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A Project Chenango Redux: Chenango’s Drug Problem and more

A picture perfect summer day in Chenango County.

A picture perfect summer day in Chenango County.

In August, when I pitched the Project Chenango series to The Evening Sun’s publisher Dick Snyder, I was more than a little nervous. I remember sitting home, waiting for his final decision with no small amount of trepidation. I wasn’t so much nervous that he’d turn down my proposal, but rather if I could deliver the series as promised.

Endeavoring to tackle a community’s biggest issues and challenges in 10 installments is no small task. Nor is doing so in a way that is at once raw and honest, as well as compassionate. Add in a couple of thousand miles (and an ocean) between you and your source material and…well, you get the picture.

So, yes. When I got the green light, a small frisson of fear ran through me. But that was nothing compared to the exhilaration. I love a good challenge. And here was a way to give back to the community I loved. Because for all its grit, I felt it had the potential to be a catalyst for positive change.

What I didn’t anticipate was how it would change me, and my perspective.

Throughout the course of the series – which grew from the 10 installments I initially proposed to 14 in-depth pieces thanks to The Evening Sun’s Managing Editor Ashley Babbitt – my eyes were truly opened once more to our community’s many challenges. Here I was seeking out first hand accounts of the substance abuse issues, the poverty, the economic issues, the housing crisis, the aging infrastructure and more. It was heavy stuff. But at every turn, I was also reminded of the strength and resiliency of the people who call Chenango home.

Feedback started pouring in before the ink had even dried on the first installment. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t do my needy little ego good to hear that people were happy to see my byline again, even on a temporary basis. But it was so much more than that. I was excited by how eager people were to learn more about the realities our county and its residents face. And I was deeply touched by their compassion, particularly following the second installment.

Even though the working mother of three whose story I shared in Chenango’s Working Poor wasn’t identified by her real name, I was still nervous that she’d be criticized or abused. Particularly in The Evening Sun’s online 30 Seconds forum. But I needn’t have worried. Her story was met with compassion and support on all fronts. I didn’t see one negative comment.

And what’s more, word trickled back to me some weeks later that the piece had prompted new dialog about the topic of the working poor. That was welcome news, since that same week I also learned that “Diane” had lost her food stamps because her most recent raise put her around $20 over the threshold. It wasn’t lost on me that, while the state deemed it enough to disqualify her from the benefit program, it wasn’t nearly enough to buy groceries for her family.

I feel so privileged that “Diane” trusted me with her story, as did so many others during the course of the series – people who both live Chenango’s challenges every day, and those who are dedicated to doing something about those issues. I hope those stories helped open the eyes – and hearts – of readers as much as they did mine.

Going into the series, I felt I had a good handle on Chenango’s challenges. But it didn’t take me long to realize that much had changed since I last covered a beat for Chenango’s hometown daily. It took me about 5 minutes into my first phone interview, in fact.

The voice on the other end of the phone was District Attorney Joseph McBride. A knot built in the pit of my stomach as we discussed Chenango’s Drug Problem. It was a knot that got bigger as I spoke in turn to Norwich Police Investigator Mike Purdy, Jim Everard of Chenango’s Drug Treatment Court, and finally to Donna Wood-Craig, who has made it a personal mission to bring the drug problem to light in the community.

Heroin had just begun to rear its ugly head in Norwich during my days as a staff writer. I remember the first overdose, and how it snapped us all to attention. Now, less than five years later, it has become an all-pervasive issue across Chenango, and much of the Northeast. I’ve lost count of how many overdoses I’ve heard of over the last few months alone.

One of the things that sticks in my mind the most was a conversation I had with Chenango’s Public Health Director Marcas Flindt the morning the piece came out. We had been unable to connect prior to my deadline, so I wasn’t able to include the shocking statistics he shared with me about the sharp increase in new Hepatitis C cases in our county. Historically, Chenango recorded less than 10 new cases of Hepatitis C in a given year, he told me. Now, that number has skyrocketed to the triple digits.

