Tag Archives: regulations

CDC considers lowering threshold for lead exposure

The CDC is considering lowering its threshold for elevated childhood blood lead levels by 30 percent, a shift that could help health practitioners identify more children afflicted by the heavy metal.

Since 2012, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which sets public health standards for exposure to lead, has used a blood lead threshold of 5 micrograms per deciliter for children under age 6.

While no level of lead exposure is safe for children, those who test at or above that level warrant a public health response, the agency says.

Based on new data from a national health survey, the CDC may lower its reference level to 3.5 micrograms per deciliter in the coming months, according to six people briefed by the agency.

The measure will come up for discussion at a CDC meeting Jan. 17 in Atlanta.

But the step, which has been under consideration for months, could prove controversial. One concern: Lowering the threshold could drain sparse resources from the public health response to children who need the most help – those with far higher lead levels.

The CDC did not respond to a request for comment.

Exposure to lead — typically in peeling old paint, tainted water or contaminated soil — can cause cognitive impairment and other irreversible health impacts.

The CDC adjusts its threshold periodically as nationwide average levels drop. The threshold value is meant to identify children whose blood lead levels put them among the 2.5 percent of those with the heaviest exposure.

“Lead has no biological function in the body, and so the less there is of it in the body the better,” Bernard M Y Cheung, a University of Hong Kong professor who studies lead data, told Reuters. “The revision in the blood lead reference level is to push local governments to tighten the regulations on lead in the environment.”

The federal agency is talking with state health officials, laboratory operators, medical device makers and public housing authorities about how and when to implement a new threshold.

Since lead was banned in paint and phased out of gasoline nearly 40 years ago, average childhood blood lead levels have fallen more than 90 percent. The average is now around 1 microgram per deciliter.

Yet progress has been uneven, and lead poisoning remains an urgent problem in many U.S. communities.

A Reuters investigation published this month found nearly 3,000 areas with recently recorded lead poisoning rates of at least 10 percent, or double those in Flint, Michigan, during that city’s water crisis.

More than 1,100 of these communities had a rate of elevated blood tests at least four times higher than in Flint.

In the worst-affected urban areas, up to 50 percent of children tested in recent years had elevated lead levels.

The CDC has estimated that as many as 500,000 U.S. children have lead levels at or above the current threshold. The agency encourages “case management” for these children, which is often carried out by state or local health departments and can involve educating families about lead safety, ordering more blood tests, home inspections or remediation.

Any change in the threshold level carries financial implications. The CDC budget for assisting states with lead safety programs this year was just $17 million, and many state or local health departments are understaffed to treat children who test high.

Another concern: Many lead testing devices or labs currently have trouble identifying blood lead levels in the 3 micrograms per deciliter range. Test results can have margins of error.

“You could get false positives and false negatives,” said Rad Cunningham, an epidemiologist with the Washington State Department of Health. “It’s just not very sensitive in that range.”

The CDC doesn’t hold regulatory power, leaving states to make their own decisions on how to proceed. Many have yet to adapt their lead poisoning prevention programs to the last reference change, implemented four years ago, when the level dropped from 10 to 5 micrograms per deciliter. Other states, including Virginia and Maine, made changes this year.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is close to adopting a rule requiring an environmental inspection — and lead cleanup if hazards are found — in any public housing units where a young child tests at or above the CDC threshold.

If the CDC urges public health action under a new threshold, HUD said it will follow through. “The only thing that will affect our policy is the CDC recommendation for environmental intervention,” said Dr. Warren Friedman, with HUD’s Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes.

To set the reference value, the CDC relies upon data from the National Health and Nutrition Survey. The latest data suggests that a small child with a blood lead level of 3.5 micrograms per deciliter has higher exposure than 97.5 percent of others in the age group, 1 to 5 years.

But in lead-poisoning hotspots, a far greater portion of children have higher lead levels. Wisconsin data, for instance, shows that around 10 percent of children tested in Milwaukee’s most poisoned census tracts had levels double the current CDC standard.

Some worry a lower threshold could produce the opposite effect sought, by diverting money and attention away from children with the worst exposure.

“A lower reference level may actually do harm by masking reality – that significant levels of lead exposure are still a problem throughout the country,” said Amy Winslow, chief executive of Magellan Diagnostics, whose blood lead testing machines are used in thousands of U.S. clinics.

EPA to keep strict gas mileage standards in place

The EPA has decided not to change government fuel economy requirements that force automakers to significantly increase the efficiency of new cars and trucks.

