BALCONY - Business and Labor Coalition of New York

Solving New York City’s Looming Retirement Crisis

June 24th, 2015

These days it’s not just the baby boom generation that’s feeling ill prepared and apprehensive about retirement—Gen Xers are feeling even more stressed about how they’ll fare in old age, according to a new AARP survey of New York City voters.

View the AARP report below:

2015 NYC Survey of Gen X Boomer Voters REPORT Final

And that’s no surprise, given the financial situation facing many New Yorkers. The AARP report found that some 38 percent of New Yorkers in both generational cohorts, or those between the ages of 35 to 69, have no retirement savings account whatsoever. The median retirement account balance for all working age households is $3,000, and it is only $12,000 for near-retirement age households.

Those who are part of Generation X carry nearly six times more debt than their parents did, according to a 2014 report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, perhaps a contributing factor to this younger cohort’s heightened anxiety. And yet six in 10 Gen Xers still expect to retire at 65, a fact that suggests a “perceptual gap,” according to the AARP report, which serves as a companion publication to a statewide survey release by the AARP in May.

“We call it ‘faith-based retirement planning,’” said Teresa Ghilarducci, an economics professor at The New School with an expertise in retirement security.

The implications are potentially dire, not just for the large swath of New Yorkers who face the prospect of working well past the retirement age of 65 and a diminished quality of life, but also for society as a whole, which will have to bear the brunt of health care costs and living expenses that an increasing number of people simply will not be able to afford. But while gridlock in Washington, D.C. means there isn’t likely to be a solution coming down from our nation’s capital anytime soon, states and cities are beginning to move on the issue—understanding that the cost of inaction would be higher than the price of implementing new retirement programs for private sector workers.

How to go about doing this was the topic under discussion at a panel hosted Wednesday by the AARP and City & State, in which public servants and policy analysts weighed in on what New York can do to avert the impending retirement challenges.

“We have a retirement security problem in this country and it’s worse in New York City than almost any place else,” said John Adler, director of New York City’s Office of Pensions and chief pension investment advisor. “New Yorkers are substantially below the median in terms of access to workplace retirement plans, levels of savings and levels of retirement income.”

According to Adler, three-quarters of American workers rely “completely or overwhelmingly” on Social Security for their retirement income, which provides a median benefit of about $15,000 a year—hardly enough to subsist on alone. Adler said the Social Security system must be strengthened, and emphasized that, contrary to some right-wing rhetoric, it is on solid ground and should remain so for decades to come.

But the real key, according to Adler and other panelists, is first ensuring universal access to retirement plans in the workplace. Other states are already moving to do this.

“Starting with Massachusetts and California in 2012, there has been a blizzard of activity across the country, helped immeasurably by the way, by the efforts of AARP,” Adler said. “Four states have now passed laws to create state-sponsored retirement programs, at least six states are conducting studies, and legislation has been introduced in at least 15 other states.”

Both Illinois and Washington state, for example, recently implemented state-facilitated retirement plans for private sector workers whose jobs do not offer any pension or 401k plan.

“It’s not about intricacies of the plan and which plan is the best … We’re talking about very basic things,” said Scott Evans, chief investment officer at the New York City Comptroller’s Office. “The first thing we want to focus on with regards to this is ensuring that all New Yorkers have access to employer-based retirement plans. Those are table sticks. That shouldn’t even be up for debate.”

Panelists also stressed the need to figure out how best to encourage workers to opt into retirement plans, once available.

“One of the things that seems to work really well—creditors are really good at setting up automatic deductions or automatic payments,” said Angela Houghton, a senior research advisor at AARP. “If we’re talking about some sort of universal access to retirement or savings, that feature—sort of an automatic—right out of your paycheck it goes into a savings account—that’s sort of a quick win and it seems to work pretty well.”

Both Evans and Ghilarducci of The New School are currently part of a panel convened by city Comptroller Scott Stringer to investigate strategies options to provide access to retirement plans for all New Yorkers.

“We’re working behind the scenes, away from the political environment, to try and develop three options for the city to take a look at,” Evans said. “Fifty-seven percent of New Yorkers have no access whatsoever. We have to fund a solution—the private sector cant find a solution—the public sector needs to look at that.”

 


Keep Public Ed PUBLIC

May 27th, 2015

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New York State public education is under threat from Wall Street financiers pushing to privatize education by expanding the number of charter schools. We as parents, teachers and taxpayers demand that our state lawmakers protect public education.

