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Posts published in July 2017

‘Business’ of health care

rainey

Say the words “health care” these days and most informed folk will immediately think of the national embarrassment we’ve witnessed from congressional Republicans for the past seven years. Especially the Senate bunch who damned near wrecked the entire system.

But, for seniors, those two words usually first bring to mind our own interactions with the traditional delivery of care that’s morphed into the complicated - and terribly expensive - animal it is today. I’m one.

In the last 20 months, I’ve interacted with 10 physicians and dozens of other medical professionals in three hospitals on both an “in” and “out” patient status. “Up close and personal,” as they say. As a result, I’ve had an education.

If Senate Republicans had managed to pass any of the abortive and secretive “legislation” they devised, it’s damned safe to say the three small hospitals of my recent experience would have disappeared. All are under the same professional ownership and, because of highly creative business practices, exist to serve communities as few as the one we currently live in - population 1,200. They do it well.

Hospitals and clinics survive - first and foremost - because of good business practices and not the care given. If a facility doesn’t “pencil out” business-wise, it won’t exist medical-wise. Plain hard truth.

With Medicaid and Medicare as their most significant sources of income, hospital bean counters have had to be creative. Especially in small communities. Neither government-sponsored program fully reimburses costs of patients who are covered by them. Plus, any hospital that accepts federal funding of any sort - and nearly all do - must serve the uninsured and deal with the uncompensated costs of that care. So, insured and other private pay patients are overcharged to help balance the ledger and keep the doors open. More truth.

Another wrinkle is hiring doctors as staff. Many docs like it because, while most of ‘em will make less money, they won’t have to hire/fire nurses and other professionals, pay office expenses, buy ridiculously priced liability insurance, won’t work nights and weekends, they’ll have support staffs and major equipment readily available and most won’t make hospital visits.

But, to us senior patients especially, that can be a double-edged sword. On one side, hospitals can control costs like salaries and expenses which is good. But, on the other, we’re often just another old 15-minute face who doesn’t get the personal attention or involvement with doctors as we used to “in the good old days.” General practice docs go day-after-day seeing the same types of patients hour after hour with the same types of ailments under a patient load that keeps many from having time for personal interaction or deeper knowledge of patient needs. So care - and the relationship - can seem impersonal and/or sterile

Of the ten physicians seen in my recent medical journey, most had a hard time remembering my name, recalling previous information or test results between visits and had little to no prior knowledge of my appointment needs until grabbing one of the endless charts in the box outside the exam room door as they entered the room.

Adding to the problem, a lot of docs - especially in small facilities - have already retired once and are working part time to keep up their skills while adding to the retirement income. For hospitals, they’re low maintenance and cheaper than full time staff. Keeping costs down. But, part time makes it difficult to schedule consecutive appointments for care resulting in longer periods of treatment or forcing patients to live with the ailment(s) and symptoms longer and - possibly - having to make costly emergency room visits for care between times.

None of this is meant to complain. Institutional medical care has never been better - in my experience. But, as consumers who may - from time to time - have need of serious interaction with the medical community, we all need to understand what’s happening out there.

Small hospitals are no longer as independent. For survival, they’ve been bought and sold - often several times - to assure the doors stay open. Care is often some distance away as facilities have merged or taken on more restrictive “specialty”roles. Some nursing and other support staffs work in more than one location several days a week to keep personnel costs down while trying to provide services to more distant patients. Expensive equipment may be spread among several jointly-owned facilities - miles apart - to avoid duplication but, at the same time, forcing patients to visit more than one hospital for care or drive substantial miles in my case.

And a lot of doctors, who used to more often practice independently or in clinics with ownership, now may be employees with eight-to-five working hours, often seeing patients in more than one location, be unavailable nights and weekends, might never follow their patients admitted to hospitals, while often seeing twice as many patients daily for shorter visits.

You can also add to this changing landscape the increased use of specialists. Again, many are employees or contractors. Seeing more bodies but for much shorter appointments. Some scheduling new patients six to eight months out to manage their practice time and increased patient load in several small communities. Some visiting several locations a week.

Like the Old Grey Mare, health care “ain’t what she used to be.” In rural areas especially. More than ever, business decisions are affecting which will survive. And which won’t. Chain ownerships of hospitals and clinics have altered staffing practices and how major equipment and bulk purchasing decisions are made - and by whom.

