Thursday, November 8, 2018

More women make it to Congress -- and face gridlock -- Nov. 8, 2018 column

The day after Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, half a million women marched on Washington. The new president largely ignored them.
He bragged about the size of his own inauguration crowd but didn’t mention the hundreds of thousands of women in pink hats on the streets protesting him and his policies -- until the following day.
“Watched the protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn’t these people vote? Celebs hurt the cause badly,” he tweeted.
Be careful what you wish for, Mr. Trump.
Many of the protesters probably did vote – for Hillary Clinton. Then, they turned their disappointment and anger into action. Democratic women ran -- and won -- in record numbers for Congress.   
At least 118 women will serve in the House and Senate when the new Congress convenes in January, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Currently 110 women serve in Congress.
In Virginia on Tuesday, three Democratic women candidates flipped reliably red House districts to blue.
Elaine Luria, a retired Navy commander, beat Rep. Scott Taylor in the Hampton Roads suburbs.
Abigail Spanberger, self-described as a former CIA operative and a Girl Scout leader, narrowly defeated Tea Party favorite Rep. Dave Brat in the Richmond suburbs.
And Jennifer Wexton, a state senator since 2014, rolled over longtime Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock in the Northern Virginia suburbs.
Precisely how many women will be in Congress depends on still-undecided races. One thing is clear, though: Trump can’t ignore women anymore.
Women voters helped drive the blue wave, such as it was, by generally choosing Democrats for Congress. Fifty-five percent of women voted for a Democratic congressional candidate, and only 41 percent for a Republican, the AP’s exit poll reported. Men’s votes were more evenly split.
In 2016, Trump won 53 percent of white women’s votes. In the midterms, 50 percent of white women voted for a Democrat for Congress and 46 percent for a Republican, according to exit polls.  
Republicans acknowledge the party is turning off white, college-educated, suburban women. Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, who lost to Brat four years ago, blames “cultural signals” sent by the party.
It’s incumbent on GOP legislators to step up with an agenda both men and women can support, including help for child care and health care, Cantor told Bloomberg Radio Wednesday.
But with the House in Democratic hands for the first time since 2010, Trump will need to work with Democrats or watch his agenda grind to a halt. The GOP strengthened its control of the Senate Tuesday by two or three senators, but the House has the power of the purse.
The incoming freshman class of House Democrats is refreshingly diverse – with the first two Muslim women, first two Native American women, and the first black woman member from Massachusetts. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York is the youngest member of Congress at 29.
It’s tempting to feel exuberant about the new attitudes and policies the freshmen women will bring, but the reality is sobering. Stalemate is more likely than progress in divided government.
Before anything else, the new members must decide whether to support House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, an effective party builder and a lightning rod for critics, for Speaker.
Spanberger is among the few newly elected representatives who promises not to support Pelosi “under any circumstances.” Luria and Wexton have said they’ll wait and see.  
Trump, of all people, says Pelosi deserves to be Speaker and he’ll even help her get elected to the post. He claims he’s sincere; others think he’s setting her up.
Pelosi expects to regain the Speaker’s gavel. She says subpoena power may become a negotiating tool as Democratic committee chairmen dig into Trump’s businesses and his administration.  
Trump threatens a “warlike posture” if Democrats investigate him, vowing to retaliate with investigations of Democrats.
“They can play that game, but we can play it better, because we have a thing called the United States Senate,” he said.
Such talk by both sides makes gridlock almost inevitable -- and nobody voted for that.
 © 2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Even `Land of 100,000 Welcomes' has its limits -- Nov. 1, 2018 column


Scores of angry emails and letters bombarded Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar after the White House made a surprise announcement last August President Donald Trump would visit Ireland.

Trump planned to stop at his golf resort in Doonbeg and in Dublin on his way to Paris for the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I on Nov. 11.

Protesters began to mobilize, saying they’d use the 20-foot tall “Trump Baby” balloon that floated over London in July when Trump met with British Prime Minister Theresa May. More than 60 furious letter-writers urged Varadkar to withdraw Trump’s invitation.

The letters, released under a Freedom of Information Act request by the Irish Times and reported on Tuesday, provide a glimpse into Trump’s unpopularity in a country that traditionally has welcomed U.S. presidents.

“For all that is holy, please do not let Trump into Ireland,” one correspondent emailed, the Times reported.

“Seriously, every time you come out in support of Trump you experience a massive backlash,” another wrote Varadkar. “Why do you keep putting your hand back on the hot stove?” 

