Monday, August 30, 2010

Goodbye is a Quantum Leap

  3. ~ I used to visit that pub as a 5-7 year old kid, but not often, only when the place was empty. There was a candy machine nearby.
  4. ~ Somehow I knew that was gonna happen.
  5. ~ I went off to college & her 13 year old red-headed daughter was pictured in Time Magazine for playing in the community water fountain.
  6. My next door neighbor lady from the '70's thru last year used to work in a basement pub/restaurant at the local college in the '60's & '70's
  9. I've never seen this before, but Alfred Hitchcock is promoting FRENZY, 1972

Seroquel: Questions loom over drug given to sleepless vets

Questions loom over drug given to sleepless vets

Published: 41 minutes ago

ADVANCE FOR 12:01 a.m. EDT Monday, Aug. 30, and thereafter; Graphic shows the prevalence of PSTD in veterans and spending on the drug
WASHINGTON (AP) - Andrew White returned from a nine-month tour in Iraq beset with signs of post-traumatic stress disorder: insomnia, nightmares, constant restlessness. Doctors tried to ease his symptoms using three psychiatric drugs, including a potent anti-pyschotic called Seroquel.
Thousands of soldiers suffering from PTSD have received the same medication over the last nine years, helping to make Seroquel one of the Veteran Affairs Department's top drug expenditures and the No. 5 best-selling drug in the nation.
Several soldiers and veterans have died while taking the pills, raising concerns among some military families that the government is not being up front about the drug's risks. They want Congress to investigate.
In White's case, the nightmares persisted. So doctors recommended progressively larger doses of Seroquel. At one point, the 23-year-old Marine corporal was prescribed more than 1,600 milligrams per day - more than double the maximum dose recommended for schizophrenia patients.
A short time later, White died in his sleep.
"He was told if he had trouble sleeping he could take another (Seroquel) pill," said his father, Stan White, a retired high school principal.
An investigation by the Veterans Affairs Department concluded that White died from a rare drug interaction. He was also taking an antidepressant and an anti-anxiety pill, as well as a painkiller for which he did not have a prescription. Inspectors concluded he received the "standard of care" for his condition.
It's unclear how many soldiers have died while taking Seroquel, or if the drug definitely contributed to the deaths. White has confirmed at least a half-dozen deaths among soldiers on Seroquel, and he believes there may be many others.
Spending for Seroquel by the government's military medical systems has increased more than sevenfold since the start of the war in Afghanistan in 2001, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act. That by far outpaces the growth in personnel who have gone through the system in that time.
Seroquel is approved to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression, but it has not been endorsed by the Food and Drug Administration as a treatment for insomnia. However, psychiatrists are permitted to prescribe approved drugs for other uses in a common practice known as "off-label" prescribing.
But the drug's potential side effects, including diabetes, weight gain and uncontrollable muscle spasms, have resulted in thousands of lawsuits. While on Seroquel, White gained 40 pounds and experienced slurred speech, disorientation and tremors - all known side effects.
Last year, researchers at Vanderbilt University published a study suggesting a new risk: sudden heart failure.
The study in the January 2009 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine found that there were three cardiac deaths per year for every 1,000 patients taking anti-psychotic drugs like Seroquel. Seroquel's unique sedative effect sets it apart from others in its class as the top choice for treating insomnia and anxiety.
AstraZeneca PLC, maker of the drug, said it is reviewing the study. The FDA is conducting its own review, citing the limited scope of the Vanderbilt study.
According to the Veterans Affairs Department, Seroquel is only prescribed as a third or fourth option for patients with difficult-to-treat insomnia stemming from PTSD.
Marine Cpl. Chad Oligschlaeger, 21, was being treated for PTSD when he died in his sleep at Camp Pendleton, Calif., in May 2008. Oligschlaeger was taking six types of medication, including Seroquel, to deal with anxiety and nightmares that followed two tours of duty in Iraq.
The military medical examiner attributed the death to "multiple drug toxicity," indicating that Oligschlaeger, too, died from a drug interaction. Because of the complex reactions between various drugs, medical examiners do not attribute such deaths to any one medication.
After consulting with physicians, parents Eric and Julie Oligschlaeger now believe their son died of sudden cardiac arrest caused by Seroquel.
"Right now, I'm so angry, and I believe someone needs to be held accountable," said Julie Oligschlaeger, of Austin, Texas. "The protocol absolutely has to change."
The Defense Department's deputy director for force health protection, Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, said the government has not seen any increase in dangerous side effects from Seroquel and other drugs.
Physicians interviewed by the AP said they began prescribing Seroquel because it was the only drug that offered relief from the nightmares and anxiety of PTSD.
"By accident, some people were giving them Seroquel for anxiety or depression, and the veterans said, 'This is the first time I have slept six or seven hours straight all night. Please give me more of that.' And the word spread," said Dr. Henry Nasrallah of the University of Cincinnati, who has treated PTSD patients for more than 25 years.
Most of the soldiers and veterans seeking treatment for PTSD do so at hospitals run by the VA or the Defense Department.
The VA's spending on Seroquel has increased more than 770 percent since 2001. In that same time frame, the number of patients covered by the VA increased just 34 percent.
Seroquel has been the VA's second-biggest prescription drug expenditure since 2007, behind the blood-thinner Plavix. The agency spent $125.4 million last fiscal year on Seroquel, up from $14.4 million in 2001.
Spending on Seroquel by the Department of Defense, has increased nearly 700 percent since 2001, to $8.6 million last year, according to purchase records.
Nasrallah and others said they use drugs like Seroquel off-label because so few treatments are approved for PTSD. The FDA has only cleared two drugs for the condition, the antidepressants Paxil and Zoloft, and they do not always work.
The only published study on use of Seroquel for PTSD-related insomnia involved just 20 patients who were followed for six weeks at a VA medical center in South Carolina. The study, which showed moderate improvement in sleep, was funded by AstraZeneca at the request of VA psychiatrist Dr. Mark Hamner, who has studied the use of Seroquel for PTSD.
In his written conclusion, published in 2003, Hamner urged caution in interpreting the results because of the study's small size and short duration.
Hamner is working on larger, federally funded studies of Seroquel. For now, he acknowledges, there is little published research on the use of the drug for PTSD.
"Clinical judgment is really the best we can use at this time because there isn't really a good database to facilitate decision-making," said Hamner, who works at the Ralph H. Johnson Medical Center in Charleston, S.C.
He stressed that VA guidelines require doctors to monitor patients for dangerous side effects with drugs like Seroquel.
The drug, approved in 1997, is AstraZeneca's second-best-selling product, with U.S. sales of $4.2 billion last year. But that success has been marred by allegations that the company illegally marketed the drug and minimized its risks. AstraZeneca agreed to pay $520 million in April to settle federal allegations that its salespeople pitched Seroquel for numerous off-label uses, including insomnia.
Pharmaceutical companies are prohibited from marketing drugs for unapproved uses. AstraZeneca also faces an estimated 10,000 product liability lawsuits, most alleging that Seroquel caused diabetes.
Since White died, his family has been searching for an explanation - and for a way to prevent other deaths.
"We trusted the knowledge of the physicians, that they weren't going to do any harm," White's father said. "And we also trusted the drug companies because that's who provides the research for the physicians. That's what our battle is now: trying to get changes made."

