Lawmakers this week cobbled together a bipartisan deal that would authorize about $17 billion to help veterans avoid long waits, hire more doctors and nurses and make it easier to fire executives at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Perhaps the encouraging news is that $10 billion of the $17 billion total is to allow veterans to seek outside care at hospitals in their hometowns, a move that could be a first step to better utilize the nation's existing health care industry to care for veterans.
While turning to the private sector wouldn't be a panacea, it would resolve many of the issues of time and distance that have plagued the VA system since its inception.
One of the major elements of the latest scandal to rock the VA is the apparent practice of faking records to make it look as though the long waits for care most vets encounter were shorter than they actually were.
There are estimates that as many as 1,000 veterans died waiting for care in the last few years. Although dying while waiting for care is not unique to the VA, faking records to hide that fact is reprehensible.
So letting vets go to their local hospital or their own doctor for care instead of getting on a long waiting list at a facility sometimes a couple hundred miles away certainly has its benefits.
And miles are as much a factor as time. The grind of traveling long distances for treatment wears on veterans and their families and costs them money many can't afford.
The $17 billion breaks down into three major areas:
— About $2 billion to lease 27 new medical facilities. While 27 new clinics is better than none, it's not by much. That's one new clinic each for just 27 states out of 50, a laughable number.
— $5 billion for hiring doctors and nurses and some construction. The 130-page bill increases incentives for young doctors to work at the VA by doubling the amount of their student loans the agency can repay per year.
— And $10 billion to allow veterans to seek outside care if they wait longer than 30 days for an appointment or live more than 40 miles away from a VA hospital.
In northern Michigan — and more so in the Upper Peninsula — it's likely the vast majority of vets don't live within 40 miles of a VA facility, but they likely live within 40 miles of a hospital.
In a July 1 letter, former Munson Medical Center president and chief executive officer Ralph Cerny wrote that veterans "should be able to see any health care provider they want to see wherever that provider is located, not just those employed by the government."
He called for the VA's health care delivery system to be disbanded and converted into a government-funded insurance program for veterans.
That's not a new idea; and we can't forget that the nation's private health industry has its own demons. But the existing VA system is so dysfunctional we must seek new options.
Veterans deserve first-class medical care in a responsive and respectful system. Spending more money to do essentially the same thing over and over serves no one.
Grand Haven Tribune. July 31.
You would have had to be living in a cave to have not heard the term "distracted driving" over the past several years.
The increased usage of smartphones and texting while driving have really brought this dangerous act to the forefront.
Many will argue there are other forms of distracted driving, all of which often end with the same result — a tragic accident.
What we haven't heard much about — and maybe you're even hearing about it here for the first time — is what we'll call "distracted passenger syndrome."
Those of us older than 30 can certainly recall those family trips when, in order to pass the time away, we played games with our siblings, and perhaps even fought a time or two before being told to climb over and sit behind the back seat and behave — which was possible because nobody was wearing a seat belt.
These days, kids are now glued to a DVD player or some other electronic device as soon as they climb in the car. What cause does that really have on these passengers?
No longer do they learn the lay of the land. Can they get from one side of town to the other? Do they know a red light means stop? What's that ticking noise before we turn?
Kids are oblivious to what is going on around them while in the car, and ultimately it will result in the decline of driving skills, which will likely result in higher insurance rates and other expenses.
The next time a young person is traveling with you, have them put the electronic device down and pay attention to what is going on around them. Doing so might even force them to ask, "Are we there yet?"
The Holland Sentinel. July 27.
Kids Count offers some sobering statistics on child well-being in Michigan
For 25 years, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has been compiling valuable information on the well-being of children, both nationally and in individual states. While the foundation's annual Kids Count reports have found some areas of progress, the overall trend of child welfare in Michigan is discouraging. The rate of child poverty in our state has soared in the last quarter century, while we continue to lag educationally. It's a sobering picture.
