- Associated Press - Monday, May 9, 2016

Omaha World-Herald. May 4, 2016

Midlanders help neighbors in need.

Anybody who has seen a loved one through cancer treatments knows the importance of being there in times of need.

Sometimes, the need is as simple as getting a ride to and from cancer treatments when family members aren’t available. These folks are fortunate to call the Midlands home, because volunteerism is a way of life here.

Nebraska ranks seventh and Iowa is 10th nationally in volunteer rates, says the Corporation for National and Community Service. More than one-third of Nebraskans and nearly a third of Iowans volunteered in 2014.

These folks donate time to charities and other nonprofit organizations with purposes that range from youth sports to helping the homeless.

It’s no small thing, either. The national survey found Nebraskans averaging 42.6 volunteer hours per capita, for a total of 61.3 million hours of service worth $1.4 billion. Iowans, meanwhile, averaged 28.7 volunteer hours per capita, totaling 69.7 million hours overall worth $1.6 billion.

In one local effort, 91 Omaha-area patients received 480 rides last year through the American Cancer Society’s Road to Recovery program.

Cancer patient Diana Scheffler, 64, can’t see well enough to drive comfortably. The former Omaha darts champion needs radiation treatments for Stage 4 breast cancer. She appreciates the Cancer Society’s rides and the sensitivity of the drivers. They help her in and out of the car, and they can sense when to strike up a conversation and when she needs quiet time.

“I don’t have to worry about how I’m going to get to my appointments, ” she told World-Herald reporter Lauren Brown-Hulme. “It gives me peace of mind.”

One of the many ways Midlands volunteers help.___

The Grand Island Independent. May 4, 2016

State tourism oversight must be restored.

“We had heard some rumblings that Tourism was operating as a rogue agency without any oversight. It appears that was the case. They kind of took advantage of the Nebraska taxpayers.”

Those are chilling words from State Auditor Charlie Janssen about the Nebraska Tourism Commission. The commission, an independent state agency, received a scathing audit last week that faulted the agency for among other things:

.Spending $18,000 to move one employee from Sidney to Kearney. A Realtor was paid $8,000 for selling the employee’s house.

.Paying one speaker $44,000 for a 90-minute speech. Three other speakers were paid more than $9,000 each.

.Two contracts with advertising firm Bailey Lauerman went over budget by $4.4 million during a three-year period.

.Reimbursing for alcohol and cigarettes purchased during a photo shoot, a violation of state policies.

.Accepting meals and drinks from Bailey Lauerman and Swanson Russell, the state’s public relations firm.

.Using the executive director’s daughter in a state tourism advertising campaign.

The list of excessive spending and undue influence from state vendors is disturbing and appears to indicate a lack of oversight.

Gov. Pete Ricketts bemoaned the fact that the agency is not under the governor’s control, a change made four years ago. Instead, a nine-member commission, appointed by the governor, is to oversee the agency. They, it appears, were not doing their job.

Tax funds, including lodging taxes that provided much of the funding for the agency, should be spent wisely with an accounting of how all funds are spent. Government employees at all levels should be working to reduce expenditures. That clearly wasn’t done at the Tourism Commission.

Accountability is key, and there wasn’t any at the tourism agency. As Janssen said, it appeared to have gone “rogue.”

So how does the state keep this from happening? Should the tourism agency be put back under the executive branch, as Ricketts suggested? That is worth considering.

At the least, this audit should remind government officials that they are being watched and the public will scrutinize their spending. Board members must take their jobs seriously and monitor expenses.

The Legislature this year, as part of the state budget bill, required that the tourism office work with the state’s Administrative Services department. Administrative Services is to provide oversight on the agency’s spending.

Senators seem to think this will address the problems. Let’s hope they are right. If they aren’t, the agency may need to lose its independent status.___

Lincoln Journal Star. April 27, 2016

Veterans court has potential.

Lancaster County Attorney Joe Kelly deserves a salute for pushing ahead with a plan to set up a veterans court similar to the successful drug courts that have been set up across the nation.

