Tag Archives: money

Feds: NCR agrees to complete superfund cleanup at Wisconsin’s Fox River

The Justice Department and EPA on Jan. 17 announced a major settlement that requires NCR Corporation to complete one of the nation’s largest Superfund cleanup projects at Wisconsin’s Lower Fox River and Green Bay Site.

Cleanup and natural resource restoration work has been done in the area under a set of partial settlements, an EPA administrative cleanup order and court orders in a federal lawsuit brought by the United States and the state of Wisconsin.

The final phase of cleanup taken on by NCR will cost up to $200 million or more over the next few years, according to a statement from the Justice Department.

Total cleanup costs for the Fox River Site will exceed $1 billion.

The cleanup work will reduce the risks to humans and wildlife posed by polychlorinated biphenyls in bottom sediment of the Fox River and Green Bay.

“After years of hard fought litigation, this settlement requires NCR to take full responsibility for completing this important cleanup effort,” said Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “Lawsuits and settlements like this vindicate the principle that polluters should pay the cost of Superfund cleanups, rather than the taxpayers. And, we are pleased that our co-plaintiff, the state of Wisconsin, is also a key part of this settlement.”

Acting EPA Region 5 Administrator Robert A. Kaplan said, “Fox River is a treasure — and it’s been polluted for too long. People should be able to swim, boat, and eat fish from all parts of the river. This cleanup will ensure that PCB levels continue to reduce downstream as they have upstream.”

The cleanup remedy for the Fox River Site was jointly-selected by EPA and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. It will lead to the removal of much of the PCB-containing sediment from the Fox River by dredging, the federal government said.

In other portions of the River, contaminated sediment is being contained in place with caps. The dredging and capping will reduce PCB exposure and greatly diminish downstream migration of PCBs to Green Bay.

Sediment cleanup began in the uppermost segment of the river in 2004. Under the settlement announced Jan. 17, NCR committed to complete the final phase of remediation by the end of 2018.

In 2010, the federal and state governments sued NCR and other parties in a Superfund lawsuit to require NCR to continue cleanup at the site.

The defendants in the lawsuit included paper companies that contaminated the sediment when they made and recycled a particular type of PCB-containing “carbonless” copy paper. NCR and its affiliates produced that paper with PCBs from the mid-1950s until 1971.

The settlement requires NCR to take on sole responsibility for completing sediment cleanup work.

The settlement with NCR resolves the government’s potential claims against Appvion, Inc., which purchased NCR’s paper manufacturing facilities in the Fox River Valley in the late 1970s. Appvion will not be involved in the cleanup work.

The proposed settlement is in the form of a consent decree that must be approved by the federal judge.

Trump conflict plan woefully inadequate 

President-elect Donald Trump’s planned arrangement with the Trump Organization falls far short of what’s necessary to avoid conflicts of interest and Emoluments Clause violations that will dog his administration and severely undermine the public’s faith in government.

Common Cause has called on President-elect Trump to divest from the Trump Organization and put his wealth into a blind trust managed independently from him.

Instead, he’s decided to retain full ownership of the Trump Organization and have two of his sons run it—no divestment and no independence.

These are the same two sons who recently had their name attached to an inauguration fundraiser that promised access to their father for those willing to pay $1 million dollars. The event was cancelled but the precedent was troubling.

The American public must now demand complete transparency of the Trump Organization and President-elect Trump’s finances.

Such transparency is America’s only hope for protecting itself against conflicts of interest and Emoluments Clause violations — and holding President-elect Trump accountable for his promises to avoid conflicts and violations of the constitution.

The president-elect must take additional steps immediately to safeguard the integrity of the office of the president.

To begin with, Trump must release his taxes and quit hiding the facts and the potential conflicts from the American people.

At today’s press conference, when asked to release his tax returns, the president-elect rejected the request and claimed that the “only one that cares about my tax returns are the reporters.”

Common Cause’s more than 700,000 members and supporters care about the president-elect’s tax returns and additional financial disclosure.

We demand it.

Common Cause is a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organization founded in 1970 by John Gardner as a vehicle for citizens to make their voices heard in the political process and to hold their elected leaders accountable to the public interest.

CorporateCabinet.org tracks Trump nominees

The corporate ties of President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet picks and other top political appointees are exposed at CorporateCabinet.org.

Public Citizen said it unveiled the website to expose corporate ties, corrupting influences and conflicts of interest in Trump’s cabinet.

