Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Health insurance doesn’t guarantee care, study finds

Capital News Service

LANISNG – A survey shows that having health insurance doesn’t guarantee health care.

The Cover Michigan Survey by the Center for Health Care Research and Transformation asked 1,022 adults for information on their source of coverage, health status and ability to pay for coverage.

Melissa Riba, research consultant for the center in Ann Arbor, said that having health insurance isn’t a cure to fix health care problems.

“People are not getting regular care from doctors,” Riba said.

The survey showed urban residents reported fewer problems with access to care compared to suburban residents. That result was likely due to the fact that urban communities have more health care services and programs creating a safety net.

Kim Singh, director of the Mid-Michigan District Health Department, said other problems are transportation and income.

Singh said when a new dental clinic was opened to the public who seek care in Montcalm County, the first person who came through the door hitchhiked a ride to the clinic.

“Most communities in Michigan don’t have reliable transportation in rural and suburban areas,” Singh said.

Next, where patients are on the income ladder often decides what health insurance or care they get, she said.

Singh said that some suburban and rural communities are predominately low income.

In Montcalm County, the unemployment rate is high. Businesses such as manufacturing are afraid that worker’s may have to give up their health insurance. Some companies don’t pay workers insurance due to high premiums.

“Income is influencing the assumption of health,” Singh said.

Another problem identified in the survey is that people have a hard time finding a doctor or dentist.

It showed that more than one-third of Medicaid recipients reported difficulty finding health care providers. People with Medicaid or Healthy Kids coverage said they have trouble finding providers to accept their coverage.

Doctors and dentists are reluctant to accept Medicaid coverage because it has a low reimbursement rate that doesn’t cover their overhead costs. By law they don’t have to accept Medicaid patients.

Medicaid numbers are expected to increase from 1,599,400 2008 to a projected 1,754,000 2011.

Judy Putnam, communications director for the Michigan League for Human Services, said a rising number of people with Medicaid and doctors not accepting Medicaid pose problems.

She noted that if people delay getting care, by the time they go to the emergency room, their problem has become more severe. As a result, more time and money will be spent to provide care that could have been avoided.

“It’s been a problem for many years with specialists and it’s becoming a growing problem,” Putnam said.

Health clinics have opened across the state that provide basic care for those who seek it.

In 2007, Montcalm established the Montcalm Health Center, which takes anyone who needs care.

Its clinics provide basic care such as checkups. Their access is limited but they are still helping people.

Singh said enrollment is high.

Lawmakers working on next year’s budget are planning to make between 8 to 11 percent cuts in payments to doctors and other health providers.

Eligibility cuts will be made for 19-to 20-year-olds who are on Medicaid.

Federal law requires a person to be covered by Medicaid only up to 18 years old.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: Social Policy

VA hospitals wrestle with substance abuse, mental health care

Capital News Service

LANSING – A new report says the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has expanded its services for veterans but still has some room to improve, particularly with veterans who have substance use disorders.

The report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) highlights how VA hospitals have made improvements and what they have left to do. Even though it doesn’t look specifically at any Michigan hospitals, it applies to all 20 VA hospitals and clinics in the state.

The GAO is a nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress.

The strengths of VA hospitals include increased addiction and mental health services, but the report said there are staffing difficulties.

Alan Mellow, the director of Mental Health Services for Division 11 of the Veterans Integrated Service Network based in Ann Arbor, says the report updates how VA is adapting to changes in providing mental health and substance use services.

Those changes began around 2004 and were compiled in the VA’s Uniform Mental Health Services Handbook in 2008.

“In 2005 the roll-out of that strategic plan began, and that entailed an infusion of a good deal of resources into the field for many different addiction and mental health services,” Mellow said.

“But we’re five years into this now, so we’ve been able to hire staff, create these venues of care and reorganize our care.

“It’s not perfect, but I think we’ve made enormous strides in the last five years,” he said.

There are VA medical centers in Ann Arbor, Battle Creek, Detroit, Saginaw and Iron Mountain, with 15 outpatient clinics throughout the state.

The report found that some centers have difficulty hiring staff for addiction-related jobs. In addition to new jobs in more traditional counseling areas, substance use disorder positions were added in 2008 to some non-addiction areas, such as at outpatient clinics. As of last October, the VA nationally had filled 182 of 226 of these new positions. In Michigan, five of six positions are now filled.

Robert Weiss, the state adjutant and quartermaster for the Michigan chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said that he’s seen evidence that some VA doctors carry an excessive workload.

