City & State: Albany’s checklist of health care bills

By Rebecca Lewis, 12/10/18

Single-payer health care may be one of the biggest debates in Albany in 2019, but it’s just one of a number of high-profile issues dealing with medical matters. Here are summaries of several health care issues expected to be at the top of the agenda.

✓ Reproductive Health Act

Although the Reproductive Health Act has passed in the Assembly the past two years, it has yet to come up for a vote in the state Senate. A priority for many Democrats in the chamber – and, importantly, for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who said he wants it done in January – the bill would update the state’s abortion laws and codify federal protections into state law. Although abortion rights are guaranteed under the landmark Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision, the laws on the books in New York were passed in 1970, three years before that decision. Although the state’s laws were considered progressive at the time, they have not been updated since. Democrats have argued that if a bloc of conservative judges on the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, abortion rights in the state would revert back to those passed in 1970. State Sen. Gustavo Rivera told City & State that he hopes the legislation will be addressed early in the upcoming session now that it has the votes to pass. “I would be willing to move that very quickly because I believe that it is very important, particularly with what’s happening on the national level,” said Rivera, who is likely to be named chairman of the state Senate Committee on Health.

✓ Single-payer health care

Perhaps the most expansive and expensive item on Democratic lawmakers’ agenda – and among the most controversial – is the New York Health Act, which would establish a single-payer health care system in the state and is estimated to cost $139 billion in 2022. Many incoming lawmakers campaigned on the promise that they would get it done, but even if it does pass, massive changes likely won’t happen right away. A single-payer system means that a single entity covers the cost of all health care, which is still delivered by private or nonprofit providers. Everyone pays into a single plan run by the government, which in turn is the only provider of coverage paying claims. Assemblyman Richard Gottfried’s bill has proposed one public option and a ban on the sale of private insurance unless it offers additional coverage not included in the state plan. One major obstacle the New York Health Act must overcome is a less than enthusiastic governor. Although Gov. Andrew Cuomo has expressed support for single-payer health care as a concept, he has repeatedly said that it would be better implemented at the national level. Other critics have raised concerns about the cost, although a study performed by the Rand Corp. that found total health care spending could be lower under the New York Health Act than if the status quo were to continue.

✓ Recreational and medical marijuana

The state has been slowly inching closer to legalizing recreational marijuana. Most notably, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been coming around on the issue. Although he used to consider marijuana a “gateway drug,” the Cuomo administration this year released a report in favor of legalization, set up a working group to draft legislation and hosted a series of listening sessions across that state to gain public input. Although legislation to legalize the drug has never passed either chamber, public support has grown substantially, and candidates, such as former gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, campaigned on the promise of legalization. The state Legislature now appears poised to pass legislation that would regulate and tax marijuana.

However, the future of the state’s existing medical marijuana program remains in limbo. Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, who sponsored the bill creating the medical marijuana program and has been one of its strongest advocates, said that in the coming session, strengthening and expanding the program will be “a major focus,” as will ensuring that it continues to run smoothly alongside potential recreational legalization. “So how we do that, I don’t know yet. But I know there is a lot of concern and brainpower being focused on it,” Gottfried told City & State. State Sen. Gustavo Rivera said he hopes that recreational legalization would also open the door for additional research to increase and expand the drug’s medical efficacy.

✓​​​​​​​ Opioid epidemic

As the opioid epidemic continues to take lives across the state, state Sen. Gustavo Rivera told City & State that the state Senate intends to resume its work with the Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction – first created in 2014 – and that state Senate Republicans could participate as well. When led by Republicans, the task force did not include Democrats. Additionally, Rivera said that the state Legislature will continue to explore the concept of harm reduction. The idea accepts that drug use will always be a part of society, but that society can take steps to cut down on the negative consequences of drugs. Namely, Rivera hopes to have productive conversations about a bill he sponsors to create safe injection sites, a highly controversial proposal to create legal locations where illegal drug users can get high in a supervised environment. “I believe that there is plenty of evidence-based programs that can be expanded and be created,” Rivera said. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio championed a pilot program to open four such sites in the city, but the idea still faces major hurdles.

✓​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ Nurse staffing ratios

The issue of nurse staffing levels within hospitals has long been a priority of the New York State Nurses Association, a powerful union in the state. However, a bill on the subject has never passed the state Senate and rarely passes the Assembly. The main component of the bill would create a set ratio of patients per nurse to ensure that nurses are not overworked by caring for too many people, and to ensure that patients are receiving adequate care. However, other powerful interests have also opposed the legislation, including business groups and hospitals, who argue that while the bill addresses real problems with how care is administered, nurse staffing ratios are the wrong remedy. Like many pieces of legislation that have languished under Republican control of the state Senate, Democratic control of the chamber could give the bill a better chance to become law. “We’ve passed it before and I trust we will do it again,” said Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, who has long been a supporter of nurse staffing ratios. “And it’s very exciting that we now have a shot at having that pass the state Senate.”

