Greg Roach's Berkshires Blog
Sunday, January 28, 2007
  Clerical Errors - A Cautionary Tale
You know those slightly annoying privacy notices that you have to sign off on every time you visit a new doctor? - the little pamphlet that basically tells you that your information cannot be shared with anybody except the insurance gods without your consent?

These little Xeroxed forms are the result of HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act Of 1996). I have heard many people refer to this type legislation as "nanny-state" and "big brother" because it forces doctors, hospitals and other who keep and read our medical information to handle it uniformly with the privacy that it deserves.

More importantly (but oddly less known) is that this law also gives consumers the right to demand to see their records and have them corrected and amended if there are errors.

That's a very good thing. Let me give you a real life example:

A few weeks back I was visiting an Ear Nose and Throat specialist (ENT) about a chronically stuffy nose. While leafing through my chart, he began to speak of some very serious medical conditions from which I was supposedly suffering and more than a few heavy duty pharmaceuticals that I was reportedly taking. The problem was, none of that information was in any way accurate or correct.

I asked the ENT for a copy of this erroneous report that had come from another doctor after some tests last year. Upon reading it, it was clear that my personal information had been pasted at the top of medical data that had actually been generated by 61 year-old male with severe chronic health problems who apparently had seen the same doctor on the same day in 2006 as I.

In a worst case scenario, this screw up could have had a tragic result.

Imagine if I had been an emergency medical situation and the docs were forced to make quick decisions based upon a 30 second summary of my incorrect medical charts. The medications and procedures available to me may have been limited by the chronic conditions that my chart mistakenly claimed I ailed from. It is not unlikely that the course of treatment could have been severely compromised.

Forget worst case and consider the fact that I am getting ready to purchase Long Term Disability Insurance. The insurance company's underwriters would have based their decision and their rates upon information that made it look like I was a medical ticking time-bomb. That would not be good.

Had HIPPA not been in effect, I would have been at the mercy of the doctor's office to correct the mistakes out of their own free will. For that matter, they could have denied me the right to see my own charts, thereby preventing me from even knowing the extent of the problem.

By invoking HIPPA in my letter requesting a correction, the office from which the mistake originated corrected it almost immediately (well within the 30 days mandated by law) and apologized profusely. And they sent corrected copies to everyone who has seen my records.

Conclusions: 1) Sometimes nanny-state laws are there for a reason and they work. 2) Modern medical record keeping allows mistakes, as well as the correct information, to be shared around the medical community in record time. 3) Check your records every few years. You might be surprised what you find.
Monday, January 15, 2007
  Sundown Towns
David Neiwert, probably one of the nations experts on the white supremist movement and a leading voice on the subject of modern discrimination, has an excellent post up on this Dr. Martin Luther King Day. He is excerpting and expanding on James Loewen's book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism.

The very long post (give yourself 20 minutes if you want to read the whole thing) hits on many subjects but focuses on the evolution of northern "Sundown Towns" after reconstruction. Sundown towns are places where non-whites were/are not welcome to own or rent property and tended to be chased out after dark. Loewen rightfully mentions suburban Detroit as a classic example. My painfully intimate knowledge of the subject harkens back 20-30 years when the parents of my childhood peers held meetings to figure out ways to "keep the bad influences of the city out." (My parents, being very staunch Humphrey Democrats politely told those coordinating such things to shut up.) The biggest of these was an idea to "accidentally" destroy the two bridges over Fox Creek which separated our neighborhood from a quickly deteriorating section of Detroit proper. Fortunately the demolition never happened.

However, in 1984, parents became so hysterical about the 'dangers of a black city' they did force the school to cancel the Junior Prom to be held in a fancy downtown hotel. Instead, the Chrysler Executive father of a student pulled few strings and got the company's "auto show" curtains and carpeting to decorate the school gym. True story.

Later, around 1990, I was shown the deed to my boss's circa 1970 house in uber-exclusive Bloomfield Hills. In the deed, written as clear as day, was a covenant forbidding the sale or rent of the property to non-whites. (except for servants. Seriously) In an odd twist, Aretha Franklin now lives about 1/2 mile away in a much bigger house that she never would have been allowed to buy at the peak of her fame.

