alphabet blur close up font
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Bangor Daily News. April 14, 2022.

Editorial: Rick Lawrence makes welcome history as 1st Black justice confirmed to Maine high court

Supremely qualified people keep making history. This week, the Maine Senate confirmed Judge Rick Lawrence to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Last week, the U.S. Senate confirmed Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Lawrence and Jackson have proven themselves, in their confirmation processes and over the course of long careers, as thoughtful and diligent jurists. They also will bring new and valuable perspectives to their new roles, making history as the first Black justice in Maine and the first Black woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, respectively.

Lawrence and Jackson are their own people with their own journeys and accomplishments. But we can’t help but note the similar history made in each of these two moments, less than a week apart, delivered by two extremely qualified judges.

Lawrence’s 20-year record as a District Court judge spoke for itself. And his strength as nominee was displayed not only in his unanimous confirmation vote, but also in his eloquent and powerful testimony before the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Judiciary.

He explained how his parents moved from the Deep South to Great Barrington, Massachusetts, after World War II — the same town where scholar and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois was born. Lawrence recalled childhood visits to the South when his family was denied service at restaurants, relegated to separate restrooms and forced to search for motels where they would actually be allowed to stay overnight. He described being “emotionally transfixed and psychologically affirmed” while watching the civil rights movement growing up and “offended by the vehement opposition” to it, and eventually being drawn to the court cases that shaped the scope and impact of new federal civil rights laws.

“Those events shaped my impression of lawyers and the courts, and fostered my view of both as powerful forces that can play a positive role in people’s lives,” Lawrence told the Judiciary Committee on April 8. “My interest in the law, and thoughts about someday becoming a lawyer, grew out of those roots.”

After last week’s hearing, as reported by the Bangor Daily News’ Judy Harrison, Lawrence told reporters that he hopes his nomination (and now confirmation) will inspire other Black lawyers in Maine to seek judicial appointments and help bring more diversity to the judiciary. We hope so, too.

“I hope you’ll forgive me for pausing briefly to make a modest attempt to put today in some degree of perspective,” Lawrence said in his testimony. “In October of 1844, Maine became the first state in the Union to admit an African American to the practice of law when it granted admission to Macon Bolling Allen. Interestingly, just a few years later in 1848, attorney Allen also became the first African American jurist in the United States when he was appointed as a justice of the peace in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In 2000, it was my distinct privilege to be the first African American appointed to the bench in the State of Maine. In 2022, I would be both humbled and extraordinarily honored to be the first African American appointed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.”

Gov. Janet Mills, who nominated Lawrence, said she is “proud that lawmakers have recognized Judge Lawrence’s extensive legal experience, measured temperament, strong intellect, and proven commitment to upholding the law and administering justice impartially.” Lawrence is replacing Justice Ellen Gorman after her retirement, and will be sworn in this month.

“In closing, I respectfully submit to you that my personal life experiences, the breadth of my work experience prior to practicing law, the very nature of my legal practice, and my experience on the District Court bench all demonstrate that I am ready and able to assume the responsibilities of an associate justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court,” Lawrence added at last week’s hearing. “I hope the Joint Committee concurs with that assessment.”

They did. So did the entire Maine Senate. And for what it’s worth, we do, too.

___

Boston Globe. April 11, 2022.

Editorial: Future of health care shouldn’t be a battle of behemoths

The state can learn from its handling of the Mass General Brigham expansion plans how the system must work for all.

Mass General Brigham didn’t become the medical behemoth it is today by not knowing the first rule of health care poker — know when to fold ’em.

Faced with a wall of opposition to its proposed three new suburban outpatient surgical centers — not the least of which included a critical staff report by the Department of Public Health — the organization formerly known as Partners HeathCare cut its losses. In the end, MGB settled for partial wins on expansion plans on the main Mass General campus and at its Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital.

Amid state efforts to control rising health care costs, however, there are lessons to be learned here — lessons not unique to the expansionist aims of MGB. The fractured nature of health care policy in Massachusetts with its alphabet soup of agencies — in this one instance working in remarkable harmony — is desperately in need of a makeover.

Massachusetts is blessed with a wealth of first-rate medical institutions, including MGB, which again rose to the occasion during the pandemic. The problem isn’t quality; it’s the cost.

After all, hospital “development” isn’t just about adding a building here or a new unit there. Every one of those decisions will in one way or another add to the cost of care delivery. That balancing act requires all of those health care actors to be at the table, and that can’t be left to chance. It will in the end require a new legislative framework.

Even as MGB was pursuing what was originally a $2.3 billion expansion plan, the Health Policy Commission — whose mission is to contain health care costs — issued a notice to MGB that it would be required to file a Performance Improvement Plan outlining how it intended to contain spending that had risen above what it considered acceptable limits. It was the first time the commission had issued such an order.

The commission also said those proposed MGB outpatient centers for Woburn, Westborough, and Westwood would raise annual health care spending costs by between $9.3 million and $27.9 million.

At a meeting with the Globe editorial board, MGB president and CEO Dr. Anne Klibanski insisted the Performance Improvement Plan had “nothing” to do with the expansion plan.

She also maintained that the suburban centers were merely for the convenience of MGB’s existing patients.

“I have zero interest in acquiring patients,” Klibanski said.

But the attorney general’s office advanced the notion that that’s not how things work in the real world.