The site, which will be updated regularly, will eventually include other top officials such as deputy secretaries.

Many of the nominees have connections with corporations whose profit-driven interests are directly at odds with the federal agencies Trump has selected them to lead.

“Donald Trump, the candidate who ran against corruption, cronyism and insider dealmaking, is handing control of the government over to corporate chieftains,” stated Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “Trump’s corporate Cabinet nominees have staggering conflicts of interest, and if confirmed will drive forward policies to advance the interests of Big Business, not the American people. We’re facing the prospect of a government literally of the Exxons, by the Goldman Sachses and for the Kochs.”

The site has key information about:

  • Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who has strong ties to Koch Industries and raked in eye-popping sums from the finance sector, construction industry, pharmaceutical industry and chemical industry.
  • Rex Tillerson, Trump’s secretary of state pick, who made his career at Exxon Mobil.
  • Steven Mnuchin, treasury secretary nominee and longtime Goldman Sachs executive who was steeped in the investment banking industry long before it became a poster child for economy-wrecking, foreclosure-inducing Wall Street greed, and who later helped run a failed bank accused of duplicitous foreclosure practices.
  • Gen. James Mattis, being considered for secretary of defense, who has served on the board of General Dynamics, a multinational military contractor.
  • U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., under consideration for attorney general and a darling of the finance, insurance and real estate industries, among others.
  • Betsy DeVos, named to be education secretary, who is a billionaire scion and whose husband is heir to the Amway fortune.
  • Elaine Chao, up to run the U.S. Department of Transportation, who served on the board of directors of Wells Fargo during the cross-selling scandal.
  • Former Goldman Sachs executive Gary Cohn, slated to head the National Economic Council, who led Goldman Sachs as it profited off the housing market collapse in part by misleading its own clients.
  • Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to the run the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, who has a deep affinity for fossil fuel companies.
  • Steve Bannon, a special adviser to Trump who once ran Breitbart.com, a far-right website, and is a former Goldman Sachs executive.
  • Linda McMahon, picked to run the Small Business Administration, who as World Wrestling Entertainment CEO helped ensure the wrestling industry remained largely unregulated, putting the health and safety of wrestlers at risk.
  • Fast-food mogul Andy Puzder, who is to head the U.S. Department of Labor and whose companies are known for being anti-worker and anti-union.
  • Wilbur Ross, a billionaire whose firm has profited from buying distressed firms and cutting workers’ benefits, who is under consideration for secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Danger list: A look at the Republican agenda for 2017

Republicans emerged from the November elections holding their greatest level of power in decades. Not only will Republicans control the White House and Congress, but the GOP also will hold 33 governors’ offices and have majorities in 33 state legislatures. A look at the GOP agenda for state legislative sessions.

ABORTION

• Ban most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

• Ban dilation and extraction abortions, a procedure more commonly used in the second trimester.

• Lengthen the time women must wait to have an abortion after receiving counseling about its effects.

• Block government funding from going to abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood.

BUSINESSES

• Reduce or eliminate corporate income taxes.

• Relax business regulations and professional licensing requirements.

EDUCATION

• Expand the availability of vouchers, scholarships or tax credits that allow taxpayer money to cover K-12 tuition costs at private schools.

• Expand opportunities for charter schools.

GUNS

• Allow people with concealed gun permits to carry weapons on college campuses.

• Reduce the costs for concealed gun permits and ensure that permits from one state are recognized elsewhere.

•  Allow people to carry concealed guns without needing permits or going through training.

LAWSUITS

• Limit how much money plaintiffs can win in medical malpractice and personal injury cases.

• Restrict where lawsuits can be filed in an attempt to prevent plaintiffs from bringing suit in jurisdictions perceived to be favorable.=

• Restrict who can qualify to provide expert witness testimony.

• Reduce the rates used to calculate interest on monetary judgments.

UNIONS

• Enact right-to-work laws, which prohibit workplace contracts that have mandatory union fees.

• Restrict the collective bargaining powers of public employee unions.

• Require members of public employee unions to annually affirm their desire for dues to be deducted from paychecks.

• Curtail or repeal prevailing wage laws, which set minimum pay scales on public construction projects.

On the Web

Pew’s Stateline reports.

 

 

White nationalists raise millions with tax-exempt charities

The federal government has allowed four groups at the forefront of the white nationalist movement to register as charities and raise more than $7.8 million in tax-deductible donations over the past decade, according to an Associated Press review.