Computer systems, while creating huge advances in diagnostics and care, are also depersonalizing many of the traditional interactions between medical professionals and patients.

The availability of care - or the lack of it - is forcing many patients to move from small towns to cities to find the continuing care they need. The number of independent docs and clinics is shrinking. Patients normally seen by physicians are now just as likely to be seen by a physician’s assistant. In some areas, more likely.

For most of us, all this change has been happening with little notice. We seldom think about the structures of medicine or its delivery until we are in need of personal attention. Even then, after diagnosis and treatment, we tend not to look further.

But, all our lives are being quietly reshaped daily by these forces. Fact is, at our house, we’re planning a long distance move shortly. One of the major factors: a 10-story hospital and more than 100 physicians of all stripes right in the subdivision. Recent personal experience has shown these are considerations we need to pay more attention to.

Water Digest – July 31

Water rights weekly report for July 24. For much more news, links and detail, see the National Water Rights Digest.

Following adjournment in mid-July of a third state legislative session, Washington legislators are being pressed to return for a fourth – to deal not only with a state capital spending budget (which was left undone) but also legislation to deal with the state Supreme Court water rights decision from last fall usually called the Hirst decision.

Two North Carolina cities – Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro, located near each other in the western part of the state – approved an agreement on July 27 allowing the two to continue with plans for receiving water from the planned W. Kerr Scott Reservoir intake project.

Idaho Briefing – July 31

This is a summary of a few items in the Idaho Weekly Briefing for July 17. Interested in subscribing? Send us a note at stapilus@ridenbaugh.com.

The Idaho Republican Party gathered in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho on July 22 and elected Jonathan Parker as the Idaho Republican Party Chairman. Parker was elected to fill the chairman's seat that was left open when past Chairman Stephen Yates stepped down in April.

The Kootenai County Republican organization on July 25 passed a resolution de4nouncing Republican Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch for backing a bill setting substantial sanctions on Russia.

The Bonneville Power Administration on July 26 set rates for fiscal years 2018 and 2019 that will help support long-term rate stability and maximize the value of the regional federal power and transmission systems.

Ada County Parks & Waterways is finally able to announce the official opening of the 2017 Boise River Float Season in Barber Park this Saturday, July 29th! All Barber Park services including the Boise River Raft & Tube equipment rental and shuttle service will be fully operational.

Rocky Mountain Power has asked the Idaho Public Utilities Commission to approve its plans to build or acquire four wind farms in Wyoming, upgrade 13 existing wind facilities and improve its transmission system.

From Agrium to DEQ

mendiola

July marked the second anniversary of John Tippets' appointment as director of the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality after working 40 years in various capacities for the phosphate mining and fertilizer processing operations of Agrium and its predecessors near Soda Springs.

“It's been an interesting transition,” Tippets told me, stressing he has proven since he was appointed by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter on July 6, 2015 that – despite misgivings by some that it was like “putting the fox in charge of the hen house” – he can make difficult decisions without a conflict of interest.

“I agreed to recuse myself from issues that dealt directly and primarily with Agrium. I did not recuse myself from dealing with issues for any of the phosphate companies. Those are big issues for the department, and it's a lot of what we do,” he said.

Tippets has delegated other IDEQ employees to attend meetings and sign documents pertaining to the Natural Resource Damage Assessment that involves Agrium and other companies.

“I know what's going on. I get reports, but I'm not involved at all in the decision making. So, I would say from my perspective, it's worked very well. I think the department is able to do its work and avoid the perception of a conflict of interest with the director,” he said, adding his extensive background gives him an understanding about issues that pertain to protecting and enhancing Idaho's air, water and land.

Starting in 1996, the death of sheep, cattle and horses from ingesting vegetation contaminated by selenium in the vicinity of historic phosphate mines in southeastern Idaho prompted companies – including Agrium, the J.R. Simplot Co. and Monsanto – to cooperate with federal, state and tribal agencies to investigate and address selenium-related environmental and public health issues.

It was determined selenium contamination is concentrated in about 75 square miles of active and historic mine lease areas within the 2,500-square-miles phosphate resource region. Jeff Cundick, U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) minerals branch chief in Pocatello, told me that 15 large selenium-contaminated sites have been identified.

