Editorials from around Pennsylvania

Associated PressJuly 16, 2014 

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:

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JUSTICE DELAYED

Posted: Tuesday, July 15, 2014 6:00 am

Our venerable legal system is loaded with all kinds of complications, so-called "technicalities" that can lead not to justice, but injustice. And it can swing both ways, with innocent people jailed for crimes they didn't commit and guilty people set loose.

Both possibilities are our concern today.

As reported in Monday's newspaper, it typically takes three months or so for labs to return drug test results to police agencies. The heavy workload speaks to the volume of arrests suspected of involving illegal drugs. But the delay caused by that workload can lead to some unwanted results — and we don't mean lab results. We mean folks — possibly innocent folks — locked up for months while they await a preliminary hearing the outcome of which is dependent on laboratory findings.

Monday's story led with such a case: a 35-year-old Falls man who was jailed after he was arrested on misdemeanor drug charges. Twice, his preliminary hearing was continued because lab results were not back. Finally, on the third try, with the test results still not back, the district court judge reduced the defendant's bail so he could get out of jail.

Such delays cause obvious frustration for prosecutors, judges and defense lawyers. They also waste the time of the arresting police officers who have to be in court for the hearing as opposed to keeping the peace.

But they also result in possibly guilty individuals landing back on the streets — sometimes permanently, as charges occasionally are dismissed altogether. The Constitution does require a speedy trial after all.

Turns out there is a surprisingly simple solution to all of this. Case law holds that onsite field tests administered by police officers, which produce immediate results and enable police officers to make an arrest in the first place, are admissible evidence at a preliminary hearing. They also are "very reliable," according to one veteran police officer, and easy to use. "This isn't rocket science," he said. "It's just about idiot-proof," said another.

Problem is, there is no policy requiring district court judges to accept those rest results. There should be.

But before issuing such a policy, officials must mandate proper training for all police officers — to negate the technicality defense attorneys could use to have otherwise perfectly acceptable evidence tossed out of court and a possibly guilty defendant returned to the community.

Critics argue that the test kits can produce false-positive results. But so can sophisticated diagnostic equipment used by a lot of doctors. Nothing is foolproof. At least the test kits will avoid costly and potentially unjust delays, while keeping drug cases on track. That's a result everybody should welcome.

—The (Doylestown) Intelligencer

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UNREASONABLY HIGH PRESCRIPTION DRUG PRICES ARE COSTING THE COUNTRY BILLIONS

In its landmark report last year on the cost of health care, "Bitter Pill," Time magazine argued that the most effective insurance system in the nation is Medicare. That's because rather than negotiate prices down from hospitals' wildly inflated "chargemasters," as private insurers do, Medicare determines the actual cost of procedures and pays providers based on the averages.

But even Medicare can't control the runaway pricing of prescription drugs.

That's evident in a Sunday News story in May that found Medicare reimbursed 1,493 doctors and other providers in Lancaster County a total of $96.4 million in 2012 for "Part B" claims — doctor visits, tests and other treatments.

At the top of the list of Medicare reimbursements is an ophthalmologist, Dr. Roy D. Brod, who was paid more than $3.3 million in 2012.

Why does a retina specialist get more Medicare money than any other doctor in the county?

Dr. Brod says it's largely because he treats age-related "wet" macular degeneration, or AMD, by injecting a drug called Lucentis into patients' eyes. Lucentis costs $2,000 per dose. Dr. Brod, like other providers, is reimbursed by Medicare for the cost of the medication, plus 6 percent.

That's the hole in the Medicare safety net.

As Time pointed out in "Bitter Pill," Medicare is blocked by federal law from negotiating prices for prescription drugs. Instead, Medicare must pay the pharmaceutical companies' "average sales price" plus 6 percent. The average price is set by the company — not by Medicare.

In other words, drug companies charge what the market will bear. Increasingly, Americans can't bear the cost.

Drug costs in the United States are 50 percent higher for comparable medications than they are in other developed countries, according to a research firm, because unlike other nations, the United States does not cap profit margins for Big Pharma. The Time report contends the health care system could have saved $94 billion in 2013 — off total prescription drug spending of more than $280 billion — if we paid what other countries do for medicine.