A week later, an acquaintance ranted on social media about how drug users can get fresh needles at a pharmacy without showing ID, while she had to show hers to buy a decongestant. How quickly we have forgotten another epidemic spread by dirty needles.

The public health crisis posed by heroin use is only aspect of this issue. There are many more – from the nature of addiction itself, to the heroin epidemic’s roots in the pharmaceutical industry and the way in which opiate painkillers were overprescribed and the wave of Suboxone abuse that is following in its wake. There are lives, families and, little by little, entire communities being destroyed.

But all is not lost. Not yet, anyway. Because there are people who care; people who are working to affect positive change. And as I mentioned earlier, Donna Wood-Craig is one of them.

When I spoke with her in August, Donna mentioned a project she was working on with a young woman who is a recovering addict. Their goal, she told me then, was to help open the eyes of the community to the extent of the drug problem in Chenango County.

The result of their efforts is a Community Forum to take place from 6:30 to 8:30 tomorrow night (Tuesday, December 1, 2015) at Guernsey Library in Norwich.

The event, sponsored by Opportunities for Chenango, will feature a panel of experts to include recovering addicts, family members, addiction & rehab specialists and members of law enforcement.

If you want to learn more about this problem with poses such a threat to our community, if you want to be part of the positive change needed to turn the situation around…GO.

Because if there’s one thing I learned from researching and writing the Project Chenango series, it’s that Chenango may have more than its fair of problems…But it’s still HOME.

The Project Chenango Series

Introduction: What Does the Future Hold for Chenango County?

Chenango’s Drug Problem

Chenango’s Working Poor

Developing Chenango’s Workforce

Creating and Keeping Chenango’s Jobs

Chenango’s Small Businesses

Chenango’s Health Care Crisis

Chenango’s Housing Market

Agriculture in Chenango

Tourism in Chenango

Chenango’s Aging Infrastructure

Educating Chenango

Leading Chenango

Chenango’s Future

 

America’s Health Care Crisis: A Project Chenango redux

Rebecca Sands Bliss won her insurance battle for the right to receive potentially life-saving cancer treatment at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Her story was what inspired me to pen the Project Chenango installment on Health Care.

Rebecca Sands Bliss won her insurance battle for the right to receive potentially life-saving cancer treatment at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Her story was what inspired me to pen the Project Chenango installment on Health Care.

For the last six weeks I’ve been exploring some of the biggest issues Chenango County. In doing so, my eyes have been opened – both to the extent of these challenges in my hometown and to how universal these issues truly are. Now I realize I could easily be writing about almost any community, in New York or elsewhere in the U.S.

The Evening Sun, the publication with which I’ve been collaborating on the 12-part Project Chenango series, has graciously decided to make these articles free to all readers. They, too, believe these pieces are relevant to a broader audience beyond their traditional readership.

I encourage you to read them if you haven’t already. And if one resonates with you, please share it to help broaden awareness of some of these important topics.

Over the next few weeks, I will be revisiting each of the articles in the series here on my personal blog. Doing so will give me a chance to share some of my personal thoughts on these topics, as well as additional information that either didn’t make it in to the original series, or that has come to my attention since it was published.

These Project Chenango Redux pieces will be in no particular order. But for this first piece, I’m going to revisit the most recent installment of the series.

So, without further ado, let’s talk a little bit about…Health Care.

(As always, opinions expressed here in this forum are my own. I welcome your thoughts and constructive feedback on these topics as well.)

Last night, I received a message via Facebook from Rebecca Sands Bliss, who allowed me to tell her compelling story in last week’s article.

Rebecca, for those of you who haven’t already read that piece, recently won a major battle with her insurance companies. Her reward? Receiving the potentially life-saving treatment she needs to beat the rare cancer she was diagnosed with earlier this year.

Her message last night, though, stopped me in my tracks. She’d met another person battling cancer whose treatment had also been delayed by her insurance, she told me via Facebook messenger. Only this person wasn’t as lucky as Rebecca. Because during the two months this woman was forced to wait, her cancer spread. It’s now terminal.