Already emboldened by Donald Trump’s popularity, group leaders say they hope the president-elect’s victory helps them raise even more money and gives them a larger platform for spreading their ideology.

With benevolent-sounding names such as the National Policy Institute and New Century Foundation, the tax-exempt groups present themselves as educational organizations and use donors’ money to pay for websites, books and conferences to further their ideology.

The money also has personally compensated leaders of the four groups.

New Century Foundation head Jared Taylor said his group raises money for the benefit of the “white race,” a mission taxpayers are indirectly supporting with the group’s status as a 501C3 nonprofit. The IRS recognized it, the Charles Martel Society, the National Policy Institute and VDare Foundation as charities more than a decade ago.

Samuel Brunson, a tax law professor at Loyola University in Chicago, noted the nonprofit status gives these groups a veneer of legitimacy and respectability.

“It should make people uncomfortable that the government is subsidizing groups that espouse values that are incompatible with most Americans,” he said.

The IRS has tried to weed out nonprofit applicants that merely spread propaganda. In 1978, the agency refused to grant tax-exempt status to the National Alliance, a neo-Nazi group that published an anti-Semitic newsletter. And in 1994, a court upheld the denial of tax-exempt status for the Nationalist Movement, a Mississippi-based white nationalist group.

Some tax experts said the IRS is still feeling the sting from conservative critics over its 2013 concession that it unfairly gave extra scrutiny to tea party groups seeking tax exemptions.

“I don’t think they’re feeling very brave right now,” said Ellen Aprill, a tax law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

IRS spokesman Michael Dobzinski said he can’t comment on individual nonprofits.

Louisiana State University law professor Philip Hackney, a former IRS attorney, said the agency receives tens of thousands of applications annually and doesn’t have the resources to scrutinize many of them.

“A lot of applications fly through,” Hackney said. “They’re looking for easy ways to sort things out and kind of give rubber stamps.”

New Century Foundation, a Virginia-based nonprofit, has raised more than $2 million since 2007 and operates the American Renaissance online magazine, which touts a philosophy that it’s “entirely normal” for whites to want to be a majority race.

Taylor, a Yale-educated, self-described “race realist,” said his group, founded in 1994, abides by all laws governing nonprofits.

“We certainly did not conceal our intentions,” Taylor said. “I think we are educational in precisely the terms that Congress defined.”

Taylor, whose tax filing says he received $65,000 in compensation in 2015, said he isn’t raising money to enrich himself or his group.

“We hold it in trust for the white race,” he said. “We take this seriously. This is not something we do for fun or profit. This is our duty to our people.”

In a 2012 article, University of Georgia business professor Alex Reed argued the IRS “can and must” revoke the New Century Foundation’s charitable status. Reed said the agency’s lax enforcement allowed other groups _ including ones he labeled as white nationalist, anti-gay, anti-immigrant or Holocaust deniers _ to qualify for tax breaks under the guise of operating educational organizations.

The Montana-based National Policy Institute is run by Richard Spencer, who popularized the term “alternative right” about a decade ago. The so-called alt-right is a fringe movement that has been described as a mix of racism, white nationalism and populism.

Spencer’s group raised $442,482 in tax-deductible contributions from 2007 through 2012. More recent fundraising figures for the group aren’t available in online tax returns, but Spencer said Trump’s candidacy already has boosted his group’s fundraising.

Spencer hosted a postelection conference in Washington that ended with audience members mimicking Nazi salutes after Spencer shouted, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” Spencer has advocated for an “ethno-state” that would be a “safe space” for white people.

The Georgia-based Charles Martel Society was founded by wealthy publisher William H. Regnery II, who also founded the National Policy Institute.

The group raised $568,526 between 2007 and 2014 and publishes The Occidental Quarterly. In an article last December, the journal’s editor applauded Trump’s campaign as a “game changer” for white people who oppose immigration and multiculturalism but said they “have a long way to go to really change the public discussion of race, Western culture, and Jewish influence.”

The Connecticut-based VDare Foundation is led by Peter Brimelow, founder and editor of an anti-immigration website. Brimelow, who spoke at the National Policy Institute’s conference last month, founded his nonprofit in 1999 and raised nearly $4.8 million between 2007 and 2015.

Brimelow has denied that his website is white nationalist but acknowledged it publishes works by writers who fit that description “in the sense that they aim to defend the interests of American whites.”

Brimelow received $378,418 in compensation from his nonprofit in 2007, accounting for nearly three-quarters of its total expenses that year. Brimelow says his salary that year was $170,000 and the rest reimbursed him for travel, office supplies and other expenses.

