Massive Opioid Ruling Could Have Substantial Impact For New York

The $572 million judgement against Johnson & Johnson in Oklahoma could have a wide-ranging effect for claims made in other states, including by local governments New York, against manufacturers and distributors of opioids.

The judgement in Oklahoma accounted for only a sliver of the overall national distribution of opioids amid a broader public health crisis surrounding addiction and overdose deaths.

In New York, county governments have filed lawsuits against opioid companies seeking damages in an effort to contain the fallout against the addiction crisis.

New York State Association of Counties Executive Director Stephen Acquario in an interview on Tuesday said the landmark ruling for Oklahoma could have major impact for New York.

“It’s about 2 percent of the opioid epidemic,” he said. “If you bring in a state the size of New York, it could be substantial.”

Acquario compared the public health declarations issued by counties to the push against major tobacco companies in the 1990s. Forty-six states in 1998 were awarded $27.5 billion following a major lawsuit against tobacco companies.

New York’s local governments expect to have their case move forward in March 2020 and have been working with Attorney General Letitia James’s office on the issue.

“This is a very encourage sign that we do see manufacturers and distributors’ accountability,” Acquario said.

Across the country there are more than 2,000 opioid lawsuits that are pending.

Fiscal Watchdog Wins Open Records Case

From the Morning Memo:

The Empire Center for Public Policy on Monday notched a victory in state court Monday after a judge found the names of retired New York City police officers who receive pensions are public records that must be released.

The fiscal watchdog group, which has compiled databases of publicly available pension and salary information of government workers over the years, had filed a series of Freedom of Information Law requests with the Police Pension Fund to request the names and benefit amounts.

But the FOIL requests had been denied, with the fund claiming that releasing the names would expose retired cops to threats.

The over the last five years, the group has won lawsuits that upheld the public nature of pension data, including New York City firefighters.

Judge Melissa Crane in her ruling determined the arguments for disclosing the police pension data are “compelling.”

“Concerned taxpayers have played a crucial role in preventing pension abuse. In 2016, the press published several stories about former NYPD personnel abuse of disability pensions relying on the information the public provided,” she found. “Therefore, retiree names are of significant interest to the general public. Public employees do not enjoy the same privacy rights as private sector employees.”

She added the disclosure could “lead to a higher level of accountability” and discourage the practice of “double dipping” — receiving a pension while also drawing a public salary.

“This decision affirms that the government is the public’s business and the public’s access to records should not be thwarted with baseless arguments for confidentiality,” said the Government Justice Center Executive Director Cam Macdonald, which represented the Empire Center in the case.

“The rationale for public disclosure clearly should apply to the entire police pension database, except for retired undercover officers whose names are appropriately redacted.”

Ending Religious Exemptions For Vaccines Upheld

A state Supreme Court judge on Monday upheld a law approved in June ending New York’s religious exemption for vaccinations, upholding a previous ruling in support of the measure.

The ruling is the second blow to parent anti-vaccination advocates who have challenged the law with the backing of prominent anti-vaccine advocate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Michael Sussman, a longtime legal activist in the last several days. Parents withdrew a separate federal lawsuit challenging the measure.

Parents have argued the measure is a violation of their First Amendment religious liberties.

But Judge Denise Hartman in her ruling on Monday pointed to the “long line” of cases that have upheld the government’s power to vaccinate school-age children and found “the Court, at this early stage of the litigation, see a path for plaintiffs to succeed on the merits.”

Hartman called the preventing of the spread of disease “unquestionably a state interest.”

The measure was approved in June amid a measles outbreak in Brooklyn and Rockland County. The vast majority of New York voters support ending the religious exemption, according to a pair of Siena College polls.

Public health officials say vaccinations for healthy people are needed in order to create herd immunity.

Vaccine Court Ruling by Nick Reisman on Scribd

As Campaign Finance Commission Meets, Advocates, Parties See Stakes

An appointed commission will hold its first meeting today that is the start of a process that could remake New York’s campaign finance laws.

The commission’s top-line charge is to develop the outline of a system of publicly financed campaigns. But the panel, appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the top leaders in the state Legislature, could also alter campaign laws like fusion voting — increasing the stakes for groups like the Working Families Party and the Conservative Party.

The good-government group Reinvent Albany on Wednesday released a list of 18 proposals, including an independent campaign finance board, lower qualifying thresholds for candidates for state offices, a public matching system, lower contribution limits for all offices and party committees as well as “sure winner” provisions limiting public funds to candidates who do not have a serious opponent.

The Green Party, meanwhile, wants a public financing system similar to the one in place for Maine.