Minnesota: Amazing Numbers: 145 Tornadoes

Amazing Numbers: 145 Tornadoes, First Hurricane Landfall (and a so-so Labor Day Weekend)

Last update: August 29, 2010 - 11:39 PM


Staggering Numbers. I checked the SPC site and nearly fell off my little stool! Somehow - we're now up to 145 tornado reports, 211 reports of large hail, 365 reports of straight-line wind damage, for a total of 721 severe storm reports in 2010. Where are we living again? That compares with 60 tornadoes in Wisconsin, 52 in Iowa, 87 in Texas ad 70 tornadoes in Oklahoma. Wait - TWICE as many tornadoes in Minnesota than Oklahoma? Stop this ride - I think I want to get off. Don't believe me? Click here to see the SPC numbers for yourself (plug in different state abbreviations in your browser's URL address above to compare with other states).

* This is an almost incomprehensible number, nearly twice as many as Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma - 6 to 7 times more tornadoes than "normal" for a summer season here in Minnesota.

A Very Close Call. Hurricane Earl is forecast to take a track around the periphery of a bloated Bermuda high, coming precariously close to the east coast of the USA later this week. Although the core of the storm is forecast to stay a few hundred miles out to sea, coastal flooding and beach erosion is possible from the Carolinas northward to Long Island and Cape Cod. Track Earl on the NHC site here.

First Strike? Disclaimer: don't trust any forecast beyond 5 days (ok, 5 minutes). This is the ECMWF (European) outlook for next Tuesday, September 7 - showing Hurricane Fiona surging into the southeastern USA. Too soon to panic (or even worry) - but residents of the southeast will be keeping a very close eye on the extended model guidance in the coming days.

Paul's Star Tribune Outlook for the Twin Cities and all of Minnesota

Today: Hot sun, windy and sticky (dew points in the low to mid 70s). High: 94 (Heat Index: 95-100 this afternoon).

Monday night: Partly cloudy and muggy - unusually warm. Low: 74

Tuesday: Humid with T-storms, some strong to potentially severe. High: 85

Wednesday: Some sun early, another round of showers possible late. High: 82

Thursday: Windy and cooler with clearing skies (clouds/sprinkles north). High: 78

Friday: Gusty and cool with plenty of sunshine. High: 73

Saturday: Probably the nicest day of the holiday weekend. Sun giving way to increasing clouds late. High: 74

Sunday: Mostly cloudy with showers (best chance central and southern MN). High: 75

Labor Day Outlook: Mostly cloudy, chance of showers (and drizzle) - a cool breeze. High: 75
On your mark - get set - sweat. What a way to start a new week, another free sauna, in the comfort and privacy of your own yard. The 7th day above 90 this month. Another day of dew point drama. Good grief. Another 2-shower day is shaping up, probably even hotter than Sunday, when the mercury peaked at 94 in the Twin Cities, 2 degrees away from a record, 17 degrees above average, and 28 degrees warmer than last year.

