Tag Archives: spending

Wis. Supreme Court urged to bar judges from cases involving their donors

The Wisconsin Supreme Court this week postponed an open meeting about whether to bar judges, including those on the high court, from hearing cases involving people who donated significantly to their election campaigns.

The Supreme Court, whose 5-2 majority leans conservative, was scheduled to take up a petition on March 16 from 54 retired Wisconsin judges pushing for the rule change.

But the open meeting was postponed until April 20 after Brian McGrath, a lawyer for the conservative group Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, emailed the court to say his group intends to show that the petition “should be dismissed without a further and wasteful investment of judicial and public resources” and plans to submit its arguments in writing in the next 30 days.

Jenni Dye, a research director at the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, said in a statement she’s not surprised the court accommodated the group.

“The coalition of retired judges asking for this rule change were concerned about corruption or the appearance of corruption on the court,” she said. “That the court would go along with this request from a conservative group is further proof the rules need to change to insulate the justices from influence of special interests.”

The institute’s president, Rick Esenberg, said the court is doing what it should by waiting for input from various points of view.

“What could possibly be the problem with taking the time to listen to a petition from someone with another perspective?” he said.

Esenberg said his group plans to argue that tightening the rules would inhibit free speech by steering individual supporters away from contributing to campaigns and amplifying special interest groups.

“Speech cannot happen without resources,” he said. “If we’re going to have elections, we need to be able to have a public conversation.”

The postponement came the day a national campaign finance watchdog group, the Campaign Legal Center, sent a letter to the court urging it to adopt stricter rules, arguing that Wisconsin lags behind other states in preventing judicial conflicts of interest.

The Brennan Center for Justice also sent the court a letter this week urging a review of the rules.

Currently, donors can give up to $20,000 to Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates and a court can’t force judges to recuse themselves from cases with possible conflicts of interest.

Former Milwaukee County Judge Michael Skwierawski, who helped write the petition, said he’s troubled by the influx of money to judicial campaigns.

“It puts judges in a difficult position when all that extra money is forced on campaigns,” he said, adding that even judges who act in good faith risk having the appearance of their independence tarnished.

“Someone cannot simply pay for a judge’s election and expect the public to believe the judge could be fair on a case involving that party,” he said.

The petition suggested requiring judges to recuse themselves if they have received campaign donations from any parties in the case of varying amounts, ranging from $10,000 for state Supreme Court justices to $500 for municipal judges. The proposal would include in the total any expenditures made to influence the outcome of an election, including those to third parties, though Esenberg expressed doubts about whether this would be viable. If more than four judges are recused for a case, the proposal suggests allowing an appeals court judge or retired Supreme Court justices to hear a case to ensure four judges.

Candidates currently are also free to coordinate with outside interest groups who spend money on so-called issue advocacy but stop short of endorsing specific candidates. That stems from a 2015 Wisconsin Supreme Court case centered on whether Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign illegally coordinated with outside interest groups.

Now-retired Justice David Prosser, one of three conservative judges to halt the investigation, acknowledged at the time that some groups under investigation had helped his campaign, but he refused to recuse himself, saying the spending happened years ago.

 

Election commission eyes spending by group backing Trump

The Federal Election Commission is raising questions about last-minute election expenditures by a pro-Donald Trump super PAC that has already acknowledged making mistakes regarding the sources and amounts of its contributions and whose contributors include an L.L. Bean heiress.

The FEC contends the Making Maine Great Again political action committee may have violated rules that give PACs 24 hours to report expenditures of $1,000 or more in the two to 20 days before an election. Previously, the FEC asked the PAC to clarify contributions that appeared to be too large.

L.L. Bean heiress Linda Bean is an outspoken conservative who ran for Congress in 1988 and 1992 and has opposed gay rights legislation, abortion rights and gun control. Her contributions garnered calls for a national boycott of the Freeport-based outdoors retailer and a tweet from Trump supporting the company.

The PAC originally reported Linda Bean donated $60,000. Revised reports show she contributed $25,000 while her sister gave $20,000. Another $20,000 came from five other previously undisclosed donors including a Westbrook-based company and the PAC’s chairman.

The Associated Press in January brought to light that the FEC was questioning whether Making Maine Great Again was properly registered as a super PAC.

PAC Chairman David Jones contends its paperwork, which it later revised, is now “crystal clear” and all of the donations were legal. He suggested there was confusion over the source of donations because “they came in through wire transfers with no name attached.”

