- Associated Press - Monday, December 17, 2018

Minneapolis Star Tribune, Dec. 14

Wisconsin’s school safety program combines hardware and ‘heartware’

Minnesota needs to invest more to keep its children secure while they learn.

After the Parkland, Florida, shooting in February, in which a 19-year-old is accused of entering his former high school and killing 17 students and staff and injuring others, more states began to look seriously at school security. Many settled on “hardening the target” - security-speak for making buildings less vulnerable to violent attack.

Minnesota and Wisconsin were among those states, both acting to fund school safety grants. But that’s where the similarity ends, and the way the two programs unfolded is worth examining in an era in which school shootings have become disturbingly regular and pressure to prevent such massacres is growing.

Wisconsin set aside $100 million for grants to help with baseline security improvements: more secure entryways, shatterproof glass, locking classroom doors, security cameras and other more-advanced measures. That was balanced with improved training for school staffs, and mental health resources.

The grants were administered through the Wisconsin Department of Justice and the state’s attorney general, and came with a tough set of requirements. All Wisconsin schools - public, private, charter and tribal - now must submit blueprints of every building to the recently created Office of School Safety and to local law enforcement. Those applying for grants had to commit to having at least 10 percent of their faculty and staff take state-approved mental health training and create school intervention teams that would use a Secret Service model to train in behavior-monitoring, threat assessment and interventions.

Safety plans must be updated annually and include written evaluations of drills, visitor protocols and dates of safety training. Schools are required to work as partners with local law enforcement in developing effective safety plans. Over the course of months, despite its strict requirements, Wisconsin gave out $56 million in grants - and had $45 million left over. The remaining funds will be used in a second round of grants focused primarily on additional mental health training.

Compare Wisconsin’s approach to Minnesota’s, where $25 million came through a bonding bill that could be spent only on “high priority” physical improvements, such as entryways and communications systems. The money was first divided 50/50 between the 11-county metro area and outstate schools. Funds were to be awarded to those with suitably high-priority projects essentially on a first-come, first-served basis. Schools that applied on the same day were ranked by being assigned random numbers.

Tom Melcher, state schools finance director, said Minnesota never got to Day Two. “It was all gone before the end of the first day,” he said. Of nearly 1,200 requests totaling more than $250 million, Melcher said the department had to turn down 9 out of 10.

Some of those funded were substantial. The Fertile-Beltrami school district received more than $430,000 to redo the entryway of its lone school, with a student population of about 200. The Faribault school district received $1 million for three schools. Duluth, by comparison, applied for 14 schools and got $70,000 for two.

A mere $25 million doesn’t go far spent that way. Of the 2,403 public schools in Minnesota, only 123 received school safety grants.

Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, who leads the E-12 Finance Committee, said the bill was “a last-ditch effort” after other, more-balanced proposals that would have included mental health resources, training and suicide prevention were vetoed as part of a thousand-page spending bill that dominated the end of the 2018 legislative session.

“It’s not the way I wanted it,” she said of the $25 million, “but we figured a crumb for the schools on safety was better than nothing.” Nelson says she is prepared to make a more-comprehensive package that reaches more schools a priority for the coming year.

Kenneth S. Trump, a nationally recognized school safety expert (not related to the president), describes the rush to harden targets as “security theater,” noting that “it’s very easy to point to a new camera and secured vestibule and say, ‘Look, we made the school safe.’?” The reality of improved security, he said, is far more difficult.

In the 20 years since the Columbine shooting, he said, “We’ve learned some things. I’ve done forensic analysis on many active-shooter cases ever since Sandy Hook (in 2012). The common thread is a failure of policies, procedures, people and systems - not failures of security hardware.” What is needed, he said, is a balanced approach that includes hardware with what he calls “heartware” - a well-trained staff that knows how to respond to a crisis and how to spot the factors that can lead to one. Parkland shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz, for instance, had a pattern of disciplinary and behavioral issues. Training, Trump said, needs to be thorough and ongoing.

As Minnesota heads into next year with a sheaf of unmet requests from all the schools denied security grants and all those that didn’t even apply, it would do well to pause and develop a more careful plan for using taxpayer money to improve school security. And Wisconsin’s model, which combines hardware and “heartware,” gives this state a starting point.

Minnesota schools and law enforcement together should determine levels of vulnerability and develop specific, effective plans. The state, with limited resources, should weigh those plans according to need and effectiveness and ditch the lottery approach.


