Saturday, January 28, 2012

If Wyoming wants to reduce healthcare costs, you can’t get there from here unless we get serious about reducing tobacco use.

If Wyoming really wants to reduce the costs of Medicaid, the legislature must break its addiction to tobacco companies and get serious about strategies proven to reduce the use of this deadly product.

The American Lung Association issued a report card on the public health mission of decreasing tobacco use through evidence based practices such as increasing tobacco taxes, promoting smoke-free policies and funding comprehensive tobacco prevention programs.

In the four categories, Wyoming received a B, a C and two F’s. The higher grades went to programs for which the Department of Health is responsible. The F’s were received in areas where the legislature has been a poor partner to public health advocates but a good partner to big tobacco and bar owners.

Wyoming’s tobacco prevention programs scored high. Only two states received an A. Wyoming and two others were awarded B’s. Wyoming is in the top five for the quality of its tobacco programs which counter tobacco industry messages intended to get kids to start smoking and help stop the use of tobacco products.

Wyoming and 6 other sates received C’s for helping smokers quit. Only one state received a B and no one an A. Wyoming was robbed. Wyoming has one of the most accessible and supportive Quit Lines in the nation. Smokers receive significant help, including free medications and coaching by calling 1-800-QUIT NOW (1-800-784-8669 or by going to

Quitting is not as difficult as it once was. The chances of success greatly increase if the smoker gets medications and counseling. Among the 2,500 participants, outcomes demonstrate why Wyoming deserved a better than average C. At 3 months post-enrollment, 35% of participants reported no tobacco use for the past 30 days. At 6 months post-enrollment, 41% reported no tobacco use for the past 30 days.
There were two other categories where all states were graded. Both require the legislature to choose between tobacco companies and public health. Wyoming joined mostly southern tobacco states in receiving an F in both.
The first rated states on the adoption of smoke-free laws.  These laws protect workers and others from the harm of secondhand smoke. They have proved to protect health and provide an incentive for smokers to quit. The Wyoming legislature has chosen to support bar owners and big tobacco rather than protecting public health. Wyoming has increasingly isolated itself from a majority of states. Only 12 states received a failing grade in this category, Wyoming was the only one outside the south. All surrounding states received A’s except Idaho and South Dakota who got B’s. It could be that we are right and all of them are wrong, but research says it’s the other way around.
Finally, states were rated on the level of tobacco taxes. Research is clear, he higher the tax, the fewer smokers. For every 10 percent increase in price, the number of children who start smoking is reduced by 7 percent. Higher taxes also result in less tobacco use among low-income persons, many of whom receive Medicaid.
Wyoming and 14 other mostly tobacco-growing states received an F.  I wouldn’t mind this so much if Wyoming was growing tobacco but we are trying to grow healthy children.

This is why you and your legislator should care. The smoking rate among Wyoming Medicaid recipients is three times the general population. Wyoming spent an estimated $40 million treating smoking-related diseases among the adult Medicaid population. That doesn’t include health costs for children from second hand smoke.

If Wyoming wants to reduce healthcare costs, you can’t get there from here unless we get serious about reducing tobacco use. The next time you hear your legislator complain about the cost of Medicaid, ask them how they voted on bills that could go a long way toward reducing those costs and the health problems for which they pay.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Raising concerns about the growing gap between the wealthy and the rest is not “class warfare.” It’s Biblical.

Those who think the uber-wealthy should pay a fair tax are accused of “class warfare.” Please! When someone like Mitt Romney accuses President Obama of engaging in “class warfare” it’s like the Japanese Emperor accusing FDR of starting the World War II.

Reasonable people have suggested Romney should answer for why the company he owned, Bain Capital, looted some companies, took excessive dividends and management fees and left the companies for dead, its employees without jobs. Seems like a reasonable question.

But some politicians say any criticism of this conduct amounts to “class warfare” and an attack on capitalism itself. Really?  Romney made billions sitting in his office, clothed in a coat and tie, not producing anything. He bought and sold companies, helping some succeed while looting others. Is that what capitalism has become? Is that an approach to competition and productivity you want to embrace?

Henry Ward Beecher was a 19th century abolitionist best remembered for his fire and brimstone sermons on the evils of slavery. He is less remembered for his views of working people. Rev. Beecher didn’t understand there isn’t that much separating the slavery from which Moses freed God’s people and the conditions imposed on the working poor yet today.

