Policy Updates and News May 2016

TELECOMMUNICATION ISSUES

Lifeline Phone Service

The National Grange has long supported the Lifeline emergency telephone program funded by the federal government’s Universal Service Fund and administered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC has issued a proposal to require the rapid transition from cell phone service to internet broadband. Bills are moving through Congress to make the transition time even shorter. However, there’s a big problem. Nationwide, 53 percent of America’s rural citizens either do not have internet access or their access is too slow for any emergency.

National Master Betsy Huber wrote Commission Secretary Dortch cautioning the FCC about moving to total reliance on broadband before broadband has been deployed to many rural areas. The Grange also created several opinion editorials asking what good is Lifeline reform if broadband is not available in the foreseeable future and, in the meantime, FCC and Congress kill wireless Lifeline phone service; do rural Americans not count?

Editorials by Huber appeared in the Washington Times, Morning Consult (daily Washington area legislative and regulatory newsletter), The Hill (daily political newsletter widely read in Washington) and Agri-Pulse (nation’s largest daily food and agriculture, politics and events newsletter). The Concord (NH) Monitor ran a similar editorial by New Hampshire State Grange Master Chris Heath.

Rural Broadband

According to multiple witness testimony to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee in March, complex and burdensome regulations cause rural Americans to lose access to fast and affordable internet services. A follow-up editorial by Montana State Grange Master Scott Nicholson in the Billings (MT) Gazette profiled the role broadband plays in revitalizing rural areas.

Spectrum (Connectivity) Reallocation

The demand for intensive spectrum service is growing rapidly. The federal government has large amounts of spectrum sitting unused in federal agencies. Congress is poised to consider legislation allowing the reallocation of unused spectrum from government users to commercial broadband.   The National Grange joined 34 national agriculture, rural and business groups on a letter to the FCC urging the Commission to create new rules for a spectrum auction that will, 1) ensure rural consumers have access to broadband services typically available in urban areas and, 2) invest in networks that will stand the test of time and not become obsolete in the near term.


HEALTHCARE ISSUES

Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs)

HRAs permit businesses to offer employees pre-tax dollars to pay premiums and other costs for medical care. However, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires small businesses to also offer group health insurance in addition to an HRA or face fines of $100 per day per employee. The National Grange joined 166 small business, agriculture and chamber of commerce groups on a letter of support to the bipartisan co-sponsors of S.1697 and H.R.2911. The bills allow small businesses with 50 or less employees to provide HRAs to employees with individual personal health insurance without the threat of monstrous fines.

Medicare Part B – Insurance Benefits

The National Grange partnered with patient groups on a letter asking Senate and House leadership for Congressional oversight of a Health and Human Services (HHS) proposal to change the Medicare Part B Payment program. Healthcare experts say the proposal could greatly reduce the quality and accessibility of care to patients with cancer, macular degeneration, rheumatoid arthritis, hypertension and other complex conditions, and would limit physicians’ ability to prescribe drugs covered under Medicare Part B.

Medicare Part C – Medicare Advantage

Comprehensive disease management programs and care coordination services through Medicare Advantage help millions of seniors and individuals with disabilities manage complex health conditions. The National Grange and 26 national patient groups expressed concern to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) about a proposed FY17 budget reduction following several previous years of program budget cuts that could severely restrict comprehensive health management for the elderly.

Medicare Part D – Prescription Drug Coverage

Medicare Part D is the prescription drug benefit that subsidizes the costs of drugs and drug insurance premiums. The Medical Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) is an independent agency that advises Congress on issues affecting Medicare. The National Grange and 54 national patient groups cosigned a letter asking MedPAC to reject proposals which would,

  • Make changes to true out-of-pocket costs
  • Increase copays for low income beneficiaries
  • Eliminate any of the protected drug classes


FOOD ISSUES

Drink Whole Milk?

Lots of new research suggests whole milk and high-fat dairy products are due for a big nutritional facelift. For a half century, government and health organization guidance pushed consumers to choose skim and low-fat milk along with yogurt and other low-fat dairy produces. A large number of new studies over the last few years have separated milk fat from other saturated fats and have concluded that consuming milk fat along with the other nutrients in dairy products is beneficial, or at least not bad, for consumer health.   Recent findings indicate milk fat consumption may not be linked to increased risk and, in some cases may even be associated with reductions in risk, of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

The GMO Conundrum

Congress still does not have compromise legislation that would preempt Vermont’s GMO-ingredient food labeling law to become effective July 1. The House, long ago, passed a bill providing for a certified GMO-free label, but that’s a non-starter in the Senate. Chances are the Senate will insist on some sort of label disclosure on all food products. If the Senate does pass such a bill, it will be almost impossible to reconcile the two versions with the House. There’s even talk of persuading Vermont to delay their label implementation for a year while the feds try to sort out a workable compromise.