“These patients will be creating a relationship with the MGB system that will (or may) likely involve long-term shifts in where they obtain primary, specialty, and hospital care,” wrote Eric Gold, head of Attorney General Maura Healey’s health care division, in a letter to the Department of Public Health. “Analysis of the project’s impact on the Commonwealth’s health care cost containment goals is not complete without considering the financial impact of the shift of commercially insured patients to the MGB system for all their care.”

The Massachusetts Association of Health Plans also weighed in, noting in a letter, “Unless and until MGB addresses its underlying drivers of cost growth, the pending proposals before DPH will only exacerbate our state’s high health care costs and wide variations in provider prices.”

MGB will probably still walk away with approval for considerable expansions in Boston when the Department of Public Health meets next month to consider its staff recommendations. Staff did not recommend those 94 additional beds MGB was looking for on its main campus — although it left the door open for a future amendment. And its new towers will allow the conversion of double rooms to single ones. The Faulkner expansion will also be subject to ongoing monitoring.

What shouldn’t be lost is that the state dodged a potential health care cost bullet here.

Hospital expansions — officially called Determination of Need applications, which come under the purview of the Department of Public Health — should not be decided apart from the state’s cost-containment goals, now largely the work of the Health Policy Commission.

Legislation passed by the House last November — legislation near and dear to Speaker Ronald Mariano — seeks to do that. It would also establish a state Health Planning Council to look at the need for various services around the state and how future expansions help meet those needs.

It is not a perfect piece of legislation, and it gives an outsized role to community hospitals, also a favorite of the speaker. But the bill does provide a structure for making fair decisions in a way that takes into account cost and market share.

Maintaining the state’s reputation as a health care mecca and assuring that those services are available and affordable to its residents is a tricky balancing act — one that should not rely on fancy ad campaigns or political clout but on coordination by policy makers and by dogged ongoing analysis.

___

Boston Herald. April 10, 2022.

Editorial: RMV scoffs at accountability

When frustrated parents called the Herald furious over being told by the RMV that their college-aged kids had to retake driving tests, we moved quickly to figure out why.

As we first reported on the evening of Feb. 15, the registry was ordering 2,100 drivers to take a road test within 10 days or risk losing their license after four registry workers were fired for being part of a scam.

That edict interrupted families in the midst of a pandemic with new drivers spread out all over the region only to be threatened by the registry.

So, who were the culprits who upended all these lives? The Registry of Motor Vehicles won’t say.

The Herald’s public records request seeking the names, titles and pay of those fired for the ruse has been denied. We have appealed to the Secretary of State’s Office, but as of this writing the RMV is basically telling the taxpaying public “too bad!”

Here’s the full response: “Please be advised that we are withholding release of the requested records as they are exempt from disclosure as personnel files and information pursuant to the first clause of Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 4, Section 7(26)(c). Massachusetts courts have consistently determined that personnel file information includes, at a minimum, employment applications, employee evaluations, disciplinary documentation, and promotion, demotion or termination information pertaining to a particular employee. Information falling within the ‘personnel and medical files or information’ category is absolutely exempt from disclosure.”

Basically, those who upended so many lives — four registry workers at the Brockton Customer Service Center who were fired — are not being identified. They reportedly gave drivers passing grades without ever hitting the road. It was also reported that another RMV employee in the Brockton branch was issuing fraudulent vehicle titles.

State Sen. Diana DiZoglio, a candidate for state auditor, has called for a Senate oversight hearing on the RMV mess.

It’s clear the RMV continues to struggle to get the job done. So why hide the bad apples?

Here’s what they said in denying the Herald’s public records request: “MassDOT is also withholding responsive records under the privacy clause of Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 4, Section 7(26) (c), which exempts materials or data relating to a specifically named individual, the disclosure of which may constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

Yes, those employees who forced 2,100 would-be drivers to do a U-turn in less than two weeks or face being bagged would be exposed. But isn’t that a deterrent?

MassDOT, which oversees the embattled registry, does add the agency is withholding responsive records under Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 4, Section 7(26)(f), which exempts certain investigatory materials. Specifically, it applies to materials necessarily compiled out of the public view by investigatory officials that, if disclosed, “would probably so prejudice the possibility of effective law enforcement that such disclosure would not be in the public interest.” Disclosure of responsive records could “impede any ongoing investigation about this matter.”

Let’s hope those fired for yet again tarnishing the RMV are charged so their names can finally be made public. If not, it’s clear the registry does not believe in the spirit of true transparency.

___

Brattleboro Reformer. April 13, 2022.

Editorial: Drugs are killing our neighbors

The state set a grim record in 2021: 210 Vermonters died from drug overdoses. Sixteen of them were our neighbors in Bennington County; 20 lived with us in Windham County. Our counties had among the highest overdose death rates in the state, well above the statewide figure.

The impact of those numbers were front and center this week in Bennington, with a police raid of several local apartments resulting in the arrest of seven part- and full-time residents charged with dealing fentanyl and heroin, as well as the federal arrest in Bennington of a Massachusetts man also charged with selling fentanyl.

A staggering 93% of the state’s 2021 opioid overdose deaths involved fentanyl, and 46% involved a combination of fentanyl and cocaine, according to the Health Department.

“That’s the world we live in right now,” said Ralph Bennett, the emergency department director of Turning Point Center of Bennington.

While there is a role for law enforcement to play in tackling this crisis, it’s a world we cannot and should not arrest our way out of. Instead, let’s change that world.

First, the Health Department has launched a campaign to reverse the negative stigma we as a society seem to use as a lens when viewing addiction. Stigmatizing addiction feeds shame, making it harder to get sober and easier to reach for drugs. It also increases the likelihood of someone isolating from friends and family, using drugs alone, with no help in the event of an overdose.