The decision announced this week follows a mandatory review of the standards established in 2012, when gas averaged $3.60 a gallon and small cars and hybrids were gaining favor.

The standards had required the fleet of new cars to average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. But there was a built-in reduction if buying habits changed — and they have, dramatically. Now, gas is averaging close to $2 a gallon and three of every five new vehicles sold in the U.S. are trucks and SUVs. As a result, the 2025 fuel-economy number drops to 50.8 mph.

That decline isn’t enough to satisfy car companies. They say they’re building small cars and electrics to meet the standards, but few consumers are buying them. Automakers had petitioned the government to lessen the standards.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a statement that based on the agency’s technical analysis, automakers have the technology to meet emissions standards and mileage through 2025. The requirements will increase the new-vehicle fleet’s average gas mileage requirement from 34.1 mpg this year while cutting carbon pollution and saving drivers billions at the pump, the EPA said.

“Although EPA’s technical analysis indicates that the standards could be strengthened for model years 2022-2025, proposing to leave the current standards in place provides greater certainty to the auto industry for product planning and engineering,” McCarthy said.

The EPA will take public comments on the decision until Dec. 30, meaning McCarthy could finalize the standards before President-elect Donald Trump is inaugurated in January, even though a decision wasn’t required until April 2018. Trump has said he wants to get rid of the EPA and Myron Ebell, the leader of Trump’s EPA transition team, is director of a libertarian think tank that gets financial support from the fossil fuel industry and opposes “global-warming alarmism.”

The EPA, however, denied the rushed timetable was due to Trump’s election.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a lobbying group that represents 12 automakers, including BMW, Ford, Toyota and General Motors, called the quick decision a “premature rush to judgment” and said it has asked Trump to review post-election regulations.

Ford Motor Co. called the EPA move “eleventh-hour politics in a lame-duck administration” and said it will work with the new administration and Congress. Ford has been a frequent target of criticism by Trump due to its plans to move some production to Mexico.

Environmentalists backed the EPA’s decision. Daniel Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign, said the standards already have pushed average new-vehicle gas mileage up by 5 mpg since 2007, reducing America’s oil use and helping to drive down gasoline prices worldwide.

Janet McCabe, EPA’s acting administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, said automakers have multiple technological pathways to meet the standards, from direct-injection gas engines to hybrids and electric vehicles. The industry is ahead of schedule, she said. More than 100 vehicles on the market are already meeting standards set for 2020. But electric vehicles still haven’t caught on. Last year EVs were less than 1 percent of U.S. new car sales.

“Leaving the standards as they are would give automakers the time they need,” McCabe said.

Automakers have warned that meeting the standards would result in additional costs that would be passed on to the consumer. McCabe said Wednesday that the estimated cost of the standards has fallen. The cost per vehicle to meet the 2025 standards is now $825, down from $1,100 in 2012, she said. Owners can easily make that back in savings at the pump, she said.

The industry has argued that the costs and consumer reluctance to buy the smallest, most efficient vehicles mean the industry will have trouble complying. “The evidence is abundantly clear that with low gas prices, consumers are not choosing the cars necessary to comply with increasingly unrealistic standards,” the Auto Alliance said.

Even if Trump rolls back the standards, the industry will continue to sell fuel-efficient cars in the U.S. because it has to meet mileage standards in other countries and California. “Automakers will still be on the hook to develop and produce these vehicles and will need economies of scale to make them profitable,” said Autotrader Senior Analyst Michelle Krebs.

Supreme Court strikes Texas anti-abortion law

The U.S. Supreme Court on June 27  handed a victory to abortion rights advocates, striking down a Texas law imposing strict regulations on abortion doctors and facilities designed to shut down clinics.

The 5-3 ruling held that the Republican-backed 2013 law placed an undue burden on women exercising their constitutional right to end a pregnancy established in the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

The normally nine-justice court was one member short after the Feb. 13 death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who consistently opposed abortion in past rulings.

Conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy joined liberal members of the court in ruling that both key provisions of the law violate a woman’s constitutional right to obtain an abortion.

By setting a nationwide legal precedent that the two provisions in the Texas law were unconstitutional, the ruling imperils laws already in place in other states.

Texas had said its law, passed by a Republican-led legislature and signed by a Republican governor in 2013, was aimed at protecting women’s health. The abortion providers had said the regulations were medically unnecessary and intended to shut down clinics. Since the law was passed, the number of abortion clinics in Texas, the second-most-populous U.S. state with about 27 million people, has dropped from 41 to 19.

Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration supported the challenge.

The Texas law required abortion doctors to have “admitting privileges,” a type of formal affiliation that can be hard to obtain, at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic so they can treat patients needing surgery or other critical care.

The law also required clinic buildings to possess costly, hospital-grade facilities. These regulations covered numerous building features such as corridor width, the swinging motion of doors, floor tiles, parking spaces, elevator size, ventilation, electrical wiring, plumbing, floor tiling and even the angle that water flows from drinking fountains.

The last time the justices decided a major abortion case was nine years ago, when they ruled 5-4 to uphold a federal law banning a late-term abortion procedure.

Some U.S. states have pursued a variety of restrictions on abortion, including banning certain types of procedures, prohibiting it after a certain number of weeks of gestation, requiring parental permission for girls until a certain age, imposing waiting periods or mandatory counseling, and others.

Americans remain closely divided over whether abortion should be legal. In a Reuters/Ipso online poll involving 6,769 U.S. adults conducted from June 3 to June 22, 47 percent of respondents said abortion generally should be legal and 42 percent said it generally should be illegal.

Editor’s note: This story will be updated.

Demonstrators hold signs outside the U.S. Supreme Court as the court is due to issue its first major abortion ruling since 2007 against a backdrop of unremitting divisions among Americans on the issue and a decades-long decline in the rate at which women terminate pregnancies in Washington June 27. — PHOTO: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Demonstrators hold signs outside the U.S. Supreme Court as the court is due to issue its first major abortion ruling since 2007 against a backdrop of unremitting divisions among Americans on the issue and a decades-long decline in the rate at which women terminate pregnancies in Washington June 27. — PHOTO: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

 

Justice Dept. issues new guidance for police response to domestic violence, sexual assault | Policies follow investigations of gender-biased policing

The Department of Justice this week issued new guidance to law enforcement agencies, detailing how certain police responses to domestic violence and sexual assault violate victims’ civil rights.

“Gender bias, whether explicit or implicit, can severely undermine law enforcement’s ability to protect survivors of sexual and domestic violence and hold offenders accountable,” said Attorney General Loretta Lynch.  “This guidance – developed in collaboration with law enforcement leaders and advocates from across the country – is designed to help state, local and tribal authorities more fairly and effectively address allegations of domestic violence and sexual assault.  In the days and months ahead, the Department of Justice will continue to work with our law enforcement partners nationwide to ensure that they have the tools and resources they need to prevent, investigate and prosecute these horrendous crimes.”

The guidance comes on the heels of DOJ investigations of gender-biased policing in New Orleans, Puerto Rico, Montana and Arizona that documented the systemic failure of police departments to properly investigate domestic violence and sexual assault cases or to hold police officers accountable when they commit domestic or sexual violence.

“Domestic violence-related calls constitute the single largest category of calls received by police departments, so how police officers respond to domestic violence and sexual assault has a huge impact on the lives of women, families and communities across the United States,” said Sandra Park, senior staff attorney in the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “Police practices can either help end the cycle of violence or they can perpetuate it.”

Even when an assault clearly qualifies as criminal activity, survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault may face disbelief, victim-blaming, and hostility from law enforcement.

The DOJ guidance calls on local police departments to examine their practices and policies relating to policing of domestic violence and sexual assault, which disproportionately impact women and LGBT people. It lays out the following eight principles that should guide police departments:

  • Recognize and address biases, assumptions, and stereotypes about victims
  • Treat all victims with respect and employ interviewing tactics that encourage a victim to participate and provide facts about the incident
  • Investigate sexual assault or domestic violence complaints thoroughly and effectively
  • Appropriately classify reports of sexual assault or domestic violence
  • Refer victims to appropriate services
  • Properly identify the assailant in domestic violence incidents
  • Hold officers who commit sexual assault or domestic violence accountable
  • Maintain, review, and act upon data regarding sexual assault and domestic violence.

“The new DOJ guidance is a critical tool welcomed by both law enforcement and community advocates that empowers them to work together to improve how domestic violence and sexual assault cases are handled,” said Park. “Survivors must have equal access to an unbiased criminal justice system that offers them protection and ensures that perpetrators cannot act with impunity.”

Courts and the DOJ have concluded that victims of domestic and sexual assault crimes are denied equal protection under the U.S. Constitution when these crimes are treated less seriously than other offenses based on gender bias. Victims’ due process rights are also violated when police commit acts of violence, such as sexual assault or when a victim is put at greater risk as a result of police conduct.