Selenium is a mineral that enhances metabolism in small amounts as it occurs naturally in water and some foods. In large amounts, however, it can prove toxic.

Tippets said plans to remediate the contaminated selenium sites were progressing well when he retired as Agrium's public affairs manager two years ago. Calling the problem “a legacy issue,” the IDEQ chief said phosphate companies did not know when they were mining for decades that selenium had the potential of becoming a contamination issue. The selenium is contained in shale sandwiched between layers of phosphate ore, not in the ore itself.

In issuing mining permits, the U.S. Forest Service and BLM often required companies such as Beker Industries, Nu-West Industries (Agrium's predecessors), Agrium, Monsanto and Simplot to put the shale on top when mines were back filled, not realizing that exposing the shale to air and water released the selenium into the environment, Tippets said. Now that shale must be buried with impervious caps on top when new mines are developed.

“So, they're not creating more problems with selenium, but they haven't got all the past problems resolved yet, either. So, it's an ongoing issue, but they're making progress, and they know how to deal with it today. So, they're on the right track,” Tippets said.

When the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act were enacted in the 1970s, it was envisioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would have oversight authority, but states would run regulatory programs, he said. Idaho is in the process of getting primacy for a program dealing with water discharges by municipalities and industries.

“In Idaho, we have to be as stringent as the federal government to have primacy, but Idaho law says we cannot be more stringent. We're trying to find that sweet spot. We do have some flexibility in some areas, and we exercise them when we can,” Tippets said, noting there are a few high profile issues that are in dispute between the EPA and IDEQ.

Idaho is prepared to go to court against the EPA in regards to imposing on the Gem State an onerous fish consumption standard used as a human health criteria for Oregon. “It's not resolved yet, but we think we came up with the right solution for Idaho. I don't want to demonize the EPA. We work together with them very well and have a good relationship, but when we think what they want to impose on Idaho isn't appropriate, we're certainly willing to push back.”

When Tippets started his phosphate career four decades ago with Agricultural Products, which later became Beker Industries, he hired on as a laborer during an extremely cold December, using a jack hammer, pick and shovel, pouring concrete at 20 degrees below zero, working 12-hour days.

Beker shut down its Soda Springs fertilizer plant in the summer of 1986. It reopened as a Nu-West Industries operation the following summer. In 1995, it was sold to Canadian-based Agrium.

Meanwhile, Tippets learned how to operate heavy equipment and spent many years working as an instrumentation technician. He earned a bachelor's degree in independent studies from Brigham Young University via correspondence. While working in human resources, he got a master's degree in human resource management by taking night classes at Utah State University.

He was elected to the Idaho House of Representatives in 1988, but resigned during his sixth term after 11 years when he became Agrium's human resource manager. He was out of the Legislature for 11 years when he was appointed to the Idaho Senate to replace Bob Geddes. Tippits resigned his Senate seat while serving his third term to become IDEQ director.

After taking his government position, Tippets was approached by a legislator who asked him, “How many crazy environmentalists do you have working in that organization?” He said he responded: “If we have any, I don't know who they are,” commending his staff as professional Idahoans dedicated to reasonably protecting the state's natural resources and spending tax dollars wisely.

Tippets said he has been appointed to serve until the end of Otter's third term, which will expire in January 2019. He said he would be willing to stay on for a transition period to assist his successor, but “it would be hard to commit for another four years.” Otter is the nation's longest serving incumbent governor whose time in office has run consecutively. “Honestly, I can say that I've enjoyed this more than I even anticipated,” Tippets said.

Where to find the rules

stapiluslogo1

People who want to use the power of government as a hammer - in action or in political talk - often talk about all those regulations, which both federal and state agencies have, intrusive or not, in abundance.

But they remain mysterious for many people, so it seems reasonable to take a moment to look at what they are, how they happen, and where to find them.

Federal first.

There is a compilation called the Code of Federal Regulations, but it’s cumbersome to go through. The place to go to find out what’s happening in the federal rules is the Federal Register, a daily (on weekdays) publication that includes all sorts of notices, rules and regulations prominent among them. The whole thing is almost a daily diary of what the federal government does, and it’s more than most people could read. I have an e-mail subscription to the daily table of contents (free at https://public.govdelivery.com/accounts/USGPOOFR/subscriber/new) and use it to scan through what the agencies are up to. Links to the full text of all of it is included.

