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‘Everybody in This Community Has a Gun’: How Oakland Lost Its Grip on Gun Violence

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Samantha Young
Tue, 28 Nov 2023 10:00:00 +0000

OAKLAND, Calif. — The red-tipped bullet pierces skin and melts into it, Javier Velasquez Lopez explains. The green-tipped bullet penetrates armored vests. And the hollow-tipped bullet expands as it tears through bodies.

At 19, Velasquez Lopez knows a lot about ammunition because many of his friends own guns, he said. They carry to defend themselves in East Oakland, where metal bars protect shop windows and churches stand behind tall, chain-link fences.

Some people even hide AR-15- assault weapons down their pants legs, he said.

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“It doesn't feel safe. Wherever you're at, you're always anxious,” said Velasquez Lopez, who dreams of leaving the city where he was born. “You're always wondering what's going to happen.”

Last year, two gunmen in ski masks stormed his high school, killing a school district carpenter and injuring five other adults, including two students.

Oakland won acclaim just a few years ago as a national model for gun violence prevention, in part by bringing police and community groups together to target the small number of people suspected of driving the gun violence.

Then, in 2020, the covid-19 pandemic shut down schools, businesses, and critical social services nationwide, leaving many low-income people isolated and desperate — facing the loss of their jobs, homes, or both. The same year, police murdered George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, which released pent-up fury over racial discrimination by law enforcement, education, and other institutions — sparking nationwide protests and calls to cut police funding.

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In the midst of this racial reckoning and facing the threats of an unknown and deadly virus, Americans bought even more guns, forcing some cities, such as Raleigh, North Carolina; Chicago; New York City; and Oakland, to confront a new wave of violent crime.

“There was emotional . There was physical damage,” said James Jackson, CEO of Alameda Health System, whose Wilma Chan Highland Hospital Campus, a regional trauma center in Oakland, treated 502 gunshot victims last year, compared with 283 in 2019. “And I think some of this violence that we're seeing is a manifestation of the damage that people experienced.”

Jackson is among a growing chorus of health experts who describe gun violence as a public health crisis that disproportionately affects Black and Hispanic residents in poor neighborhoods, the very people who disproportionately struggle with Type 2 diabetes and other preventable health conditions. Covid further eviscerated these communities, Jackson added.

While the pandemic has retreated, gun violence has not. Oaklanders, many of whom take pride in the ethnic diversity of their city, are overwhelmingly upset about the rise in violent crime — the shootings, thefts, and other street crimes. At town halls, City Council meetings, and protests, a broad cross-section of residents say they no longer feel safe.

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Programs that worked a few years ago don't seem to be making a dent now. City are spending millions to hire more police officers and fund dozens of community initiatives, such as placing violence prevention teams at high schools to steer kids away from guns and crime.

Yet gun ownership in America is at a historic high, even in California, which gun control advocates say has the strictest gun laws in the country. More than 1 million Californians bought a gun during the first year of the pandemic, according to the latest data from the state attorney general.

As Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price told an audience at a September town hall in East Oakland: “We are in a unique, crazy time where everybody in this community has a gun.”

The Streets of Oakland

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Oakland's flatlands southeast of are the backdrop of most of the city's shootings and murders.

The area stands in stark contrast to the extreme wealth of the millionaire homes that dot the Oakland Hills and the immaculate, flower-lined streets of downtown. The city's revived waterfront, named after famed author and local hero Jack London, draws tourists to trendy restaurants.

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On a Saturday night in August, Shawn Upshaw drove through the flatlands along International Boulevard, past the prostitutes who gather on nearly every corner for at least a mile, and into “hot spots,” where someone is shot nearly every weekend, he said.

“When I grew up, women and kids would get a pass. They wouldn't get caught in the crossfire,” said Upshaw, 52, who was born and raised in Oakland. “But now women and kids get it, too.”

Upshaw works as a violence interrupter for the city's Department of Violence Prevention, which coordinates with the police department and community in a program called Ceasefire.

When there's a shooting, the police department alerts Upshaw on his phone and he heads to the scene. He doesn't wear a police uniform. He's a civilian in street clothes: jeans and a black zip-up jacket. It makes him more approachable, he said, and he's not there to place blame, but rather to offer help and services to survivors and bystanders.

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The goal, he said, is to stop a retaliatory shooting by a rival gang or grieving family member.

Police also use crime data to approach people with gang affiliations or long criminal who are likely to use a gun in a crime — or be shot. Community groups follow up with offers of job training, education, meals, and more.

“We tell them they're on our radar and try to get them to recognize there are alternatives to street violence,” said Oakland Police Department Capt. Trevelyon Jones, head of Ceasefire. “We give them a safe way of backing out of a conflict while maintaining their street honor.”

Every Thursday at police headquarters, officers convene a “shooting review.” They team up with representatives from community groups to make house calls to victims and their relatives.

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After the program launched in 2012, Oakland's homicides plummeted and were down 39% in 2019, according to a report commissioned by the Oakland Police Department.

Then covid hit.