Noting Trump’s record on immigration, trade, climate change and human rights, he or she signed the letter “a thoroughly disgusted and disappointed citizen.”

Varadkar was sympathetic to the outcry but, like other leading Irish politicians, he called for respect.

“I know a lot of people dislike him,” he said Sept. 2 on Irish radio. “A lot of people object to him, a lot of people disagree with a lot of his policies -- just as I do, in fact -- but he is the president of America.”

After 11 days of turmoil, the Irish government said Trump wouldn’t visit after all. The White House cited “scheduling reasons.”

In the United States, about one in 10 people claimed Irish ancestry in 2016, the Census Bureau reports, and many presidents, most recently Barack Obama, play up their Irish roots.

Obama was an Illinois state senator in 2007 when discovered his great-great-great grandfather came from Ireland.

As president, Obama enjoyed a warm Irish welcome in 2011 when he and Michelle Obama visited the village of Moneygall and met several of his distant relatives. An eighth cousin named Henry instantly became known as Henry the Eighth.

In Dublin, Obama told a crowd described as “rapturous” by a British newspaper, “My name is Barack Obama, of the Moneygall Obamas, and I’ve come home to find the apostrophe we lost somewhere along the way.”

As a tourist in Ireland last month, I met many people eager to talk about Obama’s and even President John F. Kennedy’s visit. Galway honored JFK’s 1963 visit with a bust in Eyre Square, also sometimes called JFK Park, and a mosaic in Galway Cathedral.

No one brought up Trump – or another American president who got a cold shoulder.

Protesters marked President Ronald Reagan’s visit in 1984. A leader of demonstrations against Reagan and U.S. policy in El Salvador and Nicaragua was an Irish senator named Michael D. Higgins.

Higgins had an American connection, having earned a master’s degree in sociology from Indiana University. Decades later, the 77-year-old poet, writer, former minister of culture and socialist is still involved in politics.

Higgins was re-elected president of Ireland last week. He is head of state, a largely ceremonial post, but it does give him a platform. He has been an outspoken critic of Trump and this country’s direction.  

“Today we are witnessing a worrying surge of unapologetic sexism and the undermining of women’s rights in one of the world’s most advanced democracies,” Higgins said in April in New York.

Trump may own a fancy golf resort on the west coast of Ireland, but he has much to learn about the country. Last summer, he raised hackles when he said Ireland is in the United Kingdom.

Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Pa., son of an immigrant from Donegal, Ireland, fired back: “Ireland is not a part of the UK. It’s been an independent country for about 100 years … Please stop embarrassing us on the international stage.”

That’s a tall order for this president, but at least he won’t embarrass us in Ireland this month.  

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Medicare for all -- what is it? -- Oct. 11, 2018 column (posted belatedly, so out of order)

Candidate Donald Trump promised better, cheaper healthcare for all.
Just days before his inauguration, he said he’d deliver “insurance for everybody.” His plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act would come “in a much simplified form – much less expensive and much better,” he told The Washington Post.
It never happened. About 28 million Americans remained uninsured last year, up from 27.3 million from 2016, according to a Census Bureau report released last month.  
Despite Trump’s repeated attacks, Obamacare keeps ticking. Nearly 12 million Americans signed up for coverage this year.
Trump finally did come up with an alternative, of sorts. His administration unveiled new rules in August to allow skimpy, low-cost, short-term insurance plans that critics called junk.
These plans lack the 10 essential health benefits required in ACA exchange plans. If healthy people choose the new plans to save money, it could raise insurance costs for sicker people in the plans, analysts warn.
Coverage of pre-existing conditions -- the most popular element of Obamacare – animates many midterm contests, as House Republicans who voted to repeal Obamacare scramble to assure voters they’ll protect that coverage.
Emerging in the midterms and likely a hot issue for the 2020 presidential race is “Medicare for all.”
Asked if they support Medicare for all, seven in 10 people said they do, a Reuters-Ipsos poll in August reported. That includes 85 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans.
But what, to paraphrase Freud, do consumers want?
“Medicare for all” is shorthand for a range of plans.
Medicare for All – with a capital A -- would throw out the current employer-based health insurance system and replace it with a single-payer, government plan. It is what Sen. Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, proposes. 
But Medicare for all -- lower case a – could describe various national plans proposed by Democrats that would move incrementally toward universal healthcare coverage.  
Two questions in a Kaiser Family Foundation survey in March illustrate how wording of the question matters.
Asked: “Do you favor or oppose having a national health plan, or Medicare-for-all, in which all Americans would get their insurance from a single government plan?” about 60 percent said they favor it.
But when asked about “having a national Medicare-for-all plan open to anyone who wants it but people who currently have other coverage could keep what they have,” support surged to 75 percent.  
Sanders, who first introduced a single-payer bill in 1993, is not as lonely as he once was. His Medicare for All bill has about 15 cosponsors.
About 70 Democrats in Congress have formed a Medicare for All Caucus, and a Democratic House member from Washington state announced a Medicare for All PAC to back candidates financially. 
On his website, Sanders is unequivocal: “Health care must be recognized as a right, not a privilege . . . The only solution to America’s health care crisis is a single-payer national health care program.”
The sticking point, of course, is the cost. Sanders insists individuals would save money on insurance and medical bills, but both the liberal Urban Institute and libertarian-leaning Mercatus Institute at George Mason University estimated federal expenditures would rise at least $32 trillion in the first 10 years.
The Congressional Budget Office has not run estimates, apparently because Sanders’ plan has so little chance in the Republican-controlled Congress.
As president, Barack Obama backed away from a single-payer plan, but he now calls Medicare for all a “good new idea.”
Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Michael Bennet of Colorado are cosponsors of Medicare X, a phased-in plan that would allow all Americans to buy into Medicare. Starting in counties where the ACA exchanges lack competition, it  would open nationwide in 2023 and to businesses in 2024.
Corey Stewart, Kaine’s Republican opponent for the Senate in November, promises “full repeal” of Obamacare.
Critical to the debate is the 56 percent of Americans who get health insurance through their employers. In a strong economy, they may have little incentive to switch to a government plan.
Virginians as well as voters in other states soon will start deciding what Medicare for all might mean for them.
©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Ireland's literary, historical feast still inspires -- Oct. 25, 2018 column


