Hurrah — Teachers Near the Top of the Vaccination List

Administering the vaccine at the Richmond City Health Department. Credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

The Virginia Department of Health has released its priorities for receiving the COVID-19 vaccine in the next phase of the vaccination rollout. The top priorities are exactly who you’d expect — front-line essential workers and people over 75. It is reassuring to see that child-care and K-12 teachers and staff are high on the list.

In the initial phase, vaccines are being distributed to hospitals and nursing homes, either to people most likely to be exposed to the COVID-19 virus or to be at high risk of dying from it.

Next come the frontline essential workers. Police, fire and hazmat workers top the list. Then come corrections and homeless-shelter workers who work in settings where prisoners and homeless, packed into confined quarters, are at high risk of transmitting the virus.

Then comes the category of “child-care, K-12 teachers and staff.” One might ask why the commonwealth is prioritizing school teachers. After all, “the science” is clear that K-12 schools are low-risk settings for getting the virus. I’ll tell you why: Unlike the other occupations, teachers appear to be uniquely reluctant to return to their normal place of work. Their fears — rational or irrational — must be addressed. Continue reading

Virginia Republican Congressmen Support Coup Attempt

Photo credit: The Sun

By Dick Hall-Sizemore

After taking an oath on Sunday to support and defend the Constitution, four Republican members of the House of Representatives from Virginia supported an attempt to disregard the votes of about 5 million citizens in a vain effort to keep Donald Trump in office.

These Congressmen were Morgan Griffith (9th District), Ben Cline (6th District), Robert Good (5th District), and Rob Wittman (1st District).

The supporters of this attempt cited vague claims about election fraud and concerns about the integrity of the electoral system. Trump continued to stoke these baseless claims in the face of statements by his top Homeland Security official on the integrity of the election system and his Attorney General that there is no evidence of widespread fraud that would change the results of the election. He fired them both after they made such statements. He continued to air such claims despite being ruled against by numerous judges, many nominated by him. Continue reading

The U.S. As Banana Republic

Chaos at the Capitol Building. Credit: Fox News

I’m breaking a cardinal rule of Bacon’s Rebellion that restricts commentary to Virginia public policy. The events occurring at the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., right now are so unprecedented and so indicative of the political polarization in this country that I’m opening up this post to general commentary. — JAB

Anyone Think They Understand Hospital Pricing?

by James C. Sherlock

Having written yesterday about the newly appeals-court-certified HHS rules on hospital price transparency, I will use this opportunity to provide some real examples of the gargantuan Rubik’s cube that is hospital pricing.

I will be talking about hospital prices only, not the much lower prices of non-hospital alternatives including  ambulatory surgical centers and office-based practices for some hospital procedures.   

These examples are meant to give the reader an understanding of the enormous differences in hospital payments for identical procedures. Don’t try to make more of them than that. I won’t entertain detailed questions on individual charges because I simply don’t have the information to provide those answers.

I will use the term diagnostic-related groups (DRGs). A DRG is how government insurers and many health insurance companies bundle hospitalization costs to determine how much to pay for your hospital stay. 

So, rather than pay the hospital for each specific service and consumable it provides, these insurers pay a predetermined (government) or negotiated (private insurers and individuals) amount based on the DRG under which they were billed. They then entertain charges for services and consumables that were provided but were not included in the standard bundle.  Continue reading

Noble Goal, Constitutional Blunder

by Emilio Jaksetic

Del. Tony O. Wilt, R-Harrisonburg, is sponsoring House Joint Resolution 513 to amend the Virginia Constitution to limit the duration of the governor’s executive orders during a state of emergency. The bill is written in a way that needlessly accepts the notion that the governor has broad, sweeping power beyond what the office is actually granted under the Constitution.

How can a proposed limitation of the duration of the Governor’s executive orders result in a grant of broad, sweeping powers? The answer is found by analyzing HJ Res. 513 in the context of other provisions of the Virginia Constitution.

