Posts Tagged ‘caroline hailey’

Millions More Prescriptions to be Tracked by the State

Friday, December 31st, 2010

By Sarah Favot and Caroline Hailey

BOSTON – Massachusetts residents faced a new routine when they pick up certain prescription drugs at the pharmacy on Jan. 1.

Under a law passed last summer they will have to show a driver’s license or another approved ID before the druggist can give them prescriptions ranging from addictive opiates to certain medicines for diarrhea. Their purchases will be recorded in a massive database that will include their names, addresses and the kinds and amount of pills they take.

The goal of the law is to combat the growing problem of prescription drug abuse, particularly among teens and young adults. According to one federal survey Massachusetts ranked 8th among those 18-to-25 who have used drugs not prescribed to them.

The law is similar to legislation passed in 33 states and being initiated in another 10 states. Studies suggest the programs can help combat prescription drug abuse.

But the law has other consequences that play against the national debate about the size and reach of government.

It will require more clerical work for doctors and druggists as the number of prescriptions monitored expands from the current 3.5 million a year to an estimated range of nine to 11 million.

The Department of Public Health will take on expanded responsibilities. A new set of committees will be created to determine policies and practices. Schools may have to develop new drug awareness programs for their students.

The new law also will cost more money, but by how much remains uncertain.

Rep. Harriet Stanley, D-West Newbury, chairwoman on the Joint Committee on Healthcare Financing, says that when the bill was under consideration, the Department of Public Health said the direct costs of the new monitoring system – estimated at between $1.35 million and $1.4 million – would be absorbed by the department.

But the department later requested $528,000 to roll out the programs mandated by the bill.

“This bill is a great example of how costs increase without you realizing. We thought we had a grip, but we have to relook at it this session,” Stanley said.

Stanley said legislators often don’t know the final dimensions of a bill because additional requirements are often added to the legislation as it passes from committee to committee.

That was the case with this bill. the Senate revisions of the bill call for the creation of four separate commissions to determine the feasibility of tamper- proof prescription forms, a post-treatment job training program for drug abusers, a jail diversion program for veterans convicted of non-violent substance abuse offenses and a education program for all middle school and high school students.

The law was updated to catch up with a national trend. In the early nineties, Massachusetts was one of the first states to monitor how doctors were prescribing Schedule II drugs, including amphetamines and opiates.

But Massachusetts fell behind the curve as other states began to monitor a more comprehensive list of drugs, including a class of anti-anxiety medicines known as benzodiazepines, such as Valium and Xanax.

“National data and information from other states suggest that there is a growing problem for medication like benzodiazepines seen in combination with opiods,” said Dr. Alice Bonner, executive director with the state Department of Health’s Bureau of Health Care Safety and Quality. “Death rates are higher when they’re taken together.”

Several legislators, including Rep. Thomas Golden Jr., D-Lowell, Rep. Steven Walsh, D-Lynn, and Christopher Speranzo, D-Pittsfield took up the Department of Public Health’s initiative to expand the system.

“I started to receive phone calls from constituents who were experiencing problems with family members when it came to prescription drugs,” said Golden, who also heard about the problem from his pharmacist wife.

The new law, which some pharmacy chains are already following ahead of the Jan. 1 implementation date, requires reporting on all prescription drugs listed under federal drug Schedules III through V, which include scores of more commonly prescribed drugs.

The new law also speeds the reporting schedule – once a week vs. once a month – with the aim of turning up patients who are “doctor shopping” a term describing patients who seek prescriptions from multiple sources. The tighter monitoring is also meant to look for doctors who may be over prescribing.

All of the information is stored in a database overseen by The Department of Public Health whose job it is to filter the information and look for inconsistencies.

Margaret Clapp, chief of pharmacy at the Massachusetts General Hospital, says the new law triples to quadruples the amount of data collected by the state.

“For us it’s an add on,” said Clapp who doesn’t see any major complications with the expanded reporting requirements she says will allow doctors to “sniff people out” for instances of prescription abuse.

“Now we have a tool to help us,” she said.

Bonner says the new system will allow for a “very important conversation between the pharmacist and physician” to see a pattern of potential abuse.

But there are concerns about the expanded law. Pharmacists fear they will bear the brunt of consumer anger over the new procedures. Doctors wonder how they will use the system. Everyone has questions about privacy.

Clapp anticipates negative reactions from patients who are likely to learn of the law when they find they will need an ID to pick up their prescription at their local pharmacy.

“Fifty percent of patients show up without anything, a wallet etcetera,” Clapp said.  “I can see patients getting [angry].”

