Sunday, June 1, 2014

What's in a (hurricane) name?

When I was a kid hurricanes had female names, giving rise to a joke I read in Boy's Life: "Why do they name hurricanes after women? Because there's no such thing as a himacane."

This changed in 1978 with the first male names used for Pacific tropical storms and the following year for Atlantic/Gulf of Mexico storms. Bud became the first masculine Pacific tropical storm but never reached typhoon status. He only lasted three days before being downgraded to a tropical disturbance, a veritable girly-man storm.

Hurricane Bob in 1979 was the first testosterone-laced storm on this side of the Panama Canal. Not to be confused with his son, Hurricane Bob of 1991, the elder Bob did, nonetheless, pack a punch as he landed at Grand Isle, Louisiana (pronounced Looz-e-anna by non-New Englanders) as a Category 1 cyclone with sustained winds of 75mph.

Since then, tropical storms have included both male and female names which are on a six-year rotating schedule. The most destructive storms' names are retired so as not to confuse historians, such as the younger Bob and Katrina (2005). Of the 53 Atlantic/Gulf names retired since equal opportunity naming started, 28 have been male.

This year's Atlantic lineup has a few interesting twists:

Arthur - "A" names rarely turn into devastating storms because they are early in the season, but Hurricanes Andrew and Alicia prove that any of these storms can be dangerous.

Bertha - She sounds like a big storm. Would you rather be facing Hurricane Tina or Hurricane Bertha?

Cristobal - Columbus' Spanish name. Seems like a natural to wander into the West Indies.

Dolly - What can I say? Singer or sheep?

Edouard - Widely known for his important role in the transition from realism to impressionism.

Fay - What was I saying about Tina?

Gonzalo - Googling his name turns up a lengthy list of soccer players. Definitely a Gulf storm.

Hanna - Could be the first hurricane to make landfall in Butte, Montana.

Isaias - First name of the president/dictator of Eritrea, the birthplace of the most recent Boston Marathon winner.

Josephine - Napoleon Bonaparte's main squeeze, at least until she went on a spending spree while he was busy trying to conquer Egypt.

Kyle - Kyle Field is an 83,000 capacity stadium at Texas A&M. The area is served by TV station KYLE. Definitely a Texas-bound storm.

Laura - A common name that could be infamous, like Diana, Irene or Sandy.

Marco - Polo.

Nana - This is what our grandchildren call my wife. Is this really a name?

Omar - O=Oh, as in "Oh my!" Mar=Sea in Spanish. Fitting.

Paulette - Like Josephine, this is really a man's name, like Bobette, Davidine, and Hankaphine.

Rene - Guy or girl? Why not Hurricane Pat?

Sally - See Laura.

Teddy - Could be the largest hurricane ever.

Vicky - Is this a coincidence?

Wilfred - We'll never get to Wilfred. That's why they picked it.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Governor declares public health emergency

This is great news. I applaud the efforts of the Department of Public Health and especially Commissioner Cheryl Bartlett for rising to the occasion.

As a member of the Interagency Council on Substance Abuse and Prevention, I look forward to the discussions we'll have about bringing more treatment to the fore and adding to our drug court/jail diversion programs. The immediate action relative to Zohydro is welcomed as is clearing the way for all first responders to carry and administer Narcan.

I've been preaching this stuff for awhile, so today is a good day for me.


Convenes emergency session of Public Health Council to immediately put directives into effect

BOSTON – Thursday, March 27, 2014 – Governor Deval Patrick today declared a public health emergency in Massachusetts to address the growing opioid addiction epidemic, and directed the Department of Public Health (DPH) to take immediate action to combat overdoses, stop the problem from getting worse and help those already addicted recover, with an increase of $20 million for treatment services for the general public and criminal justice systems.

The Governor’s Public Health Emergency declaration provides emergency powers to DPH Commissioner Cheryl Bartlett, RN, who will work with the Public Health Council to take the following actions:

1. Universally permit first responders to carry and administer Naloxone (Narcan), a safe and effective opioid antagonist that, when timely administered, can reverse an overdose and save a life. Naloxone will also be made widely available through standing order prescription in pharmacies in order to provide greater access to family and friends who fear a loved one might overdose.

