- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from New York’s newspapers:

The Daily Gazette of Schenectady on tracking dangerous prisoners with microchips.

June 16

Reinforced concrete walls, razor wire, electrified fencing, alarm systems, armed guards, security cameras and computerized electronic gates should be plenty to keep dangerous prisoners from escaping.

We don’t need to go down the slippery constitutional slope of installing microchips in prisoners in case they manage to get past all those measures.

In the wake of this month’s escape of two murderers from the Dannemora state prison, some public officials have suggested even more extreme measures are needed to keep inmates in control

On a cable TV news program Friday, Saratoga County state Sen. Kathleen Marchione agreed with a suggestion that inmates be implanted with trackable microchips under their skin, in much the same way livestock and dogs are.

“I think it’s something that we have to have a conversation about,” Marchione told Liz Benjamin of Capital Tonight. “It would make some good sense, at that level, that we should have something that we could track them.”

It seems like a reasonable idea on the surface. With two murderers on the loose and the search costing taxpayers millions, a $5 computer chip seems like a bargain.

At some point, though, we have to understand the difference between price and cost.

What price would we be paying as a society if we opened the door to surgically implanting monitoring devices in people we want to control? We’re not talking about ankle bracelets. We’re talking about making these part of someone’s body.

It won’t stop at murderers serving life terms. We’ll quickly find all kinds of ways to rationalize the use of these devices. First it will be expanded to all criminals, regardless of their danger to society. It would surely protect society to keep track of burglars or drunken drivers or people with mental health issues. Then we’ll authorize imbedded chips for employees, justifying it as a way to ensure greater productivity. Then we’ll start putting them in kids in case they get lost or kidnapped. Soon, we’ll all have them.

What happens when a person’s jail term or employment expires? Do they go in for surgery to remove the chips? Who keeps track of all these devices and what is the cost? What kind of information will be stored on the chips, and how much information could be collected about an individual? Could these chips go beyond GPS tracking to record conversations that could be monitored?

No, Senator, imbedding computer chips in inmates is not something we have to have a conversation about.

Because once we open the doors to that, we’ll have much more to worry about as a society than a rare escape.




The Middletown Times Herald-Record on fireworks legislation in New York.

June 16

When the state was pondering ways to make backyard fireworks legal, when counties were considering the same thing, there was an understanding that went something like this:

If New Yorkers want to buy fireworks, we can’t stop them from going across the border to Pennsylvania or from picking some up in other states they might visit. The laws we now have are so old, so out of touch, that they are hare to enforce, so they rarely are. As a result, we have the appearance of a prohibition on dangerous fireworks with the reality that we have no control at all.

Better - the legislators and county officials reasoned - to have legitimate definitions and rules in place, the kind that we can and will enforce so that we can make sure those things that explode around the Fourth of July and New Year’s are the kinds that will not cause much damage or many injuries.

After vetoing several legislative attempts to clarify the legal status of fireworks, the governor finally received a version he could live with and he signed it into law late last fall. Now several counties, including Orange, Sullivan and Ulster, have signed on and the result is the appearance of those legal and temporary fireworks stores in time for the holiday celebrations.

Some who have long been opposed to the public use of fireworks - notably firefighters who respond whenever an errant spark sets off a fire, or emergency workers who see the trauma when victims need help for burns or worse - were not happy with these decisions by the state and counties. One of the officials on the front line, Middletown Mayor Joe DeStefano, was troubled that the county went ahead with the authorization without consulting the municipalities who will be left to enforce the rules and clean up the mess. The city now has inspectors making sure that what is being sold is legal.

It is not hard to understand why the legislators and county officials did not do any consulting before allowing the use of fireworks. In New York City, where the objections to any legalization were consistent and well-known, fireworks of any kind, including sparklers and other low level items, are still forbidden under the law. Had the legislators and counties checked around, they would have found the same kinds of objections coming from the same people responsible for public safety.

