Should Prisoners Be Paid Minimum Wage? (video)

Reframing Justice

The minimum wage in Arizona is $12 per hour. Arizona prisoners do a variety of jobs from manual labor to answering phones for the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT), for which they are paid anywhere between 10 cents to $3 per hour. The ADOT Service Arizona call center workers are the highest paid prisoners, but $3 per hour is far less than minimum wage.

Why should prisoners be paid more? 1) Because many of the prisoners have families “on the outside” who depended upon support from that person “on the inside”. 2) Because the prison industrial complex and the state of Arizona not only pay substandard wages to prisoners, they nickel and dime them and their families with fees. Yes, people “on the inside” and people “on the outside” pay fees to Corporate America and to government(s). The problem is that most prisoners lived in poverty before they went to prison, and their families likely don’t have the financial float to sustain them without a wage-earner and pay fees to stay in contact with their loved one.

The State of Arizona eliminated the Parole Board back in 1993, when “tough on crime” and “truth in sentencing” were vogue. Add this to the fact that the Republican-controlled Legislature jumped enthusiastically into private prisons during the Tea Party Reign of Terror.

Now, Arizona forces prisoners to serve 80 percent of their sentences (regardless of rehabilitation, good behavior or cost), imposes unnecessary fees for basic services to prisoners (like making an appointment with the doctor or having phone privileges to talk with their families), forces them to work nearly free to pay fees for services and necessities (like a second orange jumpsuit), and allows the Prison Industrial Complex to make millions on them while they are warehoused unnecessarily for years. When families visit prisoners, they can’t bring food in (because there could be a file in that cake), so they have to buy food from vending machines. You can imagine how much a family with children would spend on unhealthy vending machine food in a day at the prison. Loved ones come to the prison with $40 in quarters to buy substandard food while visiting. Prisoners (and their families) pay millions per year in concessions and fees to the Prison Industrial Complex– in addition to losing loved ones to an unjust system in an unjust state, which *eliminated* the Parole Board. People who signed “25 to life” plea bargains are being cheated by the State of Arizona. Five hundred inmates have served 25 years of a “25 to life” sentence and are now just sitting in prison because there is no parole. The least we can do is pay them for their labor. 

But even better, why not fix the prison system? Arizona locks up too many people for too long. In 2019, there was a lot of bipartisan enthusiasm for real prison reform. Unfortunately, a handful of powerful men stopped reform.

Many prison reforms are needed. For example, Arizona law used to state that for every two days of work a prisoner could get one day off of their sentence for good behavior. Years ago, the law was changed, and now prisoners have to work six days in order to get one day off. (We tried to change that back to 2:1 in 2019, but it was stopped by powerful Republican Legislators.) Not only are we paying slave wages, we are requiring prisoners to work much longer at these slave wages to get any benefit (besides some spending money). I learned today on Reframing Justice Day at the Capitol that since there is no Parole Board, prisoners have no good way of tracking their work time, besides the fact that parole has pretty much been eliminated. They also said that Arizona’s Clemency Board pretty much doesn’t do clemency. (What kind of medieval state do we live in?)

This is inhumane, unfair, and extremely expensive in terms of lost human capital, disrupted families,  out-of-pocket costs, and societal distress from children living without parents.

Who benefits from forcing prisoners to work years for very little money? Corporate America — and governments who want to save money– benefit. As long as there is a steady supply of workers who are forced to work for far less than minimum wage– like prisoners, migrants and university interns (who work for free), families will struggle, while corporations make money and governments save money, at their expense.

It’s time for all Arizona workers — regardless if where they live — to be paid minimum wage or more. Not less. Also, earned release and mandatory sentencing laws should be fixed. We shouldn’t be warehousing people unnecessarily.

Really… system-wide prison reform is necessary. I learned a lot about prisons during the interim. I participated in an Arizona Town Hall dialogue with prisoners at the Whetstone prison on South Wilmot and attended a Lucha Listens session with prisoners and family members. The stories are compelling. We need to listen and fix the system.

There are some modest reform bills in the Legislature. Will a handful of men stop reform again in 2020? If so, we can fix that problem in November 3, 2020.

Arizona’s Surprise Billing Law Doesn’t Go Far Enough to Protect Patients (video)

Selah and Grandma

On Thursday, the regulatory affairs committee started bright and early with a sunset review hearing for three different departments: the Residential Utility Consumer Office (RUCO), the Department of Insurance, and the Arizona Board of Library Examiners. (This post focuses on the Auditor General’s review of the Department of Insurance.)