The bill fails to take into consideration the following pertinent constitutional provisions: Continue reading

Old News: Transgenders and Bathrooms. New News: Taxpayer-Funded Gender Reassignment Surgery

Del. Danica Roem, D-Manassas, Virginia’s first transgender legislator.

by James A. Bacon

I’m surprised this hasn’t caused an uproar yet: In his newly revised budget, Governor Ralph Northam wants to guarantee that transgender enrollees in Virginia’s expanded Medicaid program have access to “gender-affirming” care.

“This is an important equity issue and a critical part of making our commonwealth welcoming and inclusive of all,” Northam spokesperson Alena Yarmonksy told The Virginia Mercury.

The Mercury cites an estimate that 34,500 transgender people live in Virginia, of whom 2,000 are on Medicaid. Medical treatments can range from counseling to hormonal therapy and gender reassignment surgeries. If the General Assembly adopts Northam’s budget language, Virginia would become the 19th state to explicitly state that Medicaid covers transgender treatments. Continue reading

Whither the Statues?

Ryan K. Smith

by James A. Bacon

Now that most Confederate statues have been removed from prominent public places, where will they go? They’re too big to fit into museums without expensive retrofitting, and not many museum boards are likely to welcome the controversy of housing them anyway. A commonly suggested alternative is to move the memorials to cemeteries.

But apparently even that idea will engender controversy. In a recent op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Ryan K. Smith, a Virginia Commonwealth University history professor, calls the introduction of statues into cemeteries “a political statement.” He concludes: “However much dignity we might wish for the individual dead, we cannot lend the sanctity of their cemeteries for a new Lost Cause.”

It appears that some people can’t declare victory and call it a day. Not content to remove the statues from prominent views, they effectively want to extirpate them entirely from the public sphere. Continue reading

SCC: “Independence, Honesty, Commitment to Law”

FERC Commissioner Mark Christie of Virginia. Virginia’s loss, the nation’s gain.

On Monday, Mark Christie took the oath of office to become a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and simultaneously vacated his seat on the Virginia State Corporation Commission. He did it sitting in one of the SCC courtrooms downtown.  The following is an excerpt from remarks (in full here) he made from the bench before U.S. Fourth Circuit Court Judge Steve Agee administered the oath to join FERC.

The reason I have so enjoyed this Commission, and am so sad to leave, is our culture. The culture of the SCC consists of the following three primary elements:

Independence – I was asked at my Senate hearing if I would respect the independence of FERC. I said absolutely, because I have spent 17 years respecting and defending the independence of the Virginia State Corporation Commission. Like FERC, the Va. SCC respects — but does not work for — the executive branch, we are independent, and our job is to defend the public interest, not enact the policy agendas of any Governor or any single member of the legislature.

And because we’re independent we hire professionals without regard to politics and we then we let our staff be professionals. We never tell them to make findings or take positions in cases to serve some political or special-interest agenda. Continue reading

About-Face by Virginia Beach School Chief

Aaron Spence

by Kerry Dougherty

Aaron Spence, superintendent of Virginia Beach Public Schools, has seen the light.

Finally.

After months of kowtowing to the local teachers’ union — er education association — which is doing its best to keep classrooms closed, he belatedly joined the common sense get-the-kids-back-in-class crowd.

Better late than never.

Spence was persuaded, it seems, by medical experts who told him what many have known since last spring: That youngsters are not being infected by COVID-19 at significant rates, they tend to have very mild symptoms if they do test positive, and they’re terrible vectors of COVID-19. In other words, they don’t spread the virus. Continue reading

Important Changes in Healthcare Billing and Price Transparency

by James C. Sherlock

A lot happened right before the New Year to change the rules for healthcare billing and pricing.

Balance Billing

In one of the events, new federal law buried in the end of year, 5,600-page $900 billion COVID-19 federal relief legislation bans balance billing to patients.

“Surprise” billing for the balance due after an insurance company pays its contracted providers occurs when patients are presented with unexpected bills from out-of-network providers who practice in in-network hospitals.

ER physicians in particular have been very active in forming practices that contract with hospitals, effectively reducing the supply of ER physicians available to work as hospital employees. Continue reading

Merle Rutledge and America’s Coming Political Realignment

by James A. Bacon

Permit me to introduce you to Merle Rutledge, the Republican candidate for governor that no one is talking about. To be sure, his chances of winning the nomination are just about zero, but that’s no reason to pretend he doesn’t exist. Personally, I find his candidacy intriguing — not because I share his views, which I find extreme, but because of the light he sheds on an important political dynamic that isn’t getting nearly enough attention.

