Ten states, however, have adopted their own laws that specify which patients, based on their income and family size, qualify for free or discounted care. Among them is Washington, where Providence is based. All hospitals in the state must provide free care for anyone who makes under 300 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, that threshold is $83,250 a year.

In February, Bob Ferguson, the state’s attorney general, accused Providence of violating state law, in part by using debt collectors to pursue more than 55,000 patient accounts. The suit alleged that Providence wrongly claimed those patients owed a total of more than $73 million.

Providence, which is fighting the lawsuit, has said it will stop using debt collectors to pursue money from low-income patients who should qualify for free care in Washington.

But The Times found that the problems extend beyond Washington. In interviews, patients in California and Oregon who qualified for free care said they had been charged thousands of dollars and then harassed by collection agents. Many saw their credit scores ruined. Others had to cut back on groceries to pay what Providence claimed they owed. In both states, nonprofit hospitals are required by law to provide low-income patients with free or discounted care.

“I felt a little betrayed,” said Bev Kolpin, 57, who had worked as a sonogram technician at a Providence hospital in Oregon. Then she went on unpaid leave to have surgery to remove a cyst. The hospital billed her $8,000 even though she was eligible for discounted care, she said. “I had worked for them and given them so much, and they didn’t give me anything.” (The hospital forgave her debt only after a lawyer contacted Providence on Ms. Kolpin’s behalf.)

was a single room with four beds. The hospital charged patients $1 a day, not including extras like whiskey.

Patients rarely paid in cash, sometimes offering chickens, ducks and blankets in exchange for care.

At the time, hospitals in the United States were set up to do what Providence did — provide inexpensive care to the poor. Wealthier people usually hired doctors to treat them at home.

wrote to the Senate in 2005.

Some hospital executives have embraced the comparison to for-profit companies. Dr. Rod Hochman, Providence’s chief executive, told an industry publication in 2021 that “‘nonprofit health care’ is a misnomer.”

“It is tax-exempt health care,” he said. “It still makes profits.”

Those profits, he added, support the hospital’s mission. “Every dollar we make is going to go right back into Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, Alaska and Montana.”

Since Dr. Hochman took over in 2013, Providence has become a financial powerhouse. Last year, it earned $1.2 billion in profits through investments. (So far this year, Providence has lost money.)

Providence also owes some of its wealth to its nonprofit status. In 2019, the latest year available, Providence received roughly $1.2 billion in federal, state and local tax breaks, according to the Lown Institute, a think tank that studies health care.

a speech by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures.”

Ms. Tizon, the spokeswoman for Providence, said the intent of Rev-Up was “not to target or pressure those in financial distress.” Instead, she said, “it aimed to provide patients with greater pricing transparency.”

“We recognize the tone of the training materials developed by McKinsey was not consistent with our values,” she said, adding that Providence modified the materials “to ensure we are communicating with each patient with compassion and respect.”

But employees who were responsible for collecting money from patients said the aggressive tactics went beyond the scripts provided by McKinsey. In some Providence collection departments, wall-mounted charts shaped like oversize thermometers tracked employees’ progress toward hitting their monthly collection goals, the current and former Providence employees said.

On Halloween at one of Providence’s hospitals, an employee dressed up as a wrestler named Rev-Up Ricky, according to the Washington lawsuit. Another costume featured a giant cardboard dollar sign with “How” printed on top of it, referring to the way the staff was supposed to ask patients how, not whether, they would pay. Ms. Tizon said such costumes were “not the culture we strive for.”

financial assistance policy, his low income qualified him for free care.

In early 2021, Mr. Aguirre said, he received a bill from Providence for $4,394.45. He told Providence that he could not afford to pay.

Providence sent his account to Harris & Harris, a debt collection company. Mr. Aguirre said that Harris & Harris employees had called him repeatedly for weeks and that the ordeal made him wary of going to Providence again.

“I try my best not to go to their emergency room even though my daughters have gotten sick, and I got sick,” Mr. Aguirre said, noting that one of his daughters needed a biopsy and that he had trouble breathing when he had Covid. “I have this big fear in me.”

That is the outcome that hospitals like Providence may be hoping for, said Dean A. Zerbe, who investigated nonprofit hospitals when he worked for the Senate Finance Committee under Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa.

“They just want to make sure that they never come back to that hospital and they tell all their friends never to go back to that hospital,” Mr. Zerbe said.

The Everett Daily Herald, Providence forgave her bill and refunded the payments she had made.

In June, she got another letter from Providence. This one asked her to donate money to the hospital: “No gift is too small to make a meaningful impact.”

In 2019, Vanessa Weller, a single mother who is a manager at a Wendy’s restaurant in Anchorage, went to Providence Alaska Medical Center, the state’s largest hospital.

She was 24 weeks pregnant and experiencing severe abdominal pains. “Let this just be cramps,” she recalled telling herself.

Ms. Weller was in labor. She gave birth via cesarean section to a boy who weighed barely a pound. She named him Isaiah. As she was lying in bed, pain radiating across her abdomen, she said, a hospital employee asked how she would like to pay. She replied that she had applied for Medicaid, which she hoped would cover the bill.

After five days in the hospital, Isaiah died.