Domestic violence and sexual assault are two of the most prevalent forms of gender-based violence. In the U.S., over a million women are sexually assaulted each year and more than a third of women are subjected to rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime, with women of color disproportionately affected.

Republicans vow to shred historic Paris climate accord

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry hailed the international climate change agreement reached in Paris as a major achievement that could help turn the tide on global warming.

But Republicans, who are heavily funded by fossil fuel interests that produce the pollutants causing climate change, tried to deflate the celebration, vowing to overturn the agreement signed by almost 200 nations if the party wins the White House in 2016. 

Obama said the climate agreement “can be a turning point for the world” and credited his administration for playing a key role. He and Kerry predicted the agreement would prompt widespread spending on clean energy and help stem carbon pollution.

“We’ve shown that the world has both the will and the ability to take on this challenge,” Obama said from the White House. He said the climate agreement “offers the best chance we have to save the one planet we have.”

But the immediate reaction of leading Republicans was a reminder of the conflict that lies ahead.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Obama is “making promises he can’t keep” and should remember the agreement “is subject to being shredded in 13 months,” when the next president takes the oath of office.

Clean-power pushback

Even as Obama was working to hammer out a global climate agreement in Paris, Republican climate-change deniers in Congress were working to block his plan to force cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. power plants.

The House passed two resolutions Dec. 8 against the power-plant rules. A measure blocking an Environmental Protection Agency rule for existing power plants was approved 242–180, while a measure blocking a rule on future power plants was approved 235–188.

The votes came after the Senate approved identical motions in November under a little-used law that allows Congress to block executive actions it considers onerous.

The measures, as WiG went to press, were at the White House, where they faced almost-certain vetoes.

Just four Democrats sided with Republicans to support the measures, which fell far short of the numbers needed to override a veto in both the House and Senate.

U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., said GOP lawmakers were forcing a vote on the climate rule “to send a message … there’s serious disagreement with the policies of this president.”

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said the president’s pro-environment policies will kill jobs, increase electricity costs and decrease the reliability of the U.S. energy supply.

Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., said he wished Obama took the threat posed by “radical jihadists” as seriously as he takes the “pseudoscientific threat” posed by climate change.

Republicans at the state level also are challenging the power plan, which requires states to cut carbon emissions by 32 percent by 2030, based on emissions in 2005. Each state has a customized target and is responsible for drawing up an effective plan to meet its goal.

The EPA says it has authority to enact the plan under the Clean Air Act. But 25 mostly Republican states, led by Texas and West Virginia, are contesting the plan in court, calling it an unlawful power grab that will kill jobs and drive up electricity costs. Wisconsin, which has perhaps the nation’s strongest rules discouraging “green” energy, is part of the suit.

Utilities, the National Mining Association and the nation’s largest privately owned coal company also are suing the EPA over the new rules.

Koch Industries, a major polluter that political insiders say pulls the strings of the Wisconsin GOP, is one of the world’s largest funders of climate-change propaganda.

The Associated Press was a source for this analysis.

EPA developing new guidelines for toxic algae in lakes, rivers

New national guidelines are being developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to protect swimmers and kayakers from the growing threats posed by toxic algae in lakes and rivers.

Agency officials said the focus will be on people who are likely to swallow water during recreational activities.

The EPA issued a report to Congress last week saying that it also will be looking at whether new health advisories are needed on algae toxins in drinking water.

Harmful algae blooms have been expanding rapidly in both numbers and intensity, the EPA said.

An algae bloom that spread across Lake Erie last summer was the largest on record, government scientists said earlier this month, while another toxic algae outbreak stretched more than 600 miles along the Ohio River through four states.

Tackling the problem has taken on greater urgency since toxins from algae contaminated the tap water for 400,000 people in northwestern Ohio and southeastern Michigan in August 2014.

The EPA said in its report last week that there are information gaps when it comes to understanding toxic algae.

One of the challenges is “an incomplete understanding of how to prevent, predict, analyze, monitor and treat toxins in drinking water,” the report said.

Those toxins can cause rashes, diarrhea, vomiting and breathing difficulty. In some cases, it can lead to liver, kidney and nervous system problems. But not all algae blooms are toxic.

Scientists say climate change and higher levels of nutrients such as phosphorus seeping into waterways may be why they’re seeing a rising number of algae contamination cases.

The EPA said it will work with states and water treatment plant operators to update guidelines on monitoring drinking water for algae-produced toxins while also looking at treatment plans.