That's not the only hole in the Medicare safety net. The federal insurance program for older Americans also can't decide whether one drug is more cost-effective than another.

So Medicare has to pay for Lucentis, the $2,000-a-dose drug that prevents AMD, even though Avastin, a cancer medication that is proving to be just about as effective as Lucentis for AMD, costs $50 a dose.

Dr. Brod, the ophthalmologist, told the Sunday News that he is starting new patients on Avastin and continuing to administer that drug if it does the job.

How many other doctors across the country are similarly concerned about treatment costs? And how much are taxpayers shelling out unnecessarily for overpriced prescription drugs?

If Congress amended the law to allow Medicare to pay drug manufacturers the same way it reimburses doctors and hospitals, we could save billions in health care costs for older people.

For that matter, if Congress had enough backbone to limit profit margins for Big Pharma — not to mention for hospitals — the whole country's medical bill would be more manageable.

If "Bitter Pill" is right, Medicare does a far better job at holding down health care costs than any private insurer. But Medicare could be even more effective if it had authority to hold down prescription drug costs.

Diagnosis: The cost of medicine is making all of us sick.

Prescription: Congress needs to give Big Pharma its own bitter pill.

—Lancaster Newspapers.

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GAME OFFICERS DESERVE BETTER

Much like Rodney Dangerfield, Pennsylvania's Wildlife Conservation Officers "get no respect." Except that it's no laughing matter.

Our state's great outdoors are a symbol of freedom. But, in fact, all that open space, especially the land set aside for hunting, is governed by hundreds of rules, and, for some, this is a source of great resentment.

Lawmakers, members of the Game Commission and policy specialists make the rules. But it's the game officers out in the field, responsible for enforcement, who become targets for some people's attitude and free-floating anger.

Although they have police authority, WCOs are not always recognized as officers of the law. As a result, they sometimes get challenged in ways that municipal police officers would not. And this can put them in danger.

A recent incident in Bradford County illustrates the lengths to which some people will go when they are told something they don't like about their behavior in the outdoors.

On June 7, WCO Jeffery Oleniacz was patrolling State Game Lands 12, north of Forksville, when he encountered people operating all-terrain vehicles, utility-task vehicles and dirt bikes on a game lands road that had been posted as closed to motorized vehicles.

According to a Game Commission press release, the riders scattered when Oleniacz approached, but the game officer managed to stop one UTV. He was interviewing the driver when another of the riders returned to the scene and began driving in circles near the officer while making verbal threats.

Can you imagine anyone in his right mind challenging a police officer in this fashion?

To make matters worse, the driver who had returned to jaw at Oleniacz had his daughter with him in the passenger seat. Heedless of the young woman's safety, the driver accelerated, swerved toward the officer and struck Oleniacz in the left arm, the Game Commission said. He then fled.

Working with information gathered at the scene, WCOs executed search warrants and seized as evidence the UTV used in the assault. ...

We wonder if, as he was being menaced, Oleniacz thought about a fellow game officer, the late David L. Grove.

Four years ago, in November 2010, Grove was killed by a hail of gunfire as he was trying to arrest a suspected deer poacher near Gettysburg in Adams County. He was only 31. His killer was convicted in 2012 and lives on death row, sentenced to die by lethal injection.

We can all be thankful that the attack on Oleniacz was nowhere near that serious. The WCO suffered an injury to his left arm, but did not require medical attention, the Game Commission reported.

But it was an upsetting reminder that these officers do important work on behalf of all Pennsylvanians. They deserve not only respect, but our thanks.

"Our officers conduct regular patrols on state game lands to protect these valuable resources from abuse," explained Game Commission Northeast Region Director Daniel Figured. "Assaulting an officer with a motorized vehicle is a serious offense and persons committing this crime will be prosecuted to the fullest extent. This dangerous and reckless act put the safety of three persons at risk."

— The (Bloomsburg) Press-Enterprise.

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LORIN MAAZEL LED THE PITTSBURGH SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA INTO A GOLDEN AGE

In May 1996, a Post-Gazette editorial described Lorin Maazel's last concert as music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Of his moving rendition of Gustav Mahler's "Resurrection Symphony," the piece said: "The applause was thunderous, the memories many and the gratitude deep in Heinz Hall Sunday."

