Kelsey Grammer (I'm assuming you've seen the ads) wants you to vote for Marsy's Law or SB 1011, as it's known in Pennsylvania. While his story is compelling and the law itself aims to ensure victims are heard, Marsy’s Law in its current form falls short.
A little history…
Who was Marsy? Marsalee (“Marsy”) Nicholas was a student at UC Santa Barbara who was stalked and murdered by her ex-boyfriend. Her killer was tried and sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 2008, one year before Marsy’s Law was passed in California. Marsy’s brother, Henry Nicholas, was key in organizing the campaign to promote the bill along with strong support from then governor Pete Wilson. Marsy’s Law established certain rights, such as notifications to victims of crime and the right to be heard at every stage of criminal proceedings. In 2009, Nicholas formed a group, Marsy’s Law for All, which aims to amend the U.S. Constitution to protect victims nationwide. After the law was enacted in California, twelve other states followed suit. Now there is an effort to amend PA’s constitution with similar legislation, and Marsy's Law will be a Ballot Question in Tuesday's election.
Marsy’s Law has been endorsed by many prominent figures, such as Senator Bob Casey, Governor Wolf, and AG Josh Shapiro. On the surface the law appears to be one we could support. For example, it would allow a victim to ask the court for a new hearing if the victim wasn’t afforded the opportunity to speak at the first. But allies like ACLU PA and the League of Women Voters of PA are urging voters to reject the ballot initiative. Without going into the weeds about the constitutionality of the law itself, which the above groups argued in an effort to keep the initiative off November’s ballot, the ACLU’s main objection is that Marsy’s Law will undermine the due-process rights of the accused. Legislative Director of ACLU PA Elizabeth Randol gives an example:
Read Elizabeth Randol’s article “Why Pennsylvanians should vote “NO” on Marsy’s Law” to learn more.
PA Voters will have many decisions to make when they go to the polls on November 5th. Hopefully this material will help inform your choices and send lawmakers with good intentions back to the drawing board. In the meantime, Indivisible Berks is advocating a "NO" vote. No disrespect, Kelsey.
Below is the Marsy's Law amendment as it will appear on the November 5th ballot:
PROPOSED CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT
CRIME VICTIM RIGHTS
Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to grant certain rights to crime victims, including to be treated with fairness, respect and dignity; considering their safety in bail proceedings; timely notice and opportunity to take part in public proceedings; reasonable protection from the accused; right to refuse discovery requests made by the accused; restitution and return of property; proceedings free from delay; and to be informed of these rights, so they can enforce them?
Plain English Statement of the Office of Attorney General
The proposed amendment, if approved by the electorate, will add a new section to Article I of the
Pennsylvania Constitution. That amendment will provide victims of crimes with certain, new constitutional rights that must be protected in the same way as the rights afforded to individuals accused of committing a crime.
The proposed amendment defines “victim” as both a person against whom the criminal act was committed and any person who was directly harmed by it. The accused or any person a court decides is not acting in the best interest of a victim cannot be a victim.
Generally, the proposed amendment would grant victims the constitutional right to receive notice and be present and speak at public proceedings involving the alleged criminal conduct. It would also grant victims the constitutional right to receive notice of any escape or release of the accused and the right to have their safety and the safety of their family considered in setting the amount of bail and other release conditions. It would also create several other new constitutional rights, such as the right to timely restitution and return of property, the right to refuse to answer questions asked by the accused, and the right to speak with a government attorney.
Specifically, the proposed amendment would establish the following new rights for victims:
● To be treated with fairness and respect for the victim’s safety, dignity and privacy
● To have the safety of the victim and the victim’s family considered in fixing the amount of bail and
release conditions for the accused
● To reasonable and timely notice of and to be present at all public proceedings involving the criminal or delinquent conduct
● To be notified of any pretrial disposition of the case
● With the exception of grand jury proceedings, to be heard in any proceeding where a right of the victim is implicated, including, but not limited to, release, plea, sentencing, disposition, parole and pardon
● To be notified of all parole procedures, to participate in the parole process, to provide information to be considered before the parole of the offender, and to be notified of the parole of the offender
● To reasonable protection from the accused or any person acting on behalf of the accused
● To reasonable notice of any release or escape of the accused
● To refuse an interview, deposition or other discovery request made by the accused or any person acting on behalf of the accused
● Full and timely restitution from the person or entity convicted for the unlawful conduct
● Full and timely restitution as determined by the court in a juvenile delinquency proceeding
● To the prompt return of property when no longer needed as evidence
● To proceedings free from unreasonable delay and a prompt and final conclusion of the case and any related postconviction proceedings
● To confer with the attorney for the government
● To be informed of all rights enumerated in this section
The proposed amendment would allow a victim or prosecutor to ask a court to enforce these constitutional rights but would not allow a victim to become a legal party to the criminal proceeding or sue the Commonwealth or any political subdivision, such as a county or municipality, for monetary damages.