There are questions about how the database will be used. The health department sends reports to physicians and pharmacists about problem patients and pharmacists will be able to call physicians if they see that a patient has been visiting multiple doctors, or if a physician has been over-prescribing.

But none of this is mandatory. Doctors and pharmacists aren’t required to consult the database.

William Ryder, counsel for the Massachusetts Medical Society says it will be hard for medical practices to use the data.

“If the physicians themselves are the only ones allowed to do it and their staff can’t do it and it takes 40 minutes to find the data, then it’s not going to work,” Ryder said.

The medical association also is concerned about confidentiality, particularly if police can access the information. Ryder worries that patients who take medications for mental health issues are especially vulnerable in that regard.

“There has to be a balance there between looking at data and looking at individual data,” he said.

According the health department regulations access to the database will be limited to “authorized and authenticated individuals.” Law enforcement agencies will be able to request data involving a criminal investigation or prosecution. Such requests will be made to the attorney general, the state police or the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

Golden said federal health care privacy laws create a barrier against intrusion, but concedes there re no absolute guarantees.

“No electronic information is 100 percent safe,” he says.

Despite the questions, Golden sees the extended legislation as an important step that could save lives.

“It’s not going to solve the problem, but it will put a real dent in the overuse and abuse of prescription drugs,” he said.


Editors Note: This story was written by Sarah Favot and Caroline Hailey and reported by Favot, Hailey, Brittany Danielson, Shaunna Gately, Jason Marder, Kevin Schwartz and Sarah Tann.

Will 2011 Be The Year for Expansion?

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

By Caroline Hailey

BOSTON – After more than 15 years of disappointments – including the past legislative session – supporters of an expanded bottle bill hope the coming year may finally see deposits required on a long list of water, sports and fruit drink bottles.

“We think we can capture the momentum from the past session and go all the way this session,” said Janet Domenitz, executive director of MASSPIRG, which along with environmental groups like the Sierra Club, has made an expanded bottle bill a top priority.

A main reason for the optimism is the fact the bill made it through the Joint Committee of Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy in the last session – a hurdle the proposal has never cleared before.

The bill was incorporated in Gov. Deval Patrick’s budget as a source for additional state revenue – an estimated $20 million in uncollected deposits that would go to the state. The state receives about $37 million in annual revenue from the current bottle bill.

Patrick’s proposal did not make it through the House Ways and Means Committee.

Since 1982, bottles of beer, carbonated soft drinks and mineral water have carried a deposit of five cents – an encouragement for consumers to recycle rather than litter.

The proposed bill would add more categories of bottles and increase the handlers’ fee for retailers and redemption centers from 2.25 cents per bottle to 3 cents.

Domenitz said the bill needs to be updated because of the increase in the consumption of water bottles and sport and energy drinks.  She said doing so would help the environment, towns, cities, and the state.

“The bill will increase recycling in the state, clean up litter in the cities and towns, and raise revenue for the state,” Domenitz said.  “There’s nothing wrong with any of that.”

Domenitz and other supporters often cite the disparities between the percentages of redeemable and unredeemable bottles that get recycled.  More than 70 percent of redeemable bottles get recycled compared to 20 percent for unredeemable bottles.

“That’s a huge difference,” Domenitz said.  “Obviously, the nickel deposit is a very effective incentive that needs to be transferred to other bottles.”

Rep. Alice Wolf (D-Cambridge), the House sponsor of the bill, said the bill would also save municipalities an estimated $4 million to $6 million in expenses incurred from littering.

Wolf said the bill would also help those who have low incomes or are homeless.

“We see a lot of people in Boston who are out of jobs pick up bottles that are left around and redeem them,” Wolf said. “It’s a source of income for them, and cleans up the streets.”

Wolf claims the public is very supportive of the proposal, but notes many from the food and beverage industry are against it.

Christopher Crowley, vice president of Polar Beverages, represents the opposition.

“People are wed to this bottle bill and think it’s a very effective way for recycling,” Crowley said.  “But it’s really about as ineffective as you can get.”

Crowley said the bill – an effective way to promote recycling in 1982 – is outdated, costly and unnecessary now that curbside recycling has been instituted in many municipalities. He said the additional transportation costs of redeeming recyclables at the store and having them shipped to redemption centers also increases the use of fossil fuels.

Crowley also thinks Patrick’ support of the bill is out of financial, not ecological, reasons.

“It’s disingenuous,” Crowley said.  “He’s calling it an environmental item, but really it’s a budget item that in reality, is an indirect tax.”

But Robert Keough, assistant secretary for communications at the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said the bottle bill is one of the many environmental bills that the governor has supported.