Charter schools were supposed to serve as laboratories for innovative learning methods. But those that seek to privatize public education for profit have hijacked large parts of the charter school movement for their own purposes.

Many charter schools do not serve all students and fail to abide by the same standards of fairness, student discipline and financial transparency that traditional public schools have to meet.

From Concrete to Chips: Bringing the Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act Into the Digital Age

May 26th, 2015

Stephen Ezell and Robert D. Atkinson
May 19, 2015

Congress should make investment in and deployment of intelligent transportation systems a principle focus of the Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act.

SUMMARY

Next-generation information and communications technologies (IT) are set to revolutionize America’s transportation system. Whether it is the emergence of innovative connected vehicles or intelligent infrastructure, the future of transportation lies not just in building new roads but in bringing intelligence to every asset in the U.S. transportation network—from roadways and private vehicles to commercial truck fleets and public transit systems—thereby making transportation safer, more accessible, and more efficient. Accordingly, it is time for U.S. transportation policy—principally enshrined through the Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act—to reflect this shift from “concrete” to “chips”: in other words, to comprehensively integrate IT into America’s surface transportation system.

This report examines the promise of IT-enabled smart transportation systems and vehicles and proposes a number of policy principles and recommendations for how Congress can leverage the 2015 Surface Transportation Reauthorization bill to advance the development and deployment of intelligent transportation systems (ITS) and automated vehicle technologies. By bringing efficiencies to existing transportation assets and systems, ITS solutions deliver the most “bang for the buck” on each dollar the federal government invests in transportation. Put simply, it is time for policymakers to view ITS as the 21st-century, digital equivalent of the Interstate Highway System, with the federal government again taking the lead in declaring a vision, investing in research and development (R&D), developing standards and technologies, shifting incentives to favor the deployment of technology-enabled solutions, constructing a regulatory framework that encourages the deployment of ITS and automated vehicle technologies, and providing the funding necessary to support deployment of these solutions.

This report provides an overview of the wide range of IT-enabled transportation technologies being implemented today and then describes the five key classes of benefits they enable before turning to a discussion of the policy principles and specific policy recommendations that should guide thinking about the 2015 Surface Transportation Reauthorization bill. The following summarizes the report’s policy recommendations:

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) should develop a comprehensive innovation strategy that articulates how it can promote the rapid deployment and adoption of proven intelligent transportation systems across the United States.

Congress should enact a new “Cement & Chips” funding approach that directs no less than 5 percent (approximately $2.5 billion) of the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) allocated to states to be devoted to digital and ITS-based infrastructure projects.

Congress should create a new competition program called Race to the Digital Top that awards funding to a select group of six U.S. communities—two small, two mid-size, and two large—to build a comprehensive “smart communities” model.

Congress should ensure that ITS-related implementations are immediately eligible for funding under the existing highway transportation authorization.

Congress should tie a share of federal surface transportation funding to states’ actual improvements in transportation system performance.

Congress should lower the share of federal funding for non-toll projects from the current 80 percent to 60 percent, while funding the full 80 percent for toll projects, providing a stronger incentive for state toll projects.

Congress should authorize a total of $1 billion in pre-construction feasibility assessment grants designed to address a key obstacle that states and localities face in advancing user fee-backed projects.

Congress should direct the administration to launch two new Institutes for Manufacturing Innovation (IMIs), the first an industry-led intelligent vehicles and infrastructure consortium led by the Department of Transportation, and the second an IMI for surface transportation materials innovation.

The U.S. Department of Transportation should create an organization that facilitates an interstate dialogue on ITS technologies, including vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) systems and autonomous vehicle regulations so that state officials don’t lock in to suboptimal or non-interoperable systems ITS systems, including VMT systems.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) should undertake a comprehensive review of existing federal automotive standards, regulations, and policies that present barriers to a competitive marketplace for intelligent transportation systems and emerging vehicular technology development, along with recommendations for removing or mitigating such barriers.

The White House should convene a meeting of representatives from state Departments of Transportation to spur the creation of high-value, dynamic traffic data sets and application program interfaces (APIs) to be hosted at data.gov.

The U.S. Department of Transportation should undertake to scale innovative local software and app-based ITS solutions nationally, such as by supporting the provision of shared IT infrastructure, such as cloud storage.

The White House should organize a competition to identify the 20 best such applications and task a nonprofit, such as Code for America, to take applications initially developed for individual cities and code them for use on a national basis.