2. Immediately prohibit the prescribing and dispensing of any hydrocodone bitartrate product in hydrocodone-only extended-release formulation (commonly known as Zohydro) until determined that adequate measures are in place to safeguard against the potential for diversion, overdose and abuse.  The introduction of this new painkiller into the market is a huge danger to the individuals already addicted to opiates and looking for something stronger.

3. Require the use of prescription monitoring by physicians and pharmacies to better safeguard against over-prescribing.

4. Re-task the Commonwealth’s Interagency Council on Substance Abuse and Prevention with added members from public health, provider organizations, law enforcement, municipalities and families impacted by the opiate epidemic, with the directive to make recommendations in 60 days on further actions that can be taken, including, but not limited to: how to better coordinate services, align private insurance with state issued insurance and how to divert non-violent criminal defendants struggling with addiction into treatment programs.

5. Finally, dedicate an additional $20 million to increase the use and availability of treatment services.

Commissioner Bartlett today also issued a public health advisory to help increase education and community engagement to support all treatment options to combat and prevent the spread of opioid addiction.

“These actions will help slow the rise of this dangerous addiction;” said Commissioner Bartlett. “Together, these steps will raise awareness in our communities, help save loved ones who tragically fall down from their disease and build important bridges to long-term recovery.”

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Commissioner Roche cannot end DCF crisis

The disappearance of five-year-old Jeremiah Oliver sometime between September and December 2013 touched off a crisis at the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF). Criticism has been non-stop, much of it waged at DCF Commissioner Olga Roche but also at our seemingly lightly engaged governor and the state's oversight agencies.

To be fair, Commissioner Roche has been in the driver's seat for a short time. Secretary of Health and Human Services, John Polanowicz, promoted her to acting commissioner in April 2013 following a six-year stint by Commissioner Angelo McClain. The secretary then removed "acting" from Roche's title in October 2013, ironically during the time when Jeremiah Oliver was missing and his DCF case worker was skipping required home visits.

Laying blame is an interesting exercise, one that gets a great deal of press and generates reams of letters to the editor, but it does not solve the problem. It is clear that the DCF requires strong leadership, someone with the skills to promptly assess key areas of organizational and personnel failings, and with the power to make the necessary changes without undue interference from labor interests--those negotiations can come later.

Even if Commissioner Roche's background and skill set matched what is necessary to rescue the DCF, she would not be in a position to execute the plan. The department's shortcomings certainly fall heavily on McClain, but being the watch commander while the agency came unraveled eliminates Roche from the list turnaround candidates. This is further illustrated by the "no confidence" letter signed by many of the DCF's caseworkers.

Now is the time for Commissioner Roche to step down, with or without Governor Deval Patrick's acceptance, and for the governor to appoint a recognized leader who can manage the process of bringing the DCF back from disarray to refocus on its mission. The temptation to ride out the situation until our new governor is sworn in on the first Thursday in January may be strong, but it is a reckless course of inaction that would not serve the constituents of the DCF, our most vulnerable children.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Medical marijuana dispensaries will be cash cows

Christine Legere, reporter for the Cape Cod Times, looked into security challenges that an all-cash medical marijuana dispensary will face. See her article at

She outlines some of the plans that Medical Marijuana of Massachusetts, former congressman Bill Delahunt's enterprise, has for placing armed guards in each dispensary and making home deliveries in armored trucks. Because selling marijuana, medical or not, is against federal law, banks are sitting on the sidelines, not willing to offer their services to pot businesses. No checking accounts, no credit card transaction services, no mortgages or equipment loans, and no working capital lines of credit.

An extension to Legere's story about security measures required by an all-cash operation is how this cash is going to be accounted for and whether all of it will be reported on a tax return.

There is great temptation for a clerk running a cash register to pocket some of the proceeds. Unlike credit card transactions, there is no independently produced record of each sale. Paper receipts are only as good as their consistent use and the accuracy of the information printed on them. At $350 an ounce, there is room for skimming more than a few bucks here and there without detection.

On top of this, there is also motivation on the part of registered marijuana dispensary (RMD) owners to counter the onerous Internal Revenue Code "drug kingpin" rules that strip them of the ability to deduct expenses that are common tax write-offs for a typical business. This is not to say that budding RMD managers are dishonest, but overstatements and outright lies on licensing applications by several of them have already been exposed.