“The FEC has reviewed it and given us their blessing,” Jones said. “They’re 100 percent in our court. They agree it’s not a problem, no wrongdoing whatsoever.”

The FEC has the power to bring penalties but infrequently does. It assessed nearly $600,000 in civil penalties in 2016 compared with $5.5 million in 2006.

In a letter dated Sunday, the FEC said the PAC failed to promptly report $2,250 in last-minute expenditure reports for Atlantic Coast Radio and Tim Pro Media.

“Although the commission may take further action concerning this matter, your prompt response will be taken into consideration,” FEC analyst Kevin Fortkiewicz wrote.

Jones said the PAC will “clarify two small transactions” immediately.

The PAC reported $70,000 in expenditures. That includes roughly $51,000 for radio ads, website work and television ads to Atlantic Coast Radio, ACR host Ray Richardson and a solely owned company he used to buy pro-Trump Time Warner Cable ads for the PAC.

The anti-Trump Grab Your Wallet campaign includes L.L. Bean on its list of companies to boycott. It called for Linda Bean to leave the company’s board.

Linda Bean, who remains on the board, didn’t respond to requests for comment Tuesday. She previously said she donated to the PAC after hearing about vandalism of its signs.

L.L. Bean tries to stay out of politics, and its leaders have made individual donations to both major political parties.

Things to know about Wisconsin’s state budget deficit

The budget Gov. Scott Walker submitted to the Legislature in February balances, as it’s required to under state law. But when that same budget is measured using generally accepted accounting principles, or GAAP, the picture is much different.

With that measurement, the state’s true budget deficit would grow to more than $2 billion by 2019 — the largest it’s been since 2012.

HOW COULD THE BUDGET BE MISLEADING?

For the budget to be truly balanced, the state would have to cut spending by the amount of the GAAP deficit _ the shortfall when the budget is translated into GAAP.

“There are a lot of budget manipulations you can use to make the budget look better,” said Daniel Neely, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor who specializes in governmental accounting.

Namely, the budget is prepared in a way that counts millions and sometimes billions of dollars the state is temporarily holding for taxpayers and smaller units of government as its own.

WHY DOES A DEFICIT MATTER?

A large deficit tends to mean cash reserves are low, which means the state is vulnerable to any kind of economic downtown or political shock, said Todd Berry, president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, a nonpartisan advocacy group.

A large deficit is also one of the reasons credit agencies haven’t raised Wisconsin’s bond ratings in years.

WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH WALKER?

When he was running for governor in 2010, Walker vowed on his campaign website to “require the use of generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) to balance every state budget, just as we require every local government and school district to do.”

During his first few years in office, he did chip away at the deficit, which had ballooned to $3 billion in 2010 under former Gov. Jim Doyle. By 2014, the deficit had dropped to $1.4 billion.

But it inched back up the following year and hovers around $1.7 billion in the most recent estimate. If Walker’s budget is adopted, the deficit would reach $2.1 billion — $365 for every person in the state — by 2019.

HOW DO OTHER STATES COMPARE?

Wisconsin is one of only a handful of states with deficits when using GAAP. It was one of 10 states in 2014, which is the most recent data available from the Department of Administration.

And Wisconsin had the third largest deficit that year, after California and Illinois, two states with well-known, perpetual funding woes.

There are a few contributing factors, Berry said. Wisconsin provides more aid to local governments and tends to solve cash flow issues through excess withholding of income taxes, both of which increase the deficit.

WHAT DOES WALKER THINK ABOUT IT?

Walker’s spokesman, Tom Evenson, did not comment on the fact that Walker’s budget would add to the GAAP deficit. Instead, Evenson highlighted that Walker will have decreased the deficit by more than 30 percent, from $3 billion in 2011 to around $2 billion in 2019.

WHAT ABOUT OTHER LAWMAKERS?

The CPA Caucus, a group of Republican lawmakers who are also certified public accountants, has proposed requiring the state to reduce the deficit or use GAAP several times in the past. Caucus member Sen. Chris Kapenga said it’s possible they will try again this session.

“If I were in the governor’s spot, and I had some things I wanted to get pushed through, it’s an easy way to get what I need done,” Kapenga said. “But we’re saying, ‘Let’s fix the accounting of this so that people know this is how much (that’s) actually going to be spent.’”

A call goes out for women to strike on March 8

Organizers of the January Women’s March are calling for women to strike on March 8 and encouraging them not to spend money to show their economic strength and impact on American society.