From 2010 through 2015, VDare Foundation didn’t report any compensation directly paid to Brimelow. But, starting in 2010, the nonprofit began making annual payments of up to $368,500 to Brimelow’s Happy Penguins LLC for “leased employees.” Brimelow disclosed his ownership of that company on tax returns.

Chuck McLean, a senior research fellow for the nonprofit watchdog Guidestar, said the IRS could view those “independent contractor” payments to Happy Penguins LLC as improper self-dealing unless the nonprofit can show they were “fair-market value transactions.” Brimelow says he set up that company to “protect” and pay his employees and himself.

Brimelow’s group reported modest fundraising increases for each of the past three years. He is confident that trend would continue during Trump’s administration.

“We have every reason to believe that it will,” he wrote in an email.

 

Fund for Lake Michigan pledges $250K for removal of Estabrook Dam

The Fund for Lake Michigan has pledged $250,000 toward the removal of the Estabrook Dam on the Milwaukee River.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to regain miles of free-flowing river,” Vicki Elkin, executive director of the fund, said in a news release. “The dam removal aligns perfectly with our mission to improve water quality in both Lake Michigan and its tributaries. We’re thrilled to be involved.”

The fund said removing the dam would restore crucial habitat for native fish species including sturgeon, walleye, salmon and trout. It also would restore the river’s natural flow and clear sediment and unsightly debris which accumulates upstream of the dam. 

The crumbling dam on Milwaukee’s northeast side is facing some $4.1 million in repairs along with $200,000 in annual maintenance, according to the news release. Removing the dam altogether would save taxpayers nearly $2.5 million while providing environmental benefits for generations to come.

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele applauded the Fund for Lake Michigan for stepping forward as the first private group to pledge money for the project.

 “Taking out the dam means we can invest millions more into our county parks which are destinations both for visitors and our own residents,” Abele said.

Earlier this fall, Abele announced a plan to transfer ownership of the dam from Milwaukee County to the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, which has the engineering and management expertise to carry out a large-scale project, such as the dam’s removal.

“We can’t thank the fund and its trustees enough for this bold gesture of support,” said Kevin Shafer, executive director of the MMSD. “This is an exciting project for the ecosystem and for the entire region. It’s going to save money, improve fishing opportunities and reduce the risk of future flooding.”

“The Fund for Lake Michigan has stepped up in a big way to protect the Milwaukee River watershed,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett stated. “Removing the dam will improve water quality and reduce flooding.  On behalf of the city of Milwaukee, I thank the fund for this generous and environmentally sound investment.”

On the Web

The Take It Down campaign.

UW tuition increases, raise request get regents OK

University of Wisconsin System officials have approved raising tuition for out-of-state, graduate and professional school students by hundreds of dollars at more than a half-dozen campuses as they grapple with a Republican-imposed freeze on in-state undergraduate tuition.

The plan calls for increases at UW-Eau Clare, UW-Green Bay, UW-La Crosse, UW-Madison, UW-Milwaukee, UW-Stout and all the system’s two-year institutions beginning next fall.

The increases range from several hundred dollars to thousands of dollars for professional schools at UW-Madison, the system’s flagship campus.

That school’s plan includes raising nonresident undergraduate tuition by $4,000 to $35,523 per year. Increases at the school’s professional schools are even steeper. A master’s degree in global real estate will now cost $43,387 per year, an increase of $11,116. One year of medical school will now cost $46,387 for nonresidents, an increase of $7,751. Wisconsin residents will now have to pay $34,478 annually for medical school, an increase of $5,828.

The campuses and system leaders contend they need the extra money in the face of the resident undergraduate freeze, which entered its fourth year this fall and a $250 million cut Republicans imposed on the system in the current state budget.

They also maintain the increases would bring nonresident rates more in line with peer institutions and dollars generated by the graduate increases will stay in those programs.

The plan represents a third round of nonresident and graduate tuition increases at La Crosse, Milwaukee and Stout and the second at UW-Madison since 2015.

The Board of Regents approved the increases on a voice vote.

Discussion lasted less than 15 minutes. Regents Bryan Steil and James Langnes, a UW-Whitewater student, were the only dissenters. Steil said the increases were “too much, too fast.”

System President Ray Cross and regents President Regina Millner countered that the increases represent an investment in the system’s future and UW-Madison’s professional schools are the only such public schools in the state and are crucial to providing doctors, veterinarians and lawyers for Wisconsin.

