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This Week in Massachusetts – September 13

Posted on September 13, 2022

Biden Outlines Infrastructure Package for Logan Airport

Boston Globe – President Biden on Monday touted the bipartisan infrastructure law at Logan International Airport, which is receiving $50 million from the massive federal spending package for upgrades to its international terminal, ahead of a speech this afternoon in Dorchester on his Cancer Moonshot Initiative.

The airport “is part of a system that moves goods and services for key industries in the area like medical supplies, technology products, and seafood,” Biden said. “We’re creating a modern terminal worthy of America’s city on the hill.”

The bipartisan infrastructure law funnels a total of $62 million to Logan Airport, including $50 million for the international terminal and $12 million to roadways around the airport. The upgrades will create 5,900 jobs, officials said.

Boston Approves Residency Requirement Waivers for Future Hires for Certain Jobs

Boston Herald – Boston is temporarily lifting the residency requirements for some hard-to-hire for city jobs.

The Residency Compliance Commission agreed to a three-year dropping of the requirement that new hires for the following jobs would have to live in the city: bus monitors and cafeteria workers at Boston Public Schools, 911 dispatchers and call-takers at Boston Police and arborists in the parks department.

All of these gigs have been difficult to hire for due to a few different reasons, according to city officials. For one, the two BPS jobs simply don’t pay very well. While the police civilian call-taker and dispatcher jobs pay a bit better, they’re notoriously grueling for the income. Also, the arborist jobs are extremely specialized, and the city hasn’t found many city-dwelling folks who have the necessary tree expertise.

These are roles that the city has had a hard time filling for years, according to officials. And those struggles are well-documented: The Herald last year wrote about the severe shortages in the cops’ 911 center.

The city says that granting these waivers will allow it to fill these long-vacant positions quickly.

The Residency Compliance Commission’s typically tasked with investigating whether individual city employees are breaking the rules about living in Boston, as they’re generally required to except if exempted by union contract. The commission also can vote to grant waivers to individuals; doing so for a job category like this is irregular.

The city said the waiver also would have a built-in end clause for each job if 85% of the positions in it get filled, though it would grandfather in anyone who’d previously been hired under the waiver. After three years, when the waiver runs out, everyone hired under it would have to move to the city if they want to keep the jobs.

What Will Happen to Gas Prices this Fall? The Answer Could Shape the Midterms

Boston Globe – Despite the recently announced minor cutback in oil production by OPEC and its allies, gas prices are expected to continue declining through the fall in a boost for Democrats in the congressional midterm elections.

The party’s political outlook has improved significantly in recent weeks in part because prices at the pump have steadily eased from their record highs of more than $5 a gallon in June. The OPEC move is viewed by industry analysts as minor and by Election Day in November, the average national price could be closer to $3 a gallon than $4.

But Democrats can’t count on that.

Global oil supplies remain so tight and the geopolitical environment so uncertain that it wouldn’t take much to send gas prices up again. That could swing the mood of voters back in favor of Republicans as they continue to blame President Biden and the Democrats for driving up gas prices, which have helped fuel high inflation.

“Many Americans would probably think, ‘Hey, everything’s good. We’re in the clear. We made it through summer. There’s no supply issues,’ ” said Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis for price-tracking firm GasBuddy. “The problem is all of those issues could surface very quickly.”

The Atlantic hurricane season lasts until Nov. 30, and a major storm in the Gulf of Mexico could disrupt oil drilling and refining in the region, causing gas prices to rise. Also, the United States and its allies are considering a proposal to cap the price of Russian oil as part of their response to the invasion of Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin could counter by cutting off his country’s oil exports, which would send gas prices soaring around the world.

“There’s still a lot of uncertainty in the market,” said Andy Lipow, president of Lipow Oil Associates, a Houston-based consulting firm.

Massachusetts Forms Coalition to Fight for ARPA-H Headquarters

Axios – Massachusetts leaders are stepping up their fight to convince the Biden administration to headquarter a pioneering health research agency in the Bay State.

MassBio president Joe Boncore announced Monday the launch of a coalition to campaign to host the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H).

