Monday Roundup: Firefighters and Health Insurance

Funding rural health care in the Northwest • What Farm Bill amendments might survive the House • Sugar workers still on strike • Byron Dorgan on rural broadband

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About 20 percent of the U.S. population lives in rural areas of the country, but those same communities are home to only 9 percent of the nation’s doctors, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

The Moscow-Pullman Daily New reports on a program run for the past 40 years by the University of Washington School of Medicine that attempts to address this disparity in the Northwest. The program trains doctors for Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho.

In 2009, the state of Idaho promised funding that would double the number of Idaho students in the program. But because of the poor economy, that promise has never been fulfilled.

Idaho is 49th in the country in terms of physicians per population, the paper reports. The hope is that Idaho can fund five students a year in the Washington program. 

“We have a shortage of physicians overall, (but) there are also more physicians in our cities than in the country,” said Andrew Turner, who heads up the program at the University of Washington. “We do have communities where small rural hospitals are in trouble because there aren’t enough physicians to keep them open. We have to figure out a way to increase interest in rural health care.” 

• For decades, the federal government has “auctioned” off coal to single bidders. Coal companies draw up plans to mine on federal land. Then the Bureau of Land Management sells the coal to that company.

The Washington Post reports this morning on a study that finds this practice could have cost taxpayers as much as $28.9 billion over the past 30 years. Talk about Friends of Coal! 

Most of this coal was leased in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming.

• Canadian media are reporting on a pipeline spill that has resulted in up to 475,000 liters of crude spilling into a tributary of the Red Deer River in Alberta. 

• Chris Clayton reports on which amendments to the Senate Farm Bill are likely to survive a conference committee with the House. 

• Mitt Romney finished his tour of rural America in Michigan yesterday, where he “rolled out a crust for an Honest Abe cherry-apple pie,” reported Marshal Mercer. “When it came to policy, though, the five-day trip offered only crumbs.”

Not much rural policy was made on Romney’s “Every Town Counts” bus tour.

• The Daytona (Florida) newspaper concludes that rural voters “could be key to the presidential contest.” 

An editorial in the paper reads:

In recent weeks, it has become apparent that rural voters are a key demographic that Republican Mitt Romney cannot take for granted and President Barack Obama, a Democrat, cannot ignore in favor of big-city voters.

It means rural voters are likely to be targeted in Volusia and Flagler counties. Voters in rural Florida could end up tipping the Sunshine State to either candidate.

The targeting of rural voters is part of the strategies of both campaigns.

• The death of a cattle herd in Central Texas has led investigators to suspect that a form of Bermuda grass (Tifton 85) could be the cause

Extension Service specialists say this is a result of drought conditions. 

• Missouri used to be considered a “swing state” in presidential elections. Not this year, reports the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 

Both President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney have left Missouri off of recent television ad buys in swing states. Their choices for the states in play include Colorado, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. 

• About 1,700 people from Idaho were working in North Dakota in 2010, up 58 percent from 2009. No doubt that number has increased by 2012. Most are working in the oil and gas fields.

The newspaper in Boise writes about what that means to the families left behind. 

• The Washington Post asks if boom times in Iowa farm communities will affect the presidential election this fall. 

Iowa is a “swing state” and the economy is supposed to be the biggest issue in this election. So what happens when the economy of a swing state is really pretty good?

Turns out — surprise! — that nobody really knows. The only consensus is that this election will be close.

• The strike by sugar workers in the Red River Valley of Minnesota continues after ten months, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports

Some 1,300 workers refused to sign a contract last year and Crystal Sugar locked them out. Saturday, the workers again rejected a contract offer from Crystal. Over 60 percent voted against the latest contract offer.

• The thousands of firefighters working the blazes in Colorado and the rest of the West don’t have any health insurance, the Denver Post reports

The firefighters are seasonal workers. They are paid by the U.S. Forest Service. But they don’t get health insurance and they can’t buy into the federal plan even if they wanted to.

The only protection they have is workers compensation insurance. Base pay is $14 an hour.

• Former North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan writes in Politico about the new Connect America Fund (CAF) set up by the Federal Communications Commission. He’s not entirely happy: 

In the early days of telephone use, the government knew it would be costly to reach rural and high-cost areas, so it created a universal service policy to help make that happen. Over the years that fundamental policy, and the specific USF program that Congress created in 1996, has successfully ensured that small towns and family farms had affordable service.

Now, with all of the recent technological and market changes, the FCC has decided to dismantle the USF and turn it into a broadband fund to “connect America,” as the commission explains. It’s an admirable goal to make sure that broadband is seen as essential and that networks are built and supported to enable that service.

But the CAF has no plan that covers all of rural America. Without continuing USF support, there are real questions about whether the FCC can or will keep the promise offered by the government commitment to universal service for so many years.

I grew up in a town of 300 people and know how easy it is for government policies to leave behind small towns and rural areas. In this age of video, voice and data, areas left behind are also left out. They won’t be able to take advantage of telemedicine, distance education, real-time financial information and so much more.

The FCC needs to study the effects of its CAF on rural consumers and small businesses to avoid unintended consequences. To do so, the FCC can leverage an organization I helped create with the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

That legislation created the Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service, which comprises consumer advocates, state utility commissioners and FCC commissioners. This board provides the platform for thoughtful partnership between federal and state regulators and stakeholder discussions about how to make certain the philosophy of universal service is implemented as Congress intended. The joint board can take stock of important things — like whether the CAF is actually driving rural network deployment and keeping rural service rates reasonable.

Rather than rush to implement major policy decisions — with consequences that neither the FCC nor anyone else fully understands — the FCC’s next step should be to look to the joint board for analysis and review.

Let’s have another body — closest to the rural consumers and businesses that the USF is supposed to serve — look reality straight in the eye and tell us what it sees.

 

 

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