Raising nonresident and graduate tuition risks alienating those students and losing them to other schools. But system officials said in a memo to regents that schools aren’t concerned about losing those students because the rates are still competitive with peer institutions. A preliminary system report shows the overall number of nonresident freshmen fall enrollments has increased since the 2013-14 academic year.

The regents this fall approved a separate plan to keep undergraduate resident tuition flat for 2017-18 and raise it by no more than the rate of inflation the following year if Republicans lift the freeze. GOP Gov. Scott Walker has said he wants to continue the freeze for at least one more year but hasn’t committed beyond that.

Vote for employee raises

The regents also unanimously approved seeking an additional $78 million from the Legislature to bulk up employee raises over the next two years.

System leaders argued in a memo to the board that other public universities’ salary increases have been outstripping the UW System. UW-Madison’s faculty salaries, for example, were 18 percent lower than peer faculty elsewhere after adjustments for geographic costs of living in fiscal year 2014-15, the memo said.

The vote sends the request to the Legislature’s employment relations committee.

The request comes on top of the system’s request for an additional $42.5 million in state aid in the next state budget.

‘12 Days’ of Christmas now costs $34,363

The slow recovery of the U.S. economy is continuing to keep the cost of Christmas — or at least the gifts listed in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” — from spiraling out of control.

The price of two turtle doves jumped from $290 to $375 this year, but nine of the other 12 gifts listed in the carol stayed the same price or became cheaper, including a partridge in a pear tree, according to the 33rd annual PNC Wealth Management Christmas Price Index released Thursday.

As a result, the overall cost of the gifts listed in the song increased 0.7 percent to $34,363, up $233 from last year’s total of $34,131.

PNC Financial Services Group releases the price index each year as a whimsical way of tracking inflation.

Besides the turtle doves, only the cost of 11 pipers piping and 12 drummers drumming _ both up 2.8 percent _ increased.

Thomas Melcher, chief Investment officers for PNC Asset Management Group, said the increasing wages of drummers and pipers could signal a march toward higher wages for a broader range of workers in 2017. He said he wouldn’t be surprised to see increases coming for the eight maids-a-milking, nine ladies dancing and 10 lords-a-leaping.

“There are some underlying inflationary pressures that seem to be building,” Melcher said.

The price of five gold rings, as tracked by PNC, hasn’t gone up in three years, even though the price of gold as a commodity has.

“At a certain point, the end product should begin to reflect the price appreciation of the commodity,” Melcher said.

PNC calculates the prices from sources including retailers, bird hatcheries and two Philadelphia dance groups, the Pennsylvania Ballet and Philadanco.

The cost of buying the same gifts online is $44,603 this year, up 2.2 percent from $43,627 last year. But Melcher cautioned that’s largely because it costs more to transport animals and performers — 10 lords-a-leaping cost $5,509 in-person, but $13,373 online because of transportation costs — than the cost of the items themselves.

“In most instances, it’s cheaper to shop online,” Melcher said. “I’ve never personally shipped a swan, but I imagine it’s not the cheapest endeavor in the world.”

A buyer who purchased all the gifts each time they are mentioned in the song would spend $156,507, up $1,100 from last year.

The full set of prices for purchasing the gifts from a bricks-and-mortar business, not online, is:

• Partridge, $20; last year: $25

• Pear tree, $190; last year: same

• Two turtle doves, $375; last year: $290

• Three French hens, $182; last year: same

• Four calling birds (canaries), $600; last year: same

• Five gold rings, $750; last year: same

• Six geese-a-laying, $360; last year: same

• Seven swans a-swimming, $13,125; last year: same

• Eight maids a-milking, $58; last year: same

• Nine ladies dancing (per performance), $7,553; last year: same

• 10 lords a-leaping (per performance), $5,509; last year: same

• 11 pipers piping (per performance), $2,708; last year: $2,635

• 12 drummers drumming (per performance), $2,934; last year: $2,855

Costs of widely prescribed drugs jumped up to 5,241 percent in recent years

Jess Franz-Christensen did not realize the seriousness of her son’s Type 1 diabetes diagnosis until staff in the doctor’s office offered to call an ambulance to take him to the hospital.

Her next shock: The cost of Jack’s medicines.

The drugs, administered through an insulin pump, cost $1,200 a month.

“We’re really fortunate. We’re able to pay for stuff,” said Franz-Christensen, whose husband, Scott, is a physicist, while she stays home to care for Jack, 8, and their daughter, Kendall, 11.