And now in 2007, I still see the problems of race crop up. I hear North Adams residents refer to a long time black resident as "Nigger Fred" and then tell me "he likes being called that." (of course he does... or you wouldn't give him the time of day!) I hear talk of "good blacks" and "bad blacks."

In my sister's suburban Chicago town, many of the white residents quietly whisper that the recent influx of Hispanics is a super secret plot to take over the country. (Thanks Hannity and O'Reilly for making that nonsense mainstream - Assholes.) It is eery to hear well-educated middle class folk and their kids buy into the eliminationist "us or them" racist rhetoric. These same people probably reasuure themselves by remembering that they voted for Obama in 2004. (Good thing his name is not Guitierrez. He wouldn't have had a chance.)

So on this holiday take a few minutes and think about these issues. I doubt I'll change your mind if you're stuck in the mode of Jimmy Kelly, but hopefully you'll come to a little better understanding of how issues of race have gotten to where they are in 2007.
Saturday, January 13, 2007
  Rockets and Feathers
A while back, in Andy's comments, Ross tried to explain how the gas companies were not really trying to gouge American consumers. Even with all of his formidable agruments my sincere friend was unable to convince me that the illogical, yet completely predictable (always bet against the end consumer), relationship between oil markets and pump prices was not rigged. My simple premise is that pump prices are quick to rise and slow to fall. Ross blamed this phenomena on "Mom and Pop" gas stations gouging drivers.

So when I read this it sounded familiar:
If it seems like gasoline prices are quick to skyrocket when the price of oil goes up, but then take their sweet 'ol time coming back down when crude prices sink, the answer is simple: They do.

"There is a rocket and feather aspect," said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at the Oil Price Information Service. And the reason seems to be simple economics.

The service stations are still selling the same amount of gasoline when wholesale prices fall, said Kloza, "so there's no reason to drop."

Human nature being what it is, [service stations] typically react [to a spike in oil prices] by pushing prices higher, even before they replace their inventories," said Geoff Sundstrom, spokesman for the motorist organization AAA.

"And [again] human nature being what it is, unless other stations bring their prices down, he's going to be very reluctant to bring down his."
So we have an oil industry shill and a AAA PR flak making the same argument - blame "Mom and Pop" filling stations. That seems to be the industry's newest line of defense. But then I remembered hearing this:
Say you're an oil executive and you want to keep the Republicans in control of Congress. What can you do prior to an election?

Well, you can keep your refineries running at full speed, flood the market with extra fuel, and take less per gallon in profit than usual.

And guess what: Department of Energy data suggest that's exactly what the oil companies did this fall.

By the second week in October, gasoline prices fell 70 cents from summer's record highs. Refineries were running full throttle and America's gasoline inventories were up nearly 7 percent from the three previous Octobers.

The rise in supply came despite BP's major pipeline disruption in Alaska. Ordinarily, that's an industry excuse to shrink supplies and raise prices.

Now, the oil industry claimed pump prices fell because crude oil prices dropped.

But gas prices dropped far more steeply than crude oil. Crude oil comes in barrels. There are 42 gallons in a barrel and the price of each gallon was down 10 cents this October over last. But gas prices fell 61 cents a gallon over the same time last year.

In other words, in the run-up to the election, oil companies cut gasoline prices 500 percent more than their raw material cost fell. And it wasn't because refining and distribution costs rose. They're relatively stable.

Oil companies simply took less profit from their refineries for a short period of time. Could it have been to influence a political outcome?

Well, right after election day, the price of gas suddenly rose after two months of sharp decline. Post-election, refineries have slowed down, inventories are shrinking, and gas prices are climbing.

It's back to business as usual, unless the new Congress starts to do business differently.
One of the above is an editorial based upon hard data. The other is a great example of corporate interests shopping around a new public relations strategy to a willing dupe in the media. I'll let you figure out which arguement I give more credence to.
Tuesday, January 09, 2007
  No Harm - No Foul
While I was honestly very excited for Dan Bosley and his appointment by Governor Patrick, am I alone in feeling a sense of comfort knowing that he will continue to be our Representative on Beacon Hill?

