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Valley Lawyer Speaks on Gitmo Hunger Strike; Technoglitch at Unemployment Offices; West Nile Virus, EEE in Valley; Walmart Opponents Join Forces; Amherst Readies for Rental Registration; and more

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Tuesday, August 06, 2013
Toby Talbot | AP
FILE - In this June 9, 2009 file photo, workers man the control room at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, Vt. The owner of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant says about 30 jobs will be cut by the end of the year. Entergy Corp. spokesman Terry Young says that the cuts represent about a 4 percent reduction from the Vernon plant's workforce and are part of about 800 layoffs throughout the company.(AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)

Valley Lawyer Speaks on Gitmo Hunger Strike

Next week, Valley attorney Buz Eisenberg will speak in Northampton about the situation at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba—although what news he’ll have to report remains to be seen. “Things are moving very fast right now in Guantanamoville,” he recently told the Advocate.

Over the past nine years, Eisenberg has represented seven clients at the U.S. military detention center, where a reported 166 international prisoners are currently being held. Two of his clients remain at the prison: Mohammad Abdullah Taha Mattan, a Palestinian from the West Bank, and Motai Saib, an Algerian Syrian. Both men have been cleared for transfer but have yet to be released from the camp.

Mattan and Saib have also been participating in the hunger strike that began at the prison last winter. Some hunger strikers have been restrained in chairs and force fed through tubes in their noses. While his clients have both lost considerable weight, Eisenberg said, they have agreed to take some food (like the nutrition drink Ensure) “to avoid the tube.”

The strike began after a change in command at the camp led to new “draconian search practices,” including searches of prisoners’ Korans and confiscation of personal items, including family photographs, Eisenberg said. After some of the men spoke of those incidents to their attorneys, he said, they were subjected to genital searches. From those initial triggers, he added, the strike has, for some of the prisoners, come to be a protest of the unfair nature of their indefinite detention at the camp.

While Eisenberg described conditions at Guantanamo as “dreadful and inhumane and not only a violation of law but morality,” he did note that recent developments hold some promise. Most significantly, in May, President Obama, in a speech on his administration’s counter-terrorism policy, called for the closing of the camp. The president had made a similar call shortly after taking office but was foiled by resistance from Congress. In his May speech, Obama also called for the creation of a facility on U.S. soil where the prisoners could be detained and tried—a proposal Republican critics promptly pushed back against.

At his Northampton speech, as in all his public comments about the camp, Eisenberg will have to follow strict government rules that forbid his discussing information deemed classified. “The greatest impediment is we can’t communicate with the media and citizens the most important and salient facts,” he said. “We know secrecy is always the enemy of good government. In this case, secrecy has kept Guantanamo in the gutter.”

But with the potential for significant change on the horizon, it’s crucial for the public to stay informed, Eisenberg added: “In the wake of 9/11 we descended into the post-Constitutional era of U.S. history. The president’s recent speech on counter-terrorism offers the country the opportunity to begin to dig its way out of the inhumane hole we’ve dug ourselves into. So it’s more important than ever that people understand what’s happening in Guantanamo and communicate it to those with the political power to effect change.”

Eisenberg will give a free talk, “The Guantanamo Hunger Strike: Starving for Justice,” on Tuesday, Aug. 13, at 7 p.m. at the Northampton Friends Meeting, 43 Center St.


Technoglitch at Unemployment Offices

Since July 1, people claiming unemployment benefits in Massachusetts have had to deal with a new digital system. And it’s been a nightmare, applicants say. The Advocate received this message from one local would-be user who describes himself as “a technical person” who do[es] technology for a living”:

“I found the new system at UI [Unemployment Insurance] to be very confusing, and I can’t imagine someone non-technical understanding all the nuisances. ...I did have one week left to collect my [weekly unemployment check of $121] when the new UI software went live. It was so counterintuitive—kept having me click in circles—that I just gave up and decided the final $121 check wasn’t worth the aggravation. ...I joked with my wife that the unemployment rate in Mass. would probably drop to 2 percent in July because so many people would be stuck trying to navigate the system and just give up.”

In central Massachusetts, the Worcester Unemployment Action Group has called on the state to make more help available to claimants trying to navigate the new system. Early in July, some people were turned away with nothing but a phone number and a Web address written on a piece of paper, the group said, and there were rumors that state unemployment workers were being laid off.

