Alabama editorial roundup

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Updated: November 25, 2015 at 2:51 pm

Recent editorials from Alabama newspapers:


Nov. 22

The Dothan Eagle on the Alabama Ethics Commission:

It's difficult to imagine a scenario in which a group of elected lawmakers could be paid by organizations with business before that lawmaking body, and advocate or oppose legislation on behalf of that organization, and have that arrangement pass muster with ethics watchdogs.

However, that was one interpretation of the Alabama Ethics Commission's ruling with regard to one lawmaker's employment with a gay rights group; the advice appeared to open the door for organizations to hire lawmakers to lobby for them in the statehouse while serving as a voting member of the Legislature.

And Alabama residents wonder how our state managed to find itself among the most corrupt in the nation in a Harvard University ranking.

Perhaps it's better now. The Ethics Commission revised its opinion, and Attorney General Luther Strange has called it "a significant improvement," adding that he is emphatic that lawmakers cannot be hired lobbyists.

That's good news. However, it's alarming that it's necessary for the Ethics Commission to go back to the drawing board to revise a ruling and to have the state's highest law enforcement official underscore the changes in this matter. There are certainly confusing, gray areas. This isn't one of them.

It's not insignificant that some of the questions come from the defense of House Speaker Mike Hubbard, who is under indictment on a raft of ethics charges. Hubbard's lawyers argue that the law is vague and too broad. Incidentally, Hubbard voted for the "vague and too-broad" law in 2010, and talked it up as a positive change.

We agree with AG Strange that the revised Ethics Commission ruling is an improvement, but it's far from ideal. Allowing lawmakers to be employed by organizations with business before the legislature invites unethical behavior, even in the most seemingly innocuous, not-officially-lobbying ways.

Requiring those lawmakers to recuse themselves from debate and voting on matters related to their employers would be another positive step for Alabama as we inch our way toward integrity.



Nov. 23

The Montgomery Advertiser on veteran health care:

The multiple failures of the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System in Montgomery and Tuskegee to provide adequate care for veterans make the point for aggressive reforms to turn it and other troubled VA facilities around.

U.S. Rep Martha Roby's proposal to allow federal VA officials to take over dysfunctional medical centers around the country with rapid-response teams is the best strategy available.

The Montgomery Republican testified before the House Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Health last week, citing bureaucratic and cultural problems at CAVHCS that have made a quick transformation there difficult, if not impossible.

A vote wasn't immediately scheduled for the bill, and it was criticized by VA officials on several fronts, including potential unfairness to employees, cost and employee recruitment concerns, and possible duplication of already existing programs.

Those issues should be hashed out, and the legislation tweaked to address them, and Roby has wisely voiced some flexibility on parts of the VA feedback.

But the basic tenets of the bill are needed to restore accountability to the system - and dignity to veterans in its care.

They include creation of an Office of Failing Medical Centers Recovery to temporarily control daily operations at a minimum of two and a maximum of seven centers with the most severe problems, based on criteria such as in-hospital mortality rates, turnover among registered nurses and how long patients wait to get an appointment.

Roby is right that the tough grading method and threat of takeover are necessary to create a sense of urgency in improving patient care and outcomes, as opposed to the lax or incompetent culture too long the status quo.

Lest we forget, the deplorable list of blunders and fraudulent activity at the Alabama sites included attempts to cover up long wait times for patients, X-rays that went unread, and falsified information on medical records.

The former director's reaction to employee misconduct on his watch was shamefully inadequate.

The Roby proposal would also give national VA officials authority to hire and fire employees, sure to be opposed by civil service advocates worried about job security.

Again, the status quo of sluggish response to inept or criminal conduct cannot be allowed to stand. Veterans' health and lives are at stake.

We also agree with Roby's proposal that quality scores giving hospitals ratings of one to five stars be made public every year, a win for transparency that would keep failures in the spotlight until true turnarounds are achieved.

Roby's package of reforms is ambitious, applying to VA medical centers nationwide.

But such strong medicine appears to be the only way to force needed change in the system.



Nov. 24

The Gadsden Times on Alabama's chemical endangerment law:

Since 2006, it has been a felony in Alabama to, according to the State Code, "knowingly, recklessly or intentionally (cause or permit) a child to be exposed to, to ingest or inhale or to have contact with a controlled substance, chemical substance or drug paraphernalia."

That law has become controversial in some circles following media reports detailing the number of pregnant women or those who have given birth who have been arrested under it — nearly 500, including a big chunk in Etowah County.

The Alabama Health Care Improvement Task Force has joined the chorus, and will meet in December to finalize a recommendation that the Legislature revisit the law and bring it in line with what the task force considers its original intent.

Its members contend the law was designed to prevent children from being exposed to meth labs, not to put drug-abusing pregnant women in jail. Former Sen. Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, author of the original bill, has said as much, but prosecutors quickly began using it the other way and have been backed up by Alabama Supreme Court rulings.

The task force's members echo opponents who say the law deters women from seeking prenatal care, putting their babies at risk in other ways, and want to see an emphasis on treating women rather than jailing them on felony charges.

Their recommendations are just that, completely non-binding, and we think they will have a difficult time with this one, since legislators seem pointed in a completely different direction.

A bill to require medical professionals to notify law enforcement within two hours if they suspect a child has been exposed to drugs was introduced by Rep. Mack Butler, R-Rainbow City, in this year's session, but failed. Butler plans to reintroduce it next year, changing the time frame to 24 hours, and has said he believes the law applies to pregnant women.

We're sure he's not alone at the State House or in the general populace. Alabamians aren't sympathetic to drug users or folks who put babies in danger, inside or outside the womb. It's hard not to feel outrage when contemplating an infant brought into this world unwittingly and unwillingly filled with poison.

That doesn't mean this law shouldn't be revisited and couldn't be improved, however.

We know that in Etowah County, women who have been arrested for chemical endangerment have been directed to treatment programs, but that's after the fact and after jail. Why not allow women one opportunity, without criminal penalty, to proactively seek help for their addictions during their pregnancies? That might help solve the issue of people being afraid to seek prenatal care.

And we strongly support one revision to the law proposed by the task force — protection for women taking medications prescribed by their doctors, which doesn't exist at present.

We understand the passion of those who view drugs as a scourge and want to protect babies. That passion shouldn't be a ticket to interfere in the doctor-patient relationship.