Bob Dylan once famously remarked, "you don't need a weatherman to tell you which way the wind is blowing." He got that right. Yes, it's been a sticky, steamy, SOUTHERLY wind for much of the summer, which isn't all that unusual. But continuing a trend we've noticed in recent decades the number of super-humid days in Minnesota is most definitely on the rise. According to the MN State Climatology Office we've muddled through 26 days with a dew point greater than 70; that's 252 hours above 70 (80 more than average). Since June 1 the average dew point at MSP has been 61.1 F, that 5 degrees higher than usual. Doesn't sound like much, but let me try and put those 5 degrees of added dew point into perspective. For every 20 degree increase in dew point the amount of water in the air DOUBLES. So it would be safe to say that the Summer of '10 has been 25% more humid than "average." And summer isn't quite through with us just yet. Today the combination of mid 90s + dew points in the low to mid 70s will make it feel like 95-100 F. by mid afternoon. Pray the air conditioning keeps working.

The Sweaty Details. The MN State Climatology Office has been keeping track of our unusual number of sticky days so far this summer: 26 days with a dew point > 70 F. More details here.

Speaking of air conditioning the National Weather Service calculates something called "cooling degree days", which you get by adding up the high and low for a given day, and subtracting 65. It's the combined number of degrees above 65 F for any given day. If the high is 90 and the low is 70, the average is 80: that's 15 "cooling degree days." Well, based on this arcane calculation we've racked up 876 cooling degree days. We should have seen closer to 599 cdd's. That means we've spent about 46% more cold cash on keeping our homes & businesses cool than during a typical summer. No kidding.

Good Water Cooler Ammunition. Sick and tired of gossiping about who the receptionist is dating, or how many pounds the boss has put on lately? Launch into a tirade about cooling degree days, and I can almost guarantee you that you'll get a few heads nodding (before emptying the lunch room, faster than you thought possible). Why has the metro area had so many more cooling degree days than St. Cloud, even Rochester? Good question: my hunch, a little of the urban heat island (more concrete/asphalt retains heat, prevents temperatures from cooling as much at night, adds a few degrees to the daytime highs). Whatever the reason, we've spent almost 46% more money cooling our homes so far this summer than "normal."

Is there a link between more higher dew points, more humidity - and our (outrageous) spike in severe weather this summer: we're up to 721 severe storms and 145 (!) tornadoes so far in 2010? The greater the amount of water in the air, the more juice available for severe storms, the greater the potential for extreme rainfall amounts (ie flooding across Iowa) and the greater the risk of spinning up tornadic storms and large hail. It sure appears like there's a link: more water vapor floating overhead = enhanced severe storm risk. Tornadoes don't form in a drought - you need a steady supply of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. I still maintain there's something else going on here - many days the dew points across southern Minnesota and Iowa are HIGHER than those found along the Gulf coast, higher than Louisiana and Texas. Something doesn't add up here. SOMETHING is putting more water in the air, making our dew points even more ridiculous, loading the dice in favor of more severe local storms. The most likely candidate? Corn. I want to go on record as saying that I am very "pro-corn" (had some for dinner Sunday evening, come to think of it) but the truth of the matter: by planting corn rows closer together and getting more yield out of every acre of farmland, we are pumping more water into the air. It's probably not so much the irrigation for these fields, but something known as "evapo-transpiration." Put simply, corn sweats. At night corn releases water into the air. And the more corn in a given field, the more water that's going to "sweat" into the nighttime air.

Could planting more corn have the unpleasant side-effect of sparking more severe storms downwind? The theory isn't as ridiculous as it looks on the surface. Seems like there's a research paper here. If only I had the time...

We'll all have plenty of time to sweat out the details today, one of the 3 hottest days of the entire summer, but it's the LAST day of gag-worthy heat and humidity. An eastbound cool front sparks showers and T-storms Tuesday (a few storms could be severe tomorrow - what a surprise). Another wave of showers may brush southern and central Minnesota late Wednesday, the latest models hinting at over three quarters of an inch of rain around by Wednesday.

The good news: a much cooler front sweeps out of Canada late in the week, skies begin to clear on Thursday - by Friday dew points sink into the 40s and 50s, meaning less than HALF as much water in the air by the end of the week. Something to live for.

Sunday Showers. Saturday looks ok (at least right now) with morning sun giving way to increasing clouds later in the day - but an atmospheric tug-of-war may spark a period of showers, even some steady rain, next Sunday, showers possibly spilling over into a part of Labor Day. Maybe the forecast will improve, like a fine (box) wine, as the week goes on. Don't count on it.

Right now Friday and Saturday look like the two best days, in terms of sunshine and lack of rain. As warmer air tries to return northward over the weekend clouds will start to increase late Saturday, a good chance of showers Sunday and Labor Day, especially over the southern half of Minnesota. The farther north you go (especially toward Leech and the BWCA) the better your odds of salvaging some cool sun over the weekend, but I'm not too optimistic about the rest of the state. It probably won't be a steady, all-day rain, but I'd start pondering a Plan B for part of the day Sunday and Monday - be rapturously happy if the heavens conspire to cut us a break. It could happen, but we've had an awful lot of amazingly sunny (quiet) weekends as of late. We're due for a change in the weather. Sorry about the (potentially lousy) timing.