WUAG is circulating a petition to Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Joanne Goldstein, asking that her department “reinstate the staffed Claims Desks at the One Stop Career Centers, and adequately staff them with knowledgeable people. Many of us need this face-to-face assistance to find our way through your system.”

When the Advocate asked Michael Truckey, director of LWD’s Franklin-Hampshire Career Centers in Northampton and Greenfield, if there had been layoffs in his district, he said, “No, there have not. I am happy to report that I was able to budget everybody this year.” Truckey said staff in those offices were available to help people navigate the new system. The state says that no one is being laid off, but that workers at unemployment offices will no longer help fill out applications for benefits, as they did when the filings were done on paper.

 

West Nile Virus, EEE in Valley

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health has announced that West Nile Virus has been found in mosquitoes collected from Northampton, West Springfield and Chicopee, and Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) has been found in mosquitoes collected from Amherst. Both diseases are potentially fatal, though the mortality rate for WNV is much lower than for EEE. The DPH reminds people to wear long pants and long sleeves, use a mosquito repellent ­with DEET, permethrin, picaridin (KBR 3023), oil of lemon eucalyptus or IR3535 when going outdoors, keep screens in good repair, and get rid of standing water on their property. —SK

 

Walmart Opponents Join Forces

About a month after they began organizing, opponents to the proposed Holyoke Walmart Supercenter are building up a head of steam.

The campaign began with Holyoke First, a group of residents of the area near Whiting Farms Road, where the 160,000-square-foot store would be built. Holyoke First was quickly joined by a number of labor and community groups, among them Western Mass. Jobs With Justice and the Sisters of St. Joseph, as well as the anti-big box consulting firm Sprawl-Busters, led by legendary Walmart-stopper Al Norman of Greenfield. Those groups and individual residents have formed an umbrella coalition called Stop Walmart in Holyoke (see www.facebook.com/StopWalmartInHolyoke).

They’ve also secured the support of Mayor Alex Morse, who late last month spoke at an opposition meeting, where he pledged to be their “ally in City Hall.”

“Holyoke is making a comeback,” Morse said, noting his administration’s long-term focus on creating “a city that enables the creativity and ingenuity of its citizens, and that invests in top-notch public infrastructure, stimulates private investment, and provides opportunities for businesses and residents to flourish.”

While the city’s short-term needs include jobs, he said, “Walmart’s business model relies on depressing the costs of labor—providing lower wages and fewer benefits than its competitors and employing 40 [percent] of its workers on [a] part-time basis only. The result of this model is to drive better-paying jobs out of communities.”

Morse also expressed concerns about the store’s potential effects on efforts to revive Holyoke’s downtown and about its location in a residential area.

Walmart says the proposed Holyoke store would create 340 jobs. The company’s website says it pays workers an average of $13.75 an hour, employs more than 10,000 people in Massachusetts, and in fiscal 2013 paid $32.4 million in local and state taxes here.

The company will hold a public event about its plans on Monday, Aug. 12, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Holyoke Community College’s Kittredge Center. Opponents will, no doubt, be there in force. —MT

 

What Caused High Rad Readings?

On June 14 and on July 11, radiation detectors at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant near Brattleboro gave false high readings, the plant’s operators reported. Later it was learned that the malfunction occurred on two other occasions later in July.

Plant officials initially told the public that hot, humid weather had caused the high readings.
But they told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission something else: “The cause of the spurious spikes is attributed to an unknown source of electrical noise. The issue with spurious spiking has been entered into the station’s corrective action program.”

More important than a temporary spike in radiation count is the question of what caused the “electrical noise,” says Ray Shadis, technical advisor to the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution, whose expertise has made him an invited participant in many NRC meetings and workshops. That question “raises even bigger concerns,” Shadis told the Advocate, “because you would want to find out the source of this disturbance and whether it could disturb any other instrumentation.

“There are probably in the vicinity of 30,000 important electrical wires and cables in that plant,” he continued. “When the plant was built, not a lot of care was taken to be sure that power cables were separated from instrument cables.” What’s needed, says Shadis, is “root cause analysis” to “find the source of a disturbance that could affect other safety-related systems.”