Then Ms. Weller got caught up in Providence’s new, revenue-boosting policies.

The phone calls began about a month after she left the hospital. Ms. Weller remembers panicking when Providence employees told her what she owed: $125,000, or about four times her annual salary.

She said she had repeatedly told Providence that she was already stretched thin as a single mother with a toddler. Providence’s representatives asked if she could pay half the amount. On later calls, she said, she was offered a payment plan.

“It was like they were following some script,” she said. “Like robots.”

Later that year, a Providence executive questioned why Ms. Weller had a balance, given her low income, according to emails disclosed in Washington’s litigation with Providence. A colleague replied that her debts previously would have been forgiven but that Providence’s new policy meant that “balances after Medicaid are being excluded from presumptive charity process.”

Ms. Weller said she had to change her phone number to make the calls stop. Her credit score plummeted from a decent 650 to a lousy 400. She has not paid any of her bill.

Susan C. Beachy and Beena Raghavendran contributed research.

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How Disability Misunderstandings And Stigma Impact Mental Well-Being

Disability experts say it’s common for doctors to misunderstand bodily autonomy, which can impact a person’s mental health.

CDC data shows about 26% of Americans live with a disability, whether it’s physical or mental.  

 Conditions like anxiety, spinal injury, ADHD, amputation, depression, cerebral palsy — these are just some examples.  

 Advocates say there’s a lot of misunderstanding about a person who has a disability. And that stigma not only runs deep — it can also have a huge impact on that individual’s mental health. 

Twenty-eight-year-old New Yorker Chloé Valentine Toscano knows beauty, from walking in fashion week to her Instagram reels to publishing in magazines like Allure. 

“I’m a writer. I’m someone who likes the color pink. I like butterflies. I like learning a lot about anyone and anything,” she said. “I think we all have differences, and I want to understand differences. … For me, beauty is just being open-minded,” she said.

She also has fought face-to-face with ugly mental health struggles caused by doctors who didn’t understand disability.  

“It is a journey,” Valentine Toscano said.

She lost motor function from her elbow down in 2014. She adapted and spent years living with — as she calls it — dead weight. She got into paralypmic swimming and started her career.  

Then, after years of researching and soul searching, she chose to amputate her arm. 

“I know amputation can be very traumatic because some people, a lot of people,will experience it through trauma,” she said. “But that wasn’t where I was in my case. So, it wasn’t traumatic talking about it, but it was traumatic playing a game with the yeses and the nos.”

Valentine Toscano spent three years fighting to get her procedure. She says some surgeons told her any elective amputation was too risky, even though she was healthy. Other rejections came after her surgery had been approved and scheduled. 

“The answer I got from one, he said, ‘Well, some people just need to learn to live with what they’ve got.’ That made me feel like someone else who wasn’t in my body was telling me what was better for me,” she said. “It felt very frustrating to have it and very offensive to have someone say that.”

Bodily autonomy — or the right to control what happens to your body — is a common struggle in the disability community. And disability experts say misunderstanding that is common, and can cause undue stress as well as impact a person’s mental well-being.  

In Valentine Toscano’s story, it happened a few times. 

She recounted that in one appointment: “I cried, I broke down and I felt like the minute I expressed that emotion, he sent me in for a psych evaluation, which felt like I was being punished for expressing emotion.” And then she described the examination, saying: “She was asking me, she said, ‘Do you find that you’re unattractive because of your arm and that you would be more attractive without it?’ And I was like, ‘It’s not about that at all. It’s never been about that.’ … I felt angry and belittled and just, not heard, because I was asking for one thing and being evaluated for something that wasn’t even remotely there.”

Clinical Psychologist Dr. Linda Mona has spent the past two decades working on disability and how it relates to health care.  

“If you haven’t been exposed to it personally — you have not been exposed to it through being a family friend, a lover, whoever that might be — And you’re not called to do it professionally and you don’t see it around you, you don’t think about it.”

She says, unfortunately, Valentine Toscano’s experience is all too common. Mental health experts with lived experience or expertise in disability are rare. 

“It can be quite challenging to find somebody,” Mona said. “The other thing to think about is the steps that come before that, which is that it’s very hard for people to access education if they have disability, let alone graduate school. And internship and fellowship…”

Sixty-one million U.S. adults, which is about one in 4, have some type of disability, according to the CDC.  

A 2021 anonymous survey of graduating medical students showed 7.6% identified as having a disability.  But data collected directly from medical schools show that only about 4% of medical students disclosed their disability.  

That stigma against disability —physical or mental — runs deep. 

From 1867 to 1974 U.S. cities had laws governing who could be in public. Codes included fining or jailing those deemed “diseased, maimed, mutilated, or anyway deformed.”

Mona says it’s federal bias favoring able-bodied people.

“You’re best at home. You’re best tucked away. Or, you’re best institutionalized out of the way of anybody else who is displeased with the way that you look,” she said.

She adds structural stigmas fueled misconceptions about disabled people’s decision-making about their own bodies. 

NEWSY’S LINDSEY THEIS: When we talk about bodily autonomy, what type of impact cannot have long term on someone’s mental well-being?  