No one chooses to become addicted to cocaine, heroin or fentanyl. Addiction is an illness, not unlike cancer, deserving of our full-on emotional and medical support.

In addition, we know that Narcan saves lives by reversing the effects of opiates. Everyone should have easy access to Narcan — especially the friends, families, co-workers and neighbors of those with substance use disorders. Turning Point (whose services are free, funded primarily by grants from federal and state programs) gives Narcan to anyone who asks. If you want it, get it. There is no shame in planning ahead to save a life.

The nonprofit also provides fentanyl strips to enable users to test their drugs for the presence of the opioid that is 100 times more potent than morphine.

Perhaps the most important need to stem the flood of overdose deaths is connection — making sure anyone who wants help can get it …immediately. Often, an overdose can spark a realization, a desire to get sober. Those services must be available at that moment, and extend from start to sober: Narcan, medically assisted treatment, counseling, supportive housing and more. People who want to get sober need to be around people who have gotten sober, not returned to the streets and the dealers that fed their addiction.

Two such recovery houses are planned for Bennington, on Gage Street for up to eight men, and on North Street for up to nine women. Those have been in the works for two years and need to move forward; this community requires a place where people recovering from a substance use disorder can get the support they need to stay sober.

One example of what can be accomplished is Jenna’s House in Johnson, started by the parents of a young woman who died from an overdose. Jenna’s House provides sober housing, treatment services, a support community and a work program that teaches job skills. That structured environment, surrounded by others who have gotten clean and sober, helps those addicted to drugs reclaim their lives.

Predatory drug dealers who conduct their deadly business in Southern Vermont deserve to be locked up. Full stop.

But our neighbors with substance use disorders deserve our best efforts and support to stay alive and get sober. Full stop.

___

Barre-Montpelier Times-Argus. April 14, 2022.

Editorial: Tragedy

It appears to be a hate crime. And hundreds of Vermonters signing an online petition at change.org seem to agree. But we need to let it play out.

Seth Brunell, 43, is accused of killing Fern Feather, 29, of Hinesburg, who was found stabbed to death along a Morristown road on Tuesday.

Police say the two met several days ago and had been spending time together. Officers say they were found in a vehicle together Tuesday around 8 a.m. in the parking lot of the Lamoille North Supervisory Union. Sometime after 10 a.m., they were spotted on Duhamel Road near the intersection of Cadys Falls Road. Then tragedy struck.

According to court paperwork, Brunell told police he was defending himself after Feather made a sexual advance and attacked him. Police say they couldn’t find evidence of an attack.

An autopsy was conducted Wednesday at the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office in Burlington determined the cause of death was a stab wound to the chest, and the manner of death was homicide.

Initial media reports and news releases misstated Feather’s name (using an old one) and misgendered them. The LGBTQA+ community was saddened and aptly outraged.

The Pride Center of Vermont wrote on its Facebook page: “Fern brought such joy to so many who were honored to know them and we grieve the loss of their light in this world.”

The homicide comes on the heels of thoughtless rhetoric from the state’s Republican Party.

According to VTDigger, state GOP chair Paul Dame wrote to party members to counter H.659, a bill that would allow transgender and non-binary minors to receive certain types of gender-affirming care without parental consent.

“PLEASE donate immediately to help Republicans STOP THIS MADNESS!” his email blast stated.

Burlington GOP chair Christopher-Aaron Felker tweeted out photos of the bill’s sponsors alongside a single descriptor: “groomer,” Digger reported.

Digger noted that “grooming” has since become a buzzword, suggesting that adults are preying on children by discussing gender identity and expression. Gay rights activists counter that this is an old trope and that those fighting social change have long tried to equate LGBTQ+ communities with pedophilia, according to the Digger article.

The online news source noted Felker, who has been dogged by accusations of transphobia in past runs for office, also retweeted a link to a video, titled “The Groomer Boom,” made by right-wing YouTuber Joshua Slocum. In it, the online personality calls on his audience to “bombard” the phone lines of H.659’s sponsors, including Rep. Taylor Small, P/D-Winooski, the state’s first openly transgender lawmaker, Digger reported.

Republican Gov. Phil Scott had had enough following the news reports on Feather’s stabbing.

He issued the following statement: “Across the country, we have seen disturbing hostility towards the transgender community. Unfortunately, recent events show we are not immune to this in Vermont, and we must commit to continuing our work to make Vermont a more inclusive and welcoming place. Exploiting fear and targeting divisive rhetoric at people who are just trying to be who they are is hateful and can lead to violence. …I ask Vermonters to do their part to ensure everyone feels safe in our state and to engage in these conversations from a place of empathy and understanding. Legitimate policy debates can and should be had and should be fact-based and respectful. Sadly, data shows transgender people are more likely to be victims of violence and die by suicide so it’s important to realize ‘how’ we discuss these issues matters.”

He concluded: “To Vermonters in the LGBTQA+ community, I want you to know we stand with you and support you but know we have more work to do.”

Sadly, according to Human Rights Campaign, 2022 already has seen at least 44 transgender or gender nonconforming people fatally shot or killed by other violent means, the majority of which were Black and Latinx transgender women. Since 2013, the campaign, which tracks violent crimes against the trans community, has documented 256 incidents of fatal violence against trans people. Over three quarters of victims in that period were 35 years old or younger, and one in 10 was younger than 21, the campaign found.