Read the entire report here: ITIFReport

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Amtrak Calls on City Leaders to Speak Up for Gateway Project

May 26th, 2015

May 22, 2015
By Marc Bussanich

New York, NY—Anthony Coscia, Chairman of the Board at Amtrak, said at the recent Trans-Hudson Summit that to start construction on the Gateway Project New York’s political leaders and opinion makers need to start making some noise to make the project a priority.

Coscia’s colleague at Amtrak, Drew Galloway, chief of planning and performance for the Northeast Corridor, opened his presentation at the summit on May 7 by going back in history to November 27, 1910—the day that Penn Station opened on Manhattan’s West Side, but noted also that it was on that day when the construction of a trans-Hudson rail crossing concluded.

“That’s 104 years and 161 days from today,” said Galloway.

The clock is ticking on how long the current tunnels can remain open, as Amtrak announced last year that the tunnels’ have only 20 years of use before they have to be shut down for repair.

According to Coscia, there is no more important project for Amtrak than the Gateway Project. As he said in a video interview with LaborPress recently, Amtrak has either spent or is committed to spending in excess of $300M on the project. But the whole project has a price tag of $15 to $20 billion, and the $300M is just a drop in the bucket Coscia said.

That’s when he told the attendees at the summit that, although Amtrak and other stakeholders in the region are cooperating on trying to execute the project, New York City’s leaders should be speaking up to secure the necessary funds.

“In terms of developing a funding mechanism, I think there is a great deal of support in Washington, D.C. for it, but New York City has an ability to motivate a great deal of political resources. To be blunt, there are many strong opinion makers either in the city or affected by it and I think it’s important that they get activated in a way that makes this a priority,” said Coscia.

Peter Rogoff, under secretary of Transportation for policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation, said he wanted to follow up Coscia’s remarks with a somber reality of how infrastructure spending is currently being debated in Washington, D.C. as the current transportation funding plan is set to expire at month’s end.

“I agree with Tony that there needs to be a larger voice. We have found that when you get out into America—urban area and rural areas—they get it immediately in terms of what their immediate needs are and what the funding flows are. But then you get into the Beltway of Washington, D.C. and the disconnect is just incredibly stark, it sort of slaps you in the face,” said Rogoff. “Right now, a lot of the discussion in D.C., much to our dismay, has been just finding enough money to maintain the [transportation] trust fund balance so that we can freeze funding now and into the future. That’s gotta change if we’re going to be able to take on a multi-billion dollar project. That’s not just true of us, but in terms of our state partners. I think the legislators on both sides of the river, doesn’t matter what political party they’re from, need to understand that this same old, same old discussion that’s happening in D.C. can’t continue if we’re going to be able to make the game changing investments that we need to make like this one.”

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America has a long-term care crisis

May 6th, 2015

By Jeffrey Lewis

The crisis is compounded by the singular focus of Congress and many state legislators across the country on caring for the uninsured.

Modern healthcare has changed the way we eat, exercise, and live. It consumes approximately 18 percent of our gross domestic product and continues to be one of the most divisive issues in politics, changing the electoral landscape from Arkansas to Alaska.

Unfortunately, when it comes to preparing for the health necessities of old age – ensuring healthy, affordable independence for seniors – we are failing.

America is swiftly approaching critical mass in our long-term home and healthcare sector. Almost 10,000 Americans are turning 65 everyday – more than doubling the number of retirees who will require long-term care by 2050. Even more startling, roughly 70 percent of America’s seniors will need some type of long-term care. That’s why today, more than 45 million Americans are caring for an elderly family member.
The long-term care crisis is compounded by the singular focus of Congress and many state legislators across the country on caring for the uninsured. While the needs of the uninsured are important and must be addressed, they cannot and should not hide the unanswered needs of retired and disabled Americans.
Long-term care is America’s single largest healthcare crisis. It has and will continue to bankrupt middle class families unless there is a national solution. The costs of ignoring America’s long-term care catastrophe are not going to shrink just because elected officials are closing their eyes to the problem.
Solutions to America’s long-term care problem should start with the most basic issues we face: awareness, cost, accessibility and gender. We cannot ignore the fact that the face of poverty in old age is distinctly the face of a woman.

No one wants to acknowledge aging. Growing older is shunned, demeaned and avoided at any cost. Children don’t talk to their parents about the eventual needs that arrive with old age. Parents, understandably, don’t want to cede their independence.

Like all important issues – long-term care solutions start at home. Given that American families will continue this struggle alone, we must alter our perception of aging. Instead of fear we should take a pragmatic look at ways to spark discussions, provide information, and give all Americans a fair choice in how they spend their golden years.

