- Associated Press - Monday, September 21, 2015

Omaha World-Herald. Sept. 18, 2015

Audit of HHS shows change needed.

At a time when government needs to get the most bang for every taxpayer buck, the news from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services was discouraging.

A new state audit found that HHS has failed to recover possibly millions of dollars in overpayments of benefits.

The problems involve numerous programs, including Medicaid, child care assistance, food aid, aid to needy families, and aid to the aged, blind and disabled. Some overpayments went directly to people getting benefits; others went to providers who furnish services.

The auditor’s office detailed a backlog of more than 12,000 cases of possible overpayments that HHS workers reported via email to the agency’s “overpayment mailbox.”

Auditors found nearly 21,000 referral emails as of May 4, but 60 percent hadn’t been worked on. With a sample overpayment average of $543, that could amount to some $6.8 million the state had not tried to recover.

The department also often failed to follow its own collection process, and it lacked written policies and procedures to make sure repayment plans made sense. In one case, the audit found, officials approved a $35 per month repayment on a $24,425 balance - “which would take 58 years to repay.”

HHS has had a contract with a collection firm since 2010. Yet during the fiscal year just ended, the company collected $4,081 in payments, less than 1 percent of the value of cases referred to it.

HHS officials say the department is looking for ways to improve the overpayment recovery efforts. Gov. Pete Ricketts said he and department CEO Courtney Phillips are working to change the agency’s culture.

They could start by having HHS employees re-read a column Ricketts wrote a few weeks ago titled “Running Government Like a Business.”

“One of the core duties of state government is to protect society’s most vulnerable citizens and to provide a safety net for those who truly need a hand up, while ensuring that your hard-earned tax dollars are spent wisely,” the governor wrote.

There’s no doubt that the HHS mission is important. Its programs serve the vulnerable, the needy, those with nowhere else to turn.

But handling taxpayers’ money in such a lackadaisical way is a double-whammy.

It’s a misuse of funds that could be needed to help others. And it threatens to undermine public support for the agency’s work.


The Lincoln Journal Star. Sept. 17, 2015

UNL growth good news for school, community.

The news last week that University of Nebraska-Lincoln enrollment set a new record is most welcome on at least a couple of levels.

No. 1, the 1-percent increase, which took the student population at UNL to 25,260, shows the strength of the university, that its people and programs are of a quality that can draw increasing numbers of students. And much of that growth is coming from non-Nebraskans, who make up 30 percent of the school’s enrollment. The non-Nebraskan enrollment, based on this year’s survey, is up 5.2 percent. A growing university brings educational, social and economic benefits to Lincoln as a whole.

And No. 2, the non-Nebraskan increase indicates that one of the key strategies to keep growing the university is working.

UNL Director of Admissions Amber Williams shared with the Journal Star’s Chris Dunker the university’s secret sauce, which apparently has a couple of key ingredients. One is building relationships with the folks that can steer students to Lincoln and with prospective students themselves through college fairs. Another is using social media and multimedia tools effectively to get the word out among both students and parents.

Particularly when it comes to social media and multimedia, impacts are identifiable and measureable. University admissions personnel can target certain types of students and certain geographies, and they can know in many instances if their message was seen and often by whom.

And then several months or years a later, the fruits of those efforts are realized. And this year’s harvest indicates the strategies used are working.

Chancellor Harvey Perlman’s goal of 30,000 UNL students by the end of the decade is a lofty one, and it puts pressure - a good pressure - on everyone connected to the university. Recruitment gets folks here. A quality education in a positive atmosphere keeps them here.

The ambitious enrollment goal makes it essential that the university draws students from outside the places it has always gone.

And once in Lincoln, those non-Nebraskans students become folks who might put down roots here, take jobs, start businesses, raise families and, in general, make Lincoln an even better and more vibrant place.

So UNL’s good enrollment news is good news for UNL.

But it’s good news, too, for the community as whole. UNL’s success helps lift Lincoln and Nebraska.


The McCook Gazette. Sept. 18, 2015

Thwarting voters’ ability to vote on the death penalty.