The Coalition for Health Advances & Research in Massachusetts (CHARM), led by a steering committee of 14 business and government entities, is asking the state’s leading health companies and institutions to sign a letter that it will send to President Biden making its pitch to host the new research agency.

ARPA-H is aimed at making health care breakthroughs, like treatments for Alzheimer’s and diabetes.

The launch came as Biden visited Boston Monday to deliver his “cancer moonshot” speech at the JFK Library on the 60th anniversary of President Kennedy’s moonshot speech.

The coalition aims to make Massachusetts stand out above all other states vying for the ARPA-H headquarters, an institution that would solidify Greater Boston’s status as one of the world’s premier life-sciences hubs.

The state’s biotech industry exceeds 100,000 workers, more than twice as many as 18 years ago, according to MassBio’s industry snapshot released last month.

And Massachusetts-based companies captured about one-quarter of all venture capital funding for pharmaceuticals in the U.S. in the first half of the year, per MassBio.

The president wants to get into the business of fighting the worst diseases, a battle Massachusetts is well suited for, Boncore tells Axios.

“What Massachusetts is known for is the small innovative companies that are taking on the hardest science and ultimately coming out with cures that will change the course of humanity, change health care and help patients,” he says.

Boston Startup Gets New Money to Make Industrial Robots Easier to Use

Boston Globe – While many robotics startups are focused on developing new hardware, Realtime Robotics in Boston is trying to make all of those robots safer and easier to use through software.

On Thursday, the five-year-old company said it had raised $14.4 million in a deal led by Soundproof Ventures, Heroic Ventures, and SIP Global Partners.

Robots are in widespread use in manufacturing, logistics, and other industries. But programming robots to perform complicated tasks, such as welding multiple joints on a car or moving around a warehouse among human workers, is still tricky. Realtime’s software allows companies such as Sony and Toyota to outline the tasks a robot should perform without needing to program each step.

“If you open your fridge to reach for a beer, your hand doesn’t smack into the side, you don’t knock over other things, you don’t get your fingers tangled,” said George Konidaris, chief roboticist and cofounder of Realtime. “Robots don’t have that basic physical intelligence, the mastery of space, we get from our motor cortex.”

The problem has bedeviled the robotics industry for decades. Automakers, for example, employ teams of hundreds of programmers to choreograph how multiple robots can work together on an assembly line. Changing one step in the process can require revising an entire program.

RMV Announces Change to Inspection Stickers

WHDH – A major change is coming to the Registry of Motor Vehicles’ inspection sticker protocol this fall.

Starting Nov. 1, cars that pass their inspections will get a new sticker with the month the last sticker expired, rather than the month of the inspection. Any car owner who’s late getting their car inspected– over a year from the last inspection– will no longer get a sticker from the month of the new inspection.

Cars with stickers that expired the prior year will receive a January sticker of the current year the car is inspected, regardless of the month the car was inspected in the prior year. Those who get their cars inspected on time will still receive the sticker with the current month.

“Safety of the Commonwealth’s roadways is the most important reason for motor vehicle inspections. Vehicle inspections check tire treads, ensure all light signals are working and even check the front ball joints. It is the law that motor vehicles are inspected every year,” said Registrar of Motor Vehicles Colleen Ogilvie.

“Vehicle owners are required to have the inspection done one year from the month the last inspection was done. We are asking all vehicle owners to place safety first and make sure to check your inspection date, and don’t be late.”

Mass. Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Martin Suuberg stressed the importance of testing emission control systems annually.

Starting Oct. 1, car owners will also no longer receive a printed inspection report when a car passes inspection to reduce paper waste. Instead, people can access and print their reports by going online to Mass Vehicle Check or scanning a QR code on a poster at the inspection site.

How a Railroad Strike Could Send Food Prices Soaring

The Hill – The nation’s supply of food could take a hit if railroad workers go on strike, driving up prices at the grocery store and limiting U.S. grain exports to countries facing famine.

As soon as next week, 115,000 freight rail workers could walk out if they cannot reach a new contract with railroads, potentially shutting down the national rail network that transports 20 percent of all grain shipments.

While unions say they want to avert a strike, and Congress has the power to block it, the U.S. food sector is rattled by the prospect of a national railroad shutdown in the middle of peak harvest season.