The editorial went on to say: "Many Pittsburghers in attendance felt the depths of sadness conveyed in the early movements. And that sadness aptly expresses how Mr. Maazel's orchestra, his audiences and many residents of this region feel about his departure."

Except for the applause, now faded into the ages and replaced by respectful sorrow, those words express the feelings this week after the news that Mr. Maazel died Sunday at the age of 84 in Castleton, Va.

His was a life of genius in which Pittsburgh was blessed to share. Born in Paris, he came here with his family from Los Angeles at age 10, already a child prodigy who between the ages of 9 and 15 conducted major orchestras across the country. In Pittsburgh, he attended Linden School, Peabody High School and the University of Pittsburgh and won a spot in the violin section of the PSO.

When in the fuller bloom of his accomplishment he returned in 1988 as the PSO's music director, it was both a homecoming and a rescue. Recruiting the best, he methodically remade the orchestra according to his exacting standards of excellence. The result was that a good orchestra became world-renowned. Long-time Post-Gazette classical music critic Robert Croan remembers this as a golden age; he regards Mr. Maazel as the greatest conductor of his lifetime.

The maestro accrued many honors and today Pittsburgh's loss is also the world's.

—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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July 13, 2014

GETTING TO THE ROOT OF DRIVING HAZARDS — EXPERTS AT LOSS TO EXPLAIN TOPPLING TREES

Add falling trees to the list of hazards of which motorists must be aware.

Trees have been dropping at an alarming rate across the Laurel Highlands, state and country.

In what can only be described as a freak accident, two young sisters were killed June 23 when a tree fell from a hillside onto the car in which they were riding. That accident happened along Route 403 near Carpenter Park Road in Conemaugh Township, Somerset County.

And on June 30, also in Somerset County, a tree fell onto a sport utility vehicle on Route 985 near the intersection with Berkey Road.

One person was taken to the hospital, but five other passengers escaped injury.

That same day, a truck driver was killed in Warren County when a tree fell onto his vehicle.

On July 2, a large tree fell across Solomon Street, between the Solomon Homes and Walters Avenue.

Thankfully, it did not hit anything on its way down.

On July 5, an individual in the Fairhope area of Somerset County was injured by a falling limb.

Most recently, a tree fell onto a roller coaster in Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California, stranding about two dozen riders for hours.

The risk of accidents has a Johnstown couple taking a proactive approach. Nick and Martha Banda have found different routes of travel to avoid Von Lunen Road. Mrs. Banda said she has been watching two trees near her home that have been hanging over the road.

"We haven't been using Von Lunen Road for two months because of fear of them falling," she said.

Forestry experts, Penn-DOT officials and others are at a loss to explain the happenings.

"I just think these trees fall a lot and these just happened to hit vehicles, Somerset County Coroner Wallace Miller told our Kathy Mellott after investigating the Route 403 accident.

Added forester Larry Powell: "I don't think it's any different that it has been in years past. Unfortunately, there's just been a rash of fatalities with these falling trees." Powell is employed by Appalachian Forest Consultants of Stoystown.

Many people are asking questions, and so far, no one has been able to answer them.

Have the trees fallen victim to insect infestation or disease? Acid rain? Over-zealous trimming and topping? Lightning strikes? Harsh winters? Climate change?

Are only certain varieties involved? Are they all hardwoods, or softwoods, or a mix of both?

No one has been able to solve the riddle.

In the meantime, Sidman-based forest expert Michael Barton offers the following advice: Motorists should contact PennDOT if they are concerned about a tree.

"If it's on their (Penn-DOT's) easement, they'll remove it free of charge."

But that doesn't leave property owners off the hook if it is determined that PennDOT is not liable for a dangerous tree.

"If it's on your property, it's your responsibility," Barton said.

He also said that concerned motorists can log onto PennDOT's website and make the highway department aware of hazardous trees.

"They'll check it out and then get back to people," he said.

When we climb behind the wheel, we should take the advice of the late Jim Morrison of the Doors, who sang: "Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel."

And don't forget to sneak a peek at the trees.

— The (Johnstown) Tribune-Democrat

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