LINDA MONA: Trying to bring that in and make your choices can have a huge effect on your mental health in the long run. … It also happens a lot with pregnancy and people with disabilities. Right? So, you know, somebody has some kind of cognitive mental difference or physical difference. There’s, you know, constant questioning about, you know, ‘you want to be pregnant? You know what that’s going to do to your body?’ … I don’t think anybody thinks those types of decisions are a simple decision. They’re complex. But you have to trust that somebody has made that made that decision with that context in mind and not assume that they’re uninformed.

In summer 2021, Valentine Toscano had her amputation surgery. She calls it a dream come true.  

“I just felt happy,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I got this is like a huge step in my life. It just felt like one of those, like, huge dreams. I got there. I got a huge part of my personality back immediately.”

Valentine Toscano uses a prosthetic, as needed. It’s bright pink and purple with a lot of glitter.  

“If I could have decided to have been born with an arm with butterflies and sparkles on it, like right out of the womb, I would have picked that,” she said. 

 Valentine Toscano said her prosthetic cost $13,000.

“It’s something that’s very expensive,” she said. “I was fortunate to have it covered by health insurance. But that’s not something everyone has.”

Valentine Toscano continues to advocate and write, sharing her experience now from two different sides of disability. She’s also writing a book on the side.  

She says the ability to share those stories in her voice and having others listen is not only good for her well-being, it’s truly beautiful.

Source: newsy.com

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California Woman Gets 18 Months For Kidnapping Hoax

As part of the plea agreement, she has agreed to reimburse law enforcement agencies for the costs of the search for her and her nonexistent kidnapper.

A Northern California mother of two was sentenced Monday to 18 months in prison for faking her own kidnapping so she could go back to a former boyfriend, which led to a three-week, multi-state search before she resurfaced on Thanksgiving Day in 2016.

Sherri Papini, 40, pleaded guilty last spring under a plea bargain that requires her to pay more than $300,000 in restitution.

Probation officers and Papini’s attorney had recommended that she spend a month in custody and seven months in supervised home detention. But Senior U.S. District Judge William Shubb said he opted for an 18-month sentence in order to deter others.

The judge said he considered the seriousness of the offense and “the sheer number of people who were impacted.”

Papini, who was emotional throughout the proceedings, quietly answered, “Yes, sir,” when the judge asked if she understood the sentence. Previously she was in tears as she gave a statement to the court accepting responsibility and admitting her guilt.

“As painful as it is,” Papini accepts her sentence as part of her recovery, defense attorney William Portanova said after the hearing.

Portanova previously said Papini was troubled and disgraced and that she should serve most of her sentence at home. Prosecutors, though, said it was imperative that she spend her full term in prison. The judge ordered her to report to prison Nov. 8.

“Papini’s kidnapping hoax was deliberate, well planned, and sophisticated,” prosecutors wrote in their court filing. And she was still falsely telling people she was kidnapped months after she pleaded guilty in April to staging the abduction and lying to the FBI about it, they wrote.

“The nation is watching the outcome of Papini’s sentencing hearing,” Assistant U.S. Attorneys Veronica Alegria and Shelley Weger wrote. “The public needs to know that there will be more than a slap on the wrist for committing financial fraud and making false statements to law enforcement, particularly when those false statements result in the expenditure of substantial resources and implicate innocent people.”

“Outwardly sweet and loving, yet capable of intense deceit … Ms. Papini’s chameleonic personalities drove her to simultaneously crave family security and the freedom of youth,” Portanova wrote in his responding court filing.

So “in pursuit of a non-sensical fantasy,” Portanova said the married mother fled to a former boyfriend in Southern California, nearly 600 miles south of her home in Redding. He dropped her off along Interstate 5 about 150 miles from her home after she said she wanted to go home.

Passersby found her with bindings on her body, a swollen nose, a blurred “brand” on her right shoulder, bruises and rashes across her body, ligature marks on her wrists and ankles, and burns on her left forearm. All of the injuries were self-inflicted and were designed to substantiate her story that she had been abducted at gunpoint by two Hispanic women while she was out for a run.

The wounds were a manifestation of her “unsettled masochism” and “self-inflicted penance,” Portanova wrote. And once she began, “each lie demanded another lie.”

Prosecutors said Papini’s ruse harmed more than just herself and her family. “An entire community believed the hoax and lived in fear that Hispanic women were roving the streets to abduct and sell women,” they wrote.

Prosecutors agreed to seek a sentence on the low end of the sentencing range in exchange for Papini’s guilty plea. That was projected to be between eight and 14 months in custody, down from the maximum 25 years for the two charges.

She has offered no rationale for her actions, which stumped even independent mental health experts who said her actions didn’t conform with any typical diagnosis.

“Papini’s painful early years twisted and froze her in myriad ways,” Portanova said in arguing for home confinement. With her deception finally revealed, he said, “It is hard to imagine a more brutal public revelation of a person’s broken inner self. At this point, the punishment is already intense and feels like a life sentence.”

But prosecutors said her “past trauma and mental health issues alone cannot account for all of her actions.”

“Papini’s planning of her hoax kidnapping was meticulous and began months in advance — it was not merely the reaction to a traumatic childhood,” they wrote.