As for the notation that the glitches were entered into the plant’s corrective action program, said Shadis, “The problem for safety advocates and for the general public is that once an item goes into the corrective action program, you are very likely never to see it again. If they decide that they’ve found the source of this disturbance, they don’t need to report to the NRC what they decide to do in the future. What they need to do is simply keep it on file.”

“When they list something in the corrective action program, the NRC may take that as a positive sign,” he added. “We don’t.” —SK

 

PVTA: The Right Connections

If you’ve ever tried to get from Springfield to UMass-Amherst by bus, you know that it’s financially daunting to take the Peter Pan, at $16 per round trip, and unacceptably time-consuming to take the PVTA (see “A Valley Divided by Public Transit,” August 1, 2003, www.valleyadvocate.com).

It’s possible. One way to do it is by taking the bus from Springfield to Holyoke Community College, then taking another bus to Northampton and yet another across the river to Amherst—but that way it takes two hours to make a trip that takes 45 minutes by car. That cuts people from Hampden County out of educational and professional opportunities in the Upper Valley, and is also inconvenient for people in Franklin and Hampshire counties who work in Holyoke or Springfield and would prefer to have an alternative to driving.

But there may be hope on the horizon for all these groups. The PVTA wants to improve service between the Valley’s northern and southern tiers, according to PVTA administrator Mary MacInnes.

“We have just started something called a comprehensive service analysis,” MacInnes told the Advocate. “We’re reviewing every route in the system and looking at areas that might need new services, or an existing route that might need its frequency upgraded. ...We’re willing to rethink the service from Holyoke to UMass. One of the guidelines I gave for the study was to look into that route.”

With funding that will come through the state transportation budget that passed two weeks ago over Gov. Deval Patrick’s veto, the PVTA will “be able to offer a small amount of new service,” MacInnes said, “and next year I believe we would receive an additional $3.7 million, so we could add new service. The study would put us in a good position to implement new services.” Last year the PVTA carried over 11 million passengers. —SK

 

Amherst Readies for Rental Registration

After a school year of feisty dialogue in town about rental housing—especially student housing in a town straining to accommodate UMass students living off campus—Amherst’s Town Meeting in May approved a program aimed at solving problems related to its rental market.

The number of rental units in Amherst has grown in recent years as more and more houses have been bought up by investors. More than 50 percent of residential units in town are rentals. The program, called the Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods initiative, would start by requiring all rental units in town to be registered, and to be up to code.

According to Assistant Town Manager Dave Ziomek, registration of those units would occur in two waves, probably “geographically” based: that is, units in one part of town would register by January 1, 2014, the effective date of the bylaw enabling the program, and units in the other part would register by July 1.

“Right now the town is developing all the materials that will go out to the property owners, a self-certification check list, an application and directions on how to fill out these forms, with deadlines and so on,” Ziomek said. “If people want to, they can apply, pay and get a permit online.” There will be information sessions in September for owners and property managers, he added, “so there are no surprises.” Registration fees have not been set yet, he said, but will be “determined by the Select Board, likely in early September.”

Property owners would self-certify that their units meet the requirements for permitting, Ziomek said, emphasizing that the town will only inspect units on a complaint basis, as has been the case in the past.

But landlords need to understand that the town will be proactive in locating rental units.

“We’re going to be using a number of sources of data—number one, our assessors’ records,” Ziomek told the Advocate. “They give us a fair amount of information about properties and structures on properties. We’ll also utilize data from an earlier registration program. We hope that landlords, property managers and owners will honor the system and register their units.

“Safe, healthy, well-maintained rental units—we feel that that should be a community value. We care about students, we care about anyone renting in the town of Amherst. We want them to have smoke detectors, we want them to have egress that allows them to get out in an emergency. We want them to have parking that’s safe, parking that’s not on the grass in the front yard. We think tenants will begin to ask this question: Is this unit registered? Do you have a permit?” —SK

 

Need to See a Doctor? Be Prepared to Wait

A new report from the Mass. Medical Society reveals some disturbing trends in access to healthcare in the state, with patients in the western counties particularly suffering from limited access.