It also plans to take steps toward improving the quality of the lakes and rivers that supply drinking water, including putting more funding toward limiting nutrient pollution that feeds the algae in the Great Lakes.

A draft of the proposed guidelines for swimmers is expected to be released by summer, the EPA said last week. It may also look at exposure limits for coming into contact with toxins in the water if there is enough data.

The guidelines will look at two specific toxins produced by blue-green algae.

Nineteen states already have their own regulations. They are California, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

Judge allows Chippewa tribes to hunt deer at night in northern Wisconsin

A federal judge has ruled Chippewa tribes can hunt deer at night beginning next month across most of northern Wisconsin, a decision that restores a tribal right lost after the bands gave the land to the government in the 19th century.

The state Department of Natural Resources has long banned hunting deer at night out of safety concerns. U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb issued an order Tuesday saying the tribes’ new night hunting regulations are stricter than the state’s rules for shooting wolves and deer at night. The regulations mandate that hunters take a 12-hour training course; hit a 6¼-inch bull’s eye from 100 yards eight out of 10 times in the dark; ensure hunting sites have earthen backstops; and submit shooting plans with safe zones of fire.

The ruling cements those rules in place and clears the way for the tribal night season to run from Nov. 1 to Jan. 4 in the so-called ceded territory, a 22,400 square-mile swath of northern Wisconsin the tribes handed to the U.S. government in 1837 and 1842.

“We’re pretty excited about this opportunity,” said Sue Erickson, a spokeswoman for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, which oversees the Chippewa’s off-reservation treaty rights. “This is giving (the tribes) an expanded opportunity and it is part of their rights.”

DNR officials said they were disappointed with the ruling but would work to inform the public the night hunt is on.

The Chippewa currently hunt deer at night on their reservations, but they’ve pushed for years for a night hunt in the ceded territory. The tribes tried to convince Crabb in 1989 to exempt tribal hunters from the state prohibition during a court fight over treaty rights in the territory. The judge ruled in 1991 that night deer hunting is dangerous and the state ban applies to tribal hunters.

The Chippewa asked Crabb to reconsider in 2012, arguing the state must believe night hunting is safe since lawmakers allowed a night wolf hunt and the DNR instituted night shooting programs to slow chronic wasting disease in the mid-2000s. The tribes also presented their new safety regulations to the judge for approval.

Crabb ruled in 2013 that the tribes had failed to show circumstances had changed enough to reopen the case, but a federal appeals court ordered her to reconsider. It ruled there was little reason to believe safety concerns are a valid reason for denying a tribal night hunt, noting Oregon, Washington, Minnesota and Michigan all allow such hunts and hunting has become safer over the last 20 years. The U.S. Supreme Court refused the state’s request to take the case earlier this year, which put it back in Crabb’s hands.

The judge analyzed the tribes’ regulations in her order Tuesday and concluded they’re much tighter than the rules the state had in place for the night wolf hunt and chronic wasting disease night shoots.

“Now, with the benefit of 24 years of state experience with night hunting, the tribes have been able to show that the prohibition on off-reservation night deer hunting is no longer necessary for public safety purposes, when properly regulated,” the judge wrote.

She took issue with the state’s argument that allowing a tribal night hunt gives the Chippewa a right that the general public doesn’t have. The tribes retained their hunting rights when they handed the territory over to the government in the 1800s and she blocked them in 1991 only because she felt the practice was dangerous, she wrote.

Erickson said she wasn’t sure how many tribal members would ultimately qualify to hunt deer at night.

School uniform rules relaxed for LGBT students in Puerto Rico

Students at public schools across Puerto Rico for the first time can choose to wear pants or skirts as part of their uniform regardless of their gender without being punished, a move that has unleashed a debate in this socially conservative island.

Education Secretary Rafael Roman said this week that the new regulation he recently signed is meant to be inclusive of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. He added that teachers will no longer be allowed to discipline students who prefer to wear pants instead of skirts or vice versa.

“No student can be sanctioned for not opting to wear a particular piece of clothing … that he or she does not feel comfortable with,” he told reporters.

Girls at public schools in Puerto Rico traditionally wear skirts as part of their uniforms and the boys wear pants.

LGBT civil rights activists and some school officials praised the measure, which comes months after Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla signed an executive order prohibiting bullying in public schools based on sexual orientation.

“It’s a bit late, but it was approved, which is important,” said Cristina Torres, director of a high school in Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second-largest city. “Changing people’s mentality from one day to another will be hard … The most incredible thing is that young people can accept this with an open mind, but it’s the adults who discriminate.”