After herarrestin March, Papini received more than $30,000 worth of psychiatric care for anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. She billed the state’s victim compensation fund for the treatment, and now must pay it back as part of her restitution.

As part of the plea agreement, she has agreed to reimburse law enforcement agencies more than $150,000 for the costs of the search for her and her nonexistent kidnappers, and repay the $128,000 she received in disability payments since her return.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

Source: newsy.com

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Doctors Are Still Hunting For The Cause Of Long COVID Brain Fog

Studies show 30% of COVID patients report brain fog a few months after they’re sick. It’s 65 to 85% for long-haulers sick beyond that.

COVID-related brain fog is a condition that can feel very defeating and overwhelming. 

Newsy’s Lindsey Theis has COVID-related brain fog herself. And it’s a topic she’s covered since 2020. She says each person she’s spoken with tells her it’s a dramatic change that impacts how they think and move throughout their lives. For this story, Theis met a family dealing with what she says is one of the worst cases she’s ever seen. 

On a bright, sunny day in rural Rensselaer, Indiana, 45-year-old Kari Lentino’s mind is a slow-moving storm. 

“I feel like a brain blizzard half the time,” she said. 

Lentino is immunocompromised. She’s had COVID twice. Since June 2021, it’s left her with several neurological setbacks. She says her brain fog is among the worst of it. 

“I couldn’t remember passwords to get into certain systems. I worked at the library and I would forget what I was doing while I was doing it,” Lentino said. 

Her conversations now go at a snail’s pace as she searches for words. 

The mother of four and grandmother of two had to quit work and file for disability. 

She can’t watch her grandkids. She won’t run errands or drive. Now, her time is spent mothering her brain. 

Dr. Igor Koralnik is chief of neuro-infectious diseases and co-director of the Northwestern Medicine Comprehensive COVID-19 Center, where he also runs a lab. 

He says 70% of his COVID brain fog patients are like Lentino — women in their early 40s. 

“We see that attention is their main cognitive problem,” he said. “Problem with attention, problem with memory, problem with multitasking and briefly, problems getting through their daily life and working in their current job capacity. …  We have people who have been infected back in March 2020 and still have decreased quality of life because of those symptoms and decreased cognitive function.”

Scientists think COVID cognitive dysfunction is from brain inflammation — but what causes it is still itself foggy.

One leading theory is that long COVID is an autoimmune disorder, where the immune system attacks healthy cells in the body, including the brain. 

“We find that the virus has confused the immune system, and we think that it’s driving the immune system towards autoimmunity,” Koralnik explained.

Studies show 30% of COVID patients report brain fog a few months after they’re sick. It’s 65 to 85% for long-haulers sick beyond that.  

Researchers haven’t found brain fog treatments yet, so they tackle someone’s symptoms. 

But even diagnosing brain fog is tricky. It’s invisible. There’s no set case definition but it can include trouble focusing, struggling to remember names, places, or words, reacting slowly, confused judgment, losing a train of thought often and fatigue or exhaustion from concentrating.  

Back in Rensselaer, Lentino’s husband helps her prepare her pills. She takes eight medications and two vitamins daily, plus a handful more as needed. That’s in addition to her therapies and memory aids like calendars and post it notes. Those cues share spots in the Lentino home near the signs of her former creative and vibrant self. Prescription bottles near her paintings. Reminders near her Star Wars string art. 

“It’s frustrating and depressing. It takes so long to do anything,” she said. 

In the spot where she used to stand to paint, brushes and acrylics wait patiently. 

Lentino is waiting too, like so many brain fog sufferers. It’s a long, draining wait and the ultimate test of patience.  

On a hopeful note, research shows many brain fog patients recover memory and attention near the 6-to-9-month mark. For treatment, some doctors prescribe medicine, like steroids or antihistamines, plus therapies like speech or cognitive rehabilitation therapy. If you have brain fog yourself, experts say you can try memory games and puzzles, and focus on quality sleep and healthy eating. 

Source: newsy.com

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Pandemic Fatigue Could Cause Problems For Public Health

As most people get tired of dealing with the pandemic, experts worry Congress will too, which could affect vaccines, tests and other policies.

It’s been a long pandemic, and COVID still isn’t fully gone. Now, monkeypox and polio have entered the conversation.

Many are still trying to figure out what a degree of normalcy looks like, but as tired as people are, how much worse is it for the actual public health system?

It’s led to a whole array of challenges for public health, and that could have major consequences for an already weary U.S. health system.

While public health got a boost in funding during the heights of the pandemic, the Biden administration is already pulling back on funding for tests and vaccines because of a lack of funding from Congress.

It worries experts like Thoai Ngo, an epidemiologist working at the health justice research nonprofit the Population Council.

“My main worry right now is that because of how we operate, we will erode trust from people in public health institutions,” Ngo said. “We will make it harder for us to control and manage the current epidemics: COVID-19, monkeypox, polio and future epidemics.”

So, what does the U.S. public health picture look like with COVID now?

Federal officials in places like the White House and CDC celebrate the role vaccines have played in preventing severe disease and death. The numbers show they definitely have, with COVID deaths in the last few months largely staying at a low point that we only saw briefly last spring and summer.

The CDC has used this as the basis for its new guidance from mid-August, which do away with the recommendations to practice social distancing and to quarantine if exposed to COVID.