The Vermont Democratic Party condemned the GOP, stating it stands behind efforts to make “Vermont a safer and more inclusive state.”

“These attacks will lead to more divisiveness, more violence, and more harm to our state,” said Democratic Party Chair Anne Lezak.

Fern Feather’s rights were lost this week. This appears to be a hate crime and needs to be prosecuted as one if there is evidence showing as much. Let this week be the marker of just how far off we are as a state, and how far we have to go to really be inclusive.

___

Hartford Courant. April 8, 2022.

Editorial: Breast milk dispensary a healthy assist for parents and babies

According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, most babies in the United States receive some breast milk after they are born.

But, also according to the CDC, while breastfeeding is the “best source of nutrition for most infants,” most of these babies are not exclusively being breastfed and they are not being breastfed for as long as recommended.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for about six months, continuing breastfeeding as foods are introduced, and that the breastfeeding stays in place a year or longer “as mutually desired by mother and infant.”

The AAP also notes that “medical contraindications” that prevent women from breastfeeding are rare. But not every woman chooses to breastfeed her baby, and there are certain health conditions for which it is not recommended.

Now, for moms who intend to breastfeed but are struggling or not producing enough yet, there is a new avenue of help: Connecticut’s first outpatient breast milk dispensary.

That is a positive step for moms and babies.

The Glastonbury dispensary is scheduled to open this month, and it will provide donated, pasteurized human milk for about $4.20 an ounce.

It is a project by ProHealth Physicians’ Glastonbury Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, and the breast milk is available from mothers who register with Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast and are approved by their doctors.

According to Susan Parker, an APRN and lactation counselor who monitors the dispensary, the donors undergo tests and a physical exam and must make sure their own child’s milk needs are taken care of. While the dispensary has been using donations in hospital neonatal units since 2020, the new goal is to have it available for babies who are not in the hospital.

This option — not inexpensive at more than $4 an ounce — is intended to help moms as they wait for their full supply of breast milk to come in and provide a safe alternative during that time.

Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont already have outpatient breast milk dispensaries, according to Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast spokeswoman Anne Marie Lindquist.

Lindquist also has noted that parents in financial need may receive some financial assistance from Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast.

“It’s short-term help for families that are struggling for a few days. It’s not intended to replace breastfeeding. It’s intended to ease the mom’s mind until her full supply comes in,” Lindquist told The Courant’s Susan Dunne.

Multiple sources, including https://lalactation.com/ note that breastfed babies ages 1 to 6 months ingest “an average of 25-35 ounces per 24 hour day.”

The cost of the breast milk that will be available from the dispensary would likely make long-term use cost prohibitive for most families.

But as a short-term option to assist moms who make the choice to breastfeed, it should be a welcome addition to Connecticut.

___

Hearst Connecticut Media. April 14, 2022.

Editorial: Casino fears drive clash over CT tribal recognition

If you’re looking for the definitive Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) issue in Connecticut, consider the plight of tribes.

The Schaghticoke Indian Tribe is the latest to seek federal recognition. Leaders in the Town of Kent are against it. If the effort gains traction, expect town leaders to get support from the likes of U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., along with other municipalities across Connecticut.

Here’s the catch — it’s not really Kent’s backyard in the first place.

The Schaghticokes were on the land before settlers named the town after the county in England circa 1737. But Kent’s current leaders sound adamant in opposing the Schaghticoke’s petition to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“Within maybe two weeks of receiving federal recognition, (the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation in Ledyard) started a bingo parlor and now you have a huge gambling facility, hotel, entertainment — all kinds of activities,” said Jeff Sienkiewicz, Kent’s special counsel on Schaghticoke affairs.

It’s the “all kinds of activities” that the opposition is afraid of. An effort to build another casino would draw reliable blowback, even as Connecticut embraces legal sports betting and lottery income.

Schaghticoke Business Manager William Buchanan counters that a Kent casino is not in the cards. That doesn’t preclude leveraging recognition rights to put a complex elsewhere in the state. Three years ago, Buchanan told Hearst Connecticut Media he was meeting with “every major casino operator in the world.”

Kent has dealt with this before. The Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, a different faction of the tribe, won federal recognition before it was revoked in 2005. It pursued building a casino with financial backing from Subway restaurant founder Fred DeLuca, who grew up in Bridgeport. Another federal overturn spoiled casino plans for the Eastern Pequots of North Stonington, causing future President Donald Trump to sue to get his money back.

During that battle, Kent hired lobbyists and groups such as Town Action to Save Kent rose in opposition. Blumenthal, then Connecticut’s attorney general, led the crusade as Danbury, Waterbury and Bridgeport were identified as possible casino sites. Blumenthal met with leaders from Westport, Norwalk, Stamford, Fairfield, Ridgefield, Newtown, Wilton, Weston, Monroe, Orange and Trumbull. Bridgeport officials deferred, saying they wanted to host a casino.

Not only did Blumenthal and Co. get what they wanted, but the decision means the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation can never apply again.

Which makes this a gamble for Schaghticoke Indian Tribe leaders. They’ve been building a case for decades, but only get one shot.

Kent is a small town of just a shade more than 3,000 people. One of those residents is Henry Kissinger, who served as secretary of state under President Richard Nixon during a time when Nixon advanced major strides toward tribal self-rule.

Fears of upheaval in rural Kent are understandable. But leaders throughout Connecticut should also remind themselves not to treat the modern Native Americans as the enemy.

They also need to remember that the ultimate determination will be made by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

In other words, what happens in the backyard is not up to them.

Bangor Daily News. April 14, 2022.