Beecher's activism on behalf of slaves didn’t extend to the "working class.” During the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 he preached against the strikers whose wages had been cut. His notorious "bread and water" sermon included lines like, "Man cannot live by bread alone but the man who cannot live on bread and water is not fit to live.”

It was the nature of the times that made that kind of preaching acceptable but those ideas don’t square with scripture. Later it became unacceptable. The trustbusters revealed the excesses of corporate greed. Republican President Teddy Roosevelt believed Wall Street and the greedy titans were guilty of abusing their political and financial clout to get richer at the expense of the middle class. The result was the Sherman Anti-trust Act and the prosecution of greedy corporate offenders. His cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed and said, “Capitalism cannot survive without a conscience.”
Yet in 2012 those who speak like the Roosevelts once did are denounced for engaging in “class warfare.” Come on. Class warfare isn’t new. It’s just that those who have money and can hire the best lobbyists know how to wage the war. To the winners have gone the right to name it. They call themselves “capitalists” and us they call “class warriors.”
If you use your Bible for something other than thumping, you know the original class warrior was the Mother of Jesus. Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Before Mary there was Isaiah, “Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey! What will you do on the day of punishment, in the calamity that will come from far away? To whom will you flee for help, and where will you leave your wealth.”
So where do those so-called “values voters” learn their values if not from Isaiah and Mary? When did preaching or politicking for economic justice become objectionable? When did it become offensive to ask greedy rich folks to share and to suggest capitalism should have a conscience? And when did we confuse Biblical teaching with partisan politics and trickle down economics?
Raising concerns about the growing gap between the wealthy and the rest is not “class warfare.” It’s Biblical.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Why does the legislature dishonor Dr. King?

Why does the Wyoming legislature dishonor Martin Luther King by meeting on the holiday set aside to remember his birthday? The legislature designates state holidays by law and there is no other holiday on which they meet except this one. What’s up with that?

For those with long enough memories, you’ll recall this holiday honoring Dr. King was one the Wyoming legislature resisted enacting for many years until Wyoming was one of the very last states to do so. Even then it took threatened boycotts of the state’s travel destinations and the hard work of former State Senator Harriet “Liz” Byrd to get the job done after several years of trying.

In the end, the legislature reluctantly passed the bill after tacking on a rather tacky amendment. They wanted to say it really isn’t all about Martin Luther King…so they called it “Equality Day” ostensibly to recall another civil rights measure their brethren had enacted also reluctantly a century earlier.

In order to make sure everyone knew they passed the law holding their noses and crossing their fingers, the legislature has refused to actually honor the day. During the 40-day session, the entire legislature meets on that holiday. During the budget session, as they are in this year, the Joint Appropriations Committee meets. Of course, when they meet dozens of more state employees, all of the legislative staff and lobbyists, reporters and others must also give up the holiday in order to attend to the legislators.

By contrast the legislature takes off President's Day, the only other state holiday to occur while they are in session. And they never schedule meetings on any other of the state holidays. Just this one!

Wyoming legislative leaders left little doubt they would create a holiday honoring King only under extreme duress. Their hearts were never in it. They didn’t want to create the holiday but if they had too, they would not actually recognize it…and they never have.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Perhaps God figured we had the capacity to understand that in our differences we were still created in God’s image.

Just what was God thinking when God made the critical decision to create us all different?

I have a beautiful 6 month old red headed granddaughter whose father is Jewish and whose mother is not. I have a beautiful 2 year-old grandson whose mother is African American and whose father is not. Their bright, little faces bring joy to my life but I know the clock is ticking. In a few short years, they’ll be cast into a world where even the smallest of differences become the source of unwanted attention.

Unless we teach our children to honor the differences with which God created them, my grandchildren will find school to be an awfully difficult experience. Don’t think your grandchildren will have it any easier because God created all of them with differences of one kind or another.

Whether they are different because of their height or weight, the color of their skin or the size of their feet, their abilities, disabilities or accent, or because of who their parents are or are not, the part of town where they live, their sexuality, where you buy their clothes, the length of their nose or the cut of their hair, their score on a spelling test or how quickly they are chosen for which team…your grandchild is as different from others as are mine.

Unless you and I do something to change the culture, those differences can be hazardous to the health of the grandchildren we love.

What is it about our culture that renders our children’s differences a source of scorn rather than a reason to celebrate their lives? It’s too easy to blame the schools. Certainly they have a role in prevention, a role made important because our children are in their care much of the day. Teachers see behaviors that parents may miss. But be careful not to put the entire load on them.