Once added to the Pennsylvania Constitution, these specific rights of victims cannot be eliminated, except by a judicial decision finding all or part of the amendment unconstitutional or the approval of a subsequent constitutional amendment. If approved, the General Assembly may pass a law to implement these new, constitutional rights, but it may not pass a law eliminating them. If approved, State and local governments will need to create new procedures to ensure that victims receive the rights provided for by the amendment.
posted by Amy Levengood
Capitalism is not a one-size-fits-all economic system. It comes in various shapes and forms. In the U.S., we've always been told capitalism epitomizes free enterprise, ingenuity, and the exaltation of the private individual.
But there’s more than one type of capitalism, and in a country where the richest 1% hold 40% of the country’s wealth-we are far from the high road of economic justice that we’re taught is inherent in capitalism. On the contrary, the U.S. exists in a structure sociologist Joel Rogers calls “low-road capitalism”. Low-road capitalism describes a system where wages are depressed because businesses compete over the price of products instead of the quality. Indicators besides wages characterize this type of economy. Take, for example, the percentage of workers that are unionized. In Iceland it’s 90%, in Italy 34%, but in the U.S. only 10% are organized. Workers’ rights also must be taken into consideration. The U.S. ranks last among countries when it comes to rules on firing workers and offering severance pay, leaving laborers with little recourse.
It should come as no surprise then that the populations that suffer the most in an unjust economy are descendants of America’s original sin-slavery. In August of 1619, the White Lion, a ship carrying over 20 enslaved men and women from West Africa, landed at what was then known as Point Comfort on the James River in Virginia. They were the first group of enslaved Africans to step foot in North America. To commemorate this 400 year anniversary, the New York Times launched The 1619 Project with the goal of re-examining the legacy of slavery in America. One essay, “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation” by Matthew Desmond, examines the cruel beginnings of our modern economic system.
Desmond, a professor of sociology at Princeton, writes:
“Slavery was undeniably a font of phenomenal wealth. By the eve of the Civil War, the Mississippi Valley was home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the United States. Cotton grown and picked by enslaved workers was the nation’s most valuable export. The combined value of enslaved people exceeded that of all the railroads and factories in the nation. New Orleans boasted a denser concentration of banking capital than New York City. What made the cotton economy boom in the United States, and not in all the other far-flung parts of the world with climates and soil suitable to the crop, was our nation’s unflinching willingness to use violence on nonwhite people and to exert its will on seemingly endless supplies of land and labor. Given the choice between modernity and barbarism, prosperity and poverty, lawfulness and cruelty, democracy and totalitarianism, America chose all of the above."
Desmond goes on to point out that there are always losers in a “low-road” capitalist economy – that gains by the few at the top come at the expense of the powerless.
"During slavery, 'Americans built a culture of speculation unique in its abandon,' writes the historian Joshua Rothman in his 2012 book, “Flush Times and Fever Dreams.” That culture would drive cotton production up to the Civil War, and it has been a defining characteristic of American capitalism ever since. It is the culture of acquiring wealth without work, growing at all costs and abusing the powerless. It is the culture that brought us the Panic of 1837, the stock-market crash of 1929 and the recession of 2008. It is the culture that has produced staggering inequality and undignified working conditions. If today America promotes a particular kind of low-road capitalism — a union-busting capitalism of poverty wages, gig jobs and normalized insecurity; a winner-take-all capitalism of stunning disparities not only permitting but awarding financial rule-bending; a racist capitalism that ignores the fact that slavery didn’t just deny black freedom but built white fortunes, originating the black-white wealth gap that annually grows wider — one reason is that American capitalism was founded on the lowest road there is."