City & State: Has single-payer health care’s time finally come?

By Rebecca Lewis, 12/9/18

With their new majority in the state Senate, Democrats are finally preparing to pass long-stalled progressive legislation. Perhaps the most expansive and expensive item on the agenda – and among the most controversial – is the New York Health Act, which would establish a single-payer health care system in the state, and one study estimated it would cost $139 billion in 2022. Many incoming lawmakers campaigned on the promise that they would get it done, but even if it does pass, it likely won’t be implemented right away.

The Democratic-controlled Assembly has passed the legislation every year since 2015, but in that time it never came up for a vote in the state Senate thanks to the Republican majority. Now that the chamber will be in Democratic hands, the legislation seems far more likely to pass.

A single-payer health care system means that a single entity covers the cost of all health care, which is still delivered by private or nonprofit providers. Everyone pays into a single plan run by the government, which in turn is the only provider of coverage paying claims. Assemblyman Richard Gottfried’s single-payer bill has proposed one public option and a ban on the sale of private insurance unless it offers additional coverage not included in the state plan.

One major obstacle the New York Health Act must overcome is a less than enthusiastic governor. Although Gov. Andrew Cuomo has expressed support for single-payer health care as a concept, he has repeatedly said that it would be better implemented at the national level. In a recent interview on WCNY, he expressed doubt that the state would be able to finance the $150 billion program, since that would nearly double the state’s budget. “There will be rhetorical desire to do things,” Cuomo said. “Governmentally there will have to be a reality test to get all things to fit in the budget.”

Although this sounds like it could put a serious damper on the future of the legislation, Gottfried called the governor’s stance “a perfectly reasonable position for a governor,” noting that Cuomo is already far more progressive than other governors by simply supporting the concept of single-payer health care. Gottfried said he has been in talks with the administration and expects those conversations to accelerate now that passage is more realistic.

Gottfried said that stakeholders who have remained quiet in the past are coming forward to voice their concerns. Most recently, Gottfried and state Sen. Gustavo Rivera, the bill’s Senate sponsor, have been negotiating with New York City public unions over concerns that union members would pay more or have fewer benefits. “What we’re talking about is modifications just to accommodate concerns that people are raising now that it looks like it can easily pass both chambers this session,” Gottfried told City & State. “People who we haven’t heard from are starting to come forward and say, ‘Gee, could you add this nuts and bolts?’ or ‘Tighten it up here.’’”

Gottfried said making tweaks to the bill will continue at least a couple weeks into the session, which begins in early January. However, Gottfried said that he and Rivera will not make any major structural changes to the bill and said the Assembly is “well positioned” to pass the bill this upcoming session.

People who we haven’t heard from are starting to come forward and say, ‘Gee, could you add this nuts and bolts?’ or ‘Tighten it up here.’ – Assemblyman Richard Gottfried

Rivera expressed more caution, telling City & State that he feels confident that the chamber will engage in meaningful conversations about the bill, which it has never done before, but did not want to make any promises about a timeline for passage. “This is not a simple thing that we’re trying to do,” Rivera said. “We want to make sure that we don’t put anything up for a vote, to be signed by the governor, unless it’s ready to go.”

Bill Hammond, a health policy expert at the right-leaning Empire Center for Public Policy, argued that no amount of change to the New York Health Act would actually make the legislation viable. “I think (Gottfried and Rivera’s) posture right now is not to acknowledge the sacrifice, it’s to make it even more attractive to whatever interest group thinks they’re going to lose,” Hammond told City & State. He added that any changes would likely add to the already astronomical cost of the bill.

But Gottfried maintained that a single-payer system will lead to lower overall health care spending despite the introduction of a new payroll tax because the average New Yorker would no longer pay insurance premiums and copays. He cited the Rand Corp. study, commissioned by the New York State Health Foundation, which found total health care spending could be lower under the New York Health Act than under the status quo. “To me, the issue is not about where your check goes,” Gottfried said. “What people really care about is how much are they going to have to spend, and how much they will be able to keep under the New York Health Act.”

However, Hammond pointed out that since there is no precedent for the system in the country, the details of the new tax plan have not been worked out yet and it is hard to accurately predict the cost of the program, so the Rand study could be wrong. He added that it also hinges on the federal government providing waivers to in order to divert Affordable Care Act, Medicare and Medicaid funding into the single-payer system, an unlikely prospect with the current administration. “There’s all kind of doubt and uncertainty about who’s going to pay more and who’s going to pay less,” Hammond said.