I have been on the Health Committee since day one and was on the Banking and Insurance Committee for two years (until it was eliminated by the Republicans). As a result, I have heard a lot of insurance bills and am very familiar with the heavy workload the Department of Insurance has. (Often, legislation gives departments more work without giving them more staff or more money.)

Primarily, my questions to the DOI director focused on surprise billing. You may remember that we passed a surprise bill in 2018. At the time, Democrats were concerned that the Republican/lobbyist crafted bill didn’t go far enough to protect patients and didn’t include a sufficient (or any) appropriation to run the surprise billing complaint department.

Surprise bills are healthcare bills that you didn’t know you owed. people generally receive surprise bills after the insurance company and the patient have paid their share of the care that was provided. The problem is that sometimes there are out of network providers, for example, in an operating room. While you’re under, you don’t know that the anesthesiologist is not covered by your insurance. We all assume that when we show our insurance card things are going to be covered.

The director said that one DOI staff person has been assigned to surprise billing, and that’s enough because not very many patients have filed formal complaints. Only 75 surprise billing complaints were received in 2019 and out of those 75 patients, 15 patients had complaints that were deemed to be legitimate for adjudication. Those 15 people got a total of $30,000.

I was shocked that the reach of this surprise billing complaint process was so minimal in a state with 7 million people. I know 15 people in my district who have surprise billing complaints, including my daughter and her husband. They have been charged tens of thousands of dollars in surprise bills since my granddaughter was discharged from the Nursery Intensive Care Unit (NICU) a year ago. Yes, more than a year after my granddaughter was born, they are still being billed. The TMC NICU holds ~30 tiny patients at a time. I am sure those other tiny babies’ families have similar surprise billing stories. And that is only one NICU in this state.

As the Democrats had theorized back in 2018, what we passed didn’t go far enough to protect patients. Rep. Kelli Butler and I worked with Senator Debbie Lesko to make her bill more patient-friendly. I insisted on a patient portal on the DOI website where people can start the complaint process and a printed notice on the surprise bill telling people they can protest the bill and giving them the DOI phone number and website address.

We need to fix this. Obviously, there are many more surprise bills out there, and people don’t understand the complete process.The DOI director said that Texas has already amended their surprise bill. He had suggestions– like lowering the threshold from $1000 to $500. He also said that they have published a surprise billing report, which he will send to me.

We should look at the report, our law and fix it. Or, we eliminate surprise billing all together and overhaul the healthcare insurance system. Medicare for all, anyone? The system we have today only works for big insurance and big Pharma, not the rest of us, obviously.

‘Religious Liberty’ vs Patient Rights: Healthcare Providers Should Disclose Religious Restrictions to Care

Should science or religion determine treatment?

Should healthcare providers and institutions be allowed to deny services to patients based upon the provider’s “sincerely held religious beliefs”? I don’t think so. Discrimination is not OK.

This is the fourth year in a row that I have proposed a Patient’s Right to Know bill which requires healthcare providers and institutions to disclose upfront if they have any religious restrictions that would preclude them from providing all legal drugs and services within their scope of practice.

This is the first year that my bill made a splash in the news. Tucson residents may have seen the story about by bill HB2068 in the New Year’s Eve edition of the Arizona Daily Star, but it was also on the State of Reform website, in the Yellow Sheet (inserted below), and on KFYI radio. Providing or not providing services due to one’s “sincerely held religious beliefs” has been a hot topic since the infamous Hobby Lobby case in 2014.

HB2068’s popularity is likely due to the controversial nature of religious liberty legislation and to recent, high-profile court cases that harken back to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which was proposed by Senator Ted Kennedy and then Congressman Chuck Schumer and signed into law by President Bill Clinton and in 1993. Although RFRA was declared unconstitutional21 states including Arizona have state RFRA laws, and the US Congress has passed 25 “conscience” bills related to healthcare.

When I was interviewed by one of the reporters he asked, “This is just about choice, right?” When I initially proposed this bill in 2017, it was about reproductive choice for me, but in 2019, when he asked me that question, I said, “No.” There are obviously other people who are being discriminated against for purportedly religious reasons.

Continue reading ‘Religious Liberty’ vs Patient Rights: Healthcare Providers Should Disclose Religious Restrictions to Care

Maternal & Child Health! The Movie! (video)

Selah

Now that I have your attention…

Who can resist babies doing yoga coupled with multiple exclamation points?