Joe lifted the wire-rimmed eyeglasses from a small wooden desk and held them as tenderly as he would a religious relic.

“These were his,” he said, “and this was his desk.”

Joe, a guide at the Yeats Memorial Building in Sligo, Ireland, was giving two American tourists an impromptu tour of an exhibit on poet William Butler Yeats’s family and the people and places that influenced him.

Nobody was around, so Joe let me sit at the desk, briefly.  

Since I fell in love with Yeats and James Joyce in college, I’d wanted to visit Ireland. I was thrilled to find my literary lights undimmed, but I never dreamed I’d sit at Yeats’s desk. That was magical.

When the Irish refer to a “full Irish,” they mean a big breakfast, but my traveling partner and I had a full Irish literary and historical feast this month.  

For two weeks, traveling independently by train, bus and on foot, we visited many sites dedicated to keeping alive the memories of Irish authors and of patriots who gave their lives for Irish independence. We saw ancient treasures, forts, churches, national parks and stunning scenery – more often than not on dry, sunny days we were assured were “unIrish weather.”

Yeats, who lived from 1865 to 1939, spent much of his boyhood in County Sligo, his mother’s home in the country’s northwest. After the tour and lunch at Lily’s and Lolly’s CafĂ©, named for his sisters, we hired a taxi to visit Yeats’s gravesite just outside town.

Yeats wrote his own epitaph -- “Cast a cold Eye on Life, on Death. Horseman, pass by.” -- for his gravestone that faces photogenic Drumcliffe Church and also Benbulben, the dramatic mountain beneath which he wished to be buried.

Our driver, a quiet, older gentleman named Gabriel Doherty, turned off the meter and told us to take our time visiting while he had a cup of tea in the tea shop nearby.

In the stone church, I was warmly greeted by a tall, bearded man in a cassock. He showed me a brass plaque honoring Yeats’s paternal grandfather, who was rector in the 19th century. We talked about the importance of remembering history.

Doherty then kindly offered to take us to Glencar Waterfall, which figures in the Yeats poem, “Stolen Child,” and he went out of his way so we could take pictures of majestic Benbulben. 

Ireland celebrates its literary and historical heroes unapologetically and without angst. It’s a stark contrast with the very American urge to examine fully the faults in our past.  
After suffering severely under British rule, Ireland ultimately gained independence and became a republic after the bloody Easter Rising of 1916. Rebels seized the General Post Office building in Dublin, and their leader, Patrick Pearse, a poet himself, read the Proclamation of Independence there on Easter Monday. Executed by British firing squad, Pearse became a martyr.

Today, the GPO Museum tells the Easter Rising story poignantly and dramatically. Posters of the proclamation are all over the city, so people never forget.