Rivera dismissed the idea that the New York Health Act depends on receiving those federal waivers, saying they would be helpful, but not necessary. “We believe, both my colleague and myself, believe that there are ways within the system that we could actually extend the New York Health Act as a wraparound service that would ultimately not require waivers,” Rivera said. He added that since the single-payer system would take years to put into place, he remained hopeful that a different, more sympathetic administration would be in the White House by then.

Another sticking point in evaluating and passing the New York Health Act is the fact that the previous legislation contained no specific language on tax rates for the proposed payroll tax, forcing Rand to use a hypothetical tax schedule. Gottfried said no language about tax brackets will be added to the legislation that he and Rivera will introduce and that it will be worked out after the bill’s passage since the program will take years to implement. He added the absence of this information will not pose an impediment to passage and that it could be easily added in if it becomes necessary.

Despite the many obstacles the legislation appears to face, Gottfried said that he and Rivera have learned from their previous mistakes, such as not including a revenue stream, and they remain confident New York will lead the country in single-payer health care. “Anything has to start with somebody,” Gottfried said. “And New York is ideally suited to be the state that begins single-payer coverage.”

Gothamist: Pot Stores Are Coming To NY, But Cuomo Won’t Say What They’ll Look Like

By Steve Wishnia, 12/10/18

The odds are strong that New York State will legalize marijuana next year, possibly as soon as the end of March. But what the system will look like — including who’ll be able to sell pot, where it can be smoked, and what will be done with taxes on sales — is largely in the hands of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has remained mum about his plans.

Last August, the governor appointed a 20-member task force to draft legislation for “a regulated adult-use marijuana program.” Cuomo spokesperson Tyrone Stevens tells Gothamist, “We expect to introduce a formal comprehensive proposal early in the 2019 legislative session.” Legislators and legalization activists expect the governor to include this language in his January budget proposal.

Between Cuomo’s reversal on the issue and the Democrats winning a solid majority in the state Senate, the main political obstacles to legalization have disappeared. “At this point, the debate is not really about whether to allow adult use, but how to structure the industry,” says Assemblymember Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan), who sponsored both the 1977 law that decriminalized possession of marijuana and the state’s medical-marijuana measure in 2014.

Gottfried compares the task to building the framework for a legal alcohol industry after Prohibition was repealed in 1933. Will marijuana cultivation, distribution, and sales be limited to a handful of corporations, as in the state’s medical cannabis extract program, or will the industry be open to small businesses? Will tax revenues be earmarked to aid the communities that saw the most arrests during the eras of prohibition and stop-and-frisk? Will people convicted of marijuana offenses be able to get their criminal records expunged or sealed, or their punishment reduced? Will the law allow home growing or Amsterdam-style pot coffeehouses?

The governor’s office, for the moment, is remaining tight-lipped about its plans as it awaits the report of the task force. “The goal of this administration is to create a model program for regulated adult-use cannabis—and the best way to do that is to ensure our final proposal captures the views of everyday New Yorkers,” Stevens told Gothamist in an email. The governor’s office did not respond to more specific questions.

This has left the public debate largely in the hands of state legislators, who have expressed concerns about what form legalization will take. For example, a large majority of the more than 800,000 people arrested on marijuana charges in New York State in the last 20 years—more busts than anywhere else in the world—were black and Latino, primarily young men from lower-income urban neighborhoods. Therefore, many legalization advocates say, it would be only fair if the guy selling $20 sacks on Junius Street in Brownsville or Jefferson Avenue on Buffalo’s east side is provided an opportunity to get into the legalized business, and those neighborhoods should get quasi-reparations from the revenues raised from reefer.

“For me, it’s a social justice, economic justice issue before it’s a business issue,” says Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D-Buffalo), who last year co-sponsored the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act along with state Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan). To remedy the social ills caused by mass incarceration, she says, pot legalization legislation needs to have three guiding principles: sealing criminal records for marijuana arrests; investing ganja-tax revenues in job training, drug treatment, and education; and providing technical support and loans for microbusinesses.

For the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates both legal marijuana and “harm reduction” approaches to opioid use, this form of restorative justice outweighs traditional legalization movement concerns like allowing home growing, or “social use”—allowing cities to opt in to legalization of marijuana bars and coffeehouses, subject to local anti-smoking laws.

Colorado and Washington, the first states to legalize adult use, barred anyone with a drug conviction from working in the industry, notes DPA deputy New York State director Melissa Moore. California and Massachusetts have made some affirmative-action efforts to expand participation by racial minorities and small farmers, she adds, and New York should do more.

A crucial issue here is whether the companies in the industry should be vertically integrated—handling cultivation, processing, distribution, and retail sales—as is required by the state’s current medical-marijuana program. “That’s exactly the model we don’t want to see,” says Douglas Greene, legislative director of the marijuana-legalization advocacy group Empire State NORML, citing its limited accessibility and high costs.