“You had primary care that became an issue. You had housing that became an issue. You had employment that became an issue,” said Maury Nation, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University. “It created a surplus of the people who fit that highest risk group, and that overwhelms something like Ceasefire.”

With ever-rising housing prices in Oakland and across California, homeless encampments have multiplied on sidewalks and under freeway bypasses. The city is also bracing for the loss of jobs and civic pride if the Oakland Athletics baseball team relocates after April 2024, following departures by the NBA's Golden State Warriors in 2019 and the NFL's Raiders in 2020.

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“Housing, food insecurity, not having jobs that pay wages for folks, all can lead to violence and mental health issues,” said Sabrina Valadez-Rios, who works at the Freedom Community Clinic in Oakland and teaches a high school class for students who have experienced gun violence. Her father was fatally shot outside their Oakland home when she was a child. “We need to teach kids how to deal with trauma. Violence is not going to stop in Oakland.”

Shared with permission from The Trace.

Homicides in Oakland climbed to 123 people in 2021, police reports show, dipping slightly to 120 last year. Police have tallied 108 homicides as of Nov. 12 this year. Neither the police department nor the city provided statistics on how many of those killings involved firearms, despite repeated requests from KFF Health News.

Experts also blame the rise in killings in Oakland and other American cities on the prevalence of gun ownership in the U.S., which has more guns than people. For all the pandemic disruption worldwide, homicide rates didn't go up in countries with strict gun laws, said Thomas Abt, director of the Center for the Study and Practice of Violence Reduction at the University of Maryland.

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“We saw gun violence, homicides, shootings spike up all around the country. And interestingly, it did not happen internationally,” Abt said. “The pandemic did not lead to more violence in other nations.”

Unrest in Oakland

Oakland residents are angry. One by one, business owners, community organizers, church leaders, and teenagers have stood at town halls and City Council meetings this year with an alarming message: They no longer feel safe anywhere in their city — at any time.

“It's not just a small number of people in the evening or nighttime. This is all hours, day and night,” said Noha Aboelata, founder of the Roots Community Health Center in Oakland. “Someone's over here pushing a stroller and someone's getting shot right next to them.”

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One morning in early April, automatic gunfire erupted outside a Roots clinic. Patients and staff members dropped to the ground and took . After the shooting stopped, medical assistants and a doctor gave first aid to a man in his 20s who had been shot six times.

Everyone is blaming someone or something else for the bloodshed.

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Business owners have had enough. In September, Target announced it would close nine stores in four states, including in Oakland because of organized retail theft; the famed Vietnamese restaurant Le Cheval shut its doors after 38 years, partly blaming car break-ins and other criminal activity for depressing its business; and more than 200 business owners staged an hours-long strike to protest the rise in crime.

The leadership of the local NAACP, the nation's oldest civil rights organization, made headlines this summer when it said Oakland was seeing a “heyday” for criminals, and pointed to the area's “failed leadership” and “movement to defund the police.”

“It feels like there's a dark cloud over Oakland,” said Cynthia Adams, head of the local chapter, which has called on the city to hire 250 more police officers.

Price, a progressive elected last year, already faces a recall effort, in part because she rejects blanket enhanced sentences for gangs and weapons charges, and has declined to charge youths as adults.

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The new mayor, Sheng Thao, was criticized for firing the police chief for misconduct and breaking a campaign promise to double funding at the city's Department of Violence Prevention. In her first State of the City address last month, Thao described the surge in crime as “totally and completely unacceptable,” and acknowledged that Oaklanders are hurting and scared. She said the city has expanded police foot patrols and funded six new police academies, as well as boosted funding for violence prevention and affordable housing.

“Not a day goes by where I don't wish I could just wave a magic wand and silence the gunfire,” Thao said.

Many in the community, including Valadez-Rios, advocate for broader investment in Oakland's poorest neighborhoods over more law enforcement.

City councils, states, and the federal government are putting their faith in violence prevention programs, in some cases bankrolling them from nontraditional sources, such as the state-federal Medicaid health insurance program for low-income people.

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Last month, California's Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom approved an 11% state tax on guns and ammunition, and $75 million of the revenue annually is expected to go to violence prevention programs.

Although these programs are growing in popularity, it is unclear how successful they are. In some cases, proven programs that involve law enforcement, such as Ceasefire, were cut back or shelved after George Floyd was murdered, said Abt, the Maryland researcher.

“The intense opposition to law enforcement means that the city was unwilling to use a portion of the tools that have been proven,” Abt said. “It's good to work on preventing youth violence, but the vast majority of serious violence is perpetrated by adults.”

Not a day goes by where I don't wish I could just wave a magic wand and silence the gunfire.

Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao

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A Focus on Schools

Kentrell Killens, interim chief at the Oakland Department of Violence Prevention, acknowledges that young adults drive Oakland's gun violence, not high school kids. But, he said, shootings on the streets affect children. Of the 171 homicides in 2019 and 2020, 4% of victims were 17 or under, while 59% were ages 18 to 34, according to the Oakland Police Department.