At the National Library of Ireland, the “Yeats: The Life and Works of William Butler Yeats” exhibition opens in a space where you hear recordings of Yeats himself and others reading his poems before you explore the exhibits.

Yeats and the three other Irish writers who won the Nobel Prize for Literature are among authors celebrated in the Writers Museum. The James Joyce Centre a few blocks away tells the novelist’s story.

“The Dead,” a 1987 movie directed by John Huston based on Joyce’s masterful short story, plays on a loop. In the courtyard is the original door from No. 7 Eccles Street, Leopold Bloom’s address in “Ulysses.” The house was demolished but the door was saved.

On our last full day in Ireland, we lucked into a taxi whose driver attended the same Jesuit high school as Joyce -- Belvedere College -- and is a writer. Driving slowly past the school, he asked if we’d seen the statue of playwright Oscar Wilde in Merrion Square with his quotes. We hadn’t.

“You must,” the driver insisted. “If you aren’t inspired, you aren’t alive.”

He was right, of course. The statue was colorful and the quotes thought-provoking – just like Ireland.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Supremes take up case of endangered frog -- Oct. 4, 2018 column


As the Brett Kavanaugh saga played out, it was reassuring to see the Supreme Court at work and focused on, of all things, the fate of a frog.

This was not the Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County made famous by Mark Twain but the endangered dusky gopher frog, now found only in Mississippi. The frog gets its name from the gopher tortoise holes where the mature frog lives.

The first oral argument of the court term Monday weighed the federal government’s responsibility to protect critical habitat of an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act against the rights of landowners. 

Historically the dusky gopher frog (Rana sevosa) lived in Louisiana but was last seen there in the mid-1960s. It was declared endangered in 2001, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated 1,544 acres in St. Tammany Parish in Louisiana as critical habitat in 2012.

The property has ephemeral or temporary ponds where the frog could breed, making the land necessary as a Plan B should efforts to save the frog in Mississippi fail, the government said.

But the land is a commercial tree farm, leased to Weyerhaeuser Co., and thickly planted in loblolly pines. Gone are the canopy of longleaf pines and the grassy understory the frog needs, but the government says the land is “restorable with reasonable effort.” 

The landowners, who want to develop the parcel, say the critical habitat designation has cost them $34 million. After six years of legal battles, the case, Weyerhaeuser Co. v. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, landed in the Supreme Court.

It’s risky to draw conclusions from questions at oral arguments, but three of the four conservative justices seemed sympathetic to the landowners who want the government to butt out. Justice Clarence Thomas, as usual, asked no questions. The four liberals seemed sympathetic to saving the frog.

But, Lisa Heinzerling, law professor at Georgetown University Law Center, wrote in her analysis on “It was not even clear whether the justices were puzzling mainly over whether the Louisiana parcel was `essential’ to the conservation of the frog or over whether it was `habitat’ at all. The case seems more complicated after today’s argument than it seemed before.”

The frog case came to the court as the Endangered Species Act is under assault from President Trump and House Republicans.

The administration has proposed three changes in how federal agencies implement the act. In a letter Sept. 24, three professional organizations – the American Society of Mammalogists, Society for Conservation Biology North America and American Ornithological Society wrote:  

“We strongly believe that if these three proposals are enacted, they will severely weaken protections for endangered and threatened species and, counterproductively, could result in more extinctions of plants and animals in the United States.”

House Republicans are pushing a package of bills they say will “modernize” the act but which environmentalists say will ruin it.

The bills “undermine key provisions of the Endangered Species Act and result in increased harm to protected species and their habitat,” Robert G. Dreher of Defenders of Wildlife told a Sept. 26 hearing of the House Committee on Natural Resources. 

He called the package “a prescription for extinction.”

But many Republicans, especially those from Western states, view the act and other environmental laws as impediments to development.

When his committee approved the bills, House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said “these bills honor our heritage, lighten regulatory burdens for communities, increase transparency, and strengthen relationships between states and the federal government. Ultimately, these bills aim to bolster our country’s natural resources.”

The frog case reflects the importance of the swing seat held for decades by Justice Anthony Kennedy. If the court splits four-four, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in favor of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s support for the frog would stand. 

But once the ninth justice is confirmed, the court could order new oral arguments. Conservative Kavanaugh likely would be the swing vote.

And that is why those who care about a little frog may be breathing a bit more easily -- but only for now.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

How America missed Cosby's crime -- Sept. 27, 2018 column


Once upon a time, Bill Cosby made us feel good about America. Then his victims told us what we didn’t know.  

