- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Editorials from around Pennsylvania



Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has withdrawn Obama administration guidance that would have required the companies that service federal student loans to accept consumer-protection clauses as part of their new contracts.

But if the servicers don’t want to serve borrowers, maybe Congress should remove the servicers from the system.

Because people who take out student loans can’t always repay them on schedule, federal law allows borrowers to make or skip payments based on their income. But the rules are complex. And borrowers not only have to work with their servicers to get on the right plans, they often look to their servicers to tell them what options they have. Yet the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has caught servicers losing track of paperwork and giving out inconsistent information.

The Obama administration said that in awarding new loan-servicing contracts - the current ones expire in 2019 - bureaucrats should consider the servicers’ past performance. And it said the contracts should include consumer protections.

The Obama team was obviously right. Why have contracts expire if renewal won’t depend on performance? And since the student-loan system exists to help borrowers pay for their education, not to make a profit for the lender (the federal government), borrower service is a big part of what the servicers are being hired to do.

Yet a lobbying group for the student-loan servicers complained that even under the current contracts, they had been subjected to new requirements and given inadequate compensation. And DeVos appears to be siding with them against the millions of Americans who owe student loans. This is the second time she’s done that; she also dropped an Obama-era rule designed to protect borrowers who default. That’s unfair.

If the companies aren’t willing to take responsibility for customer service, Congress should look for alternatives. Perhaps the Education Department can administer the loans itself. Or perhaps the IRS, which has experience getting people to pay based on their income, should do it. One way or another, the government must make the student-loan repayment process work for the people caught up in it.

__ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette





Should you be concerned if your local hospital doesn’t get high grades on its report card?

The recent Leapfrog Hospital Safety Grade spring report card - produced by a nonprofit health care watchdog group - gave just-passing grades to several area hospitals, and raises concerns about the financial realities of rural medical institutions.

The report is based on data gathered from 2,600 participating hospitals, our Randy Griffith reported, and considers factors involving medical errors and efforts to protect patients from further “preventable” harm - such as infections - beyond the conditions that brought them to the hospital in the first place.

Area hospital grades included:

. A: Indiana Regional Medical Center.

. B: Chan Soon-Shiong Medical Center at Windber and UPMC Bedford Memorial.

. C: Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown, Somerset Hospital and UPMC Altoona.

As Griffith reported, Pennsylvania hospitals as a whole ranked 34th nationally on the safety grading scale, with western Pennsylvania institutions dragging down the overall grade. Two of Pittsburgh’s top medical centers - Allegheny General and West Penn hospitals - received D grades.

Local hospital leaders had explanations for their scores ranging from discrepancies in what data were provided to the analysts to differences between hospital systems in how they evaluate and generate statistics concerning patient care.

Conemaugh President and CEO Steven Tucker said his team provided incorrect data concerning specialists in critical care medicine, for example.

“We believe we provide very high-quality care here,” Conemaugh Chief Medical Officer Dr. Susan Williams said.

“When we see results like this, obviously, we are disappointed. This year, unfortunately, we did have some data entry problems, which would have resulted in an improved score.”

Likewise, officials at Chan Soon-Shiong Medical Center at Windber say the financial stability portion of the report does not reflect improvements made since the hospital was sold to Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong’s company last year.

The report has Windber at a negative 3.9 percent operating margin as of June 2016. Hospital spokeswoman Natalie Bombatch said Windber is seeing a positive 12 percent margin in 2017.

“With the changes we’ve implemented and the new service programs we’ve started, we are looking much better than that data,” she said.

Somerset Hospital President and CEO Craig Saylor said his institution did not provide complete data for the study, which hurt the hospital’s overall score. But, Saylor said, in key areas such as mortality rates and complications from medical care, Somerset’s scores “remain very, very strong compared to state and U.S. levels.”

Local hospitals not only provide crucial medical services to the populations they serve, they are also among the leading employers in any region and contribute leadership and support for many community efforts that extend well beyond the scope of direct health care.

Financial stability is important, as bottom-line decisions can impact the quality and quantity of care provided.

If you are involved in a car accident or have a sudden medical situation, you will likely be taken to the closest hospital that can handle that problem.

In other circumstances - such as elective surgery - you can choose among local, regional and even national centers.

And you want to have the confidence that your health concern will be treated professionally without other problems cropping up.

We urge residents to consider the Leapfrog Hospital Safety Grade report along with other industry and external studies, and to compare what is included in those reports to determine the relevance to your personal situation.

There are few issues that surpass health care in the global, national and statewide narratives.

But as with politics, health care issues are ultimately local and very personal.

The strongest influence on whether you will return to a hospital in the future is the experience you or a family member had the last time you had reason to go there - not the center’s scores on an analytics review.

__Johnstown Tribune Democrat





Hillary Clinton apparently believes 26.4 million American women hate themselves, along with everyone else of their gender.

During an interview last week, Clinton was asked why she thought she lost the presidential election last fall. In typical fashion, she blamed everyone but herself and everything but her record and policies.

One factor was misogyny, defined by most dictionaries as hatred of women, Clinton commented. “Yes, I do think it played a role,” she said, adding misogyny is “very much a part of the landscape politically, socially and economically.”

No doubt some people did vote for Donald Trump and against Clinton because she is a woman. Try as we do, we Americans have not yet stamped out bigotry of many varieties.

Various analyses have placed the female vote for Trump at about 42 percent of his total, however. That amounts to more than 26.4 million women who cast their ballots for him.

