Thursday, February 15, 2018

Thoughts and prayers won’t end the violence

Another school shooting. Another round of "thoughts and prayers".

That doesn't cut it. Never has. Never will.

Even Jesus Christ knew that prayers weren't enough. So, he went out and boldly changed people and took on the norms.

That's what we have to do. We have to fix broken people and broken systems.

Yet, why haven’t we? Standing idly by while kids continue to get butchered is a sign of a dysfunctional society….one as broken as the minds and souls of the perpetrators of these crimes.  

The 1999 Columbine massacre and its 13 dead should have been a wake-up call. It wasn’t.

Neither was the Sandy Hook incident in 2012, even though 20 of the 26 killed were children aged 6 or 7.  Innocent, cheery children were gunned down in a place that is supposed to be safe, in a country that is supposed to be safe.

It happened again in Parkland, Florida, last week. All those prayers that were tossed around after Sandy Hook did absolutely nothing to save those students and their teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

It’s time for action. It’s been time for action.

It starts with an improved semblance of gun control.    

This is coming from someone for whom guns are a part of his everyday life. As I write this column, I have a pistol next to me that is used for defense of myself and others. In a few hours I will be eating a lunch the meat of which was provided through the use of a gun.

But guns shouldn't be part of everyday life for all Americans. There are an incredible number of mentally unstable people out there, many more on the fringes of instability, and others who have committed heinous acts of domestic violence or are battling life-changing addictions.

They shouldn’t have guns. They shouldn’t be granted pistol permits. And, they shouldn’t be allowed to purchase any long guns. Period.

Yet they are getting them. In almost all cases with school shootings the weapons were acquired legally. The universal background check obviously isn’t working.

We’re getting to the point now that every gun owner should be certified with a more detailed background checks – including mental health evaluations -- and the related installation of red flags that prevent that person from purchasing and owning weapons if something is wrong.

As I look at the plight of America, I don't mind being "inconvenienced" by a background check or evaluation if, one, it allows me and the vast majority of sane gun owners to keep our firearms rather than losing all of our rights wholesale because of the murderers and, two, it keeps crazy people away from guns and from massacring innocent children and adults.

But, this is about more than guns.

It’s about people, too.

Why do people do these evil things? How are their hearts and minds so devoid of light and love that this is the escape? How many people harbor those feelings and desires and have never acted upon those thoughts? How did they get to that point?

The answers, quite simply, are that they aren’t getting the help they need nor are we offering it to them.

Our modern medical system treats mental illness, especially the hardest cases, like the so-called redheaded stepchild. New hospitals and health campuses are being erected across the country at spectacular rates (look at the acres of splendor assembled at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus) and they are being handsomely funded by taxpayer dollars, but the focus is always on physical health. No one is interested in making multi-bed facilities for the most mentally ill.

It doesn’t help that in the 1970s it became the in-thing to close institutions once known as “insane asylums” due to a rash of such organizations mistreating their patients and the continued development of psychiatric drugs (never mind that those drugs create their own problems).

Sure, there were plenty of real world examples of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” but many hospitals did wonders in helping get people cured or giving them a consistent, comfortable environment in which they could manage their illnesses and their lives.

Mental health experts say there is a 95 percent decline in mental hospital beds since 1960, even though there are many more people who deserve that level of help.

So, where are all these people who need such help now?

They’re out there. Walking the streets.

It shouldn’t be that way. Public health policy should be about curing and helping the whole person. But it’s not. We need to help the sick – all of the sick -- which, in turn, helps society. Ignore them, and you hurt them….and potentially every one of us.

A little gun control and a lot of psychology and psychiatry can go a long ways in fixing what ails America. It’s worth it if parents like me know we can send our kids to school with some understanding that they’ll be safe…and that we will be able to see them again after the final bell rings.

From the 19 February 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News   

Friday, February 9, 2018

The deadly stress of farming

It is widely-known that military veterans have among the highest suicide rates in our country. Sadly, in any given year, 38 of every 100,000 veterans take their lives.  