The number of children in nonfatal shootings is also worrisome, he said. Roughly 6% of victims and 14% of suspects in nonfatal shootings were 17 or younger in 2019 and 2020.

“We've seen the impact of violence on young people and how they have to make decisions around what roles they want to play,” said Killens, who spent a decade as a case manager working with schoolkids.

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By being in the schools, “we can deal with the conflicts” that could spill into the community, he added.

At Fremont High School, Principal Nidya Baez has welcomed a three-person team to her campus to confront gun violence. One caseworker focuses on gun violence and another on sexual assaults and healthy relationships. The third is a social worker who connects students and their families to services.

They are part of a $2 million city pilot program created after the Oakland School Board eliminated school-based police in 2020 — about one month after George Floyd was killed and after a nine-year push by community activists to kick police out of schools.

“We've been at a lot of funerals, unfortunately, for gang-related stuff or targeting of kids, wrong-place-wrong-time kind of thing,” said Baez, whose father was shot and injured on his ice cream truck when she was a child.

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When Francisco “Cisco” Cisneros, a violence interrupter from the nonprofit group Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, arrived at Fremont in January, students were wary, he said. Many still are. Students are hard-wired not to share information — not to be a “snitch” — or open up about themselves or their home life, especially to an adult, Cisneros said. And they don't want to talk to fellow students from another network, group, or gang.

“If we catch them at an early age, right now, we can change that mindset,” said Cisneros, who was born and raised in Oakland.

Cisneros pulls from his past to build a rapport with students. This summer, for example, when he overheard a student chatting on the phone to an uncle in jail, Cisneros asked about him. It turns out Cisneros and the boy's uncle had grown up in the same neighborhood.

That was enough to begin a relationship between Cisneros and the student, “J,” who declined to be identified by his full name for fear of retribution. The 16-year-old credits Cisneros, whom he as “like a dad,” with keeping him engaged in school and employed with summer jobs — away from trouble. Still, he regularly worries about making a wrong move.

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“You could do one thing and you could end up in a situation where your life is at risk,” J said in Cisneros' office. “You go from being in school one day to being in a very bad, sticky situation.”

The program is underway in seven high schools, and Cisneros believes he has helped prevent a handful of conflicts from escalating into gun violence.

A Better Life

After his school counselor was shot at Rudsdale High School in September 2022, Velasquez Lopez heard that the man and other victims were treated at nearby Highland Hospital.

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“Seeing him get , he obviously needed medical attention,” Velasquez Lopez said. “That made it obvious I could help my community if I were to be a nurse to help people that live around my area.”

When a recruiter from the Alameda Health System came to campus to promote a six-week internship at Highland Hospital, Velasquez Lopez applied. It was, he said, a dramatic step for a student who had never cared about school or sought vocational training.

Over the summer, he volunteered in the emergency room, learned how to take a patient's vitals, watched blood transfusions, and translated for Spanish-speaking patients.

Velasquez Lopez, who graduated this year, is now looking for ways to get a nursing degree. The cost of college is out of reach at the moment, but he knows he doesn't want to stay in a city where you can easily buy a gun for $1,000 — or half that, if it's been used in a crime.

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Velasquez Lopez said he has bigger goals for himself.

Young people in East Oakland “always feel like we're trapped in that community, and we can't get out,” he said. “But I feel like we still have a chance to change our lives.”

This article was produced by KFF Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation. 

——————————
By: Samantha Young
Title: ‘Everybody in This Community Has a Gun': How Oakland Lost Its Grip on Gun Violence
Sourced From: kffhealthnews.org/news/article/gun-violence-oakland-shootings-interrupters-crime/
Published Date: Tue, 28 Nov 2023 10:00:00 +0000

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Kaiser Health News

Bathroom Bills Are Back — Broader and Stricter — In Several States

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Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez
Thu, 29 Feb 2024 10:00:00 +0000

Republican lawmakers in several states have resurrected and expanded the fight over whether transgender people may use bathrooms and other facilities that do not match their sex assigned at birth.

At least one bill goes so far as making it a crime for a transgender person to enter a facility that doesn't match the sex listed on their birth certificate.

The debate has been popping up in statehouses across the nation in recent months, predominantly in conservative, rural states, including at a hearing of the Arizona Senate's Health and Human Services Committee in February. Proponents of that state's SB 1628, which defines “male,” “female,” and other terms through rigid definitions of biological sex, argued that women's rights are at stake. Opponents disagreed and said the language would erase transgender people from state statute and remove legal protections.

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The bill states that Arizona may provide “separate single-sex” environments for males and females, including within athletics, living facilities, locker rooms, bathrooms, domestic violence shelters, and sexual assault crisis centers, meaning that transgender women could be prohibited from entering such spaces meant for women. Researchers have found that transgender women experience assault at a rate nearly four times as high as cisgender women.

The latest round of proposals, like the one in Arizona, expand on an earlier spate of “bathroom bills,” which sought to restrict transgender people's access to public restrooms and locker rooms. In some instances, the proposed laws would extend far beyond access to facilities by excluding trans people from state anti-discrimination laws and dictating makeup of athletic teams. Legal experts say the new bills put states at risk of violating federal anti-discrimination laws, which could throw billions of dollars in federal into jeopardy for states and crisis centers that federal grants.