“The main problem that I think we have in these hospitals is that we do not have enough doctors on staff,” he said, adding that the caseload for doctors is greater than in private practices.

Ray Essenmacher of Saginaw, the president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Bay City chapter, said he’s always had a positive experience with VA medical care.

Mellow said that although he can’t speak about the caseload of primary care physicians the VA is careful about the number of patients a doctor sees. However, hiring psychiatrists for substance use programs could be a problem because the market for psychiatrists is strong, he said.

“There’s turnover, and that’s always challenge,” he said. “I think that the challenges of recruitment are ongoing and will probably never stop. I don’t know if there’s anything unique about that.”

Geoff Voshel, the program coordinator of the substance abuse initiative at the Battle Creek VA Medical Center, said that overall he doesn’t have trouble hiring with-one-exception.

“Every facility in the nation has trouble finding addiction psychiatrists,” he said. “It’s just a very specialized field that not a lot of people go into.”

Weiss said the need for psychologists and psychiatrists familiar with substance abuse is linked to treatment for other mental health problems.

“A lot of people coming back from the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars right now are suffering from post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), primarily because of the number of times that they’ve been deployed,” he said. “People come back here and instead of getting help, they try to find it in the bottle or with drugs or something else. It’s not the way to treat this.”

Mellow said that combination has resulted in a focus on dual diagnosis at facilities to better treat patients who suffer from a combination of disorders.

“Dual diagnosis is a recognition of the very high likelihood of a combination of substance abuse with other psychiatric disorders,” he said. “There is programming that is dedicated to addressing in a parallel fashion these combinations.”

The GAO report said that almost 25 percent of veterans with substance use dependency have PTSD, and almost 20 percent have some form of depression. Overall, 58 percent of veterans with drug or alcohol dependency had one or more additional mental condition.

Mellow said that the VA is always trying to improve its services.

“There’s a view of the VA as a faceless bureaucracy,” he said. “Contrary to that view, we are constantly in a cycle of quality improvement, but not every veteran is going to be satisfied. Our goal is that every veteran is satisfied, but not every one is.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: State Agencies

Groups seek specialty crop grants

Capital News Service

LANSING – Michigan produces the third-largest crop of apples in the nation each year, but with new federal grants to raise the competitiveness of the state’s specialty crops, apples, as well as blueberries, cherries and asparagus, may get the chance to promote themselves further.

The Specialty Crop Block Grant Program supports agricultural businesses for projects related to environmental conservation, innovation and promotion of good agricultural practices, said Mike DiBernardo, economic development specialist with the Department of Agriculture.

“The grants are for marketing, research, ways to promote sustainability among many others,” DiBernardo said.

Specialty crops include fruits, vegetables and nursery products. Nonprofit organizations, government entities, for-profit organizations and universities can apply for the grants, which range from $10,000 to $75,000. Applications are due by April 22.

Doug Buhler, coordinator of Michigan State University’s Project GREEEN (Generating Research and Extension to meet Economic and Environmental Needs), said the grants are important because they give money for activities that don’t typically receive federal funding.

He said the U.S. Department of Agriculture also funds the new Specialty Crops Research Initiative, which provides $30 to $50 million a year, but only for research.

The specialty crop grants pay for marketing and promotional initiatives that aren’t covered under the research initiative, Buhler said.

Buhler said specialty crop funding is especially important to the state because of the wide range of crops grown.

“Michigan has the second-most diverse agricultural economy in the nation,” Buhler said. “We’re only second to California.”

Buhler said apples, blueberries and cherries make up a significant portion of the state’s specialty crop industry. Potatoes, peaches, dry beans, cucumbers and tomatoes also contribute.

Denise Donohue, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee based in DeWitt, said the committee is applying for a grant for promotional projects.

“We want to make apples more competitive,” Donohue said.

Donohue said the money would mostly be focused on market development, education and research and pay for such activities as food sampling in stores, ads for in-store circulars and mass media opportunities including radio and billboards.

Donohue said the committee receives no tax money, but apple growers vote every five years on whether to tax themselves.

“We have a modest budget of our own,” Donohue said. “The grant would allow us to go above and beyond what our regular budget allows.”

Donohue said the apple committee has used past grants for research on fresh cut apples, apple cider and ways to improve exports to Mexico.

There are 950 apple growers in the state, and the industry provides $800 million to the Michigan economy annually, she said. Some of the biggest apple-producing counties are Kent, Ottawa, Muskegon, Berrien and Oceana counties.