“New York needs a system of full public campaign financing like Maine’s,” said the New York party’s co-chair Gloria Mattera.

“The matching funds system proposed by the Governor, with its high donation threshold to participate, was designed to aid incumbents and mostly exclude third party and independent candidates who rely on grassroots support. Commission members have a chance to broaden democracy and limit the corruption epidemic in New York by putting forth a bold system of full public campaign financing based on the support of community members, not the donor class.”

Tedisco Urges Cuomo To Waive License Plate Fee

From the Morning Memo:

Criticism of a plan starting next year to replace blue-and-white license plates on the road at the cost of a $25 fee grew on Tuesday, and state lawmakers are urging Gov. Andrew Cuomo to waive the cost of the replacements.

“While I do not have an issue with updating the design of New York’s license plates, and certainly understand the need to replace the plates that are peeling and ensure they are readable for both law enforcement and automated tollbooths, taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for the inferior product that was produced,” wrote Sen. Jim Tedisco in a letter to Cuomo released Tuesday afternoon.

Tedisco, a Republican who represents the Capital Region, said the state should put the company behind the peeling and crumbling license plates on the hook for funding the replacements.

“If these costs must be recouped, the DMV should go after the manufacturer that issued these faulty plates to the state,” he wrote. “Given the already high cost taxpayers must pay to drive and register a car in New York an additional $45 is too high a burden for taxpayers.”

Cuomo on Tuesday said the replacement plates are needed for them to be visible to cameras as the state transitions to cashless tolling throughout the Thruway system.

With an estimated three million blue-and-white plates on the road, the state could generate as much as $75 million for the replacement effort, which begins next April.

Plates that are 10 years and older are affected under the change.

Renewal Fees Letter to Gov. Cuomo by Nick Reisman on Scribd

DOH Moves To Require More Documentation In Vaccine Exemptions

From the Morning Memo:

Emergency regulations issued late last week by the state Department of Health will require doctors to provide more documentation, including specific justifications, for when children are given exemptions for vaccinations.

The move comes as children next month are returning to school and amid a measles outbreak this year, with more than 1,000 cases — mostly in Rockland County and Brooklyn.

State lawmakers in June approved a measure ending the religious exemption for vaccinations, a law that’s being challenged in state court.

The regulation announced Friday by the Department of Health and the Office of Children and Family Services will require the justification for the exemption of each require vaccination in order for it to be granted.

Physicians were previously only required to submit a statement to schools without specific documentation with stating specifically why immunization would be detrimental to a child’s health.

The new regulation will apply to children statewide. Medical exemptions from vaccinations would still have to be re-issued annually.

“These regulations will ensure that those who have legitimate medical reasons for not getting vaccinated are still able to obtain medical exemptions, while also preventing abuse of this option by those without such medical conditions,” said Health Commissioner Howard Zucker.

“Immunizations are safe and effective and give children the best protection from serious childhood diseases. We will continue to do everything possible to promote public health for all New Yorkers, especially our children.”

The regulation is the latest sign state officials are taking an increasingly active approach in counteracting an anti-vaccination movement amid the measles outbreak this year.

The Department of Health previously launched two public service ads, one featuring Zucker, reassuring parents that vaccines are safe and necessary for children.

Public health officials broadly agree that healthy people should receive vaccinations in order to create herd immunity.

DOH Seeks Medicaid Coverage Approval For People Being Released By Jails, Prisons

State officials are beginning the process to apply for a Medicaid waiver in order to provide health care services to inmates about to be released from county jails and state prisons.

If approved, the services would begin a month before an inmate is released and would cover health conditions, including serious mental illnesses, HIV/AIDS, or opioid use disorder or multiple chronic physical or behavioral health conditions.

“For incarcerated individuals leaving prisons and jails, it is critical that they receive the healthcare services they need for a seamless transition to life outside the correctional facility,” said Health Commissioner Howard Zucker. “Ensuring continuous healthcare coverage for criminal justice involved populations with serious health conditions will make our communities both healthier and safer.”

The public comment period of the waiver application to the U.S. Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services began on Wednesday. The proposal was initially contained in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2019 State of the State announcement.

Services provided if the waiver is approved would include Medicaid-covered benefits like care management, referals and appointments with health providers and linkages to social services and peer supports. In addition, a medication management plan and higher priority medications for chronic conditions.

For criminal justice reform supporters, providing health care services while an inmate is in the process of transitioning to leaving a jail or prison facility and provide them with “bridging care.”