At least one state — Utah — removed lines that specifically mention shelters and similar facilities because of concerns about losing federal funding.

In addition to the bill passed in Utah, lawmakers introduced similar bills in Idaho, Georgia, Arizona, New Mexico, Iowa, and Virginia. The measures mirror a model bill created by the Independent Women's Law Center, a conservative nonprofit that seeks to rewrite state laws to rely on sex assigned at birth. Versions of the policy were approved through legislation or executive orders last year in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Montana. A similar bill was also introduced in Congress last year by Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) and Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.)

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Jennifer Braceras, vice president for legal affairs and founder of the Independent Women's Law Center, testified in of the proposal in Arizona.

“Everyday Americans know that a woman is an adult human female,” Braceras said, referring to the definition in the bill that a female is “an individual who has, had, will have or would have, but for a developmental anomaly or accident, the reproductive system that at some point produces ova.”

She told state lawmakers that activists seek to convince judges and others that who identify as women have an unfettered right to enter women's spaces and said the policy is a tool to restrict that access.

Braceras added that just because the model legislation does not include gender in its definitions, that doesn't prohibit state lawmakers from choosing to include it in their policies. Conservative proponents of the legislation emphasize the difference between sex and gender, saying the former is an immutable biological fact and the latter a set of cultural norms.

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The narrow definition of sex and provisions that declare certain spaces be protected as “single-sex environments,” including domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers in some states' versions of the policy, raise questions about compliance with federal laws that prohibit discrimination based on sex or gender.

Anya Marino, director of LGBTQI equality at the National Women's Law Center, said that if a court found these state statutes at odds with federal laws, the federal law that ensures protection on the basis of gender would supersede the state laws.

Beyond how the laws could be interpreted or implemented, Marino expressed concern about other consequences these debates can have, including violence against people who “fail to conform against an extremist idealistic view of how sexes should appear,” she said.

“It's part of a larger objective to control people through body policing to determine how they love and how they navigate their lives.”

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Yet the legal ramifications are unclear.

In Montana, where one of these proposals became law after SB 458 was approved during last year's , lawmakers weighed the risks of potentially violating federal law and losing billions in funding.

The state's legislative fiscal analysts determined that $7.5 billion in federal funds were on the line in the first year, depending on how state agencies implemented the law and whether those actions were deemed violations of anti-discrimination laws. The bill passed regardless and was signed by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte.

A legal challenge of the statute is pending. Regardless, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services cited the law's passage as justification to revive a ban on transgender people changing the sex designation on their birth certificate. The ban was originally instituted in 2022 and struck down by a judge before the new law passed.

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“DPHHS must follow the law, and our agency will consequently requests to amend sex markers on birth certificates under our 2022 final rule,” department director Charlie Brereton said in a Feb. 20 statement announcing the change.

Lawmakers in Utah removed language specifically identifying domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers as “sex-designated” spaces that could exclude transgender people after hearing concerns from local and state about losing federal funding. Though lawmakers removed mention of those specific venues from the bill, they kept provisions that prohibit transgender people from entering sex-designated restrooms, public showers, or locker rooms that don't correspond with their sex assigned at birth unless their birth certificate has been amended or they've undergone gender-affirming surgery accordingly. The bill was fast-tracked, approved, and signed by Republican Gov. Spencer Cox two weeks after the legislative session began.

More recently, West Virginia lawmakers removed language from HB 5243 that named domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers as places where the state could distinguish between the sexes.

Republican Delegate Kathie Hess Crouse, lead sponsor of the bill, said the language was removed because it was unnecessary.

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“By removing the specific examples, we're making it extremely clear that this list is not the full list of single-sex environments that West Virginia may have,” she said.

The West Virginia House approved the bill in February and it is pending approval from the Senate.

Asked about constituents who testified in opposition to the bill with concerns that it would negatively affect transgender people, Hess Crouse said they were misinformed. She asserted the bill doesn't create new rights or take any away.

“The bill is a definitional bill for our courts to have guidance when interpreting laws that already exist in West Virginia,” she said. “If anyone in the state is not happy with the laws we already have on the books, they can work with their legislator to bring a bill that changes the law.”

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Hugo Polanco, a trial attorney for the Maricopa County public defender's office, testified in opposition to the bill in Arizona on behalf of the state's American Civil Liberties Union chapter.

“Let's be clear,” he said. “Trans rights are women's rights. Advances in trans rights tear down barriers based on gender stereotypes, creating the for each of us to determine our own life story.”

Alex del Rosario, a national organizer with the National Center for Transgender Equality, said this slate of bills harms transgender people by attempting to eliminate protections for them.

“Policing people's bodies while excluding transgender and intersex people from using the restroom does not protect anyone's privacy,” they said. “Extremist politicians have been taking advantage of the American public, projecting a false image of transgender people, especially transgender women, to stoke fear and distrust of a community that many people don't understand.”