Keough said while he can’t say what Patrick’s legislative’s priorities will be this session; the expanded bottle bill is something the governor would like to see passed to help the environment.

Chris Flynn, vice president of the Massachusetts Food Association, which represents grocery and super markets, has written letters of opposition on the expanded bottle bill. He said the bill taxes consumers while ignoring the bigger picture.

“Bottles make up only about 1 percent of the litter stream,” Flynn said.  “The bottle bill does too little and costs too much.”

Flynn said the expanded bill would raise operating costs for food stores and force them to get more machines to handle the increase in redeemed bottles.

Everything about the bill is problematic, Flynn said.

“It’s also bringing trash back to food stores and taking up a lot of space in stores,” he said. “A lot goes in to keeping a store clean, and this hurts the store environment.”

Flynn said that instead of expanding the bill, the law should be scrapped.

“We should phase out the bottle bill over a period of time,” he said.  “It’d be better to improve and enhance recycling and get people to participate to a higher degree instead of just by recycling bottles.”


Thursday, November 4th, 2010

By Caroline Hailey

BOSTON – Tim Cahill had one thing in common with the tomato basil bruschetta served at his election party Tuesday night: neither stood a chance.

The bruchetta flew off the trays at Cahill’s election night party. But Cahill couldn’t match the appetizer’s popularity. The independent candidate for governor never reached double digits in his unsuccessful bid to usurp the Democratic incumbent, Gov. Deval Patrick.

Patrick was officially named the winner a little after 10 p.m. on election Tuesday, just as Cahill was taking the stand to give his concession speech.

“You always finish the race,” Cahill told the loud crowd of supporters. “Even if you have to walk across the finish line, even if you have to crawl.”

Cahill took the stage at the Boston Marriott Copley Place after his four daughters each spoke to the crowd, blotting tears from their eyes. He stressed that the numbers shouldn’t minimize what he and his supporters accomplished over the last 14 months and repeated throughout the speech that they had “fought the good fight.”

Cahill acknowledged his major party candidates were smart, strong politicians. “We couldn’t do it because they were very good,” he said.

Throughout the campaign, Republicans painted Cahill as a spoiler, stealing anti-incumbent votes from Baker. Cahill, the state treasurer for the last eight years, portrayed himself a political outsider and a voice for the middle class.

It was Patrick’s decision to raise taxes last year that made Cahill leave the Democratic Party, he has said.

Though the polls never showed Cahill close to Baker or Patrick, those gathered at his election party held out hope even as the numbers on a projector screen showed Cahill a distant third.

“I’m still hoping he wins, I still think he can win,” said Bob Pepe of Quincy. When Pepe posted his support of Cahill last month on Facebook, Cahill’s wife, Tina, messaged him and asked him to come into the campaign office to meet her husband. Pepe was skeptical at first – “you never know who you’re talking to online,” he said – but went into Cahill’s office anyways.

“I got invited right into his office and we talked for a full hour,” Pepe said. “He’s the type of guy you can talk football and have a beer with.”

But while David Bowie’s hit, “Changes,” blared from the speakers at the party, Cahill and his supporters never realized the change they hoped for.

It was the end of a campaign that was more like a soap opera.

In late September, two key aides – Adam Meldrum and John Weaver – left Cahill’s campaign, with Weaver saying publicly that Cahill didn’t stand a chance.

A bigger blow came on Oct. 1, when Cahill’s running mate, Paul Loscocco, also jumped ship. Cahill found out about Loscocco’s plans about the same time as the former Republican was standing next to Baker at a press conference, telling the crowd, “Tim cannot win.”

Though many expected him to drop out of the race that day, Cahill decided to fight on, calling the defection a backroom deal that he wouldn’t give in to.

Soon after, Cahill filed a lawsuit against Meldrum, Weaver and a third aide, John Yob, accusing them of trying to sabotage his campaign by giving inside information to his Republican rival, Charles D. Baker. The next week, Meldrum released emails that suggested Cahill’s top campaign advisors were using taxpayer’s money to boost Cahill’s image through Lottery ads.

At his election party, Cahill called October, “31 days of hell,” saying he was both happy and sad the election was over. He called his supporters “heroes,” and said they were his motivation to keep fighting until the end.

Yes on Question One Advocates Say Sales Tax is Hurting Business

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

Ad Watch – “One Tax Too Many”

By Caroline Hailey

Editor’s Note: As Election Day approaches the frequency of political ads is increasing along with the shrillness of tone. Boston University’s Statehouse Program offers this analysis of an ad supporting Question 1, which would repeal the sales tax on alcohol.