“But there are people who are making decisions whether to feed their kid or get test strips — whether to pay rent or get a vial of insulin. It’s heart-breaking.”

Prices for insulin products have nearly doubled in recent years, including Lantus SoloSTAR — one of the drugs that Medicaid and Medicare spent the most on in 2015. Its price increased by 81.5 percent between 2011 and 2014, according to data analyzed by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The data were provided by California-based First Databank, a supplier of U.S. commercial drug pricing information.

The costs of seven widely prescribed antibiotics, cancer drugs, arthritis medications and other prescriptions have escalated between 29 percent and 5,241 percent in recent years, according to a joint investigation by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, Wisconsin Health News and Wisconsin Public Radio.

The investigation examined the impacts of and reasons behind the overall rise in prescription costs, including drug price increases since 2011, using proprietary First Databank data.

Overall, the price of insulin nearly tripled between 2002 and 2013, prompting calls this month for a federal investigation by former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders from Vermont.

“They (drug companies) are making billions and billions of dollars on people who literally can’t afford it,” said Franz-Christensen, who has joined #MyLifeIsNotForProfit, a national grassroots parent movement.

Recent nationwide news coverage has focused on the rising cost of EpiPens, which counteract potentially fatal allergic reactions to peanuts, bee stings and other triggers. But the $600 cost for a two-pack of that medicine is just one example of lifesaving drugs with skyrocketing prices.

Synthroid, which is used to treat hypothyroidism, is the most commonly prescribed medication in the United States and has been on the market for more than 60 years. In just the past six years, it has nearly doubled in price, according to the Center’s analysis. The generic version of Synthroid, levothyroxine, has gone from 14 cents to 46 cents per pill, an increase of 231 percent between 2011 and 2016, the analysis shows.

A single two-week dose for Humira, a medication that treats conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, has increased 129 percent since 2011, to $2,000, according to First Databank data analyzed by the Center.

The price increases, which continue to mount, place economic and emotional pressure on patients and their families, squeeze the budgets of health care providers and raise costs for taxpayers in Wisconsin and nationwide, the joint investigation found.

Lack of competition raises costs

Spending on medications is rising for a variety of reasons:

  • Some pharmaceutical companies have taken action to extend the patent protections on their products, blocking cheaper generic versions from being developed.
  • As some companies stop making certain low-cost drugs, other companies gain monopolies over the market.
  • Companies are introducing more high-cost “speciality” drugs that treat lifelong conditions.
  • As the nation’s population ages, the demand for prescription drugs increases; more than half of Americans now use them.

In one practice known as “product hopping,” a company makes changes to a drug to extend its patent protections, keeping others from entering the market with cheaper alternatives.

Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel filed an antitrust lawsuit in September alleging that the makers of Suboxone, a drug used to treat opiate addiction, changed the product from a tablet to a film that dissolves in the mouth to block alternatives and “maintain monopoly profits.”

Drug maker Indivior said it takes “these allegations seriously” and “intends to defend this and other related actions.”

“As long as drugs are on patent protection, manufacturers at that point have monopoly pricing ability and they can price their products at levels that the market will bear,” said Chuck Shih, who leads Pew Charitable Trusts’ specialty drugs research initiative.

In addition, as competitors drop out of the market, the remaining companies are “raising prices significantly and earning substantial profits,” said Larry Levitt, senior vice president for special initiatives at the California-based Kaiser Family Foundation.

The price jumps have caught the attention of Congress, which held hearings after Turing Pharmaceuticals increased the price of a drug that treats toxoplasmosis — an illness that can cause brain damage, blindness, miscarriage or birth defects — by 5,000 percent shortly after acquiring it.

The increase in the price of EpiPens has also drawn congressional scrutiny. Between 2010 and 2016, the price has more than quadrupled, according to data from First Databank.

Seventeen senators, including Democratic Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, sent a letter to EpiPen maker Mylan in early November asking for more pricing information. The senators said the skyrocketing prices were raising costs for taxpayers and jacking up insurance premiums.

Lawmakers on the state and federal level are calling for new regulations to rein in drug prices. A dozen states have enacted laws requiring greater transparency in drug pricing and other measures, but no state has enacted price controls.

California voters rejected a proposal earlier this month to implement their own price control system, which would require state agencies to pay the same rates negotiated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The two sides poured more than $100 million into the effort, most of it from pharmaceutical companies opposed to the measure.