According to Essence magazine, 18% of black men voted for Donald Trump for president. That’s astonishing. Those voters didn’t attend elite universities like the people purporting to speak for the black race you see on CNN or MSNBC. They tend to be working class and middle class, they tend to be culturally conservative, and they, like their white counterparts, are worried about America’s fraying culture and the bankruptcy of Democratic Party prescriptions for society. Continue reading

A Win-Win Transit Solution for Norfolk

by James A. Bacon

I have been highly critical of mass transit operations here in Virginia, which has led some blog commenters to suggest that I am “anti” mass transit. To the contrary, I believe that mass transit is a critical element of Virginia’s transportation infrastructure, an absolute necessity to manage the densification that occurs in growing urban areas. However, to say that mass transit is essential is not to excuse transit operations for abysmal performance and wasting millions of tax dollars.

When I see evidence of positive performance, I highlight it… which brings me to today’s post. Before the COVID epidemic, a major overhaul of Richmond’s bus routes gained 1 million riders, a 17% increase, by reorganizing its bus routes. Now Norfolk is hiring the same consultant who transformed Richmond’s bus routes to re-engineer its own mass transit network.

The proposed reorganization of routes would put 140,000 more Norfolk residents within a quarter mile of a bus or train arriving every 15 minutes for most of the day, an increase of 57% over today. The average person will be able to access 31% more jobs than with the existing network. All without spending more money.

Reports The Virginia Mercury:

“Here in Norfolk we have a bus system that hadn’t been reviewed or updated in decades,” said Andria McClellan, a city councilwoman and Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. “All the tiny changes over the years left us with a lot of spaghetti-style routes that were added for political reasons and not because they actually met the needs of our current riders.” Continue reading

Don’t Forget ODU!

In a recent post I addressed the issue of STEM programs in Virginia’s public universities. The column prompted a response from James V. Koch, a former president of Old Dominion University who has dedicated recent years to examining the issue of affordability and governance in higher education. Notes Koch (whose books I have favorably reviewed):

Those who post on Bacon’s Rebellion or write for Times-Dispatch often seem ignorant of anything east of Williamsburg.  … Note that Old Dominion University ranks 4th in terms of the total number of STEM baccalaureate degrees granted and 2nd in terms of STEM intensity.

ODU is the Rodney Dangerfield of Virginia higher ed — it can’t get no respect. Unlike Rodney, ODU deserves more respect than it gets. — JAB

Watering Down the SOLs. Again.

by John Butcher

If you want to boost the pass rates of the Standards of Learning exams, you have three choices (aside from the one perfected at Richmond’s Carver Elementary): Improve teaching, make the tests easier, or relax the scoring.

On the 2019 revision of the math tests, the Board of “Education” chose the last option: They adopted cut scores in five of six cases that were less than the level necessary to retain the same level of rigor as the earlier tests. The results were predictable (and, of course, fed the false notion that student performance was improving).

The Board now has jiggered the English tests to the same end. The recommendation (teacher-driven; no pretense here of objectivity) was for every cut score to be lower (easier) than the level necessary to maintain the rigor of the tests. Continue reading

Another Higher-Ed Apologist Calls for More State Funding

James Socas

by James A. Bacon

You’d think James Socas would know better. As an employee of the Blackstone Group, he invests in technology companies. He knows what it takes to run successful business enterprises. He has even served two terms on UVa’s alumni association board. But he’s willing to cut Virginia public universities plenty of slack when it comes to the way they run their enterprises.

In an op-ed he wrote for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Socas calls for greater state funding for Virginia’s public colleges and universities — with no strings attached and no calls for accountability. He should know better.

The op-ed makes some legitimate points. Higher-ed is an engine of economic growth. And the importance of higher education will only grow as the economy increasingly revolves around information technology, data science, machine learning and robotics. “Almost 50% of all employees,” he writes, “will need reskilling by 20205 as work becomes more knowledge-intensive and higher-order cognitive skills such as creativity, critical thinking and advanced problem-solving become more important.” Continue reading