Wisconsin: doesn't even close close, a mere 60 tornadoes. Less than HALF as many tornadoes as Minnesota in 2010. Iowa: 52 tornadoes so far in 2010. Minnesota has seen nearly 3 times as many tornadoes as Iowa. Southern Iowa is (technically) in "Tornado Alley." It would appear that the alley has taken a northward detour this year.
Oklahoma: 70 tornadoes. Send a postcard to a buddy in Tulsa. Minnesota has seen TWICE as many tornadoes as Oklahoma...? In what parallel world is that even possible?

Texas: 87 tornadoes and counting. Let me get this straight: Texas is 3 times larger than Minnesota, the largest state in the lower 48 at last count (with 268,601 square miles, compared with 84,0068 square miles in Minnesota - the 12th largest state in the USA). In spite of that fact, Minnesota has seen 58 more tornado reports than Texas - another mind-boggling statistic.

A Hurricane Named Earl. The University of Wisconsin has a web page devoted to Hurricane Earl - satellite imagery from GOES-13 available here.

Bolt From The Blue. Every year a handful of Americans are struck (and either injured or killed) by cloud to ground lightning - with BLUE SKY directly overhead! Lightning can travel as far as 10 miles horizontally from the cloud base. That's why the National Weather Service has the "30-30 Rule". If you can count 30 seconds from the flash of lightning to the bang of thunder, it's time to make a mad dash indoors. And wait 30 minutes after the last thunderclap before heading back outside. Just because the rain has subsided does NOT mean the lightning threat has ended. The most dangerous time during an electrical storm: the very beginning and tail-end of a storm. This quick YouTube clip was taken in the Haruaki Plains on the northern island of New Zealand - yes, a little too close for comfort!

Waterspout! Unusual footage from Jurmala, in Estonia. Click out the YouTube video here.

UN Climate Change Panel Warned Over Reports. Some changes are coming to the IPCC, in the wake of the hacked e-mails of last December and the subsequent "ClimateGate" backlash. Apparently the IPCC will be warned over how it uses scientific facts in its final reports, the way it gathers and vets information, and how quickly it corrects obvious inaccuracies. More on the story here.

* Thousands Affected By Flooding in Southern Mexico. Another day, another severe flood somewhere on the planet - the latest from here.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Court allows agents to secretly put GPS trackers on cars

Court allows agents to secretly put GPS trackers on cars

By Dugald McConnell, CNN
August 27, 2010 3:07 a.m. EDT
This is a GPS device that can be attached to a car with a magnet so its location can be tracked.
This is a GPS device that can be attached to a car with a magnet so its location can be tracked.
  • Appeals court upholds conviction based on GPS tracking
  • Dissenting federal judge says agents' tactics were "creepy"
  • The ruling is the opposite of one by another federal court
  • GPS Devices
  • Police
  • U.S. Courts
(CNN) -- Law enforcement officers may secretly place a GPS device on a person's car without seeking a warrant from a judge, according to a recent federal appeals court ruling in California.
Drug Enforcement Administration agents in Oregon in 2007 surreptitiously attached a GPS to the silver Jeep owned by Juan Pineda-Moreno, whom they suspected of growing marijuana, according to court papers.
When Pineda-Moreno was arrested and charged, one piece of evidence was the GPS data, including the longitude and latitude of where the Jeep was driven, and how long it stayed. Prosecutors asserted the Jeep had been driven several times to remote rural locations where agents discovered marijuana being grown, court documents show.
Pineda-Moreno eventually pleaded guilty to conspiracy to grow marijuana, and is serving a 51-month sentence, according to his lawyer.
But he appealed on the grounds that sneaking onto a person's driveway and secretly tracking their car violates a person's reasonable expectation of privacy.
"They went onto the property several times in the middle of the night without his knowledge and without his permission," said his lawyer, Harrison Latto.
The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the appeal twice -- in January of this year by a three-judge panel, and then again by the full court earlier this month. The judges who affirmed Pineda-Moreno's conviction did so without comment.
Latto says the Ninth Circuit decision means law enforcement can place trackers on cars, without seeking a court's permission, in the nine western states the California-based circuit covers.
The ruling likely won't be the end of the matter. A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., arrived at a different conclusion in similar case, saying officers who attached a GPS to the car of a suspected drug dealer should have sought a warrant.
Experts say the issue could eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
One of the dissenting judges in Pineda-Moreno's case, Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, said the defendant's driveway was private and that the decision would allow police to use tactics he called "creepy" and "underhanded."
"The vast majority of the 60 million people living in the Ninth Circuit will see their privacy materially diminished by the panel's ruling," Kozinksi wrote in his dissent.
"I think it is Orwellian," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which advocates for privacy rights.
"If the courts allow the police to gather up this information without a warrant," he said, "the police could place a tracking device on any individual's car -- without having to ever justify the reason they did that."
But supporters of the decision see the GPS trackers as a law enforcement tool that is no more intrusive than other means of surveillance, such as visually following a person, that do not require a court's approval.
"You left place A, at this time, you went to place B, you took this street -- that information can be gleaned in a variety of ways," said David Rivkin, a former Justice Department attorney. "It can be old surveillance, by tailing you unbeknownst to you; it could be a GPS."
He says that a person cannot automatically expect privacy just because something is on private property.
"You have to take measures -- to build a fence, to put the car in the garage" or post a no-trespassing sign, he said. "If you don't do that, you're not going to get the privacy."