It’s that reduction in severe disease and death that has underpinned the rollback of universal mask mandates nationwide and vaccine mandates in many places. 

Dr. Shira Doron, a hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center, has helped advise officials in Massachusetts on COVID policies, including in schools. She welcomes some of the new policies that roll back restrictions now that ways to prevent severe outcomes are readily available.

“The fact that we have all of those layers now, vaccines, tests and treatments just puts us in a completely different place in terms of that risk of severe disease, which is what we care about, which is the only thing we can hear about because we just can’t prevent infection,” Dr. Doron said. “That infection is too contagious.”

But even with low death rates, the U.S. is still losing more than 500 people every day. That means the U.S. is still losing as many Americans from COVID-19 in two weeks as it lost from two decades of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For those who center their work on immunocompromised people, policies rooted in fatigue with the virus look like an admission that the virus has won.

“I just think that, particularly with the recent CDC guideline, it’s confirming to me that the Biden administration and our federal health officials have given up on controlling infections of COVID-19, and they left the vulnerable, the elderly, the immunocompromised, people with disability in the cold,” Ngo said.

Then there’s long COVID, which is more than just a few extra weeks of the sniffles.

It’s personal for Elizabeth Jacobs. She’s an epidemiologist at the University of Arizona who has two illnesses that suppress her immune system. 

“We’re seeing things like fatigue,” Jacobs said. “That is really hard to describe. I think that a lot of people use fatigue in the colloquial sense of, ‘I’m just tired.’ But for somebody like me who has genuine fatigue caused by autoimmune diseases, it’s not like that. It’s more like you have cement blocks tied to your legs and arms, and you just can’t really even move around a lot. You have trouble getting out of bed and even sitting up in front of a computer is really difficult.”

Beyond her concern about her own risk if she contracts COVID, Jacobs worries that a shift away from preventing infection could make it harder to solve other problems tied to it. 

“Is it that people are tired of mitigation with masking, or is it that we are tired of things like flight cancellations and supply chain issues and having our children out sick from school and needing to care for our loved ones and seeing our neighbors die?” Jacobs asked. “Because if it’s the latter that is causing fatigue in us, then that is not being caused by mitigation. It’s being caused by the lack of mitigations.”

Then, there’s monkeypox.

In short, public health officials at federal and local levels have said they believe the response started slower than it should have. Tests and vaccines have also been hard to come by, although there’s hope that new shipments in the coming months should make it easier to vaccinate people at risk.

It sounds similar to some of the early missteps in addressing COVID-19, and that might not be a coincidence.

“The response to monkeypox, from what I can tell, is very much influenced by the law over the last two years of COVID, right?” said Jared Auclair, director of the biopharmaceutical analysis and training lab at Northeastern University. “People just don’t want to think about it and just don’t want to deal with it. Taking that mindset of slow rolling into a response because you are exhausted from COVID and don’t want to, you don’t want to have any repercussions like you’re being alarmist.”

The good news about vaccine demand outstripping supply is that there’s a high degree of interest from at-risk groups. Monkeypox is primarily affecting gay and bisexual men who have sex with men. 

“In general, that community has been very direct and forthcoming about wanting to take steps to to to protect itself and others,” said Jen Kates, director of the global health and HIV policy Program at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

While those affected by monkeypox aren’t putting aside getting their shots, pandemic fatigue is having a knock-on effect for other outbreaks.

“What has happened though is because of this pushback on the public health authorities putting in place requirements or guidance, there’s been an increasing move, as we’ve seen across the country, to attack, to sort of apply this to other public health interventions,” Kates said. “Well, we don’t want our children to be forced to have immunizations for schools, things like that, which is frankly very dangerous.”

So polio, diphtheria and all those other diseases many get vaccinated against without thinking about as a kid — if pandemic fatigue continues to translate to underfunding public health, all of those could also come back.

“The worst case scenario of that is that we get used to having those old diseases come back, that we have children dying of diphtheria, we have communities impacted by polio and… with limited resources,” said Amanda McClelland, senior vice president of the Prevent Epidemics Team at Resolve to Save Lives.

Even going back to COVID, the message from public health experts about how to keep things from getting much worse is to invest in the tools we need to keep risk low.

“I am not terribly concerned about pandemic fatigue when experienced by somebody with a fair amount of immunity, but I am concerned about Congress having pandemic fatigue,” Dr. Doron said. “I think that it is still really important that the government be focused on COVID-19, even though I don’t think every individual needs to be so focused on COVID-19 anymore because we can be pretty safe if the government continues to fund the things that are keeping us safe.”

Source: newsy.com

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Veterans ‘Burn Pits’ Bill Marks A Personal Victory For Biden

Burn pits were used in Iraq and Afghanistan to dispose of chemicals, cans, plastics, medical equipment and human waste.

President Joe Biden, whose elder son died of cancer after serving in Iraq, signed legislation on Wednesday expanding federal health care services for veterans who served at military bases where toxic smoke billowed from huge “burn pits.”

“So many of you here today remind us that we have fought for this for so many years,” President Biden said during an emotional White House ceremony that reflected the struggles of military families — and the president’s personal experience.