Holly Campbell, spokeswoman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, attributed the increase in EpiPen prices to a U.S. Food and Drug Administration backlog in approving new generics and a “lack of competition” in the market.

Working poor hit hard

For those without insurance or who cannot afford their share, the rising cost of medications has left them facing hard choices.

Kathryn Drexler, a registered nurse and certified diabetic educator at the free Living Healthy Community Clinic in Oshkosh, said some of her patients ration their insulin. So many are asking the clinic for medication help “that it’s draining our budget,” she said.

“I think it’s hitting the working poor the hardest,” Drexler said. “They can’t afford their co-pays, and they can’t afford insulin out of pocket.”

Free clinics provide care and drugs to the roughly 323,000 people, or 5.7 percent of state residents who lack insurance, as well as some people who are underinsured. And while drug companies offer free prescriptions to certain low-income people with no insurance, generic medications — which comprise eight out of every 10 prescriptions — do not qualify.

University of Wisconsin pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Ellen Connor said the price increases have thrown some of her patients into despair.

“Families — this is what they agonize over,” Connor said. “They lose sleep over it. I have parents sobbing in the office over this. They feel like failures because they had lost jobs and couldn’t afford $500 of medications a month. It breaks your heart.”

For the insured, drug price hikes have contributed to higher deductibles and co-pays, said Dr. Tim Bartholow, chief medical officer for the not-for-profit insurer WEA Trust in Madison.

The price increases are hitting hospitals too, costing University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics an additional $14 million in the past year, according to Steve Rough, pharmacy director.

Rough noted large increases among generic drugs with no competitors.

“I call it generic price-jacking, where companies purchase the rights to a low-cost generic drug that is routinely used in the care of many patients, just for the sole purpose of raising the price to make money, because they can,” he said.

Taxpayers left with hefty tab

Prescription drugs are a growing portion of health care spending nationwide, accounting for 16.7 percent or $457 billion of total U.S. health care spending in 2015 — about double the percentage from the 1990s, according to a report released in March.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report found the number of prescriptions is rising, but most of the spending growth is due to rising prices and a shift toward more expensive medications.

The state’s Medicaid program — which receives both federal and state funding — spent $329.4 million in the fiscal year between July 2011 and June 2012 on prescription drugs, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. By July 1 of this year, annual spending had grown to $427.7 million — a 30 percent increase. The amount can vary year to year because of rebates the program receives from drug manufacturers.

Elizabeth Goodsitt, Wisconsin Department of Health Services spokeswoman, said the program has taken numerous steps to address growing costs, such as requiring patients to get prior approval before receiving more expensive medications.

Meanwhile, a September poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 55 percent of Americans nationwide reported taking prescription drugs. About 26 percent of them — or 14 percent of the U.S. population — found it somewhat or very difficult to pay the cost of their prescription medication.

Even generics now too expensive

Paul Hoffmann, manager of the Bread of Healing Clinic in Milwaukee, said his free clinic can no longer afford to provide some generic medications.

“I’ve been a pharmacist for 35 years, and this is a phenomenon that we never saw,” Hoffmann said. “All these long-standing generics that have been generic for some 20, 30 years are going up in astronomical prices.”

He cited doxycycline, used to treat infections. First Databank figures show the price skyrocketed by 12,024 percent from 2011 to early 2013 because of drug shortages. The price has dropped, but the antibiotic is still 5,240 percent higher than in 2011 — or more than 50 times more expensive.

Lawmakers eye transparency initiatives

Some state lawmakers are looking for ways to curb drug prices. Rep. Debra Kolste, D-Janesville, plans to introduce legislation next year requiring the Office of the Commissioner of Insurance to collect information about the cost of drugs to public health care programs and develop a strategy to reduce prices.

Meanwhile, Baldwin has co-authored a bill at the federal level requiring pharmaceutical companies to submit a report to the federal government a month before increasing a product’s price by 10 percent or more.

PhRMA spokeswoman Campbell called the proposal “a thinly veiled attempt to build a case for government price setting.”

But observers say the conversation around drug pricing has changed.

“You have these very high profile seemingly outrageous price hikes that have focused the attention of policymakers in a way that I haven’t seen before,” said Levitt, of the Kaiser Family Foundation. “There’s a window where we could see some policy changes.”

Franz-Christensen hopes Congress will fix the problem.

“The people that can’t afford it, they’re so overwhelmed,” she said. “They can’t fight. … If it’s hard for us, people who have everything, imagine the people who don’t.”

