- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Independent Record, Oct. 28, on protecting health care workers:

Between the time he was found and the time he was jailed, the suspected murderer in last month’s manhunt north of Helena came into contact with people in two lines of work: law enforcement and health care.

The police had a responsibility to apprehend the man and take him into custody, while the health care workers were directed to give him the medical attention he needed. None of them knew whether he would try to hurt someone in the process, but all of them knew he was considered extremely dangerous.

While both groups of professionals had an obligation to do their jobs to the best of their ability despite the dangers of working with a possibly dangerous individual, the law protected one of them more than the other in this situation and many others like it.

And the Montana Nurses Association wants to change that.

Through the “Your Nurse Wears Combat Boots” campaign, the union is pushing for an automatic felony charge for assault on a health care provider. That would place nurses and doctors in a class with police and judicial officers.

Under existing laws, health care workers who are assaulted are required to press charges for prosecution to take place. Officials with the nurses association say many health care workers are either too busy or too sympathetic to follow through with the process, and we don’t believe they should have to.

More than 30 states have laws protecting health care workers, according to the MNA. In Montana, the group hopes lawmakers will institute jail time and fines of $25,000 for anyone convicted of assaulting a health care worker.

The association is not asking for the law to include protections for nurses who work with the mentally ill. All it wants is a law targeting intentional, conscious and sometimes premeditated assault against the health care workers who put themselves in harm’s way to keep our communities safe.

Like police, health care workers often run toward instead of away from danger. And we believe it is in everyone’s best interest for them to feel as comfortable as possible doing their jobs.

While we know the proposed law would not be enough to stop every assault, we’re certain it would deter some would-be attackers and help ensure that justice is served in the event of an assault against a health care provider.

This is the third time MNA officials have tried get a similar bill passed by the state Legislature, and we believe it’s time for their voices to be heard.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/20tnahv

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Billings Gazette, Nov. 1, on reforming the prison system:

Montana’s prisoner population has been growing faster than the national average. The state’s inmate count increased 15 percent between 2004 and 2013, compared with a national average of 6 percent, according to the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

Felony case filings in Montana District Courts totaled 9,339 in 2014 - a 29 percent increase from 2008.

The Justice Center will spend the next year working with the Montana Commission on Sentencing created by the 2015 Legislature.

During 2004-2013, Montana’s property crime rate dropped by 41 percent and its violent crime rate increased 51 percent. At the same time, the national rate of property crime fell 46 percent and violent crime dropped 50 percent. Montana’s crime rate still remains well below the U.S. average, but the trend isn’t good. While the state incarcerated more people, more violent crime was reported. Clearly, locking up more people wasn’t reducing the worst crimes.

The Justice Center has worked with 20 other states on similar studies, always emphasizing evidence-based practices that have been objectively proven successful.

The Montana Department of Corrections projects steady growth for the corrections population. The people in prisons, in state prerelease facilities and other DOC programs, as well as those on probation and parole already exceed capacity.

General fund spending on corrections has gone up with the burgeoning population: From $131 million in fiscal 2006 to $182 million in fiscal 2014.

More adults are being admitted to DOC facilities than are being released. Admissions in 2014 were 2,460 inmates, compared with 2,292 releases.

There are better ways to hold offenders accountable and improve their prospects of becoming law-abiding citizens.

According to the Justice Center, some state strategies used in recent years to reduce recidivism include:

-Funding more treatment courts.

-Reducing revocations to prison and jail.

-Focusing on statewide recidivism reduction.

-Improving supervision quality. (Hard to do when prisons and probation officers are overloaded.)

-Realigning sentencing and parole policies.

-Structuring supervision sanctions based on risk.

-Better targeting for treatment programs.

-Improving restitution collection.

-Crafting win-wins for state and counties.

-Improving pretrial assessment and supervision.

The state of North Carolina extensively revised its criminal laws in 2011, and through 2014 had saved about $560 million, according to the Justice Center. That state closed 10 prisons, hired 175 new probation officers and reported an 11 percent drop in crime between 2011 and 2013.

The Commission on Sentencing has been formed at a crucial time. The state system is being stretched beyond capacity, putting more pressure on counties. That impact is felt in Yellowstone County where the jail has 200 more inmates than it was built to hold.

In his April bill signing statement, Gov. Steve Bullock noted that it “has been 20 years since Montana has undertaken a comprehensive review of sentencing policies and our criminal justice system as SB224 proposes to do. Much has changed in the last 20 years in the criminal justice field, and many states have undergone similar comprehensive reviews, resulting in justice reinvestment strategies that have reduced recidivism in their jails and prisons.

“Over the last two years, Department of Corrections Director Batista has made a commitment to implementing data-driven policies and practices within the department. The Re-Entry Task Force, created at the direction of the 2013 Legislature, has also produced a report with recommendations to reduce recidivism.”

As Bullock said, “It makes sense to take this next step.”

