- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Recent editorials from South Carolina newspapers:

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Aug. 30

The Post and Courier of Charleston on the Medical University of South Carolina’s board and spending:

The public should be grateful to members of the Medical University of South Carolina’s Board of Trustees for their service.

But it shouldn’t be paying for overly extravagant stays in Charleston.

And it shouldn’t expect that the board has apparently ignored professional advice against it.

Two years after an internal audit in 1997 cautioning the board about spending, the Legislative Audit Council “found no evidence that MUSC changed its spending practices” as a result.

And an investigation by reporters Lauren Sausser and Doug Pardue revealed that board members continue to enjoy lavish stays while here for meetings. In fact, since 2011 the 16-member governing board has spent about $560,000 for food, drink and lodging.

The public should be grateful to members of the Medical University of South Carolina’s Board of Trustees for their service.

But it shouldn’t be paying for overly extravagant stays in Charleston.

And it shouldn’t expect that the board has apparently ignored professional advice against it.

Two years after an internal audit in 1997 cautioning the board about spending, the Legislative Audit Council “found no evidence that MUSC changed its spending practices” as a result.

And an investigation by reporters Lauren Sausser and Doug Pardue revealed that board members continue to enjoy lavish stays while here for meetings. In fact, since 2011 the 16-member governing board has spent about $560,000 for food, drink and lodging.

The Board of Visitors, whose members function as community ambassadors for MUSC, were wined and dined to the tune of $290,000.

Of course, board members should be accommodated comfortably while they are in Charleston doing the public’s work. Charleston is an expensive city to visit, and most of the board members travel here for meetings.

Allowing up to $203 a day for a hotel room isn’t excessive. Nor is the $136 per person members are allowed for meals - at least evening meals. But spending $160 for a bottle of wine (actually $480 for three of them) is over the top.

And MUSC’s policy is also to pay for spouses and guests, who might have value to the institution. That is too open-ended, given the size of the tabs that come with these dinners.

Unfortunately, MUSC’s board has earned the public’s skepticism over the years because of its secretive ways and unresponsiveness to the public. For example, only one board member contacted by our reporters responded to questions. The board also elected new members and chose the new MUSC president in private, making it impossible to hold individual members personally accountable for their votes.

And when the number of board critics attending its meetings outgrew the meeting room, the board refused to move to a larger venue.

So when the board raises tuition for students, many of whom graduate deeply in debt, and medical costs rise, a $6,472 farewell dinner for two trustees and a staff member at the Peninsula Grill, at best, looks bad.

MUSC officials say that board members can spend as many as 24 days a year in board meetings. And, they add, trustees and members of the Board of Visitors have donated almost $6 million since 2011.

They also contend that the money spent on the board is not public money. It comes from the private, nonprofit corporation set up by MUSC for doctors who treat patients at its hospital and teach at its medical school.

Others, including lawyer Jay Bender, who represents The Post and Courier and is regarded as an expert on the state’s Freedom of Information law, note that those doctors use MUSC facilities and equipment and conclude that the fund to which they contribute is indeed public money.

It is reasonable for South Carolinians to expect MUSC to spend the public’s money to educate students and provide health care.

And it would be fitting for the board to check its behavior to ensure that the public can be confident that the board is doing just that.

Online:

https://www.postandcourier.com/

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Aug. 29

The Aiken Standard on banning plastic bags:

The City of Aiken Energy and Environmental Committee’s suggested ban on single-use plastic shopping bags is a noble idea, but it will be a tough sell logistically.

Andy Hallen, a member of the Energy and Environmental Committee, told City Council during a presentation earlier this month he’d like to see the City reduce and eliminate the use of plastic shopping bags over the course of next year.

“There is an environmental catastrophe looming in our future,” Hallen said. “Plastic bags litter our streets … eventually finding their way into our streams, lakes and oceans, and because it is impractical to recycle them, over 90 percent end up in landfills, where they take up space for up to a thousand years,” he said.

Plastic single-use shopping bags are used by nearly every retailer in the city limits of Aiken. Big box retailers, who have paper shopping bags upon request, use plastic shopping bags on every customer that does not specifically ask for paper shopping bags.

Ironically, plastic shopping bags were introduced as an alternative to paper and to save trees. They cost a fraction of what it cost to produce, ship and store paper bags, plus nary a single tree is used to make a plastic shopping bag.

Plastic bags are an oil-derived product. Still, single-use plastic bags are the bane of environmentalists and recycling efforts, and a worldwide movement is underway to ban them from the retail marketplace.