Families of all ages should know their options. Seniors should understand the choices, the opportunities and the pitfalls. So too must children of aging parents. But information is only one part of our long-term care equation. Without affordable long term care services to assist people in remaining independent, the prospect of quality independence shrinks.

Elected leaders must also explore new reforms that will spur younger generations to begin investing in their future while easing costs for today’s seniors. No one should be forced to deplete their life savings and place further stress on their families as our economy struggles to rebound.

Younger Americans who start planning today should have their long-term care investments shielded from burdensome taxes. Government should explore options for older Americans that would allow Medicare to shoulder part of home health and senior independence costs. These options should offer subsidies for our seniors who are living in poverty and be tied to income so wealthy seniors pay more.

Finally, we must address the issue of access. By 2030, nearly one fifth of our population will be over the age of 65 and 70 percent of them will require some form of long-term care. Without a viable infrastructure for providing senior independence, there will continue to be a large portion of seniors who must rely on already over-stretched family members for long-term care.

There is no greater challenge facing America, and no greater opportunity confronting Congress.

Jeffrey Lewis is the president of the Institute for Healthcare Innovation (jeffrey@institute.bz)

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Fix Water Mains, Improve Transit

May 4th, 2015

by Peter Peyser

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s executive budget is expected soon and one of the issues attracting attention is the size of the city’s contribution to the MTA. While the mayor rightly urges Albany to come up with sustainable, long-term capital support for the regional transit network, the city’s contribution to the MTA Capital Plan is today less than half of its peak in 1989, during the Koch Administration. Certainly, there should be a way for the mayor to find significantly more city money to support the bus and subway system that is the lifeblood of our city. But there’s another way the mayor can support the MTA: increase funding to keep damaging water out of the subway.

Just in the past month, we had an illustration of how one system of crumbling infrastructure can contribute to the problems of another. When a water main broke in the West Village on April 7, water came cascading into the 14th Street Station on the 7th Avenue line, interrupting 1, 2, and 3 train service. The dramatic video of water showering a train in the station attracted a lot of attention on social media and elsewhere. But this incident is just one of several since Mayor de Blasio took office that highlight the importance of the city repairing its ancient water system. Others:

January 15, 2014 – a 137-year-old water main break near Union Square requires the diversion of multiple train lines during the morning rush hour

November 22, 2014 – a water main break in the Bronx floods the E 145th Station and requires suspension of 6 train service

April 1, 2015 – a water main break near Central Park West and 96th Street causes disruption in B and C train service

In each one of these incidents, the MTA mobilized people and equipment to restore service and make repairs as needed to subway equipment and infrastructure. While it may be difficult for the MTA to break down the costs for each incident like this, it’s clear that expenditures for labor and materials are not insubstantial. In addition, there are costs to the MTA in lost ridership revenue when these events take place. When you factor in additional economic costs of delaying commutes for thousands of people and lost business income, the total economic costs of this problem mount up.

A review of the mayor’s preliminary budget for fiscal year 2016 shows capital expenditures of $325 million over 10 years to replace aging underground water mains. That’s just $32.5 million per year. For emergency repairs to broken water mains, there’s an additional $116 million over that same period – less than $12 million per year. These numbers are woefully inadequate. According to a March 2014 report by the Center for an Urban Future, the city’s water main replacement program has been replacing only about one-third of what’s required to approach a state of good repair. The result: more than 400 water main breaks in New York City last year and every year since 1998 but one.

The risk of underinvestment in our water infrastructure is becoming more apparent each time a water main break disrupts our transit network. If the mayor wants to keep the heat on Albany to fund the MTA, so be it. But he can also help support better transit by pumping more resources into repairing the city’s aging water infrastructure.

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Peter Peyser is a public affairs consultant living in New York. He served in the Koch Administration in the mayor’s Washington, DC office.


Danny Schechter, ‘News Dissector’ and Human Rights Activist, Dies at 72

April 23rd, 2015

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By SAM ROBERTS

Danny Schechter, whose media criticism became a staple of Boston radio and who went on to champion human rights as an author, filmmaker and television producer, died on Thursday in Manhattan. He was 72.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, his brother, Bill, said.

Mr. Schechter infused almost all his work — whether it was for alternative or mainstream media — with his deep-rooted advocacy of human rights. He was a producer of an award-winning public television series, “South Africa Now,” and of the ABC News magazine “20/20.”