This Is Not a Recovery

Op-Ed Columnist

This Is Not a Recovery

What will Ben Bernanke, the Fed chairman, say in his big speech Friday in Jackson Hole, Wyo.? Will he hint at new steps to boost the economy? Stay tuned.
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Paul Krugman

But we can safely predict what he and other officials will say about where we are right now: that the economy is continuing to recover, albeit more slowly than they would like. Unfortunately, that’s not true: this isn’t a recovery, in any sense that matters. And policy makers should be doing everything they can to change that fact.
The small sliver of truth in claims of continuing recovery is the fact that G.D.P. is still rising: we’re not in a classic recession, in which everything goes down. But so what?
The important question is whether growth is fast enough to bring down sky-high unemployment. We need about 2.5 percent growth just to keep unemployment from rising, and much faster growth to bring it significantly down. Yet growth is currently running somewhere between 1 and 2 percent, with a good chance that it will slow even further in the months ahead. Will the economy actually enter a double dip, with G.D.P. shrinking? Who cares? If unemployment rises for the rest of this year, which seems likely, it won’t matter whether the G.D.P. numbers are slightly positive or slightly negative.
All of this is obvious. Yet policy makers are in denial.
After its last monetary policy meeting, the Fed released a statement declaring that it “anticipates a gradual return to higher levels of resource utilization” — Fedspeak for falling unemployment. Nothing in the data supports that kind of optimism. Meanwhile, Tim Geithner, the Treasury secretary, says that “we’re on the road to recovery.” No, we aren’t.
Why are people who know better sugar-coating economic reality? The answer, I’m sorry to say, is that it’s all about evading responsibility.
In the case of the Fed, admitting that the economy isn’t recovering would put the institution under pressure to do more. And so far, at least, the Fed seems more afraid of the possible loss of face if it tries to help the economy and fails than it is of the costs to the American people if it does nothing, and settles for a recovery that isn’t.
In the case of the Obama administration, officials seem loath to admit that the original stimulus was too small. True, it was enough to limit the depth of the slump — a recent analysis by the Congressional Budget Office says unemployment would probably be well into double digits now without the stimulus — but it wasn’t big enough to bring unemployment down significantly.
Now, it’s arguable that even in early 2009, when President Obama was at the peak of his popularity, he couldn’t have gotten a bigger plan through the Senate. And he certainly couldn’t pass a supplemental stimulus now. So officials could, with considerable justification, place the onus for the non-recovery on Republican obstructionism. But they’ve chosen, instead, to draw smiley faces on a grim picture, convincing nobody. And the likely result in November — big gains for the obstructionists — will paralyze policy for years to come.
So what should officials be doing, aside from telling the truth about the economy?
The Fed has a number of options. It can buy more long-term and private debt; it can push down long-term interest rates by announcing its intention to keep short-term rates low; it can raise its medium-term target for inflation, making it less attractive for businesses to simply sit on their cash. Nobody can be sure how well these measures would work, but it’s better to try something that might not work than to make excuses while workers suffer.
The administration has less freedom of action, since it can’t get legislation past the Republican blockade. But it still has options. It can revamp its deeply unsuccessful attempt to aid troubled homeowners. It can use Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored lenders, to engineer mortgage refinancing that puts money in the hands of American families — yes, Republicans will howl, but they’re doing that anyway. It can finally get serious about confronting China over its currency manipulation: how many times do the Chinese have to promise to change their policies, then renege, before the administration decides that it’s time to act?
Which of these options should policy makers pursue? If I had my way, all of them.
I know what some players both at the Fed and in the administration will say: they’ll warn about the risks of doing anything unconventional. But we’ve already seen the consequences of playing it safe, and waiting for recovery to happen all by itself: it’s landed us in what looks increasingly like a permanent state of stagnation and high unemployment. It’s time to admit that what we have now isn’t a recovery, and do whatever we can to change that situation.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Struggling Cities Shut Firehouses in Budget Crisis