Montana can’t afford to keep locking up more people, and having them come back into the corrections system again and again. For public safety and taxpayer relief, the Commission on Sentencing needs to point us toward better policies.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/1Q56DwA

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The Montana Standard, Nov. 3, on the state’s Clean Water Rule:

Make no mistake - if you’re an angler or someone who simply enjoys Montana’s wild places and clean headwaters streams - and doesn’t that include most of us in this state? - U.S. Sen. Jon Tester stood up for you Tuesday.

A bill sponsored by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., that would have forced the Environmental Protection Agency to withdraw and rewrite its Clean Water Rule was blocked in the Senate.

It was a close thing. The bill required 60 votes for passage. It attracted only 57 — including several Democrats, including Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. Sen. Steve Daines voted for Barrasso’s bill, as did all Republican senators.

But in a key decision, Sen. Tester voted to protect the quality of Montana’s waterways.

The bill would have thrown water-quality regulation into chaos. The Clean Water Rule, also known as the Waters of the United States rule, was issued by the EPA and the Corps of Engineers in May, and has been relentlessly targeted by industry and conservatives ever since.

While the rule is on hold because of federal lawsuits, it is expected by many legal observers to survive in the courts. The Senate legislation posed a far greater threat.

The rule itself is far from the example of governmental overreach it has been made out to be. It is in fact a compromise worked out over years of research and negotiation. It is based on sound science and will provide protection for key rivers and watersheds, but will not block sensible development.

Tester also sent EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and the head of the Corps of Engineers a letter urging continued clarification of the way the rule is to be implemented.

Tester said Tuesday, “As a Montana farmer, I know that clean water and clean air are vital to farmers and ranchers, to sportsmen and women, and to the future of our state’s economy. Some folks in Montana have concerns that the clean water rule doesn’t provide enough certainty, and that’s why I’m continuing to push the EPA and the Corps to address that. But this bill is a political distraction from the hard work of bringing folks together in the middle to strike a balance that works for Montana.”

We agree, and believe that Tester deserves congratulations for standing firm on a tough vote.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/1KX8iwq

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The Great Falls Tribune, Nov. 3, on Medicaid expansion:

Montanans showed flexibility, creativity and persistence as they worked to provide more health care coverage to tens of thousands of Montanans, including low-wage earners.

It’s good news that Montanans from both political parties came up with the state’s own version of expanding the federal Medicaid program for folks with lower incomes. There was a gap between Montanans who already have health insurance coverage, and Montanans who have so little income they qualified for Medicaid outright.

Some Montanans fell into this gap because they made too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but they also didn’t qualify for health insurance subsidies through the federal Affordable Care Act. Originally, the federal health law would have covered these people in the gap in all 50 states, but a U.S. Supreme Court ruling made Medicaid expansion optional for the states.

Montana is the 30th state to approve Medicaid expansion, despite intense opposition from groups such as Americans for Prosperity. States that tend to vote Democratic generally approved the expansion, as did some purple or swing states, and a few red states that tend to vote Republican. Most staunchly conservative states refused to approve Medicaid expansion for those states’ working poor.

In Montana, legislators didn’t approve the standard program. Instead, state Sen. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, came up with a version he believed was better suited to Big Sky Country, including requiring most of those receiving this version of Medicaid to pay 2 percent of their income for it. The program aims to provide health coverage but also to encourage recipients to work, with the idea that some will obtain better-paying jobs and eventually will gain other insurance.

This Montana version has been approved by the federal government, Gov. Steve Bullock announced Monday. “This plan will bring Montanans’ tax dollars home to expand access to quality affordable healthcare, throw a lifeline to our state’s struggling rural hospitals, and reduce the cost shifting to those of us fortunate enough to have insurance,” the governor said in a statement.

Helping small hospitals would be a boon. Plus, Medicaid expansion will cost the state of Montana very little to start.

The goal of the Affordable Care Act - some folks call it Obamacare - was to provide health insurance to more people, and the legislation succeeded on that score. The new Medicaid expansion is expected to apply to up to 70,000 Montanans, but not all of them will enroll. In the first four years it becomes available, 45,000 Montanans are expected to sign up. They can do so immediately by going online to healthcare.mt.gov, or by calling 800-318-2596.

It’s heartening that in the midst of legislative logjams and ultra-partisanship that is too common these days, Montanans in a somewhat bipartisan manner came up with a solution that will help a lot of people. Buttrey is a Republican; Bullock is a Democrat. It’s not impossible for different parties to work together on issues that help residents.

Fixing the country’s health care system, which is very expensive and getting more so, is no easy task. But President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, and Medicaid expansion with a Montana flavor, are positive steps that extend more health coverage to people without it.

In the 2013 Legislature, Medicaid expansion failed by a single vote in the House of Representatives. In 2015, it took dedicated efforts by people such as Buttrey, as well as parliamentary maneuvering, to pass the Montana HELP Act (Health and Economic Livelihood Partnership).

Thanks to those who stuck their necks out. This will mean more medical jobs in the state, and more people receiving health coverage. That’s a good thing.

Editorial: https://gftrib.com/1H6wDVu

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