John Bakker, executive director of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board, said his organization also plans to apply for a grant for research. The board has offices in Hart and DeWitt.

Bakker said the board received a grant in 2009, which will fund an upcoming radio promotion in southeast Michigan, something the board hasn’t done before.

He said the grant money was also used to survey asparagus farmers about the varieties they grow and conditions of their fields.

“We’re evaluating the results right now,” Bakker said. “It’s been greatly beneficial in our future.”

Bakker said Michigan is the third-leading producer of asparagus, with about 75 percent of asparagus farmers in Oceana County.

“There are many specialty crop producers around the country that work very, very hard,” Bakker said. “The grants are a great investment in our future and we’re spending it wisely.”

Michigan leads the nation in blueberry, tart cherry and cucumber production and is in the top five for sweet cherries, sugarbeets and Christmas trees.

Grand Traverse County is second in the state in acres of sweet cherries and Berrien County is second in fruit, tree nuts and berries. Most blueberry farmers are in the southwest Lower Peninsula near Lake Michigan.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: Agriculture

State debates penalties for new drug possession

Capital News Service

LANSING – While the “club drug” ecstasy found its way on the federal controlled substances list in 1985, a similar drug, N-benzylpiperazine (BZP) was starting to receive attention from recreational users in California.

By l999, BZP use had taken off in New Zealand, then Europe and North America.

Although the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classified BZP in the same category as the highly addictive drugs ecstasy, LSD and heroin in 2004, Michigan is just now seeing it as a problem.

Oakland County Rep. Lisa Brown, D-West Bloomfield, is pushing legislation to create tougher consequences for the drug’s smuggling, sale, distribution or possession.

According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, BZP is a stimulant that produces effects similar to methamphetamine-like ecstasy. However, BZP is 10 to 20 percent less powerful than ecstasy, so it’s often combined with another drug for hallucinogenic effects.

“While BZP is commonly mislabeled as a ‘natural’ or ‘legal’ alternative to ecstasy, BZP is a synthetic substance that doesn’t occur naturally,” said Christelle Legault, a media relations officer with Health Canada, a national government agency.

Legault said products containing BZP in Canada are illegal. However, there are no penalties for its possession, import, export, distribution and production.

As a result, the drug is finding its way into Michigan, especially in the southeast.

Oakland County has seen a “dramatic increase,” according Brown, the primary sponsor of the proposal to crack down on BZP.

Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper said the substance has showed up in the county’s lab analyses 37 times since 2007 – 22 times in 2009 alone.

Additionally, the Michigan State Crime Laboratory has found 149 cases involving BZP in its chemical analysis in the last six months, she said.

According to Brown, “The drug is often sold as ecstasy. It’s targeted for young adults mainly because of what it looks like.”

Brown said some pills even have depictions of President Obama on them to appeal to younger users.

Rep. Fred Durhal, D-Detroit, a co-sponsor, said that’s perhaps the most dangerous part of the drug being trafficked in Michigan.

“Kids have easy access to this drug,” he said. “We have an obligation to safeguard the children in our state.”

Other co-sponsors include Reps. Mark Meadows, D-East Lansing; Lesia Liss, D-Warren and Matt Lori, R-Constantine.

Rich Isaacson, public information officer for the Detroit division of the DEA, said that although his agency doesn’t collect statistics on user rates, it has had active investigations since 2004. He couldn’t give details of the locations of ongoing investigations.

“Typically most people would consider it a club drug, but it’s certainly more widely available,” Isaacson said.

Michigan has no specific law regarding the sale, possession, distribution or manufacturing of BZP.

If the legislation passes, those caught in possession of BZP could face two years in prison, $2,000 in fines or both. Those who manufacture or deliver it could face up to seven years, $10,000 or both. Traffickers could face up to 20 years, a $1 million fine or both.

Those penalties are in line with federal standards for the most strictly classified drugs like ecstasy, LSD and heroin.

The bill has passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate Health Policy Committee.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: Legislation

Budget crunch hits alternative high schools

Capital News Service

LANSING – School districts, including ones in Grand Ledge, Grand Rapids and Ingham County, are closing or restructuring alternative education schools in an effort to balance budgets and meet tougher graduation requirements.

Funding problems, combined with the unstable home lives of many students and the need to meet Michigan Merit Curriculum standards, are all forces working against the success of alternative education programs, according to the Michigan Association of Community and Adult Education in Okemos.