We know too well why they end it all – they saw things overseas that none of us could ever imagine, they battled post-traumatic stress disorder, and they could have had disabilities ranging from traumatic brain injury to dismemberment.  

Many reading this column will be surprised to learn that there is segment of our population that has a suicide rate rivaling that of our struggling veterans – farmers.

Those who put food on our tables are taking their lives in unprecedented numbers. Just a few years ago their rate of suicide was 85 per every 100,000 farmers -- 2.2 times the occurrence among veterans and 5 times that of the general population. Although last year’s numbers aren’t available, it’s well known in ag circles that that number is growing.

Even though this is a rural social crisis of epic proportions it has received little attention in the public eye and, therefore, a similar amount of concern from the masses.
That said, it’s probably mind blowing to most Americans because they have a vision of the farming life that is made of serene, pastoral landscapes, health country living, strong men and even stronger families.

They know little of the incredible stresses put upon farmers.

First, there’s the weather. They have to hope that Mother Nature accommodates their needs and business cycles and ensures a timely planting and a productive harvest. But, in many years, she’s not very helpful. Western New York farms were hit hard by drought in 2016 when unirrigated, rain-fed fields and orchards had crop losses between 30 and 90 percent. They prayed hard for rains after that, and the skies responded in 2017 with too much, which delayed plantings and harvests while damaging crops.

Then there’s animal disease. Back in 2015, deadly strains of bird flu killed off unbelievable numbers of chickens and turkeys throughout the central US. Even if it didn’t, the poultry farmers had to cull their flocks to prevent the spread of disease. Halfway through that year, 50 million birds had died and the losses to farmers and producers exceeded $3.3 billion.

Farmers are also besieged by the economy. Dairy prices have plummeted over the past few years. In 2014, dairymen were getting $24 per hundredweight for their milk. Now, that number sits around $13. Farmers are producing and shipping milk because they have to, yet are losing money every single day for doing it. In Wisconsin alone, 500 dairy farms closed their doors last year. Here in New York, last year’s net farm income was a third of what it was in 2014.

Then, there’s the opioid crisis. The stereotype is that it’s hitting the cities and suburbs the hardest, but three-quarters of farmers say it is impacting them or their workers. It’s easy to see why – farming is physically demanding work, from heaving hay bales to lifting feed bags to picking vegetables to bending down to milk cows. Back injuries and other aches are common. To work through it, they were prescribed pain killers, which in turn became an addiction.

There you have just 4 factors of many that make it seem like there’s no hope for farmers. Too often, the odds are stacked against them and there are so many things beyond their control. Seeing the very real chance of losing the farms and homes they love so much -- the places that receive their attention, blood, sweat, and tears 24/7/365 -- they see suicide as the only way out. It’s sad.  

There is help available for those living those dark days. NY FarmNet is a free and confidential consulting service available to any farm located in New York State to discuss financial and health issues. They have a 24/7 hotline at 1.800.547.FARM. Crisis Services of Erie County has a 24-hour hotline (716.834.3131) to serve anyone contemplating taking their life. The YWCA of Genesee County has one, too, at 585.344.4400 and so does Niagara County’s Department of Mental Health at 716.285.3515.

I also encourage those reading this paper who are not farmers or counselors to lend a hand. Outreach can be done in any number of ways from checking up on your neighbors to supporting local farm stands to buying only local or American-grown produce, meats and dairy products at the grocery store to writing elected officials about foreign trade and frustrating price controls on milk and foods.

As Paul Harvey once said: “And on the 8th day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, "I need a caretaker." So God made a farmer.”

It’s time that we, as good citizens, acted as caretakers for them. These are some dark days in agriculture. Farmers need help. They need to know that they can ask for it and we need to know we should give it to them.   

From the 12 February 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, February 2, 2018

Cuomo’s windfall tax will sicken the insured

There are 19.75 million people in New York.