It all circles back to the driver of our economy, the American worker, and brings us to the current fight for a fair and livable wage. First, let’s dispel the myth that the typical minimum wage worker is a teenager in a part-time job looking to earn a few bucks after school. The reality is the average age of those working for minimum wage is 35, with 88% being 20 or older. Recent studies show that while 8.6% of white workers are paid a poverty wage (hourly wages that leave them below the federal poverty guideline, which I argue the current $7.25/hour minimum wage does), 19% of Latinx workers are paid poverty wages along with 1 in 7 or 14% of black workers. Raising the minimum wage to a measly $10/hour would increase wages for minorities by billions of dollars, and an increase to $15/hour by 2024 would lift the pay of 40 million of our fellow Americans. It’s time we take the high road toward a more just version of capitalism.
posted by Amy Levengood
Maybe if PA lawmakers hadn’t sat on their duffs for half the year only to scramble now like a high schooler pulling an all-nighter to finish a term paper, we’d have a state budget that reflects the needs and values of the people who make up the Commonwealth rather than the uninspired opus that came out of Harrisburg yesterday. (And yes-I have it on good but anonymous authority that this is exactly how the current majority in our State House is running the show. Our tax dollars at “work”, folks.)
Unfortunately the most succinct way to analyze the $34 million budget that’s been proposed by the House Appropriations Committee is to enumerate what it doesn’t include, and there are some biggies! Here we go:
What is included will also make your heart sink.
Pennsylvania sits in the middle of the Mid-Atlantic States. We rank in the middle on healthcare, fiscal stability, and the Opportunity Index. It seems our state is mired in mediocrity, and the proposed budget certainly reflects that. We get no better than what we settle for. I don’t know if Rep. Peter Schweyer (D - PA 22) intended to capture the spirit of resignation and unimaginativeness emanating from the Capitol, but his tweet sums up the general attitude:
Given to optimism? Not to make light of them, but here are a few bones legislators did throw at us:
The full House will take up the budget debate today. Then it moves to the Senate for consideration on Thursday. Call me Debbie Downer, but expect no more than more of the same. We have two options at this point: 1. Continue to pressure legislators with calls, emails, and office visits. 2. Vote!
posted by Amy Levengood
photo courtesy of Sunrise Movement Berks
Picture it. A mid-spring Friday evening in the auditorium of a local college in the heart of Reading. The lights dim, and a video plays depicting scores of impassioned young people lining the halls of Congress in protest, holding signs and wearing black t-shirts with slogans like “12 years” or “good jobs and a livable future”. The lights come up and a young woman named Rianna welcomes the crowd. She starts by reminding the audience “we’re organizing on stolen Lenape land. Our indigenous communities were the original stewards of this land and any kind of work is going to require their help to fill the gaps in on our knowledge.” (Lenni Lenape were the original inhabitants of Reading and surrounding areas.)
Scenes like this are playing out across the country with stories like Rianna’s tailored to the locale. Stories like this: “My name is Genai, I’m 23 years old and I’m a Sunrise hub coordinator for Tallahassee, FL. My hometown, Carrabelle, FL, is a small fishing village on the coast of the panhandle. Over the course of my life, I’ve seen the fisheries and local economy of my community collapse because of polluted waters and rising sea temperatures. When I was 14, the BP Oil Spill guaranteed that my generation would never again have the security of seafood work that has sustained my community for generations. Hurricane Michael, the strongest storm to ever hit the panhandle, displaced thousands, killed 72 people, and has left families still living in tents 6 months later. I’m here fighting for my friends, classmates, and community that struggle every day and feel forgotten.”
Last Friday, Sunrise Movement Berks hosted one of these town halls on the Green New Deal at Albright College. “This event was part of a wave of 700 Green New Deal town halls across the country coordinated by Sunrise Movement. Sunrise Movement is building an army of young people to stop the climate crisis and create millions of good jobs in the process.”