August 26, 2010

Struggling Cities Shut Firehouses in Budget Crisis

SAN DIEGO — Fire departments around the nation are cutting jobs, closing firehouses and increasingly resorting to “rolling brownouts” in which they shut different fire companies on different days as the economic downturn forces many cities and towns to make deep cuts that are slowing their responses to fires and other emergencies.
Philadelphia began rolling brownouts this month, joining cities from Baltimore to Sacramento that now shut some units every day. San Jose, Calif., laid off 49 firefighters last month. And Lawrence, Mass., north of Boston, has laid off firefighters and shut down half of its six firehouses, forcing the city to rely on help from neighboring departments each time a fire goes to a second alarm.
Fire chiefs and union officials say it is the first time they have seen such deep cuts in so many parts of the country. “I’ve never seen it so widespread,” said Harold A. Schaitberger, the general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters.
The risks of cutting fire service were driven home here in July when Bentley Do, a 2-year-old who was visiting relatives, somehow got his hands on a gum ball, put it in his mouth, started laughing and then began choking.
“It blocked the air hole,” said his uncle, Brian Do, who called 911 while other relatives frantically tried to dislodge the gum ball. “No air could flow in and out.”
It is only 600 steps from the front door of the neatly kept stucco home where the boy was staying to the nearest fire station, just down the block. But the station was empty that evening: its engine was in another part of town, on a call in an area usually covered by an engine that had been taken out of service as part of a brownout plan.
The police came to the home within five minutes and began performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation, officials said. But it took nine and a half minutes — almost twice the national goal of arriving within five minutes — for the fire engine, with a paramedic and more medical equipment, to get there. An ambulance came moments later and took Bentley to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
The San Diego Fire-Rescue chief, Javier Mainar, said it was impossible to say whether the delay contributed to Bentley’s death on July 20. But he said there was no doubt that the city’s brownouts, which take 13 percent of firefighters off the streets each day to save $11.5 million annually, led to the delay.
“You can just lock everything down and look at it sequentially, chronologically, as to what occurred,” Chief Mainar said in an interview. “There is no question that the brownout of Engine 44 resulted in Engine 38 having to take a response in that community, and because of that, Engine 38 was now out of position to respond to something that happened just down the street from their fire station.”
Fire service was once a sacred cow at budget time. But the downturn has lingered so long that many cities, which have already made deep cuts in other agencies, are now turning to their fire departments.
Some are trying to wrest concessions from unions, which over the years have won generous pension plans that allow many firefighters to retire in their 40s and 50s — plans that many cities say are unaffordable. Others want to reduce minimum-staffing requirements, which often force them to resort to costly overtime to fill shifts. Others are simply cutting service.
Analysts worry that some of the cuts could be putting people and property in danger. As the downturn has worn on, ISO, an organization that evaluates cities’ fire protection capabilities for the insurance industry, has downgraded more cities, said Michael R. Waters, ISO’s vice president of risk-detection services.
“This is generally due to a reduction in firefighting personnel available for responding to calls, a reduction in the number of responding fire apparatus, and gaps in the optimal deployment of apparatus or deficiencies in firefighter training programs,” Mr. Waters said in a statement.
Several fire chiefs said in interviews that the cuts were making them nervous.
“It’s roulette,” said Chief James S. Clack of the Baltimore City Fire Department, which recently reduced the number of fire units closed each day to three from six. Officials saw that the closings in the 55-unit department were in some cases leading to longer response times. “I’m always worried that something’s going to happen where one of these companies is closed.”
Early in his mayoralty, Michael R. Bloomberg of New York closed six fire companies to save money. This year, a threat to close 20 more — a 6 percent reduction in New York’s fire companies — was averted when the city found savings elsewhere.
Several cities — including Lawrence — have said that they were forced to cut service because the unions failed to make concessions. Mr. Schaitberger, the union president, who was here for a union convention, said that protecting the pensions his members have won over the years was a top priority this year.
The pension issue has an added resonance in San Diego. The city was forced to consider a bankruptcy filing even before the Great Recession, and was barred from raising money by selling bonds to the public after officials disclosed that they had shortchanged the pension fund for city workers for years, even as they improved pension benefits. San Diego’s pension fund has only two-thirds of the money it needs to pay the benefits promised to retirees, according to an updated calculation made by the city in the spring, and faces a shortfall of $2.1 billion.
So even before the recession and the brownouts, fire service in San Diego was stretched thin. A previous fire chief, Jeff Bowman, was hired in 2002 with a mandate to build up the department, but he resigned in 2006, after the pension-fueled fiscal crisis surfaced and it became clear that he would not get the money to build and staff the extra fire stations he believed were needed. “The question is whether fire protection is adequate, and in my opinion it’s not,” he said in an interview.
After Bentley Do died, the City Council agreed to put a question on the ballot in November asking voters to approve a sales tax increase, which could be put in place only if the city adopts certain budget and pension reforms. The money could restore the fire service and help close a deep budget gap projected for next year.
But it would come too late for the Do family. Bentley, whose father, Nam Do, an American, was working in Vietnam as an architect, was just visiting San Diego with his mother, Mien Nguyen. Ms. Nguyen, who was six months pregnant, was here to take the oath of United States citizenship. She was sworn in the day after Bentley died, Brian Do, the uncle, said, but she fainted when she got her certificate and was taken to the hospital. Nam Do left his job in Vietnam to come here to grieve for his son, and goes to a temple every day, Brian Do said.
He said that the family had no plans to sue the city. “We’re not blaming the city or blaming the Fire Department,” he said, “but the reason I speak out is because I want them to do a better job for other people.”

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

RVs Dumping Human Waste on Venice Streets

RVs Dumping Human Waste on Venice Streets

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)
VENICE -- Authorities in Venice have removed about a dozen RVs from one neighborhood after complaints about human waste being dumped on the street.

City crews cleaned up the area around Rose and Third avenues Tuesday night after receiving complaints from Venice residents and activists.

The city then made the owners of about 12 RVs move them out out of the area.

A local activist said as "Boston Dawna" said no one was cited. She said the RVs were back in the same spots by Wednesday morning.