His cherubic, if bewhiskered, countenance belied an indomitability that began with the civil rights movement, projected him into the front lines of the campaign against apartheid in South Africa and endeared him to a generation of counterculture radio listeners as “the media dissector.” He described himself as a “participatory journalist.”

“What distinguished Schechter,” John Nichols wrote in The Nation online, “was his merging of a stark and serious old-school I. F. Stone-style understanding of media power and manipulation with a wild and joyous Yippie-infused determination to rip it up and start again.”

In a tribute on his Facebook page, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the former public radio and television correspondent, wrote that Mr. Schechter had “used the media as Edward R. Murrow defined its mission: To teach, illuminate and inspire.”

Daniel Isaac Schechter was born in Manhattan on June 27, 1942. His father, Jerry, was a garment center pattern maker who became a sculptor. His mother, the former Ruth Lisa Lubin, was a secretary who became a poet.

Mr. Schechter grew up in the Bronx, the grandson of socialist immigrants, and graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School and Cornell University, interrupting his studies there to organize rent strikes in Harlem. As an organizer for the Northern Student Movement, he also marched for civil rights in Washington and in the South.

He received his master’s degree from the London School of Economics, where he became active in the antiapartheid movement.

In 1971 Mr. Schechter joined the Boston rock station WBCN-FM, where he found a following as “Danny Schechter, the News Dissector.” Noam Chomsky, the linguist and emeritus professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recalled the “enlightenment and insight and humor” of his broadcasts, which, he said, “literally educated a generation.”

At the end of each broadcast, Mr. Schechter borrowed a phrase from Wes Nisker, a San Francisco broadcaster, and exhorted his listeners: “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.”

He joined CNN in its early days, in 1980, before moving to “20/20,” where his work won two Emmy Awards. In 1988, he and Rory O’Connor founded Globalvision, a New York production company, which produced “Rights & Wrongs: Human Rights Television,” a 1990s series hosted by Ms. Hunter-Gault, and “South Africa Now,” a weekly public affairs program that won a George Polk Award in 1990.

In a letter to The New York Times in 1991, Mr. Schechter defended his programs against complaints from some stations that they crossed the line into advocacy.

“How many PBS stations may have decided not to air our programs because they don’t want the controversy generated by the self-styled media police?” he wrote. “Self-censorship is always the hardest to detect. The public television system needs to be more open to programming that challenges the conventional wisdom, that lets the voices of the world in.”

By his count, he wrote 17 books, among them “The More You Watch the Less You Know: News Wars/(sub)Merged Hopes/Media Adventures” and “Madiba A-Z: The Many Faces of Nelson Mandela.” He also made more than 30 films, including six documentaries on Mr. Mandela and another titled “WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception,” and had blogged since 2002. He lived in Manhattan.

Besides his brother, he is survived by a daughter, Sarah, and Denzil McKenzie, who lived with the family for years. His two marriages ended in divorce.

“I know all this is easy for me to say,” Mr. Schechter wrote a year ago on Common Dreams, which describes itself as a website for the progressive community. “All I seem to have these days is this keyboard to crank out more condemnations and calls to action, knowing full well, as I do it, that I don’t know what else to do. I am compelled to make media, compelled to do what I can, thinking modestly that perhaps somewhere, in hearts I don’t know, words or images can still stir souls to rise.”

Correction: March 26, 2015
An obituary on Wednesday about the media critic and human rights activist Danny Schechter misstated his mother’s maiden name. She was the former Ruth Lisa Lubin, not Lubing.


For Some Stricken 9/11 Workers, ‘Zadroga’ Aid Has Been Life-Saving

April 23rd, 2015

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By SARAH DORSEY

These days, Sean O’Toole can’t take anything for granted.

A nice meal, for example. He can only manage one a day—generally an evening meal of soft food—because it’s tough keeping his mouth moist enough to swallow anything.



Radiation Treatment

“Radiation nuked my saliva glands, so it’s really difficult to eat,” he said. He usually supplements with two or three Ensures, the nutritional shakes that help many sick people get enough calories.

Mr. O’Toole, a retired NYPD Police Officer, responded to the World Trade Center site on 9/11 and continued reporting there in the months that followed, first performing rescue and recovery work, then guarding the perimeter.

“So I was kinda in the Hot Zone from the first day to the last day kind of thing,” he said in an interview last week. “That’s just the way the cards fell when I was assigned. Nothin’ heroic; that’s where I was geographically assigned.”

About a year after the blast site was cleared in May 2002, Mr. O’Toole began having breathing difficulties. He developed asthma and his lung capacity diminished substantially. Then in 2013, doctors diagnosed him with oropharyngeal cancer, a malignancy of the throat.

