Stephanie Mencimer

Stephanie Mencimer

Reporter

Stephanie works in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. A Utah native and graduate of a crappy public university not worth mentioning, she has spent the last year hanging out with angry white people who occasionally don tricorne hats and come to lunch meetings heavily armed.

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Stephanie covers legal affairs and domestic policy in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. She is the author of Blocking the Courthouse Door: How the Republican Party and Its Corporate Allies Are Taking Away Your Right to Sue. A contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, a former investigative reporter at the Washington Post, and a senior writer at the Washington City Paper, she was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2004 for a Washington Monthly article about myths surrounding the medical malpractice system. In 2000, she won the Harry Chapin Media award for reporting on poverty and hunger, and her 2010 story in Mother Jones of the collapse of the welfare system in Georgia and elsewhere won a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.

Now the Government Shutdown Is Stopping Blood Drives

| Thu Oct. 3, 2013 11:49 AM EDT

Here's how the government shutdown may literally be killing people: by causing blood shortages.

For all the scorn heaped on government employees, some people forget that the faceless bureaucrats who populate Washington are often, in fact, a bunch of do-gooders—people who genuinely believe in the notion of public service. As such, they contribute to the public good in a lot of ways that are taken for granted, like their immense contribution to local blood banks. Thirty-eight percent of the population is eligible to give blood, but only 5 percent actually does so. A lot of that 5 percent apparently works for the federal government. Thanks to the shutdown, in just two days, four federal agency blood drives scheduled by one DC-area health care system have been canceled. The regional Red Cross has had to cancel six others in the Washington region.

Inova Blood Donor Services projects that the cancelations will result in its projected loss of 300 donations that would have helped 900 patients in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. Inova's donated blood collections supply 24 hospitals, which bank much of the blood for inevitable disasters or, say, terrorist attacks. The Red Cross is suffering from similar disruptions, projecting the loss of 229 donations, each of which could potentially save up to three lives. A single major trauma event can easily deplete a hospital's entire blood store. The longer the shutdown goes on, the worse the situation is likely to get.

Rebecca Manarchuck, marketing director for Inova Blood Donor Services, says the Washington area supplies were already low, thanks to reduced collection rates that historically happen in the summertime. The shutdown is only compounding the shortage. Blood drives are carefully scheduled and planned well in advance. Doing them at government offices requires a host of logistical arrangements because of tight security and other considerations, meaning that rescheduling the drives for a later date won't be an easy task. And even then, donated blood can't even be used until three days after it's given to allow time for all the screening tests, resulting in some lag time before it can be given to patients in need.

Inova is attempting to make up for the loss by encouraging people to donate blood at their three centers in Virginia. (The Red Cross is also encouraging people to donate at local chapters.) Members of Congress are encouraged to make an appointment here and here

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Snail-Mail Health Insurance Campaign Gets Overwhelming Response in Arkansas

| Wed Oct. 2, 2013 11:27 AM EDT

Direct mail is a staple of dying print magazines and donation-seeking nonprofits. Such campaigns generally rely on sending enormous quantities of junk mail in the hopes of getting maybe a 3 percent return on the effort. So when the Arkansas Department of Human Services recently sent out 132,000 one-page letters to uninsured, low-income folks in the state offering them free health insurance through Arkansas's new privatized Medicaid program (a red-state version of expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act), tea partiers in the legislature derided the effort as a waste of time and money. 

But as a sign of how desperate people are for affordable health care, the department ended up getting more than 55,000 responses to the snail-mail campaign—an unheard of 40 percent return. The Arkansas Times reported that not only did all those people want to enroll in the health care plan, but the outreach effort identified more than 2,500 kids who were eligible for traditional Medicaid but weren't enrolled. They are now signed up.

The state is fortunate that direct mail is working out so well, as other efforts to let people know about their new health insurance options are being sabotaged by Tea Party GOP state legislators. Backed by the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, these elected officials are still trying to prevent the state's human services department from using $4.5 million in federal funds to advertise the offerings of Arkansas's new insurance exchange, where starting this week, people can sign up for subsidized private health plans.

AFP, whose affiliate has been buying creepy ads telling young people not to get health insurance, has been lobbying hard to keep the state from advertising the new insurance offerings available under the Affordable Care Act, complaining mightily that "Arkansans are being forced to pay for advertising that tries to convince the state to give-in-to Obamacare." They fret that the federal funds will pay for ads in such places as—gasp!—the Arkansas Times and generate irritating pop-up ads on social media, search engines, and sites like Pandora radio. But pop-up ads can't hold a candle to the irritations of being uninsured. It's clear that, as the direct mail effort proved, AFP is mostly afraid that once people know they can get insurance, they're going to take it, and happily.

Obama Official May Run Against Florida's Anti-Obamacare AG

| Tue Oct. 1, 2013 4:28 PM EDT
Florida's attorney general Pam Bondi, up for reelection next year.