Ad Title: One Tax Too Many

SPONSOR: Yes on One Committee. The committee works with the Massachusetts Package Stores Association, a major contributor to the Campaign to Repeal the Alcohol Sales Tax. The group is using radio and TV ads to tell voters that the 6.25 percent sales tax implemented last August is more bad news in an already tight economy.
PREMISE: Massachusetts residents, tired of being overtaxed by state government, are going to tax-free New Hampshire for their alcohol purchases. This migration of customers is hurting local businesses.
The ad shows a cashier picking up a beer-buying customer and turning him upside down to get extra change out of his pockets. A female customer looks on, her mouth open in horror, while a male customer says, “No way, I’m going to New Hampshire.”
TEXT: The ad makes two claims: “New Hampshire had record alcohol sales in the past year,” and “25 percent of all their alcohol sales are to Massachusetts residents.”

- New Hampshire is gaining alcohol sales at Massachusetts’ expense.
Joseph Mollica, New Hampshire liquor commissioner, said a 10 percent increase in overall alcohol sales in his state was not significant. He confirmed that about 25 percent of the alcohol purchases made in New Hampshire this year came from Massachusetts residents, but said that business from Massachusetts isn’t new.
- Overall alcohol sales are down in Massachusetts because of the tax.
Massachusetts Department of Revenue numbers suggest that the tax hasn’t changed much in volume of sales. According to department spokesman Robert Bliss, the volume of alcohol sold between fiscal years 2009 and 2010 dropped by 1 percent statewide. More recent data shows that alcohol sales in the state increased by 4 percent in the first quarter of the new fiscal year, from July to September.
P.J. Foster, spokesman for the Massachusetts Package Stores Association, says the tax is hurting the businesses close to the Rhode Island and New Hampshire borders, forcing many to lay off employees or cut their hours.
“Consumers are picking up a bottle of wine for dinner at their local store, but the volume purchases are now made out of state,” Foster said in an email.
Opponents of the ballot question have argued the new revenues from alcohol sales are essential to funding programs for alcohol and substance abuse.

For Attorney: Coakley Says She’s Learned Lessons from Senate Race

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

By Caroline Hailey

Not only does is Martha Coakley still living down a nationally noted election defeat early this year and now facing another come-from-nowhere challenger in her re-election bid for attorney general – she also has to contend with a scratch throat and congestion from pesky allergies.

“This time of the year, when the heat comes on, is the worst for my allergies,” Coakley said last week. “Plus we have two dogs, and our vacuum cleaner is broken.”

Coakley admitted she wouldn’t have time to use the vacuum cleaner anyway, now that she’s battling for a second term as the state’s top cop. Standing in opposition is first-time political candidate Jim McKenna, a lawyer from Millbury who rode 27,711 write-in votes to a spot on the ballot.
It sounds familiar: a virtually unknown Republican lawyer banking on voter frustration to combat Coakley’s name recognition and experience. That was the story of former state Sen. Scott Brown, who defeated Coakley in January’s special U.S. Senate campaign.

But Coakley said McKenna isn’t running against the same Martha Coakley who lost her bid for Edward M. Kennedy’s U.S. Senate seat.

“I’m certainly taking nothing for granted,” Coakley said in a recent interview. “I’ve learned a few lessons along the way and I know that people need to see you.”

To do that, Coakley said she’s been working hard since February, getting signatures, going door to door, marching in parades, and meeting with people, in small and large groups, to hear their concerns.

Coakley said she’s encouraged by the reception and support she’s received on the campaign trail. She said registered Republicans and independents have approached her to say that although they voted for Brown in January, they will vote for her this time based on her record as attorney general over the last four years.

She’s confident her record not only eclipses McKenna – who she only refers to as her “challenger” – but also attorneys general around the nation. Coakley cites example after example of her effectiveness: the $440 million she helped homeowners and investors recoup from Wall Street firms; the $160 million she recovered from Medicaid fraud cases; her fight against online sexual exploitation, including her efforts with other attorneys general, to get Craigslist to take down its adult services section.

That record will have to overcome frequent attacks from McKenna on issues such as Coakley’s handling of corruption charges against former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson.

Coakley denied that charge, saying she said handled the case appropriately and that Massachusetts law states there is “no such thing” as immunity for campaign finance violations.

“His accusations around this particular issue are factually untrue and they’re legally untrue,” Coakley said. “I don’t understand them, he’s repeated them throughout, we’ve answered them every time and there’s no basis to them.”

McKenna also has taken jabs at Coakley for not cracking down on illegal immigration. Coakley said immigration is a serious issue, but not the only focus in the election.