Even a short-lived interruption “would create a devastating ripple effect” on the nation’s fragile supply chains, said Lee Sanders, senior vice president of government relations and public affairs at the American Bakers Association.

“Rail-dependent facilities would be unable to receive materials and ingredients, and millions of Americans a day would be unable to receive the baked goods they rely on to feed themselves, their families, and communities,” she said.

A railroad shutdown in mid-September would quickly overwhelm grain storage facilities, leaving farmers with few options to store their crops and boosting the chance of spoilage. Many grain processors would shut down, raising the price of bread and other common items, while farmers would be saddled with huge crop quantities and lower commodity prices.

‘One Step at a Time,’ Healey Says about Funding Transportation Transformations

Boston Globe – Union Station is the gleaming transportation hub of Western Massachusetts, bringing together trains, regional and long-distance buses, and a bike share system in the state’s third-largest city at a clean, renovated station.

But the only direct, convenient way to get there from Boston on Friday mid-morning was to drive. There was just one direct, Boston-to-Springfield train available, which didn’t leave until afternoon, and the only direct buses ran just early in the morning and evening.

Gubernatorial candidate Maura Healey said she’ll change that by providing reliable passenger rail service between the cities: the ever-elusive East-West Rail. She also promised on Friday a panoply of other transportation transformations.

And yet . . . the Democratic nominee was not specific about how she would fund them. Regional transit authorities, including the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, are facing large gaps in their operating budgets as soon as next summer when federal pandemic relief funds run out. And the T has recently cut bus and subway service as it deals with several federal orders to improve safety and staffing.

Outside of supporting a ballot initiative to impose a surtax on the state’s highest earners, dubbed the “millionaire’s tax,” that’s meant to fund transportation and education, and pledging to aggressively seek new federal infrastructure funds, Healey wouldn’t say if she is considering raising taxes or imposing new fees in the form of congestion pricing or additional app-ride company levies, policies tried elsewhere to raise money for transit.

Sustainability, Climate and Energy

Massachusetts Reports 6,623 New COVID Cases

MassLive – State health officials on Thursday reported 6,623 confirmed COVID cases from the last week, while the Boston-area COVID wastewater tracker shows a virus jump could be on the way.

The Boston-area virus sewage data has been on the rise in the last week. The south-of-Boston daily average is now 632 copies per milliliter, which is a 36% increase from 465 copies a week ago. The north of the city daily average is up to 613 copies, a 57% spike from 391 copies last week.

The COVID wastewater tracker throughout the pandemic has been the first indication of cases at the community level, and the data has helped predict surges.

The state’s daily average of 946 COVID cases from the last week is a drop from the daily rate of 1,113 infections during the previous week. Infection counts have been trending down in recent weeks.

The positive test average had been climbing as the omicron BA.5 subvariant took over, but the positive test rate is now going down. The seven-day positive test rate is now 7.13%, a drop from 7.61% last week.

The very infectious BA.5 variant is now responsible for 89.9% of new cases in New England, according to this week’s update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health is now reporting its COVID data on a weekly basis, reflecting the evolving COVID response in the state. Previously, the data had been reported five days a week.

The state reported 57 new COVID deaths over the past week, bringing the state’s total to 21,536 recorded deaths since the start of the pandemic. The daily average of deaths is now nine, which is much lower than the daily death rate during the initial omicron surge.

European Manufacturers Reel from Russian Gas Shutoff

The Wall Street Journal – European industry thrived for decades on a steady supply of cheap Russian gas, which flowed uninterrupted throughout the Cold War and other times of tension between Moscow and the West.

Since invading Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has weaponized the country’s vast stores of energy to undermine support for Kyiv. He turned off the taps to the biggest natural-gas pipeline, Nord Stream, completely this month.

The impact has pushed Europe to the brink of recession and threatens to inflict lasting harm on its manufacturing businesses. Unlike the U.S., Europe leaned on manufacturing and heavy industry to keep its economy chugging in recent decades. A bigger chunk of its economy comes from the likes of steelmakers, chemicals producers and car makers.

