Introduction

The Think Tank is dedicated exclusively to thoughtful, civil discourse about the issues of our day. It is a forum for the genuine exchange of ideas. We encourage you to contribute or simply to read on for your own edification.

Submissions from local residents are evaluated and chosen by the editorial staff of 69 News Entries should be between 500 and 1000 words, and responses to editorials should be of similar length. Personal attacks will not be posted. Please email your submissions to thinktank@wfmz.com. A photograph of the author is requested for use on the Think Tank web page.

07/02/2014

Hobby Lobby, An Example of What Does Not Matter

Dr-Arthur-H-GarrisonBy Dr. Arthur Garrison, Assistant Professor, Criminal Justice at Kutztown University

In the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., Hobby Lobby asserted that from its religious perspective, anything that prevented the fertilized egg from growing into a baby -- by definition -- was in the same category as abortion. Under the Affordable Care Act, employers are required to provide a base level of care within the health care insurance that they provide to their employees. Birth control is included in that base level coverage. Under the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules, there are twenty different types of contraception methods. Hobby Lobby sued the Department of Health and Human Services (DHH) regulations that included four methods of contraceptives. The first two methods are "day after" or emergency contraceptives -- Plan B (levonorgestrel-LNG) and Ella (ulipristal acetate-UPA). The second two methods are intrauterine devices (IUDs) -- levonorgestrel releasing intrauterine system (LNG-IUS) and the copper Intrauterine Device (Cu-IUD). Hobby Lobby in its arguments to the Court asserted that it opposed the specific funding of these four methods of contraceptives because they are "abortifacients" and that "they have no objection to the other 16 FDA-approved methods of birth control."

Fair enough. What was completely missed by the Court and the reaction to the decision is that Hobby Lobby was factually wrong. These four methods are not "abortifacients." A brief submitted to the Court by a group of medical scientists explained that Plan B, "levonorgestrel (LNG), [is] a synthetic version of the naturally-occurring hormone progesterone [that] works by preventing or disrupting ovulation, but is not effective after ovulation has already occurred." The reason being, "LNG does not cause changes to the endometrium (uterine lining) that would hamper implantation." Ella "acts on human progesterone receptors."  It "works later in the pre-ovulatory cycle, when [Plan B] is no longer effective."

Here is the point. The "claim that Plan B and Ella prevent implantation is not supported by current scientific data or by evidence in the record below. To the contrary, scientific research shows that Plan B and Ella both function by inhibiting or postponing ovulation; they do not prevent fertilization or implantation." As for the two types of IUDs, the "LNG-IUS works primarily by thickening the cervical mucus, thereby preventing sperm from reaching the egg." "The Cu-IUD affects the motility and viability of sperm and impairs their fertilizing capability." The brief goes on to explain that none of the methods can dislodge a fertilized egg, the scientific definition of abortifacients. A Google search confirms the assertions made in the brief.

The Court and both sides of the litigation bypassed the brief altogether. Rather than focusing on the science of these methods and the legal/factual issue of whether the four methods were in fact violative of religious convictions, the Court ruled that for-profit corporations were "persons" under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) and that that the RFRA protects for-profit organizations that "wish to run their businesses as for-profit corporations in the man┬Čner required by their religious beliefs." The Court could have ruled that since the four methods did not violate Hobby Lobby's religious values because they were not abortifacients, Hobby Lobby was legally obligated to offer these four methods along with the other sixteen. This limited approach would have avoided the current result in which the Court provided a legal determination that left open more questions than it answered.

07/01/2014

Welfare Fraud in Pennsylvania

Stan-Aleknaby Stan Alekna

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, 2013 welfare expenditures were $28 billion -- 44 percent of the state budget -- and are projected to rise to $32 billion in 2015.

Welfare costs will grow for the foreseeable future in both dollars and as a percent of total expenditures. This trend must be reversed.

Former Auditor General, Jack Wagner, estimated that welfare fraud represents ten to fifteen percent of total state expenditures, or $2.8 billion to $4.2 billion of stolen taxpayer funds. $400 million to $675 million annually could be attributed to food stamps and cash assistance program fraud alone.

While there has been some progress over the last three years in reducing welfare fraud, more action is necessary.