“He has talked a lot about that,” Coakley said. “What he hasn’t talked about is health care, energy, consumer protection, child safety, all the issues we spend a lot of time on and do things very successfully.”

Defending her position on illegal immigration, Coakley aligned with much of what McKenna has urged, saying illegal immigrants shouldn’t receive state benefits, and that the state should identify and fingerprint convicted immigrants with the help of the federal government.

Coakley said she has been a longtime advocate for a federal solution to illegal immigration and will continue to work with federal officials.

Looking back on her first term, Coakley said her office took proactive actions on hot button issues, such as the energy, healthcare and public safety. Although Coakley admits the home mortgage crisis wasn’t foreseen, she said her office was able to respond to it as it unfolded.

Going forward, Coakley vowed to make sure to hold Wall Street accountable and stand up for taxpayers against utility and insurance companies that raise their rates.

Though “the hours are long and the debates are many,” Coakley said she is inspired by her love of advocating for individual victims and public safety.

“We owe it to voters to put our best foot forward, to be out there, to answer questions to make sure that they understand our commitment,” Coakley said. “I feel so strongly, not only about the job that I’ve done as attorney general but what I want to be able to do going forward with the challenges that face Massachusetts.”

For Attorney: Republican Challenger Hopes to Unseat Coakley

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

By Caroline Hailey

Jim McKenna sees his life right now as a roller coaster ride. He’s made it to the top and is waiting for the moment where he barrels down at full speed. The problem is he isn’t sure if he can raise his arms up and enjoy it, or if he should hold on for dear life.

Before the Sept. 14h primary, McKenna was a private lawyer working out of the Millbury home he shares with his wife and six children, aged eight to 17.

Now he’s Martha Coakley’s newest, out-of-nowhere contender, hoping to ride a grassroots, sick-of-the- “Beacon-Hill-Boys-and-Girls-Club” movement into the attorney general’s office.

McKenna’s ride started in July when he said he looked around and decided that if no one else was going to challenge Coakley, why not he? When his wife said, “Maybe next time,” McKenna said otherwise.

“I explained to her there was no next time,” McKenna said. “This was the only time we have to make sure there’s a choice this November.”

Six people campaigning out of a garage in August got McKenna on the ballot with 27,711 write-in votes in September. There were no other Republican candidates.

Since then, the 49 year old has campaigned across the state, from the outlet stores in Wrentham to a senior center in Worcester, and meeting sports fans at Gillette Stadium and Fenway Park.

The first time political candidate has sparred with Coakley in television debates, while his communications director, Laura Keehner Rigas, has tried in vain to keep the bald spot that takes up most of his head from shining brighter than the studio bulbs.

“She’s tried everything,” McKenna said, as Rigas used a brush to rub make up on the top of his head before an interview. “But no matter what she does, it still shines.”

Though McKenna admitted some of his support might have less to do with who he is, and more to do with the anti-incumbent movement, he said his background is “more than sufficient for the job.”

The Boston College Law School graduate has taught law and ethics at Worcester Polytechnic Institute for 17 years, where he said the most important thing he imparts to students is to do what’s right even if there’s a personal sacrifice involved.

McKenna also touts his 10 years as a prosecutor, including three years prosecuting organized crime and public corruption in Suffolk County and two spent supervising Worcester’s grand jury unit. Since 1998, he has worked as a private lawyer, primarily doing insurance defense.

McKenna said he wants to be attorney general to put the “enforcement back in law enforcement,” attacking Coakley’s decision to run for U.S. Senate two years into her attorney general position as “the worst thing you can do as attorney general.” He said running for U.S. Senate meant Coakley had to worry more about getting votes than doing her job.

“If you’re going to do that, you’re not going to prosecute your political base,” McKenna said. “To do the job right you have to prosecute your party, the other party, independents, everyone.”

McKenna has attacked Coakley on everything from the sale of the Caritas hospital chain to former state Sen. Diane Wilkerson’s bribery case. The Coakley campaign has fought back, arguing McKenna has taken no clear stance on every important issue, including immigration and the death penalty.

In an interview, McKenna said he is against illegal immigration but that deporting all illegal immigrants isn’t realistic. He said those who commit felonies need to be referred to the federal government for immediate deportation. He calls for the end of sanctuary cities, where police officers and state employees are barred from inquiring about anyone’s immigration status.
“Sanctuary cities – I believe we have more than half a dozen here in Massachusetts – they are basically agreements not to abide by federal law,” McKenna said. “We should call, I will call, for the end of sanctuary cities.”

In his first televised debate with Coakley, McKenna implied he supports the death penalty for police officers and would consider supporting it for those who kill small children.