Adding fuel to this hard-to-control fire is the insistence of the state government that RMDs be vertically integrated. Dispensaries must grow their own supply of medical marijuana. While this arrangement may seem like a good idea from the standpoint of tracking product from seed to sale, it eliminates one more point of independent verification in terms of accountability. The purchase of medical marijuana plants or prepackaged ready-for-sale products by one company from another creates an auditable transaction. By requiring vertical integration, no such company-to-company transfer happens and the ability to obscure accountability is enhanced.

All of this adds up to a business that will be nearly unauditable by the state's Department of Revenue. Detection of underreported receipts will be next to impossible. Documentation of expenses, all paid in cash, could be easily manipulated. Diversion of product will also by hard to detect. This will leave auditors insufficient evidence to conclude whether an operation is straight up or not.

The opportunity for obfuscating the flow of cash may well lead to inaccurate tax returns and underpayment of income taxes which, of course, will be laid on the backs of taxpayers.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Can we have our money back? Pretty please?

Similar scenarios to that which is unfolding in the Town of Sandwich, Massachusetts, are happening around the commonwealth. Every town and city is in the same boat.

On January 16, 2014, the select board listened to the Department of Public Works director lay out plans for dealing with the town's deteriorating roadways. Originally pegged at $10 million last fall, the director sharpened his pencil and presented a prioritized project list totaling $6.6 million. In addition to this, the town needs an extra $300,000 annually to keep up with ongoing maintenance and repairs.

While the board contemplates boosting the DPW annual budget by $300,000, Governor Deval Patrick sits atop nearly $400,000 in local aid for road construction and maintenance (referred to as Chapter 90 funds) that was included in this year's budget, which ends on June 30, 2014, but was never distributed to the Town of Sandwich. And the town is not alone.

In fact, the state's budget for Chapter 90 funds was increased from $200 million in fiscal year 2013 to $300 million in 2014. Initially, the governor released $150 million of the $300 million appropriation and was later coaxed into releasing an additional $50 million to match the prior year's distribution. Governor Patrick claimed that distributing the entire appropriation would be fiscally imprudent because of uncertainty about the amount of tax revenues coming into the state's coffers.

That "conservative" approach flies in the face of the facts. First, the governor filed a supplemental budget last August for fiscal year 2013 that put excess revenues totaling $500 million in the "rainy day" fund. Second, the revised revenue estimate for fiscal year 2014 is $400 million above the original estimate upon which the budget was built. That balanced budget, by the way, included $300 million for Chapter 90 funds even at the lower revenue estimate.

With a billion or so of extra cash piling up, there is no reason not to distribute the remaining $100 million in road funding, a 50% increase over last year's budget. For the Town of Sandwich, this amounts to an additional $395,390.

The irritating part of this holdback is that the $100 million increase is already paid for. The taxpayers' money is in the bank. All that is necessary is to release it back to Massachusetts towns and cities. Yet, the Sandwich select board is contemplating asking taxpayers to pay a second time to fund the same repairs and maintenance. How is the governor going to fulfill his 2006 campaign promise to lower property taxes when he puts towns and cities in this predicament?

On January 29, 2014, the House voted to fund Chapter 90 again at the $300 million level for fiscal year 2015 with the hope that the governor will see fit to spend the appropriation as planned. In the meantime, mayors, town managers, city and town councils, and select boards should be calling the governor to ask this simple question: Can we have our money back? Pretty please?

Friday, January 3, 2014

Jerry Madden, leading the way on crime reforms

I caught up with Jerry Madden, retired Texas state representative, in Dallas on November 27, 2013 to ask him how Texas became one of the first states to pass sweeping crime and justice reforms in decades.

Texas, with its reputation for locking 'em up and throwing away the key, not to mention its famous Death Row in Huntsville, seemed an unlikely state to embrace such reforms. It all started with marching orders for Madden, the newly appointed chairman of the Committee on Corrections, issued by the Speaker of the House: "Don't build any more prisons, Jerry. They cost too much."

With no particular experience in the court or prison systems, Jerry Madden tapped into his 12 years of legislative experience and his military and engineering background to search for solutions to the ever growing prison population that was costing Texas huge amounts of money and having little or no impact on crime.

I boiled down our hour-and-a-half interview to 22 minutes, capturing Madden's approach to managing Texas' burgeoning inmate population while dropping its crime rate to a 35-year low. Learn from this sage, 70-year-old Texan how he asked the unasked questions and challenged the status quo to start a movement that is spreading across the country.