In the meantime, a sweeping new study by the National Academy of Sciences affirmed the safety of genetically engineered crops now on the market. The just-released 408-page Academy study rejected claims that linked GMOs to cancer and other maladies, stating “no differences have been found that indicate a higher risk to human health safety from these GE foods than from their non-GE counterparts.”

A wealth of polling data shows consumers want GMO and other food ingredient labeling. Despite the growing mountain of scientific and epidemiological evidence that genetically engineered products are safe, the NAS report points out there are certain “value choices” consumers want to make when they shop for food. A recent example is Whole Foods Markets, whose sales increased $3.7 billion in the second quarter, driven by America’s seemingly insatiable appetite for organic and other perceived healthy food.

“Natural” Food Label Meaningless?

Consumer and environmental groups are pushing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prohibit the use of the term “natural” on food product labels until standards are developed. FDA has no official definition of natural, but the agency’s long-standing policy is that natural means products contain no artificial or synthetic ingredients. The policy does not exclude any production methods such as the use of pesticides or GMOs.

LABOR ISSUES

Overtime Eligibility

The Labor Department will soon issue a new final regulation requiring most salaried employees earning up to $47,476 annually (more than double the current $23,660 level) to receive time-and a-half overtime pay when they work more than 40 hours during a week. Millions more employees will become eligible for overtime pay. The new rule becomes effective December 1 and will significantly increase the minimum salary level for “white collar” employees to qualify as exempt from overtime pay requirements. Even employees who are legitimately managers must be paid overtime if their salary is below the new cutoff. Employers may be forced to conduct a tricky balancing act to determine whether to increase a worker’s salary or convert them to hourly status. Certain categories of employees such as teachers, doctors and outside sales representatives continue to be exempt though academics primarily engaged in research are not. Nurses, medical assistants and paramedics likely will be affected.

OTHERS ISSUES

Support for Opioid Legislation

Recent polling suggests Americans think policies being considered in Congress will be at least somewhat effective in combating prescription painkiller abuse. Legislation to address the growing crisis has passed both chambers with overwhelming bipartisan support. The House and Senate are set to convene a joint conference committee to resolve their differences into a final package ready for the President’s desk by July.

Farm to Table Fraud?

Restaurants and other food providers are racing to oblige a growing numbers consumers interested in “locally” sourced foods and “sustainable” farming. Many now offer detailed pedigrees of the ingredients they use to create the dishes offered on their menus. But what happens when those sources aren’t available (Florida Blue Crab sourced from the Indian Ocean) and the establishment fails to disclose the substitutes? A great recent investigative report on the topic can be found at http://n.pr/20fvKyi. Regulators haven’t defined what’s meant by “local” and “sustainable.”

Good News for Farmers and Farm Policy

Sometimes agriculture’s political opponents seem unrelenting in their attacks in the press, in social media and on Capitol Hill. But take heart, there’s some good news. A new public opinion poll by North Star Opinion Research suggest farmers and ranchers can count on the general American public as a powerful ally in their corner. The public opinion poll conducted in April showed 86 percent of voters have a favorable view of farmers and feel that a strong and thriving American farming industry is critical to American national security. Importantly, these high marks cut across party lines, too.

150th Anniversary Celebration of the Grange

150th LogoNational Grange unveils the logo for the 150th Anniversary Celebration of the Grange.  

Next year, Dec. 4, 2017, is the 150th birthday of the Grange and we truly hope that every Grange at every level and every member takes part in the celebration.  From today, (572 days before the Grange’s big birthday) through the entire year of 2018 and beyond, we hope you will use this approved logo as part of your Grange’s messaging. We will soon have merchandise with the logo, but we also encourage your Grange to use the logo on your own t-shirts, bags and other material that you produce or wish to have to let everyone know your Grange pride and about our organization’s long and amazing past, present and future.  Read More

andactionThe Grange 150th Anniversary
Four-Minute-Movie-Contest

Get out your cameras or even your phones and put together your own amazing four-minute-movie celebrating Grange! And here’s the best part: The prizes sponsored by the National Grange Foundation!The top three finalist will receive up-to a $200 travel stipend, Friday and Saturday night accommodations at the 150th Annual Session of the National Grange in Washington DC, and two tickets to the Celebration banquet where the winning movies will be shown and first, second, and third place awards announced!  Read more

National Grange Newsletter – The Patrons Chain May 2016 Issue

Untitled-1 copyThe new May 2016 issue of the National Grange newsletter is now available. Check out the latest of what is going on in the Grange.  Read about what is soon to come and what’s happening right now.    Receive this and other issue via email by subscribing to our e-newsletter. Submit our email address to information@nationalgrange.org to join our mailing list.