A lot of it is unexciting maintenance stuff, and meeting notices, funding awards, findings of fact and other material is mixed in. But if a rule is being created or amended or repealed, it has to - by law - show up in the Federal Register. Anyone interested in tracking what the federal agencies actually do could do worse than to start there - and it is searchable.

The states all set up rules and regulations that accompany the state laws; laws are passed by the legislature to set the outlines and general policies, and the rules and regulations are developed through the agencies, often to fill in the gaps left by the laws, often with participation - or at the request - of various interests involved with them. Business and environmental groups, for two examples, often pay close attention when rules are being crafted, and often get their message into the mix.

The states report on their regulations in different ways. Until a couple of decades ago, Idaho had no comprehensive catalogue, or publication of changes, to its rules. Now it does, via the state Department of Administration, in the office of the rules coordinator (that’s a state job). You can find it online at adminrules.idaho.gov.

That office puts out a monthly publication called the Idaho Administrative Bulletin, which includes all the changes either being made or under review. It expands and contracts in size through the year like an accordion, because the Idaho Legislature reviews all the rule changes each session, and during the legislative season rulemaking activity comes to a near halt. Other months, there’s a good deal more, especially not long after and not long before the session. In the July edition (it publishes the first Wednesday of each month), the Bulletin runs 117 pages, reflecting a mid-cycle stretch. In certain months it can become much larger; the edition from last October ran 863 pages.

That’s a lot of Idaho rule-making, but not especially unusual. The legislature’s job, when it passes laws, isn’t to try to work out every detail of how a law is supposed to work; but by the time state employees have to make it work, they have to know what to do and how to do it, in a practical and consistent way. Hence the rules.

The regulations are in other words where you really get down into the weeds, into the details of how things work. It’s not the most exciting place to prowl around, as a general rule. But if you want some real insight into how governments, federal or state (or local too, for that matter) work, this is where you can most readily get some solid insight.

The motion to proceed

trahant

The Senate is now going through 20 hours of debate on a House Resolution 1628 to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. But the House bill was stripped of every word except the title. Now the idea is to come up with the right language to reach 50 votes (so when like the Motion to Proceed, Vice President Mike Pence can break the tie and vote yes).

The first proposal, Senate Amendment 267, had all sorts of problems on the floor. The Senate's Parliamentarian ruled that parts of the bill did not get a score from the Congressional Budget Office and other parts violated budget rules. So 60 votes, not 50 were needed for this version to pass. But the Republican leadership wasn't even close to 50 votes -- Nine Republicans voted against it.

Including Arizona Sen. John McCain who just a few hours before said he wasn't happy with any of the legislative proposals. Think about this. He interrupted his cancer treatment (taxpayer funded health care) then gave a stirring speech about the break down of civility in the Senate. He said he would vote against the bills as presented, and then, votes yes anyway. Quite a day. And so much for his words. I'll admit: I thought McCain meant what he said.

Then at least McCain earned respect and praise from President Donald J. Trump. He tweeted: @SenJohnMcCain Thank you for coming to D.C. for such a vital vote. Congrats to all Rep. We can now deliver grt healthcare to all Americans!"

Now that's something -- as is the process itself.

This week's Senate debate on TV will be exciting. Seriously. There will be many hours ahead of members speaking to an empty chamber about why the Affordable Care Act works -- or why it should be repealed. (And lots of images of staff shuffling papers on camera.) Great theater, right? Then every once in a while (about the time paint dries) there will be a call for a vote and the dramatic calling of each senator's name for a vote.

There are two main versions that will surface soon. The first is a repeal -- or at least as much of a repeal as possible with 50 votes -- that's been proposed by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky. That proposal has little chance.

Then later in the week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, will propose an amendment that they're calling a "Skinny Repeal." It would eliminate some taxes, a few more regulations, but leaves Medicaid alone. It's supposed to be something for both moderates who want to leave Medicaid alone and for conservatives who want a repeal. Ha! And remember: If this version passes the Senate the bill will move to a conference committee with the House. That's where the Medicaid cuts will come back. This is a phony negotiating plank.