Are they misogynists?

Of course not.

If anything, just the opposite may have played a factor in some female votes for Trump. After all, he ran as the anti-establishment candidate and, to judge by people like Clinton, the establishment is misogynist.

Most voters who cast ballots for Trump did so based on his policy pronouncements, his pledge to overturn the failed politics of the past, and his record as a successful businessman. His campaign tactics and strategy also were clearly superior to Clinton’s.

Clinton’s recriminations merely remind many of the trait that really turned them against her - her establishment elitist attitude.

__Altoona Mirror





Oh, please, just stop it already.

Seriously, there should be no need for another editorial railing against gerrymandering legislative districts. The practice is wrong, selfish, small-minded and - most wretchedly - devastating to democracy.

The Pennsylvania legislature - indeed, any legislature anywhere where it hasn’t already happened - should remove politics from the process.

For those unfamiliar with it, “gerrymandering” is the habit of linking together voting precincts in a way that favors one party or another, regardless of the shape the resultant legislative district may take.

Locally, Congressional District 17 is a strong example. When districts were redrawn after the 2010 census by a Republican-controlled legislature, 17 became a bifurcated blotch, oozing north from Schuylkill county before splitting to the east to gobble up Easton and splitting to the north and west to poke down into Wilkes-Barre and up into Scranton.

Presumably, the idea of the Republicans who drew this monstrosity was to carve heavily Democratic urban areas into their own district, leaving redder municipalities to be scooped up by neighboring districts. They essentially ceded 17 to the Democrats in order to increase odds of winning other newly-drawn districts.

For example, in the same redistricting process, the 11th Congressional District was shifted from heavily Democratic to more evenly balance between the two parties, making it easier for U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton, to retain his seat every two years.

Gerrymandering contorts districts and, in turn, contorts reality. It splits up counties and even municipalities that clearly should all be in a single district. And it creates gridlock in legislative bodies, as elected officials feel so safe in taking a hard line that compromise between the two parties becomes next to impossible.

Luzerne County Council is poised to vote on a resolution supporting proposals in Harrisburg that would take the redistricting process out of legislative hands and put it under control of an independent commission designed to be balanced between the two major parties, with some seats given to those unaffiliated with either.

Councilman Harry Haas rightly questioned if it’s wise for council to take a stand on an issue that is not, technically, under its jurisdiction.

A fair question, and the answer here is, yes, vote for the resolution. Luzerne County Council and every voting resident in Pennsylvania should send Harrisburg a clear message by whatever avenues they have available: Do the right thing, take politics out of redistricting. Make Pennsylvania a model of fairness, not a textbook example of how to gerrymandering fairness into oblivion.

Gerrymandering is tool for political gain at the expense of reason and fairness. It is a corrupting influence on Harrisburg and Washington. It is a monkey wrench deliberately tossed into the machinery of democracy.

It is, in short, an embarrassment.

__Wilkes-Barre Times Leader





With Pennsylvania’s fiscal shortfall perhaps topping $1 billion, the GOP-controlled House’s budget would eliminate $56 million-plus in corporate welfare from general fund spending. But with overall corporate-welfare spending at $800 million, cuts also should be made beyond the general fund. The $250 million Race Horse Development Fund is an obvious target.

The fund “primarily finances purses (prizes) for horse races,” notes Commonwealth Foundation senior policy analyst Bob Dick. One reason to eliminate it - as the Tribune-Review reported in September 2015 - is how much of that prize money benefits out-of-state horse owners, including Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the United Arab Emirates’ billionaire vice president and prime minister. The state’s Independent Fiscal Office has since “found nearly 30 percent of all prize money was spent outside of Pennsylvania,” Mr. Dick says.

All that corporate welfare hasn’t done much for Pennsylvania’s horse racing industry. A state Gaming Control Board report shows it “continues to struggle,” according to Dick, with “attendance, gross terminal revenue, and taxable handle (wagers) … all down from 2015.”

Horse racing’s constant need for public subsidies suggests it has problems that no amount of money from Harrisburg can fix. It’s not showing much return on Pennsylvania’s prize-money “investment.” And why prop up this industry when so many others struggle?

It’s time for the Race Horse Development Fund to cross the finish line - permanently.

__ Pittsburgh Tribune-Review





It’s not yet clear whether French voters have ended or continued a pause in the wave of right-wing populism that had been prevailing among Western democracies.

The “Brexit” vote in the United Kingdom last summer, followed by President Donald Trump’s election in November, were followed by several European elections that might have accelerated momentum toward dissolution of the European Union and other international institutions.

But in March, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte handily beat back a challenge by far-right nationalist Geert Wilders.

The French vote was especially heartening to European unionists, because a victory by far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen of the toxic National Front certainly would have put the EU at great jeopardy.

For Americans, the French vote should be especially interesting because it demonstrated that voters can reject the political status quo without embracing extremism on either end of the political spectrum.

In the first round of voting a month ago, voters crushed the two major political factions that have governed France since the end of World War II. But then they embraced Macron, who formed his independent party only a year ago.

Crucial to his success was that center-left and center-right politicians embraced his candidacy rather than hewing to the extremes.

The American two-party system is different. But voters have the opportunity in primaries to weed out extremists. That system failed last year as moderate Republicans failed to combine their forces and effectively challenge Trump in early primaries.

So, vive la France for demonstrating that sweeping political change need not be destructive change. Americans should take its cue.

__ Scranton Times-Tribune



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