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Editorials from around Pennsylvania

February 21, 2018

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:

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INSURER STEPS UP IN OPIOID FIGHT, Feb. 19

Insurance companies, part of the health care industry, don’t often resort to military analogies to tout their initiatives. But Highmark Inc.’s announcement last week declaring a “war on opioids” seems apt.

The company rolled out two new promising programs to enhance its other ongoing efforts to help drive down the opioid addiction crisis that has claimed so many lives in northwestern Pennsylvania and nationwide.

First, Highmark has expanded to this region a pilot program launched in West Virginia in 2016. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has reported, Highmark, together with a company called axialHealthcare, analyzed claims data to help identify prescription trends. Based on that analysis, more than 250 West Virginia medical providers received targeted guidance on opioid prescription best practices and pain management.

The initiative led to a 28 percent reduction in patients receiving opioid prescriptions from multiple doctors. And importantly, the number of patients receiving prescriptions for both sedatives and opioids — which can heighten the risk of overdose — dropped by more than 25 percent.

In introducing the program to Pennsylvania, Highmark also added a new tool that will allow doctors to assess in real time a patient’s risk of abusing opioids.

As a second measure, Highmark said it will introduce in March prescription limits for certain members who are prescribed opioids for the first time. The policy is based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data that shows that a person who uses opioids for one day has a 6 percent chance of becoming addicted, while those who use them for more than a week face a 13 percent chance of becoming addicted. Exceptions are built in for those in need of opioids for severe pain that cannot be addressed through other means.

No single strategy will end the opioid epidemic. But the problem began decades ago in doctors’ offices as physicians — acting on drug company assurances that opioids were not addictive — ramped up prescriptions. Any measures to uproot the problem must include efforts to force those prescription rates down and stem the flow of opioids into our communities.

Highmark’s new policies dovetail well with recent state reforms, including the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program. It is also good business sense. As Highmark indicated Thursday, one in 250 of its commercial members were addicted to opioids in 2017. The problem cost members $93 million nationwide.

At last count, 124 people died of drug overdoses Erie County in 2017. Statewide, 4,642 died of overdoses in 2016 and the number is expected to rise when 2017 statistics are compiled. Problems spurred by addiction cut across all sectors from health care to criminal justice and must be addressed on each front in order to save lives.

—Erie Times News

Online: http://bit.ly/2BEMAnq

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TOUGHER LOBBYIST DISCLOSURE LAW IS A GOOD FIRST STEP, Feb. 16

You just have to appreciate a good first step in the right direction, even if there’s many miles to go.

That’s our feeling about a bill toughening lobbyist disclosure rules that Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law last week. The measure, among other things, increases the penalties for lobbyists who don’t report their expenditures on time.

Sponsored and championed by Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster County, with bipartisan from former Rep. Brandon Neuman, D-Westmoreland County, it doubles the fine for violating the lobbying disclosure law to $4,000 (from $2,000), increases the penalty for filing disclosures late, and specifies a strict timeline for filing the information.

It’s pretty hard not to agree with the goal of this law: Citizens should, as Wolf noted when he signed the bill into law, have the ability to understand who is trying to influence legislation that affects them.

And who’s against “penalties that better fit the crime,” as Cutler explained this new law enforces.

Not us.

Baby steps?

Yes, but steps in the right direction. But we would be remiss if we did not find some unintended irony in this quote from Wolf: “This legislation addresses a very big concern among Pennsylvania citizens. That concern is that Harrisburg politicians are more interested in the opinions of special interests than in their constituents. That concern I’m afraid is justified.”

OK.

And this bill changes that how, exactly?

Pennsylvania has as recently as 2015 ranked as low as 45th in “State Integrity.”

The metrics measured in the list compiled by U.S. News included lobbying disclosure, which Cutler’s bill addressed, but also accountability for all three branches, budgeting process, procurement and more.

Giving taxpayers an opportunity to understand where lobbying firms and lobbyists are focused, and on whose behalf, is a good thing. Disclosure is required of principals, lobbying firms & individual lobbyists.

But what about personal gifts to legislators? Who could possibly think, besides the person giving cash and the person receiving cash, is good and proper? What about trips and travel? They are still allowed, as long as they are reported.

And even in this bill, Cutler wanted higher penalties. But he confessed he took what he could get.

We suppose we appreciate his candor about perfection being the enemy of the good, but there is still more good to do. Much more.

Still, this is a good first step, and we applaud it.

