decision in a case involving famous author Jon Krakauer and former University of Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson, one very key point has been missed.

We’d like to pause on it for a minute.

You see, by the time the case arrived at the Supreme Court, some specifics of the case had given way to the legal technicalities. That’s understandable.

The case hinged on whether Krakauer, who has been dogged in the search for context and facts regarding the Johnson case, had a right to see some of the information the university had about a student, in this case, Johnson, a high profile athlete who was accused of and acquitted of sexual assault.

Originally, the University of Montana had made the decision to expel Johnson after the charges surfaced. But, Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian overturned the expulsion and allowed Johnson to stay.

The legal case centered on a state constitutional issue: Whether Johnson’s right to privacy was more important than the public’s right to know.

On a split decision, 4-3, the high court ruled that Krakauer’s request was overly broad and not everything should be released. It said that Johnson’s individual right to privacy, guaranteed by the state constitution, outweighed the public’s right to know.

It’s a point that has been made previously, but bears repeating: Krakauer wasn’t asking for his grades or his physical exams from the athletic trainers in the football program. Instead, he wanted to know the correspondence and the deliberations that led Christian and his office to overturn the university’s expulsion.

The commissioner’s office has been tight-lipped on the case, insisting consistently that the student’s right to privacy has always prohibited them from talking specifically about the particulars. And, it’s an argument the state’s high court ultimately bought, albeit narrowly.

It’s important to note the court also said in its ruling that Krakauer’s request was broad and a more specific request may have yielded different results which leaves open the possibility that the request for public information may yet yield answers.

Lost in all this legal maneuvering is the heart of the matter which has very little to do with the state constitution or legal precedent.

Instead, what is truly at issue is appearances. From all appearances, it looks like the commissioner himself interjected in the expulsion of a star quarterback. And that looks bad. It looks like the worst kind of favoritism. A star athlete who could bring home trophies gets preferential treatment from the highest power in the university system.

That’s how it looks.

We doubt the truth is that clear and convincing. But, because the commissioner has remained steadfastly mum on the issue, we can only draw those kinds of conclusions. Sadly, those same conclusions only reinforce the idea that the University of Montana didn’t do right in the case of sexual assault. That perception still presents a marketing challenge for the state’s flagship university, even though there have been years of effort put into truly changing the culture in Missoula.

The public does have a right to know the circumstances and specific facts of why Johnson was originally expelled and what happened to lead the commissioner’s office to get involved. That seems pretty dramatic.

Though skeptics may say this seems to be a case of star athletes getting preferential treatment, it’s just as fair to wonder if Christian’s office had interceded because it was worried about due process, or if it was concerned that Johnson had become a scapegoat in a mounting public relations crisis.

While that may be Pollyanna-ish thinking, that’s exactly the point: We don’t know. And because we don’t know, it causes the average citizen to question and doubt, which ultimately keeps the issue alive for the University of Montana. As long as the Jordan Johnson case lives on, the perception will persist that the Missoula campus has a problem.

In the long run, the only hope the public and the university has of putting the Jordan Johnson incident to rest is by a full, open and transparent accounting of the facts. That can only happen when the truth is known.

Because of the Supreme Court decision, we don’t know the facts, but we’re beginning to think those have to be tamer than the yearslong rumor mill that will continue to grind on until the truth is finally disclosed.

Editorial: http://bit.ly/2SBLorv

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Missoulian, July 21, on lead testing in Montana schools:

Montanans have some summer homework to complete before the school year begins this fall. The state Department of Public Health and Human Services is considering changes to school health rules — and a requirement that all schools test their water systems for lead. Parents, teachers and concerned community members should take this opportunity to demand mandatory water testing.

It’s a small expense to spare generations of children the long-term health effects of lead poisoning. Montana’s long history with contaminated water, and the high lead levels found in local public schools that do test their water, provide good reason for concern.

Lead exposure, while harmful for adults, is a major concern for children because their brains and bodies are still developing, and the long-term exposure to the heavy metal can severely limit bone growth, impair the kidneys and nervous system, and cause lasting developmental delays. Even a small amount of lead is considered toxic if it is ingested, and medical research links even low levels of exposure to lower IQ scores. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that schools allow no more than 1 part per billion of lead in their water systems. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency accepts a limit of 15 ppb.

Yet despite the clear health risks, in Montana, schools test their water on a purely voluntary basis. Many smaller schools and those in more rural parts of the state test their water rarely, if ever.

Last summer, as part of its Get the Lead Out initiative, the advocacy group Environment Montana shared the results of water samples conducted by those schools that do such testing. It showed that many schools in Montana have levels of lead in their water that well exceed 1 ppb. Missoula County schools provided 140 samples from 2016 and 2018, and 78% of them contained greater than 1 ppb of lead — and one test from Seeley-Swan High School contained 28 ppb.