VIEW THE PATRONS CHAIN MAY ISSUE

Update: Rural America Left Behind in Lifeline Reform

National Grange President, Betsy Huber, has expressed serious concern with H.R.4884, the CURB Lifeline Abuse Act with.  In a letter to House Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Walden (R-OR-2), Ranking Member Eshoo (D-CA-18) and bill sponsor Scott (R-GA-8), Huber acknowledged Congress’ concerns with fiscal responsibility of the Lifeline program, but opposed the proposed two-year phase-out of mobile voice Lifeline service in favor of broadband service.  However, major portions of rural America still have no broadband access and that is a problem.

CLICK HERE TO READ THE LETTER

National Grange Newsletter – The Patrons Chain April 2016 Issue

Untitled-1 copyThe newly redesigned National Grange newsletter is now available.  Check out the April 2016 issue complete with valuable Grange Month information, 150th Annual Convention news and a whole lot more.  Receive this and other issue via email by subscribing to our e-newsletter.  Submit our email address to information@nationalgrange.org to join our mailing list.

VIEW THE PATRONS CHAIN APRIL ISSUE

Registration is now open for the 150th National Grange Annual Convention

Picture1On-line registration is now open!! Please take advantage of the $25.00 early bird registration and save $5.00.  You can register now through September 2nd to receive this savings.  After September 2nd, registration fee is $30.00.  On-line registration ends October 28th.

Please join us for the 150th Annual Convention of the National Grange hosted by the Eastern Region! Come join your Grange friends from across the nation at The Hilton Dulles Airport Hotel located in Herndon, Virginia November 15 – 19, 2016.

Hotel & Travel Information | Registration Information |
Seventh Degree | Convention Schedule |
Convention Tours

 

Policy Updates and News April 2016

Rural Issues

Lifeline Telephone Reform Harmful

The Lifeline Program is a federal initiative that provides discounted low volume landline or wireless phone service to low income households.  The National Grange is strongly urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to rethink and revise a reform proposal that would eliminate wireless Lifeline telephone service.  The FCC proposal would shift the federal Lifeline program to broadband.  The problem is that half of those living in rural areas either do not have broadband available or can’t access broadband at speeds high enough for timely transmission in an emergency.  That fact is not expected to change much in the foreseeable future.  National Grange President Betsy Huber wrote FCC Secretary Dortch explaining this real-world disconnect and urged the FCC to revise the proposal to allow for continued Lifeline wireless phone use.  Huber also penned op-eds that were picked up in the Washington Times, Agri-Pulse (the nation’s most read daily food and ag e-newsletter) and Morning Consult (a daily e-newsletter for the corporate and business world).

Secure Rural Schools

The Secure Rural Schools program provides assistance to rural counties and school districts affected by the decline in revenue from timber harvests on federal lands.  Historically, rural communities and schools relied on a share of timber harvest receipts to supplement local funding for educational services and roads but federal policies have substantially reduced timber harvest in recent years.  The original authorizing legislation, Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, expired in September, 2015 and must be reauthorized by Congress.  In the meantime, USDA through the Forrest Service has allocated $272 million to 41 states and Puerto Rico for FY’16.

Legal Issues

 Supreme Court Agrees to Review Case Supported by Grange Amicus

In January, the National Grange, along with the National Black Chamber of Commerce and the Hispanic Leadership Fund, filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court to review the ruling and remedies imposed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in the high profile Apple vs. Samsung case over design patent infringement of certain smartphones. The Grange argued that damages awarded to Apple by the lower court were equal to total profits for each infringing device, which would seriously impede innovation and become an incentive for troll-like litigation looking to take advantage of a quick payday. In support of our position, National Grange Executive Committee member Leroy Watson penned an opinion piece in the Washington Examiner urging the Court to review the case. The Court agreed to review the case and will hear arguments this fall.