Cara Lombardo and Andrew Hahn of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism contributed to this report.

Sean Kirkby reports for Wisconsin Health News, an independent, nonpartisan, online news organization serving Wisconsin health care professionals and decision makers. Dee J. Hall is managing editor of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Bridgit Bowden is a reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio. The nonprofit Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with WPR, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism school. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

Trump’s stock in Dakota Access pipeline company raises concern

Donald Trump holds stock in the company building the disputed Dakota Access oil pipeline, and pipeline opponents warn his investments could affect any decision he makes on the $3.8 billion project as president.

Concern about Trump’s possible conflicts comes amid protests that unfold daily along the proposed pipeline route.

The dispute over the route has intensified in recent weeks, with total arrests since August rising to 528.

A recent clash near the main protest camp in North Dakota left a police officer and several protesters injured.

Trump’s most recent federal disclosure forms, filed in May, show he owned between $15,000 and $50,000 in stock in Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners. That’s down from between $500,000 and $1 million a year earlier.

Trump also owns between $100,000 and $250,000 in Phillips 66, which has a one-quarter share of Dakota Access.

While Trump’s stake in the pipeline company is modest compared with his other assets, ethics experts say it’s among dozens of potential conflicts that could be resolved by placing his investments in a blind trust, a step Trump has resisted.

The Obama administration said this month it wants more study and tribal input before deciding whether to allow the partially built pipeline to cross under a Missouri River reservoir in North Dakota.

The 1,200-mile pipeline would carry oil across four states to a shipping point in Illinois. The project has been held up while the Army Corps of Engineers consults with the Standing Rock Sioux, who believe the project could harm the tribe’s drinking water and Native American cultural sites.

The delay raises the likelihood that a final decision will be made by Trump, a pipeline supporter who has vowed to “unleash” unfettered production of oil and gas. He takes office in January.

“Trump’s investments in the pipeline business threaten to undercut faith in this process — which was already frayed — by interjecting his own financial well-being into a much bigger decision,” said Sharon Buccino, director of the land and wildlife program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.

“This should be about the interests of the many, rather than giving the appearance of looking at the interests of a few — including Trump,” Buccino said.

Trump, a billionaire who has never held public office, holds ownership stakes in more than 500 companies worldwide.

He has said he plans to transfer control of his company to three of his adult children, but ethics experts have said conflicts could engulf the new administration if Trump does not liquidate his business holdings.

U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., senior Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, called Trump’s investment in the pipeline company “disturbing” and said it fits a pattern evident in Trump’s transition team.

“You have climate (change) deniers, industry lobbyists and energy conglomerates involved in that process,” Grijalva said. “The pipeline companies are gleeful. This is pay-to-play at its rawest.”

A spokeswoman for Trump, Hope Hicks, provided a statement about conflicts of interest to The Associated Press on Friday: “We are in the process of vetting various structures with the goal of the immediate transfer of management of The Trump Organization and its portfolio of businesses to Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric Trump as well as a team of highly skilled executives. This is a top priority at the organization and the structure that is ultimately selected will comply with all applicable rules and regulations.”

Besides Trump, at least two possible candidates for energy secretary also could benefit from the pipeline. Oil billionaire Harold Hamm could ship oil from his company, Continental Resources, through the pipeline, while former Texas Gov. Rick Perry serves on the board of directors of Energy Transfer Partners.

North Dakota Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple, along with GOP Sen. John Hoeven and Rep. Kevin Cramer, called on President Barack Obama to authorize the Army Corps of Engineers to approve the pipeline crossing, the last large segment of the nearly completed pipeline.

Kelcy Warren, CEO of Dallas-based Energy Transfer, told The Associated Press that he expects Trump to make it easier for his company and others to complete infrastructure projects.

“Do I think it’s going to get easier? Of course,” said Warren, who donated $3,000 to Trump’s campaign, plus $100,000 to a committee supporting Trump’s candidacy and $66,800 to the Republican National Committee.

“If you’re in the infrastructure business,” he said, “you need consistency. That’s where this process has gotten off track.”

The Army Corps of Engineers granted Warren’s company the permits needed for the crossing in July, but the agency decided in September that further analysis was warranted, given the tribe’s concerns. On Nov. 14, the corps called for even more study.

The company has asked a federal judge to declare it has the right to lay pipe under Lake Oahe, a Missouri River reservoir in southern North Dakota. The judge isn’t likely to issue a decision until January at the earliest.