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——————————
By: Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez
Title: Bathroom Bills Are Back — Broader and Stricter — In Several States
Sourced From: kffhealthnews.org/news/article/state-bathroom-bills-sex-definitions-transgender-trans/
Published Date: Thu, 29 Feb 2024 10:00:00 +0000

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Kaiser Health News

Readers Call on Congress to Bolster Medicare and Fix Loopholes in Health Policy

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Thu, 29 Feb 2024 10:00:00 +0000

Letters to the Editor is a periodic feature. We welcome all comments and will publish a selection. We edit for length and clarity and require full names.

Occupational Therapists Change Lives. CMS Must Better Support Them.

Occupational therapists are critical in helping adjust to new circumstances, empowering them with the tools they need to overcome barriers and regain control over their lives. Whether you're transitioning from homelessness into a home (“In Los Angeles, Occupational Therapists Tapped to Help Homeless Stay Housed,” Jan. 24) or relearning how to do everyday tasks a stroke, OTs are key to patients' care plan.

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But the critical care provided by OTs is being threatened by another year of payment cuts imposed by Medicare, our nation's health care program for people age 65 and up. Many older patients treated by OTs access insurance coverage through Medicare, which typically reimburses providers at a lower rate than private insurers. And now, with payment cuts that went into effect on Jan. 1 — despite warnings and backlash from lawmakers, patients, and providers — OTs are struggling to deliver care with lower Medicare payment.

Investing in occupational therapy improves health outcomes for patients, has the potential to reduce the burden on hospitals and other health care clinicians, and keeps individuals healthy and independent. Medicare's payment cuts only compromise the ability of providers to deliver comprehensive, compassionate care. Medicare must recognize the long-term patient benefits occupational therapy has to offer.

Luckily, Congress is considering a bill that would reverse these harmful payment cuts. The Preserving Seniors' Access to Physicians Act of 2023 (HR 6683), would reverse the cuts that went into effect on Jan. 1, alleviating financial stress for occupational therapists and preserving patient access. I strongly urge lawmakers to prioritize and protect occupational therapy services and immediately pass HR 6683 for America's Medicare patients.

— Doug Fosco, an occupational therapist practicing at Two Trees Physical Therapy in Ventura, California

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An assistant professor at Ontario's Western weighed in on X.

Great to see the role of #occupationaltherapy with persons who experience #homelessness profiled in @latimes. Thanks #deborahpitts for your work in LA with @USC and #skidrowhousingtrust . Check it out @CAOT_ACE @OSOTvoice ! @CAEHomelessness https://t.co/S5s9jhgoxI

— Carrie Anne Marshall, PhD (@cannemarshall) January 24, 2024

— Carrie Anne Marshall, Sydenham, Ontario

Congress Must Finish the Job on Site-Neutral Payments

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There's an obvious solution to rein in government spending and patient out-of-pocket costs: Pay identical prices for identical care (“In Fight Over Medicare Payments, the Hospital Lobby Shows Its Strength,” Feb. 13).

As a community oncologist, it is clear to me how Medicare favors hospitals by paying more for services provided in hospital outpatient departments (HOPDs) than the same care delivered in community-based facilities. For example, last year, Medicare paid over 2.5 times as much in an HOPD as in a free-standing office for drug administration services. It's not just Medicare paying too much; patients also face higher out-of-pocket costs for care provided in HOPDs. If the Lower Costs, More Transparency Act is signed into law, cancer patients would immediately pay less for treatments like chemotherapy.

One unintended consequence of current payment disparities is consolidation. To leverage higher reimbursements, health systems scoop up independent practices — a growing problem that is particularly pronounced in oncology. From 2008 to 2020, 435 community cancer clinics closed, while 722 contracted with or were acquired by hospitals. This consolidation is reducing patient access, particularly in rural areas, where many independent clinics operate small satellite sites that tend to be the first to close when hospitals acquire a community-based practice.

It's time for Congress to finish the job through bills like the Lower Costs, More Transparency Act and the SITE Act, which would level the playing field once and for all.

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— Scott Rushing, Vancouver, Washington

The chief marketing officer of SKYGEN cut to the chase on X.

In the battle to control healthcare costs, hospitals are deploying their political power to protect their bottom lines. https://t.co/97r502KrpM

— Donald H. Polite (@DonaldPolite) February 15, 2024

— Donald H. Polite, Milwaukee

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The ‘Gold Card' Shuffle

Prior authorization, by definition, creates delays in care and bureaucratic barriers for physicians — which is why it is so troubling that many insurers now require prior authorization for large categories of procedures with no evidence of overuse or inappropriate use. With health insurers increasingly implementing questionable prior authorization policies, state and federal lawmakers are racing to erect safeguards that ensure patients' access to timely care (“States Target Health Insurers' ‘Prior Authorization' Red Tape,” Feb. 12).