“Many of these students are already dealing with various life challenges,” said association president Julie Menassaka of Grand Blanc. “Now, alternative education advocates are concerned that pressure from cuts in state aid and curriculum requirements are threatening the quality and even the very existence of these alternative programs.”

Savings include staff, administrative and building maintenance costs.

Alternative education curriculum typically helps at-risk high school students whose educational and social needs aren’t met in traditional classrooms, according to the Department of Education.

Alternative programs typically offer smaller class sizes and one-on-one assistance, online programs for students who are lagging academically and counseling to succeed in post-high school education or career training.

“I don’t think John and Jane Doe fully comprehend the train wreck that’s coming when at-risk students won’t be able to graduate because they don’t have alternative programs to help them meet increasing graduation standards,” Menassaka said. “How do you get at-risk students to meet adequate yearly progress?

“That’s why many districts are shutting down their programs, because it hurts their schools’ rating,” she said.

About 4 million students – an estimated 7 percent – attend alternative education programs nationwide. Michigan has more than 369 such programs in 270 districts serving nearly 25,000 students, according to the Michigan Alternative Education Organization in Farmington Hills.

Traditional public schools don’t fit all students, including some with behavior or disciplinary problems or those who fall behind academically, Menassaka said.

“Educators and parents feel lawmakers in Lansing are out of touch with the needs of the alternative education population,” Menassaka said. “As a result, the students are the ones who are on the losing end.”

Grand Ledge Public Schools will close Sawdon High School, its alternative education program, this summer to help balance a potential budget deficit of $4.1 million.

Sawdon typically serves about 80 to 100 students, although enrollment is down to 50 students this year because the school stopped new enrollments.

“We can’t count on the Legislature coming up with additional revenue so we’re planning for the worst,” said Dan Davis, assistant superintendent for human resources for the district.

Davis said the consolidation will allow the district to eliminate seven staff positions.

Sawdon Principal Laura Wyble said some students worry about the transition and are looking at alternatives to attending Grand Ledge High School.

“Some of our students are definitely concerned they will lose the advocacy and connection they receive in this smaller setting,” Wyble said. “Some students just aren’t comfortable in a traditional school setting because they feel they’ll get lost in the numbers and fall through the cracks again.”

Wyble said some older students may earn their general education diploma (GED) through Lansing Community College, while others are looking at alternative education programs in Portland and Fowlerville.

Grandville Public Schools has also made plans to close Orion High School this summer. Orion is the district’s alternative education program that also serves students from Hudsonville and Jenison.

The closing will save the district about $550,000 a year and students from Orion will have the option of transferring to Granville High School.

Meridian High School was closed last year for budgetary reasons. Meridian was an alternative education program operated by Haslett Public Schools and served as many as 125 to 140 students each year.

Grand Rapids began restructuring plans for the district’s seven alternative education schools in fall 2007.

All of those schools have failed to meet federal Adequately Yearly Progress standards for five to seven consecutive years, according to the district.

“Our graduation and academic failure rates speak rather clearly as to why we need dramatic, innovative changes,” said Kurt Johnson, director of alternative education for Grand Rapids Schools. “We have an obligation to the children and families we serve to re-think, restructure and reform our alternative education services.”

In 2009, the graduation rate for the district’s alternative schools was 33 percent, while its traditional high schools graduated 76 percent of their students.

“Under the new model, alternative education is transforming from a stopping point to a transition point that places the focus on supporting student success and persistence to graduation,” Johnson said. “We are also seeking to do away with the negative stigma associated with alternative education.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: Education

State nears decision on deer management plan

Capital News Service

LANSING –Hunting may soon have new guidance if the Department of Natural Reseources and Environment (DNRE) approves its draft deer management plan.

The DNRE plan would manage the 1.8 million deer and goes to the DNRE director, Rebecca Humphries, on April 8.

Final approval would come on May 6, and if it’s approved the DNRE would begin implementing parts of the plan immediately.

The plan was created to fill a perceived gap in overall guidance on deer management.

“It’s strategic in nature, so it helps identify the direction we want to go and set some boundaries for deer management in the future,” said John Niewoonder, a wildlife biologist for the DNRE.

Patrick Brown, a Northern Michigan University biology professor, said deer management is critical because hunting plays a large role economically, culturally and recreationally. Deer hunting is estimated to have about a $1.6 billion impact on the Michigan economy.

The draft plan outlines six major goals, including maintaining the deer population at appropriate levels, promoting hunting to maintain the population and for recreation, and maintaining habitat. The other goals are to control clashes between deer and people, reduce the threat and impact of disease on deer and educate the public about deer management.

