February, 2011 posts

Something just seems fishy

Every Sunday The State features a column called “The Buzz” — a series of cutesy little nuggets recapping the week in state politics.  This week’s column is particularly juicy – all sorts of finger-pointing over the $250 million budget fiasco at the South Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

The column touches on several things of note.  Among the more eyebrow-raising points:

  • Sanford administration officials knew back in June that the HHS budget was out-of-whack and set to run huge deficits.  Curiously, they did not formally request to run a deficit until Wednesday, November 3, 2010 — the day after Nikki Haley won the governor’s race.  (Convenient timing, no?)
  • Emma Forkner, the former head of HHS in the Sanford Administration, testified before a Senate Committee last week and … though she beat around the proverbial bush somewhat … she implied that Gov. Sanford’s office told her to declare that they anticipated a slower Medicaid growth rate than the actual projected rate (and therefore requested a far lesser sum of money, which is the reason for the giant hole right now) — in other words, to lie.  In this article, Yvonne Wenger at the Charleston Post and Courier expands on what transpired during Forkner’s testimony:
  • She said the agency was headed toward a deficit as soon as the budget passed last summer. Forkner said she notified the governor’s office immediately and was told, “That it would work out.”

    (State Senator Vincent) Sheheen asked Forkner, “Did the governor’s office force you to project a lower number than what you thought?”

    Forkner said: “I followed the directions. How about that. How about I just say that.”

    Sheheen said the testimony was disturbing. “It was clear to me that the governor’s office knew it was going to be out of balance and had no plan to deal with it,” Sheheen said.

    Concluding thought: There’s something about all of this budget deficit stuff that just doesn’t pass the smell test. In addition to HHS, the Department of Corrections and the Department of Social Services requested back in December to run deficits of $7 million and $29 million respectively. Somehow Gov. Nikki Haley waved a magic wand as soon as she set foot in office and made both of those deficits disappear? Call me cynical, but I just don’t believe it. There’s no way reducing TANF (welfare) payments by a few bucks + rearranging a transportation plan + throwing in a few furloughs can wipe away a $29 million deficit so easily.  Makes me think somebody wasn’t telling the truth about the need to run these deficits in the first place.  The two-deficit-disappearing act sure is a convenient red herring to distract from the $250 million HHS debacle, which appears to be a direct result of a huge due diligence #fail and subsequent cover-up by the Sanford Administration.

    Something just seems fishy, no?

Weekend Suds: Of Healthcare and Hypocrites

  • The “first in the South” 2012 Republican presidential primary is starting to heat up in the Palmetto State.  This week former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum — who is rumored to be courting Haley Chief of Staff Tim Pearson to join his upcoming presidential campaign — will be making his tenth visit to South Carolina since 2009.  Wonder how it’ll go over with Republican primary voters here when they learn the totally creepers story about Santorum and his wife taking home their dead baby and “(spending) several hours kissing and cuddling Gabriel with his three siblings, ages 6, 4 and 1 1/2.” And you thought the story about Mitt Romney driving to Canada with his dog in its kennel on top of the car was weird! Can’t make this stuff up.
  • Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg left his standard hoodie and flip-flops at home and donned a suit to meet with President Barack Obama.
  • In the wake of the brutal sexual assault of CBS correspondent Lara Logan in Egypt recently, another female reporter makes the case for why we need women to continue reporting in war zones.
  • Lexington County Senator Jakie Knotts penned a (surprisingly coherent?) op-ed earlier this week demanding answers to tough questions concerning the South Carolina Department of Health and Human Services’ enormous budget shortfall this year.
  • Lowcountry Minister Joseph Darby calls out Republican leadership at the statehouse for their shenanigans and asks that they consider the best interest of all of South Carolina’s people when crafting public policy.  (Not holding my breath.)

The election of 2010 is now history, and those who were elected bear responsibility for what our state’s constitution of 1895 calls “The health, welfare and safety of the lives and property of the people of this State.” Even that imperfect document, designed in large measure to codify Southern apartheid, rhetorically embraced all people. The process of governing, which demands political compromise, should be driven by the best interests of all people. Those in public office should remember that when they try to cater only to those who voted for them.