“A Day Without a Woman” is the first national action by organizers since the nationwide marches held the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration that drew millions of women into the streets in protest against misogyny, inequality and oppression.

Wednesday’s event coincides with the U.N.-designated International Women’s Day and organizers say they want to “stand with women around the globe” who supported their efforts Jan. 21 with similar protests in cities around the world.

Spokeswoman Cassady Findlay said organizers were inspired by the recent “Day Without an Immigrant” protests held last month.

She said the action is aimed at highlighting the effect of women on the country’s socioeconomics system and demonstrating how women’s paid and unpaid work keeps households, communities and economies running.

“We do all of this and get paid less than men, get sexually harassed, get inadequate family leave,” Findlay said. “We provide all this value and keep the system going, and receive unequal benefits from it.”

Organizers are asking women to wear red to signify love and sacrifice.

It is unclear how many women could participate in the action.

More than a million people, mostly women, turned out nationwide for the Women’s March.

School districts including Alexandria City Public Schools in Virginia and Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools in North Carolina, have canceled classes in anticipation of employee participation.

Some businesses have said they will either close or give female employees the day off.

The event website provides templates for “out of office” emails and an employer letter.

The site had more than a half-million visitors and more than 60,000 had clicked on the letter template by mid-day March 7.

The role of women in American society is significant. According to the U.S. Census, women make up more than 47 percent of the workforce and are dominant in such professions as registered nurses, dental assistants, cashiers, accountants and pharmacists. They make up at least a third of physicians and surgeons, as well as lawyers and judges. Women also represent 55 percent of all college students.

Still, American women continue to be paid less than men, earning 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. The median income for women was $40,742, compared with $51,212 for men, according to 2015 census data.

On the web

A Day Without A Woman: https://www.womensmarch.com/womensday/

In the spirit of love and liberation…

This is the statement from the organizers of the march and A Day Without A Woman:

In the same spirit of love and liberation that inspired the Women’s March, we join together in making March 8th A Day Without a Woman, recognizing the enormous value that women of all backgrounds add to our socio-economic system–while receiving lower wages and experiencing greater inequities, vulnerability to discrimination, sexual harassment, and job insecurity. We recognize that trans and gender nonconforming people face heightened levels of discrimination, social oppression and political targeting. We believe in gender justice.

Anyone, anywhere, can join by making March 8th A Day Without a Woman, in one or all of the following ways:

  1. Women take the day off, from paid and unpaid labor
  2. Avoid shopping for one day (with exceptions for small, women- and minority-owned businesses).
  3. Wear RED in solidarity with A Day Without A Woman

A Day Without a Woman reaffirms our commitment to the Principles of Unity, which were collaboratively outlined for the Women’s March. We are inspired by recent courageous actions like the “Bodega strike” lead by Yemeni immigrant store owners in New York City and the Day Without Immigrants across the U.S. We applaud the efforts of #GrabYourWallet and others to bring public accountability to unethical corporate practices. The Women’s March stands in solidarity with the International Women’s Strike organizers, feminists of color and grassroots groups in planning global actions for equity, justice and human rights.

When millions of us stood together in January, we saw clearly that our army of love greatly outnumbers that of fear, greed and hatred. Let’s raise our voices together again, to say that women’s rights are human rights, regardless of a woman’s race, ethnicity, religion, immigration status, sexual identity, gender expression, economic status, age or disability.

Taking the day template

https://www.womensmarch.com/letter

Out of office template

https://www.womensmarch.com/out-of-office

Reducing food waste is good for the Earth AND your wallet

Remember how it was when you were a kid sitting at the kitchen table and your mother served up a healthy helping of rutabagas? Gross, right?

You slipped them to the family dog or spooned them into a napkin to get them out of sight. But there was no fooling Mom. Your failed sleight-of-hand resulted in a guilt trip and membership in the Clean Your Plate Club.

Fast-forward to today and you’ll find that wasting food has costly consequences extending well beyond your plate.

“Getting food from the farm to our fork eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land and swallows 80 percent of all freshwater consumed in the United States. Yet 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten,” according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The environmental advocacy group says that cutting food waste by just 15 percent would help feed more than 25 million people a year “at a time when 1 in 6 Americans lack a secure supply of food to their tables.”

Alice Henneman, an extension educator with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, puts it another way: “Food tossed is money lost.”

Food rots when dumped in a landfill, and produces methane, a greenhouse gas said to contribute to climate change. Food wasted in stores and restaurants cuts into profits.