According to Amy Spray, a resource policy specialist for the Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC), the plan is meant to provide direction, but not operational details, for the DNRE “This is sort of the guiding document for the next 10 years, so when they’re putting out a regulation they’re going look at the plan to see if that regulation is implementing the goals and the ideas that are laid out in the plan,” Spray said.

The DNRE has held eight meetings to get public input. According to Niewoonder, attendees were concerned with more specific aspects of deer management such as hunting regulations that the plan isn’t meant to address.

“This plan sets the path for deer management in the future and will lead to more operational regulations in the future that are not in the plan, so some people are frustrated by that,” Niewoonder said.

Based on public comments, parts of the plan will be revised to reflect what people wanted, although there will be no major changes, according to Niewoonder.

Spray said MUCC is pleased overall with the plan and the process of creating it. She said her one concern is how proposed regional advisory teams and citizen advisory councils would interact.

“I would like to see those processes work together rather than have two separate paths,” Spray said. “They need to be working together, sharing information, having those conversations together.”

She said the last comprehensive statewide plan was about 20 years ago and the need to update it has become greater since then.

“It was a different time and a different world in terms of the deer management issues we’re facing so that’s why it was time to do this process and do it right,” Spray said.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: State Agencies

Federal dollars help U.P. bus systems fare better

Capital News Service
LANSING — Rural transit services, including several in the Upper Peninsula, will soon receive a hefty chunk of bus fare from a federal grant to update their fleets.

The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) announced that 62 counties will share $12.4 million in stimulus grants. Those counties rely primarily on rural transit services and inter-city routes.

“The rules of the grant are that it must be used for non-urban areas, which means they must be less than 50,000 in population,” said Janet Foran of the MDOT Office of Communications. “The transit services helped us identify their capital needs. The items that were most needed were vehicles, such as hybrid vehicles, and facility upgrades such as green technologies.

“We sat down with the transit agencies and the rural agencies and gave them an opportunity to prioritize their needs,” she said. “We came up with a rather impressive list.”

According to Foran, in addition to new vehicles, there is also a high need for communication technology and safety and security equipment at terminals and on buses.

“The bus fleet in the state, overall, is considered to be in poor condition,” she said, “so it’s very important that we use this funding.”

The Marquette County Transit Authority, better known as Marq-Tran, is the largest U.P. system to benefit from the grants.

Delynn Klein, executive director of Marq-Tran, said that the authority will receive about $1.37 million to pay for three large buses, security cameras and other improvements.

Other U.P. systems receiving grants are the ALTRAN transit authority in Alger County with $186,000; the Eastern Upper Peninsula Transit Authority in Chippewa County with $12,000; Gogebic County Transit with $11,000; the cities of Houghton and Hancock with $28,000; Ontonagon County with $16,000 and Schoolcraft County with $53,000.

“Our services are in tough shape at this point,” Klein said. “In our garage we need more energy-efficient lighting. There is also a small amount for operating funding that could go towards many things,” such as drivers’ wages.

“Every bit helps,” she said.

Klein said that Marq-Tran buses wear out much more quickly than those in other rural services because of their long routes.

“The large buses have a 10-year life span, so they’re 12 or 13 years old,” she said. “But it also goes by mileage. We have a large county area-wise and we’ve put many hundreds of thousands of miles on these buses. One has close to 500,000 miles.

Marq-Tran’s inter-city buses serve communities outside of Marquette, such as Gwinn, Ishpeming and Negaunee, and offer regular trips to the airport at Sawyer.

Clark Harder, executive director of the Michigan Public Transit Association in East Lansing, said that two major problems face transit services in the state.

“The number-one problem is that almost one-quarter of the vehicles in the rural systems are at the point when they should be replaced, or well beyond it,” he said.

“The number-two problem for all of the agencies is the dwindling state operating support,” he added. “That has dropped dramatically in the last decade.

“Ten years ago we were at 42 percent of expenses reimbursed by the state. Now we’re down to less than 30 percent,” he said.

Harder said funding transit services is essential to bolster Michigan’s struggling economy.

“Funding buses and transit projects is a job creator,” he said. “We have the largest seating manufacturer in the world located in Grand Rapids. Most of the bus engines are built by companies that are either based in Michigan or have a very healthy investment in Michigan’s economy.

“If we’re selling buses in Michigan, or anywhere for that matter, money spent on transit is going to find its way into the local economy,” he said.

MDOT’s Foran said it’s important to maintain the quality of the fleets because many people rely on them.

