The Portland (Maine) Press Herald, Aug. 13, 2013
Congress left Washington for its August recess without taking action on a farm bill that is set to expire next month. This failure offers an opportunity to take a long look at our policies on food and hunger.
As a nation, we tend to subsidize food that is bad for people's health, lowering its price. When the most cost-conscious consumers get sick as a result, we blame them for their bad judgment. No wonder the policy is failing.
America needs a balanced agriculture and nutrition policy that not only maintains the food supply but also assures everyone access to healthy food.
While the number of Americans who make their living on a farm declines, we offer billions of dollars in subsidies to agribusiness to produce commodity crops like corn, soybeans and wheat. Meanwhile, the nation is experiencing an obesity crisis that is fueled by what kinds of food people eat as much as by the amount they consume.
People in poverty are hit the hardest by this epidemic, with adult and childhood obesity rates greater than seen among middle-class and well-off Americans.
Why does this link exist? Because on a per-calorie basis, processed foods made from subsidized crops are less expensive than healthy foods. Even though one of the most commonly heard health recommendations is to eat more fruits and vegetables, that kind of produce is not subsidized by the government and winds up being more expensive on a per-calorie basis, if not in price by the pound.
For decades the nation's farm policy has been built on a careful rural-urban balance, which tied farm subsidies to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (better known as "food stamps"). The balance has continued, even as the declining buying power of SNAP allotments has pushed more poor people into making bad nutrition choices.
To combat this, some well-intentioned civic leaders have proposed blocking SNAP purchases of soft drinks or other unhealthy foods, typically made with subsidized products like corn sweeteners.
The implication is that low-income people can't be trusted to make the right choices. The Maine Legislature killed one such plan sponsored by Gov. LePage.
In Washington, House Republicans passed a bill this summer that would make things even worse. It would increase subsidies by $195 billion over 10 years, while stripping out nutrition supplements completely. Fortunately, that idea will not go anywhere, but doing nothing is not the right answer either.
A much better idea has been offered on a small scale in Norwich, Conn., where The William W. Backus Hospital is distributing vouchers to low-income patients that give them credit at local farmers markets. Called "Rx for Health," the program addresses the real problems.
By giving direct aid to consumers, the program creates an incentive to make healthy choices. Indirectly, it also subsidizes the farmers who grow the kind of food that is the healthiest.
This is the kind of approach that could make a real difference on a national level. That is the kind of farm bill lawmakers should be debating.
The Concord (N.H.) Monitor, Aug. 16, 2013
One of the most chilling episodes in the whole awful saga of the traveling hospital worker who pleaded guilty to a horrific drug-stealing scheme came outside the federal courthouse in Concord. There, one of David Kwiatkowski's victims told reporters that he remembered the technician from his stay at Exeter Hospital — and remembered that something was distinctly wrong with him.
The man described Kwiatkowski as sweaty and his eyes red and glassy. He figured he was either drunk or high on marijuana. That alone would have been cause for alarm — from patients and co-workers alike. Incredibly the truth was far worse.
Kwiatkowski moved regularly from job to job, often working in cardiac catheterization labs. As he has now admitted, he regularly stole syringes full of narcotics and replaced them with syringes he had already used — refilled with saline solution. That, too, would have been cause enough for alarm, for Kwiatkowski's patients were denied the painkillers they needed. But that wasn't the end of the story either.
Those old syringes were contaminated with hepatitis C, which Kwiatkowski had acquired during years of drug abuse. As a result, nearly four dozen patients in New Hampshire, Kansas and Maryland were infected with a potentially fatal virus.
Kwiatkowski will spend between 30 and 40 years behind bars, a sentence federal prosecutor John Kacavas described as the best deal available under the law. "I can't give (the victims) their health back. I can't give them compensation. ... What we can give them is some measure of justice within the criminal justice system. And that is a term of years of incarceration. I understand their frustration and I understand victims who want nothing less than a life sentence or the death penalty. I get that. But our system does not allow for that."
There may be one measure of hope — not for these patients, alas, but for the safety of future patients.
Pending at the State House is legislation intended to prevent similar drug-addicted workers from carrying such schemes from one unwitting hospital to another. The bill would create a state board to oversee the licenses of medical technicians and a registry of the status of those licenses. If a hospital technician's license was rescinded here, it would be public knowledge, checkable by any future employer. The information would be available on a national database of health care worker licenses.
The rules for medical technicians vary from state to state. Some require certain subsets to require licenses; New Hampshire is one of many states that don't require any licensing.
Clearly, licensing and registration here is an important first step. Despite the fashionable political talk about burdensome government regulation, this is an area where less is not better. Of course, a New Hampshire registry would raise red flags about only those medical technicians who had gotten into trouble in New Hampshire. Advocates here hope that it might eventually lead to a national registry, so that abusers like Kwiatkowski couldn't easily slip from one state to another.
A national registry for health care workers is a worthy cause for members of New Hampshire's congressional delegation. New Hampshire brought this tragic problem to the nation's attention. The state should now lead the way in helping to prevent it in the future.