The Green New Deal is a congressional resolution introduced jointly by NY Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen Ed Markey of MA. Its aim is to wean the country off of fossil fuels while at the same time spurring the economy by creating high-paying jobs in the clean (or green) energy sector. As the name implies, the Green New Deal has its roots in FDR’s New Deal but with a key improvement, which we’ll discuss. The authors of the Green New Deal see it as an historic opportunity to do three things: “(1) to create millions of good, high-wage jobs in the United States; (2) to provide unprecedented levels of prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States; and (3) to counteract systemic injustices”. (H. Res. Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal, page 4)
Time out for a little history lesson … As you are well aware, the New Deal was born out of the suffering caused by the stock market crash of 1929 and the resulting Great Depression. It was a combination of public work projects, financial reforms, and regulations put in place by President Roosevelt from 1933-1936 to spur the economy by creating jobs (many in the infrastructure sector) and created, arguably, the largest middle class the U.S. has ever seen.
But many historians differ in opinion on the efficacy of the New Deal, particularly in respect to vulnerable populations. At the height of the Depression when the New Deal was started in 1933, unemployment peaked at 24.9%. But for African Americans, the unemployment rate soared to more than 50% - not to mention that the New Deal did nothing to address discrimination and segregation. In fact, the program may have exacerbated problems faced by African Americans. During the Depression, when jobs were scarce, blacks were often let go by employers to make room for whites. Additionally, white workers started taking low-paying, low-skilled jobs to which blacks were often relegated.
Some New Deal programs were downright harmful to the African American community. Programs like the Agricultural Adjustment Acts (AAA), which helped white landowners by giving them cash subsidies to let their fields go fallow, did nothing to ensure that that money was passed on to black sharecroppers and tenant farmers who were the ones doing the work.
There were even parts of the New Deal, such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA), that were racially segregated. The Public Works Administration (PWA) created the first civilian public housing, but this housing was segregated “even in neighborhoods that had previously been integrated,” writes Olivia Waxman.
Mexican Americans and Mexicans living in the southwest weren’t immune to the Great Depression either. Many of them worked back-breaking jobs in the agricultural sector. The economic downturn of the 1930’s decreased the need for farm labor. With demands from area politicians to alleviate unemployment, the federal government forced nearly 40,000 Mexicans and Mexican Americans to Mexico –until the trend was reversed during WWII when there was once again a need for farm labor. But until then Mexican and Mexican American agricultural workers received little relief from the New Deal.
Ray's story illustrates perfectly the intersection between the climate crisis and systematic social, racial, and economic injustices.
Finally, an unfortunate legacy of Roosevelt’s New Deal is the negative impact many projects designed to create jobs had on the environment. No thought was given to how mass construction of dams, for example, disrupted existing ecosystems. Nor was thought given to the deleterious environmental effects of continued industrialization and pollution, particularly in low-income neighborhoods.
And then there’s this, which brings us full circle: Part of the New Deal was the creation of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which created huge increases in home ownership but at the same time gave rise to suburban development that continues today. “This whole suburban boom has been at the center of our really unsustainable lifestyle, automobile dependence [and] sprawl,” says Peter F. Cannavò, a professor of government at Hamilton College and expert on environmental politics.
The Green New Deal seeks to address the inadequacies of the original New Deal by envisioning the problems we face in the 21st Century as interconnected. Troy Turner explained it best in a recent interview with Reading’s Finest when asked about his work with Sunrise Movement Berks. “Sunrise Movement is a movement of young people uniting to fight the climate crisis that we’re going through right now and create millions of good jobs in the process. We are unique in climate activism in that we don’t draw any distinctions between that and any other kind of movement work. We see that we’re in a climate crisis, but we’re also in an economic crisis. And so many people want to draw these lines, but it’s the same crisis.”
While it may be intellectually lazy to judge the work and motivation of past generations by today's standards, the activism of groups like Sunrise Movement Berks shows that we continue to evolve. This new generation of organizers are striving to do what their grandparents and great-grandparents didn’t-to make the connection between the environment, the economy, sustainable energy, and populations historically lost in the shuffle. That’s the real deal!
Click here to read H. Res. Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal
posted by Amy Levengood
*Special thanks to Troy Turner and Sunrise Movement Berks for their invaluable contributions to this blog post.