He clarified his stance in an interview, saying he isn’t making any proposal on whom the death penalty should or shouldn’t apply to. Instead, he said there needs to be a “conversation” about death sentences for those who kill firefighters and EMT’s. The death penalty should apply to the recent killing of a 2-year-old in Mattapan, McKenna said, but he doesn’t know where the cut off should be.

“Two, four, six, eight? Where should the line be?” McKenna said. “There should be a bright line, and that’s something we should address by consensus if we can.”

McKenna has other issues with Coakley. He said an essential function of an attorney general is to keep utility rates low, and accused Coakley of allowing the doubling utility rates at the Cape Wind project.

“We need green energy but we don’t need a project like that that’s going to double our rates,” McKenna said. “The best way to improve the business environment is to not only keep rates low but to inspire trust in our government.”

John Briare, who has worked with McKenna on Dudley Republican Town Committee and is now campaigning for him, said McKenna can gain that trust.

“He’s the real deal, as genuine as it gets,” Briare said. “He doesn’t carry himself like a politician and he’s what everyone needs.”

Briare said McKenna lights up whenever he talks about law and ethics. His natural ability to know the difference between legal and moral is what makes him the best candidate for attorney general, he said.

“He’s one of those guys who speaks softly but carries a big stick,” Briare said. “Some people take being soft spoken as a weakness, but those who know Jim know it’s a strength.”

Cape package stores lament alcohol tax

Monday, October 11th, 2010

By Caroline HaileyCape Cod Times

Customers at Cape Cod Package Store in Centerville began opting for cheaper wine and liquor after the 6.25 percent alcohol sales tax was implemented last August.

“We’ve definitely seen our business suffer,” store owner Andrea Pendergast said. “People are buying down, and it’s negatively affecting the alcohol business as a whole.”

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But Pendergast said her customers bought up more expensive beverages during the tax-free holiday in August.

“The no-tax holiday was like Christmas times three here,” she said. “That spoke volumes to me that it’s not just about the store owners suffering. It’s about the customers and what they want.”

If voters pass Question 1 on the Nov. 2 ballot and repeal the alcohol sales tax, a no-tax holiday could become the norm.

The Campaign to Repeal the Alcohol Sales Tax, primarily composed of Massachusetts package store owners, has raised more than $230,000 to eliminate the tax, according to the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

The Massachusetts Package Stores Association has donated $20,000 to the effort.

“Package store owners have been hit on top of the challenging economy, and they are now faced with a new tax on alcohol that went from zero to 6.25 percent,” P.J. Foster, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Package Stores Association, wrote in an e-mail. “The result is that the stores and the families that own them are struggling to get by, many are laying people off, cutting their hours and/or closing.”

Paul Fitzgerald, general manager of Cotuit Liquors, said the tax is unfair to alcohol retailers because manufacturers already pay an excise tax that gets passed on to customers.

“It’s a double taxation,” Fitzgerald said. “The excise tax can be as high as 40 percent, so 6.25 percent on top of that is a bit excessive.”

Revenue from the tax is earmarked to fund drug and alcohol programs, but state Rep. Demetrius Atsalis, D-Barnstable, said it’s hard to know whether the tax money will actually make it to those programs.

“The money doesn’t always go to where it’s supposed to go and sometimes it just goes back into the general budget,” Atsalis said. “That’s why we can’t have government taking care of everything.”

There are 140 health care organizations that have raised more than $85,000 to oppose repealing the tax.

Raymond Tamasi, CEO of Gosnold on Cape Cod, an addiction and mental health service provider, said the tax is a sound investment for the state. He said well-funded treatment centers help lower the cost of social issues associated with alcohol abuse.

“The per capita benefit in terms of addiction treatment, overall health costs and drunk driving is so much more substantial than the nominal tax placed on a product that is clearly not a necessity,” he said.

If the tax were repealed, the state would lose an estimated $110 million in the next fiscal year for treatment programs, according to Robert Bliss, the director of communications at the state Department of Revenue.

According to the state Bureau of Substance Abuse Services, the town of Barnstable has seen more than 1,000 alcohol-related admissions to substance abuse treatment programs each year from 1997 to 2007, the most recent figures available.

State Rep. Cleon Turner, D-Dennis, said if voters repeal the tax, funding for recovery programs would have to come out of the state budget, or those struggling with addiction would be left to fend for themselves.

Turner said generating tax revenue from alcohol sales is the best option to boost money for alcoholism treatment. “It’s clear to me that the money paying for addiction issues should be coming from what creates those addiction issues,” he said.