But now the law is in effect, the booths are doing brisk business and we are about to get the first test of this approach come July Fourth. If, as promised, this new law results in more arrests for fireworks that go beyond those allowed, and if the sales that fall within the definition do not result in more burns and injuries, then we will know that the new approach worked. If not, it will be interesting to see if the counties and legislators are willing to admit that they were wrong and realize that the attitude in New York City, making all of these dangerous items illegal under a law that would be very easy to enforce, was the right approach after all.




The Gloversville Leader-Herald on the Obama administration and the Freedom of Information Act.

June 12

President Barack Obama’s administration, which he promised in 2009 would be the most transparent in history, instead is on track to set new records for concealing information.

Both through a general slowdown in responding to Freedom of Information Act requests and by simply refusing to release some important documents, the White House is telling Americans, in effect, that how government functions is none of our business.

Obama is not the first president to pledge openness, then go in the other direction. Again, however, secrecy has reached new, alarming heights.

For example, the government had a backlog of about 77,000 requests for information when Obama took office in 2009. The number soared to nearly 160,000 last year.

Members of the House of Representatives Oversight Committee have just concluded hearings on the Freedom of Information Act. Lawmakers heard horror stories such as some people waiting for years merely to be told whether the government would provide documents they sought - only to be rejected.

When Obama took office, it was announced details about all visitors to the White House, including names and dates, would be made public. Since then, reporters have been told there are exceptions to the rule. And, to dodge it entirely, Obama’s aides have made it a point to meet some people outside the White House - so contacts that might embarrass the president can be treated as if they never happened.

Strengthening FOIA statutes may help - but they can be no solution against a president who will not keep his promise.




The Watertown Daily Times on punishing Catholic bishops responsible for covering up sexual assaults by priests.

June 14

The Vatican last week accepted a proposal that, if pursued sincerely, should assure people the Roman Catholic Church is taking the sexual abuse scandal that has plagued it for decades more seriously.

While priests who have engaged in sexual abuse have been defrocked and imprisoned for years, the bishops who oversaw them have largely remained immune from sanctions. This may change, and the new process could go a long way toward restoring more confidence on the part of people who believe the church has not done enough to punish offenders.

Pope Francis approved a measure to hold bishops accountable if they helped cover up incidents of abuse. They could be required to appear before a tribunal overseen by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

According to a June 11 blog post for Reuters by Philip Pullella, bishops accused of protecting pedophile priests would first be “investigated by one of three Vatican departments, depending on the jurisdiction under which the bishops fall, before being judged by the doctrinal tribunal.”

Groups advocating on behalf of sexual abuse victims have long called for bishops to be held accountable for shielding offenders. Rather than take the claims of abuse seriously by investigating them, many bishops have often moved priests from one church or diocese to another with no warning about previous accusations.

The pope’s decision to approve this new tribunal system is a step in the right direction. As protective bishops have concealed far too many cases of sexual abuse, it’s only fitting that the church formalizes a process through which they will be judged for their actions.

Some victims’ advocates have welcomed this news by the Vatican and hope it leads to more reconciliation.

Terence McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability, said that people bringing charges against members of the clergy “will be treated more respectfully and their cases acted upon if there are people dedicated to this topic, and that’s good. This was an obvious next step,” according to a June 10 article in the Washington Post.

Understandably, other groups have been reluctant to endorse the plan.

Some have said these steps are too little, too late. Others believe this process doesn’t go far enough because there is no defined penalty for bishops found guilty of covering up incidents of abuse. Still others question how earnestly Vatican officials will investigate fellow members of the clergy, and some critics asserted that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith won’t be transparent enough to allow people to follow what’s going on with the cases it investigates.

“Sound isn’t necessarily music. Motion isn’t necessarily progress. And a ‘process’ isn’t necessarily prevention, especially if that process involves clergy sex crimes and cover-ups and the Catholic hierarchy,” according to a statement by Becky Ianni, the Virginia/Washington, D.C. leader of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “The problem has never been a lack of Vatican officials with the specific ‘process’ to investigate their complicit colleagues. The problem has been, and is, a lack of Vatican officials with the courage to investigate their complicit colleagues. … A new process can lead to prevention or to complacency. It’s just too early to tell.”