He’d never smoked—a risk factor for his type of cancer—and his doctors told him the disease was Sept. 11-related, a result of the toxic dust unleashed that day.

As a cop who retired with a pension, Mr. O’Toole has better help than most, including good health insurance. But he said the World Trade Center Health Program, which is funded through the Federal Zadroga Act, put him “on the road to recovery.”

A Vital Cost-Saver

“[The Health Program] has been…” he began, then trailed off. “Without sounding like a drama queen, I cannot stress how important they’ve been to me and my family in terms of my medication.”

The program covers out-of-pocket medication costs that he never could have met on his own, particularly since he and his wife are raising three school-age children. It paid for a new drug not yet covered by traditional insurance to try to restore function in his saliva glands, and helps him cover the Ensure, which he estimates would otherwise cost him more than $200 a month. It also enables him to get acupuncture for neuropathy brought on by chemotherapy.

“They’re all just good people there, too, so it kinda makes the whole process even better,” he added.
Like many first-responders, Mr. O’Toole prefers to avoid the spotlight. He spoke the day after members of the state congressional delegation introduced their bill to reauthorize the Zadroga Act. The Health Program is due to expire in October, and the Victim Compensation Fund, which covers economic losses for victims, is set to last until October 2016.

The retired officer said he was concerned about renewing the law, in part for those whose cancers have not yet emerged.

“To lose that safety net [for them], it would be very, very difficult,” he said.

Push to Reauthorize Bill

A bipartisan group of Federal lawmakers launched their effort to reauthorize the bill on April 14. The legislation—introduced as S. 928 and H.R. 1786—was sponsored by a bipartisan coalition led by New York lawmakers.
Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer introduced the Senate version along with Illinois Republican Mark Kirk, Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski and 12 co-sponsors. On the House side, New York Democrats Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler, and Republicans Peter King and Lee Zeldin, were joined by 39 co-sponsors.

“We made a promise on Sept. 11, not only to rebuild, and pursue justice against those who attacked us, but to care for the injured and their families, and the first-responders and volunteers who risked everything to help others in the wake of the attacks,” Congresswoman Maloney said in a statement. “Our commitment to ‘never forget’ knew no bounds or party lines when joined in unison on the steps of the Capitol back in 2001, and it doesn’t today.”

Senator Gillibrand referred to the fierce fight the original bill triggered before passing in the waning hours of the 2010 congressional session. Lawmakers then threatened to block it over the cost.

‘Do the Right Thing’

“I am proud to stand hand-in-hand with members from both sides of the aisle and from both chambers of Congress because it shouldn’t take another ‘Christmas miracle’ for Congress to do the right thing and stand by our heroes,” she said.

The original Zadroga Act set aside $4.3 billion for first-responders and survivors, $2.77 billion of which went to the VCF payments. Under the reauthorization bill, the benefits would be permanent, and there would be no monetary cap.

Like Mr. O’Toole, George Cerbasi Jr. has health problems that he fears will persist after the Zadroga Act expires.

A volunteer fire chief at the time, he rushed over from Norwood, New Jersey to help on the day of the attacks, and for several days he worked on the Pile or at the Fresh Kills landfill, where the air was thick with 9/11 dust. Though his tenure there was shorter than the police officer’s, he said he served “just long enough to get sick.”

In 2006, a cardiopulmonary work-up showed he had spots on his lungs. It turned out to be sarcoidosis, an autoimmune disorder found more frequently among Sept. 11 responders. It’s believed that it can be triggered by breathing in foreign substances, such as the asbestos and other toxins released on 9/11. The disease causes inflammatory cells called sarcoids to form on the body, often on internal organs.

Heart Problems

“The next year, my heart wasn’t pumping right,” he said in a phone interview from his new home in Colorado Springs, Colo. He developed chest pain and thought he was having a heart attack, but learned that sarcoids had formed on his heart, too.

Looking back over the series of painful illnesses triggered, his doctors say, by his 9/11 exposure, Mr. Cerbasi found refuge in wry humor.

“They nicknamed me ‘The 1 percent,’” he said of his health-care providers, because if something could go wrong for him, it would. He joked that he was a frequent flier at the emergency room.

Even before the sarcoidosis, he developed several illnesses common among Sept. 11 responders starting in 2004: rhinitis, GERD, sleep apnea, and, by 2011, a precancerous condition in his nasal cavity.

“I call myself a professional patient,” he said.