The Lancaster County Board approved the request earlier this month. The proposal now goes to the Nebraska Supreme Court.

Kelly said the court would be available only to veterans who sustained a traumatic brain injury or who developed post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of service in a combat zone.

Participants would be required to plead guilty to the charges, which could include felonies such as domestic assault, alcohol and drugs, road rage, and terroristic threats. If they successfully complete the court’s program, the charges would be dismissed.

Because of the success that drug courts have had, the same sort of approach involving counseling and regular contact with court system officials is being tried with other crimes.

Advocates say the “problem-solving courts” cost less and that participants have a better chance of resuming a productive life after they are discharged.

Nationally there are more than 250 veterans treatment courts operating in 37 states, according to the advocacy organization Justice of Vets. “These veterans-only court dockets combine structure, rigorous treatment and peer mentoring from volunteer veteran mentors to connect veterans in crisis with local, state and federal benefits,” the organization says on its website.

Kelly said he plans to use services from the Veterans Administration “almost exclusively” with some assistance from the county community correction program. He said he believes the veterans court can be created and operated within the existing budget. He estimated that the court would handle only five to 10 people a year during the trial phase.

Kelly said the idea met with an enthusiastic response from personnel at the Veterans Affairs office in Lincoln when he, Lancaster County District Judge John Colborn and others met with them last week.

The proposed local veterans court differs from one that the officials hope to set up in Douglas County. The legislature this year approved the expenditure of more than $450,000 to set up with court for a three-year pilot program, pending approval of the state supreme court. That court would utilize the state probation office.

Kelly said that if both courts are approved as expected, the state Supreme Court would be able to evaluate the two different concepts.

The new veterans court has the potential to be better for taxpayers, veterans who are charged with crimes and society as a whole. We hope it succeeds.___

Kearney Hub . May 5, 2016

Health centers could serve state’s low earners.

Four appearances in the Nebraska Legislature and four defeats. Medicaid expansion is headed nowhere in Nebraska, and that’s despite the real need to help the estimated 77,000 working low-income Nebraskans who have fallen through the cracks of Obamacare.

Most of those people are earning too much to qualify for federal insurance subsidies, but are too poor to afford coverage on their own.

These families don’t see a doctor, even when the need is grave, or they tap local emergency rooms and hospitals for medical care, but then cannot pay.

To Nebraska lawmakers with the moral compunction to address the poor’s health care crisis, we suggest refocusing efforts, not on expanding Medicaid, but on developing more community health centers. These facilities keep costs low, receive grants from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, and charge patients according to their ability to pay. In addition, health centers are good employers in the communities where they operate.

The centers could truly be difference makers in Nebraska’s quest to extend medical care to low-income residents. The problem is that only a handful of these centers operate here, and so many Nebraskans can’t reach them and are unfamiliar with their services.

Five centers are in Omaha. The others are in Grand Island, Columbus, Gering, Norfolk, Madison, Lincoln and Plattsmouth, according to the Health Center Association of Nebraska.

One of the centers is making a big difference in northeast Nebraska, and its role soon will increase. In 2014, Midtown Health Center in Norfolk served 4,410 individuals, 52 percent of whom were uninsured. Midtown was named Wednesday to receive a $1 million HRSA award to expand its facilities. In addition, Omaha’s OneWorld Community Health Center received $784,000 for expansion.

HRSA said the expanded facilities in Norfolk and Omaha will accommodate an additional 4,500 patients.

Nebraska did well in the HRSA awards. Neighbors Wyoming and South Dakota received nothing; Iowa got $1 million; Kansas $3 million; Colorado $3.9 million; and Missouri $7.8 million.

If Nebraska lawmakers and Gov. Pete Ricketts reject Medicaid expansion because of the cost, then it’s time to build more community health centers. Ricketts could lead the effort as one of his Grow Nebraska initiatives. Federally qualified health centers provide local jobs, and they would deliver medical care to poor Nebraskans without breaking the bank.___

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