Torres is familiar with the issue. Teachers filed a complaint against her two years ago for appearing in a picture with a student who wore women’s clothing at his graduation. The student was a victim of bullying and had received an award for overcoming difficult circumstances, she said.

“Our responsibility is to protect students’ rights,” Torres said.

However, critics of the new regulation accused government officials of acting like dictators and stripping parents of their power.

“Once again, this government and the Department of Education work against what’s best for our children,'” said officials with Alerta Puerto Rico, a conservative group that says it was founded to promote family and childhood values.

But Roman argues that parents have the final word on how their children dress for school since they’re the ones buying the uniform. He added that several school districts in the U.S. mainland have adopted similar regulations.

Messages left with the U.S. Department of Education were not immediately returned.

Paola Gonzalez, a 39-year-old transsexual woman who grew up in Puerto Rico and now lives in Albany, New York, said she wished the measure would have been approved years ago.

“It would have simplified my life,” she said, adding that she has some concerns about the new regulation given what she described as Puerto Rico’s “macho” culture.

“For a student to come out and say I identify with this gender and wear these clothes … that will be a big step,” Gonzalez said. “The school may also have to consider the safety of the student.”

Garcia’s administration previously approved several measures in favor of the gay community, including one that allows transgender and transsexual people to change their gender on their driver’s license and another that protects their rights when seeking medical services.

Wisconsin FoodShare fraud crackdown questioned

Under Republican Gov. Scott Walker, the state of Wisconsin has seen a nearly 12-fold increase in the number of persons suspended annually from the state’s food stamp program for fraud.

The suspensions for “intentionally violating program rules” are part of a larger get-tough approach to people receiving federally funded nutrition assistance, called FoodShare in Wisconsin. Walker has also introduced new work rules for some FoodShare recipients, and proposes to seek a federal waiver to begin requiring all adult participants of the program to undergo drug testing.

Walker’s administration has long devoted energy and resources to cracking down on recipients of the supplemental food program. The efforts include a new office to fight fraud within the state Department of Health Services, which runs FoodShare, additional systems for citizens to report allegations of abuse, and new strategies to nab would-be freeloaders through stricter screening and income-verification rules.

In 2011, Walker’s first year as governor, 102 people were suspended from the FoodShare program for violating program rules, according to DHS. That number has increased each year, to 1,184 in 2014.

“We’ve shown more intention and intentionality in preventing fraud and abuse,” said Alan White, appointed in 2011 to a newly created position of inspector general within DHS. He cites more workers, better training, and new strategies for finding fraud using social media. Also, “We’ve become more aware of the types of fraud that take place.”

White thinks Wisconsin’s efforts to step up enforcement serves as deterrent to potential cheaters: “They see that we are serious about preventing and detecting fraud.” He notes that federal law requires the state to take action in cases where it believes fraud has occurred.

But advocates for FoodShare recipients say the state is being overly aggressive, punishing needy people who make innocent mistakes.

“There’s a lot of judgment going on by white, middle-class people and a lot of assumptions and disqualifications based on these assumptions,” said Pat DeLessio, an attorney with the Milwaukee office of Legal Action of Wisconsin, a federally funded nonprofit agency. The agency has successfully helped clients fight state efforts to suspend their FoodShare benefits. But in most cases, she said, “people are coming to us too late.”

Sherrie Tussler, executive director of Milwaukee’s Hunger Task Force, a nonprofit community group, blasts the state’s crackdown. “It’s silly, it’s stupid, and it’s a way of manipulating public opinion,” she said. “Everybody needs a scapegoat and it seems like the poor are the scapegoat in Wisconsin.”

A ‘misuse’ of resources

FoodShare is Wisconsin’s incarnation of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The average monthly number of FoodShare recipients rose steadily in Wisconsin, from about 350,000 in 2005 to more than 850,000 in 2013, according to DHS. Last year it declined slightly, to 836,000, or 14.5 percent of the state’s population.

About two-thirds of last year’s FoodShare recipients were in families with children. The average monthly benefit was $112 per person and $224 per household. The total cost of the program was $1.1 billion in 2014. All of this money came from the federal government.

Under Walker, the number of FoodShare program fraud investigations has grown dramatically, from 2,098 in federal fiscal year 2010 to 6,403 in fiscal year 2014, which ended last September. These efforts have been aided by DHS’ new Office of the Inspector General and the establishment of a hotline and web portal for citizens to report suspected public assistance program fraud.