As many of you know, maternal and child health has been my focus for nearly a year now, ever since my strong, adorable, and intelligent granddaughter Selah was born with gastroschisis. Her three months in the Nursery Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Tucson Medical Center (TMC) in 2018 gave me a new appreciation for the human and financial costs related to adverse birth outcomes and high tech medicine.

When it comes to maternal and child health, I strongly believe that the state of Arizona can and should do better regarding:

  • Increasing access to prenatal, perinatal and postpartum care.
  • Decreasing the rates of premature and low birthweight babies.
  • Reducing the number of unintended pregnancies and nonmarital births.
  • Reducing toxic stress in and increasing opportunities for families and children by tackling chronic, systemic poverty in Arizona– particularly among single parent households.

Continue reading Maternal & Child Health! The Movie! (video)

Maternal & Child Health… a Dialogue with Rep. Powers Hannley (video)

What is the state of maternal and child health in the state of Arizona? Well, it certainly could be better.

Arizona ranks in the 40s (out of 50 states) in many areas related to the health of Moms and their babies.

Too many Moms and babies are dying preventable deaths after childbirth. Too many babies are born prematurely, with low birth weight or with birth defects. Not surprisingly, access to first trimester prenatal care has decreased, while beginning prenatal care late or not having prenatal care has increased.

Although the Arizona Department of Health Services recently received a CDC grant to study maternal mortality, there is more work to be done to improve the lives of Moms and babies.

Arizona should be doing more to prevent premature and low brithweight babies, increase access to prenatal and post-partum care for women, and increase post secondary educational opportunities (particularly for young girls).

I will talk about the State of Maternal and Child Health in Arizona and lead a discussion about challenges and solutions at the Salt of the Earth Labor College on Saturday, September 21, 2019, beginning at 2 p.m. (Facebook event here. Blog for Arizona event here.) The College is located at 1902 E. Irene Vista, Tucson.

Continue reading Maternal & Child Health… a Dialogue with Rep. Powers Hannley (video)

#AZ Republican Budget Cuts Taxes by $386 Mil & Shortchanges K-12 (video)

One of the prevailing messages from the grassroots in 2018 was: no more tax giveaways until the schools are fully funded. Republicans didn’t get that message. They also didn’t get the Invest In Ed message that we — the people– think the rich could pay more in taxes to help fund education.

The Republican budget cuts income taxes, TPT and fees by $386 million and leaves education and other needs underfunded (or unfunded).

We started the year with a $1 billion surplus to invest in the People’s To-Do List: education, infrastructure, healthcare and safety and security. The Republicans have added bits of money to these areas — just enough to make it look like they’re doing something— but the need is much greater.

Republicans are ignoring multiple crises that are brewing in our state including unnecessary maternal and child death; rock bottom education funding; crumbling roads, bridges and school buildings; lack affordable and low-income housing; the shortage of teachers, doctors and nurses; too many people living in poverty; lack of access to affordable healthcare… need I go on?

Continue reading #AZ Republican Budget Cuts Taxes by $386 Mil & Shortchanges K-12 (video)

#AZLeg Hears Competing Bills on Vaping (video)

Is vaping safe?

Vaping is a hot topic in the Arizona Legislature this session. E-cigarettes (also known as nicotine vape pens) are unregulated in Arizona. Nicotine vaping is widespread, and usage is increasing, particularly among youth.

Many adults use nicotine vape pens as a way to stop smoking real cigarettes. E-cigarettes don’t have the particulates that tobacco cigarettes do, but that doesn’t mean they are safe.

We have had two competing vaping bills in the Legislature. SB1147 is a tobacco industry bill that carves out vaping and regulates it separately in the Arizona statutes; it also preempts local laws. HB2357 regulates “any product derived from tobacco or containing nicotine” the same.

Back in the 1990s, when e-cigarettes first came to the US, tobacco control researchers at the UA and elsewhere said that e-cigarettes were “drug delivery devices” that should be regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The tobacco industry fought this and said e-cigarettes were tobacco and should be regulated like tobacco. They won their court case at the national level, and e-cigarettes have been regulated like tobacco since then.

HB2357 is aligned with the federal law. SB1147 puts vaping into its own category— not a tobacco product or a nicotine delivery device.

