- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Recent editorials from Georgia newspapers:

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April 25

The Valdosta Daily Times on government transparency:

Georgia law says, “The General Assembly finds and declares that the strong public policy of this state is in favor of open government.”

The state’s Sunshine Law rightly says, “open government is essential to a free, open and democratic society.”

We could not agree more.

It does not matter, however, if local officials agree or disagree with the fundamental principles of open government because it’s the law.

County commissioners, members of city council, members of the board of education and everyone who sits on local government committees, commissions, boards and authorities must realize all the government business they do is the people’s business.

The public has the right to know all of its own business.

The documents held in the halls of government belong to the public, not to public officials.

The public has a vested interest in government transparency. Being able to attend public meetings, hearing all deliberations of the public’s business is critical to being able to hold government accountable.

Access to public records, including financial records, is just as critical.

Open government laws do not exist to protect and assist the media. Sunshine Laws exist to protect the public.

A government of, by and for the people must always be out in front.

Online:

https://www.valdostadailytimes.com/

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April 26

The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer on health care access in rural areas:

Often prohibitive cost to patients isn’t the only health care crisis in the United States, as many people in this region know all too well. In rural areas, mostly poor ones, the crisis isn’t just about the affordability of medical care, but about having access to it at all.

In emergencies, that can be literally a life-or-death issue. Yet all across the country, rural hospitals are finding it hard, and sometimes impossible, to stay open.

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., is one of four principal sponsors of a bipartisan Senate bill that would revise what its supporters say is an ill-conceived system of Medicare support.

The Fair Medicare Hospital Payment Act of 2016 (S.2832), according to a Senate news release, would adjust “disproportionately low Medicare reimbursement payments to hospitals in rural and low-wage areas.”

Isakson, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, and co-sponsor Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., both call it a “flawed formula”; another co-sponsor, Mark Warner, D-Va., calls it a “skewed payment system” that exacerbates the challenges of hospitals in poor rural areas. “Under the current system,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, the other Democrat among the four principal sponsors of the legislation, “many hospitals . are paid less for the same lifesaving care they provide as their counterparts in other states across the country.”

The bill would create a national “area wage index” based on the relative wage level in a hospital’s geographic region as compared to the national average, and adjust Medicare reimbursements accordingly.

William T. Richardson, President of Tift Regional Health System, told the Albany Herald that Medicare “uses a wage index to calculate the costs of labor associated with hospital services for Medicare patients - so hospitals in areas with a low cost of living get less than the hospitals in areas with a high cost of living. This hits hospitals serving rural areas the hardest.”

This issue hits close to home, and not just figuratively. Brian Church, CFO for Phoebe Putney Health System in Albany, told the Herald that the system is frequently strained as a “safety net” for other coverage areas in southwest Georgia when hospitals close.

“Over the past three decades,” notes the sponsoring senators’ news release, “legislative and regulatory changes have combined with broader economic trends to create an uneven playing field that has resulted in hospitals losing out on millions of dollars in Medicare payments annually.”

Probably the cruelest irony of all in this formula is the self-reinforcing damage it does. One of the organizations endorsing the bill is the National Rural Health Association; as its CEO Alan Morgan wrote in a letter to Isakson, the existing reimbursement formula penalizes doctors who practice in underserved communities. One sure way make a rural health crisis self-perpetuating is a built-in reason for medical professionals not to go where they’re needed most.

Every now and then, something comes to Washington’s attention that actually transcends partisan politics. This bill is a welcome result.

Read more here: https://www.ledger-enquirer.com/opinion/article73949312.html#storylink=cpy

Online:

https://www.ledger-enquirer.com/

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April 24

The Macon Telegraph on teacher concerns in the state:

Teachers have a lot to be concerned about, particularly right now. In schools all across the state, their students are taking the Georgia Milestones Assessment Tests. In the very near future, these tests will not only determine students’ futures but most likely will be used to access teacher effectiveness as well.

This is a critical time for Georgia educators, not just because of testing, but also the governor’s efforts to reform education. That reform seems to be coming from a standpoint of what will save money rather than what is good for the education of the state’s children.

During Gov. Nathan Deal’s State of the State speech this year, he proposed a 3-percent raise for teachers. This was welcomed news. But we shouldn’t parse what the governor said. It’s much better to read his own words:

“Over the past five years, members of this General Assembly and I have shown our appreciation for our teachers by making public education a priority, and we will do so again this year by appropriating an additional $300 million for K-12 education, which is more than is required to give teachers a 3-percent pay raise.

“We will distribute this money to your local school system under the existing QBE formula, but it is our intention that your local school system pass the 3-percent pay raise along to you. If that does not happen, it will make it more difficult next year for the state to grant local systems more flexibility in the expenditure of state education dollars, as recommended by the Education Reform Commission.

“We have given local school systems large increases in funding for the past three years and given them the flexibility to decide how to spend it. Based on a survey by the State Department of Education, 94 percent of school systems used those funds to reduce or eliminate furlough days. With the additional funding this year, furloughs should be a thing of the past and teachers should receive that 3-percent pay raise.”

Here are the problems with those statements. While the state has increased education funding, the governor forgets that more than $6 billion was sucked out of the education budget. Although he would like to pat himself and his legislative colleagues on the back, the restored funding still doesn’t meet QBE formula levels. It never has.

School systems across the state are wrestling with their budgets this time of year, and funding is still an issue. In Bibb County, it was proposed to give teachers a one-time bonus that would have amounted to 3 percent. That strategy was taken because a bonus doesn’t add to the long-term salary costs of the district. But as Bibb County school Superintendent Curtis Jones explained, the additional state money wasn’t enough to cover other requirements and pay for the bonus.

The governor could have just as easily put the salary increase in his budget, but he didn’t. Now the school districts are stuck with the governor’s shell game and have to try to make it work. And there is no end in sight. Next year the governor will unveil his version of the reforms developed from his appointed Education Reform Commission. Don’t expect it to look anything like the final report from the various committees.

And that is why a survey of more than 53,000 teachers from across the state revealed startling results:

- More than 44 percent of new teachers leave the profession within their first five years, and 16 percent fewer students are entering the state’s teacher preparation programs.

- Only 2.7 percent of teachers would recommend teaching to someone entering college.

It will be interesting to watch the push for the constitutional amendment on November’s ballot seeking approval for the misnamed “opportunity school” district. It will be an opportunity for some people, but we doubt it will be a better opportunity for students.

Online:

https://www.macon.com/

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