As the debate unfolds, the Senate is in a way making the case for why we need Native Americans in the legislative process. There will be all kinds of talk about what the law does to Americans, to the poor, to taxpayers, to just about every constituent group in America. What's really needed though is for one senator to explain about the Indian Health system and what havoc all of these proposals would wreak. One senator could say the Indian Health Service has never been fully funded, despite treaty promises, so why strip millions of dollars away. Or ask about Indian children when more than half are covered by Medicaid. Or show why Indian Country needs the jobs that have been created (and will be lost) by these proposals. Better yet: One Native Senator could use data to prove that Medicaid works.

Indian Country deserves to be in this debate. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski has been a key opponent of the Republican leadership's health care legislation. It's mostly about Medicaid. I am sure that it's also due to her support of the Alaska Native medical system. She gets it.

But Murkowski will pay a political price for her votes, at least in a primary election. But then she's gone through that before. And won. Not long after the Senate vote on the Motion to Proceed, the Alaska Republican Party said Murkowski abandoned them. Party chairman Tuckerman Babcock said the "repeal of Obamacare is non-negotiable." (Funny: I feel the same way about the Senate alternatives.)

And so the party talks about possible consequences for Murkowski. Babcock said her vote put at risk new oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (would that be true) and said her Energy Committee "chairmanship could be at risk."

And President Donald J. Trump tweeted Wednesday morning: "Senator @lisamurkowski of the Great State of Alaska really let the Republicans, and our country, down yesterday. Too bad!"

So will there be punishment? I would not be so sure. Remember the Republican majority is thin. As I reported last week: Three senators switch sides and it's a new Senate. Two are already really, unhappy. So the way to make it three is for Republicans to continue to attack their own members.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes.

10 questions

carlson

Last week Avista Utility, headquarted in Spokane, surprised many observers by announcing they were being acquired by a Canadian utility, Hydro One of Toronto, for $5.3 billion dollars. After operating independently for 128 years, they were giving up that independence.

There are two questions that immediately cry out for answers. Why now? Secondly, what’s in it for Idaho and the current customer base of 129,000 northern Idaho customers supplied with juice from Avista? The sale has to be reviewed and approved by the public utility commissions of several states and federal entities, but both parties hope the deal closes by next fall.

Here are ten key questions one hopes will be asked and explored by regulators:

1) $5.3 billion in U.S. dollars presumably?

Answer: At closing Hydro One will pay $3.4 billion in US dollars and will assume Avista debt of $1.9 billion. Currency fluctuation risk is taken by Hydro One but it is thought they are trying to fix the rate of .53 cents Canadian to every $1 US. Currently the Canadian dollar is .64 cents to the U.S.dollar.

2) What is the debt to equity ratio for financing the purchase and has Hyrdo One undertaken a subscription sale and if so did it fill rapidly or is it still being offered?

Answer: The ratio is going to be 83% debt and 17% equity. Yes, there was a subscription offering and it filled in one hour. Avista’s stock rose 24 % once the market learned of the intended purchase and is now trading at $53 a share.

3) Are there any tax advantages or write-offs for either company from the purchase or the sale?

Answer: It does not appear so, but that question may require additioanl research.
4) Does Avista chairman and ceo Scott Morris receive any additional compensation or bonus for engineering this sale?

Answer: Yes. A required filing showed that he would receive three times his average compensation in previous years which translates to approximately a $15 million dollar bonus. An additional $15 million is being set aside as a pool of money to keep key employees.

5) Avista claims communities will benefit from Avista’s commitment to philanthropy and economic development, but it offers no specifics on just what economic development it would support and as to philanthropy it claims Hydro One will double the current Avista commitment of $1 million annually to $2 million. Records indicate though that last year Avista donated $600,000. Other acquisitions of northwest utilities recently have seen philanthropy zeroed out.

Answer: The $600,000 is what the Foundation donated. Corporate giving was approximately $2 million and Hydro One has pledged to double that. In addition, Hydro One is making a one-time donation of $7 million to the Avista Foundation and has pledged to donate annually another $2 million to the Foundation.

6) Hydro One is heavily unionized. Surely both entities recognize historic differences towards unions. Is there a strategy to address this?

Answer: Both are aware and it is a work in progress.

7) Hydro One buys some electricity from government owned and operated nuclear plants. Do they have any exposure regarding disposal of wastes and storage of spent fuel rods? Do they carry any special liability coverage if something goes wrong with a nuke plant even though they are just a customer?