Much of the legislation to address this growing problem centers around the use of “Gold Cards” that exempt providers whose previous requests for prior authorization have been approved for a certain period. In general, these laws are important for patients who can't afford to wait for care — especially in the field of gastroenterology where severe abdominal pain or blood in the stool could indicate a serious condition like cancer.

However, some insurance companies are co-opting the “Gold Card” term to justify new prior authorization requirements instead of streamlining existing ones. Consider the case of UnitedHealthcare, which announced it would roll out a “Gold Card” prior authorization program this year for most colonoscopies and endoscopies. No other insurer has levied such a policy, nor does the research suggest there is an overutilization of these vital services. Despite nearly a year of good faith efforts to seek transparency and guidance from UHC, the company has failed to release any data or justification that these services are improperly utilized.

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If anything, diagnostic and surveillance colonoscopies and endoscopies may be underutilized. New research from the American Cancer Society shows an alarming spike in the number of younger Americans being diagnosed with and dying from colorectal cancer. Since symptoms of colorectal cancer don't often appear until the disease is at a more advanced stage, early detection is key. Any disruption to surveillance colonoscopies (which follow removal of a precancerous polyp and are part of the screening continuum) caused by UHC's forthcoming prior authorization policy would be dangerous for the company's 27 million commercial beneficiaries.

The American Gastroenterological Association strongly urges UHC to rescind its “Gold Card” prior authorization policy. Policymakers must monitor how insurers are co-opting concepts meant to protect patients, in particular UHC's faux “Gold Card,” which threatens patient access to a procedure proven to save lives.

— Barbara Jung, president of the American Gastroenterological Association, Seattle

In an X post, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute pointed out the value in requiring prior authorization.

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Case-by-case prior authorization is never fun, but surely preferable to most other methods of eliminating needless spending (ex post denials of reimbursement, higher cost-sharing, capped global budgets, etc…) https://t.co/nYijeiAUtP

— Chris Pope (@CPopeHC) February 12, 2024

— Chris Pope, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, New York City

Hospice in Prison: A Transformative View

I was so impressed with Markian Hawryluk's exceptionally well-written article “Death and Redemption in an American Prison” (Feb. 21). I was privileged to serve as an inaugural member of the American Hospital Association's Circle of Award committee, from 1999 to 2004. The were established to recognize the most outstanding hospice and palliative care programs in the U.S. The very first year, we received an application from the country's largest maximum-security prison in Angola, Louisiana, the subject of Mr. Hawryluk's wonderful article. The prison was one of the five finalists chosen for a site visit in 2000. I volunteered to be on team to visit and evaluate the prison's hospice services.

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Twenty-four years later, I still remember my conversation with one of the inmate volunteers who had just returned from bathing and feeding a dying prisoner. He told me the inmate said, “I love you.” Then the inmate volunteer stated, “I never heard those words before — not from my father, who I never met, nor from my mother.” In 2000, if one were to life at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, there was no chance for parole. When we met with the warden, he mentioned there was a waiting list of prisoners who wanted to be hospice volunteers.

Please convey my deep appreciation to Mr. Hawryluk for his outstanding article.

— Paul Hofmann, president of the Hofmann Healthcare Group, Moraga, California

A digital storyteller shared the article on X.

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Your one, long read for today – it's beautifully and thoughtfully written and reported”Sometimes when you're in a dark place, you find out who you really are and what you wish you could be,” Steven Garner said. “Even in darkness, I could be a light.”https://t.co/57asjh11ZV

— Ameera B. ا ميرة بت 🪬 (@meerabee) February 19, 2024

— Ameera Butt, Los Angeles

Feeling Insecure Because of Social Security Tactics

When will you continue your series on the overpayments to the Social Security Administration (“Overpayment Outrage”)? People are still suffering without benefits because the agency says people were overpaid and wants the money back. Why is nobody else asking more questions?

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People in this country worked hard and paid taxes. And when it is time to retire, the Social Security Administration refuses to pay if, all of a sudden, it discovers you have been overpaid. They have told me I owe them $30,000 from over 20 years ago, and I do not know what they are talking about, but they want to take my retirement money until it's paid off. Or they want you to say it is OK to take a percentage out. Doing that would say you're guilty and you owe the money — to me, that's blackmail.

New immigrants get free phones, medical care, debit cards, food assistance, schooling … that comes to more than my little amount of retirement money. It seems the government can afford to take care of them, but not their own. Everyone who has had their Social Security taken away should be entitled to the free services they get, as we are in the same position — now we have nothing either.

Troy, New York City

Lifelong Minnesotan and epidemiologist Eric Weinhandl chimed in on X.

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Relatively severe incompetency. Social Security Chief Apologizes to Congress for Misleading Testimony on Overpaymentshttps://t.co/HYPcTU5tVW

— Eric Weinhandl (@eric_weinhandl) December 27, 2023

— Eric Weinhandl, Victoria, Minnesota

A Balanced View of the Law Curbing Surprise Bills

KFF Health ' Elisabeth Rosenthal has long advocated for quality, patient-centric medical care. However, her recent article, “The No Surprises Act Comes with Some Surprises” (Feb. 14), falls short in its analysis of surprise medical billing and the federal No Surprises Act (NSA). While she places blame on physicians, the reality is more complicated.