President Biden was introduced by Danielle Robinson, the widow of Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson, who died of cancer two years ago. The legislation is named for him.

She described her late husband as “a soldier as strong as an ox” but also “the ultimate cuddler” for his daughter Brielle, who stood to her mother’s side clutching a stuffed figurine wearing military camouflage.

“Ours is just one story,” Danielle Robinson said. “So many military families have had to fight this terrible emotional battle. So many veterans are still battling burn pit illnesses today.”

After the Robinsons took their seats for the president’s remarks, President Biden addressed Brielle directly.

“I know you miss your daddy. But he’s with you all the time,” he said. “He’s inside you. He’s going to whisper in your ear when you have hard decisions to make.”

Then he pointed out that Brielle was sitting next to his grandson, the son of Beau Biden.

“His daddy lost to the same burn pits,” President Biden said. “He knows what you’re going through.”

It was the most direct link the president has publicly drawn between Beau’s fatal brain cancer and burn pits, which were used to dispose of chemicals, tires, plastics, medical equipment and human waste on military bases.

President Biden made addressing the problem one of his priorities during his State of the Union address in March.

“I was going to get this done, come hell or high water,” he said Wednesday.

Sen. Jon Tester, who chairs the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said President Biden was a driving force behind the legislation, which passed last week.

“He was continually pushing because whether Beau died of this or not, I think Joe thinks that it had some impact, and so he wanted this fixed,” Tester said. “And because he thinks it was the right thing to do. So different president, different set of priorities, this would have probably never happened.”

Burn pits were used in Iraq and Afghanistan to dispose of chemicals, cans, tires, plastics, medical equipment and human waste. However, 70% of disability claims involving exposure to the pits were denied by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“For too long, too many veterans who got sick while fighting for our country had to fight for their care here at home,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said at Wednesday’s ceremony.

The legislation will direct officials to assume that certain respiratory illnesses and cancers were related to burn pit exposure, helping veterans get disability payments without having to prove the illness was the result of their service.

“Veterans who have been sickened to the point of being unable to work, unable to take care of their families, won’t have to spend that time fighting the government to get the healthcare they earned,” said Jeremy Butler, head of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “This is monumental.”

Butler attended the ceremony, along with Le Roy and Rosie Torres, husband and wife advocates for veterans health care who started the organization Burn Pits 360. Le Roy developed constrictive bronchitis after serving in Iraq, making breathing difficult.

Although the provision involving burn pits has garnered the most attention, other health care services will be expanded as well.

Veterans who have served since the Sept. 11 attacks will have a decade to sign up for VA health care, double the current five years.

And there’s more help for veterans from the Vietnam War. The legislation adds hypertension to list of ailments that are presumed to be caused by exposure to Agent Orange, a herbicide used by the U.S. military to clear vegetation.

In addition, veterans who served during the war in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa and Johnston Atoll will also be considered to have been exposed to the chemical.

The legislation is considered to be the largest expansion of veterans health care in more than three decades, but it became an unlikely political football shortly before it passed.

On the day that the Senate was expected to grant it final approval, Republicans unexpectedly blocked it. Veterans who had traveled to Washington for a moment of triumph were devastated.

“All the veterans were down there because they were expecting to celebrate,” Butler said. “And then they were absolutely stabbed in the back.”

Republicans said they were concerned about technical changes to how the legislation was funded. Democrats accused them of throwing a fit because they were unhappy about a separate deal to advance President Biden’s domestic agenda on climate change, taxes and prescription drugs.

Instead of going home, some veterans began holding what they called a “fire watch” outside the Capitol, an impromptu vigil to keep public pressure on the Senate.

They stayed around the clock, despite the stifling summer heat and torrential thunderstorms. Jon Stewart, the comedian who has advocated for veterans, joined them as well. President Biden wanted to go but couldn’t because he was isolating with a coronavirus infection, so he spoke to the demonstrators in a video call when VA Secretary McDonough dropped off pizza.

Days after the demonstration began, the Senate held another vote, and the measure passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Veterans were in the gallery watching the vote take place.

“Every single person I was with was bawling. Just bawling,” said Matt Zeller, a former Army captain who was among the demonstrators. “I cried for a solid five minutes.”

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

Source: newsy.com

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Senate Approves Bill To Aid Vets Exposed To Toxic Burn Pits

By Associated Press
August 2, 2022

The Senate has given final approval to a bill enhancing health care and disability benefits for millions of veterans exposed to toxic burn pits.

A bill enhancing health care and disability benefits for millions of veterans exposed to toxic burn pits won final approval in the Senate on Tuesday, ending a brief stalemate over the measure that had infuriated advocates and inspired some to camp outside the Capitol.

The Senate approved the bill by a vote of 86-11. It now goes to President Joe Biden’s desk to be signed into law. He has said the bill “makes good on our sacred obligation” to care for veterans and their families.

The Senate had overwhelming approved the legislation back in June, but a do-over was required to make a technical fix. That process derailed when Republicans made a late attempt to change another aspect of the bill last week and blocked it from advancing.

The abrupt delay outraged veterans groups and advocates, including comedian Jon Stewart. It also placed GOP senators in the uncomfortable position of delaying the top legislative priority of service organizations this session of Congress.