Food Issues

GMO Labeling Controversy

The House of Representative s several months ago passed voluntary labeling legislation to preempt all state legislation requiring genetically modified ingredient labeling on food.  The Senate failed to muster the 60 vote majority required to pass the preemption legislation. Unless Congress passes a uniform national labeling standard by July 2016, a Vermont law will go into effect mandating GMO labeling.  New bills in Massachusetts and Rhode Island largely mirror the Vermont law while legislation in Connecticut would remove the trigger provisions in existing law that require at least four other states to enact a similar measure before the statute can go into effect.  All three efforts have broad support in their respective legislatures.  In the meantime, ConAgra Foods, Campbell Soup, General Mills and Kellogg have announced they will begin labeling GMO ingredient food throughout the country.  Some advocates of labeling do so because they support the consumer’s right to know.  Others however, are using the current labeling chaos to gain a marketing advantage.  Those who are concerned about future world hunger fear the labeling controversy may stifle innovation necessary to feed the hungry populations in developing countries.  Congress will scramble to reach some kind of compromise over the next several months but July is fast approaching.

Bus Stop Farmers Markets

Following in the footsteps of food trucks, those mobile fast food stands parked along city streets at noon, mobile farm stands are beginning to show up in so-called “food deserts”.  These low-income neighborhoods have plenty of quickie marts and liquor stores but lack full service grocery stores with fruits, vegetables and other fresh foods.  These mobile markets show up at bus stops and transit stations in low-income neighborhoods with fresh goods typically at discounted prices.

Land Issues

Farmers May Lose 600,000 acres in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed

The Supreme Court has allowed the EPA to proceed with its Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) plan for the entire 64,000 square-mile Chesapeake Bay watershed.  As a result, the EPA estimates 600,000 acres of cropland in the Bay watershed will need to come out of production.  Land use decisions are typically the prerogative of state and local governments.  However, the TMDL plan allows the federal bureaucracy to overrule these local decisions.  With this ruling, the Supreme Court has cleared the way for EPA to apply the Bay TMDL plan to other major watersheds, including the Mississippi River watershed.

Health Issues

Opioid Use Epidemic

Rural communities are experiencing fast-growing problems of opioid and heroin abuse at higher rates than urban communities.  Agriculture Secretary Vilsack will lead a federal interagency task force charged with helping rural towns and organizations meet this challenge head-on.  Over the next several months, Vilsack will travel to meet with local leadership to better understand how his task force can further support their efforts.  The National Grange has notified the White House Rural Council of its willingness to help however it can.

Medical Treatment Challenges

  • National Grange cosigned a letter to Medicare Payment Advisory Commission Chairman Crossman urging the Commission to reject proposals change patient out-of-pocket costs and increase copays for low-income beneficiaries under the Medicare prescription drug benefit

(Part D)

  • National Grange cosigned a letter to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Burwell  expressing concern with a proposed Medicare Part B Drug Payment Model that would cut Part B payments  in several geographic regions that could adversely affect the care and treatment of patients with cancer, muscular degeneration, hypertension and rheumatoid arthritis.
  • National Grange cosigned a letter to Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Slavitt highlighting the cuts to Medicare Advantage from 2014 through 2016 and expressing concerns about the consequences of further cuts in 2017. The comprehensive disease management program and care coordination services provided through Medicare Advantage help millions of seniors with disabilities manage their often complex and myriad health problems.

National Grange cosigned a letter to the bipartisan cosponsors in the House and Senate to support of their Small Business Healthcare Relief Act (S.1697 & H.R.2911).  The bills would allow small businesses to provide Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs) to employees with health insurance.  These HRAs would permit businesses to offer pre-tax dollars to insured employees to help pay premiums and other out-of-pocket medical costs.

Why is Rural America Being Left Behind in Lifeline Reform?

Major portions of rural America have no access to broadband.  Fewer than one in five Americans (17 percent) can’t access what the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines as broadband, but that level is three times higher – a whopping 53% — when it comes to rural America.  And what about those parts of rural America with broadband access?  According to the 2015 State of the Internet Report, the average connection speed in many rural areas is slower than those in Estonia, Uruguay, and Thailand.

That’s why the millions of us who live in rural America can muster no more than two cheers for the Lifeline Reform plan recently drafted by the FCC that shifts the focus of the federal Lifeline program to broadband.  It’s a good move that makes sense in the long term, but it doesn’t have to be done with such haste that it severs the wireless Lifeline now helping millions of low-income residents in rural America.