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Patients with health insurance should not be burdened with paying more than their normal in-network cost-sharing amount for unexpected out-of-network care. This is not controversial. The legislative debate was never about whether to act on surprise billing, but rather how to act. While insurers favored policies that would allow them to calculate the payment rate medical providers receive, with the NSA, Congress instead chose an approach intended to protect sustainable payment rates that would preserve patients' access to care. The NSA removes patients from payment disputes between insurers and providers and is intended to encourage negotiations between insurers and providers, with an option for neutral arbitration.

Rosenthal's article implies a “greedy doctor” narrative, omitting discussion of insurers as contributing to the problems with the NSA's implementation. While the article notes that many requests for arbitration came from private equity-associated provider organizations, it neglected to note that a single insurance company (UnitedHealthcare) was involved in almost 40% of arbitration disputes. That is more than the rest of the top five insurance organizations combined. The article also quotes and references papers by Zack Cooper, whose undisclosed connections with UnitedHealthcare came to light through litigation. As reported, UnitedHealthcare not only provided data to Cooper, but helped frame the narrative of the work.

NSA rulemaking has financially incentivized insurers to leverage the NSA to unilaterally reduce existing contracted rates and push physicians out-of-network. As for the projected number of requests for arbitration in 2022 (which underestimated “providers' ire by an order of magnitude”), that projection ignored existing data. In just the first six months of 2021, Texas alone had more than twice as many arbitration submissions for its state law as the federal government projected for the nation for a full year. More importantly, the article ignores the issue of why doctors request arbitration. Since arbitration is baseball-style and “loser pays,” there is a strong disincentive to request it without a solid reason. In the second quarter of 2023, providers won nearly 80% of disputes, reflecting the fact that doctors are going to arbitration when insurers' actions are unreasonable.

Further, while it is true that before the NSA too many patients were receiving bills for unexpected out-of-network care, a report from the Department of Health and Human Services noted that out-of-network billing was actually declining prior to the NSA. Physician survey data suggests that post-NSA out-of-network care is now increasing due to some insurers' actions.

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The bipartisan NSA is a balanced solution to a complicated problem. Difficulties with the law's implementation, the volume of dispute submissions and backlog of cases, are due to unintended consequences from rulemaking. Addressing these challenges requires an honest conversation about their cause. Going forward, rulemaking is needed to promote fair network contracting, limit the need for arbitration, and, most importantly, protect patients' access to care.

— Rich Heller, a pediatric radiologist and the associate chief medical officer for health policy, Radiology Partners, Chicago

Anesthetist-emergency physician-family doctor David Moniz, in an X post, warned of the “unseen consequences” of the No Surprises Act.

Check out the surprising outcomes of the No Surprises Act, designed to protect patients from unexpected medical bills. While it's successfully shielded many patients, there are unseen consequences. Read the full article here: https://t.co/YFa0xweRe7#health, #healthpolicy, #he

— David Moniz (@DavidMoniz15) February 14, 2024

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— David Moniz, Chilliwack, British Columbia

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Title: Readers Call on Congress to Bolster Medicare and Fix Loopholes in Health Policy
Sourced From: kffhealthnews.org/news/article/reader-response-congress-medicare-health-policy-loopholes-letters-to-editor/
Published Date: Thu, 29 Feb 2024 10:00:00 +0000

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Kaiser Health News

Hacking at UnitedHealth Unit Cripples a Swath of the US Health System: What to Know

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Darius Tahir
Thu, 29 Feb 2024 10:00:00 +0000

Early in the morning of Feb. 21, Change , a company unknown to most Americans that plays a huge role in the U.S. health system, issued a brief statement saying some of its applications were “currently unavailable.”

By the afternoon, the company described the situation as a “cyber security” problem.

Since then, it has rapidly blossomed into a crisis.

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The company, recently purchased by insurance giant UnitedHealth Group, reportedly suffered a cyberattack. The impact is wide and expected to grow. Change Healthcare's business is maintaining health care's pipelines — payments, requests for insurers to authorize care, and much more. Those pipes handle a big load: Change says on its website, “Our cloud-based network supports 14 billion clinical, financial, and operational transactions annually.”

Initial reports have focused on the impact on pharmacies, but techies say that's understating the issue. The American Hospital Association says many of its members aren't getting paid and that doctors can't check whether patients have coverage for care.

But even that's just a slice of the emergency: CommonWell, an institution that helps health providers share medical records, information critical to care, also relies on Change technology. The system contained records on 208 million individuals as of July 2023. Courtney Baker, CommonWell marketing , said the network “has been disabled out of an abundance of caution.”

“It's small ripple pools that will get bigger and bigger over time, if it doesn't get solved,” Saad Chaudhry, chief digital and information officer at Luminis Health, a hospital system in Maryland, told KFF Health .

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Here's what to know about the hack:

Who Did It?