It seems incredible in our #MeToo era that any man – even someone as rich and powerful as Cosby -- could drug and sexually assault dozens of women over decades with impunity.

To understand how it happened, we need to remember what TV and America were like when a young Cosby started telling us stories we wanted to hear.

The stooped 81-year-old sexual predator being led away in handcuffs Tuesday was nothing like the wholesome, vibrant Dr. Cliff Huxtable viewers respected and loved for the eight seasons of “The Cosby Show” in the 1980s and ‘90s and later in reruns.

Cosby created, produced and starred in the first TV sitcom hit that depicted a successful, upper middle-class black family. He played an obstetrician married to a lawyer.  

It’s hard to underestimate the show’s cultural significance.

“For me being on `The Cosby Show’ was like being a part of history,” Lili Bernard says in a new BBC documentary, “Bill Cosby: Fall of an American Icon,” on YouTube.
Cosby drugged and raped her in the 1990s, she says.

Her interview is one of several victims’ accounts woven into the documentary. The film contends white and black viewers alike so loved the fictional America Cosby created that he was able to continue his double life even as woman after woman reported his sexual misconduct.  

For a long time, many Americans simply found it inconceivable Cosby did what he was accused of doing.

Not only was he reportedly the world’s highest paid entertainer for a time, but he also won several Emmys and Kennedy Center honors -- for lifetime achievement in the performing arts in 1998 and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2009.

Fans dismissed as supermarket tabloid trash a National Enquirer story in 2000 about a Cosby victim. As other women’s stories appeared, people blamed the victims, calling them gold diggers and worse.

Despite rumors of marital infidelity, Cosby was revered. He was married – to the same wife! – and like Huxtable had five children. A philanthropist, he gave millions to black colleges and universities.

As “America’s Dad,” he went on tour, lecturing black men and women about responsibility, but his scolding did not sit well. It’s safe to say his hypocrisy led to his downfall.

In 2014, a black comedian named Hannibal Buress doing stand-up in Philadelphia called Cosby the “smuggest old black man” and “a rapist.” Do an internet search for Cosby and rape, Buress suggested. A reporter in the audience filmed and posted the performance, and the video went viral.

Only then did decade-old events get the attention they deserved.

Andrea Constand was 30 and a Temple University women’s basketball administrator when she went to Cosby’s mansion in the Philadelphia suburbs in 2004. Cosby, a member of the Temple Board of Trustees, was her mentor.

He gave her pills and then molested her, she told authorities a year later. But it was a he-said, she-said situation, and no charges were filed.

Constand filed a civil suit against Cosby for sexual battery and defamation. After he gave a four-day deposition, they settled the case in Constand’s favor for nearly $3.4 million.

Finally, nine years after she first reported Cosby, police used his admissions in the deposition to pursue the criminal case.

More than 60 victims found the strength to come forward, some after staying silent since the 1960s. Cosby was charged only in Constand’s case as others were beyond the statute of limitations.

His family and friends tried to portray Cosby as the victim of racism and sexism, but his victims were black and white.

He so carefully crafted his persona that people thought he was Cliff Huxtable – thoughtful, funny and upright. But reality was far different.

As the real Cosby was revealed, he lost endorsements and reruns of “The Cosby Show” were canceled, costing him income. The Kennedy Center rescinded his honors.
Declared a sexually violent predator under Pennsylvania law, Cosby was sentenced to three to 10 years in state prison for aggravated indecent assault.

Then they locked him up.

If nothing else, we should learn a TV character is just a TV character – no matter how beloved he seems.   

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Women's equality -- yes, it's political -- Sept. 20, 2018 column


Asked when there will be enough women on the Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has a ready answer.

“When there are nine,” she says. “People are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”

Ginsburg’s provocative response came to mind during the debacle surrounding President Donald Trump’s selection of Brett Kavanaugh for the nation’s highest court. Trump could have nominated a woman.

After all, President Ronald Reagan nominated the first woman justice – Sandra Day O’Connor.

We’re nowhere near Ginsburg’s goal. Only three of the nine are women – Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. 

Not that choosing a woman to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy would have guaranteed smooth sailing. It’s easy to imagine Trump choosing the wrong woman just as President George W. Bush did in 2005.

Bush crashed on the rocks of public opinion with his ill-conceived choice of White House counsel Harriet Miers to replace O’Connor. Miers, who had no judicial experience, was such an unsuitable pick she withdrew before her confirmation hearing.

Bush then chose federal appellate judge Samuel Alito, who is one of the most conservative justices.