Setting up a vertically integrated business requires far more capital than opening a store or a farm, and so greatly limits small operators’ opportunities to enter the industry. There was “not a single minority applicant” among the 43 companies that sought one of the first five spots in the state’s medical-cannabis program, according to state Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island), senate sponsor of the legislation that created the program in 2014, and only one of the five ended up owned by women.

While Gov. Cuomo initially insisted that medical-marijuana companies be vertically integrated, Krueger says the governor’s staff has indicated that he’s no longer seeking that requirement.

121018weed.jpg

From the NYC Cannabis Parade held in May (Courtesy Scott Lynch)

One possible approach would be to model legal marijuana on the way the alcohol industry is regulated, says Gottfried. State liquor law strictly separates production, distribution, and retail sales, with a few narrow exceptions for craft brewers and small wineries. The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act would have the State Liquor Authority regulate adult use, but Krueger says she now believes it would be better to create a new agency to oversee adult use, medical use, and hemp, as it would have the specialized knowledge to regulate things like packaging and labeling.

“The way the industry develops has to be responsive to the communities targeted,” says Moore. “Not just jobs, but ownership.”

Even banning vertical integration would still leave poorer New Yorkers with significant barriers to opening their own businesses, however. “The biggest problem is access to capital,” says Savino, who notes that the state falls short of its goals for hiring minority and women-owned contractors every year—and that’s in fields that are not still illegal under federal law. Even a dispensary-only license could cost $500,000, she estimates.

The best opportunities for small operators, suggests Moore, might come in such ancillary businesses as delivery services, security, production of “edibles” like pot pastries, and legal and business services.

On the other hand, Local 338 of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, which represents workers at three of the seven medical marijuana companies in the state, told an Assembly hearing on Long Island on December 3rd that vertically integrated businesses would be more likely to provide union-scale wages and benefits than smaller operations. “I’m sympathetic to that, but we’re going to have to find a sweet spot,” says Savino, who has not yet endorsed the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act. One possible compromise would be requiring businesses with more than 20 or so employees to sign a “labor peace” agreement that they won’t oppose union organizing, as the state now does for all medical marijuana companies.

Another issue is protecting the established medical-cannabis industry from being wiped out once people can buy actual herb rather than the expensive extracts that are the only form of marijuana currently allowed for medical uses. It’s “not entirely clear” how that could be done, says Gottfried. One possibility would be permitting medical dispensaries to run adjacent storefronts to sell legal marijuana, which could be opened while other businesses are still waiting to get licenses. Savino endorsed this approach, with the caveat that those companies “shouldn’t be allowed to control the market” by getting an early jump on legal sales.

The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act would allow both social use and home growing of up to six plants. But similar provisions have been sacrificed in other states’ legislation, to placate those who don’t want to see people go to jail for pot but also don’t like the idea of “marijuana bars.”

Gottfried contends that if people can consume alcohol in a bar, they should be able to do the same with cannabis. Peoples-Stokes says not allowing social use “would be kind of unfair,” particularly because federal law now bans public-housing residents from smoking in their homes.

Savino opposes permitting home cultivation. “That’s crazy,” she says. “Do you think we’re going to [be able to] keep people from selling it?” But other states allow home gardens: The Michigan law enacted by voters in November lets people grow up to 12 plants for personal use, notes Krueger. The people most upset by that, she says, are would-be retailers who don’t want competition.

The state legislature’s Republicans, now less than 40 percent of the members of both houses, are conspicuously absent from the ranks of legalization supporters. Peoples-Stokes says she’s had “great conversations” with some GOP legislators, but “none of them are willing to go on the record.” Outgoing Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-Suffolk) did not respond to requests for comment.

Another idea floated recently is to use marijuana-tax revenues to help fix the city’s subways, what former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito calls “weed for rails.”

But while public support for legalization could soar if it would spare late-night and weekend riders from having to take shuttle buses, Gottfried is skeptical about the idea, given that the state Department of Health estimated in July that cannabis taxes would bring in $248 million to $678 million a year, while Metropolitan Transportation Authority head Andy Byford has said the subway system would need $4 billion a year to modernize. And even that higher revenue figure was based on a price and tax rate—$374 an ounce, or more than $450 after adding a 15 percent tax surcharge and sales taxes—that would risk pushing people back to the black market. (Delivery services advertise $100 quarter-ounces on Craigslist, with one Queens dealer offering ounces for $260. In legal states, a newly opened pot shop in Massachusetts charges $300, and Oregon prices are as low as $75.)

In any case, legislators say, the change in public attitudes on legalizing marijuana has been dramatic for its speed — as fast, notes Gottfried, as the rapid acceptance of same-sex marriage.