School district officials immediately replaced four fixtures and installed a water filter, and soon traced the source of the problem to an old backed-up water line.

But the problem never would have been caught had school officials not recognized the need to regularly test for lead and voluntarily send in water samples for testing. Students in other schools may not be so lucky.

Lead is a naturally occurring metal that is commonly used in construction materials, including those for homes and businesses. Many older homes in Missoula County likely have lead plumbing components, and county health officials recommend that these property owners consider testing their water for lead, too.

A student living in an older home with higher-than-recommended amounts of lead in the water system, and going to school in a building that contains lead in its water system as well, is likely to suffer some degree of lead poisoning with symptoms that may not become apparent for many years.

Schools should set the baseline for health by testing their water. That should not even be a point for debate. Testing must be done on a regular basis because, like the Seeley-Swan school example illustrates, old systems can sometimes back into newer ones, pipes can leak and contaminants can seep into water supplies.

Individual school districts can discuss what level of lead they are willing to allow, but we would hope they would err on the side of caution and follow the advice of the experts at the American Academy of Pediatrics. That’s no more than 1 ppb of lead in drinking water.

School districts should also make it a point to post the results of their water tests in an easily accessible and understandable format, such as on their websites. All parents, but in particular the parents of children with special health concerns, would doubtless appreciate being able to look up this information without a lot of hassle.

At their most recent public meeting, the Department of Public Health and Human Services noted that several school organizations had written in response to the proposed rule changes, and opted to extend the public comment period until Sept. 16.

In the meantime, school staff and parents alike should take the opportunity to write in support of a water testing requirement for lead for all school districts in the state. Visit the DPHHS website for more information, or send comments to Gwen Knight, Department of Public Health and Human Services, Office of Legal Affairs, P.O. Box 4210, Helena, Montana, 59604-4210; fax (406) 444- 9744; or email dphhslegal@mt.gov.

Other proposed changes, such as one that would update tobacco signage, deserve scrutiny and thoughtful consideration, too. After all, the current rules have not been updated since 1986. The proposed changes were formed with input from DPHHS, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and county health officials. Some, like mandatory water testing, come with an added cost burden for school districts. Taxpayers should weigh any added burden against the potential benefits, and school and health officials should look for outside sources of aid, such as federal grants, to help cover additional costs.

But lead testing is a no-brainer. The ability to detect and fix problematic water systems clearly outweighs any upfront costs, which are minimal to begin with. Even the most sophisticated water testing kits can be purchased for less than $30.

Testing would provide reassurance of safe water in our schools — or shine the spotlight on water systems in need of replacement. In either case, it’s basic information that communities must have in order to make important decisions about replacing leaky pipes or aging water systems.

Before Montana schools can pass or fail, they first have to take the test.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/2LDRrv0

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Bozeman Daily Chronicle, July 21, on

Informed readers probably weren’t surprised to learn Montana hospitals charge private insurers two to four times what Medicare judges to be a fair price for services. Anyone on Medicare who looks at their health care bills can see there’s a big difference between what hospitals bill and what Medicare deems reasonable for most services.

But the report that identified these disparities highlights just how broken our health care system is when it comes to pricing.

The report, outlined in a July 14 Chronicle article, was produced by the Rand Corporation. It examined the billing practices of 1,600 hospitals in 25 states and found that, on average, Montana hospitals charge private insurers 277% of what Medicare judges to be reasonable. Of the 25 states, Montana had the fifth largest disparity between what is charged to private insurers and what Medicare pays.

The most amazing aspect of these revelations is how complacent we are about them.

We regulate utility costs and most of us wouldn’t have it any other way. Utilities — electricity and natural gas companies — essentially have a monopoly. And their rates are governed by — in Montana’s case — the Public Service Commission to ensure customers aren’t being gouged for this essential service.

So why don’t we regulate health care costs? Opponents of that argue health care costs are better regulated by a free market. But that’s clearly a myth. You might be able to shop around for the best price for some procedures, but if you break your leg or have a heart attack, you go to the nearest hospital to get treated. Then you — or you and your insurance company — pay whatever they charge.

There is one state that doesn’t take this lying down. Maryland has successfully set hospital rates since the 1970s. There, an independent commission sets the rate structure for each hospital in the state individually. Earlier this year, Bozeman state Rep. Tom Woods introduced legislation that would have set a range for what Montana hospitals can charge for services based on what Medicare pays. Hospitals lobbied against the bill and it was defeated.

Lawmakers need to consider a version of that bill in the next general session. And, as voters, we all need to demand that candidates for all elected offices pledge their support for getting health care costs under control. If they oppose those efforts, we must demand they explain why.

Health care services are among the most important services we buy. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to pay anything but a fair price.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/2GrNLs6

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