In 2008, Mr. Cerbasi was given a pacemaker because his cardiac sarcoid was interfering with his heart’s ability to receive signals from the brain. Since then, he’s had two surgeries to fix the pacemaker’s malfunctioning leads and another to replace it.

More ailments followed, including an excruciating sarcoid on his eye socket. He developed nerve damage and had a spinal tap to see if that symptom was triggered by the sarcoidosis. That procedure went wrong, causing spinal fluid to back up and sparking headaches so bad he considered taking his own life. (They were relieved after another procedure.)

Last year, he discovered he had kidney disease, likely caused by the steroids used to control the shooting pain from his nerve damage.

Mr. Cerbasi was just 38 on Sept. 11, and he’s 52 today.

‘Be Dead Minus ‘Zadroga’

“I’d be dead by now” without the Zadroga Act, he said. He didn’t have health insurance before he joined the World Trade Center Health Program, and would likely have put off treatment for his heart conditions, which easily could have been fatal. The pre-cancerous lesions in his sinuses also would have gone untreated.

Three years ago, his doctors told him he wouldn’t be able to work again. He began accepting Federal help.
“I can’t afford the medicines; I’m on total disability,” Mr. Cerbasi said. He and his wife ended up moving to Colorado, where their property tax is lower.

Still, he says he doesn’t regret his decisions.

“I’m the only one in my department that’s gotten sick,” he said. “That’s the only way I’d have it, [to] go down with my men.”

“If they called me today, I’d be there,” he later added. “I’d go again. I wouldn’t hesitate a bit.”

Make Bill Permanent

Although the Health Program is due to expire in October, the act allows for leftover funds to be used for another year without requiring new appropriations from Congress, so sick patients won’t be turned away immediately.

Earlier versions of the reauthorization limited its benefits to 25 years, in an apparent attempt to gain support. The average age of responders at the Trade Center was 42, and it would have covered many until they reached Medicare age.

But the draft that was submitted by legislators last week would put Zadroga in the company of other landmark worker-health acts with permanent benefits.

Programs providing health care and compensation for coal miners with black lung and energy workers sickened by radiation protect thousands and are long-established law, Zadroga advocates note. They were supported by even some of the more fiscally-conservative members of Congress whose constituents were affected, like Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

A 50-State Concern

More than 33,000 people have so far been certified with at least one Sept. 11-related illness or injury; they now live in 429 of 435 Congressional districts and in all 50 states. Two-thirds of them have more than one condition.
Members of the Health Program have more than 3,900 cancers; 950 sufferers were in the FDNY. And the results have been fatal for some. More than 80 New York cops and 100 city firefighters have reportedly died from illnesses related to their service.

Victim Compensation Fund Special Master Sheila Birnbaum has decided more than $1 billion in awards, nearly all of them to first-responders. The fund covers lost wages, out-of-pocket medical costs and other financial aid. Awards have been determined for about 4,400 claimants, and more than 10,500 more have been approved for compensation.

Federal Zadroga funds currently come from fees on certain visas paid by foreign citizens and, primarily, a tax on the income that foreign corporations make selling products to the United States. It is unclear at this point where future funds would originate, but Congress has strict rules requiring that all new expenditures be offset in some way.

City’s Share 10%

New York City also contributes 10 percent of the costs, a compromise in the original bill that would continue under its renewal.

It’s too early to tell how much the bill would cost; the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation must review it and issue estimates.

Advocates have expressed cautious optimism that reauthorization will face less opposition than the original bill. A filibuster nearly derailed it in 2010, but now its supporters are armed with more scientific studies about the health hazards of Sept. 11 dust. They are also facing a deadline that could convince some lawmakers to act more quickly.

The program has expanded since it was signed in early 2011, now covering dozens of types of cancer. Supporters say that change was vital and long overdue, though it raised costs considerably.

Mr. Cerbasi, who first heard about the medical program through his now-attorney, Noah Kushlefsky, said he is grateful for the good care he is able to get even as far away as Colorado.

“I’m not going to doctors [now] that I can’t afford that are not covered,” he said, adding that they have particular expertise in his conditions. “Now I can see quality doctors and I don’t have to go and draw a name out of a hat.”


Common Core Controversy: PARCC Test Underscores Dangers Of Standardization

April 23rd, 2015




By Tim Clark

Even though the Common Core State Standards Initiative was meant to strengthen the U.S. education system by ensuring “all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life, regardless of where they live,” sadly, it appears to be having the opposite effect.