A woman who allegedly uncapped a sewage tank on an RV on Pacific Avenue near Fleet Street, letting waste spill out as her partner drove the vehicle, was arrested over the weekend.

Boston Dawna witnesses and reported the incident.

Venice residents have apparently complained about the RV dumping issue for years.

They're currently trying to circulate petitions to get "no oversized vehicle parking" signs put up. They're meeting with resistance from the city council, according to some activists.

The California Coastal Commission has declined to get involved in the matter.

Why ambulance rides are so expensive: The Real Deal

Why ambulance rides are so expensive: The Real Deal

Last Update: 8/24 6:56 pm

Syracuse (WSYR-TV) - It's not pleasant to think about needing an ambulance but the fact is that if you need one the fee has skyrocketed during the last five years. And, depending on where you get sick in Central New York, the fees could be dramatically different.

John Monahan recently had a seizure. "[I] shut off the water, got ready to start drinking it and my legs gave way and I hit the floor and banged against the door bruising my back," he said.

Monahan's mother immediately called 911 and a WAVES Ambulance arrived within minutes. "At the time I didn't have insurance coverage, still unemployed, still looking for work," he said.

He didn't give it too much thought, until the bill arrived a few days later. "It was an emergency condition, it was not something that's normally done. I expected at least a few hundred dollars, similar to in the past, plus an increase for their costs," he said.

He was wrong. He owed a total of $898, including a flat fee of $800 just for the ambulance to show up, and then another $14 per mile.

The Director of WAVES Ambulance, Al Kalfass, admits the prices for a transport have gone up twenty-five percent in the last five years but says that is because the cost of doing business has risen too. "We aren't looking to make anyone poor or afraid of calling an ambulance," he said.

Kalfass says new technology and reimbursement rates also contribute to the increase. Most insurance companies pay about $550 for an advanced life support transport. Medicare pays $395 for that same ride, and Medicaid pays about $215.

Also, ambulance services aren't allowed to say no. They have to respond when someone calls 911 whether it is a true emergency or not. When people call 911 for assistance with minor medical situations, they drive up the price of ambulance rides for everyone.

Kalfass says that in some cases, WAVES isn't even covering its costs, let alone making a profit. It seems that those with high deductibles or no insurance at all have to balance that out.

WAVES is one of the most expensive ambulance services in the in Central New York. While the average price is around $675 for an advanced life support call, prices range from $300 per ride to more than $1,000 even though each offers very similar services.

What is the reason there is such a price difference depending on which ambulance company shows up at your door?

First and foremost, the size of the service is a big factor. The more paid paramedics they have on staff, the more they're going to have to charge patients. Even volunteer corps still have paid staff.

It also depends on how large their coverage area is and whether they have contracts with towns and villages that enable them to collect some money through a fee on resident's property tax bills. Those that have such a contract tend to be a little less expensive, though not dramatically so.

Lastly, the farther you live from a hospital, the more you're going to have to pay. In addition to paying for the extra mileage, the longer trips take ambulances out of service for a greater length of time and put more wear and tear on the vehicles. All those are factors that go into setting prices.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Local government bankruptcy bill comes back to Capitol

Local government bankruptcy bill comes back to Capitol

August 23, 2010 |  4:21 pm
A measure that would make it harder for local governments to declare bankruptcy is returning to the Capitol.
The bill, AB 155 by Assemblyman Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia) will be heard in the Senate Local Government Committee Wednesday.
The measure would require local governments to obtain approval from the California Debt and Investment Advisory Commission before they can file for bankruptcy.
The bill is supported by a host of labor groups, who say the bill is a needed protection against cities or counties who will opt to declare bankruptcy to get out of contract agreements with their employees.
The measure is opposed by the California League of Cities, the California State Assn. of Counties and the California Chamber of Commerce.

State misses $2.5-billion payment to schools because of budget delay

State misses $2.5-billion payment to schools because of budget delay
August 23, 2010 |  4:27 pm
California's top fiscal officials Monday ordered the deferral of $2.5 billion in payments to the state’s public schools next month to conserve cash and stave off the need to begin issuing IOUs.
The state’s budget is 54 days late, and that delay has stretched the state’s depleted treasury to the breaking point. Issuance of scrip could come within weeks.
The deferral announced Monday “was not taken lightly,” state Controller John Chiang, Treasurer Bill Lockyer and Department of Finance Director Ana Matosantos wrote in a joint letter to the Legislature.
The payment delay –- which comes atop another $2.5-billion deferral in July –- was not unexpected, said Kevin Gordon, an advisor to school districts on state financing. Lawmakers approved the deferrals back in February.
“There was early warning to school districts about what the state's intentions were … giving districts enough time to make other arrangements,” said Gordon, president of School Innovations and Advocacy, an education consulting firm.
But the deferral will force districts to borrow more funds to cover their bills until the state pays up, driving up costs and taking money from classrooms, said Rich Pratt, assistant executive director of the California School Boards Assn.
“The more you borrow, the more interest you have to pay,” Pratt said.
State officials acknowledged the added hardship. “The lack of a state budget is levying additional fiscal stress on schools … deferral of state payments will further exacerbate the situation,” Chiang, Lockyer and Matosantos wrote.
Fiscal officials also ordered that a $400-million payment to counties be delayed; $700 million in county funds were pushed off in July.
The latest skipped payments to counties and schools must be repaid within 90 days, said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the Department of Finance.
-- Shane Goldmacher in Sacramento