Europe’s energy crisis has left few businesses untouched, from steel and aluminum to cars, glass, ceramics, sugar and toilet-paper makers. Some industries, such as the energy-intensive metals sector, are shutting factories that analysts and executives say might never reopen, imperiling thousands of jobs.

The question is whether the current pain is temporary, or marks the start of a new era of deindustrialization in Europe. The bloc has scoured the world for alternative gas supplies, striking deals to buy gas from the U.S., Qatar and elsewhere. But the continent might never again have access to the cheap Russian gas that helped it compete with the resource-rich U.S. and offset high labor costs, rigid employment rules and stringent environmental regulations.

In the city of Žiar nad Hronom, Slovakia, built around a 70-year-old aluminum factory that supplies car-part makers across the continent, some fear for their financial future. “This is probably the end of metal production in Europe,” said Milan Veselý, who has worked at Slovalco, majority owned by Norway’s Norsk Hydro ASA, all his adult life, following in his parents’ footsteps.

Slovalco is among the companies hit by volatility in electricity prices across Europe caused by low Russian supplies of power-generating gas. For years the factory was by far the biggest buyer of power in Slovakia, consuming 9% of the country’s electricity, most of it from nuclear energy. Before energy prices started rising last year, Slovalco paid about €45 (about $45) for each megawatt-hour of power. In 2022 so far it has paid €75, in a deal locked in last year. In late August, prices hit €1,000 across Europe.

Slovalco didn’t renew its power contract for 2023, which would have cost €2.5 billion euros at the recent peak in power markets. Mr. Veselý, the plant’s manager, is winding down primary-metals production, leaving a small recycling operation. He is also dismissing 300 of 450 workers. “The volatility of the price of electricity these days—it’s crazy,” he said. “This is the way we are actually killing industry.”

Factory curtailments and closures have saved fuel in Europe’s quest to reduce demand. Along with the hunt for non-Russian supplies, that’s enabled the European Union to sock away enough gas to fill over 80% of its storage capacity, probably enough to get to spring without government-enforced quotas even if Mr. Putin cuts supplies to zero, analysts say.

The judgment most governments have made is that slowing and shutting factories now is preferable to cutting off power to hospitals and schools over winter. Europe consumed 10% less gas than the average for the time of year in August, according to commodities-data firm ICIS. The EU is aiming for demand reductions of 15%.

The factory closures come at a ruinous cost. Companies in energy-intensive industries say they face going bust this winter without government support. Complex supply chains in sectors such as the auto and food industries are getting gummed up, adding to inflationary pressures just as pandemic snarl-ups show signs of easing.

Norwegian fertilizer giant Yara International ASA, which uses gas as an ingredient, has cut crop-boosting ammonia production by 65% across its European factories.

“We think about things we wouldn’t dare to think about a year ago,” said Michael Schlaug, general director of Yara’s Sluiskil facility in the Netherlands, which stopped the second of three ammonia plants in late August. Engineers are rejigging machinery to accommodate imported ammonia with higher water content as the facility turns to shipments from the U.S., Trinidad and elsewhere to replace products it previously made.

Dutch fertilizer company OCI NV is importing more ammonia through Rotterdam. It plans to triple its capacity at the port by next year and is expanding its Beaumont, Texas, facility to produce ammonia that can be transported to Europe and Asia.

“It really tips the scales in the U.S.’s favor,” Chief Executive Ahmed El-Hoshy said of energy costs.

A reduction of Europe’s industrial capacity would deepen the reliance on materials and parts made overseas at a time when governments are striving to bring supply chains for renewable energy, electric vehicles and military arms closer to home.

Metals producers, which require significant power to break down and form chemical bonds, are at the front of the crisis. Electricity prices have more than doubled this year, propelled by high gas prices, trouble in France’s nuclear fleet of power plants and low hydropower generation.

ArcelorMittal SA, one of the world’s largest steelmakers, will close a blast furnace in Bremen and a so-called direct reduction plant in Hamburg that produces sponge iron, used to create crude steel. In Germany, ArcelorMittal had already reduced gas demand by about 40%, compared with what it planned to consume at the start of the year.