Editorial: Rick Lawrence makes welcome history as 1st Black justice confirmed to Maine high court

Supremely qualified people keep making history. This week, the Maine Senate confirmed Judge Rick Lawrence to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Last week, the U.S. Senate confirmed Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Lawrence and Jackson have proven themselves, in their confirmation processes and over the course of long careers, as thoughtful and diligent jurists. They also will bring new and valuable perspectives to their new roles, making history as the first Black justice in Maine and the first Black woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, respectively.

Lawrence and Jackson are their own people with their own journeys and accomplishments. But we can’t help but note the similar history made in each of these two moments, less than a week apart, delivered by two extremely qualified judges.

Lawrence’s 20-year record as a District Court judge spoke for itself. And his strength as nominee was displayed not only in his unanimous confirmation vote, but also in his eloquent and powerful testimony before the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Judiciary.

He explained how his parents moved from the Deep South to Great Barrington, Massachusetts, after World War II — the same town where scholar and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois was born. Lawrence recalled childhood visits to the South when his family was denied service at restaurants, relegated to separate restrooms and forced to search for motels where they would actually be allowed to stay overnight. He described being “emotionally transfixed and psychologically affirmed” while watching the civil rights movement growing up and “offended by the vehement opposition” to it, and eventually being drawn to the court cases that shaped the scope and impact of new federal civil rights laws.

“Those events shaped my impression of lawyers and the courts, and fostered my view of both as powerful forces that can play a positive role in people’s lives,” Lawrence told the Judiciary Committee on April 8. “My interest in the law, and thoughts about someday becoming a lawyer, grew out of those roots.”

After last week’s hearing, as reported by the Bangor Daily News’ Judy Harrison, Lawrence told reporters that he hopes his nomination (and now confirmation) will inspire other Black lawyers in Maine to seek judicial appointments and help bring more diversity to the judiciary. We hope so, too.

“I hope you’ll forgive me for pausing briefly to make a modest attempt to put today in some degree of perspective,” Lawrence said in his testimony. “In October of 1844, Maine became the first state in the Union to admit an African American to the practice of law when it granted admission to Macon Bolling Allen. Interestingly, just a few years later in 1848, attorney Allen also became the first African American jurist in the United States when he was appointed as a justice of the peace in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In 2000, it was my distinct privilege to be the first African American appointed to the bench in the State of Maine. In 2022, I would be both humbled and extraordinarily honored to be the first African American appointed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.”

Gov. Janet Mills, who nominated Lawrence, said she is “proud that lawmakers have recognized Judge Lawrence’s extensive legal experience, measured temperament, strong intellect, and proven commitment to upholding the law and administering justice impartially.” Lawrence is replacing Justice Ellen Gorman after her retirement, and will be sworn in this month.

“In closing, I respectfully submit to you that my personal life experiences, the breadth of my work experience prior to practicing law, the very nature of my legal practice, and my experience on the District Court bench all demonstrate that I am ready and able to assume the responsibilities of an associate justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court,” Lawrence added at last week’s hearing. “I hope the Joint Committee concurs with that assessment.”

They did. So did the entire Maine Senate. And for what it’s worth, we do, too.

___

Boston Globe. April 11, 2022.

Editorial: Future of health care shouldn’t be a battle of behemoths

The state can learn from its handling of the Mass General Brigham expansion plans how the system must work for all.

Mass General Brigham didn’t become the medical behemoth it is today by not knowing the first rule of health care poker — know when to fold ’em.

Faced with a wall of opposition to its proposed three new suburban outpatient surgical centers — not the least of which included a critical staff report by the Department of Public Health — the organization formerly known as Partners HeathCare cut its losses. In the end, MGB settled for partial wins on expansion plans on the main Mass General campus and at its Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital.

Amid state efforts to control rising health care costs, however, there are lessons to be learned here — lessons not unique to the expansionist aims of MGB. The fractured nature of health care policy in Massachusetts with its alphabet soup of agencies — in this one instance working in remarkable harmony — is desperately in need of a makeover.

Massachusetts is blessed with a wealth of first-rate medical institutions, including MGB, which again rose to the occasion during the pandemic. The problem isn’t quality; it’s the cost.

After all, hospital “development” isn’t just about adding a building here or a new unit there. Every one of those decisions will in one way or another add to the cost of care delivery. That balancing act requires all of those health care actors to be at the table, and that can’t be left to chance. It will in the end require a new legislative framework.

Even as MGB was pursuing what was originally a $2.3 billion expansion plan, the Health Policy Commission — whose mission is to contain health care costs — issued a notice to MGB that it would be required to file a Performance Improvement Plan outlining how it intended to contain spending that had risen above what it considered acceptable limits. It was the first time the commission had issued such an order.

The commission also said those proposed MGB outpatient centers for Woburn, Westborough, and Westwood would raise annual health care spending costs by between $9.3 million and $27.9 million.

At a meeting with the Globe editorial board, MGB president and CEO Dr. Anne Klibanski insisted the Performance Improvement Plan had “nothing” to do with the expansion plan.

She also maintained that the suburban centers were merely for the convenience of MGB’s existing patients.

“I have zero interest in acquiring patients,” Klibanski said.

But the attorney general’s office advanced the notion that that’s not how things work in the real world.

“These patients will be creating a relationship with the MGB system that will (or may) likely involve long-term shifts in where they obtain primary, specialty, and hospital care,” wrote Eric Gold, head of Attorney General Maura Healey’s health care division, in a letter to the Department of Public Health. “Analysis of the project’s impact on the Commonwealth’s health care cost containment goals is not complete without considering the financial impact of the shift of commercially insured patients to the MGB system for all their care.”