St. Cloud Times, Dec. 14

Don’t let greed, diabetes win; stop price-gouging for insulin

Remember Daraprim? How about EpiPens? Well, now add insulin to your list of long-used, life-saving drugs that manufacturers appear willing to price-gouge for, even if it’s a life-or-death matter.

Some Minnesota legislators, health professionals and people directly impacted by skyrocketing insulin prices met to discuss the issue this week and how to make sure people get these common drugs without going broke - or worse, dying.

Yes, that’s happened.

As the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported, Alec Smith died because he could not afford a $1,300 bill to refill his insulin. As his mother told those gathered Tuesday, Smith was trying to stretch his remaining medication until his next paycheck. However, he died in 2017 from diabetic ketoacidosis, a serious condition that can be prevented with insulin.

Insulin - which people with Type 1 diabetes need regularly to survive - has skyrocketed in the past 10 years.

Kaiser Health News reports the cost tripled from 2002 to 2013 and has doubled in the past five years. The list price is over $300 for a single vial of medicine, and most patients need multiple vials every month.

With more than 300,000 Minnesota adults diagnosed with diabetes, it’s no wonder Attorney General Lori Swanson in October sued three insulin manufacturers, alleging they price-gouged.

Meanwhile, Minnesota’s senior U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has added her voice to others in Congress urging action. And this week some Minnesota legislators said they would look into the issue at the state level when the 2019 session convenes Jan. 8.

The key question is what can be done?

President Donald Trump started his presidency with some tough talk on lowering drug prices and increasing transparency. However, not much has come to fruition.

Similarly, Congress has taken little substantive action, even amid increasing protests from consumers. Sure, hearings were held in the Senate recently. But again, helpful changes seem far from imminent.

One potential course of action is to increase supply, perhaps through generic drug options. There are two challenges there.

First, steps like that were taken when EpiPen prices spiked. However, the Chicago Sun-Times reported just this week the generic competitor to EpiPens still cost $300 each.

Second, as more people are diagnosed with diabetes, researchers are projecting a global insulin shortage is possible by 2030. So is increasing supply enough to lower prices even possible?

And there is the Daraprim approach. Remember when Martin Shkreli bought a pharmaceutical company and raised the price of the important AIDS drug from $13.50 a pill to $750 a pill three years ago? Shkreli is in jail now for securities fraud. As of 2016, the pills, though, still cost $750 each.

Finally, there is always the option of government-mandated pricing. Such a heavy-handed strategy is almost always a bad idea. Then again, diabetes not properly treated can lead to blindness, kidney failure, heart problems, amputations and - yes - death.

How much does America have to spend (literally) dealing with those outcomes before the heavy hand of government does what market conditions today apparently cannot - stop price-gouging on common, long-used, life-saving drugs?


The Free Press of Mankato, Dec. 13

Farm bill: Compromise plan will boost agriculture

Why it matters: Agriculture is a powerful engine driving the Mankato area

Congress finally harvested a bipartisan farm bill that will backstop farmers in these risky economic times and provide food and nutrition for America’s most needy.

The Senate passed the measure on a strong 87-13 bipartisan vote and the House passed it 369-47 on Wednesday.

The farm bill offered practical help for farmers without a major increase in spending but provided more relief to dairy farmers, whose numbers declined in Minnesota this year by 10 percent.

Dropped were extreme parts of the original House bill that would have increased work requirements on those receiving supplemental nutrition assistance, also known as food stamps.

The bill is a safety net for farmers and a safety net for families. It offered reasonable compromises. Though work requirements for those on food stamps were not tightened, there was money for job training and program integrity that will boost people toward work and make sure there is no cheating the system.

About $400 billion of the five-year funding will support farm subsidies, conservation programs and bioenergy initiatives. The Conservation Reserve Program will expand by about three million acres to 27 million acres, an 11 percent increase, but funding for paying farmers for those acres will be capped.

The bill also boosts an environmental quality program by $275 million that pays farmers to employ practices aimed at keeping land and water clean.

The program significantly expands help dairy farmers will get by making it much cheaper to buy insurance against low prices. Most other crop subsidies will remain the same as in the past.

Most importantly, the completion of the farm bill gives farmers some economic certainty when they visit their bankers this spring. Once lenders know how farmers will be supported, they can make appropriate lending decisions. Total spending on the bill is $867 billion over five years.

The farm bill is one good example of how members of both parties can come together on good policy to improve the lives of Americans.

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