We’ve been talking a lot lately about Berks Heim-both to our group and to our elected officials. At this point we can safely say that our efforts (phone calls, emails, postcards, attending meetings) have moved the needle. Last week the County Commissioners said the sale of the Heim has been tabled-at least for the next five years. Major players in the debate have been the two unions, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), who made extensive contract concessions in order to advance the discussion to the point we find ourselves at now.
illustration by Anna Parini (The New Yorker, 2017)
One argument we’ve stressed in our fight to save the Heim, is that along with privatization comes a serious risk of decline in quality of care and accountability. This isn’t just speculation on our part. We need to look no farther than a neighboring county to the north for a case in point, namely Schuylkill County.
In 2015, citing a $4.6 million revenue deficit, Schuylkill County Commissioners agreed to sell the county nursing facility known as Rest Haven to Nationwide Healthcare Services, a for-profit, private company based in New Jersey. Rest Haven was once noted as one of the best nursing homes in Pennsylvania. At the time of the sale, 84% of Rest Haven residents relied on Medicaid to pay to stay at the facility. But Medicaid reimbursement was not keeping up with increasing operating costs - thus the budget shortfall. The sale to Nationwide Healthcare Services eventually fell through. Due to its favorable reputation, there were a number of private operators interested in Rest Haven, and in September 2015 a sale was finalized to Investment 360°, also of New Jersey. The deal with Investment 360° promised physical improvements to the building and first shot at positions for former county workers.
But before the sale to Investment 360° was even finalized, trouble started to surface. Employees were told their insurance premiums were going from $80 per month with a $1,000 deductible to $700 with an $11,000 deductible for family coverage. They were also told hours would be cut and weren’t even certain if their jobs would continue to exist. And though the sales agreement was approved by the Schuylkill County commissioners, employees hadn’t received their severance contract paperwork.
It wasn’t only the county home that suffered in Schuylkill County. When the private-equity firm, the Carlyle Group, bought up the Manor Care chain of homes, Manor Care ended up in bankruptcy, even though the investors made millions. Conditions at the facilities were reportedly horrific with violations increasing after the Carlyle Group took over.
According to the Washington Post:
"The number of health-code violations found at the chain each year rose 26 percent between 2013 and 2017, according to a Post review of 230 of the chain's retirement homes. Over that period, the yearly number of health-code violations at company nursing homes rose from 1,584 to almost 2,000. The number of citations increased for, among other things, neither preventing nor treating bedsores; medication errors; not providing proper care for people who need special services such as injections, colostomies and prostheses; and not assisting patients with eating and personal hygiene.
Counting only the more serious violations, those categorized as "potential for more than minimal harm," "immediate jeopardy" and "actual harm," The Post found the number of HCR ManorCare violations rose 29 percent in the years before the bankruptcy filing."
Apart from violations, nurses complained of being constantly short-staffed. "The short-staffing was to the extent that it was very dangerous for the residents," said Lisa Kay Wasnowic, who worked off and on at the Allentown ManorCare from 2004 to 2014. "At times, it was just one aide for 60 patients. And it just kept on getting worse." (Click here to read the complete article.)
If you worked in public education in the last decade, you no doubt heard “The Blueberry Story”. In short, it’s about an ice cream company executive who in presentations to school teachers went around saying his company produced the best blueberry ice cream and public schools would benefit by being run on a more business-like model. Then a teacher stood up and asked him what he would do if he received a shipment of inferior blueberries. Would they be rejected? Would he send them back? As an ice cream producer, yes he could. But school teachers can’t pick and choose their students. The comparison may be simplistic, but you get the point. People aren’t a commodity, and we shouldn’t be treating them like one. The analogy used with school students is equally applicable when it comes to nursing home residents. Shortcuts in care in order to pad the bottom line are simply unethical and, in this case, can even be deadly.
So we should be asking our county commissioners a question-Is privatization of county-held assets like the Heim and also the prison worth the human cost? Yes-when the commissioners sold Rest Haven, Schuylkill County received a large influx of cash-but this was a one-time windfall. In Berks as in Schuylkill County, the cost of running the Heim that is pushing the budget into the red is a tiny percentage of overall expenses. Selling isn’t a long-term solution. And how many more sacrifices can we ask of the dedicated workers caring for our loved ones? A better solution would be to pressure Pennsylvania’s elected officials to stop cuts to the Medicaid benefits which many Heim residents depend upon. This is yet another reason why an accurate 2020 Census count is so crucial. If our state and county populations are undercounted, it will result in fewer federal dollars for programs like Medicaid.