—PennLive.com

Online: http://bit.ly/2ocPTL1

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JURY MADE HEART-WRENCHING BUT FAIR DECISION IN SHOOTING OF POLICE OFFICER, Feb. 20

A jury’s not-guilty murder verdict in the shooting death of a western Pennsylvania police officer stunned his family and shocked readers across the region.

Ray Shetler of New Florence was acquitted of the two most serious charges against him Friday from the November 2015 shooting death of St. Clair Township police Officer Lloyd Reed Jr.: first- and third-degree murder.

Readers responded on social media with criticisms of the jury and the Westmoreland County court system and laments that there was “no justice” despite two years of investigations and preparations, six days of testimony and two days of deliberations by the 12 members of the jury.

Our hearts go out to Rose Marie Reed, Lloyd’s widow, and the late officer’s friends and family members.

Nothing that transpired in this trial could bring back their loved one.

But we agree with Facebook poster Dale Berkebile, who noted simply: “The jurors heard all the evidence.”

In our court system, an accused individual is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

The responsibility for showing convincing evidence of guilt falls to the prosecution, which brought in numerous witnesses and experts to testify, played back the 911 recordings from that night and even took the jurors to the scene of Reed’s death.

An accused person’s defense team is challenged with finding a crack in that evidence, with raising a question — yes, a shadow of a doubt — about how events played out.

And that is apparently what happened in Greensburg, where six men and six women wrestled with Shetler’s fate before declaring that they were not convinced he had shot Reed in cold blood.

Shetler, was also acquitted on assault and terroristic threats charges.

He was found guilty of theft and receiving stolen property charges related to fleeing in a truck after the incident.

Shetler never denied pulling the trigger of the rifle that was used to take Reed’s life.

Rather, his attorneys said Shetler acted in self-defense, shooting at night, at a man he could not identify as a police officer, and discharging his weapon only when he had been fired upon.

Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck said he was “very disappointed” by the jury’s decision, but said the 12 people “thoroughly reviewed it and deliberated. We have a jury system in this country, and we’ll certainly abide by their verdict.”

Defense attorney Marc Daffner was pleased with his client’s acquittal but subdued following the late-night ruling.

“In the grand scheme of things, it’s unpleasant for both sides, both families, to be brought through this,” Daffner said.

Earlier Friday, the jury members were clearly conflicted, even asking Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio about the consequences of not reaching a unanimous verdict.

Hours later, they came forward to declare that they had not seen enough evidence to find Shetler guilty of murder.

The defendant will be sentenced on the lesser charges, having already spent 26 months behind bars. Shetler has been granted a new lease on life, although it is hard to imagine he won’t be defined by this incident despite his acquittal.

The family of Lloyd Reed Jr. is left to make sense of an unspeakable tragedy — the deadly shooting of their husband and brother, an officer of the law responding to a call for aid — without the closure a guilty verdict might have provided.

But a jury unconvinced by the testimony and evidence of a person’s misdeeds must do what this group of 12 did: return a verdict of not guilty.

—The (Johnstown) Tribune-Democrat

Online: http://bit.ly/2FevMn7

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COURT MOVED TOO FAST ON NEW DISTRICTS, Feb. 21

After ruling the state’s map of congressional districts unconstitutionally gerrymandered, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court should have stopped there. By drawing its own map and ordering it implemented for the upcoming elections, the court has exceeded its authority and brought confusion to the political process.

Yet that isn’t the half of it. Republican lawmakers, rightly angry with the four Democratic justices who chose to legislate from the bench, are planning legal action to stay the court’s order. That portends even more uncertainty as the May 15 primary bears down on candidates, voters and elections officials.

There was a voice of reason in the court’s inner sanctum, and it belonged to a fifth Democratic justice, Max Baer, who joined the two Republicans on the bench in dissenting from Monday’s ruling. While Justice Baer agreed that the map of congressional districts in place since 2011 was flawed, he said it should be left in place for this year’s elections because the Legislature lacked ample time to draw a replacement. Justice Baer said that was his position “throughout these proceedings.”

On Jan. 22, the court threw out the congressional district map, giving the GOP-controlled Legislature until Feb. 9 to come up with a new one and Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, until Feb. 15 to sign off on it. The Legislature and governor didn’t agree to a new map by that timetable, so on Monday four Democratic justices — Debra McCloskey Todd, Christine Donohue, Kevin M. Dougherty and David N. Wecht — issued their own map. It’s widely believed to benefit Democrats, who now hold just five of the state’s 18 U.S. House seats.