But incentives have been introduced to reduce food waste, many of them financial.

“Tax benefits are available for restaurants and stores for donating food,” Henneman said. “People are buying ‘ugly food and vegetables,’ or produce that is misshapen in appearance, in stores because stores are offering them at a discount.”

Michigan State University has been aggressive about fighting food waste in its 10 dining halls, where more than 30,000 meals are served daily.

“Food is expensive,” said Carla Iansiti, sustainability projects manager for MSU’s Culinary Services. “We train our staff members to get the most volume out of their product, only cut what you need for a recipe and be creative about using all the products.”

The university remodeled several of its dining halls to be trayless and stocked them with smaller dishes. “It makes a difference with smaller plates and fewer plates, and people always have the option to come back for more,” Iansiti said.

Additional tips for minimizing food waste:

• Think landfill diversion. Compost your leftovers for better crop or garden production, or mix them with animal feed. Freeze or can surplus garden produce or donate it to a food bank.

• There is value in sizing. Buy things that won’t spoil in quantity.

• Check your garbage. Cook dishes that have proven popular and don’t end up being thrown out.

• Buy often and buy fresh, eating as much as you can before it goes bad. Shop your refrigerator before purchasing more.

• Practice portion control. Share rather than discard leftovers. Ask for a sample when dining out if you’re uncertain about ordering something. Don’t rush through meals.

• Plan “cook-it-up” menus. Check expiration dates and move older food products toward the front of your shelves so they can be used first.

On the Web

For more about reducing food waste, see this Natural Resources Defense Council issue paper.

What the 114th Congress did and didn’t do

Congress has wrapped up the 114th session, a tumultuous two years marked by the resignation of a House speaker, a fight over a Supreme Court vacancy, bipartisan bills on health care and education and inaction on immigration and criminal justice.

The new Congress will be sworn-in Jan. 3.

What Congress passed or approved

  • A hard-fought budget and debt agreement that provided two years of relief from unpopular automatic budget cuts and extended the government’s borrowing cap through next March.
  • The end of a 40-year-old ban on crude oil exports.
  • A rescue package for financially strapped Puerto Rico, creating an oversight board to supervise some debt restructuring and negotiate with creditors.
  • A sweeping biomedical bill that would help drug and medical device companies win swifter government approval of their products, boost disease research and drug-abuse spending and revamp federal mental health programs. It would also include money for preventing and treating abuse of addictive drugs like opioids.
  • The first overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act since it was approved in 1976.
  • A sweeping rewrite of education law, giving states more power to decide how to use the results of federally mandated math and reading tests in evaluating teachers and schools.
  • An aviation bill that attempts to close gaps in airport security and shorten screening lines.
  • An extension of a federal loan program that provides low-interest money to the neediest college students.
  • The USA Freedom Act, which extends some expiring surveillance provisions of the USA Patriot Act passed after the 9/11 attacks.
  • A bipartisan measure that recasts how Medicare reimburses doctors for treating over 50 million elderly people.
  • Legislation reviving the federal Export-Import Bank, a small federal agency that makes and guarantees loans to help foreign customers buy U.S. goods.
  • $1.1 billion to combat the threat of the Zika virus.
  • Defense legislation rebuffing President Barack Obama’s attempts to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and blocking the Pentagon from starting a new round of military base closings.
  • Legislation authorizing hundreds of water projects, including measures to help Flint, Michigan, rid its water of poisonous lead, and to allow more of California’s limited water resources to flow to Central Valley farmers hurt by the state’s lengthy drought.
  • Expanded law enforcement tools to target sex traffickers.
  • Legislation that would tighten several security requirements of the visa waiver program, which allows citizens of 38 countries to travel to the U.S. without visas.
  • Cybersecurity legislation that would encourage companies to share cyber-threat information with the government.
  • A renewal of health care and disability payments to 9/11 first responders who worked in the toxic ruins of the World Trade Center.
  • A bill allowing families of Sept. 11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia in U.S. courts for its alleged backing of the attackers, enacted in Obama’s first veto override.
  • A permanent ban on state and local government Internet taxes.
  • A bill that boosts government suicide prevention efforts for military veterans.
  • Confirmation of Eric Fanning to be Army secretary, making him the first openly gay leader of a U.S. military service.
  • The election of a new House speaker, Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