The fight for the Heim isn't over. We've weathered this first storm and deserve a pat on the back for our efforts, but let's not get complacent. And let's remind our county commissioners-unlike the teachers in the story, we can send our "blueberries" back in November.
We know our country is divided, but what about our county? When it comes to Berks Heim, our county-owned nursing home, it looks like the majority of us are on the same page.
In a recent poll of registered voters conducted by Susquehanna Polling and Research, Inc. on behalf of Berks Vital Signs, pollsters found that 63% believe the Heim should be retained by the county. Even more interesting, the poll revealed that support for keeping Berks Heim as a county asset is a concept supported by Democrats and Republicans alike.
image: Berks Vital Signs
Surprised? We probably shouldn’t be. The Heim has been an integral part of the Berks County community for generations. And while I can remember a time when the facility was seen as a last resort option, changes have been made that solidify the Heim as a high-quality and affordable solution for elderly family members who are unable to live on their own. One of the most positive aspects of the Heim is the low turn-over rate of staff (close to zero) when compared to privately-owned nursing homes. Anyone who has a loved-one living in residential care knows that “that kind of stability and contentment is priceless”.
What is surprising is the same poll found a slight majority (44% vs. 43%) acknowledged they’d be willing to pay more in taxes if it would mean the county would keep the Heim. The 1% margin may seem slim (and 13% were undecided), but in a tax-averse atmosphere that’s prevalent in a place like Berks, it’s a significant result.
image: Berks Vital Signs
All of this leads one to ask: What’s motivating our County Commissioners’ march to privatization? It’s certainly not the will of the people. As the poll shows-on this issue-we’re a house united.
Click here to see the complete poll results and details.
posted by Amy Levengood
In this week’s CTA, we urged you to call your state reps to ask them to protect a monthly cash assistance program called General Assistance. We didn’t want to throw that out there to you without a little history and a more in-depth explanation of what the program entails. So here you go!
PA Department of Human Service’s General Assistance is a state-funded program for individuals who don’t qualify for the federally-funded Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefit (TANF).
Below are the requirements for eligibility.
The individual cannot be eligible for TANF and must be one of the following:
• A child under age 18; or
• A child, age 18 through 20, attending secondary school or a secondary-level vocational or technical school and expected to graduate before age 21; or
• Parents in a two-parent household with their child who is under age 13; or
• Parents in a two-parent household with their child who has a disability and is under age 21; or
• An adult with a physical or mental disability that is temporary or permanent and prevents you from working in any gainful employment; or
• A person undergoing active treatment in an approved drug or alcohol program if the treatment program precludes any form of employment (You have a nine-month limit during your lifetime to receive GA benefits for this reason); or
• A victim of domestic violence or another abusive living situation. (You have a nine-month limit during your lifetime to receive GA benefits for this reason); or
• A pregnant woman (not eligible for TANF); or
• An adult other than a relative who is caring for a child under age 13; or
• An adult who is caring for another person in the household who is ill or disabled, if no other adult in the household is capable of providing the care
In addition to the above requirements, individuals must have less than $250 in countable resources to be able to receive assistance. (A home or car are not considered countable resources.) Those who receive Social Security or SSI do not qualify for General Assistance, but if a person receives SNAP or Medicaid they can apply.
Amounts people receive vary based on county. Below are the figures for Berks County.
According to PA DHS, where I found this chart, these amounts were issued in 2001 and reviewed in 2012.
In 2012, the Republican controlled PA Legislature and then Governor Corbett eliminated the program, citing the fiscal impact on the Commonwealth. At the time General Assistance benefited 60,000 individuals, many of whom were disabled, and cost the state $150 million annually- just a tiny fraction of the $27 billion budget for the year. The death of the bill began like many things in government-by a thousand small cuts. It started with a 3-page piece of legislation in 2011 that dealt with residency requirements, but by the time it reached Governor Corbett’s desk in 2012 it had, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette “morphed into an omnibus human services bill ending General Assistance, creating a pilot program for 20 counties to consolidate a number of human service programs into a single block grant, changing the timing of a work requirement for Pennsylvanians applying for welfare, and imposed a tax on nursing homes, among other changes.”