Of them, 6.4 million receive Medicaid. 3.3 million are on Medicare. 700,000 are enrolled in the Essential plan for lower-income individuals who are not Medicaid eligible. There are 375,000 kids getting Child Health Plus. Then, there are likely 4.5 million people who receive government-funded insurance as a matter of public employment (1.5 million public workers with a general assumption of 2 family members added to their coverage).

So, 15.275 million people in the Empire State receive some form of government health insurance paid-for or subsidized either partially or, in most cases, in-full.  

That means that only 23 percent of New Yorkers – or 4.475 million people -- are fully privately insured whether they buy insurance on the exchange or pay in-part for or receive in-full health through their private sector employers.    

I bring those numbers to the fore to highlight not the struggles of those receiving government insurance, but instead, the very real struggles of the 4.475 million people who are not. We represent a distinct minority of New Yorkers who have been taking an inordinate amount of abuse at the hands of the state while so many others have been granted benevolence from it.

It’s bad enough that we and our employers have to pay insanely-high amounts for insurance which rises at what averages out to be an almost unbelievable 5 percent per year over the past 8 years; or that the average family plan has a premium of $9,990 and a deductible of $7,980; or that we could easily be bankrupted by having to pay that deductible in a time of personal crisis (if the premium didn’t ruin family finances already).

But, rather than granting relief from those costs, the state gives us misery and is looking to dole out more of that.

New York State already imposes four taxes on individuals and their employers who buy health insurance. There is the covered lives assessment which is a surcharge placed on every covered family member which in 2015 alone collected $1.1 billion. It is accompanied by a 9.63 percent tax on health services done at hospitals which helped the state glean $2.9 billion in 2015. That same year, a 0.83 percent assessment on insurers brought $240 million to state coffers while a 1.75 percent premium tax netted $353 million.

That’s $4.5 billion in taxes in just one calendar year.

Governor Cuomo will tell you that’s money collected from the insurance companies themselves. But, anyone with a basic understanding of economics knows that those costs are passed on to the consumer. It’s you and me who are paying those charges and fees.

The fact that Cuomo doesn’t understand that explains his latest assault on health insurers (which is an assault on the insured)… a fifth tax.

When he released his budget proposal last month he announced the creation of a new 14 percent surcharge on private health insurance companies. The Administration calls it a "healthcare insurance windfall profit fee" and it is his response to the federal government’s tax reform – he figures that the incredible drop in corporate income tax rates should be countered by an almost identical increase in state taxes to reap some of that “windfall” (money insurers would no longer be paying into federal collections).

That concept burst the bubbles of many of us who assumed, and rightly so, that the significant savings achieved from tax reform would have been passed on to the insured; after all, we’ve heard of other large enterprises across the country (like utility companies) that are keen on sharing the wealth with their customers. 

What does this mean?

Employers that provide health insurance know that its embedded taxes are among the highest taxes they pay. With no end in sight to rising costs, worst case would be that companies that compete globally will just get up and leave the state as they have been. The more likely scenario is that many of them will follow the lead of others and go to high deductible plans with employees having to shoulder that deductible.  

As I said earlier, those deductibles can harm a working family -- too few can claim to have thousands of dollars sitting around for family emergencies. When a health crisis does happen and they eat that expense, they either claim bankruptcy or take on another massive debt payment.

Maybe that’s exactly what Cuomo wants to happen to them. Then they’d be able to join the 15 million plus who are receiving government health insurance. It kind of fits with the universal health care narrative (he’s already three-quarters of the way there). And, at the same time, this is an actual manifestation of his deeply-held anti-Trump rhetoric.

Whatever his reasons may be, we can’t let the windfall tax happen. Those who buy health insurance pay enough. Companies need relief. Families need relief. Our economy needs relief.

If you are among us who are privately ensured I encourage you to reach out to your elected officials and tell them to reject S. 7509/A.9509 (Revenue Article VII Bill) Part DD which would impose this sickening new tax.


From the 05 February 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News