While the court was correct to invalidate the gerrymandered map, it’s mishandled virtually every other aspect of the case. It gave the Legislature an unrealistic timetable for drawing a new map — as Justice Baer noted — and its decision to craft its own was a naked usurpation of the Legislature’s authority over the redistricting process. In rushing the new map into use, the court has given ammunition to those who believe it merely wants to put more Democrats into Congress to thwart President Donald Trump.

“It is a partisan map,” House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, said during a meeting with Post-Gazette staff members Tuesday. “It is designed to change the makeup of the United States Congress.”

The justices’ map shifts the boundaries of, and renumbers, the 18 congressional districts, in which campaigns for this year’s elections already were taking shape. That’s a lot of change for candidates and voters to make sense of before the primary. It’s also asking much of the state and county elections officials who have to print ballots, register voters and manage other logistical issues.

It’s shaping up to be even worse in the current 18th District, where voters have a special election March 13 to select a nine-month replacement for former Republican Rep. Tim Murphy. After deciding that contest, they’ll return to the polls in May, as will voters throughout Pennsylvania, to nominate congressional candidates for the 2019-20 term. By that time, however, the voters in the current 18th will be split among the new 14th, 17th and 18th districts — if the state Supreme Court’s order stands.

Mr. Turzai said Republican legislative leaders may be mounting two legal challenges to that ruling, one before the U.S. Supreme Court and another before a separate panel of federal judges. A ruling in another court could keep the current map in place this year, but who knows how close to the primary that might come, if it comes at all. The state Supreme Court muddied the waters — and itself — when it needn’t have done so.

—The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Online: http://bit.ly/2HzCHIk

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TRUMP BUDGET CONTINUES ASSAULT ON ENVIRONMENT, Feb. 21

When it came to draining the figurative swamp in Washington, D.C., President Donald Trump failed miserably, so it should be no surprise that he’s not exactly concerned about the condition of real bodies of water either.

The president’s 2019 budget plan would take a chainsaw to clean-water efforts — and just about every other manner of environmental protection.

The Environmental Protection Agency would see a third of its budget cut, with funding for climate-change programs virtually eliminated. How’s that for forward thinking?

And among the programs in the crosshairs are two that especially affect Pennsylvania. The Chesapeake Bay Program and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative would each see funding cut — are you sitting down? — 90 percent.

That’s galling because the Chesapeake program — initiated under President Ronald Reagan — has been a resounding success of late. Its aggressive pollution-reduction efforts have diminished runoff to the point where, last summer, scientists recorded no dead zones in the bay, and found its signature Maryland blue crabs are again thriving.

The Great Lakes program, which, among other initiatives, fights the spread of invasive species in Pennsylvania-bordering Lake Erie, would see its budget cut from $300 million to $30 million.

Pennsylvania and New York are the only two states that both border the Great Lakes and are part of the Chesapeake Bay Program. As bad as the proposed cuts are, they could be worse: Trump proposed zeroing out both programs last year.

“This is yet another assault on clean water, from a president who campaigned saying he valued it,” said Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker.

Though this is cold comfort, the foundation shouldn’t feel singled out. The administration’s spending plans also target the Global Climate Initiative, the toxic sites superfund, and federal programs to measure sea-level rise and radon detection. All would be either slashed severely or eliminated entirely.

Some cuts are particularly indefensible. The Energy Department’s program to develop renewable energy would be cut completely. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood mapping program would be cut 50 percent — despite the horrendous effects of recent hurricanes in the Southeast.

It is all part of an agenda that can only be called anti-environmental. Between his mule-headed refusal to acknowledge climate change, his EPA appointments and his budget proposals, Trump seems bent on blocking environmental progress from sea to rising sea.

The silver lining is that the administration’s budget proposals are unlikely to emerge from Congress intact. And measures like the Chesapeake Bay Program enjoy bipartisan support.

Thank goodness. Because Pennsylvania — beset by questionable air quality, pockmarked with abandoned coal mines, and shot through with wastewater and other aftereffects of hydraulic fracking — can ill afford a reversal of environmental advances on any front.

Successful programs aimed at reviving and protecting the waters of Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes — waters which millions drink and eat fish from, swim in, and enjoy for recreation — should be supplemented by federal lawmakers, not undermined by a backwards, science-denying political agenda.

—York Dispatch

Online: http://bit.ly/2ogjoMm

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