MMS’ annual Patient Access to Care Study looked at how long new patients have to wait to see a doctor, and how many practices are accepting new patients, by having test callers contact a random sampling of doctors’ offices and ask to make appointments for non-emergency reasons. Gastroenterologists’ offices, for instance, were told the patient had chronic heartburn; ob/gyns were contacted to set up a routine exam.

The results revealed long wait times to see primary-care physicians—35 days, on average for family practice doctors and 50 for internists—and well as a 25-day average wait to see pediatricians.

The report also showed that only about half of primary-care practices in the state are accepting new patients; that number has dropped by about 20 percent over the past seven years. Seventy percent of pediatricians are taking new patients, although that represents a drop of 2 percent from last year.

The problem of access is especially stark in Western Mass. Franklin County patients had the longest average wait time to see a family-medicine doctor: 106 days. In Berkshire County, the average wait was 102 days; in Hampden and Hampshire, 58 and 56, respectively. The waits to see specialists also tended to be higher in the western counties; women in Berkshire and Hampshire counties, for instance, had the longest waits to see ob/gyns (69 and 67 days) although women in Franklin County had an average wait of only five days.

The longest delay in any area: Franklin County residents had to wait 213 days to see a gastroenterologist. (That’s because there’s only one in the county, the report noted.)

The MMS study also looked at how many practices accept MassHealth and Medicare, and there the news was more positive. “Despite some national reports that physicians are abandoning Medicare in other areas of the U.S., the overwhelming majority of physicians in the Commonwealth continue to participate in the [program],” the MMS noted in an announcement of the study results. Ninety percent of family physicians and 85 percent of internists accepted the insurance program for seniors, with specialists accepting it at even higher rates.

The results were somewhat less impressive for MassHealth, with serves low-income patients; only 66 percent of internists and 70 percent of family doctors accepted the insurance, although, in both cases, those figures represented an increase from last year. The number of pediatricians who accept MassHealth, in contrast, dropped, from 86 percent in 2012 to 83 percent this year.

“While we’ve achieved success in securing insurance coverage for nearly all of our residents, coverage doesn’t guarantee access to care,” MMS President Ronald Dunlap said in a release. “The concern is that limited and delayed access can lead to undesirable results, as people will seek more costly care at emergency rooms, delay care too long, or not seek care at all.”—MT

 

Warren Bill Would Support Working Moms

This week marked the 22nd World Breastfeeding Week, a chance to focus attention on the importance of breastfeeding—numerous studies link it to better health for both babies and mothers—as well as on policies that support the practice.

In the U.S., breastfeeding rates have been on the rise. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 49 percent of babies born in 2010 were still nursing at six months, up from 35 percent in 2000; the rate for year-old babies rose from 16 percent to 27 percent over the same time period. In Massachusetts, the numbers were higher: 62.4 percent at six months, and 28.9 percent at a year.

Still, those numbers fall short of international breastfeeding rates. The World Health Organization recommends that babies be breastfed exclusively until six months, and that breastfeeding continue, along with other foods, until the child is two or older.

For many mothers, balancing work and breastfeeding can be an insurmountable challenge. For instance, the Hadley-based nonprofit MotherWoman notes, while the Affordable Care Act guarantees some working mothers breaks to express milk and a private place (other than a bathroom) to do it, it only covers wage workers, not salaried workers—leaving 11.5 million women without that protection. The law also requires insurers to cover lactation counseling and products such as breast pumps, although some insurers will only cover manual pumps, which are cheaper but much less efficient than electric pumps.

A bill pending in Congress would extend the protections of the healthcare act. The Supporting Working Mothers Act, which is co-sponsored by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, would guarantee break times for expressing milk to salaried workers.

While MotherWoman supports all mothers, whether they choose to breastfeed or use formula, the organization wants to make sure that women who do opt to nurse have the support they need to be successful at it, said Annette Cycon, MotherWoman’s co-founder and director of training. That includes ensuring their ability to pump at work, she told the Advocate: “There’s the illusion of choice. It’s really a question of access.”

“Breastfeeding is not only a women’s issues, but an economic social justice issue,” Liz Friedman, MotherWoman’s program director, noted in a press release. “There is a greater likelihood for middle class working women to breastfeed than women with low socioeconomic status. Is breastfeeding really a choice when women are stuck between selecting an insurance-covered manual breast pump, a $300 electric breast pump, or WIC-provided formula?” —MT

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