“We have never had such upheavals in the energy prices,” said Reiner Blaschek, chief executive of the company’s German business. “Everything that is associated with enormous volatility in the short term is for us as a commercial enterprise, to put it mildly, pure poison.”

“You have to reinvent the whole energy supply chain on the go,” Mr. Blaschek added.

ArcelorMittal Germany has been buying sponge iron externally from the U.S. instead of making it locally using gas.

Zinc stockpiles have almost run out in the EU, leading customers to import metal from China, according to metals industry lobby group Eurométaux. Analysts say European output of primary aluminum is dying out, leaving the continent with recycling operations that produce metal suitable for industries such as packaging, but not for wheel hubs, brakes or parts for airplanes.

Aluminum smelters are finding themselves not able to renew their power contracts. Companies need 15 megawatt-hours of power to produce a metric ton of primary aluminum, costing €9,000 at recent electricity prices, while a metric ton can be sold for less than €2,500, according to Germany’s metal association, WV Metalle.

“We need immediate emergency aid now, otherwise we are threatened with deindustrialization in Germany,” said Franziska Erdle, WV Metalle’s general manager.

Alcoa Corp.’s San Ciprián aluminum plant in Spain, Glencore PLC’s Portovesme zinc smelter in Italy and Trafigura Group’s zinc factories in the Netherlands, France and Belgium have curbed or closed production. Half of the EU’s aluminum and zinc capacity is offline, on top of curtailments in silicon and alloys of iron, Eurométaux said in a letter to EU officials this month.

Aluminum stacks prepared for export at Slovalco. Photo: Michaela Nagyidaiova for The Wall Street Journal

Tom Price, head of commodities strategy at Liberum, likens the shock to the surge in energy prices that killed off Japan’s aluminum industry in the 1970s. “This is such a severe event and Europe’s industrial base has become very heavily dependent on Russia for cheap energy inputs,” he said. “It may not be able to come back.”

Lower output from Europe’s factories threatens to cascade through supply chains. Auto makers have been hit both in their own dependence on gas for power and heat and indirectly through supply issues. Volkswagen AG said it has been stockpiling glass products, such as windows and windshields, fearing a shortage of gas could hit glassmakers.

A spokeswoman for Safran SA, a French maker of aircraft engines and defense-related equipment, said a fragile supply chain had limited the company’s ability to raise production. So far it has been able to buy metal from existing suppliers but the company is monitoring the situation, she added.

In food production, sugar factories are powered by natural gas. Germany’s federal competition authority said this month the country’s four producers would be allowed to cooperate if supplies are cut off, for example by making capacity available to each other. If the sugar plants stop, large parts of the beet harvest would likely rot and prices would rise for consumers already dealing with food inflation.

The companies are racing to find alternative energy supplies to maintain the sugar output. Securing them is difficult because it requires new logistics and storage facilities, said Südzucker AG, one of the four companies.

Some factories, such as zinc manufacturers, can restart quickly when the economics add up again. For others, including glass and aluminum makers, reopening is a lengthy and expensive process that may never make financial sense.

Even toilet-paper makers are feeling the crunch. Hakle GmbH, a German toilet-paper and hygiene-product maker this month declared itself insolvent and sought protection from creditors because it could no longer raise prices enough to offset higher paper costs due to energy prices.

On the floor at Slovalco.Photo: Michaela Nagyidaiova for The Wall Street Journal

At Slovalco in Slovakia, Mr. Veselý sold the electricity the company had bought for the rest of the year, netting €160 million to spend on taxes and a possible restart in the future. Operators set about disconnecting podlike metal cells that turn white alumina powder into molten aluminum in the vast hall that is the factory’s nerve center. The hangar is also the factory’s biggest vulnerability, because the cells depend on a 285,000-amp current.

Ten of the 226 cells remain in action, but are due to wind down by the end of the year. Firing the factory up again would require replacing their electrical connections—a process that would take a year and cost up to €90 million, Mr. Veselý said.

“Everyone is concerned,” said Tomáš Chrien, who has worked at Slovalco since 1993 and is an operator in the building next door, where molten aluminum is fashioned into solid cylinders. Marián Hárezník, a processes expert, said the job brings a good, stable salary and a sense of camaraderie. “No one expected we would be in a situation like this—ever,” he said.