Continue reading #AZLeg Hears Competing Bills on Vaping (video)

What’s the News on the #AZ Budget? Check Out Video & Town Hall

Many constituents have asked me where the budget is and what’s going on– after all, it is May. On the budget, the status quo of the past month still exists. All of the budget action continues to be behind closed doors, among a closed group of Republicans.

In addition to the Democrats, there are a significant number of House Republicans who are not part of the budget process, and they’re grumbling about it. This is a state budget– not the budget for a small town church. The deacons and the pastor don’t get to decide the budget on their own in the back room. The budget should be negotiated with all parties at the table– not just a handful of those close to power. Democrats make up 48 percent of the Arizona House. When more than 50 percent of the Legislature is kept in the dark and has to rely on rumors, that is not a fair process, and it ultimately hurts the people of Arizona.

Except for the Governor’s budget, which has been public for months, and some leaked details about the Senate Republican budget, little is known about the budget, beyond a few trial balloons. What we do know is that the Senate Republican budget is far more conservative and not even close to Governor Doug Ducey’s budget.

This chasm in the GOP has left an opening for Democrats. The House Democrats will unveil our balanced budget ideas on Wednesday morning at 9:30 a.m.  We have been saying since January that we agreed with parts of the governor’s budget– like full tax conformity and more money for P-20 education. [Stay tuned for details.]

On the right, Senator J.D. Mesnard and other tax cut fans still want to zero-out the money the state could bring in from tax conformity (~$150 million) and Wayfair (~$85 million). There are multiple trial balloons about making the income tax rates flatter. One proposal is to have only two personal income tax brackets. This is a horrible idea– unless, of course, your goal is to return to austerity and Draconian budget cuts, while making your rich donors happy. Under the Republican proposals to eliminate or lower tax brackets, rich people would pay less, and the rest of us could pay more. (Think of the Republican tax bracket plan as Arizona’s mini-Me to the Trump Tax Cut and Jobs Act. Both significantly lower taxes for the wealthy by reducing the top tax rate.)

Continue reading What’s the News on the #AZ Budget? Check Out Video & Town Hall

#AZ House Debates, Passes Association Health Plans SB1085 (video)

Although we had a short floor calendar on May 1, we had some rousing debates. The highlight was a two-hour debate on SB1085, association health plans. (Watch the action here, beginning at 19:32 min.)

The Republicans have had three bills this year to lower healthcare insurance costs by encouraging people to leave the healthcare marketplace. I agree that the Affordable Care Act is too expensive, particularly for sole proprietors (like my husband who was offered a silver ACA plan for more than $1000 per month just for him.) This is why I voted for direct care contracts. I believe those are a better deal for sole proprietors than association health plans.)

Democrats debated valiantly, led by Health and Human Services Ranking Member Rep. Kelli Butler (right). Here, she does Q&A with Rep. Isela Blanc.

I get that costs are too high, but the association health plans are not the way to go. They could, indeed, lower costs for business owners, but they could be risky due to limited coverage. There are reasons why these plans will likely be cheaper. Remember the old adage “you get what you pay for”. If sole proprietor business owners want to take a risk with their own insurance and their own health, I have a mind to let them take their own risk. (Just don’t ask me to help you later with a Go Fund Me Request if it turns out I was right on limited coverage under cheap junk insurance plans.)

Where I object is when businesses are making these risky insurance decisions for their employees— just to save money.

Continue reading #AZ House Debates, Passes Association Health Plans SB1085 (video)

‘Democracy in Chains’ Connects Dots on Libertarian & Republican Strategies (video)

Affordable Care Act

If you often scratch your head at the bad bills that the Republicans pass in Congress and in the state legislatures and wonder what their end game is, you should read Democracy in Chains by Nancy McClean.

What you may think are random bad ideas that have somehow gotten into law are actually part of a grand scheme that has been playing out since Brown versus the Board of Education attempted to desegregate public schools in the United States.

An academic, McClean has studied the articles, books and letters of James Buchanan, the economist not the former president. Buchanan was the primary theorist of public choice theory. In the 1950s, public choice theory was used as a rationale to close all of the public schools in the state of Virginia (rather than comply with desegregation) and is being used today to support state-funded vouchers for private and religious schools. In Virginia in the 1950s, the state gave money to white parents for private school vouchers and allowed hundreds of black children to go uneducated for years. Needless to say, this was a travesty of justice.

Continue reading ‘Democracy in Chains’ Connects Dots on Libertarian & Republican Strategies (video)