August 31, 2015

Senator Grassley says Medicare reimbursement tilt leads to less psychiatrists

Senator Chuck Grassley.

Senator Chuck Grassley.

Last week’s rampage that saw a mentally-ill Virginia man fatally shoot two former co-workers on live TV is raising new calls for increased funding to identify and treat such people before they become killers. Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley says we can spend more money on mental health care but it doesn’t do any good if there aren’t professionals in place to deliver the help.

“We have a dearth of psychologists and psychiatrists,” Grassley says. “I think the reason we have that is because over the last three or for decades, we’ve tilted Medicare reimbursement to put more people into surgery and a lot of other specialties and people that normally would have gone into psychiatry aren’t going into it now.”

There are ways to fill the gaps, he says, and Iowa is seeing some success in making the most of emerging technology. “In Iowa, when you have a shortage of psychiatrists, we have found that telemedicine fills in some of the vacuum,” Grassley says. “A lot of people feel more comfortable talking to a psychiatrist telemedicine-wise, over TV, feeling less intimidated than when they’re right there in the room there with them.”

The Virginia shooter bought the gun used in the killings legally. There’s a federal database that lists people who are forbidden from buying firearms. Grassley says it’s clear there are many more people who should be on the list who aren’t, while others don’t deserve to be listed.

“In the Veterans Administration, somebody comes in with an issue like, maybe he needs somebody to manage his finances,” Grassley says. “Well, that’s considered by the VA a mental illness and his name ends up in the database, so he can’t buy a gun legally and his constitutional rights are violated.”

People are less likely to talk openly about mental illness in America, which Grassley says is also a big part of the problem. “It’s a sad situation,” he says.


Branstad will meet with ‘old friend’ Xi Jinping in Seattle in September


Governor Terry Branstad and Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds at the news conference this morning.

Iowa’s governor says he disagrees with Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker’s call for canceling the state dinner at the White House for China’s president that’s planned for late September. Governor Terry Branstad says he doesn’t get involved in foreign policy.

“I understand there are some issues right now with China with what’s happened with the devaluation of the currency, some of the issues with cyber security and whatever,” Branstad says. “But as you know the state of Iowa has had a long-standing friendship with our sister state Hebei and with Xi Jinping and I’m proud that he calls me an old friend.”

China’s president first visited Iowa in 1985 when he was a low-level agricultural official in a Chinese province. Branstad threw a state dinner for Xi at the state capitol in Des Moines in February of 2012, just before Xi became China’s president. Branstad has met face-to-face with Xi five times. That includes a trade trip to China in 2013 that included Walker, who is Wisconsin’s governor. Walker has said President Obama should not honor China’s president with a state dinner when he visits the U.S. this fall because the Chinese government was behind a cyber attack on the U.S. government. Branstad, meanwhile, plans to fly to Seattle to see Xi during his trip to the U.S.

“Would have preferred to have that in Iowa,” Branstad told reporters this morning, with a laugh, “but we got that last time and so I guess we can’t have it every time.”

Branstad said he “respects” the fact Walker is now looking at foreign policy issues with China now that Walker’s running for president. Branstad says when he meets with China’s president he’ll encourage China to import more Iowa-grown soybeans and Iowa-raised pork.

(Photo by Asya Akca)

Branstad says a ‘fair process’ was used to pick firms to manage Iowa’s Medicaid program

Terry Branstad at his weekly news conference.

Terry Branstad at his weekly news conference.

Governor Terry Branstad is defending the way officials in his administration chose four companies to manage the state-run Medicaid program. Four other companies that submitted bids but were not chosen have sued, calling the selection process haphazard and raising questions about the past performance of the winning bidders.

“Obviously when there’s this much money at stake and you’re not one of the four successful ones, you’re going to be disappointed…but I think the process is fair,” Branstad said during his weekly news conference. “I feel confident that the Department of Human Services is approaching this in the correct way.”

Branstad told reporters he hopes the lawsuit doesn’t delay the shift to a “managed care” system for Medicaid patients in Iowa. Critics are also raising concerns about the four companies that won the bids to manage Iowa’s Medicaid program. Branstad acknowledges the companies have had problems “in the past” but Branstad said those problems “have been corrected.”