The problem? All kids learn and test differently and it’s impossible to capture the myriad needs and nuances of learning under the framework of a “common” set of teaching standards – especially for kids with an Individualized Education Program (IEP). What’s a frustrated parent to do?

Empty PARCC-ing lot

The upcoming PARCC exams seem to be piling on the frustration. Aligned with Common Core standards, PARCC has become a lightning rod for controversy by confusing kids (and parents) and as a result, many states have refused to participate in the PARCC exams. Of the dwindling support remaining, an opt-out movement is gaining momentum amidst controversy over corporate ties to Common Core – which begs the question: Who’s really driving education in the U.S.?

To its credit, PARCC has been very transparent about its testing procedures, encouraging people to participate in sample tests. But when educated parents struggle with many of the questions, it becomes obvious that “teaching to the test” isn’t the best tactic to make students more prepared to enter the workforce or attend college.

Learning from other industries

Establishing a common set of standards certainly makes sense – on paper at least – to establish credibility, competence and trust for a variety of different industries. Global software firm SAP, a leading provider of cloud solutions and supporter of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) is on a continuous mission to improve its certification standards to ensure qualified individuals understand how to implement and operate its software.

According to Mary Bazemore, COO, SAP Education, establishing competency standards for SAP professionals requires input and validation from a wide variety of experienced resources, with the input being tied directly to a specific set of tasks expected to be performed by a given role.

“We do not recommend using our certification test results as an exclusive standard for evaluating an individual’s capability, but as part of an overall evaluation of a candidate’s competency,” said Bazemore. “Evaluating a range of relevant criteria, including certifications, job experience and education has proven to be the most productive means of establishing standards that our ecosystem can use to determine an individual’s overall competence.”

What are your thoughts? Can Common Core learn from other industries to improve testing procedures?

This story also appeared on SAP Business Trends, an open community dedicated to uncovering business benefits of IT innovation.


Trumka: Time to Abolish ‘Undemocratic’ Fast Track Process

April 22nd, 2015

By Mike Hall

In a hearing on U.S. trade policy Tuesday, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told the Senate Finance Committee, “We don’t believe we can build strong and sustainable economic growth on a foundation of stagnant wages and disempowered workers.”

“And a key component of a raising wages economy is a new approach to trade and globalization—one that puts good jobs, safe products and a clean environment at the center of global economic integration—not enhanced corporate power and profits.”

He said that the AFL-CIO has been advocating for a new trade policy more than two decades and that “far from being ‘opposed to trade on principle’:

“We have supported trade deals when warranted. We have engaged with policymakers in both parties and at every level to work toward a new generation of trade policies that will create a virtuous cycle of demand-led growth while strengthening our democracy, protecting workers’ rights globally and promoting sustainable global economic development. Key to reforming our trade policies is abolishing the outdated, unaccountable, undemocratic Fast Track process.”

For far too long, he said, trade decisions have been made behind closed doors and with excessive secrecy “that serves the policy interests of political and economic elites, not the broad interests of the American middle class.”

The stakes for allowing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to be considered under Fast Track “couldn’t be higher,” Trumka said. It covers 12 countries that represent about 40% of the world’s economy and, under its terms, could be expanded to even more nations.

“The idea that Fast Track lets Congress set the standards and goals for the TPP is a fiction—the agreement has been under negotiation for more than five years and is essentially complete. Congress cannot set meaningful negotiating objectives in a Fast Track bill if the administration has already negotiated most of the key provisions. And Congress will lose crucial leverage over any few remaining provisions by agreeing to Fast Track at this late date.”

He said trade agreements such as the TPP affect foreign and domestic investment, financial services, food safety, labor rights, environmental protections, Buy American procurement policies, consumer safety, health care and more.

“These agreements put in place rules that could limit the ability of Congress and the states to legislate in the public interest now and for decades to come. Yet the public and Congress have too little say in the important details of these deals.”

Previous trade agreements that have been passed under Fast Track authority, Trumka said, “have failed to include ‘meaningful accountability mechanisms’ and:

“cede important and long-lasting decisions about our economy to a few negotiators in a small room in the middle of the night. This is undemocratic. It’s wrong. And it has led to disastrous policies for America’s workers and producers.”

Urging lawmakers not to pass Fast Track legislation, Trumka said, “the short time allotted between introduction of the bill, hearings, committee consideration and floor action is a sign that this bill cannot stand on its own merits. It is losing support fast.”

“It seems that its proponents see their only hope for passage is to rush it through before anyone has had a chance to review it properly. The American people deserve better.”