The office currently has 107 employees and an annual budget of $12.6 million. Thirty-one employees work on fraud investigation, including eight on recipient fraud. It said its fraud-fighting efforts in Medicaid, FoodShare and the Women, Infants and Children programs cost $1.3 million in the most recent state fiscal year, and generated $22.5 million in program savings, including “stopping future benefits from being fraudulently received.”

In federal fiscal year 2014, the DHS identified nearly $1.1 million in fraud-related FoodShare overpayments and collected $675,448 in overpaid benefits from current or former FoodShare recipients, said Michael McKenzie, chief of the Inspector General’s Fraud Investigation, Recovery and Enforcement Section. The overpayments accounted for 0.1 percent of the program’s total cost.

Tussler, of Hunger Task Force, calls this intense focus on ferreting out a relatively small amount of fraud “a misuse of state resources.” She said the state’s disqualifications of needy people is putting additional pressure on local food pantries.

How much fraud is there?

Nationally, the error rates for SNAP overpayments (including fraud) fell for the seventh straight year to a low of 2.6 percent in 2013, USDA numbers show. That’s the lowest error rate since the USDA began its current system of measuring in 1981.

Wisconsin’s error rate that year was 2.2 percent. In fact, Wisconsin’s error rate “has been consistently under the national average since 2008,” according to Alan Shannon, spokesman for the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service office in Chicago.

“Our error rate is low, which is great,” said White of DHS. “We want to keep it low.” His office’s mission is “to protect state and federal money,” he said. “Our responsibility is to the taxpayers. Those are our stakeholders.”

DHS statistics show that fraud accounts for a small share of FoodShare program overpayments. During the past three fiscal years, from 2012 through 2014, 10 percent of the total $13.2 million in overpayments collected by the state were attributed to client fraud. A larger share of this amount, 14 percent, was blamed on agency error. And the vast majority (76 percent) was chalked up to “inadvertent” errors by recipients.

While the state’s incidence of FoodShare fraud may be slight, it remains a major talking point among conservative politicians.

U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wisconsin, recently urged an audience in Oshkosh to keep an eye on people they see using FoodShare at the grocery store, saying “some people are arranging their life to be on FoodShare,” according to the Oshkosh Northwestern.

And Gov. Walker, a likely presidential contender, drew what the Wisconsin State Journal called “some of his biggest applause” at an Iowa summit when he talked about requiring food stamp beneficiaries to be drug-free and seeking employment.

Beginning April 1, all able-bodied adult FoodShare recipients without dependents must work or participate in job training, or both, for at least 80 hours a month, or meet an exemption, to keep getting benefits. It has been estimated that half of the 62,000 recipients in this category could lose benefits.

Walker has also proposed, in his 2015-17 budget, to seek a federal waiver to allow the state to require that FoodShare recipients be tested for drug use, and receive treatment if they test positive. Republicans on the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, on a 12-4 party line vote, added a provision to make recipients who report FoodShare cards lost or stolen, as happens about 130,000 times a year, absorb the roughly $3.50 replacement cost.

And lawmakers plan to introduce a bill to seek a federal waiver to require FoodShare recipients to use benefit cards that include their photos. The measure would cost an estimated $2 million a year.

Are rights being protected?

Hal Menendez, an attorney with Legal Action of Wisconsin’s Madison office, said most of the alleged fraud he sees amounts to mistakes on the part of those receiving assistance. “Sometimes people forget to report a change in their income or are late in reporting,” he said. In the past this might be cured simply by having the person pay back any overpayment.

“Now, oftentimes overpayments are being looked at as fraud or an intentional program violation,” Menendez said. That makes the recipient subject to benefit suspension: one year for a first violation, two years for a second and permanently for a third.

FoodShare recipients have a right to a hearing before an administrative law judge. But Menendez said many recipients are confused into signing forms sent by the state asking them to waive their right to a hearing. DHS numbers for a recent nearly 10-month period show that nearly a third of the people it sought to disqualify signed the waiver.

DeLessio, also of Legal Action, said she is representing a client with intellectual disabilities who signed the waiver terminating her benefits even though she cannot read. The woman is now without benefits.

Advocates for FoodShare recipients say when recipients contest a disqualification they often win. “The deciding factor may be whether the person appeared to explain the purchases,” DeLessio said.

If the recipient does not sign a waiver, a hearing is held. During the recent period under review, 348 hearings were held, and 311 disqualifications imposed. “We were upheld in 89 percent of the cases,” said White. This includes cases that are not contested, but White said the state still must present evidence.