By the time a child arrives at their door for the first day of kindergarten, each is aware of how much difference those differences make. It’s also too easy to simply blame parents. I wouldn’t discount the significance of good parenting and the imperative that parents teach children to respect others, particularly those who are different. But there is something more sinister, the culture awaiting our children outside their home.

Some of it begins unfortunately in our churches. How many of us attend churches where the differences between God’s people are the source of judgment? The basis of that judgment may be dogma, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, gender or gender roles, color, culture or lifestyle. Children learn quickly that the community to which they belong has a certain amount of suspicion, even disdain for differences.

What starts in churches soon arrives in legislative chambers. Witness Tennessee where the legislature has amended an anti-bullying law to allow bullying if the bully has a philosophical or political motive.  The anti-bullying law became a pro-bullying message.

And the culture beyond is yet more poisonous. Television, movies, magazines, billboards, the Internet or other cultural conveyances teach what one is expected to be, how one is expected to act and the expectation of conformity.

So…just what was God thinking when God created us with all of these differences? Perhaps God figured we had the capacity to understand that in our differences we were still created in God’s image. Perhaps God’s hope for the world is that our differences would fit together like the myriad pieces of a puzzle to create something extraordinary.

God would have been the first to shed tears as young Alex made his way to the train yard. I believe the tears were for us. As God welcomed Alex into a place where differences are honored, indeed where differences originated, God’s eye would have turned back to earth in the expectation that those who remain would have the capacity to change, to teach, to accept and to love…in memory of Alex and all the others and all of our differences.  

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Governor Needs a Children and Families Agenda

Once again Wyoming Governor Matt Mead has given question to whether he has any agenda that includes the welfare of children and families. This time the Governor vetoed a request from the Department of Corrections to fund a program allowing babies to be with their incarcerated mothers at the women’s correctional facility in Lusk.

He said it was one of those “tough choices” he had to make. I don’t set out to be one of Mead’s critics. In fact I like the guy. But it seems that whenever he has one of those “tough choices” to make, it cuts against the best interests of children and families.

It isn’t the cost that made it a “tough choice.” We’re talking about a cost effective expenditure of 1.2 million dollars in a 3 billion dollar plus budget.

Research supporting the idea should make it an “easy choice” for the governor and the legislature. It saves money while saving families. Regardless of what you may think of the women who find themselves serving prison time, their babies are innocent. Regardless of the punishment you think their mothers deserve, these babies are innocent. If you believe retribution is not the only goal of a prison sentence and the community is best served by rehabilitation, there is no grater need than to maintain and enhance the relationship these moms have with their children.

You see, it doesn’t matter what we think about the women. They will be released from prison back into the community. The question their neighbors and all taxpayers should ask is whether they’ll come out of prison better citizens than they were when they went in. Other states have found that helping them to become good mothers goes a long way toward making them better citizens.

The idea of allowing prison moms to keep their children while doing time is not a wild hair. Its success has been demonstrated in a number of other states including among our neighbors in South Dakota and Nebraska. In his final year, Governor Dave Freudenthal supported the proposal but it failed to pass the Joint Appropriations Committee by a single vote. The Legislature said instead of “doing” let’s study. So they authorized a study of the project by Tobin and Associates.

The Tobin report concludes the project is worthwhile. “These programs have demonstrated to reduce recidivism among female prison populations,” the study said. Nebraska saw a one-third reduction in repeat crime among its prison moms.  

Legislators should not now ignore the study they commissioned. I suppose they can and some will cling to threadbare arguments that this is “soft-on-crime” but that ignores facts. The alternative is placing these children in foster care. Statistics are clear. Children placed in foster care do not fare as well as those who are allowed to develop a loving relationship with their parent. A large percentage of them follow parents into the adult corrections system.

The idea has the support of the Wyoming Association of Churches. “Not only do these programs strengthen the critical psychological and emotional bond between mother and child, they significantly reduce recidivism rates for the participating mothers compared to the other prison population. It gives mothers an opportunity to learn about parenting in a safe environment and is an incentive to use their time in prison positively.”
Other organizations touting themselves as defenders of family values should step up as well. Ultimately, this program is about family values. The director of the Wyoming Department of Corrections is not what anyone could call “soft-on-crime.” Bob Lampert understands the research enough to know that allowing a child to bond with its mother is good for everyone; the child, its mother and society.

Hopefully the legislature will see what the governor failed to see. If these children are not on the state’s agenda today…you can bet the time will come when many of them will be.