“Rural transit systems are critical transportation lifelines,” she said. “I’ve heard people say that this is their only means of transportation. Especially if you live in a rural community and don’t have a car, that bus becomes your lifeline to your job. It’s not a luxury.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: Uncategorized

Southwest Michigan schools won’t switch to 4-day week

Capital News Service

LANSING – St. Joseph County school districts aren’t considering four-day school weeks, despite its growing popularity as a money-saving measure for hard-pressed districts.

Roger Rathburn, superintendent of Three Rivers Community Schools, said a four-day model raises community concerns.

“We need to consider the impact a four-day week would have on our parents,” he said. “Where would the kids go on Friday when a lot of parents work?”

The four-day model is gaining popularity in Michigan and nationally as it allows school districts to save thousands of dollars daily in operational expenses.

Rathburn said Three Rivers “in all likelihood wouldn’t” make such a scheduling shift, adding that many families would face difficulty taking care of their children during the off day.

Julie Evans, assistant superintendent of Sturgis Public Schools, shares that position.

“The idea of the four-day school week has been tossed around briefly, but we think that’s burdensome on our families,” she said. “As long as we can afford five days, we want to continue with that.”

Rathburn said another major concern about such an arrangement is its impact on the quality of education.

“I’m not sure how educationally sound that is,” he said. “I think if we did anything in the future to strengthen our curriculum and improve the performance of our kids, it would be to add more days.”

Evans said fewer days in class directly equates to less education.

“The important thing about learning is that we have adequate time for all students,” she said. “Kids don’t necessarily learn something the first time it’s presented to them. They need repetition. Anytime you take away that repetition, it has to affect education negatively.”

Iris Salters, president of the Michigan Education Association (MEA) – the state’s largest union of public school employees – said she also worries that the four-day model may harm education.

“I think it’s very detrimental to education to do that,” she said. “When you look at shortening the year, shortening the week for students, you are allowing more time for them to have where they are not in an organized learning environment.

“The reason for doing anything in education should be to support the learning of students – not just to save a buck,” she said.

However, Salters said the extra day off provided by a four-day school week could be useful if students were provided with enrichment opportunities to fill that time.

She said that wouldn’t be the case in most circumstances, though. “Most of our students are just going to be sitting at home, watching the tube.”

Doug Pratt, MEA director of communications, said a four-day week is a bad idea if it’s done in the name of economics.

“You have to be very careful how you make the adjustments and how you implement that to ensure it doesn’t hurt student learning,” he said. “Are the other opportunities there, is the enrichment there? Or are you just hacking time off the day to make it work?

“You’ve got to make sure students are getting the same, if not more, educational opportunities,” he said.

Pratt said most Michigan districts with four-day weeks cover expansive geographic regions, such as the Republic-Michigamme, Ewen-Trout Creek and Adams Township districts in the Upper Peninsula.

Earlier this year, Atlanta Community Schools eliminated Friday classes and added more than 1½ hours on Mondays through Thursdays. The district is in Montmorency County west of Alpena.

“In some of the districts, you can have a student on a bus for an hour and a half each way to school,” he said. “That’s one reason those districts have looked at the four-day school week – cutting down the transit time for students.”

Rathburn said the Three Rivers district could save almost $10,000 for each day it doesn’t have school. Even with that economic incentive, he said the alternative model doesn’t interest his or other local districts.

“We share a number of programs together throughout the county,” he said. “The two biggest are special education programming and vocational programming.”

Local districts send students with significant disabilities to the St. Joseph County Intermediate School District in Centreville for special education. Vocational students also go there for a program called Career Technical Education that provides training in automotives, computers and other fields.

“Instead of everybody trying to offer everything, we combine our resources and offer more vocational programs,” Rathburn said. “If Three Rivers changed to a four-day school week, it’d be hard for our kids to participate in those programs.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: Education

Pot farms pose environmental problems on public land

Capital News Service

LANSING — Marijuana farms spreading like weeds on public park and forest lands exact environmental costs that include poisoned land and water and poached wildlife.

Long present in western states, Mexican drug trafficking organizations are expanding east to the Great Lakes region, cultivating their illegal crops near large consumer bases like Detroit, law enforcement experts say.

Authorities seized more than 7.5 million marijuana plants grown outdoors on more than 20,000 sites in 2008 across the country, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Marijuana farms were found in 61 national forests across 16 states in 2009, up from 49 forests in 10 states in 2008.

What illegal growers add and subtract from these public lands is an equation that endangers entire forest ecosystems, the public, law enforcement officials and growers themselves.