Last year the Isle of Palms, near Charleston, became the first and so far, only city in the state to ban the distribution of single-use plastic bags by retailers to consumers within the IOP’s city limits, Hallen said, but it didn’t have the big box department and grocery stores to contend with.

Aiken does.

Committee member Norman Dunagan, founder of Dumpster Depot in Aiken, said the lightweight, single-use plastic bags gives his recycling staff headaches.

“We have to separate the plastic bags from the rest of our recyclable plastics because they get caught up in the machine and lock it up,” he said. “Our workers have to separate the plastic bags almost on a daily basis.”

Dunagan said the process of recycling plastic, such as soft drink bottles, is called “downcycling.”

“When you downcycle plastic, such as soft drink bottles, they are used to make a lower-quality form of plastic,” he said. “You cannot recycle plastic water bottles into new plastic bottles, but the fibers are used for other lesser plastic materials. The plastic bag is the lowest form of plastic and cannot be downcycled.”

As consumers we can do our part to help stem the tide of plastic bags by using boxes or reusable shopping bags, or purchasing goods in bulk by the case or box. Declining the bag is another way to cut back plastic bag usage. If it’s a single item, rather than bag it, simply carry it with you.

If you don’t have a reusable bag, reuse the plastic shopping bags you have.

It’s not much, but every journey begins with one step and one person at a time.

If nothing else, the suggested ban on single-use plastic shopping bags raises public awareness and reminds us all we need to be better stewards of the environment.

Online:

https://www.aikenstandard.com/

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Aug. 28

The Greenville News on the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs:

The state agency that cares for South Carolina’s most vulnerable adults should take steps to improve the way it tracks and responds to allegations of abuse and neglect, and so-called “critical incidents” involving the people for whom it is responsible.

The Department of Disabilities and Special Needs serves about 30,000 people with intellectual disabilities, traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries and autism. Although the rate of allegations of abuse, neglect or exploitation in its residential facilities had been declining for about five years, it has now stabilized at 9.9 per 100 individuals, according to a recent report in The News. The raw number of allegations increased to 456 in 2016 from 437 the year before.

Data showed that over the past three years, there have been 1,276 such allegations at residential facilities; another 196 at day services run by DDSN and 379 at the agency’s regional centers.

Despite the volume of allegations just 22 were classified as “substantiated” during the period. Still, 199 staff members at facilities involved in the allegations were fired for misconduct, or policy or procedural violations.

Also up are “critical incidents,” which are described as any “unusual, unfavorable occurrence that is not consistent with routine operations; has harmful or otherwise negative effects . and occurs during direct provision of DDSN service.” They can include medical problems, hospitalizations, accidents, injuries or law enforcement involvement, according to a recent report in The News.

DDSN Director Beverly Buscemi said recently that the agency has discussed revising the system for tracking such incidents because a critical incident does not always mean a failure on the part of the agency.

Better tracking is indeed needed so that the agency’s leaders - and more importantly the families of DDSN clients and the public that pays for the care - have a clear idea of whether they agency is fulfilling its mission and protecting the health and well-being of these vulnerable people.

In short, the agency has a responsibility to accurately track allegations, follow up on them in a meaningful way and reduce their frequency.

The potential severity of some of these allegations came to light in a recent investigative report by The Greenville News that looked at the agency’s group homes that are run by a contractor called South Carolina MENTOR.

Also, although only a small number of abuse allegations are classified as substantiated, that very fact has raised concern from some DDSN board members that the agency’s providers are not following up after initial complaints to see if an arrest is made, one condition that can lead to a complaint being classified as “substantiated.”

Here, too, the agency has a responsibility to improve its policies to ensure providers are following up. Only by being very certain if allegations should be substantiated can any meaningful work be done to improve care for these patients.

As we said, these numbers do not sound as if there is a crisis in this agency. But DDSN’s responsibilities are so important and the people it cares for so vulnerable, that every step needs to be taken to ensure it is doing its job as well as possible.

While it studies ways to better track allegations and critical incidents, DDSN also needs to review oversight of contractors as well as quality of care that can be affected by things such as the management of private contractors, private contractors’ internal rules and procedures and whether they are followed, and the low pay of care workers employed by those contractors.

The DDSN board also should re-examine some recently adopted rules that limit board members’ ability to record meetings and that could serve to inhibit discussion of important issues.

One new rule allows a board member to utter the phrase, “ELMO,” short for “enough, let’s move on,” to end discussion on an issue. A board that is dealing with such sensitive topics should not let a board member so easily short-circuit discussions about how to improve its level of service.

This is an important agency, and any steps that can be taken to improve the quality of care by DDSN should be explored and discussed. And it deserves to be closely watched as it does that work.

Online:

https://www.greenvilleonline.com/

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