The Massachusetts Association of Health Plans also weighed in, noting in a letter, “Unless and until MGB addresses its underlying drivers of cost growth, the pending proposals before DPH will only exacerbate our state’s high health care costs and wide variations in provider prices.”

MGB will probably still walk away with approval for considerable expansions in Boston when the Department of Public Health meets next month to consider its staff recommendations. Staff did not recommend those 94 additional beds MGB was looking for on its main campus — although it left the door open for a future amendment. And its new towers will allow the conversion of double rooms to single ones. The Faulkner expansion will also be subject to ongoing monitoring.

What shouldn’t be lost is that the state dodged a potential health care cost bullet here.

Hospital expansions — officially called Determination of Need applications, which come under the purview of the Department of Public Health — should not be decided apart from the state’s cost-containment goals, now largely the work of the Health Policy Commission.

Legislation passed by the House last November — legislation near and dear to Speaker Ronald Mariano — seeks to do that. It would also establish a state Health Planning Council to look at the need for various services around the state and how future expansions help meet those needs.

It is not a perfect piece of legislation, and it gives an outsized role to community hospitals, also a favorite of the speaker. But the bill does provide a structure for making fair decisions in a way that takes into account cost and market share.

Maintaining the state’s reputation as a health care mecca and assuring that those services are available and affordable to its residents is a tricky balancing act — one that should not rely on fancy ad campaigns or political clout but on coordination by policy makers and by dogged ongoing analysis.

___

Boston Herald. April 10, 2022.

Editorial: RMV scoffs at accountability

When frustrated parents called the Herald furious over being told by the RMV that their college-aged kids had to retake driving tests, we moved quickly to figure out why.

As we first reported on the evening of Feb. 15, the registry was ordering 2,100 drivers to take a road test within 10 days or risk losing their license after four registry workers were fired for being part of a scam.

That edict interrupted families in the midst of a pandemic with new drivers spread out all over the region only to be threatened by the registry.

So, who were the culprits who upended all these lives? The Registry of Motor Vehicles won’t say.

The Herald’s public records request seeking the names, titles and pay of those fired for the ruse has been denied. We have appealed to the Secretary of State’s Office, but as of this writing the RMV is basically telling the taxpaying public “too bad!”

Here’s the full response: “Please be advised that we are withholding release of the requested records as they are exempt from disclosure as personnel files and information pursuant to the first clause of Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 4, Section 7(26)(c). Massachusetts courts have consistently determined that personnel file information includes, at a minimum, employment applications, employee evaluations, disciplinary documentation, and promotion, demotion or termination information pertaining to a particular employee. Information falling within the ‘personnel and medical files or information’ category is absolutely exempt from disclosure.”

Basically, those who upended so many lives — four registry workers at the Brockton Customer Service Center who were fired — are not being identified. They reportedly gave drivers passing grades without ever hitting the road. It was also reported that another RMV employee in the Brockton branch was issuing fraudulent vehicle titles.

State Sen. Diana DiZoglio, a candidate for state auditor, has called for a Senate oversight hearing on the RMV mess.

It’s clear the RMV continues to struggle to get the job done. So why hide the bad apples?

Here’s what they said in denying the Herald’s public records request: “MassDOT is also withholding responsive records under the privacy clause of Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 4, Section 7(26) (c), which exempts materials or data relating to a specifically named individual, the disclosure of which may constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

Yes, those employees who forced 2,100 would-be drivers to do a U-turn in less than two weeks or face being bagged would be exposed. But isn’t that a deterrent?

MassDOT, which oversees the embattled registry, does add the agency is withholding responsive records under Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 4, Section 7(26)(f), which exempts certain investigatory materials. Specifically, it applies to materials necessarily compiled out of the public view by investigatory officials that, if disclosed, “would probably so prejudice the possibility of effective law enforcement that such disclosure would not be in the public interest.” Disclosure of responsive records could “impede any ongoing investigation about this matter.”

Let’s hope those fired for yet again tarnishing the RMV are charged so their names can finally be made public. If not, it’s clear the registry does not believe in the spirit of true transparency.

___

Brattleboro Reformer. April 13, 2022.

Editorial: Drugs are killing our neighbors

The state set a grim record in 2021: 210 Vermonters died from drug overdoses. Sixteen of them were our neighbors in Bennington County; 20 lived with us in Windham County. Our counties had among the highest overdose death rates in the state, well above the statewide figure.

The impact of those numbers were front and center this week in Bennington, with a police raid of several local apartments resulting in the arrest of seven part- and full-time residents charged with dealing fentanyl and heroin, as well as the federal arrest in Bennington of a Massachusetts man also charged with selling fentanyl.

A staggering 93% of the state’s 2021 opioid overdose deaths involved fentanyl, and 46% involved a combination of fentanyl and cocaine, according to the Health Department.

“That’s the world we live in right now,” said Ralph Bennett, the emergency department director of Turning Point Center of Bennington.

While there is a role for law enforcement to play in tackling this crisis, it’s a world we cannot and should not arrest our way out of. Instead, let’s change that world.

First, the Health Department has launched a campaign to reverse the negative stigma we as a society seem to use as a lens when viewing addiction. Stigmatizing addiction feeds shame, making it harder to get sober and easier to reach for drugs. It also increases the likelihood of someone isolating from friends and family, using drugs alone, with no help in the event of an overdose.