Answer: That is a question best directed at Hydro One. Suffice it to say Avista fully anticipates that as part of any mandated settlement a PUC will require “ring fencing” to prevent such transfers of risk or cost.

8) Hydro One will have to enter negotiations with Washington and Idaho’s public utility commissions. Given universal concern regarding global warming being exacerbated by coal burning power plants is Hydro One prepared to negotiate a phase out of the 10% of Avista’s load that comes from Colstrp? Two of the four units at Colstrip were just modernized at a cost of hundred’s of millions.

Answer: The question is not unexpected and the answer is to be determined by the negotiations. We don’t engage in speculation.

9) Does Hydro One/Avista really believe the Idaho PUC will consider its latest request for a 7.2% rate increase separate and apart from its review of this sale? Wouldn’t it be smarter to acknowledge the obvious and withdraw the request? Isn’t it a bit disingenuous in your ads to claim there will be no rate increases “as a result of this transaction?”

Answer: We believe they are totally separate items but recognize that the Idaho PUC could combine the dockets if it want to do so.

10) Does Avista still participate in the exchange of power with BPA allowed by the Northwest Power Planning Act? And will this sale have any impact on the current renegotiations with Canada on the Columbia River Coordination agreement?

Answer: Yes, and as long as the exchange is available Avista will participate.and no.

In all candor there is little specificity that answers convincingly the why now question. However, ¸there has been much activity in the market regarding utilities.The bottom line is probably a simple one in which Scott Morris and the board decided it was better to pick a partner rather than be picked off.. It is easy to predict rough sailing and tough selling ahead.but I wouldn’t bet against Scott Morris.

Forced arbitration is unjust

joneslogo1

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFRB) issued a rule earlier this month that prohibits financial companies from using mandatory arbitration clauses to bar group actions for redress against those companies. The rule will allow consumers to band together to sue financial firms for improper charges on bank accounts and credit cards. Presently, forced arbitration provisions in hundreds of millions of consumer finance contracts prevent group lawsuits.

In announcing the rule, CFPB Director Richard Cordray noted that “when Wells Fargo opened millions of deposit and credit card accounts without the knowledge or consent of customers, arbitration clauses in existing account contracts blocked their customers from bringing group lawsuits for the unauthorized account openings.”

While it is not feasible for an individual customer to sue for recovery of a few hundred dollars for improper activity, when thousands of them can band together to recover for the same wrongdoing it is a different story. The new rule will make it feasible for customers to recover damages for improper conduct, while also forcing the financial companies to comply with the law in future business activity.

Mandatory arbitration in the financial sector is just the tip of the arbitration iceberg. Since the 1990s, forced arbitration clauses have been added to a wide array of consumer contracts that are presented to unsuspecting customers on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

Families have been surprised when a mandatory arbitration clause prevents them from going to court when a loved one is abused in a nursing home. Such clauses are also common in contracts written by employers, medical providers, internet providers, cable companies, home builders and cruise ship operators, just to name a few.

Injured parties are deprived of the right to seek redress in impartial courts of law, to have a jury trial, and to appeal an unfair decision. Instead, they are often placed in the hands of an arbitrator who may be influenced by the prospect of getting repeat business from the defending party. This amounts to a privatization of the civil justice system and may be one of the factors that has caused a decline in civil case filings in the federal and state court systems around the country in recent years.

It should be said that arbitration is an important and efficient problem-solving mechanism where the parties stand on relatively equal ground and have knowingly agreed to arbitrate disputes rather than going to court. In past years, arbitration has primarily been resorted to in commercial disputes and works well there. The more recent and massive shift to arbitration in the consumer setting is troubling, however. Very few consumers are aware of mandatory arbitration clauses in the fine print of lengthy contracts or that by signing such contracts they are giving up the right to seek redress in court.

Congress has recognized the inequity of forced arbitration in some settings. In the Military Lending Act of 2007, mandatory arbitration was prohibited in certain loans made to service members. The Dodd-Frank bill 3 years later did away with forced arbitration in most residential mortgages. However, the new CFPB rule has been met with threats of rejection by a number of members of Congress. On the administrative side, a rule proposed last fall that would have prohibited federally-funded nursing homes from forcing arbitration on patients and their families was derailed this year.