Media reports are fingering ALPHV, a notorious ransomware group also known as Blackcat, which has become the target of numerous law enforcement agencies worldwide. While UnitedHealth Group has said it is a “suspected nation-state associated” attack, some outside analysts dispute the linkage. The gang has previously been blamed for hacking casino companies MGM and Caesars, among many other targets.

The Department of Justice alleged in December, before the Change hack, that the group's victims had already paid it hundreds of millions of dollars in ransoms.

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Is This a New Problem?

Absolutely not. A study published in JAMA Health Forum in December 2022 found that the annual number of ransomware attacks against hospitals and other providers doubled from 2016 to 2021.

“It's more of the same, man,” said Aaron Miri, the chief digital and information officer at Baptist Health in Jacksonville, Florida.

Because the assaults disable the target's computer systems, providers have to shift to paper, slowing them down and making them vulnerable to missing information.

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Further, a study published in May 2023 in JAMA Network Open examining the effects of an attack on a health system found that waiting times, median length of stay, and incidents of patients leaving against medical advice all increased — at neighboring emergency departments. The results, the authors wrote, mean cyberattacks “should be considered a regional disaster.”

Attacks have devastated rural hospitals, Miri said. And wherever health care providers are hit, patient safety issues follow.

What Does It Mean for Patients?


If You're Caught in a Cybersecurity Breach, Here Are Steps to Take:

– Monitor the notices and bills you receive from insurers and providers. Contact them immediately if anything seems suspicious.– If a medical provider requests your Social Security number on intake forms, leave the space blank, and politely push back if they insist.– If your health plan offers credit or identity theft monitoring a breach, take it.If you're concerned your data has been compromised: – Go to the Federal Trade Commission's identity theft site to file an identity theft report, if appropriate.– If someone used your name to get medical care, contact every provider who may have been involved and get copies of your medical records. Correct any errors.– Notify your health plan's fraud department and send a copy of the FTC identity theft report.– File free fraud alerts with the three major credit agencies.Michelle Andrews

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Year after year, more Americans' health data is breached. That exposes people to identity theft and medical error.

Care can also suffer. For example, a 2017 attack, dubbed “NotPetya,” forced a rural West Virginia hospital to reboot its operations and hit pharma company Merck so hard it wasn't able to fulfill production targets for an HPV vaccine.

Because of the Change Healthcare attack, some patients may be routed to new pharmacies less affected by billing problems. Patients' bills may also be delayed, industry executives said. At some point, many patients are likely to receive notices their data was breached. Depending on the exact data that has been pilfered, those patients may be at risk for identity theft, Chaudhry said. Companies often offer free credit monitoring services in those situations.

“Patients are dying because of this,” Miri said. Indeed, an October preprint from researchers at the University of Minnesota found a nearly 21% increase in mortality for patients in a ransomware-stricken hospital.

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How Did It Happen?

The Health Information Sharing and Analysis Center, an industry coordinating group that disseminates intel on attacks, has told its members that flaws in an application called ConnectWise ScreenConnect are to blame. Exact details couldn't be confirmed.

It's a tool tech support teams use to remotely troubleshoot computer problems, and the attack is “apparently fairly trivial to execute,” H-ISAC warned members. The group said it expects additional victims and advised its members to their technology. When the attack first hit, the AHA recommended its members disconnect from systems both at Change and its corporate parent, UnitedHealth's Optum unit. That would affect services ranging from claims approvals to reference tools.

Millions of Americans see physicians and other practitioners employed by UnitedHealth and are covered by the company's insurance plans.

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UnitedHealth has said only Change's systems are affected and that it's safe for hospitals to use other digital services provided by UnitedHealth and Optum, which include claims filing and processing systems.

But not many chief information “are jumping to reconnect,” Chaudhry said. “It's an uneasy feeling.”

Miri says Baptist is using the conglomerate's technology and that he trusts UnitedHealth's word that it's safe.

Where's the Federal Government?

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Neither executive was sanguine about the future of cybersecurity in health care. “It's going to get worse,” Chaudhry said.

“It's a shame the feds aren't helping more,” Miri said. “You'd think if our nuclear were under attack the feds would respond with more gusto.”

While the departments of Justice and State have targeted the ALPHV group, the government has stayed behind the scenes more in the aftermath of this attack. Chaudhry said the FBI and the Department of Health and Human Services have been attending calls organized by the AHA to brief members about the situation.

Miri said rural hospitals in particular could use more funding for security and that agencies like the Food and Drug Administration should have mandatory standards for cybersecurity.

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There's some recognition among officials that improvements need to be made.

“This latest attack is just more evidence that the status quo isn't working and we have to take steps to shore up cybersecurity in the health industry,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and a longtime advocate for stronger cybersecurity, in a statement to KFF Health News.

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By: Darius Tahir
Title: Hacking at UnitedHealth Unit Cripples a Swath of the US Health System: What to Know
Sourced From: kffhealthnews.org/news/article/unitedhealth-change-healthcare-blackcat-hack-cybersecurity/
Published Date: Thu, 29 Feb 2024 10:00:00 +0000

Did you miss our previous article…
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