‘Everyone is concerned,’ said Slovalco operator Tomáš Chrien.Photo: Michaela Nagyidaiova for The Wall Street Journal

Municipal official Martin Baláž said his big worry is the 2,500 jobs at companies that supply and service Slovalco. At one local firm, Remeslo Strojal, s.r.o., 50 employees whose job was to maintain the factory’s cells are looking for new work, he added.

Branislav Strýček, chief executive of utility Slovenské Elektrárne, A.S., which supplied power to Slovalco, worries many more Slovak firms will shut down because he estimates more than half haven’t procured power for 2023.

“These electricity prices are sick,” he said, adding that he is in the odd position of running a utility and wanting the government and EU to take measures to limit prices. “Your customers will not survive so you’ll have no one to deliver [to].”

Taxation and Budget

Opposing Camps Evenly Matched on Millionaire Tax Fight

Commonwealth Magazine – It’s unions versus businesses in a high-stakes – and so far evenly matched – battle to raise the tax rate on high-income earners.

This November, Massachusetts voters will decide whether to pass a constitutional amendment that would raise the tax rate by 4 percentage points on income more than $1 million. If the initiative passes, the extra tax money would be earmarked for education and transportation.

A coalition made up primarily of unions has raised nearly $10 million this year so far for its campaign to pass the amendment, while a group of mostly business people opposing the tax hike has raised over $9 million.

According to campaign finance reports submitted to the Office of Campaign and Political Finance on Friday, the pro-tax committee Fair Share Massachusetts raised $9.9 million this year in cash with another $1.5 million worth of in-kind contributions.

While there are around 300 smaller individual donations, the bulk of the money comes from unions, especially teachers’ unions. The American Federation of Teachers gave over $1 million, the Massachusetts Teachers Association contributed $4.6 million, and the National Education Association, the parent union of the MTA, gave over $4 million. Around $485,000 came from SEIU affiliates. Other unions and liberal organizing groups also donated.

The organization’s expenditures reflect a large investment in staff, indicating that the group is preparing for an on-the-ground field campaign over the next two months.

Closeout Budget on Ice as Summer Recess Continues

WWLP – Lawmakers adjourned for the weekend Thursday without taking up a $1.6 billion spending bill to close the books on fiscal year 2022, and Comptroller William McNamara is hoping they will complete the full legislative process by the end of the month so he can meet his own deadline.

McNamara said Thursday his team “should be in a good position” to file an annual financial report by Oct. 31, as required under state law, if the House and Senate complete the full range of action required for the closeout supplemental budget — a bill now intertwined with deliberations about tax relief — in September.

“That includes both the action of the Legislature and naturally any ongoing process of veto or other adjustments that happens afterward,” McNamara told the Comptroller Advisory Board. “We never know what surprises are there, but essentially, if that action takes place and we have a three-week period or so (to finish the report), we can be on or very, very close to the due date.”

Democrats who lead the Legislature have developed a pattern in recent years of delivering the annual budget late and also not showing much urgency when it comes to tying up loose ends after fiscal years conclude.

The closeout budget is an annual occurrence, and this time around debate could be supercharged by a nearly $3 billion pot of funding required to be returned to taxpayers.

The $1.6 billion closeout budget bill Baker filed Aug. 31 sets aside about $2.94 billion that his administration believes it will need to steer back to Bay Staters under a 1986 tax cap law, often referred to as Chapter 62F.

Health Care

McGovern Touts Lower Med Prices, Health Costs from Inflation Reduction Act

Daily Hampshire Gazette – Lower out-of-pocket expenses for prescription drugs for Medicare beneficiaries and reduced premiums for health insurance are among financial benefits area residents are getting from recent federal legislation, according to reports released by U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern on Thursday.

McGovern, who chairs the House Rules Committee, issued the reports related to the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, signed into law by President Joe Biden. One element of the law allows, for the first time, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to negotiate prices for high-cost drugs.

In a statement, McGovern calls the Inflation Reduction Act “transformational legislation” that shows Democrats and Biden are putting people over politics to control health care costs.