A group of veterans and their families have been camping out at the Capitol since that vote. They had endured thunderstorms and Washington’s notorious August humidity, but they were in the galleries as senators cast their votes.

“You can go home knowing the good and great thing you have done and accomplished for the United States of America,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told them.

The legislation expands access to health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs for millions who served near burn pits. It directs the VA to presume that certain respiratory illnesses and cancers were related to burn pit exposure, allowing veterans to obtain disability payments to compensate for their injury without having to prove the illness was a result of their service.

Roughly 70% of disability claims related to burn pit exposure are denied by the VA due to lack of evidence, scientific data and information from the Defense Department.

The military used burn pits to dispose of such things as chemicals, cans, tires, plastics and medical and human waste.

Hundreds of thousands of Vietnam War era veterans and survivors also stand to benefit from the legislation. The bill adds hypertension, or high blood pressure, as a presumptive disease associated with Agent Orange exposure.

The Congressional Budget Office projected that about 600,000 of 1.6 million living Vietnam vets would be eligible for increased compensation, though only about half would have severe enough diagnoses to warrant more compensation.

Also, veterans who served in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa and Johnston Atoll will be presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange. That’s another 50,000 veterans and survivors of deceased veterans who would get compensation for illnesses presumed to have been caused by their exposure to the herbicide, the CBO projected.

The bill is projected to increase federal deficits by about $277 billion over 10 years.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press. 

Source: newsy.com

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A Cyberattack Illuminates the Shaky State of Student Privacy

The software that many school districts use to track students’ progress can record extremely confidential information on children: “Intellectual disability.” “Emotional Disturbance.” “Homeless.” “Disruptive.” “Defiance.” “Perpetrator.” “Excessive Talking.” “Should attend tutoring.”

Now these systems are coming under heightened scrutiny after a recent cyberattack on Illuminate Education, a leading provider of student-tracking software, which affected the personal information of more than a million current and former students across dozens of districts — including in New York City and Los Angeles, the nation’s largest public school systems.

Officials said in some districts the data included the names, dates of birth, races or ethnicities and test scores of students. At least one district said the data included more intimate information like student tardiness rates, migrant status, behavior incidents and descriptions of disabilities.

Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third-largest district.

Now some cybersecurity and privacy experts say that the cyberattack on Illuminate Education amounts to a warning for industry and government regulators. Although it was not the largest hack on an ed tech company, these experts say they are troubled by the nature and scope of the data breach — which, in some cases, involved delicate personal details about students or student data dating back more than a decade. At a moment when some education technology companies have amassed sensitive information on millions of school children, they say, safeguards for student data seem wholly inadequate.

“There has really been an epic failure,” said Hector Balderas, the attorney general of New Mexico, whose office has sued tech companies for violating the privacy of children and students.

In a recent interview, Mr. Balderas said that Congress had failed to enact modern, meaningful data protections for students while regulators had failed to hold ed tech firms accountable for flouting student data privacy and security.

outpacing protections for students’ personal information. Lawmakers rushed to respond.

Since 2014, California, Colorado and dozens of other states have passed student data privacy and security laws. In 2014, dozens of K-12 ed tech providers signed on to a national Student Privacy Pledge, promising to maintain a “comprehensive security program.”

Supporters of the pledge said the Federal Trade Commission, which polices deceptive privacy practices, would be able to hold companies to their commitments. President Obama endorsed the pledge, praising participating companies in a major privacy speech at the F.T.C. in 2015.

The F.T.C. has a long history of fining companies for violating children’s privacy on consumer services like YouTube and TikTok. Despite numerous reports of ed tech companies with problematic privacy and security practices, however, the agency has yet to enforce the industry’s student privacy pledge.

In May, the F.T.C. announced that regulators intended to crack down on ed tech companies that violate a federal law — the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act — which requires online services aimed at children under 13 to safeguard their personal data. The agency is pursuing a number of nonpublic investigations into ed tech companies, said Juliana Gruenwald Henderson, an F.T.C. spokeswoman.

company’s site says its services reach more than 17 million students in 5,200 school districts. Popular products include an attendance-taking system and an online grade book as well as a school platform, called eduCLIMBER, that enables educators to record students’ “social-emotional behavior” and color-code children as green (“on track”) or red (“not on track”).

Illuminate has promoted its cybersecurity. In 2016, the company announced that it had signed on to the industry pledge to show its “support for safeguarding” student data.

Concerns about a cyberattack emerged in January after some teachers in New York City schools discovered that their online attendance and grade book systems had stopped working. Illuminate said it temporarily took those systems offline after it became aware of “suspicious activity” on part of its network.

On March 25, Illuminate notified the district that certain company databases had been subject to unauthorized access, said Nathaniel Styer, the press secretary for New York City Public Schools. The incident, he said, affected about 800,000 current and former students across roughly 700 local schools.

For the affected New York City students, data included first and last names, school name and student ID number as well as at least two of the following: birth date, gender, race or ethnicity, home language and class information like teacher name. In some cases, students’ disability status — that is, whether or not they received special education services — was also affected.

said they were outraged. In 2020, Illuminate signed a strict data agreement with the district requiring the company to safeguard student data and promptly notify district officials in the event of a data breach.

kept student data on the Amazon Web Services online storage system. Cybersecurity experts said many companies had inadvertently made their A.W.S. storage buckets easy for hackers to find — by naming databases after company platforms or products.

a spate of cyberattacks on both ed tech companies and public schools, education officials said it was time for Washington to intervene to protect students.