Records of suspension cases provided by DeLessio show that some FoodShare recipients are targeted because they fall into a category of potential suspicion — for instance, by making unusually large or frequent purchases at a given store or having purchases that end in round numbers, like $20.00.

“We have seen people disqualified for less than $100,” DeLessio said.

White confirmed that his office looks for certain patterns, like large purchases, as “flags” of potential FoodShare fraud. And he acknowledged that “there are improvements that can be made” to the waiver form. He said that process is now under way.

According to White, the administrative law judges have “raised the bar” in terms of what evidence is required to disqualify recipients, “as is appropriate.” DeLessio still sees inconsistencies in how the cases are decided.

“The same evidence can lead to very different results depending on the judge,” DeLessio said.

‘It was very unfair’

In one case that came to hearing in 2013, a judge sustained a fraud finding against an individual who made five purchases over a three-month period from a store that was later disqualified from being a state FoodShare vendor. The purchases totaled $183.54; the store, the judge noted, was “not particularly close to respondent’s residence.” The respondent, who did not attend the hearing, was booted from the program for a year.

After another hearing, in 2014, a different judge rejected DHS’s attempt to disqualify a man for making numerous small purchases from a store that aroused suspicion in part because its owner admitted to allowing FoodShare recipients to use their cards to buy diapers, not an allowable purchase. The man appeared at the hearing and explained that the store was near where his children and their mother lived.

DeLessio represented Walter Triplett, 57, of Milwaukee, who in February 2014 was suspended from the FoodShare program for a year despite having appeared at a hearing to explain purchases that the DHS reviewer found suspicious. She filed a 25-page legal brief challenging this decision, which the state then agreed to vacate. But Triplett, who is disabled, was without Foodshare benefits for several months.

“It was very unfair,” Triplett said of the grounds for his disqualification. He got by by going to church food pantries. Also, “my family members helped me out as much as they could.”

DHS’s budget request for 2015-17 calls for the agency to “expand and improve” its fraud-fighting efforts. It sets a goal of 7,000 fraud investigations for each of the next three years.

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. 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.

What do you know about the sperm bank industry?

Sperm banking is a huge industry that has been around for decades but one that is relatively loosely regulated in the U.S.

Here are some things to know about the industry:

HOW MANY BABIES COME FROM DONATED SPERM?

While anecdotal evidence might suggest that the use of sperm donors to conceive a baby is rising because of improvements in technology and its popularity among lesbian couples and single women, there is no way to know for sure. No federal agency or professional organization tracks the number of children born from sperm donations.

The last time a count was done was in 1988 by the now-defunct U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, said Rene Almeling, a sociology professor at Yale University who has done extensive research on sperm and egg donation.

WHAT THEY TELL YOU

Sperm banks generally tell clients about a donor’s family medical history; physical traits like hair color, eye color, height and blood type; some educational and professional information; and some personal social preferences.

Additional information that might also be available for some donors, possibly for an extra fee, includes childhood and adult photos, audio interviews and other personality attributes.

Much of the information comes from surveys that the donors fill out.

WHAT IT COSTS

It depends on the sperm bank and various options the recipient can choose from. Georgia-based Xytex Corp., one of the bigger players in the industry, provides free profiles with basic information including medical history, genetic testing results, physical traits, and limited educational and professional background. There is a tiered pricing structure to see more extensive information.

A single unit of sperm from Xytex costs between $395 and $795, depending on a variety of factors, including the method of insemination the recipient plans to use and whether the recipient wants her child to have access to the donor’s identity once the child turns 18.

DONOR ANONYMITY

Sperm donors are generally anonymous when the recipient buys the sperm and is inseminated. Some sperm banks, including Xytex, allow a donor’s identity to be disclosed with the mother’s permission once the child turns 18. The child could then use the information to seek out a relationship with the biological father, or simply contact the donor with questions about family history.

DONOR REQUIREMENTS

Donors are screened over a period of four to six weeks. The screening generally includes a blood test, a genetic test, a physical and collecting sperm samples. Donors are asked to provide three generations of family medical history, including mental health, as well as some social background and preferences.

Because of the expense of screening, donors are frequently asked to donate once a week for at least a year. To keep up their sperm count, they’re advised not to engage in any sexual activity for at least 48 hours prior to donating, to try to limit alcohol consumption and stress, and to exercise regularly and eat healthily. If the sperm count is too low, the sperm bank will throw out the sample and the donor won’t be paid.