What Congress did not pass or approve

  • Confirmation of Obama’s pick for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland.
  • Confirmation of 51 federal judges nominated by Obama, including 44 district court nominees and seven appeals court nominees.
  • Gun control legislation.
  • Bills that would have halted federal payments to Planned Parenthood.
  • Comprehensive or incremental changes to immigration law.
  • $1 trillion worth of agency budget bills that will be kicked into next year, complicated by a familiar battle over the balance between Pentagon spending and domestic programs and a desire by Republicans to get a better deal next year from the Trump administration. Congress passed a four-month extension of current spending instead.
  • A bipartisan criminal justice bill that would have reduced some mandatory sentences for low-level drug offenders and increased rehabilitation programs.
  • The first comprehensive energy bill in nearly a decade, which would speed exports of liquefied natural gas and create a new way to budget for wildfires.
  • War powers for Obama to fight Islamic State militants.
  • A bill forcing the president to allow construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada. Obama rejected the pipeline in 2015 after seven years of indecision.
  • The Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multinational trade agreement involving 11 other Pacific Rim countries. Congress did give the president Trade Promotion Authority, allowing Congress to ratify or reject trade agreements negotiated by the executive branch, but not change or filibuster them.
  • Child nutrition bills that would have scaled back the Obama administration’s standards for healthier school meals.

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.

Koch brothers spend $44 million to hijack Wisconsin

For the 2016 election cycle, Charles and David Koch have announced they are on track to spend nearly $900 million to elect politicians that would push their self-serving agenda.

In Wisconsin, the Koch brothers have spent more than $44 million since 2010, helping to foster the rise of Gov. Scott Walker, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Sen. Ron Johnson and to fund political astroturf groups to carry their water.

What the Kochs are doing in Wisconsin is emblematic of what they’re doing across the country, all their political efforts and PR shams boil down to self-interest and higher profit shares. — Eddie Vale, the vice president of the Bridge Project

In Wisconsin, the Koch brothers have helped create one of the worst governors who has allowed the hazardous pollution of our rivers and waterways, not to mention how they’ve been behind the attacks on working families in the state.

The Koch network has invested heavily in lobbying to directly assert their influence on the state’s policy agenda. Since 2010, the Kochs have spent $2.6 million lobbying on dozens of pieces of legislation to further their corporate agenda at the expense of Wisconsin’s workers, environment, students, and families.

In addition, the Koch astroturf network has been on the frontlines fighting for some of the most regressive political efforts in Wisconsin in recent years. They pushed for devastating anti-labor efforts including the silencing of workers, eliminating the prevailing wage, and preventing a raise of the minimum wage.

The Koch-backed ALEC created dozens of pieces of boilerplate legislation, many of which have been incorporated into Walker’s radical education agenda. They fought tooth and nail to turn the state against healthcare reform and block the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. And finally, to protect the full profit-generating capacity of their Wisconsin operations, the Kochs have railed against the EPA and renewable energy development while simultaneously praising the Keystone pipeline and open pit iron mining. Absolutely nothing in Wisconsin could deter the Kochs from their selfish objectives.

Their agenda proves that they are willing to compromise the lives and livelihoods of Wisconsin families, and their record shows that they would even stoop so low as to malign Native Americans and target minority and student voters in fraudulent schemes to achieve their full objectives.

The Kochs are cementing their imprint in Wisconsin this year.

“Already, they have given more than $500,000 to Speaker Ryan’s leadership PAC and are providing cover for Sen. Ron Johnson, who has benefited from millions spent on ads and contributions from the Koch network for his hotly-contested reelection bid. Their investment this year will only help Scott Walker who has announced he will seek a third term as governor.” — — Eddie Vale, the vice president of the Bridge Project

Read the report.

Hard Hats for Hillary: Clinton to roll out $275 billion infrastructure plan to create jobs

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton plans to make job creation the focus of her campaign over the next month, beginning with a $275 billion infrastructure spending plan that will be released this week.

Clinton’s plan to increase the federal government’s spending on infrastructure by $275 billion over the next five years will be fully paid for by changing how businesses are taxed, a campaign aide said, without providing any details.

Of the total amount, $25 billion will be earmarked for an infrastructure bank. Clinton’s campaign estimates her proposals could also encourage private investment that, along with government spending, would inject a total of $500 billion into rebuilding crumbling roads, bridges, buildings and other structures.