Florida attorney general Pam Bondi has been a lightning rod in a state that's got quite a few of them. A tea party favorite and occasional Fox News commentator, Bondi played the lead role in Florida's attack on the Affordable Care Act. Bondi's office filed suit, later joined by other states, to challenge the law's constitutionality. While the suit failed to derail the entire law, Bondi was wildly successful in helping prevent millions of poor people from getting health insurance through an expansion of Medicaid provided in the law. (The Supreme Court ruled that the Medicaid expansion could not be forced on the states and only expanded voluntarily. Florida and 12 other states then rejected it.)

On that stellar record, Bondi has been campaigning hard for reelection, even going so far as to postpone an execution so she could attend a fundraiser last month. Democrats would clearly love to kick her out of office along with Republican governor Rick Scott, who's facing a tough race next year. Polls are scarce as Democrats have yet to identify a challenger for the AG job (though Bondi seems to come out ahead in a TMZ "Who'd You Rather?" poll matching her up against California AG Kamala Harris, dubbed the "best looking attorney general in the country" by President Obama.) But one person thought to be lining up against Bondi is George Sheldon, currently the Acting Assistant Secretary for Children and Families at the US Department of Health and Human Services.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced last week that Sheldon would be stepping down and returning to Florida this month, and he has reportedly been feeling out donors and state politicos about the prospect of a Bondi challenge. TMZ is not likely to feature Sheldon in any "who's hotter" polls, but he knows Florida politics. Sheldon began his career in the state legislature and later served as deputy attorney general and head of the state's department of children and families. At HHS, he's been involved in campaigns to combat human trafficking and pushed to limit the use of psychotropic drugs on juveniles in foster care. Unfortunately, none of this is particularly sexy, and Sheldon himself would make a very mild-mannered foil to Bondi's firebrand.

His "hot" problem may extend to fundraising. Sheldon has made two previous efforts at winning statewide office, including a run for attorney general in 2002 in which he finished third in the Democratic primary. His tenure in the Obama administration may raise his profile a bit this time around, but given his own role in defending Obamacare, that may not be much of a credential with Florida's conservative voters. 

 

 

Behind Georgia's War on Trees

| Tue Sep. 17, 2013 12:32 PM EDT
Georgia trees will die to ensure motorists see billboard like these.

Georgia is a strange place. As Mother Jones' Tim Murphy has explained, the next senator from the state is likely to be nuts. The state GOP leadership not long ago met to discuss a secret, Obama-mind-control plot. And the state regularly makes headlines for taking extreme measures to oppose any sane government efforts to do anything, well, sane. Various cities, for instance, have attempted to mandate gun ownership by residents, just to spite the gun-control activists looking to tamp down mass shootings. Now, the state is making news for its opposition to trees.

Essentially thumbing its nose at residents who might like to make the air cleaner, combat global warming, or just have a prettier state, the Georgia legislature enacted a law in 2011 that banned trees within 500 feet of a billboard. In Georgia, home to 16,000 billboards, that could could be just about anywhere. The law, upheld this May by the Georgia Supreme Court, actually allows billboard companies to clear-cut offending trees, including those on public property, that might blot out a "Have you been injured in an accident?" or "Vote Republican" message. Billboard companies can also prevent new trees from being planted that might obstruct motorists' views of their ads. 

Although tree activists in the state had opposed the law, it has remained under the radar until recently, when sustainable development groups in Atlanta discovered that the law could eviscerate local plans, long underway, to make the city more pedestrian friendly. Atlanta has some of the worst traffic in the country and isn't especially well known for its walkability ratings or scenic boulevards. But a few years ago, Livable Buckhead, an Atlanta neighborhood sustainable development group, spearheaded new zoning regulations that would change all of that. The group spent the last couple of years developing landscaping plans and streetscaping measures to go along with some new development that includes biking and walking trails, conservation, and greenspace with lots of pretty, leafy trees.

Now, though, those plans and the zoning regulations that went with them are in jeopardy thanks to the billboard lobby, which, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitutionspent about $200,000 persuading Georgia lawmakers to give it power over city streetscapes. The billboard companies will have veto power of those local projects, and trees that have already been planted may have to be cut down to placate the billboard owners and all of those crazy Georgians who want to make sure no driver misses their signs comparing Obama to Hitler, fall foliage be damned.

On Monday, the Atlanta city council passed a resolution protesting the elevation of billboards over trees on public space, but it's unclear if it will have any binding impact. Denise Starling, the executive director of Livable Buckhead who helped shepherd through the legislative changes to increase the city's tree canopy told BuckheadView, “The community has worked hard and spent a lot of money over the years to develop the zoning standards and projects that create a walkable, pedestrian friendly environment—of which trees are a vital component. I personally find it shocking to have to seek permission from billboard owners to adhere to adopted zoning codes...I am confident the billboard owners will see that the value of those boards is highly dependent upon the value of the land in the community--which we are enhancing—and work with us to get a workable solution."

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