Americans consistently tell pollsters they’d like to see more women leaders in both politics and business.

Majorities of Americans say having more women in top positions in government and business would improve the quality of life for everyone, for men and for women, according to the latest Pew Research Center survey released Thursday.

But there’s a gender gap. Seven in 10 women say there should be more women in high political office and in top business jobs, but only about half of men say so.

And – no surprise -- Democrats and Republicans see the state of women’s equality very differently. Nearly eight in 10 Democrats and Democratically-leaning independents say too few women hold high political office, but only one in three Republicans and Republican-leaners think so.

With the most women running for Congress ever, the looming question for the midterms is whether voters will make this truly a Year of the Woman.

The dismal approval rating of the Republican-controlled Congress – still bumping the bottom at 19 percent in the latest Gallup poll – suggests a desire for change.

Only 31 percent of Republicans approve of the way Congress handles its job, but that’s far higher than the 8 percent of Democrats who approve. Among independents, 17 percent approve of the job Congress is doing.

The current Congress has a record 112 women – 89 in the House and 23 in the Senate – but that’s only 21 percent of the total. Most the women are Democrats – 64 in the House and 17 in the Senate.

For a sense of how long it’s taken women to get this far, 52 women have ever served in the Senate and 23 are serving now.

Of the 53 women who filed to run for the U.S. Senate this year, 23 made it through their primaries and are still in the running. In the House, 239 of the 476 women who filed are still in the running, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Several Democratic women in the House are forming Elect Democratic Women, a PAC inspired by the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Hispanic Caucus, that plans to raise money for female Democratic candidates.

“We really feel very strongly that better decisions will be made by government when it represents the diverse population it is supposed to represent,” Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Florida, chairwoman of the group, told Politico.

Winning for Women PAC, whose leaders include former Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, formed last year to endorse conservative candidates and serve as a counterweight to EMILY’s List, the powerful Democratic group that endorses abortion rights candidates.   

The competing PACs are emerging as women worry women candidates may be losing ground. Women are more doubtful now than they were four years ago that voters are ready to elect women, Pew found.

In 2014, about 41 percent of women thought the main reason women were underrepresented in high political offices was voters weren’t ready to elect women. Now, after Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss, 57 percent of women say they think voters aren’t ready.  

We’ll know the night of Nov. 6.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

FDA's good deed: protecting kids from e-cigs -- Sept. 13, 2018 column


Remember Joe Camel? In the 1980s and 1990s, anti-smoking advocates blamed the cartoon figure for encouraging kids to smoke.

R.J. Reynolds insisted it was not marketing to children but in 1997 pulled ads for Camel cigarettes that portrayed the “Smooth character.” The White House praised the company’s decision.  

“We must put tobacco ads like Joe Camel out of our children’s reach forever,” President Bill Clinton said.

Twenty-one years later, President Donald Trump’s administration blames flavored e-cigarettes for encouraging kids to vape.

“We cannot allow a whole new generation to become addicted to nicotine,” Dr. Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, declared Wednesday.

Those were welcome words from an administration that’s been busier rolling back regulations than proposing new ones to protect health.

In some ways, foes of tobacco have won. After decades of anti-smoking messages that cigarettes are dirty and smelly, only about 16 percent of American adults smoke.

But e-cigarettes present a new health danger in part because they look nothing like conventional cigarettes. Some sleek nicotine-delivery systems resemble a flash drive and can be charged in a computer’s USB port.

“Experience freedom from ash and odor. No mess. No fuss,” Juul Labs, the dominate e-cigarette maker with 72 percent of the market, says on its website.

E-cigarettes do not have the harmful chemicals of regular cigarettes, but some provide as much addictive nicotine as a pack of cigarettes.

“The developing adolescent brain is particularly vulnerable to addiction,” FDA said in a statement. 

That makes e-cigs “an almost ubiquitous – and dangerous – trend among teens,” Gottlieb said. “The disturbing and accelerating trajectory of use we’re seeing in youth, and the resulting path to addiction, must end. It’s simply not tolerable.”

More than two million middle and high school students used e-cigarettes last year, he said, as he announced a series of measures aimed at stopping the “epidemic” of teen vaping.

The FDA sent more than 1,100 warning letters to stores for the illegal sale of e-cigarettes to young people under 18 and issued 131 fines to stores that continued selling to minors.

The agency also gave Juul and four other manufacturers 60 days to prove they can keep the devices out of kids’ hands. If they don’t, the FDA threatened to pull flavored products off the market.