“Four years ago, people would have said it’s impossible,” says Savino. “Now, more and more people are asking ‘Why is marijuana illegal? It makes no sense.’”

Buffalo News: Editorial: Pass bill to better monitor nursing homes

12/8/18

A story in The News on Thursday showed that it’s far too easy for the operators of nursing homes that provide low-quality care to buy more of the facilities.

The state Health Department — which reviews applications to operate nursing homes — has submitted a bill to the state Legislature that would give the department more muscular oversight of long-term care facilities. The Legislature should pass the bill when it convenes in January.

The ongoing nursing home series in The News has shown that 16 of the 47 facilities in Erie and Niagara counties have been bought since 2007 by for-profit owners from out of town. Many of the homes are among the worst-rated in Western New York.

And the state has given licenses to operate at least 10 Buffalo area nursing homes in the last decade to new owners who had been fined for providing poor care to residents at other facilities.

Few families don’t interact with nursing homes. More than 1.3 million people are in long-term care across the country, with approximately 7,000 in Erie and Niagara counties.

It’s not an easy business in which to make a profit. Despite the aging of the baby boom generation, some experts say demand for nursing home beds is going down.

“There are fewer people in nursing homes today than there were 10 years ago,” said Tony Szczygiel, a retired University at Buffalo law professor who specialized in elder laws. Szczygiel said medical advancements mean fewer nursing home stays are required after surgeries, and new home care options let some people stay in their own homes longer.

“So there’s a lot of empty beds out there,” Szczygiel said.

Bill Ulrich, a health care consultant in Washington State, said national figures indicate the industry is at an all-time low of average occupancy in nursing homes, “hovering right around 80 percent, which is very low.”

Lower demand means some Western New York facilities will eventually close. The best outcome for consumers is for the homes given the lowest ratings by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to be the first to go. But more vigorous oversight by the Health Department would also help.

The bill in the Legislature would authorize the Health Department to appoint an independent quality monitor at chronically deficient nursing homes, increase the amount of the maximum fine the state can impose for violations from $10,000 to $20,000, and require more ownership transparency with individuals buying homes listing if their partners are relatives. The bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried, D-Manhattan, and Sen. Kemp Hannon, R-Garden City, hasn’t gotten out of committee.

Emerald South Nursing and Rehabilitation Center on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo was one of the troubled facilities featured in The News’ series. The home, previously operated by a company belonging to Benjamin Landa of Long Island, and later by his wife, Judy Landa, is due to close at the end of January. The Health Department imposed a $10,000 fine on Emerald South after investigating the June 4 death of an 87-year-old resident who fell to his death while attempting to climb out a window.

Benjamin Landa told The News that financial troubles at both Emerald South and Emerald North were caused by inadequate compensation from the federal government. He said the homes were running at a loss “due to the state’s grossly unfair Medicaid reimbursement schedule.”

Ulrich, the consultant, agreed that the Medicaid system in many states “does not come close to paying reasonable and adequate costs to care for Medicaid residents,” but said that nursing homes have traditionally made up the gap by taking Medicare and private pay patients that have better profit margins.

The margins are not low enough to keep Benjamin Landa out of the business. He is one of the largest nursing home operators in the state. And there are other facility operators who manage to stay afloat.

Dr. Jeffrey Rubin is chief executive officer of Elderwood Care, a for-profit chain that operates several of Western New York’s best-rated homes. Rubin says that getting the right mix of revenue is complex, involving Medicare managed care and private pay patients. “Having the right mix allows us to create a stable environment,” Rubin said.

It would be nice if the federal government’s one-star ratings for the poorest performing nursing homes caused them to clean up their act, but it doesn’t always work that way. The Gottfried-Hannon bill would at least help state health officials to not allow the owners of poorly run facilities to keep popping up in new locations.

Crain’s: At hearing, City Council gives warm reception to single-payer

By Jonathan Lamantia, 12/7/18

The City Council seems likely to pass a resolution endorsing a state single-payer health care bill after a hearing Thursday in which health committee chair Mark Levine fervently supported such a system and criticized its detractors.

Levine derided the status quo in health care, which costs more per capita in the U.S. than in other developed countries without better outcomes. He said that while he supports a national approach, it is unlikely to be taken up by the Trump administration.

“New York need not and must not stand still in the face of inaction at the federal level,” he said.

The bill would create a statewide public fund to cover all New Yorkers with no out-of-pocket costs. It received broad support at the hearing from nurses, physicians, social workers, immigrant advocates, disability rights activists and community groups.

The New York Health Act has passed the Assembly four consecutive years, and with the Democrats taking control of the Senate in January, there is an increased chance of the bill’s passage next year. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he believes the federal government is best positioned to take up the issue.

