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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.