Given the choice to do the right thing on telemedicine bill, the Legislature did the predictable thing — again | Wednesday Morning Coffee

Abortion rights supporters rally at the Pa. State Capitol on Tuesday, 5/21/19, as part of a national day of action (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

Good Wednesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

Watching Tuesday’s state Senate debate over a telemedicine bill that also constrains access to abortion, it was hard not to be reminded of the ancient fable of the scorpion and the frog.

If you don’t know the story, the short form is that it centers on a frog who gives a scorpion a ride across the river, only after being assured he won’t get stung. Halfway through, the scorpion stings the frog and both drown. Asked by the frog, on the way down, why he did it, the scorpion says, “Hey, I have to be myself.”

Hang with us for a minute …

There was widespread agreement in the 50-member chamber Tuesday that expanding access to telemedicine, which allows people to receive distance medical and therapeutic services over the phone or by computer, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, is a good idea. as the Capital-Star’s Elizabeth Hardison reported.

There was far less agreement over House-approved language in the bill restricting access to a list of nearly 60 FDA-approved drugs with potential side effects that may require additional attention from physicians.

As Hardison reports, the list includes buprenorphine and suboxone, two drugs used to treat opioid use disorder, as well as Mifeprex, which terminates a pregnancy by blocking the production of the hormone progesterone.

You can see where this is going.

Democrats saw the inclusion of the list as yet another GOP attack on a woman’s right to choose. And since the language was inserted by House Health Committee Chairwoman Kathy Rapp, R-Warren, the chair of the House’s anti-abortion caucus, and the leader of past ban efforts, including a particularly odious 20-week ban,  their fears were entirely merited.

Dems and their allies went on a PR blitz in advance of the vote. Cast against a backdrop of other attempted bans in the midst of the pandemic, it was effective and justified messaging.

Republicans argued that they weren’t restricting access to a woman’s right to choose —  they were just trying to protect women from a treatment that they wrongly claimed the federal government had found dangerous. One of the most widely used abortion drugs in the United States, Mifeprex has been FDA-approved since 2000.

But there were dubious claims enough to go ’round, including one by Sen.Vince Hughes, D-Philadelphia, who said the drug language was inserted in the midst of the pandemic (it was approved by the House last fall). And in the process of lambasting HughesSen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, repeated the familiar canard that people who support abortion rights are somehow opposed to life, per se.

Pennsylvania Senate Chambers. Source: WikiMedia Commons

In any event, Senate GOP leaders said they had to pass the bill as amended, because if they didn’t it wouldn’t pass the Republican-controlled House on the inevitable concurrence vote. Which rings hollow — the Senate has been more than happy to dump stuff on the House in the past.

Democrats unsuccessfully pushed to have the language removed, making the logical argument that, even if the House passed the bill, Gov. Tom Wolf, an ardent abortion rights advocate, was going to veto it anyway. Because the only math that still matters is 102+26+1.

Senate Majority Leader Jake CormanR-Centre, ever the pragmatist, said on the floor that he hoped Wolf would see the underlying good in the bill, and the assistance it provides to hospitals facing a massive public health crisis. And if he didn’t sign it, Corman said he hoped Wolf would allow it to lapse into law without his signature, as he’s done with other bills he’s found distasteful in the past.

Later in the evening on Tuesday, Wolf announced that he would, indeed, veto the bill. So, thanks to that Rapp-authored amendment, a good and necessary bill that expands healthcare at a critical time, and one that had previously sailed through the Senate (without the poison pill), is going to get scuttled because the GOP Legislature once again put political ideology ahead of practicality.

“Hey, I have to be myself.”

NEW YORK, NY – JULY 09: Elizabeth Owens protests on the steps of New York City Hall in support of the proposed Fairness and Equity Act, which would attempt to reform racially biased arrests in regards to marijuana possession in New York state on July 9, 2014 in New York City. New York State recently passed a new law allowing medical marijuana usage. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

One Toke Over the Line Dept.

Despite notable progress on many criminal justice issues, such as sentencing and prison reform, a new report by the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union is a reminder that there’s still a notable blindspot: Black Pennsylvanians are still more likely than the state’s white residents to be arrested for marijuana offenses.

In fact, even though “the total number of people arrested for marijuana possession has decreased in the past decade, nationally, law enforcement still made 6.1 million such arrests over that period, and the racial disparities in arrest rates remain in every state,” the ACLU noted in a statement accompanying the report’s release.

“Pennsylvania continues to disproportionately target Black communities and entangle hundreds of thousands of people in the criminal legal system every year at a tremendous cost. Even one interaction with the system can bring negative repercussions for months or years,” Reggie Shuford, the state’s ACLU executive director, said in a statement. “As a matter of racial justice and sound public health policy, every state in the country must legalize marijuana with racial equity at the foundation of such reform.”