“My jobs plan starts with investing in infrastructure,” Clinton said on Sunday at the launch of “Hard Hats for Hillary” in Boston, “not just because infrastructure jobs are good-paying jobs, though they are, and not just because we desperately need to invest in building our future again, which we do, but because investing in infrastructure makes our economy more productive and competitive across the board.”

The hard hats group is made up of union workers in skilled trades such as carpentry who support Clinton’s campaign.

Clinton’s campaign cited a recent study that showed the median wages for infrastructure workers, at $38,810 per year, were several thousand dollars higher than the national median  for all workers.

Clinton’s emphasis on jobs, and infrastructure in particular, is a move to woo working-class voters, who will be critical in the general election in November 2016.

Infrastructure spending is favored by Democrats to spur job growth. U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is Clinton’s chief rival for their party’s nomination, has suggested a $1 trillion infrastructure plan. In President Barack Obama’s 2016 budget, he proposed $478 billion for a six-year surface transportation proposal.

In Boston, Clinton noted the construction industry was hit hard during the financial recession and promised to rebuild “ladders of opportunity available to anybody who is willing to work hard” so workers can enter the middle class.

For more on the 2016 U.S. presidential race and to learn about the undecided voters who determine elections, visit the Reuters website. (here: http://www.reuters.com/election2016/the-undecided/).

Census: Income, poverty numbers stay just about the same

The wallets of America’s middle class and poorest aren’t seeing any extra money, the U.S. Census reported this month, a financial stagnation experts say may be fueling political dissent this campaign season.

The Census Bureau, in its annual look at poverty and income in the United States, said both the country’s median income and poverty rate were statistically unchanged in 2014 from the previous year.

Median income — the point where half of the households have income below it and half have income above it —  showed no statistically significant change, despite the small drop to $53,700 in 2014 from 2013’s $54,500. Median income is a broad measure of the economic health of the middle class.

The poverty rate also showed no statistically significant change. In 2014, the poverty rate in the United States was 14.8 percent, which was the same as in 2013. The poverty rate had dropped in 2013 from 15 percent in 2012, the first such drop since 2006.

There were 46.7 million people in poverty, which is also a statistically similar number from the previous four years. In 2014, a family with two adults and two children was categorized as in poverty if their income was less than $24,008.

Census officials said they weren’t surprised by the flat numbers. “It’s not unusual for it not to go down two years in a row,” said Trudi J. Renwick, chief of the Poverty Statistics Branch in the bureau’s Housing and Household Economic Statistics Division.

The White House focused on the fact that some of the numbers increased, though census officials noted the change was not significant. “Real median income for family households rose $408 in 2014, while real median income for non-family households also rose but overall median household income declined,” administration officials said in a news release.

Republicans argued that the stagnating numbers reveal a need for change to the country’s welfare programs.

“Our current approach to fighting poverty, though well-intended, is failing too many Americans,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican. “This disappointing data, five years into an economic recovery, underscores the need for a new effort to modernize our country’s safety net programs.”

The latest numbers will feed into the 2016 political debate, with both parties trying to position themselves as advocates for the middle class.

The numbers may explain some of the political furor going on in the country, said Lawrence Mishel, president and CEO of the liberal Economic Policy Institute. “Anyone wondering why people in this country are feeling so ornery need look no further than this report,” Mishel said. “Wages have been broadly stagnant for a dozen years and median household income peaked in 1999.”

The Census report also showed that the number of uninsured Americans dropped in 2014, as the big coverage expansion in President Barack Obama’s law took effect. The share of the population uninsured the whole year was 10.4 percent, or 33 million people. When compared to 2013, nearly 9 million people gained coverage. A recent government survey that includes data from the first three months of this year shows that the uninsured rate continued to fall in 2015.

The report also said:

• Asian households had the highest median income in the United States at $74,300 in 2014. The median income for non-Hispanic white households was $60,300, for black households $35,400 and Hispanic households $42,500. The median income for white households decreased by 1.7 percent between 2013 and 2014, while there was no statistically significant change for black, Asian, and Hispanic households.

• The 2014 median earning of men was $50,400, while the median earning for women was $39,600. Neither number was statistically different from 2013.

• The median income of households maintained by the foreign-born increased 4.3 percent while the median income of households maintained by a native-born person declined 2.3 percent. The income of naturalized citizens and noncitizens were not statistically different from the year before.

• The number of men and women working full-time, year-round jobs increased by 1.2 million and 1.6 million, respectively, between 2013 and 2014. Census officials said the change suggested a shift from part-time, part-year work status to full-time, year-round employment.