Of course there is probably more to the story. (There is *always* more to the story) But if this is portrayed as "bad news" then I'll gladly take more of it.

Hopefully Mr. B is comfortable with all that has transpired.
Sunday, January 07, 2007
  Of Football and Marriage
For all my dislike of the culture of big-time sports, I have one weakness - Michigan Football. After spending four years of my life and corresponding amount of $$$$ in Ann Arbor, I almost always let my hypocrisy get the best of me and cheer on the Maize and Blue. (Now if only they could win a damn bowl game... sigh.)

Almost exactly nine years ago my wife and I had been married 5 days and were driving from the midwest in a Ryder Truck to our new home in the Pacific Northwest. She riding in the passenger seat, sick as a dog with a nasty cold. And Michigan was playing for the National Championship in the Rose Bowl.

Being the loving spouse that I am, I found a cozy little biker bar in a tiny long forgotten town somewhere off the interstate in Wyoming where I deposited her in a booth let her rest while I begged a scary overtatooed barkeep to turn on the game. To this day, my priority-lacking decision making on that January day may be closest I ever came to divorce.

So when I read this, two thoughts came to mind.

1) No matter how desperately I would want to watch U of M play in a National Championship game, I don't think making a proposition such as this would ever cross my mind.
2) If I had tickets for such a game that I could not use, this particular offer would *not* be the winning bid.

In fact, it's more than a little icky. eeeewww
Friday, January 05, 2007
  What's going to be the big local story of 2007?
Well, the holidays are over and the restaurant has calmed down a bit. Aside from some fairly serious family stuff that will sadly interrupt the normal pace of things, I can actually get back to one of my favorite crafts - the 700 word op-ed piece. While I cannot promise to crank out a column a week, I expect that I will be submitting one or two a month throughout the year. (Unless a few decently paid free-lance gigs fall out the sky. However, I am not actively soliciting such business at the moment.)

What makes 2007 such a great year to be an opinion writer in North Adams is the fact that lots of long talked about projects and proposals are finally coming to fruition. The economic development of the area has begun to slip out of its slight malaise of the past few years. Add to that the fact that we now have a "homer" sitting near the guv specializing on such issues, I can only expect that the momentum will continue and likely accelerate.

And, of course we have the local politics. Nobody loves the nitty gritty of an election year more than me and with the special election fast approaching (re: departing "homer" above), it will almost certainly start with a bang.

So, since this is a blog with a surprisingly large number of regular readers, let me put it to some use:

In your opinions, what will be the big local stories and events of 2007?* Perhaps my first column will be on this very subject.

*No, I don't mean the crazy stuff like Pat Robertson predicting terrorist attacks and tsunamis.
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
  Middle Schools and the Puberty Fairy
If the poorly administrated No Child Left Behind act has done one positive thing, it is that it has highlighted the struggles of Middle Schools. (Article is free but requires registration) John Hockridge recently tried to spark a discussion on different options for grades 6 through 8 here in North Adams.

The fact is that one size does not fit all. Some kids still need more support and guidance in the adolescent years while other need challenges and academic rigor. You've got kids who still look like pre-pubescent babies mixed with others who look like, and sometimes pretend that, they are 12-going-on-18. Add to this mix a dose of raging hormones and all of a sudden you have the typical American middle school.

Do I have the answer? No. But should this issue get more discussion. Certainly. Conte M.S. has taken a lot of heat for its performance over the past few years and I've always thought it was a cop-out to use standardized test-scores to lay fault at the feet of teachers and administrators. (Yes, soon-to-be-ex-Governor Romney and all the right-wing anti-public school folks, I am talking about you.)

In a perfect world, there would be multiple options to meet the differing needs of various kids, but that is probably asking too much of an already strained district. (More on that topic someday) So the question becomes - what solutions best serve the most kids? Somehow I doubt the current model fits that bill.
A blog of random thoughts and reactions emanating from the bank of a mountain stream in the farthest reaches of the bluest of blue states.

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greg at gregoryroach dot com

"Livability, not just affordability." - Dick Alcombright

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