Assemblyman Richard Gottfried and state Sen. Gustavo Rivera plan to reintroduce the bill in January to address fiscal concerns. One new wrinkle, which Gottfried previewed Thursday, is that it will incorporate long-term care, such as nursing home and home care.

“No New York family will have to wipe out their savings, and no family member will have to give up a career to provide long-term care for a loved one,” he said at the hearing.

A coalition called Realities of Single Payer, which includes the state Health Plan Association, state Conference of Blue Cross and Blue Shield Plans, and the Business Council, said in a statement that the hearing was “nothing more than political theater” and a single-payer system would result in higher taxes and decreased access to care.

An analysis in August by Rand Corp. estimated that the state would need to raise $139 billion more in taxes by 2022 to fund the program, an 156% increase above expected levels. The research organization proposed one possible tax structure, as the current bill lacks one. Under its proposal, households earning up to $290,000 would pay a smaller percentage of their income toward health payments, including the new taxes.

The analysis assumed the state would receive a waiver from the federal government to deliver Medicare and Medicaid benefits through its own program while still receiving federal funds. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma has said she wouldn’t approve such a waiver.

David Rich, executive vice president of the Greater New York Hospital Association, spoke in opposition to the bill at the hearing. He noted the coverage gains New York has made to lower its uninsured rate to 5% from 10% in 2013 and said there were other ways to insure the remaining 5%. He said he worried a single-payer system would provide lower reimbursement to hospitals than the current system.

“Yes, we must cover the remaining 5% of New Yorkers who are uninsured. Yes, we should make health care affordable,” he said. “We can do this without the disruption we think would be caused by a single-payer system.” 

New York Times: 2 New Yorkers Erased $1.5 Million in Medical Debt for Hundreds of Strangers

By Sharon Otterman, December 5, 2018

Carolyn Kenyon, left, and Judith Jones, both of Ithaca, N.Y., raised $12,500 and sent it to a debt-forgiveness charity, which then purchased a portfolio of $1.5 million of medical debts on their behalf. Credit Heather Ainsworth for The New York Times

If a slim, yellow envelope with a Rye, N.Y., return address lands in your mailbox this holiday season, don’t throw it out. It’s not junk.

Some 1,300 such envelopes have been sent to New Yorkers around the state, containing the good news that R.I.P. Medical Debt, a New York-based nonprofit organization, has purchased their medical debt — and forgiven it.

Last spring, Judith Jones and Carolyn Kenyon, both of Ithaca, N.Y., heard about R.I.P. Medical Debt, which purchases bundles of past-due medical bills and forgives them to help those in need. So the women decided to start a fund-raising campaign of their own to assist people with medical debt in New York.

Over the summer months, the women raised $12,500 and sent it to the debt-forgiveness charity, which then purchased a portfolio of $1.5 million of medical debts on their behalf, for about half a penny on the dollar.

Ms. Jones, 80, a retired chemist, and Ms. Kenyon, 70, a psychoanalyst, are members of the Finger Lakes chapter of the Campaign for New York Health, which supports universal health coverage through passage of the New York Health Act.

“The way sort of opened,” Ms. Jones said. They cast a wide net for donations, she said, explaining to people that the campaign was only a short-term fix for the larger problem of out-of-control medical costs.

Many people take on extra jobs or hours to afford health care, and 11 percent of Americans have turned to charity for relief from medical debts, according to a 2016 poll conducted by The Times and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The 1,284 New Yorkers who had their debts forgiven live in 40 of the state’s 62 counties, from Westchester to Chautauqua. The sources of the debt were some 130 hospitals and branches that had provided medical services, R.I.P. Medical Debt said.

“I like doing this much more than I liked doing collecting,” Mr. Antico said.

R.I.P. Medical Debt had its first star turn in 2016, when John Oliver did a segment on his HBO show “Last Week Tonight,” in which he paid $60,000 to forgive $14.9 million in medical debts through the charity. About 9,000 people received the yellow forgiveness envelopes as a result.

Since then, other high-profile efforts to forgive debts through the charity include fund-raisers sponsored by NBC and Telemundo affiliates.

In all, the organization says its donations have forgiven $434 million in medical debt so far, assisting some 250,000 people. That remains only a fraction, though, of the more than $750 billion in past-due medical debt that it says Americans owe.

“It is a drop in the bucket,” Mr. Antico said.

R.I.P. Medical Debt specifically seeks to buy the debts of people who earn less than two times the federal poverty level, those in financial hardship and people facing insolvency.

It purchases the portfolios at a steep discount, a penny or less on the dollar. These bills have typically passed through several collection agencies and months or years of collections. The people, who do not know they have been selected, receive the debt relief as a tax-free gift, and it comes off their credit reports.

