News Day: Little clinic, big insurance / Bridge collapse, contracts / TiZA: When success isn’t enough / more

Little clinic, big insurance show need for health care reform Ruben Rosario reports in the Pioneer Press about a little clinic run by a nurse-practitioner that offers affordable health care basics to uninsured and underinsured families. Associated Press reports that Humana insurance raked in second-quarter profits that are 34 percent higher than last year “on higher premiums from the company’s Medicare and commercial insurance programs.” (Last week, Minnetonka-based insurer UnitedHealth reported a 155 percent increase in second-quarter profits.)

At the Anoka North Metro Pediatrics clinic, the check-ups and immunizations required for two kids to attend school cost $40, on a sliding-fee scale that takes income into account. “Private clinics wanted to charge a minimum $150 a head,” Rosario reports. “No upfront money, no exams.”

More than 70 percent of the families the clinic serves have no health insurance. About 20 percent have partial insurance through a state-subsidized plan. Roughly 10 percent have insurance but are grappling with high deductibles and out-of-pocket costs. Roughly 60 percent are minorities.

The clinic scrapes by, with private and corporate donations and a grant from the Minnesota Department of Health. Nurse practitioner Connie Blackwell, who doesn’t draw a full salary and left a good-paying job to found the clnic, worries about funding cuts and the needs of the families she serves. Their stories, eloquently told by Rosario, should be read by every lawmaker and by everyone who has not yet managed to call/write/email their congressional reps about health care reform.

Meanwhile, the Star Tribune reports, “insurers worried that an overhaul could hurt their bottom line are funneling a wave of cash to members of Congress.” Insurers have funneled more than $40 million in direct contributions to members of Congress over the past decade, and spent more than half a billion in lobbying.

Bridge collapse – yesterday’s news for MnDOT? Although the state is suing URS and Progressive Contractors Inc., and “holds the companies responsible” for the 35W bridge collapse two years ago, the MN Department of Transportation (MnDOT) has also given the two companies more than $55 million of “contracts for projects across the state in those two years, including work to predesign other bridges,” reports the Star Tribune.

While PCI company officials said this shows the state does not really believe that is to blame for the 35W collapse, the Star Tribune points to a “complicated relationship” that includes contracts given to URS for its work on the I-35W bridge after URS hired MnDOT’s longtime bridge engineer, Don Flemming, and MnDOT’s refusal — a year before the bridge collapse — to follow a URS recommendation to “reinforce the aging bridge with $2 million in steel plating.”

TiZA – When success isn’t enough Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA) has consistently posted high student test scores, especially remarkable for a school where more than 85 percent of the children live in poverty and a high percentage speak English as a second language. TiZA has also been the target of high-profile attacks by Star Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten, which also triggered an ACLU lawsuit accusing the school of illegally promoting Islam. The campaign against TiZA has resulted in especially close and prolonged scrutiny by the MN Department of Education.

The state department is withholding millions of dollars in state and federal aid to TiZA, alleging that the school had 14 unlicensed teachers, reports the Star Tribune. The school received $4.7 million in state aid (based on per-pupil funding for charter school students) last year, and the MN Department of Education is withholding $1.3 million of state aid this year, based on the teacher licensure charges. TiZA executive director Asad Zaman says that amount “is enough to cripple just about any charter school in the entire state.”

According to a Ramsey County judge, the state also withheld the information that TiZA needs to defend itself on the teacher licensure charges. After TiZA went to court last month, the judge’s order finally resulted in the release of 10,000 pages of documents last week.

The documents disclosed a previously-secret investigation, this one by a private contractor hired by the Department of Education to look at TiZA’s high test scores. The test score investigation, by a private contractor paid by the state, turned up no wrong-doing.

“The silver lining of this cloud is that it is absolutely clear that our test results are valid,” said Asad Zaman, executive director of the K-8 school, which has campuses in Inver Grove Heights and Blaine.

The Education Department has visited the school more than a dozen times since January 2008, Zaman said, reviewing the school’s special education services, after-school programming and more.

The MN Department of Education is still holding up federal aid for TiZA, including “$375,000 to help other schools replicate TiZA’s learning program,” and $500,000 for renovations to the school’s physical plant.

Minnesota connections to Americans arrested in Iran, Israel Israel arrested two Americans who arrived by plane Saturday, planning to visit Palestinian activists in Ramallah, reports the TC Daily Planet. According to press releases by the Anti-War Committee in Minneapolis, a third woman was deported immediately and the two who were arrested were put on a plane and deported on Sunday.

Iran announced the arrest of three American hikers near the Iraq border Friday, reports the New York Times. Kurdish officials said the hikers apparently lost their way. According to the Star Tribune, one of the hikers is a Minnesota native, a freelance journalist who now lives in San Francisco.

World/National News

Iran The government put more than 100 dissidents on trial, reports the New York Times. Two of the figures recanted their past beliefs on the stand, saying they had changed since being arrested, and said they had not been tortured. People close to the two men, including the wife of one, said that the phrasing of their testimony was not characteristic and that they did not believe the denial of torture.

In addition, “a Tehran prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi, who is running the trials, released a statement warning that anyone criticizing the trial as illegitimate, as many opposition figures have done, would also be prosecuted.” Even as former President Mohammad Khatami denounced the trials, hardline political leaders warned of more arrests and hinted that defeated opposition presidential Mir Hossein Moussavi could be targeted.

Nigeria The death toll mounted to 700 after a week of battles between government forces and an extremist religious sect called Boko Haram, reports the New York Times.

The Nigerian authorities disregarded dozens of warnings about a violent Islamist sect until it attacked police stations and government buildings last week in a blood bath that killed more than 700 people, Muslim clerics and an army official said.

War Reports

Uganda The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is on the move again, reports BBC. They recently attacked people in the south Sudanese town of Ezo and killed civilians in several towns in the Central African Republic. The LRA is a Ugandan group based in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Afghanistan The Taliban killed nine U.S. and NATO soldiers over the weekend, reports the New York Times. The NYT cited two factors contributing to higher death tolls – more U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, and more sophistication by rebels in use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Iraq A car bomb in a crowded market in Haditha killed at least six people, reports the BBC.

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