Turner said he understands why package store owners are concerned over the tax, and he said he doesn’t want to hurt small businesses on the Cape. But he doesn’t think people are buying less alcohol because of the tax.

State Department of Revenue numbers show the amount of alcohol sold statewide dropped 1 percent in fiscal year 2009 compared with the previous year, when there was no alcohol tax.

State Rep. Sarah Peake, D-Province-town, said the numbers show the tax has had no “chilling affect on the sales of alcohol in the commonwealth.”

Peake added alcohol is not a necessity and is a reasonable target for a relatively high level of taxation. “I like my glass of chardonnay as much as the next person,” she said. “But do I consider that bottle of wine with the same necessity as my winter coat?”

Driver texting bans starts today

Monday, October 11th, 2010

By Caroline HaileyCape Cod Times

Jannine Alcantara knows that texting while driving is dangerous.

It’s a hard lesson the Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School senior learned one day last year, when she lost control of her car and hit a patch of trees. She had been using her knees to drive and her hands to text on her BlackBerry.

“It was really scary and happened way too fast,” Alcantara said. “It was eye-opening.”

Alcantara, who suffered facial cuts from her shattered windshield, told friends about what happened. But it didn’t stop them from texting while driving.

“Texting is just so addicting,” Alcantara said.

It’s an addiction that all Massachusetts drivers will have to quit. Under the state’s new Safe Driving Law that goes into effect today, drivers are prohibited from sending, writing or reading text messages or e-mails, accessing the Internet, or playing cell phone games.

The law requires drivers to keep at least one hand on the wheel at all times; mobile devices, including iPods, can’t interfere with driving. Drivers under the age of 18 are banned from using their cell phones for anything besides dialing 911.

Massachusetts becomes the 30th state to ban texting for all drivers and one of 28 states to restrict young drivers from all cell phone use.

Ann Dufresne, communications director at the state Department of Transportation, says the list of banned items could be expanded if police officers find drivers are being distracted by mobile devices not specifically cited in the new law.

“There will be a lot of questions at first,” Dufresne said. “But as we educate people about this law and educate ourselves about the technology that’s out there, enforcement will be easier.”

Harwich Police Chief William Mason said his officers won’t go into “hardcore citation mode” until people have had a chance to get used to the law. “It’s very unfair to have a new law enacted and go out there carte blanche giving tickets to everyone,” he said. “We will encourage people to pull off the side of the road and take care of business because we don’t need any more people killed or injured.”

Adult drivers who get caught texting will face a $100 fine for a first offense, a $250 fine for a second offense and $500 fines for any subsequent offenses.

Drivers under 18 face stricter consequences. On top of a $100 fine and a 60-day license suspension, young drivers who get caught using their phones while driving must take a driver retraining course, re-take their permit and driver’s license tests, and pay a $100 reinstatement fee for a first offense. Fines and suspensions increase with each ensuing offense.

Although driving schools across the Cape already stress the dangers of using cell phones while driving, Sandy Haley, office manager at Grand Prix Driving School in Hyannis, said the new law will get young drivers’ attention. “This law will truly put fear into them because they don’t want to lose their license,” Haley said.

But Sam Zinck, a 17-year-old senior at D-Y, said having additional restrictions for drivers under 18 isn’t fair.

“Cell phones are such new things that adults haven’t had that much more time with them,” Zinck said. “They’ve had more time with driving, but using cell phones and driving are different things.”

Peter Karlson, former president of the Cape Cod Technology Council, said distracted driving is a huge problem for everyone. “People are constantly wanting information at their fingertips,” he said. “Everyone knows they shouldn’t do it, but everyone does it.”

While Karlson said the law should make distracted driving unacceptable, he may have good news for those who feel the need to always stay connected.

“The opportunity here is for voice-activated devices,” Karlson said. “The law will encourage the development of good powerful devices that will do full-blown voice commands for all applications.”

State grant money boosts local fight against homelessness

Monday, October 11th, 2010

By Caroline HaileyCape Cod Times

A Cape Cod group is among 10 regional networks that will share a $1.56 million state grant to fight homelessness in Massachusetts.

“This is a valuable way to spend very limited dollars,” said Alan Trebat, coordinator of the Cape and Islands Regional Network. “It will help more people stay housed or get housing.”

The state grant money will go to the Regional Networks Program, which was started in 2008 by the Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness with $8 million in state money, according to a press release from Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration.

The 10 regional networks are at the end of an 18-month pilot program that stressed finding housing for the homeless while trying to lower the needs for emergency assistance centers.