No one chooses to become addicted to cocaine, heroin or fentanyl. Addiction is an illness, not unlike cancer, deserving of our full-on emotional and medical support.

In addition, we know that Narcan saves lives by reversing the effects of opiates. Everyone should have easy access to Narcan — especially the friends, families, co-workers and neighbors of those with substance use disorders. Turning Point (whose services are free, funded primarily by grants from federal and state programs) gives Narcan to anyone who asks. If you want it, get it. There is no shame in planning ahead to save a life.

The nonprofit also provides fentanyl strips to enable users to test their drugs for the presence of the opioid that is 100 times more potent than morphine.

Perhaps the most important need to stem the flood of overdose deaths is connection — making sure anyone who wants help can get it …immediately. Often, an overdose can spark a realization, a desire to get sober. Those services must be available at that moment, and extend from start to sober: Narcan, medically assisted treatment, counseling, supportive housing and more. People who want to get sober need to be around people who have gotten sober, not returned to the streets and the dealers that fed their addiction.

Two such recovery houses are planned for Bennington, on Gage Street for up to eight men, and on North Street for up to nine women. Those have been in the works for two years and need to move forward; this community requires a place where people recovering from a substance use disorder can get the support they need to stay sober.

One example of what can be accomplished is Jenna’s House in Johnson, started by the parents of a young woman who died from an overdose. Jenna’s House provides sober housing, treatment services, a support community and a work program that teaches job skills. That structured environment, surrounded by others who have gotten clean and sober, helps those addicted to drugs reclaim their lives.

Predatory drug dealers who conduct their deadly business in Southern Vermont deserve to be locked up. Full stop.

But our neighbors with substance use disorders deserve our best efforts and support to stay alive and get sober. Full stop.

___

Barre-Montpelier Times-Argus. April 14, 2022.

Editorial: Tragedy

It appears to be a hate crime. And hundreds of Vermonters signing an online petition at change.org seem to agree. But we need to let it play out.

Seth Brunell, 43, is accused of killing Fern Feather, 29, of Hinesburg, who was found stabbed to death along a Morristown road on Tuesday.

Police say the two met several days ago and had been spending time together. Officers say they were found in a vehicle together Tuesday around 8 a.m. in the parking lot of the Lamoille North Supervisory Union. Sometime after 10 a.m., they were spotted on Duhamel Road near the intersection of Cadys Falls Road. Then tragedy struck.

According to court paperwork, Brunell told police he was defending himself after Feather made a sexual advance and attacked him. Police say they couldn’t find evidence of an attack.

An autopsy was conducted Wednesday at the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office in Burlington determined the cause of death was a stab wound to the chest, and the manner of death was homicide.

Initial media reports and news releases misstated Feather’s name (using an old one) and misgendered them. The LGBTQA+ community was saddened and aptly outraged.

The Pride Center of Vermont wrote on its Facebook page: “Fern brought such joy to so many who were honored to know them and we grieve the loss of their light in this world.”

The homicide comes on the heels of thoughtless rhetoric from the state’s Republican Party.

According to VTDigger, state GOP chair Paul Dame wrote to party members to counter H.659, a bill that would allow transgender and non-binary minors to receive certain types of gender-affirming care without parental consent.

“PLEASE donate immediately to help Republicans STOP THIS MADNESS!” his email blast stated.

Burlington GOP chair Christopher-Aaron Felker tweeted out photos of the bill’s sponsors alongside a single descriptor: “groomer,” Digger reported.

Digger noted that “grooming” has since become a buzzword, suggesting that adults are preying on children by discussing gender identity and expression. Gay rights activists counter that this is an old trope and that those fighting social change have long tried to equate LGBTQ+ communities with pedophilia, according to the Digger article.

The online news source noted Felker, who has been dogged by accusations of transphobia in past runs for office, also retweeted a link to a video, titled “The Groomer Boom,” made by right-wing YouTuber Joshua Slocum. In it, the online personality calls on his audience to “bombard” the phone lines of H.659’s sponsors, including Rep. Taylor Small, P/D-Winooski, the state’s first openly transgender lawmaker, Digger reported.

Republican Gov. Phil Scott had had enough following the news reports on Feather’s stabbing.

He issued the following statement: “Across the country, we have seen disturbing hostility towards the transgender community. Unfortunately, recent events show we are not immune to this in Vermont, and we must commit to continuing our work to make Vermont a more inclusive and welcoming place. Exploiting fear and targeting divisive rhetoric at people who are just trying to be who they are is hateful and can lead to violence. …I ask Vermonters to do their part to ensure everyone feels safe in our state and to engage in these conversations from a place of empathy and understanding. Legitimate policy debates can and should be had and should be fact-based and respectful. Sadly, data shows transgender people are more likely to be victims of violence and die by suicide so it’s important to realize ‘how’ we discuss these issues matters.”

He concluded: “To Vermonters in the LGBTQA+ community, I want you to know we stand with you and support you but know we have more work to do.”

Sadly, according to Human Rights Campaign, 2022 already has seen at least 44 transgender or gender nonconforming people fatally shot or killed by other violent means, the majority of which were Black and Latinx transgender women. Since 2013, the campaign, which tracks violent crimes against the trans community, has documented 256 incidents of fatal violence against trans people. Over three quarters of victims in that period were 35 years old or younger, and one in 10 was younger than 21, the campaign found.

The Vermont Democratic Party condemned the GOP, stating it stands behind efforts to make “Vermont a safer and more inclusive state.”

