Innovation Ecosystem

Distractingly disruptive

The difficulty of keeping on keeping on when the focus keeps changing

Graph prepared by the Environmenal Work Group, shared by Melanie Benesh on Twitter

The details of how new Trump administration appointees to the EPA have sought to change the final rules under the Toxic Substances Control Act.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 10/23/17
With the explosion and acceleration of news across numerous social media platforms, it is easy to become distractingly disrupted from important news content that often gets blurry if not lost in our collective rear view mirror. Here are some stories with important local angles, and questions that need to be asked.
Will local radio talk show and TV news show hosts and guests ever admit that they really do not know what they are talking about? What kinds of investment alternatives, using the same package of incentives, could be considered if Amazon does not choose Rhode Island as the site of its second headquarters? When will plans for harm reduction strategies to be undertaken by the Governor’s Task Force on Overdose Prevention and Intervention be made public?
Asking questions, listening to the answers given, and then translating the material into a compelling story is often a difficult enterprise. First, often what people say is framed in such a way to create a message around what they want to be reported, not what is accurate or truthful. Others, often scientists, want to be able to change what they said, even if the quotes were accurate, because they view the exercise as one akin to writing and editing a scientific paper. Still others bristle when you ask an “impertinent” question.
Sometimes, there is surprise and delight when someone offers an insight that provides a different way of looking at a problem, with a kind of forthrightness and honesty that is refreshing. The pleasure comes in having to reinvent new stories each week, with new endings, a kind of perpetual exercise in gardening, always remembering that telling stories is what makes us human.

PROVIDENCE – For anyone who has developed cataracts, the blurring of vision is something that is often tolerated if not ignored, until someone else observes your inability to read exit signs on the highway.

In recent days, there have been a number of intriguing stories and questions raised by stories that seem to get blurry if not lost in our collective rear view mirror, without much comment or analysis by most of the local news media:

• In the joint investigation
by The Washington Post and 60 Minutes, “The Drug Industry’s Triumph over the DEA,” which looked into the way that the enforcement powers of the Drug Enforcement Administration were curtailed as a result of a concerted Congressional effort, one of the fascinating details that emerged was the fact that CVS Health spent $32.5 million lobbying expenses between 2014 and 2016.

CVS was second only to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which spent $40.8 million during that same period.

Question: What was CVS’s exact position on the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, shepherded through Congress by Rep. Tom Marino?

In the wake of the scandal involving Harvey Weinstein and the repeated alleged incidents reported about his behavior as a sexual predator, the #metoo hashtag campaign, with millions of retweets, provided an opportunity for women to share their own stories of sexual harassment, abuse, rape and assault. Rep. Teresa Tanzi, in responding with a #metoo story about her own sexual harassment at the State House, found herself being attacked by radio talk show hosts and even officials within the state Democratic party.

What seemed to get lost in the conversation, for the most part, was this: what was the responsibility of men? Not mentioned by the local news media was the fact that Ten Men of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence is hosting the fourth annual Men’s Summit on Thursday, Nov. 9, at Providence College. The goal of the group is to create a conversation about how men can help prevent violence against women and girls, promote healthy masculinity, and create the cultural shift needed to end domestic violence.

Question: Who are the men – in the news media, on talk radio, at the State House, and in the business community – that you would suggest attend the Ten Men summit?

Another big story that traveled well below the radar screen involved CVS Health, the large drugstore chain and pharmacy benefit manger, and its decision to partner with Anthem, one of the nation’s largest health insurers, which serves as a hub for many Blue Cross insurers.

The goal, according to Anthem’s chief executive, Joseph R. Swedish, is to better secure control of escalating costs or prescription drugs, as reported by The New York Times.

The new business partnership comes in the midst of a bitter legal battle between Anthem and Express Scripts, its current pharmacy benefits manager, over claims that Anthem had been overcharged.

As the cost of prescription drugs keep escalating, pharmacy benefits managers, which serve as the intermediaries between drug companies and insurance prescription drug plans, are coming under increasing criticism, in part because the deals struck are often kept secret, making it difficult to know what prices the companies are actually charging, according to The New York Times.

Questions: How will the new partnership affect Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Rhode Island and its future pharmacy benefits management? And, does the R.I. Office of the Health Insurance Commissioner need to look into developing a new affordability standard for prescription drugs?

Another huge story, in a report by Eric Lipton at The New York Times, detailed the way that the Environmental Protection Agency has been turned over to industry advocates for chemical firms, with the goal of cutting back regulations on toxic chemicals, pesticides and herbicides.

Lipton wrote in his Oct. 21 story: For years, the Environmental Protection Agency has struggled to prevent an ingredient once used in stain-resistant carpets and non-stick pans from contaminating drinking water.

The chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, has been linked to kidney cancer, birth defects, immune system disorders and other serious health problems.

So scientists and administrators in the EPA’s Office of Water were alarmed in late May when a top Trump administration appointee insisted on the rewriting of a rule to make it harder to track the health consequences of the chemical, and therefore regulate it.

As much as it is a national story, it is also very much a local story, given the ongoing investigation into the toxic chemicals such as PFOAs in the drinking water of Rhode Island residents. The R.I. Department of Health will be returning to Burrillville on Monday, Oct. 23, to discuss what is being done to address elevated levels of the toxic chemical found in the community’s drinking water as well as bottled water distribution.

Questions: Which local news media outlet will be first to make the connection between the health threats posed by PFOA contamination to Burrillville residents and the actions by the Trump administration to make it more difficult to regulate the health impacts? And, which enterprising reporter will connect the dots between Invenergy’s need for cooling water with existing toxic contamination of Burrillville’s drinking water?

Editor's note: The EPA's most recent attempt to insert a political filter around a scientific conversation about climate change surfaced over the weekend, when the agency canceled the speaking appearance of three agency scientists at a conference scheduled for Monday, Oct. 23, focused on the state of Narragansett Bay and Watershed program, to be held in Providence. The question: Will the scientists forbidden to talk at the conference be willing to present their research in an ad hoc gathering ourtside of the actual conference? ConvergenceRI would be happy to join with other sponsors to facilitate such an impromptu gathering.


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