Act 80 was the law that appealed the program in 2012. A number of human service groups and former recipients sued the state. In July of 2018, the PA Supreme Court struck down Act 80, ruling that the legislative process used to pass it was unconstitutional, and the General Assistance program was reinstated. Now lawmakers in Harrisburg are trying to take it away again.
Many of the people who benefit from the General Assistance program are those who fall into the gap created while waiting for Social Security disability determinations. They’re people who require temporary assistance and who are ineligible for other types of relief. They’re not looking to become wards of the state. They just need a little help. When 40% of Americans don’t have $400 in savings, it’s not a stretch to say many of us could easily find ourselves in such a situation in the event of an unforeseen crisis. What does it say about us as a community, if we’re not willing to give a hand up to a neighbor in need?
posted by Amy Levengood
Robin Stelly of PHAN addresses the group at IB's healthcare forum.
I’m using the Indivisiblog this week to recap, for those of you who missed it, last Thursday’s “Healthcare Reform in Pennsylvania” forum. Our presenter was Robin Stelly from the Pennsylvania Health Access Network (PHAN). Robin serves as PHAN’s statewide organizer and for over a decade has been working on issues of economic justice, immigrations rights, and healthcare reform. As part of her work with PHAN, Robin tries to get healthcare consumers like you and me to share their stories with the ultimate goal of informing policy makers on what’s impacting their lives. The evening consisted of a presentation on some steps to be taken to lower costs and expand coverage, followed by some heart wrenching stories from audience members and guest speakers, and of course, a lively discussion.
Here’s my takeaway:
There is little argument that healthcare costs in America are prohibitive, and that after some successful attempts to undermine the ACA, healthcare is become less and less accessible. In last week’s blog, “Survey says!”, I discussed how a statewide survey showed that there is consensus on this opinion across party lines. PHAN identifies ever-rising prescription drug costs, surprise medical bills, and junk insurance plans as some of the chief culprits when it comes to affordability.
Here are some of the statistics:
Robin spent a bit of time discussing the impact of surprise medical bills. The slide below from her presentation, gives an example of what the term means. PHAN recommends several solutions to the problem of surprise medical bills including better informing consumers and banning the practice.
There are 4 goals identified by PHAN that if achieved could go a long way to solving our healthcare crisis. (see below) One intriguing idea that came out of the evening was the concept of expanding Medicaid as opposed to “Medicare for All”. Some are calling it “Medicaid for More”, and it simply means allowing states to open up Medicaid to more people regardless of income. Robin pointed out that under the Affordable Care Act the groundwork was already laid for this. In fact, 34 states have already expanded Medicaid under the ACA. One advantage of this strategy is that the work could be done at the state level and bypass the dysfunction of Washington, which many see as the main hindrance to improving our system.
The good news for us is that at the state level we have a lot of leverage. And with the relationships IB has built with advocates like PHAN and some of our legislators, we already have a foot in the door. It’s up to us how to exercise that power.
posted by Amy Levengood
The first primaries of the 2020 presidential election are just under a year away, but the madness has already begun. It seems the campaigning starts earlier and earlier every cycle. Democratic candidates who have already announced are busy making the rounds of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. Others are still debating whether they’re going to come down off the fence, former MA Governor Bill Weld may try to primary Trump, and then there’s Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. While many of you are probably thinking the 2020 election can’t come soon enough, the media focus on likability, the correct way to eat chicken, crowd size, and to hot sauce or not is already getting tiresome. Regardless of who will end up on the top of the tickets, there is one thing for certain-healthcare will be a central issue.
Closer to home, Indivisible Berks and other grassroots organizations across the state have, through canvassing and other activities, learned that healthcare and associated topics are foremost in the minds of Pennsylvanians and Berks Countians. Now we all know how the dysfunction and the lobbyists in Washington prevent true reform from being accomplished. So we’ve decided to take things into our own hands, and there’s a lot we can do at the state level. To help the community learn about some of those options, Indivisible Berks will be hosting a public forum on healthcare reform in PA on February 21st. Our guests will be from PHAN, the Pennsylvania Health Access Network, who will share their expertise on all things healthcare.