Trump’s FDA last year extended an Obama-era deadline for review of most e-cigarette products from August of last year to 2022. Public health and anti-smoking groups are fighting the extension in court. If e-cigarette companies fail to improve their products voluntarily, Gottlieb said, he may reconsider the longer deadline.

E-cigarette makers insist they are not marketing to children. But that’s what tobacco companies argued – both in company statements and at congressional hearings – before Joe Camel was put out to pasture.

The Vapor Technology Association, the industry’s trade group, says the products are designed for adults who want to quit smoking, and companies want to keep e-cigarettes away from minors. Vaping is safer than conventional cigarettes, the industry contends, and FDA’s actions could make public health worse by sending millions of ex-smokers back to conventional cigarettes.

The potential for helping adults quit smoking makes this war on nicotine more complicated than simply killing a cartoon character.

The administration is “committed to advancing policies that promote the potential of e-cigarettes to help adult smokers move away from combustible cigarettes,” Gottlieb said, but “that work can’t come at the expense of kids.”

Critics of FDA’s campaign called the agency’s measures a gift to the tobacco industry, which has found e-cigarettes a tough competitor. Tobacco stocks surged on the FDA news.

Health and anti-smoking groups praised the FDA’s plan, but said more needs to be done sooner rather than later. Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids wants an immediate ban on all flavored e-cigarettes.

A generation ago, a tobacco company recognized Joe Camel was a public relations nightmare and needed to take a hike.  

E-cigarette companies need to recognize their own p.r. disaster. To prove their products are only for adults, they should ditch sweet flavors like mango, fruit medley and cool cucumber. That would be kid friendly.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Friday, September 7, 2018