I was both outraged and heartbroken when I heard this. Honestly, I didn’t want or need further proof of how tragically flawed our healthcare system is.

There are brilliant scientists, doctors, nurses and other professionals all working to advance medical science – who have passion and drive to treat the whole person not just the disease. And then we have the other side of the equation: those who treat patients like a number, or a policy – not a person trying to get or stay well.

Health care reform is a difficult topic to discuss. Nothing raises the political hackles like this does, especially since you can’t talk about it without mentioning the Affordable Care Act.

I refuse to call it Obamacare because, quite honestly, I don’t want to see if your political aura tends toward red or blue. This is something we REALLY need to talk about and once it all goes bi-partisan, it’s too easy to miss the big picture.

This is more than a political football we’re talking about here, my friends. It’s peoples’ lives.

Rebecca’s story may seem like a one-off, an extreme case. But here we have another woman’s story that confirms it’s more than an aberration. How many other of those more than 500,000 new cancer cases a year experience something like this?

(More than HALF A MILLION PEOPLE diagnosed with cancer EACH YEAR. If that statistic doesn’t scare you, I don’t know what will.)

And that’s only the tip of the iceberg when we’re talking about the number people who are not being served well by changes made as a result of this mammoth piece of legislation. I mean, do you know anyone who has found affordable care as a result of the changes, or has easier access to care because of it? Perhaps they are out there. I’m not saying they aren’t. But this is what I’m hearing about:

Individuals and families who are drowning under ever-increasing premiums. Businesses making tough decisions about staffing as a result of their additional burden. People going without insurance because they can’t afford it. Yes, it’s a calculated risk, but they are banking on the fact that their out-of-pocket expenses plus whatever fine they may have to pay to the government will still be cheaper than the cheapest premiums they can find.

And let’s face it – those high-deductible health care plans? Useless if you can’t pay the deductible. (And see what they’re doing to small hospitals.)

The biggest myth of all is Medicare. Let me tell you, when I hear about seniors who need a part-time job after they retire just to cover their health care costs… Isn’t that a red flag? My mother pays close to $300 a month for her SUPPLEMENTAL insurance. She didn’t anticipate that expense when she and my dad saved for their retirement.

I’m not going to lie – one of my considerations when I decided to spend time in the Dominican Republic was the fact that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do – focus on my writing – and continue to pay my COBRA. It went up to over $500 roughly a month after I accepted my severance package. Here I have pretty decent coverage for around $35 a month. Yes, I had to pay cash for the surgery I had this year, but it was still a fraction of what I would have paid in the US, between premiums, co-pays and out-of-pocket expenses. (And, yes, I received excellent care.)

It’s not the hospitals and providers that are to blame for all of this. They are victims of the debacle of a health care system just like the rest of us. You see a giant number on the bill sent to your insurance company or to Medicare, because they’re only getting reimbursed ‘pennies on the dollar.’ A direct quote from a hospital administrator in my article.

So who IS it benefiting? I’ll let you fill in that blank.

I’ll give you a hint, though: New York’s second largest industry may have something to do with it.

Now, if only we could stop shouting across the aisle long enough to do something about it.

Six Winter Driving Tips (courtesy of the Chenango Traffic Safety Board)

One of my involvements is with the Chenango County Traffic Safety Board. The following article appeared in  the February 6, 2014 issue of The Evening Sun. It is the first in a series of articles we’ll be submitting in our efforts to promote traffic safety here in Chenango County and beyond.

So here we are, in the midst of one of the worst winters in recent years. And Punxsutawney Phil just saw his shadow.  Of course, any Central New Yorker worth their salt knows we’ll be lucky to have only six more weeks of winter. But with one major storm after another hitting our area, it seems like the perfect time for a few reminders about how to handle those snow-covered roads.