As I said, healthcare is sure to be a prominent topic of discussion in the 2020 election, and thanks to PHAN, we know that it is actually a place where Republicans, Democrats, and Independents can find common ground. How do we know this? Last year the first ever Pennsylvania-specific survey was conducted, specifically on healthcare affordability. The Consumer Healthcare Experience State Survey was done by Altarum’s Healthcare Value Hub with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. PHAN was chosen to release the results.
Below are some of the survey findings when participants were asked about the cost of prescription drugs:
The survey not only looked at data from across the state but also did analysis across regions. Berks falls into the South Central/Lehigh Valley for purposes of the study.
Survey results are available on PHAN's website. Click here to see the statewide results. Click here to see the South Central/Lehigh Valley results which includes Berks.
It’s no surprise that participants in the survey agreed that our system is broken, and something has to change. Let’s make sure we don’t have to wait another election cycle before something starts to happen.
posted by Amy Levengood
We shouldn’t be surprised to get surprises from the freshman members of the 116th Congress. They’re young, diverse, and female-in other words, diametrically opposed to what we’ve had in the past. What one wouldn’t expect was to have a video (see below) about government ethics, of all things, go viral. But that’s exactly what happened after Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) creatively questioned a panel of ethics experts during a hearing dedicated to H.R. 1, the For the People Act of 2019, which was convened in the House Oversight and Reform Committee last Wednesday.
Ethics and oversight were high on the legislative agenda last Wednesday. On the same day that Ocasio-Cortez was giving us an accessible primer on how easy it is for elected officials to skirt the law, especially in the Executive Branch, veteran Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA) introduced H.R. 1028, the Restoring Integrity, Governance, Honesty, and Transparency Act or RIGHT Act. The RIGHT Act comes on the heels of H.R. 1, the first piece of legislation introduced by the new Congress, aimed at strengthening our democracy. The RIGHT Act would build on the reforms laid out in H.R. 1 by specifically targeting loopholes and weaknesses in current ethics and accountability laws governing elected officials.
In introducing the legislation to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Speier said:
“Over the past two years, unprecedented levels of unethical behavior, nepotism, and misconduct in the Executive Branch poses a clear and present danger to not only our electoral systems but the very foundation of our democracy. The abuses and excesses of the President, his family, and his cronies also highlight the inadequacy of the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 (EGA) when it comes to oversight of the Trump presidency. As a strong supporter of H.R. 1, I look forward to working with Congressman Sarbanes and Chairman Cummings to make sure that we close legal loopholes that have been stretched to the breaking point by the Trump Administration.”
One of the side-effects of the Trump era is the ushering in of some unlikely celebrities. One such person is Walter Shaub, who sat on the panel Ocasio-Cortez questioned during last week’s hearing. Shaub was the director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics (OGE). The unassuming, low-key Shaub first came to prominence as a cable news commentator during the early months of the Trump presidency. Since resigning from his post at OGE in July of 2017, Shaub joined CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington) as senior director and has become a Twitter sensation and outspoken critic of the Trump administration.
Shaub described the RIGHT Act introduced by Speier as follows:
“This is an incredibly important piece of legislation. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington is proud to support the RIGHT Act, which will enhance transparency, strengthen enforcement and increase accountability. I’m particularly impressed with the way it targets several key gaps in our framework for government integrity with pinpoint precision and proposes very effective solutions. We thank Representative Jackie Speier for her leadership in introducing the bill and look forward to working with Congress on this critical issue.”
Later, Shaub broke down the important points of the bill in a series of tweets:
As to be expected, reform bills like H.R. 1 and H.R. 1028 have met with partisan pushback. Ranking Republican member on the Oversight Committee, Jim Jordan (R-OH) says H.R. 1 “reads more like a wish list for Democrats than an honest attempt at reform.” And even if both bills make it out of the Democratically controlled House, passage in the Senate could be an uphill battle, especially since Leader McConnell has called the reform packages “a power grab”.
“It’s a lot harder for folks to get behind ethics reform when they implicate their own practices or hurt their ability to win elections,” Delaney Marsco, an ethics expert and legal counsel with the Campaign Legal Center, a D.C. good government watchdog group, said. “It’s kind of a fox guarding the henhouse situation.”
But there’s a new fox in the henhouse, and I for one wouldn’t bet against the freshman class of the 116th. Stay tuned for more surprises.
posted by Amy Levengood
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