“For far too long, billionaire corporations and insurance CEOs have forced families to choose between paying for health care — including lifesaving medication and insurance coverage —and putting food on the table,” McGovern said.

The Worcester Democrat is seeking reelection to the state’s 2nd Congressional District in November against Republican Jeffrey Sossa-Paquette of Shrewsbury. The district is made up primarily of Worcester County, but includes Northampton, Amherst, Greenfield and several other towns in Hampshire and Franklin counties. Attempts to reach Sossa-Paquette for comment were unsuccessful Thursday.

The reports show that if the drug-pricing provisions of the new law had been fully in effect in 2020, the total cost of prescriptions filled by the 127,000 Medicare beneficiaries in the district could have been $36 million lower than the $239 million they paid.

That is on top of the $11 million in reduced premiums and out-of-pocket costs those same Medicare beneficiaries in the district could have saved.

In addition, the legislation, by extending the Affordable Care Act tax credits that had been set to expire, will help 18,000 people in the district enrolled in subsidized marketplace health insurance coverage through Obamacare, saving them an average of $620 in premiums starting next year.

The Next Abortion Battle

Lever News – When the U.S. Supreme Court allowed states to limit reproductive rights in its June ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, experts predicted that conservatives would soon use the decision to try to secure a federal ban on abortion.

Now that’s exactly what’s happening — at the very moment abortion rights have become a central issue in the midterm elections.

Anti-abortion activists in Rhode Island just filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to consider overturning their state judges’ recent decision that fetuses do not have standing to challenge the state’s law protecting abortion rights. They want the high court to rule that fetuses are entitled to due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment. Such a ruling establishing “fetal personhood” would go beyond the Dobbs ruling, by banning abortions nationwide, rather than leaving the issue to the states.

To move forward, the petitioners need just four of the Supreme Court justices to agree to hear the case.

“This case presents the unavoidable confrontation of Dobbs,” the petition says, “which left unresolved the tensions between the Tenth Amendment, federalism, and any surviving constitutional guarantees for the unborn.” Each year, thousands of claimants petition the Supreme Court to consider cases, and the court typically grants only about 80 of the requests.

Already, 14 states have banned abortion in most or all cases — meaning nearly 21 million women have lost access to abortion — and more states are considering laws to restrict access.

New 988 Mental-Health Crisis Line Sees Surge of Calls and Texts during First Month

WBUR – The new 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is already reaching more Americans in distress – and connecting them to help faster — than the old 10-digit suicide prevention line it replaced July 16.

New data released Friday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services show that in August – the first full month that 988 was operational — the Lifeline saw a 45% increase in overall volume of calls, texts and chats compared to August 2021.

The number of calls answered went up from 141,400 to 216,000 – a more than 50% increase, according to HHS officials. And texts answered went up by a whopping 1000% – from 3,400 in August, 2021, to 39,900 in August of this year. The number of chats on the Lifeline’s website that were answered saw a 195% increase.

“Our nation’s transition to 988 moves us closer to better serving the crisis care needs of people across America,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra in a statement.

The numbers encouraging, says psychologist Ben Miller, a mental health policy advocate.

“As far as data points go, this is good news,” he says. “People are using the line, which is what we want. It’s going to help save lives, which is what we want.”

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

More Candidates of Color Poised to Join State House Ranks

Boston Globe – Priscila Sousa remembers visiting the Massachusetts State House on a fourth-grade field trip. Two and a half decades later, there aren’t many details she recalls, aside from one.

“There weren’t a lot of people who looked like me,” said Sousa, a Brazilian immigrant. “Unless they were pushing a mop.”

If only her younger self could see her now. Sousa, a 34-year-old Framingham Democrat, is among a new class of candidates — many of them women, young people of color, or immigrants — who last week captured primary victories in newly drawn legislative districts designed to empower communities of color to elect the candidates of their choice.

In four House districts drawn with no incumbents, Democrats nominated a woman of color in each one. Pavel Payano, a Dominican American, is on the verge of representing Lawrence, a majority-Latino city, in the Senate after decades of it having only white senators. The roster of the Black and Latino legislative caucus, currently with 17 members, could grow by at least seven next session, depending on November’s general election results.