Marijuana production on federal land has been a problem since officials discovered the first farm in California’s Sequoia National Park in 1998.

Now increased border security after Sept. 11, 2001, makes it more difficult to smuggle marijuana into the United States. Therefore, growing grass on secluded public lands avoids the risk of discovery during border crossings, with the added financial benefit of proximity to primary consumer markets.

Taxpayers pay much of the cost to clean up sites, sometimes as much as $1 million for a single site, experts say. The long-term detriment to the environment is harder to calculate.

Michigan’s marijuana eradication program found 38,000 outdoor plants in 2008 ― more than in any of the previous six years that Detective 1st Lt. David Peltomaa of the State Police has run the program called HEMP, or Help Eliminate Marijuana Planting. But he says his team, operating primarily in helicopters, doesn’t find even half of the state’s grow sites.

In 2009, HEMP eliminated 31,055 outdoor plants — 6,854 on public lands. Peltomaa attributes the decrease to cooler, wetter weather that limited flight time and kept people indoors.

State Police also attack plants that grow wild, such as one that “had been planted by someone, not the landowner, that then went wild,” Peltomaa said. “It’s on private property over several acres and we’ve made steady progress eliminating it.”

Enforcement is tough. The national forest system includes 193 million acres patrolled by only 535 law enforcement officers, according to the Forest Service.

Michigan has three national forests—Huron-Manistee in the northern Lower Peninsula and Hiawatha and Ottawa in the Upper Peninsula, each with about 1 million acres.

Michigan also has an extensive system of state forests, and they, too, have hosted pot farms. For example, several suspects connected with a Mexican drug cartel were arrested in 2008 after a hunter discovered a marijuana field in Gladwin County, according to the Department of Natural Resources and Environment.

Peltomaa says forests are ideal for clandestine farms because many areas never see anybody walking through them.

“You’re talking about thousands of acres of forests, and the plots can be in less than a half-acre,” he says. “Unless you’re flying right over it, you’re not going to see it.”

Although marijuana is a weed that can grow just about anywhere, there’s little natural about how farmers grow highly potent strains of the plant.

For example, growers may chop down all but a few trees, leaving enough canopy to shield the site from the air, while allowing sunlight to reach the plants. They thin the shorter vegetation and ring the site with brush and chopped logs to keep deer from their plants and bears from their camps.

They scrape off ground cover that protects the forest floor from erosion. They dig holes about every 10 inches and plant seedlings often transported to the site in plastic containers.

Water is key, and growers go to great lengths to get it.

For example, they may run drip lines ― rubber or PVC piping ― from a water source like a stream for irrigation or divert streams to the plants, breaking down banks and causing erosion.

They set traps and use poison ― some banned in the United States. ― to keep insects, rodents, raccoons, rabbits and skunks from eating the plants. The poison can move up the food chain to animals eaten by humans, officials say.

They’ll kill “rabbits, game birds, deer ― whatever they happen to come upon,” Peltomaa says.

They douse plants with herbicides and pesticides and use gallons of commercial fertilizer, posing a potential health hazard for drug dealers’ customers.

The planting loosens the forest ground. Heavy rains can wash soil, chemicals and poisons into streams and fertilizers can increase algae and weed growth.

It’s not just trained law enforcement officials who discover these illegal operations. Often hunters, anglers, hikers, mushroom hunters and families either stumble across or find and follow irrigation lines to grow sites.

And that can be dangerous.

Authorities often find booby traps near the sites, including trip lines and buried boards buried with spikes sticking up. Traffickers increasingly arm the farmers to protect their profit.

Authorities advise people who think they may be near a plantation to back out immediately and call 911.

“You, your family and friends ought to be able to go into a national forest without worrying about walking into someone’s outdoor grow,” Peltomaa says.

Authorities say they’re overwhelmed by the number of pot farms on public lands, and don’t have enough funding to clean them properly. Agents either burn or bury plants on site or remove them by helicopter. Land management agencies and volunteers are often left to reclaim the territory.

It’s critical that officials remove the materials, not just to restore the land, but because growers often return to the same sites and plant again, experts say. They may wait a year, or sometimes not even a day.

Peltomaa says he hopes Michigan forests don’t continue to suffer from an increasingly damaging trend.

“These are public lands,” he says. “They’re not meant to be the sole province of someone who decides to grow marijuana. It’s not theirs to decide to clear cut trees and plant and scare people off.”