Mr. Antico said he thought of his charity as a “resolutionary, not a revolutionary” effort, one that offers people relief, but that cannot solve underlying issues like high medical costs. Through personal data associated with the debt accounts, they are able to target specific classes of people, such as veterans, to relieve their debts.

“I do like the idea that people do not have to ask for help,” he said. “The random act of kindness is kind of a cool thing.”

The envelopes from Ms. Jones and Ms. Kenyon’s gift went out in November, but new letters are going out all the time. And don’t worry. Even if you throw your yellow letter out, your debt is still forgiven. You just might not know about it until the next time you run your credit.

Patch.com – Hearing To Discuss Legalizing Marijuana Held In Lindenhurst

By Priscila Korb, 12/3/18

LINDENHURST, NY – Local officials held a public hearing in Lindenhurst on Monday morning to discuss the recreational use of marijuana in New York.

The hearing, held at Babylon Town Hall at 10:30 a.m., was the fourth of four statewide hearings related to the topic following a well-attended Assembly hearing held earlier this year.

“Forty-one years ago, New York decriminalized non-public possession of small amounts of marijuana, making such possession a non-criminal violation punishable only by a fine,” a letter announcing the meeting read. “Despite decriminalization in New York, a disproportionately high number of Black, Hispanic and Latino people continue to be arrested for marijuana-related offenses – particularly possession in public view – which often results in a criminal record that can prevent gainful employment and full participation in society.”

Several states in the U.S., as well as Canada, have recently legalized or are in the process of legalizing adult marijuana use.

“Creating an adult-use system in New York raises important issues about the economic structure and regulation of production, distribution and sale,” the letter read. “Criminal justice and public health concerns, social and economic equity demands, ensuring opportunities for smaller scale and minority-and-women-owned businesses, and other relevant regulatory matters all need to be considered.”

The local officials who attended the hearing included: assembly member Joseph R. Lentol, Chair of the Committee on Codes; assembly member Richard N. Gottfried, Chair of the Committee on Health; assembly member Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, Chair of the Committee on Governmental Operations and assembly member Linda B. Rosenthal, Chair of the Committee on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse

Thebody.com – New York State May Soon Finally Eliminate Explicit Consent From HIV Testing in Care Settings

By Tim Murphy, November 29

Laws about HIV testing have created decades-long controversy in New York State, pitting health officials who want virtually universal HIV testing against advocates — especially those who remember a darker, more discriminatory time — concerned about the privacy and protection of patients. It was that concern, after all, that in 1988 led to a stringent law requiring that health providers obtain from patients signed consent for HIV testing separate from consent for all other routine tests. And it was that same concern that, in the mid-2000s, led to mighty pushback from advocates when then-NYC health commissioner Tom Frieden tried to downgrade the law from written consent to mere oral consent, with the provider noting as much in their chart. That change did not occur until 2014.

But now, more than a decade later, there is solid evidence not only that early HIV detection and treatment means better long-term health outcomes, but that steady treatment makes people unable to spread the virus. It appears that most of the HIV advocacy community in New York City and the state at large now agree that the current law still obstructs testing for health providers — largely because they find it awkward asking patients if they can test for HIV.

These advocates agree that levels of testing high enough to truly end the state’s HIV epidemic cannot be achieved unless everyone who walks into an emergency room or primary care setting is routinely tested, with no notice to patients except for a sign on the waiting-room wall telling them they can opt out if they speak up and say so. And they are ready to lobby for that change with the state legislature in Albany next year.

On October 31, at the Brooklyn offices of Housing Works, representatives from that agency, Montefiore Medical Center, the large LGBTQ health provider Callen-Lorde, Bronx and Brooklyn Legal Services, the Latino Commission on AIDS, the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, Harlem United, the LGBT Center, Boom!Health, and other organizations met. According to Housing Works cofounder Charles King, “I think we came to a working consensus that we want to move HIV testing forward in a routine way.”

King said that the next step would be another meeting in which constituents write a rough draft of proposed bill language that would mandate that health facilities do routine HIV testing and that they post that information clearly in waiting or other public areas, letting patients know they must explicitly refuse HIV testing in order to not be tested.

More than a decade ago, Housing Works was among the leading voices against such a move, engaging in a sustained public protest against Frieden’s efforts that created acrimony between the city health department and much of the city’s HIV/AIDS services community. Thirteen years later, says King, “Less than 10% of all HIV-positive people in New York State don’t know their status,” and many of them are those whose only point of contact with health care is a visit to the emergency room — hence the need to test everyone in those settings.

“It’s imperative that we identify these folks and get them into care if we’re going to not only save their lives but stop all new infections of HIV in New York State,” says King.