  • The ever-fascinating George Lakoff offers his breakdown of the dynamics of the conservative agenda and gives messaging advice to Democrats over at HuffPo.
  • The State‘s ed board talks some sense about Gov. Nikki Haley‘s stubbornness and twisted logic concerning how to handle the current HHS budget shortfall.

As for the no-taxes argument, we’ve never seen a clearer example of what’s wrong with those blood oaths that Ms. Haley and other politicians sign to never, ever raise a tax, no matter what. It’s true that the hospitals would pass their voluntary tax on to patients; but without the tax, they’d pass four times the cost to those same patients, because the government would be forcing them to provide the care for free. Of course, politicians would be off the hook, because the hospitals wouldn’t get to call it a “tax.”

There’s an immoral position in this debate all right, but the hospitals aren’t the ones making it. There simply is no legitimate reason to reject their offer — and millions of reasons to accept it, and to encourage other medical providers to follow suit.

Daily Suds: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

  • Gov. Nikki Haley visited Hartsville yesterday to survey the damage caused by this week’s fire at a local fertilizer plant.  I was shocked to learn that she arrived via plane.  Hartsville is barely over an hour’s drive from Columbia.  Is this really a wise use of taxpayer dollars?  Also, why isn’t the Transparency Governor’s calendar available via the office’s website?  I can’t find it, and I’d like to know what was going on yesterday that was of such earth-shattering importance that it warranted chartering a plane to fly 71 miles.
  • Spartanburg Republican Sen. Lee Bright owes over $67,000 in back taxes and penalties. What is with all of these self-professed fiscal conservatives in this state who can’t be bothered to pay their taxes?
  • I was disappointed to learn that my state representative, Jay Lucas, was busy carrying Speaker Bobby Harrell’s water on the silly federal Repeal Amendment — a Tea Party agenda item — yesterday.  I explained what the so-called Repeal Amendment is and why it’s a colossal waste of time and taxpayer dollars in this post a few weeks ago.
  • There’s something sketchy going on at MUSC.  Dr. Vladimir Mironov, the Charleston scientist leading a project to grow in-vitro meat from animal stem cells has been suspended, and his lab at MUSC has been shut down.  The suspension also calls into question the future of a separate project with which Mironov is heavily involved — a $20 million effort to create human organs from a person’s own stem cells.  The project was funded by a 2009 grant from the National Science Foundation and is the largest sum the federal agency has ever awarded to South Carolina.

Immoral? Really?

The debate over how to address the $225 million deficit at the South Carolina Department of Health and Human Services rages on. Just yesterday Gov. Nikki Haley declared a plan proposed by hospitals to pay more in taxes in order to avoid losing hundreds of millions in federal matching funds to be “immoral.”

Like Sanford, new Gov. Nikki Haley also wants the state’s health agency to be given the ability to cut what doctors and hospitals are paid so it can reduce its deficit, now about $225 million.

Haley stepped up her criticism Wednesday of lawmakers for not yet approving that move. She also called “immoral” a proposal by hospitals to increase the taxes that they pay — now $264 million a year — rather than cut rates that they and doctors are paid. Haley, a former hospital fundraising executive, said the added taxes would be passed on to patients.

Immoral?  Really?

For every dollar South Carolina pays into Medicaid, because our state is so poor, the federal government matches that dollar with three dollars in federal funding.  So let’s say hospitals have paid $3 in the past.  The federal government matches that $3 with $9.  $3 + ($3×3) = $12 total in funding to hospitals.  Haley wants hospitals to be paid $2 instead of $3.  So $2 + ($2×3) = $8 in funding to hospitals.  Now obviously this is a gross oversimplification of the real math, but the end result is a serious cut.

According to this op-ed written by the chairmen of the boards of Palmetto Health, Lexington Medical Center, and Providence Hospitals, a 10 percent cut in reimbursement rates for doctors and hospitals and other providers “will reduce the state’s expenditures in the Medicaid program by about $100 million.” The overall economic impact would be roughly $400 million, though, because it would deflect federal matching funds.

The authors of the op-ed list possibilities of what may happen when that much money is gutted from the system:

•  Smaller hospitals that treat a disproportionate number of Medicaid and uninsured patients may not survive.