“Approval of this Medicaid waiver would provide incarcerated individuals returning home from prison with a continuity of health care, breaking down a significant barrier to a successful reentry and helping to keep our communities healthy and safe.,” said Acting Corrections and Community Supervision Commissioner Anthony Annucci.

The DOH pointed to people who have been in prison and jail populations having higher rates of visits to emergency rooms and hospitals, saying it would offset any increase in Medicaid spending by reductions in the use of those services.

One in 70 people are hospitalized a week after they are released from a prison or jail, according to the National Institute of Health, while one in 12 people are hospitalized within three months — far higher rates than the average population.

Anti-Vaccine Protesters Converge In Albany As Court Challenge Continues

A challenge to a new state law ending the religious exemptions for vaccinations was heard in an Albany County court today, and anti-vaccine protesters were a visible presence.

Wearing white clothes and with their children in tow, more than a thousand people lined the block around the Albany County Courthouse Wednesday to hear the opening arguments in a case challenging New York’s end to the religious exemption for vaccinations. Jackie Herig traveled from Long Island to attend.

“I’m very hopeful,” Herig said during a demonstration outside of the governor’s office on the second floor of the Capitol. “We have Jesus on our side. So, there’s two things man can’t mess with. Mother nature and God. This is going to be one of those moments where we prevail.”

Others, like John Jackson, said his family would leave the state if the law remains in place.

“I would 100 percent move,” Jackson said. “We relocated here about a year and a half ago for work for my wife’s job. We would leave.”

The case is being argued by longtime legal activist Michael Sussman and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a prominent anti-vaccine advocate. In court, they argued that with the school year starting, parents who oppose vaccinations for their kids won’t be able to send them to school next month. Assemblyman Jeff Dinowitz was skeptical of the argument.

“This was always about health,” Dinowitz said in an interview. “It’s never been about religion. And I would go further and say that for some people who claim the religious exemption, it’s not about that either. It’s about not getting their child vaccinated.”

Dinowitz was the lead sponsor of the legislation, which narrowly passed in the Assembly in May amid a measles outbreak in Brooklyn and Rockland County. He expects the law will be upheld.

“The exact same legislation in California was upheld,” Dinowitz said. “The courts have ruled consistently in favor of legislation like this because public health has to take precedents over other considerations.”

And despite the crowd converging in Albany, a Siena College poll has shown a different story: 84 percent of voters support ending religious exemptions for vaccinations.

Public health experts say vaccines are necessary for healthy people to create herd immunity.

Trailblazers PAC Grows

From the Morning Memo:

A local-level political action committee this summer is expanding, hiring an executive director to bolster its previously all-volunteer staff.

The group Trailblazers PAC in July hired Alexandria Woodard as its executive director. The group was founded by Leslie Danks Burke, a former Democratic state Senate and congressional candidate.

“Now in our third year, we’re thrilled at how Trailblazers PAC has grown to address honest government at the county and municipal-level across the country,” Danks Burke said.

“We know that Alli’s leadership will help Trailblazers reach even more of the terrific number of people and groups working to end corruption in our democratic republic.”

The group’s expansion comes as Reclaim New York, a political advocacy organization funded by conservative investor Robert Mercer, announced last month it would scale back its staff and operations in the state.

“I am incredibly excited for this opportunity to use my academic and professional expertise to make a lasting change in local politics,” Woodard said. “I stand behind the mission of Trailblazers PAC, and it is an honor to work for an organization whose values align with my own.”

More Than 128,000 New Yorkers Use Paid Leave Benefit Last Year

More than 128,000 workers were able to access paid family leave benefits as the state’s new program took effect in 2018, according to a report released Tuesday by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office.

The governor’s office found New York had the highest overall participation rate for paid family leave, the highest percentage of men who used it and the highest percentage of workers who took the benefit cared for a family member with a serious health condition.

The paid family leave program extended coverage to more than two million workers who did not have it under the existing federal Family & Medical Leave Act.

“New York enacted the nation’s strongest paid family leave law so that no one has to choose between losing a job and missing the birth of a child or caring for a sick family member,” Cuomo said in a statement.

“In the first year we are already seeing incredible results – tens of thousands of employees utilized this important benefit and millions more have access to job-protected, paid time off. This initial success demonstrates once again our commitment to not only enacting progressive policies, but also to achieving real long-term results.”

Most workers who took paid family leave in its first year made less than $60,000. The group filing for the most claims made less than $40,000.

The law will continue to phase in by 2021, when workers can be eligible for up to 12 weeks of paid leave benefits at 67 percent of their average weekly wage and capped at 67 percent of the state average weekly wage.