He is part of the state’s Ending the Epidemic initiative, which aims to get new HIV infections in New York to 750 or below by 2020, as well as to make sure that the vast majority of all New Yorkers with HIV are both in regular care and virally suppressed on treatment. These are all necessary factors to effectively end the AIDS epidemic in New York State, historically the nation’s worst.

“In recent years, we’ve learned that the sooner someone with HIV starts on treatment, the better their outcomes,” King says. “We’ve also learned that someone who’s virally suppressed can’t pass on HIV. Those are huge game-changers that have tipped the balance in terms of whether it’s worth intruding on someone’s privacy.”

Donna Futterman, M.D., longtime director of the Adolescent AIDS Program at Montefiore, agrees. She’s long called for getting rid of requiring explicit consent from patients to HIV-test them. “The current stipulations are a proven barrier to more people knowing their status,” she says. “We want it to be part of a routine blood panel. Why do we still need HIV exceptionalism when it comes to testing? No one says, ‘Oh, we’re screening you for cancer,’ but often, routine tests are how you start to find cancer.”

She continues: “With HIV right now, a lot of nurses use unverbalized judgment on who they ask to be tested, based on race, age, or who they think is gay. They shouldn’t have to make that call. Thirty-five years into this epidemic, it’s time for us to let go of some of our old notions, especially now that we have the blueprint to ending this epidemic, and testing is the first piece of that.”

Binghamton.com (video) – NYS Assembly holds hearing about recreational marijuana

November 20, 2018

VIDEO HERE

BINGHAMTON, N.Y. – Elected officials are turning to the public for their thoughts on legalizing recreational marijuana. 

Some Democratic members of the New York State Assembly were in Binghamton today for a public hearing regarding the adult use of marijuana. 

Governor Cuomo has proposed legislation that would legalize the substance for adult recreational use.

It was one of four hearings across the state to gather feedback.

Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard Gottfried says it’s looking likely that legalization will be passed, the main question is how. “Not only about is it a good idea or bad idea. But also about what are the mechanics of it. Creating a new industry is a complicated thing. We haven’t done that in New York since the end of prohibition in 1933. How do we want to organize these businesses? So there are a lot of issues to be dealt with.”

Gottfried says among the concerns brought up include how to test if someone is driving under the influence of pot, how to limit access for children and who would be the major players in the industry.

He supports legalization because he says it would save money spent on law enforcement, lower the number of people incarcerated for non-violent crimes and bring in tax revenue for the state.

NY Post: Medical marijuana could soon be covered by New York health insurance

By Carl Campanile and Nolan Hicks, 11/22/18

Taxpayers could soon be on the hook to help low-income New Yorkers score medical marijuana, thanks to a bill that would force public health-insurance plans to cover it.

Patients in the state currently have to pay out of pocket for their prescription pot.

But state Sen. Diane Savino (D-SI/Brooklyn) and Assemblyman Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan) and pushing a doobie-ous scheme that would require government health-insurance programs such as Medicaid, Child Health Plus, the Essential Plan, Elderly Pharmaceutical Coverage and workers’ compensation to cover weed as they would any other prescription.

“It’s unfair not to cover marijuana when opioids, OxyContin and Ambien are covered,” Savino told The Post. “We have to push the envelope.”

The lawmakers claim it will help battle the opioid epidemic ravaging the state.

“For thousands of patients, medical marijuana is a safer and more effective medication than other drugs, especially opioids,” Gott­fried argued.

But both lawmakers acknowledge the state would likely have to draw from the public purse to cover their plan.

The federal government likely wouldn’t provide financial support for the program because authorities in Washington still classify weed as an illegal drug.

The bill also wouldn’t require private insurers to offer coverage, although Savino says she would support an amendment to mandate that they do.

“Insurance companies are leery because the federal government still considers marijuana an illegal drug,” she said.

Medical marijuana in New York can come in a variety of forms, including tablets and oils that can be vaped, but it can’t be smoked under the current program, which was launched in 2016.

Public health experts are turning to marijuana to help cancer patients and others manage chronic pain as a nonaddictive alternative to opioids, which have fueled an overdose epidemic across the country.

Nearly 1,500 people died in the five boroughs last year because of overdoses — five times as many people who died in homicides — figures from the city’s Health Department show.

Opioids were linked to more than 80 percent of those overdose deaths.

There are 98,101 New Yorkers registered in the medical-marijuana program, but a study found one-third of the patients visited a dispensary only once for weed treatment.

New York lawmakers are under increasing pressure to act as New Jersey quickly moves toward full-scale legalization, which could be in place by next year.

Lawmakers in Trenton are expected to begin debating the matter on Monday, although Democratic lawmakers and Democratic New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy are still at loggerheads over who would oversee the budding business — the executive branch or a five-person commission.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts began selling recreational marijuana earlier this week.

Gov. Cuomo has said New York will likely legalize pot for all adults in 2019.