•  Emergency rooms will become more crowded, and wait times will be longer for all patients.

•  Some hospital services could be discontinued completely.

•  Insurance premiums will increase as more unreimbursed costs are shifted to employers and their workers who have coverage.

•  More than 2,600 hospital jobs could be lost.

Hospitals’ assuming a heavier financial burden in order to avoid such draconian reductions is immoral, Governor?  That’s a pretty gutsy thing for someone to say who finagled $35,000 in severance pay from a $110,000 a year job (for 10 hours a week) at Lexington Medical Center that was created expressly for her and for which she was paid a salary that was 63% higher than fundraisers at comparable charities.  (And the severance package came after allegedly not showing up for two weeks while busy campaigning for governor.)

Now *that* I would characterize as “immoral.”

SC earns “best-in-nation” rating for U.S. History curriculum standards; Mick Zais = Party Pooper

Our public schools are constantly taking a beating by bloggers, commentators, and politicians in the press, so I was happy to see the news today that South Carolina has earned a distinction for something *good* in our public education system.  The Thomas B. Fordham Institute graded each state’s U.S. History standards on “clarity and specificity as well as content and rigor,” and South Carolina was the only state in the country to earn an A.  From the report:

“Just one state – South Carolina – has standards strong enough to earn a straight A,” the Fordham Institute report said.  “The Palmetto State deserves praise for having brought the necessary focus, rigor and innovation to this essential element of a comprehensive education.”

“South Carolina, both by revising its standards and adding innovative expository “support documents,” rose from a mediocre C to an outstanding A and now has the best U.S. History standards in the land,” today’s report said.

While we’ve still got a ways to go before all of our schools are of the caliber that South Carolina children deserve, it’s nice to have something positive to be proud of, right?  Success breeds success and all that.

After reading what South Carolina Superintendent of Education had to say in response to the honor, though, I was right back to feeling bleak and hopeless about our schools.  I guess that’s what he was going for?

Quoth Zais:

“Standards outline our expectations for classroom instruction,” Zais said.  “But world-class standards don’t guarantee world-class results.  We have to make sure teachers are covering the right material with their students.  We have to make sure they’re properly trained and have the materials and support they need.  And we need a system that gives teachers flexibility in creating classroom lessons, holds them accountable for their performance and rewards them when they succeed.”

Zais noted that although student scores on South Carolina’s high school U.S. History and the Constitution end-of-course exams improved in 2010, more than half of student test-takers made failing grades.

“That shouldn’t be acceptable to anyone,” he said.  “One positive result of today’s Fordham report is that districts and schools may be convinced to take better advantage of the support materials that are available to them.”

Geez, Mick.  As Franck Eggelhoffer would say…

Full press release from the South Carolina Department of Education after the jump.

Got an old formal gown? Donate to the Cinderella Project.

Several of my pals in the South Carolina Bar Young Lawyers Division are working with the Upsilon Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority to host the tenth annual Cinderella Project “Boutique” in Columbia.  The group is collecting gently used formal gowns, handbags, and accessories for high school students who are financially unable to purchase these items for the prom.

Donated dresses should be clean and on hangers.  The 2011 dress donation drop-off locations in the Midlands are Richardson Plowden Law Firm, Revente, M Boutique, Lexington Chamber of Commerce, Greater Irmo Chamber of Commerce, Chapin Chamber of Commerce, and the West Metro Chamber of Commerce. These locations are accepting donations during business hours Monday through Friday until Friday, February 25.  For more information about donation drop-off locations and shopping day details in other areas of the state, visit www.scbar.org.

The official “shopping” day for high school students of the Midlands will be Saturday, March 5 at the USC School of Law Auditorium from 9:00 a.m. until noon.

The group is also seeking donations from local businesses for a raffle to be held at the Cinderella Project Boutique, which will take place on March 5.  Suggested donations include items or gift certificates to restaurants, department stores, and specialty shops that will help ensure these students have a memorable prom night.

If you have any questions, contact Michelle Kelley at (803)576-3736 or by email at mkelley@richardsonplowden.com.