The problem is that the FCC timetable for shifting Lifeline from a wireless focus to “broadband only” is out of sync with the reality of the availability of adequate broadband in rural America.  The FCC wants to start a phase out of wireless Lifeline almost immediately and then hang up on it altogether in 2019.   After that, Lifeline would only subsidize broadband and landline phone service.

That’s the wrong timetable for rural America.  The FCC’s own data show that as many as 22 million rural Americans lack access to connections to broadband at download speeds of 25 megabits per second (mbps).  The Commission also has reported that one in five rural Americans lacks access at the even slower speeds of 4 mbps.  The access gap is even worse for people living on Native American tribal lands, where the lack of access surges to 63 percent.

While there is much to admire in the FCC’s plan for a $9.25-a-month subsidy focused over time on broadband, the truth is that it probably won’t result in one new mile of broadband cabling in rural America.  All signs are that our communities of non-urban areas will lag for decades when it comes to access to essential broadband.  The FCC knows this and so the unfortunate appearance is that the Commission’s current Lifeline reform plan is a calculated slight to rural concerns.

In less than 45 months the current wireless Lifeline service will vanish.  For rural Americans who have no way to use a broadband subsidy, the demise of Lifeline by 2019 will mean that they are effectively cut out of the program.  Their only sin:  living in rural America.

To make matters even worse for those living in rural America, the FCC wants to impose minimum standards on wireless Lifeline that almost certainly would force a co-pay arrangement for subscribers.  This would make participation in the program burdensome, if not completely unaffordable, for many low-income rural dwellers.    Many of the poorest people with the least access to help live in rural America, these are not consumers who will be able to continue using Lifeline if they have to pony up cash that they just don’t have.

By phasing out wireless Lifeline and offering only a broadband program they can’t access, rural Americans will not be helped by Lifeline reform.  Instead, will we rural Americans become the first and perhaps largest group of disconnected victims of the reforms? I ask the FCC:  What good is Lifeline reform in rural America if broadband is not available now and you are killing wireless service?

 

By Betsy Huber, President
The National Grange

March Message from the National President

In this message, National Grange President, Betsy Huber discusses the Spring and her love of gardening. She also touches on the importance of Grange Month coming up in April. Town hall meetings and open house events are some of the things our Grange Members look forward to planning during Grange Month. If you are already a Grange member, we hope that you are planning an excellent month of festivities! If you are not currently a member, we hope that you will take some time to visit your local Grange.

As always, we hope you like and subscribe to these videos. It’s our way of sharing important information with all of you.

Close caption for this and other videos can be displayed by clicking on the closed caption icon in the bottom of the video window. (see below)

close caption

The National Grange Cert Decision Announcement

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision to review the ruling in the long-running design patent infringement case between Apple and smartphone rival Samsung. This important case is about correcting an outdated interpretation of how damages are awarded for design patents in infringement lawsuits.

The lower court’s ruling elevates design patents and ornamental features of a product over utility patents and a product’s functionality. Additionally, the court-awarded damages for infringement could be equal to the total profits earned from the alleged infringing product. These massive damages from infringement could result in total profits – an incentive for troll-like litigation over design patents. For these reasons and their implications on the rural and agriculture industry, the National Grange is thankful the Supreme Court is reviewing this decision.

Unwarranted design patent damage awards make rural consumers particularly susceptible to trolling threats from design-patent abusers. The risks are also much higher for family-owned rural small businesses because jobs, opportunities and progress for these often marginalized communities all rely on their success.

The National Grange applauds the Supreme Court for its review of the case due to the serious implications for rural connectivity under the existing ruling. The ruling, as it stands, makes it tougher for rural entrepreneurs to prosper because it makes access more expensive.

Smartphones, like the ones at issue in this case, provide access to educational resources, health information and direct business-to-customer markets for goods or service as well as employment opportunities. Mobile technology is revolutionizing the manner in which farmers conduct business, allowing farmers to tap into sources on agricultural information, utilize cutting-edge production technologies, undertake entrepreneurial endeavors, reach new customers and run their businesses in ways previously thought impossible.

Rural America and the agricultural industry depend on connectivity even more than most, because our geographical location infrequently overlaps with the initial deployment and availability of new technologies, products, and services. However, mobile connectivity offers and equalizing force which enables rural America to keep pace with the dynamic technology economy of today and tomorrow.

The Supreme Court took the first step in correcting the lower court’s illogical interpretation of these awards. We are hopeful that they will reverse the ruling and offer clarity so that the next design patent infringement case will not pose such a serious threat to rural connectivity, mobile access, and America’s farmers.