“These attacks will lead to more divisiveness, more violence, and more harm to our state,” said Democratic Party Chair Anne Lezak.

Fern Feather’s rights were lost this week. This appears to be a hate crime and needs to be prosecuted as one if there is evidence showing as much. Let this week be the marker of just how far off we are as a state, and how far we have to go to really be inclusive.

___

Hartford Courant. April 8, 2022.

Editorial: Breast milk dispensary a healthy assist for parents and babies

According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, most babies in the United States receive some breast milk after they are born.

But, also according to the CDC, while breastfeeding is the “best source of nutrition for most infants,” most of these babies are not exclusively being breastfed and they are not being breastfed for as long as recommended.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for about six months, continuing breastfeeding as foods are introduced, and that the breastfeeding stays in place a year or longer “as mutually desired by mother and infant.”

The AAP also notes that “medical contraindications” that prevent women from breastfeeding are rare. But not every woman chooses to breastfeed her baby, and there are certain health conditions for which it is not recommended.

Now, for moms who intend to breastfeed but are struggling or not producing enough yet, there is a new avenue of help: Connecticut’s first outpatient breast milk dispensary.

That is a positive step for moms and babies.

The Glastonbury dispensary is scheduled to open this month, and it will provide donated, pasteurized human milk for about $4.20 an ounce.

It is a project by ProHealth Physicians’ Glastonbury Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, and the breast milk is available from mothers who register with Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast and are approved by their doctors.

According to Susan Parker, an APRN and lactation counselor who monitors the dispensary, the donors undergo tests and a physical exam and must make sure their own child’s milk needs are taken care of. While the dispensary has been using donations in hospital neonatal units since 2020, the new goal is to have it available for babies who are not in the hospital.

This option — not inexpensive at more than $4 an ounce — is intended to help moms as they wait for their full supply of breast milk to come in and provide a safe alternative during that time.

Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont already have outpatient breast milk dispensaries, according to Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast spokeswoman Anne Marie Lindquist.

Lindquist also has noted that parents in financial need may receive some financial assistance from Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast.

“It’s short-term help for families that are struggling for a few days. It’s not intended to replace breastfeeding. It’s intended to ease the mom’s mind until her full supply comes in,” Lindquist told The Courant’s Susan Dunne.

Multiple sources, including https://lalactation.com/ note that breastfed babies ages 1 to 6 months ingest “an average of 25-35 ounces per 24 hour day.”

The cost of the breast milk that will be available from the dispensary would likely make long-term use cost prohibitive for most families.

But as a short-term option to assist moms who make the choice to breastfeed, it should be a welcome addition to Connecticut.

___

Hearst Connecticut Media. April 14, 2022.

Editorial: Casino fears drive clash over CT tribal recognition

If you’re looking for the definitive Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) issue in Connecticut, consider the plight of tribes.

The Schaghticoke Indian Tribe is the latest to seek federal recognition. Leaders in the Town of Kent are against it. If the effort gains traction, expect town leaders to get support from the likes of U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., along with other municipalities across Connecticut.

Here’s the catch — it’s not really Kent’s backyard in the first place.

The Schaghticokes were on the land before settlers named the town after the county in England circa 1737. But Kent’s current leaders sound adamant in opposing the Schaghticoke’s petition to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“Within maybe two weeks of receiving federal recognition, (the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation in Ledyard) started a bingo parlor and now you have a huge gambling facility, hotel, entertainment — all kinds of activities,” said Jeff Sienkiewicz, Kent’s special counsel on Schaghticoke affairs.

It’s the “all kinds of activities” that the opposition is afraid of. An effort to build another casino would draw reliable blowback, even as Connecticut embraces legal sports betting and lottery income.

Schaghticoke Business Manager William Buchanan counters that a Kent casino is not in the cards. That doesn’t preclude leveraging recognition rights to put a complex elsewhere in the state. Three years ago, Buchanan told Hearst Connecticut Media he was meeting with “every major casino operator in the world.”

Kent has dealt with this before. The Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, a different faction of the tribe, won federal recognition before it was revoked in 2005. It pursued building a casino with financial backing from Subway restaurant founder Fred DeLuca, who grew up in Bridgeport. Another federal overturn spoiled casino plans for the Eastern Pequots of North Stonington, causing future President Donald Trump to sue to get his money back.

During that battle, Kent hired lobbyists and groups such as Town Action to Save Kent rose in opposition. Blumenthal, then Connecticut’s attorney general, led the crusade as Danbury, Waterbury and Bridgeport were identified as possible casino sites. Blumenthal met with leaders from Westport, Norwalk, Stamford, Fairfield, Ridgefield, Newtown, Wilton, Weston, Monroe, Orange and Trumbull. Bridgeport officials deferred, saying they wanted to host a casino.

Not only did Blumenthal and Co. get what they wanted, but the decision means the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation can never apply again.

Which makes this a gamble for Schaghticoke Indian Tribe leaders. They’ve been building a case for decades, but only get one shot.

Kent is a small town of just a shade more than 3,000 people. One of those residents is Henry Kissinger, who served as secretary of state under President Richard Nixon during a time when Nixon advanced major strides toward tribal self-rule.

Fears of upheaval in rural Kent are understandable. But leaders throughout Connecticut should also remind themselves not to treat the modern Native Americans as the enemy.

They also need to remember that the ultimate determination will be made by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

In other words, what happens in the backyard is not up to them.

The Associated Press

The Associated Press (AP) is an independent global news organization dedicated to factual reporting.