“The work of the regional networks proves that coordination and collaboration is critical in our efforts to prevent and end homelessness more effectively,” Liz Curtis Rogers, executive director of the interagency council, said in a press release.

The Cape and Islands Regional Network is a collaboration of social service providers, housing agencies, businesses, individuals, and state, county, and local government officials.

Trebat said the most cost-effective way to combat homelessness is to prevent it in the first place. He said the Cape and Islands group works to keep at-risk families and individuals off the streets, providing money for essential expenses such as food, rent or car payments.

“If someone can’t keep their automobile running, how can they get to work and make money?” Trebat said.

The Patrick administration hasn’t yet decided how the money will be divided among the 10 regional networks.

Each network will submit a proposal on how the money can best be used in its region.

The Cape and Islands network plans to ask for funding for its three key initiatives: prevention efforts, a 24-hour homelessness crisis hotline, and Main Street Outreach Coordination, which employs two workers to help those living on the streets.

Estella Fritzinger, executive director of the Community Action Committee of Cape Cod and Islands and a member of the local regional network, said many residents aren’t even aware that homelessness is a problem in the region.

While Cape Cod has a reputation of being upscale, there are many working families and individuals who struggle with the high cost of living, she said.

“I think there’s a public perception of what homelessness looks like, but it doesn’t always look like what you think it would,” Fritzinger said. “Homelessness walks like your neighbor.”

Taking steps to reduce fall injuries

Monday, October 11th, 2010

By Caroline HaileyCape Cod Times

BOSTON — Anne Simpson never worried about falls or the injuries they could cause. She was “not the falling type,” she says.

But in July, the Dennis resident took a spill down the spiral staircase in her home.

“I had a friend visiting that day,” Simpson, 82, said. “I just told her to get up (from her chair) because I knew we had to go straight to the hospital.”

Simpson fractured her left humerus, the bone in her upper arm, and still needs physical therapy.

The injury put Simpson in a not-so exclusive club: the one-third of adults over the age of 65 who fall each year.

With more baby boomers reaching their 60s, fall-related incidents are increasing, prompting 34 states, including Massachusetts, to name the first day of fall as Falls Prevention Awareness Day.

The Massachusetts Falls Prevention Coalition, a group that works to implement programs to prevent falls, yesterday marked its fourth annual awareness day with an event at the Statehouse aimed at raising awareness about the severity of falls and ways to prevent them.

According to the National Institutes of Health, falls are the leading cause of injury, loss of independence and death for those over 65 both statewide and nationwide.

Of the 4,000 patients admitted to Cape Cod Hospital last year for fall-related injuries, 60 percent were over 65, according to Cape Cod Healthcare spokeswoman Robin Lord.

Anita Albright, director of the state Department of Public Health’s Healthy Aging and Disability Unit, spoke yesterday to an audience of about 50 at the Statehouse about her own experience; she fell last month while walking down her cellar stairs carrying a load of laundry and wearing flip-flops.

“As I was tumbling all the way down, all I thought about was what I’d injure,” the 60-year-old said. “Would I end up with a broken arm, fractured neck, severe brain injuries?”

Albright only broke her thumb, but she said it wasn’t just because of luck. Being an avid skier, Albright said, she knows how to fall without suffering serious injuries.

Yesterday’s event featured lessons on how to avoid falls all together, including a Tai Chi demonstration led by Dan Kleiman of Brookline Tai Chi.

Kleiman said the gentle movements of Tai Chi and its ability to improve balance, flexibility and muscle strength make it an ideal exercise to defend against falls.

Bonnie Brouillet, an outpatient physical therapist at the Rehabilitation Hospital of Cape Cod, agrees that balance training is essential. Brouillet trains patients on how to shift their weight properly so that if they do stumble or trip, they can stop themselves from falling. She works with people recovering from broken bones or serious head and spinal injuries.

But it’s hip fractures that she says are most devastating for the older population. Hip fracture victims are twice as likely to die in the year following the fracture compared to seniors who haven’t had a hip fracture. Only 50 percent of all people with hip fractures are able to regain independence and live alone.

“The likelihood of an elderly person coming out of the hospital after a hip fracture just isn’t good,” Brouillet said.

Speakers at yesterday’s Falls Prevention Awareness Day event stressed one positive fact: Falls are preventable.

To protect against falls, health care specialists recommend having yearly eye exams, keeping up with healthy dieting and exercise, removing clutter, and adding hand and guard rails to your home.

And while falls are more common with advanced age, Albright said everyone should take precautions against them.

“Falls can happen to anyone,” she said. “I hope this day motivates people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s to take all the precautions they can to prevent falls and stay healthy.”

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