“Changes at the federal level are overdue and could have an immediate and nationwide impact,” said Mr. Styer, the New York City schools spokesman. Congress, for instance, could amend federal education privacy rules to impose data security requirements on school vendors, he said. That would enable federal agencies to levy fines on companies that failed to comply.

One agency has already cracked down — but not on behalf of students.

Last year, the Securities and Exchange Commission charged Pearson, a major provider of assessment software for schools, with misleading investors about a cyberattack in which the birth dates and email addresses of millions of students were stolen. Pearson agreed to pay $1 million to settle the charges.

Mr. Balderas, the attorney general, said he was infuriated that financial regulators had acted to protect investors in the Pearson case — even as privacy regulators failed to step up for schoolchildren who were victims of cybercrime.

“My concern is there will be bad actors who will exploit a public school setting, especially when they think that the technology protocols are not very robust,” Mr. Balderas said. “And I don’t know why Congress isn’t terrified yet.”

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New York Reports 1st U.S. Polio Case In Nearly A Decade

By Associated Press
July 21, 2022

State health officials scheduled polio vaccination clinics in Rockland County as part of the response.

New York health officials on Thursday reported a polio case, the first in the U.S. in nearly a decade.

Officials did not immediately offer details on who the Rockland County resident was, whether the person was vaccinated or their current condition.

State officials said it appeared the person had a vaccine-derived strain of the virus, perhaps from someone who got live vaccine — available in other countries, but not the U.S. — and spread it.

Polio was once one of the nation’s most feared diseases, with annual outbreaks causing thousands of cases of paralysis — many of them in children.

Vaccines became available starting in 1955, and nationwide vaccination campaign cut the annual number of cases to less than 100 in the 1960s and fewer than 10 in the 1970s, according to the CDC.

In 1979, polio was declared eliminated in the U.S., meaning there was no longer routine spread of the virus in the country. Rarely, travelers with polio have brought infections into the U.S., with the last such case in 2013.

U.S. children are still routinely vaccinated against polio. Federal officials recommend four doses: to be given at 2 months of age; 4 months; at 6 to 18 months; and at age 4 through 6 years. Some states require only three doses.

According to the CDC’s most recent childhood vaccination data, about 93% of 2-year-olds had received at least three doses of polio vaccine.

Polio spreads mostly from person to person or through contaminated water. It can infect a person’s spinal cord, causing paralysis and possibly permanent disability and death. The disease mostly affects children.

Polio is endemic in Afghanistan and Pakistan, although numerous countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia have also reported cases in recent years.

Last month, health officials in Britain warned parents to make sure their children have been vaccinated after the polio virus was found in London sewage samples. No cases of paralysis were reported.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

Source: newsy.com

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Inflation and Deficits Don’t Dim the Appeal of U.S. Bonds

Mr. Bernstein stipulated that while debt financing has its place, the White House also believes it has firm limits within its agenda. “The outcome of all this is going to be some mix of progressively raised revenues and investments in essential public goods with a high return financed by some borrowing.”

What would have to happen for these rock-bottom borrowing costs to rise significantly? There could be a crisis of confidence in Fed policy, a geopolitical crisis or steep increases in the Fed’s key interest rates in an attempt to kill off inflation. In a more easily imagined situation, some believe that if inflation remains near its current levels into the second half of the year, bond buyers may lose patience and reduce purchases until yields are more in tune with rising prices.

The resulting higher interest payments on debt would force budget cuts, said Marc Goldwein, the senior policy director at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Mr. Goldwein’s organization, which pushes for balanced budgets, estimated that even under this past year’s low rates, the federal government would spend over $300 billion on interest payments — more than its individual outlays on food stamps, housing, disability insurance, science, education or technology.

Last month, Brian Riedl, a senior fellow at the right-leaning Manhattan Institute, published a paper titled “How Higher Interest Rates Could Push Washington Toward a Federal Debt Crisis.” It concludes that “debt is already projected to grow to unsustainable levels even before any new proposals are enacted.”

The offsetting global and demographic trends that have been pushing rates down, Mr. Reidl writes, are an “accidental, and possibly temporary, subsidy to heavy-borrowing federal lawmakers.” Assuming that those trends will endure, he said, would be like becoming a self-satisfied football team that “managed to improve its overall win-loss record over several seasons — despite a rapidly worsening defense — because its offense kept improving enough to barely outscore its opponents.”

But at least one historical trend suggests that rates will remain tame: an overall decline in real interest rates worldwide dating back six centuries.

A paper published in 2020 by the Bank of England and written by Paul Schmelzing, a postdoctoral research associate at the Yale School of Management, found that as political and financial systems have globalized, innovated and matured, defaults among the safest borrowers — strong governments — have continuously declined. According to his paper, one ramification may be that “irrespective of particular monetary and fiscal responses, real rates could soon enter permanently negative territory,” yielding less than the rate of inflation.

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