“When we take the oath of office in January, that session will have more people of color than any other session in the history of the commonwealth. And that didn’t happen by accident,” said state Representative Michael J. Moran, a Brighton Democrat who has led the once-in-a-decade redistricting process for the House.


Staff Shortages, Growing Demand Spur Long Wait Lists for After-School Care

Boston Globe – Working parents usually let out a collective sigh of relief when the school year starts. No more cobbling together summer camps, swimming lessons, and trips to grandma’s house now that kids are back in class and have after-school programs to attend.

But this year, with remote learning and stringent safety protocols finally a thing of the past, many families are finding themselves up against yet another obstacle: being shut out of after-school care. Staffing shortages are rampant, reducing the number of children that can enroll, and demand is soaring as parents return to their offices and pre-pandemic routines in greater numbers.

In many ways, it’s a reflection of the fluctuating workforce. People are less interested in part-time jobs making roughly $20 an hour that require close contact with throngs of children, especially when there are so many other employers hiring. Parents who were able to work remotely over the past two and a half years have less flexibility now to fill gaps in child care. And, those who can continue to work from home are fed up with having children underfoot.

At the same time, the pandemic is lingering, with concerns about adequate spacing and workers calling in sick further limiting capacity.

Parents stuck on wait lists are scrambling to find baby sitters, modifying their work hours, and interrupting their days to drive their children to off-site after-school programs. Some are considering quitting their jobs or changing careers entirely.

How Two Powerhouses of Mass. Politics Spent a Decade Pushing for Student Debt Relief

Boston Globe – At 7 a.m. one Wednesday morning late last month, Representative Ayanna Pressley was at home in Hyde Park when her phone rang: It was the White House. Ron Klain, President Biden’s chief of staff, was on the line. Pressley knew Biden was set to release his long-awaited student debt relief plan a few hours later, and she made one more pitch: “Please make this process as efficient and equitable and streamlined as possible.”

The night before, Senator Elizabeth Warren had made much the same case to Biden himself, continuing a conversation they had on board Air Force One during a trip to Massachusetts in July. It was their closing arguments for a case that had been a decade in the making.

That day, Biden announced an executive order that will wipe out $10,000 in student debt for over 43 million Americans, with many who received Pell Grants receiving an additional $10,000 of relief. The announcement has elated millions and enraged countless others. And it likely wouldn’t have happened without two of Massachusetts’ most high-profile politicians paving the way.

“Ayanna and I wanted more,” Warren admitted later, “but we stayed after it.”

“We just didn’t stop lobbying,” Pressley said.

It was a signature moment for Warren and Pressley, who both have long sought financial fairness for working families. It was also a major win for many of their constituents. Massachusetts residents have more college degrees per capita than any state in the country, and over $31 billion in student debt. Over 900,000 people here owe money on federal student loans. For Warren and Pressley, canceling student debt is akin to signing a farm bill for Nebraska. But getting there was no easy road.

Baker-Polito Administration Highlights School Safety Initiatives

Mission Hill Gazette – Governor Charlie Baker and Lt. Governor Karyn Polito, joined by Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Jeff Riley, Acting Commissioner of Early Education and Care Amy Kershaw and public safety officials, announced plans to file legislation proposing significant investments in school safety initiatives to support programming, training and resources for schools and districts throughout the Commonwealth.

The administration’s proposed investments will expand its ongoing commitment to deliver a safe and secure learning environment for all Massachusetts students.

“As children return full-time to the classroom this fall, we want parents and educators to know that our administration is always working to improve and build on all the resources available to districts to make their schools as secure as possible,” said Governor Charlie Baker. “Our administration has and will continue to provide critical resources for students, staff, families and first responders while making significant investments in training for first responders and school staff so they can protect Massachusetts schools.”

“Children, teachers and staff deserve to feel safe in the classroom, and our administration’s funding proposal will invest in the resources and programming required to equip school communities and emergency personnel with the tools they need to keep schools safe,” said Lt. Governor Karyn Polito. “We look forward to working with our colleagues in the Legislature to provide critical funding for districts across the Commonwealth.”

Governor Baker signed a supplemental budget with $15 million for school safety initiatives in October 2018.