In the latest Kids Count report issued last week, Michigan ranked 32nd in the nation in overall child well-being, down one position from last year. That puts us behind all our Great Lakes neighbors — Minnesota (fifth place), Wisconsin (13th), Illinois (20th), Ohio (24th) and Indiana (27th). Much of our poor rating is due to the effect of the Great Recession, which struck earlier and lasted longer in Michigan than anywhere else in the nation. Twenty-five percent of children in the state live in poverty, according to the Kids Count report — a 39 percent increase since 1990. In that same period, the number of kids living in single-parent households has jumped 30 percent while the total living in "unaffordable housing" (defined as a home where rent or mortgage consumes more than 30 percent of income) has risen 36 percent. Clearly, hundreds of thousands of children in Michigan are growing up in families with serious economic handicaps.
Not all the news on our children is bleak. In fact, some of the public health advances are extremely impressive. Kids Count found that the teen death rate in Michigan has dropped 41 percent in the last 25 years, a decrease attributed to the restrictions of the state's graduated driver's license law. In the same period, the number of teens giving birth fell from 59 per 1,000 to 29 per 1,000 — a 56 percent improvement. And 28 percent more 3- and 4-year-olds are in preschool, even before the $130 million in new state funding in next year's budget.
It's education that really drags down Michigan's rating. Kids Count puts Michigan 39th nationally in education, with low ratings for such key measures as fourth-grade reading, eighth-grade math and on-time graduation. "Michigan has been running in place on education, while other states race ahead," said Gilda Jacobs, president and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy, the state affiliate in the Kids Count program.
There are no quick or easy solutions for Michigan's children. The economy is improving in Michigan but at a frustratingly slow pace, with many families disconnected from the recovery. More money for public education would help, but dollars alone don't help kids learn; money must be carefully targeted to help children in key skills at key times, so their entire school career is not locked into a pattern of continuing substandard achievement. One strategy we've long advocated is reinstating the state Earned Income Tax Credit — a key tax break for the working poor — to its pre-2012 level of 20 percent of the federal credit.
More than any single action, we could use a change of priorities among policymakers at all levels in Michigan. "Our children are our future" is one of the most cliched and obvious phrases around, and one of the most widely ignored. How often do we actually make children — not just our own children, or the children of our friends and neighbors — a true priority? The first question behind every bill, every government program, every budget appropriation should not be whether this is good for business, good for the bureaucracy, good for campaign contributors or even good for an elected official's core constituency. It's whether it's good for children. That requires a very different mindset, a much longer-term outlook than the one most of us employ now.
Too many kids in Michigan are starting their lives with serious disadvantages they may never be able to overcome. Improving their well-being has to be at the top of our state's to-do list.
The Mining Journal (Marquette). July 31
Lack of federal funding for winter woes unfortunate
The recent news that federal disaster relief funds wouldn't be coming to our area to help local governments deal with deep-freeze problems last winter was not good.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency informed the Michigan State Police late last week that $10.1 million of the reported damage caused by last winter's extended frigid temperatures were eligible for federal relief. That figure falls more than $3.5 million short of the $13.7 million threshold needed for FEMA to offer financial relief under a presidential disaster declaration.
The six affected Upper Peninsula counties — Marquette, Chippewa, Delta, Gogebic, Luce and Mackinac — and Charlevoix, Cheboygan and Emmet counties downstate submitted documentation to the state totaling $19.3 million in winter-related expenses.
As expected, local officials were not happy with the decision, and a good share of the blame for the rejection was laid squarely on state officials' shoulders.
For example, the Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division of MSP removed the cost of thawing water laterals from the financial damages package sent to FEMA, according to Negaunee City Manager Jeff Thornton.
In addition, Marquette County Board member Greg Seppanen said the costs of "let-run" water orders were also removed from the damage estimates.
Both items were taken out because they involved private ownership of the equipment involved, rather than being publicly owned.
As pointed out by Thornton and Seppanen, if local governments hadn't thawed laterals nor hadn't residents kept their water flowing to prevent freeze-ups, much more costly damage would have been done to the publicly owned water mains.
We agree with the stance of local officials, both that the lateral thawing and let-run costs should have been included as well as that the state did not come through for northern Michigan.
Thornton and Seppanen said these missteps by state officials shows how out of touch they are with our region, basically offering lip service to the U.P. and the three downstate counties.
Perhaps they were too busy concentrating on areas of the state where there are more people who will be voting in upcoming elections.