Andrew Norman writes for Great Lakes Echo.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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State sees rise in pesticide-related injuries, illnesses

Capital News Service

LANSING — In 2008, a Michigan postal worker with breathing trouble went to a hospital emergency room after a custodian sprayed ants with an insecticide near her feet. She lost three weeks of work.

That same year, a department store employee was stocking shelves when an insect fogger was knocked over and activated. She, too, was sent to the emergency room complaining of shortness of breath.

Such events aren’t unique.

The Department of Community Health (DCH) logged more than 120 similar, pesticide-related workplace injuries in 2008. That was the most reported in the six years since DCH started publishing a tally.

“It is more of a disappointment than a surprise,” said Michigan State University medicine Professor Kenneth Rosenman, one of the study’s contributors.

The study of workers hurt by on-the-job pesticide analyzes cases reported to Michigan Poison Control Centers, Hazardous Substances Emergency Events Surveillance and the Department of Agriculture.

“Pesticides, when compared to lots of other chemicals, are some of the most regulated chemicals we use in our society,” Rosenman said. “But there is more exposure to them, and more exposure to potentially dangerous substances means more adverse health effects.”

Pesticides are chemicals used to kill or control insects, weeds, fungi, rodents and germs. There are more than 600 such chemicals found in 16,000 products in the United States.

Abby Schwartz, the report’s author and a DCH public health consultant, said most people don’t think of cleaners such as bleach or insect sprays used in the home or workplace as pesticides.

But 1 billion pounds of pesticides are used in the U.S. every year, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

“A pesticide is defined as anything that inhibits, can kill or controls something that is unwanted,” Schwartz said. “These chemicals are designed to kill, and so even though you might be able to buy it off the shelf, they should be treated with respect, carefully, and only when needed as opposed to routinely.”

The annual number of cases fluctuates but the state has confirmed 615 from 2001 through 2008, the most recent year with full figures.

Rosenman said an increased use of disinfectants is the reason for the growing number of illnesses and injuries. Germ- and bacteria-killing substances were the largest problems in 2008 and accounted for 68 percent of the cases.

Among them were a day care worker diagnosed with first-degree burns on her hands after using a disinfectant and a systems analyst who became dizzy and nauseous after using her phone, which had been cleaned with Clorox Wipes.

More than 5,000 such antimicrobials are sold in the U.S., according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“There is increased commercial marketing and people are concerned about various infectious diseases,” Rosenman said. “People need to think of disinfectant as the hazards they are and not use them when they are not needed.”

Inhalation was the most common means of pesticide contact, according to the report. Skin and eye exposures and ingestion were other common routes of exposure.

Insecticides, often involving spraying, were the second-largest source of harm from pesticides.

For example, a teenage restaurant employee developed a cough, chest pain and nausea after spraying a bathroom wall with an insecticide to treat fruit flies. A hair salon employee, injured after a coworker sprayed her chair with an insecticide for lice, touched the chair and her face and developed a blister on her lip.

Schwartz said a better understanding of the risks of such chemicals would have been helpful because the coworker would have been more likely to inform her that she’d sprayed the chair.

The DCH report said the occupations of the injured workers varied, but the largest number were in food services. Other industries mentioned include engineering, nursing, hospitality, construction, teaching, retail, trucking and agriculture.

Schwartz said that farming, which is traditionally associated with pesticide use, usually accounts for a relatively low number of cases in Michigan, but the EPA

estimates that between 10,000 and 20,000 annual pesticide poisonings occur nationally among 2 million U.S. agricultural workers.

“We generally don’t have a lot of agricultural cases reported, but that is due to them not being reported,” Schwartz said. “There are a lot of reasons, some cultural, some access.”

She said the report’s count of agricultural-related cases is especially low in light of the fact that Michigan had more than 55,000 farms and 10 million acres of farmland in 2008.

“Michigan does have a very large agricultural industry so I would expect more reports than we get,” Schwartz said. “The exposed person might not report it, and the provider might not ask about it.”

Schwartz has initiated education and outreach projects with farm and migrant health clinics to increase worker and clinic reporting of pesticide-related illnesses.

Susan Smolinske, director of the Poison Center at Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit, said, “There is always a fear among workers that if you tell your boss you have had an exposure, you might be at risk for losing your job or transferring to a less paying job.

Smolinske, who also contributed to the DCH report, said better education of employees and employers would prevent many illnesses and injuries.

“A lot of times there is a very minor change to make,” she said. “This says we are not doing as much as we can as a society in protecting the workforce.”

Haley Walker writes for Great Lakes Echo.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: Environment

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