Tip #1: Clean off your car

Sounds like a no brainer, right? Except how many times do you see people driving with their windshield only partially cleared, and piles of snow on the roof. The fact of the matter is, it’s not just your visibility that’s at stake – although, that’s pretty important.

“They just don’t think of how much it’s a hazard to other people,” explained New York State Police Sergeant (Ret.) Elizabeth Wonka, who sits on Chenango County’s Traffic Safety Board.

According to Wonka, during her more than 30 years with the state police she saw multiple accidents – including one fatality – where snow (and in the case of the fatality, ice) left uncleared from a vehicle was a contributing factor.

So, for your sake as well as others on the road, take the extra time to thoroughly clear the snow and ice from not only your windshield, but the rest of your car as well.

Tip #2: Give our Highway crews the credit they deserve (and the space they need to do their jobs)

Every time a major city is crippled by a couple of measly inches of snow, Central New Yorkers chuckle to themselves. (No offense, Atlanta!) But what we should be doing is thanking our highway crews. Because without those state, county and local crews, we’d be in the same boat.

Here’s a few things you should know about snow plows, and the people who drive them.

  • There’s a reason they go slow. (And no, it’s not to make you late for work.)

According to retired Chenango County Highway Superintendent Randy Gibbon, who chairs the Chenango TSB, a plow should be traveling under 30 mph when applying sand or salt.

“That speed allows the material being applied to stay on the roadway and do its intended duty, bare the road surface and provide friction,” he explained.

  •  When you see a plow, pay attention and be prepared – even if it’s stopped.

“If a snowplow is pulled over at an intersection, it is probably trying to clear the snow or ice from that intersection,” said Gibbon. So be prepared for it to back up. Look for the driver’s signal regarding what you should do, and be prepared to stop if necessary.

  • Give them some space.

That snowplow driver is doing his best to make the road safer for all drivers. But he (or she) needs space to do their job.

“When you have a snowplow approaching on the other side of the roadway please slow down and safely pull over towards the right,” recommended Gibbons.

And let’s remember, they’re braving the same weather conditions as we are. (Actually worse, since they don’t have crews out there clearing the roads for them.)

Tip #3: Expect the unexpected

Winter driving is all about changing conditions. Drifting snow, snow squalls, black ice… all are things we need to be on the look out for, especially as the wind kicks up and temperatures start to drop. These hazardous conditions can easily take drivers by surprise, Wonka said, as they can exist even when roads are otherwise clear.

The best defense? A good offense, according to Wonka. Always be aware of the conditions around you and be prepared to adjust to them.

Tip #4: Slow Down

According to Wonka, if she were to give drivers only one piece of advice, it would be this: slow down.

“Many accidents are caused by people driving too fast for conditions,” she explained.

That doesn’t mean that the drivers in question were exceeding the speed limit, but rather they weren’t taking into account the fact that vehicles respond differently when the road surface is slippery or snow covered. Especially when you apply the brakes.

Take stopping distance, for example. It takes longer – both in distance and time – for your car to come to a stop. Therefore, you need to take your foot off the gas and start applying the break sooner than you would if the roads were clear and dry.

“Hard stops are more dangerous,” Wonka said, so you should avoid sudden breaking, and allow more space between you and the car in front of you.

Tip #5: Be prepared

Going on a trip or planning to drive in a storm? Wonka recommends keeping an emergency kit in your car. Food, water and a flashlight are some basics you should have with you, but you also want to think about staying warm.

“Dress warmly,” she said, or have an extra layer with you. And don’t forget a hat, gloves and boots in case you have to walk for help.

A full tank of gas is also a good idea, she added, both to avoid getting stranded and so that you can run the heater as needed.

And, when in doubt, consider…

Tip #6: Stay home

If you’re not comfortable driving in particular conditions, don’t.

“People find it embarrassing, but it shouldn’t be,” said Wonka. “It’s ok to stay home if you’re not comfortable driving.”

Looking for additional winter driving tips? Visit these helpful websites.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

New York State Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee

AAA Winter Driving Tips