States start to see food as medicine -- On STATELINE Sept. 7, 2018


Take Two Carrots and Call Me in the Morning

Half a century after Americans began fighting hunger with monthly food stamps, the nation’s physicians and policymakers are focusing more than ever on what’s on each person’s plate.
In the 21st century, food is seen as medicine — and a tool to cut health care costs.
The “food is medicine” concept is simple: If chronically ill people eat a nutritious diet, they’ll need fewer medications, emergency room visits and hospital readmissions.
The food is medicine spectrum ranges from simply encouraging people to plant a garden and learn to cook healthfully, as state Sen. Judy Lee, a Republican, does in North Dakota — “We don’t do policies about gardening,” she said — to an intensive California pilot project that delivers two medically tailored meals plus snacks daily and offers three counseling sessions with a registered dietitian over 12 weeks.
The California Legislature last year became the first in the nation to fund a large-scale pilot project to test food is medicine. The three-year, $6 million project launched in April will serve about a thousand patients with congestive heart failure in seven counties.
“The state puts a huge amount of money into health care, and one of the biggest costs is medication,” Assemblyman Phil Ting, a Democrat and chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee, said in an interview. “So the hope is people will live longer and this project will also reduce the need for medication.”
The food is medicine concept has been around for a while. Since the 1980s, nonprofits such as Project Open Hand in San Francisco, Community Servings in Boston, God’s Love We Deliver in New York and MANNA or Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance in Philadelphia have provided medically tailored meals for patients with HIV, diabetes, cancer and heart disease. They are largely funded by donations and grants.
Seeing the programs’ successes, some states are taking a larger role. Massachusetts is developing a food is medicine plan with a goal of integrating programs scattered around the state so more residents can benefit. Legislative policy proposals are expected next spring.
Food is medicine goes beyond traditional advice to eat more fruits and vegetables. Projects pay for people to purchase produce and offer nutrition counseling and cooking classes, so they’ll know which foods to choose or avoid and how to prepare them. For example, watermelon is healthy for some, but not for a diabetic.  
On the local level, a community garden managed by a teenager in Sylvester, Georgia, aims — with the help of the local hospital — to improve the health of the town in the nation’s “stroke belt.”
Physicians in a dozen states write “prescriptions” for fruits and vegetables at farmers markets and groceries — scripts that can be exchanged for tokens to buy produce.
“Food is medicine is an idea whose day has arrived,” said Robert Greenwald, faculty director of the Harvard Law School’s Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation, one of the experts who testified in January at the launch of the congressional Food is Medicine Working Group, part of the House Hunger Caucus.
The Senate version of the farm bill includes Harvesting Health, a pilot project to test fruit-and-vegetable prescriptions. It’s modeled on work by Wholesome Wave, a Bridgeport, Connecticut, nonprofit that works with health centers in a dozen states where doctors write prescriptions for produce.
If enacted, the federal government would spend $20 million over five years on grants to states or nonprofits to provide fruits and vegetables and nutrition education to low-income patients with diet-related conditions.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the food stamp program known as SNAP, helps reduce food insecurity for 39.6 million participants, but studies do not show SNAP improves nutrition. Instead, there seems to be a correlation between long-term food stamp participation and excess weight gain.
Poor diet was No. 1 of 17 leading risk factors for death in the United States in 2016 — a higher risk than smoking, drug use, lack of exercise and other factors, according to “The State of US Health,” a comprehensive report by a team of academics published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in April.
Dr. Kumara Sidhartha, an internal medicine specialist and medical director at Emerald Physicians on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, conducted a prescription study with Medicaid participants in 2016 and 2017. In his study, he wrote prescriptions or vouchers for one group to buy $30 in produce a week at the farmers market, and gave another $30 in gasoline vouchers a week — for 12 weeks. Both groups received cooking classes and nutrition counseling.
Twenty-four people completed the program, and those who received the fruit and vegetable prescriptions showed improvements in risk factors for chronic disease — better body mass index, total blood cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, blood glucose and hemoglobin A1c, Sidhartha said.
“Patients and physicians are so used to the physician writing prescriptions for procedures and pills,” he said. “This changes the health care culture of how the prescription is used.”  
Proponents of the California project hope it will demonstrate the cost-effectiveness of including medically tailored meals as an essential health benefit covered by Medi-Cal, California’s Medicaid program.
“This is potentially transformative because the health care system has been designed to cover acute services, and not many prevention programs are covered,” said Dr. Hilary Seligman, an associate professor at the University of California-San Francisco, one of two physician researchers who will evaluate the project by tracking participants’ medical records.
“For someone with congestive heart failure, their lives depend on their capacity to eat a lower salt diet,” Seligman said. “Making the food as appealing as possible is very important.”
Some legislators are skeptical about government moving into new food delivery systems.
“We need to feed the children who are hungry now. We need the backpack programs in school, the free and reduced-price breakfast and lunches to make sure that nobody is hungry today,” said North Dakota’s Lee, chairwoman of the state Senate Human Services Committee, at a food is medicine session at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) Hunger Partnership conference in July.
“But then we need to take those same children and help them learn how to do those things for themselves,” Lee said. “Let’s have a short-term solution: Let’s feed people. And then let’s have a longer-term solution: Help them feed themselves.”
Everyone in her state could have a garden, even apartment-dwellers, and they can learn to cook, she said, adding that cooking is a skill that’s been lost since schools there dropped home economics.
“Kids can learn and a parent can learn how to make a meal,” Lee said in an interview. “I’d rather figure out a way to give them cooking lessons with food. We’re not helping children become functional adults by giving them three meals a day.”
It’s not government’s job to provide every meal, she said, adding, “That’s the good news about North Dakota, compared with the Northeast and California.” 
Georgia state Sen. Renee Unterman, a Republican and chairwoman of the state Senate Health and Human Services Committee and co-chairwoman of the NCSL hunger partnership, suggested at the food is medicine session that a community garden with a medical purpose in her state — and started by a child — could be a model.
Village Community Garden manager Janya Green was 12 when she started on the community garden as her 4-H Club project three years ago on 5 acres donated by the town of Sylvester, population 6,000, about 170 miles south of Atlanta. Anyone can pick free vegetables and fruit whenever they like. The garden features cabbage, carrots, kale, okra, bell peppers, squash, sweet potatoes, blackberries, blueberries, muscadine grapes and even bananas. Herbs are next.
A pond is stocked with fish, so residents can reel in healthy protein as well. A local county commissioner gave lumber for a 20- by 60-foot stage.
Phoebe Worth Medical Center installed an outdoor kitchen in the garden for chef-taught cooking classes. Darrell Sabbs, governmental affairs specialist at the medical center, hopes researchers from Emory University or the University of Georgia will study the health statistics of the neighborhood and gauge the garden’s health effects.
Dr. Marilyn Carter, an internal medicine physician who also trained as a pharmacist, lives in Sylvester and volunteers at the garden. She and a nutritionist wrote up health benefits of the produce for signs that will help people make smart choices.
“We’re in the stroke belt,” Carter pointed out, adding that many of her patients have heart disease and diabetes. People eat a typical Southern diet of fried foods and foods out of boxes that are high calorie and high fat, she said.
“I want people to know, ‘If I eat more kale and less white rice, my blood pressure will be better,’” she said. Her name for the garden: the Farmacy.