“If you look at the four companies, they’re all four very substantial companies that have had significant experience and I guess I’d challenge you to find any Medicaid provider of any magnitude that hasn’t had some issues in the past,” Branstad said. “That’s just kind of the nature of it.”

The companies selected have been accused of mismanagement of Medicaid programs in the past. Winning Iowa contractor UnitedHealthCare was fined $173 million for its work in California’s Medicaid program and the company has sued California over the dispute. Amerigroup, another contractor selected to manage Iowa’s Medicaid program, paid $225 million dollars after it was accused of fraud in the Illinois Medicaid program.

(Photo by Asya Akca)

Branstad defends state tax incentives for new Kum & Go headquarters (AUDIO)

Terry Branstad speaking at his weekly news conference.

Terry Branstad speaking at his weekly news conference.

Governor Terry Branstad today called the “Kum & Go” convenience store chain a “great…family-owned”, Iowa-based business and he has no objection to the nearly $19 million in state tax incentives it will get for moving the company headquarters to downtown Des Moines.

“These decision are made by the Iowa Economic Development Authority Board and they have certain criteria in terms of job creation that they evaluate to determine who’s going to receive assistance,” Branstad said during his weekly news conference.

AUDIO of governor’s weekly news conference

Kum & Go executives have promised to create at least 90 new jobs in the new $151 million headquarters. The company’s existing headquarters is in West Des Moines. The company’s first store opened in 1959, in Hampton. Kum N Go is now the country’s fifth-largest privately-owned convenience store chain, with 432 outlets in 11 states.

(Photo by Asya Akca)

Iowa telecoms to use $53 million in federal money for broadband expansion


Michel Sadler of CenturyLink speaks at Branstad’s weekly news conference.

Governor Terry Branstad invited executives from four telecommunications companies to his weekly news conference this morning to tout recently announced federal grants that are destined to expand broadband access in rural areas. The $53 million will help 88,000 homes and business either connect to broadband for the first time or get access to higher download speeds.

“Access to broadband is critical to economic development, education, telemedicine and quality of life for all,” said Michael Sadler, a vice president with CenturyLink.

Gregory Gray, a regional manager for Windstream Communications, also spoke at today’s news conference.

“This will enable us to serve high cost areas and deliver new services to many others,” Gray said.

Frontier Communications, which serves 36 communities in western Iowa, will use its federal grant money to provide service to 5400 customers.

“Those are in the rural areas, the highest cost service areas, those that do not yet have service,” Jack Phillips of Frontier said.

Consolidated Communications serves eight northwest Iowa communities that used to get land-line service from Heartland Telephone.

“The economics associated with being able to do this would not happen without this support from the FCC,” said Mike Schultz of Consolidated.

Consolidated will offer broadband service to about 3000 customers once the expansion is complete. These companies are putting up an undisclosed amount of their own capital for these projects and each company will qualify for new state property tax credits. Governor Terry Branstad said he wants Iowa to be the “most connected” state in the Midwest.

“Obviously we want to do that as quickly as we can,” Branstad said. “And we want to get the speeds up as quickly as we can.”

The governor acknowledged it will take billions of dollars to expand broadband statewide with enough speed to download at 25 megabits a second.

O’Malley, on polls: ‘I’ve got them right where I want them’ (AUDIO)

Martin O'Malley takes selfies with Grinnell College students.

Martin O’Malley takes selfies with Grinnell College students.

Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley campaigned on three Iowa college campuses this weekend. O’Malley spoke to nearly 400 people on the Grinnell College campus early this afternoon.

“This is the crush, right?” O’Malley said, shortly after stepping onto a soapbox so he could be seen more easily by the audience, some of whom were sitting on the floor. “You’ve just gotten back to school, have all sorts of stuff to do. You could be at other places, but you’ve chosen to come here, so thank you.”

O’Malley drew long bursts of applause from the Grinnell crowd with his call for a $15 minimum wage, his pledge to support campaign finance reform and his review of the gun control measures he approved when he was governor of Maryland.

“After the slaughter of the innocent in Newtown, Connecticut, we forged a new consensus and we passed comprehensive gun safety legislation banning assault weapons,” O’Malley said, adding he also supports backgrounds checks and had signed a law that forbids gun magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

At the end of his speech to the Grinnell crowd, O’Malley acknowledged he faces “long odds” in his White House quest.