Holding budget ransom may be Schwarzenegger's last hope

Holding budget ransom may be Schwarzenegger's last hope

Governor has been pushing fiscal changes since he took office — among them, pension cutbacks, spending constraints and a tax-system overhaul. He hasn't made much headway with the hostile Legislature.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks to a group of Bay Area business leaders. The state budget is already several weeks overdue, and Schwarzenegger says he'll leave it in his successor's lap if his demands for fiscal reform are not met. (Justin Sullivan, Getty Images / August 23, 2010)

With fewer than 140 days left in office, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is making a final stand for goals that have eluded him for nearly seven years, clinging to an overdue state budget for a last bit of leverage before he fades from relevancy.

Already, the state's budget is 54 days overdue. But Schwarzenegger has said he won't sign a spending plan until the Legislature retrofits the broken fiscal system that has bedeviled California — and him — for years.

He is demanding cutbacks in public pensions, a new constraint on spending and an overhaul of the way the state collects taxes. If those conditions go unmet, Schwarzenegger has said, he will leave the budget in his successor's lap.

Some have likened his wish list to a gubernatorial ransom note, being used to polish his tarnished fiscal legacy.

"This is a governor that holds the state hostage," said Assemblywoman Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa). "How irresponsible is that?"

The effects of the budget impasse are cascading across California.

State worker furloughs resumed Friday, forcing Department of Motor Vehicles branches to reschedule more than 15,600 appointments so they could close that day and again next Friday. An emergency fund to pay health clinics that serve the poor has run dry; the final payments go out Monday.

And state Controller John Chiang has warned that IOUs could be as little as two weeks away, repeating last year's "shameful chapter of California history."

Schwarzenegger says his final budget is a last chance to fix the state.

"I have two choices as governor, especially since this is my last year," Schwarzenegger told a group of Bay Area business leaders this month. "Do I want to go and just make everyone happy and … go along with them, or do I want to go and, you know, wage this battle?

"I promised the people in 2003 that I will go and bring some kind of order into our budget system, so this is why I'm fighting," he said.

But Schwarzenegger has failed to align spending and revenue, and this summer's budget, which will have to eliminate a deficit estimated at $19.1 billion, is unlikely to change that. He still faces a hostile Legislature.

Meanwhile, the fall elections — particularly the showdown between fellow Republican Meg Whitman and Democratic state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, who are vying to succeed him — are increasingly sucking up the political oxygen in Sacramento, much as Schwarzenegger's celebrity did in his first years in office.

"Once this budget is done, I think he's done," said Assemblyman Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia). "That's one of the reasons he is delaying.… He doesn't want to face that his end is coming and we're all waiting" for it.

Earlier this month, Schwarzenegger briefly referred to his governorship in the past tense. "Yes, it was difficult, the most difficult thing I've ever done, but it was rewarding," he told the Bay Area group.

Still, he remains empowered when it comes to the budget and he is using that influence to press for structural changes to "put our finances on solid ground for future generations to come," as he argued in an opinion piece in The Times recently.

The governor wants public pensions to be rolled back to 1999 levels and is negotiating givebacks with every state employee union except prison guards. He has already struck six contract agreements, representing about 37,000 workers, that include pension concessions long anathema to powerful labor unions.

He wants lawmakers to put money in a rainy-day fund and pair such a move with a spending cap to limit the growth of state government. Voters have rejected two recent attempts to enact similar limits.

Schwarzenegger also wants a tax system overhaul to rein in the wild revenue swings California has endured for the last decade, beginning with the dot-com bubble that grew and then burst. He backed a reform commission's 2009 plan to rewrite California's tax code, but that proposal succeeded only in uniting the Legislature against it.

Even Republicans acknowledge that these demands, which Schwarzenegger made clear when he unveiled his revised budget proposal in May, are a tall order for a lame-duck governor.

"They've been on the table now ever since he first got here," said state Sen. Bob Dutton (R- Rancho Cucamonga), who will soon become leader of the Senate's GOP caucus.

Democratic lawmakers have chafed at the governor's ultimatums, arguing that this year's fiscal imbalance needs to be tackled first. Democrats are pressing for more than $4 billion in tax hikes to balance the books. Schwarzenegger wants more cuts: elimination of California's welfare program and daycare for 142,000 children of low-income families, further paring of education funds and deep cuts in money for home health aides to help the elderly, blind and disabled.

"If he wants to achieve some of the legacy items that he consistently refers to, it's not going to be done — will not be done — with the kinds of cuts that he is calling for," Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) told reporters recently. "Period."

The current budget impasse is the fifth longest in California history, with no breakthroughs on the horizon, although Schwarzenegger has said repeatedly that he wants to strike an accord.

"It's not just my way or the highway," he has said.

But some lawmakers see it exactly that way.

"I don't feel the negotiation part," said San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a Democrat, as he sat in his fourth-floor Capitol office.

Glancing down at the governor's famed smoking tent, where past budget deals have been struck and dignitaries feted, Ammiano added, "I guess that, too, will be gone."