The Secretary of DPW stated that $2 billion was eliminated from welfare fraud, waste and abuse since 2011. But that's only 2.5 percent of total welfare expenditures annually. Many serious problems remain:

  • 77% of the DPW's County Assistance Offices (CAO's) do not comply with established procedures when administering food stamp and cash assistance programs.
  • The Auditor General's reports documenting these underperforming CAO's have been ignored by DPW and the state legislature.
  • Auditor General DePasquale's June 24, 2014 interim report on the audit of DPW's administration of Electronic Benefit EBT/ACCESS cards found that more than $200,000 in benefits were provided to 138 deceased recipients. A complete audit of the DPW's EBT program is expected to be completed in 2015.
  • It can take as long as three years for an Office of the Inspector General (OIG) investigator to examine a single suspected case of welfare fraud because they lack adequate police powers to gather evidence.
  • Punishment for welfare fraud is minor and the chance of being caught slim. There is little offset to the potential gain from fraud.
  • There is almost no oversight by the state legislature of DPW and the $28 billion of annual welfare funds.  


The following recommendations, if implemented, would greatly reduce welfare fraud in the Commonwealth and save taxpayers hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars.

 

  • Three bills aimed at stiffening the penalties for those convicted of welfare crimes are pending. All require drug testing of welfare applicants. In the past, similar bills have died in committee or been defeated by full House or Senate votes. This should not happen again.
  • After the budget and pension reform, the legislature's highest priority should be to combine the strongest elements of the three bills into one, fast track it through the House and Senate and have the Governor sign it into law, sending a clear sign to the public that the legislature is finally serious about welfare fraud.
  • The leadership should ensure that a House and a Senate standing committee, all fully committed to welfare reform and oversight, is assigned to oversee DPW.
  • A joint hearing of the House and Senate oversight committees should be convened to determine the current magnitude and of welfare fraud in Pennsylvania, and the adequacy of the measures that are in place to control it. Testimony should be heard from persons in DPW, OIG and the Auditor General's office who have first-hand experience in dealing with welfare fraud. Legislative action should then be pursued in support of any welfare reform recommendations that are adopted by the joint hearing.  
  • Recent budget reductions to the Auditor General's office should be reinstated so that the audits of DPW operations can be continued and expanded. Welfare fraud reductions would offset expenditures.
  • Require that DPW field management retrain, reassign to lessor roles or dismiss case workers who fail compliance audits more than once.
  • Provide police powers (search warrant and subpoena powers) to OIG welfare fraud investigators and permit them to be armed in the performance of their duties.  
  • Empower OIG to prosecute welfare fraud cases in criminal court. Currently, only county District Attorneys can try such cases and more serious criminal cases take priority over welfare crime.

If you agree that serious welfare reform is long overdue, call, write or email your state representative and senator. Ask them what they are doing to address this egregious waste of taxpayer money. Greatly reducing welfare fraud will ensure that funds will be available for those who need temporary financial assistance due to circumstances beyond their control, which is all that welfare was ever intended to be.



Stan Alekna is a retired business executive having held senior management positions with computer manufacturing, computer software and managed health care companies.  He and his wife live in Cornwall, PA.

05/29/2014

Veteran questions Toomey's voting record

I'm a Vietnam War veteran and a Past President of the PA State Council of VVA.  I would like to respond to your report of Senator Pat Toomey's news conference in which he discussed new legislation called the VA Accountability Act.  I understand that the bill would include several items to make people in the VA accountable by, for example, providing remedies for those veterans harmed as a result of willful VA misconduct.

While I think it's nice he wants to question VA practices, I question how substantially effective his action will be.  I wonder if he, in fact, may be a bit politically opportunistic. His record of support for veterans is woefully inadequate.  He has had many opportunities to demonstrate his support for veterans and has repeatedly failed to deliver.

For example, Toomey voted against every veterans' funding bill (13 of them) in the 10 years he has served as a Congressman from 2000-2005 and as a Senator from 2011 until now. He only voted for one in his career, in 1999. In addition to his votes against Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) appropriations bills, he voted against every other bill that would fund veteran programs, such as the Veterans Jobs Act and the recent Health and Benefits bill for our veterans.

Let me just point out what his votes against those bills mean to our veterans. When he filibustered the Health and Benefits bill for veterans, he voted against increasing assisted living services for veterans who have traumatic brain injuries. That bill also would have expanded care for women veterans through various programs such as occupational counseling and stress reduction therapy.  When Toomey filibustered the bipartisan Veterans Jobs Act, he blocked efforts to help our Iraq and Afghanistan warriors get jobs in their communities after deployment -- even after he voted to send them to war.

While it's good Toomey is paying attention to the issues at the VA hospitals, I wish he would have stood with us veterans in the past -- when we really needed his votes.
 
Very respectfully,
Larry Holman, MS, MBA
Past President, PA State Council, Vietnam Veterans of America
Past President, PA War Veterans Council