Martin O'Malley speaks to a crowd of students at Grinnell College.

Martin O’Malley speaks to a crowd of students at Grinnell College.

“When I first got into this race, we were at one percent in Iowa, but then because of the discernment, the good judgement, the diligence of Iowans who take their voting responsibilities seriously…we moved to three percent,” O’Malley said. “And then after another 30 days, we moved to even percent in Iowa, so I’ve got them right where I want them.”

The crowd laughed, then applauded. A Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register “Iowa Poll” released this weekend showed Hillary Clinton is the “first choice” of 37 percent of Democrats who’re likely to attend the Caucuses, with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders just seven points behind at 30 percent. Vice President Joe Biden was the first choice for another 14 percent of those polled. even though he’s not yet running, and O’Malley was the first choice of just three percent.

Otto Hall of Grinnell said O’Malley looked and sounded “presidential” — but Hall is waiting to see what Biden does.

“Sometimes he puts his foot in his mouth,” said Hall, who supported Biden in 1987 before Biden dropped out of that race. “But I think genuinely he’s a very bright guy and I’m just very interested to see if he’s going to jump in because that’s just going to be a seismic shake-up for the Democratic candidates.”

Laforest Sherman of Grinnell also listened to O’Malley today, but he’s backing Sanders.

“Bernie Sanders is a long shot, but we said the same thing about Barack Obama,” Sherman said. “…Maybe we’re ready for the kind of political revolution that we need.”

Kelly Bennett of Newton has heard O’Malley four times before and today he signed up to caucus for O’Malley.

“I like his progressive agenda. I don’t that I heard anything today that I don’t agree with politically,” Bennett said. “And of course, with him, we don’t have to worry about him being indicted anytime soon.”

O’Malley did not mention Hillary Clinton by name during his remarks to the crowd, but later while talking with audience members individually O’Malley complained about how much attention’s being paid to Clinton’s use of a personal email server while she was secretary of state and the attention focused on the “horserace” rather than the ideas the candidates are talking about on the campaign trail.

O’Malley was at Iowa State University in Ames Saturday night and he visited the University of Iowa campus late this afternoon. He’s touting his promise to find ways to reduce student debt and O’Malley gets big applause from college town audiences when he says climate change offers great business and job creation opportunities. O’Malley has said the U.S. should have a 100 percent “clean” electric grid by 2050.

AUDIO of O’Malley’s appearance in Grinnell, 45:00

(Photos by Asya Akca)

NAACP holds day-long symposium about racial disparities in Iowa prisons

Governor Branstad announced today has formed a new “working group” to address inequities in Iowa’s criminal justice system.

Branstad spoke at a day-long symposium in Ankeny that’s focused on the over-representation of African-Americans in Iowa prisons and Branstad promises his working group will review the racial make-up of juries in Iowa and even how much prison phone calls cost. Peter Wagner with the Prison Policy Initiative said Iowa’s rates are higher than other states.

“The result, then, is to punish the families that are trying to do the right thing by staying in touch,” Wagner said.

Representatives of the NAACP cite statistics showing Iowa has more minorities in prison, per capita, than any other state. Arnold Woods with the Des Moines chapter of the NAACP said it’s not an abstract topic for blacks.

“Each and every one of us here know someone that’s in the system,” Wood said. “If not one of our kindred, it’s one of our church members or one of our sorority or fraternity members. We all know someone who is in the system.”

Carlton Mayers, the criminal justice manager for the NAACP, advocates for the rights of prisoners after they’ve served their time. He’s urging Governor Branstad to make it easier for convicted felons to vote.

“I’m sorry, governor, but I’m going to put you on the spot. We pay taxes. Let us vote,” Mayer said, to applause from the crowd. “This is what the country was founded on. This is what led to the American revolution.”

Former Governor Tom Vilsack issued an executive order in 2005 that restored voting rights to felons after they finished their prison sentences, but Branstad undid that when he took office in 2011. Felons must submit an application to Branstad asking to have their voting rights restored and submit paperwork proving they have paid their court fines and restitution to victims.

Representatives from NAACP chapters from all over the state attended today’s symposium, along with representatives from law enforcement, the courts and the state’s prison system.

(Reporting by Iowa Public Radio’s Joyce Russell)