Among the report’s key findings:

  • Nationally, in 2018, law enforcement made more marijuana arrests than for all violent crimes combined.
  • In 2018, marijuana possession arrests accounted for 42% percent of all drug arrests in Pennsylvania.
  • Despite Pennsylvania legalizing medical marijuana and many municipalities decriminalizing possession, Pennsylvanians are still being arrested for marijuana possession, and Black people are still disproportionately arrested.
  • Fifty six of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties have racial disparities in arrests above the national average.
  • Overall, in states that legalized marijuana, arrest rates decreased after legalization while racial disparities remained.

The new report is based on marijuana possession arrests from 2010 to 2018. It updates a previous ACLU national report published in 2013.

marijuana

As Pennsylvania moves, however slowly, toward finally legalizing recreational marijuana, lawmakers spearheading the push have said that criminal justice reform has to be a key part of any bill. They point to the devastating legal and personal toll exacted by marijuana arrests, which can impact everything from a person’s ability to get a job or a place to live, or to obtain a loan.

A legalization bill, sponsored by Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Alleghenycalls for a “Cannabis Clean Slate,” that would “simultaneously expung[e] records and releas[e] non-violent drug offenders from prison. The bill also would underwrite a “minority and women grant program to help disadvantaged populations benefit from this new industry,” as well as a public information campaign to “to educate the public on adult-use cannabis.”

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who’s also an ardent legalization advocate, has preached the criminal justice reform gospel.

“We have a robust cannabis market in Pennsylvania,” Fetterman said. “Let’s make it legal. Let’s make it taxable, let’s make it safe,” he said during a recent Pennsylvania Press Club appearance. “[Gov. Tom] Wolf and I believe that legalizing it brings regulation. Regulation brings safety and purity and testing and control distribution.”

The new ACLU report also makes its own suggestions for reform — noting the need to thin jail populations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The reforms recommended in the report provide a road map for reducing marijuana arrests and criminalization as governors, prosecutors, judges, and other stakeholders across the country grapple with the harms presented by the public health crisis and take steps to release people from jails and prisons,” the ACLU said in its statement.

The Pennsylvania Capitol building. (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

Our Stuff.

Setting up the second gubernatorial veto in as many weeks, the state Senate approved legislation expanding telemedicine in Pennsylvania that also bans access to a medical abortion drug. Elizabeth Hardison has the details.

As COVID-19 deaths continue to rise, the state Department of Health says it will now report probable cases of the illness, as well as deaths in which the illness is believed to have played a role. The state now reports only confirmed cases and deaths in which the virus was the primary cause of death. Stephen Caruso has what you need to know.

From our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune, former state Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell says she contracted COVID-19 while serving her theft sentence in prison.

On our Commentary Page this morning, former Gov. Ed Rendell says the PA-ACLU and its allies need to drop their lawsuit that’s now blocking the victims’ right amendment known as Marsy’s Law from taking effect.  For Earth Day, energy consultant Mike Molesevich, of Lewisburg, Pa., says the Trump EPA can’t use the pandemic as an excuse for loosening environmental oversight. And Rick Bloomingdale of the PA AFL-CIO says unions will step up to help provide PPE for key workers as the state and nation reopen 

(Image via pxHere.com.)

Elsewhere.
Now that other states have cleared the way, Pa. golfers hope they’ll be hitting the links soon, the Inquirer reports.
With millions of dollars in aid headed to colleges and universities, officials are deciding how to share it with students (Hmmm … lower tuition, maybe …), the Post-Gazette reports.
Bethlehem Area High School has postponed its graduation ceremony, the Morning Call reports.
PennLive looks at the argument against mail-in voting.

Here’s your #Pennsylvania Instagram of the Day:

Delaware had its worst day for COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday, WHYY-FM reports.
WITF-FM spent a day with one Pennsylvanian who’s in long term recovery from COVID-19. 
The Senate has approved a new coronavirus aid package, Roll Call reports.

What Goes On.
The House and Senate are back on a 12-hour call.
Time TBD: Daily COVID-19 briefing.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
We were remiss in not sending best wishes to the PA Post’s Ed Mahon, who celebrated another trip ’round the sun on Tuesday. Best wishes go out this morning to our former PennLive colleague Ron Southwick, who has beaten us to the milestone birthday, and to Megan Healey Augustine, in the office of state Rep. Matt Bradford. Congrats all around, friends.

Heavy Rotation.
This is the trippiest listen you’ll have today. From veteran college radio rockers The Dream Syndicate, here’s ‘The Regulator,’ a 20-minute jam off their new record ‘The Universe Inside.’

Wednesday’s Gratuitous Baseball Link.
MLB.com 
ranks the all-time best shortstops for every team. Let the debate begin.

And now you’re up to date.