Ms. Ianni makes some valid points. Pope Francis must urge those involved in these investigative bodies to be relentless in discovering the truth about what many bishops have done and impose appropriate penalties for allowing pedophile priests to destroy lives.

Many people have turned their backs on the Catholic Church. It has been too slow in many instances to oust abusive priests and their protective superiors and make amends with their victims. And stories of abuse have been reported all across the United States, including Northern New York, and in many parts of the world.

But the church remains a vital part of the lives of its members. There are many good priests and lay leaders who have provided extraordinary services to people in need, and the sexual abuse scandal has unfairly tarnished their reputation and hindered the work they seek to perform.

It’s vital, then, that members of the Vatican hierarchy take advantage of the opportunity the pope has given them to begin to address the horrific crimes that have been committed.

The fate of the Catholic Church’s relationship with those who have either left it or remain skeptical that it intends to correct its institutional failings hangs in the balance. How these leaders conduct themselves on rooting out bishops who have covered up sexual abuse will determine how many people view the church in the future.




The New York Times on the high cost of medical treatment at for-profit hospitals.

June 16

Two reports published this month provide fresh evidence of the hard-to-justify high prices that many hospitals charge for common procedures. The prices drive up premiums for many privately insured patients and can be ruinously expensive for those who are uninsured or inadequately insured or who go to a hospital or doctor outside their insurance network.

A study published in the June issue of Health Affairs, a policy journal, found that the 50 hospitals with the highest prices in 2012, the latest data available, charged an average of 10 times what is allowed by Medicare, which was used as a baseline for cost. Although hospitals routinely complain that Medicare pays too little, the allowable charges under Medicare are what the government, after extensive analysis, considers the cost of the procedure plus a reasonable amount to invest in hospital improvements and keep up with medical inflation.

Of the 50 highest-charging hospitals, 49 were for-profit institutions, most of them operated by big chains like Community Health Systems and Hospital Corporation of America. Under the Affordable Care Act, nonprofit hospitals are required to provide charity care or discounts to low-income people but that mandate does not apply to for-profit hospitals.

Some for-profit hospitals offer discounts voluntarily, and several states have laws or regulations requiring all hospitals, including for-profit hospitals, to offer price discounts to eligible uninsured patients. No federal law regulates what hospitals can charge; only two states, Maryland and West Virginia, have such laws. The highest-charging hospitals were in 13 states, mostly in the south. Prices varied greatly depending on the specialty. Anesthesiology and diagnostic radiology had very high markups, nursery services were much lower.

The typical response from the hospitals is that their list prices are not relevant to most patients because they don’t pay the full price. The two big government insurance programs, Medicare and Medicaid, pay far less than the list prices; private insurers typically bargain for discounts. Even so, high list prices raise the ceiling from which discounts are negotiated and thus drive up premiums for many privately insured patients.

High prices will hit millions of people who will remain uninsured in coming years for one reason or another despite passage of the Affordable Care Act, according to the Health Affairs study. Patients with private insurance who receive care out-of-network don’t generally benefit from their insurer’s negotiated discounts may have to pay a high proportion of the full charges.

A second report, released on June 1 by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, showed a similar pattern. For a major joint replacement, the most common reason for hospitalization, the average hospital charged more than $54,000 in 2013 while Medicare on average paid less than $15,000. In addition, the list prices that hospitals asked traditional Medicare patients to pay rose by more than 10 percent between 2011 and 2013, more than double the rate of inflation.

Market forces are often not powerful enough to restrain very high prices in areas where dominant hospitals and chains can pretty much charge what they please. The best remedy might be legislation, at the federal and state levels, to limit hospital prices that have no connection to the cost of delivering the services.




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