Apparently Nebraskans’ civil liberties don’t include the right to vote on the death penalty.

The ACLU does have a point in its lawsuit, that Gov. Pete Ricketts should have been listed as a sponsor of a successful petition drive by the Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, since he and his father, TD Ameritrade founder Jo Ricketts donated several hundred thousand dollars to the drive.

As a result of the petition drive, Nebraska voters will have a chance in November 2016 to overturn the Legislature’s abolition of the death penalty.

The petition drive was managed by a Republican political consultant on the governor’s private payroll.

“Powerful interests like the Governor are not entitled to their own set of rules to pursue their own political objectives,” said Christy Hargesheimer, one of the plaintiffs in the ACLU lawsuit against Secretary of State John Gale, Nebraskans for the Death Penalty and three others.

Nebraska hasn’t executed an inmate since 1997 and technical issues may prevent it from doing so, even if the voters overturn the repeal.

The Department of Correctional Services spent more than $54,000 to buy drugs from India, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has prevented their import. The supplier attempted to ship them via FedEx last month, but the package was flagged because of “improper or missing international paperwork” and it was returned Sept. 4, according to FedEx’s online tracking page.

Ricketts’ ability to privately bankroll his political activities sticks in the craw of many of us, but the fact the the petition drive collected nearly 167,000 signatures, more than three times the minimum number needed, shows that many Nebraskans are on his side.

Death penalty proponents would argue that opponents were exerting undue influence on lawmakers.

Whatever the eventual fate of capital punishment in Nebraska, thanks to the petition drive, at least most residents will know that we had a chance to have our say.


The Scottsbluff Star-Herald. Sept. 15, 2015.


When Riverside Discovery Center’s chimpanzee Jack died last week, the zoo lost the fourth-oldest male captive chimpanzee in the country. At 50 years old, he had lived about a decade longer than a typical wild chimp. He was initially captured and used for behavioral research before ending up in an Atlanta zoo and eventually making his way here.

Jack’s story was just one of many that has been told through the animals at RDC. Beyond the fact that they have rescued thousands of animals, zoos help to educate and entertain a community. Children and adults alike have their understanding of the natural world, a world that we’re increasingly distanced from, shaped and deepened by observing animals. Zoos keep animal extinction at bay and promote scientific discoveries. In an era of smartphones and LED screens, the importance of children seeing animals in “real life” cannot be understated.

It’s unfortunate, then, that too many people choose to focus on the negatives. Yes, an animal in captivity is not able to live the same life it would in the wild. Their enclosures are smaller than the environment they would explore if left to their own devices. Simply put, zoos are considered an old-fashioned way for humans to view animals.

But zoos and their marine equivalent aquariums are essential, and not just for the reasons listed above. They are constantly evolving to provide more humane environments. As we understand the animal kingdom better, zookeepers and animal scientists are adapting the way animals are treated to not only make sure they are properly fed and cared for, but to improve their quality of life as a whole.

According to Dr. Stephen M. Coan, there are 225 formally accredited zoos and aquariums across the United States today. The majority are nonprofits supported by private organizations, and a little over one-third are operated by states, counties and municipalities. They attracted some 175 million visitors last year - more people than attended major league sporting events.

As a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, RDC is connected to a community that shares knowledge and expertise, conducts research, performs conservation, educates and has Species Survival Plans that scientifically manage populations of threatened and endangered species in captivity. RDC has 16 SSP species, some of them critically endangered in the wild.

Our local zoo is a vital part of our community. RDC’s summer series of concerts, Zoo Tunes, was a surprising success, with at least 100 people attending some nights to walk the grounds, sample wine and beer and listen to music among the animals. Throughout the summer, our area was able to take part in this community-building event.

RDC puts on the annual Zoobilee, which is a great event, and the Spooktacular, which for a lot of people in the community puts a celebratory touch on autumn. Halloween wouldn’t be the same without it.

We’re lucky to have RDC. It’s a fun way for our children to receive an education. It helps the animal kingdom survive. And we’re grateful we have it in the community.


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