People should not be unwittingly deprived of their right to receive justice from the court system. Voters should demand that their elected representatives oppose mandatory arbitration in consumer contracts and, instead, support amendment of the Federal Arbitration Act to do away with forced arbitration in the consumer setting.

Three Johns

rainey

No, Virginia. This column is NOT about three customers of a Vegas hooker. No! At least I think not. Though I have no idea what the gentlemen above do on their own time.

No, what’s illustrated here is a scene that appears in the hall outside the Senate Majority Leader’s office several times a week. The four meet in Mitch McConnell’s suite, get their stories straight, then proceed out to the marble marsh to enlighten all of us on the important “news” of the day from the Senate Republican caucus. Which lately ain't been much.

Most often, only the fella in the front wearing glasses is allowed to speak. The others are there as a “show of unity” by that aforementioned GOP clan. Since I’ve heard people ask who they are, I thought it might be useful information to provide some details on the “three Johns.”

First, there’s the baleful looking guy on the far left. I mean, in the picture - not politically. That’s Sen. John Barrasso, M.D. of Wyoming, third ranking Republican. Used to be an orthopedic surgeon in real life. He almost never speaks publically. But he votes. Among his positions: voted for school prayer; sponsored an anti-abortion bill making it a double homicide to kill a pregnant woman; voted against gun buyer background checks; has an “A” rating with the NRA; introduced a bill to stop EPA from limiting background carbon emissions; leading critic of anything thoughtful about climate change; urged pulling this country out of the Paris Climate Agreement; and, since 2012, has received $585,000 from the oil and gas folks.

On the far right - pictorially and politically - is Sen., John Cornyn of Texas, the majority whip. Ted Cruz’s stable mate as it were. Former Sen. Phil Gramm of that fine state quit his term early in 2002 to give Cornyn a leg up in seniority so he could get larger office space. Cute. Problem was, there had been a Senate policy on the books for more than 20 years forbidding that. Sort of gave his fellow senators a graphic example of how little either of them knew about their job.

One of Cornyn’s more “interesting” quotes was about gay marriage: “If your neighbor marries a box turtle, that doesn’t mean it’s right. But you raise your children in a world where that union of a man and a box turtle is on the same legal footing as a man and wife.” Doesn’t that sort of cut right to the heart of the issue?

Cornyn sponsored a bill allowing police to force anyone arrested or even detained to give up samples of DNA for a central crime database. Voted for constitutional amendments outlawing gay marriage and flag burning and voted against the Post 9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008 which would have expanded educational benefits for military serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The third “John” is Sen. Thune of South Dakota. Maybe the brightest of the three, third ranking Republican in the Senate, considered a “comer” and has already been urged to run for President. He’s wisely refused so far. More moderate than the rest of the faces in our picture, Thune sponsored legislation to monitor the population of black-tailed prairie dogs. Guess that's big in South Dakota. He introduced five bills to end the TARP program and has repeatedly tried to get through bills to prohibit the EPA from monitoring carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide or methane emissions in agricultural areas. Keeps losing. Blame the cows.

Thune has also challenged Facebook for having anti-conservative views. Got nowhere. But the media loved it.

So, there you are. Three Johns and a Mitch. The quartet of senior Republicans on your flat screen TV several times each week with messages of Republican unity and effective leadership. Three former lawyers and an ex-orthopedic surgeon. Now that you know a little about them, I’m sure you'll feel more comfortable with their regular joint appearances. And that “unity” and “leadership” stuff.

Water Digest – July 24

Water rights weekly report for July 24. For much more news, links and detail, see the National Water Rights Digest.

A collection of cities in northwestern Arkansas are in conflict over water rights and the use of water in the area in and around their communities. The cities involved are Gravette and Centerton (the two main contestants), with impacts reaching to Hiwasse and Bella Vista.

A shift in water use and diversion by a private user has resulted in the small city of Dayton, Wyoming, deciding it too needed to change the point of diversion for its water rights.

From a statement by the group Global Witness: "It has never been deadlier to take a stand against companies that steal land and destroy the environment. Our new report Defenders of the Earth found that nearly four people were murdered every week in 2016 protecting their land and the natural world from industries like mining, logging and agribusiness."

How do you apportion water rights that are located underground? The point was considered in a podcast based on the marketplace.org website.