Reward Doubled for Information on Poached Elk near Crawford

Chadron – The reward for information leading to the prosecution of the person or people responsible for illegally killing a mature bull elk and leaving it to waste in northwestern Nebraska has been doubled.

The Panhandle Conservation Club of Scottsbluff has pledged $1,000 to match the $1,000 being offered by the Nebraska Wildlife Crimestoppers program.

Doyle Lund, president of the eight-member club, said the group donated the money because of its mission to support the region’s conservation officers and natural resources.  He said club members were especially upset that whoever killed the elk didn’t use the meat.

“I have a real problem with anyone who would shoot an elk and just leave it lay like that,” Lund said. “That’s the reason we decided to contribute this money and support conservation.”

The bull, considered to be a trophy class animal with a 7-by-6 set of antlers, was found dead from a bullet wound in a wheat field southeast of Crawford. It is believed to have been shot the night of Saturday, Nov. 12, well after the Nebraska firearm elk season which ended Oct. 23.

In addition to the elk case, lesser reward amounts are being offered for information about the killings of a pronghorn and three mule deer, all females, which were recently found dead near Hemingford.

Those with information may remain anonymous by contacting the Wildlife Crimestoppers Program at 800-742-7627. More information about the program may be found at outdoornebraska.gov/wildlifecrimestoppers.

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Congress questions Indian Health Service staff, management

By Regina Garcia Cano

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) – Members of Congress on Tuesday questioned the long standing staffing and management shortcomings that have led to poor health care services at government-run facilities caring for Native Americans across the country.

The hearing in Washington of the House subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs focused on proposed legislation that would expand the authority of the Indian Health Service to remove or demote employees and would also allow it to offer incentives to recruit well-trained administrators and health care providers. This was the second time in less than a month that the IHS’ top leader, principal deputy director Mary Smith, tribal leaders and health care advocates testified before members of Congress regarding proposed measures to overhaul the embattled agency.

“We are here because of a crisis,” said U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, a Republican from South Dakota who is sponsoring the legislation. “The Indian Health Service is beyond broken, and fixing it is literally a matter of life and death.”

Noem’s bill and another proposal introduced in the U.S. Senate come after health inspectors over the past 14 months have uncovered serious quality-of-care deficiencies at hospitals run by the IHS in South Dakota and Nebraska. Smith said the agency faces “severe operational and staffing challenges.”

“We welcome this attention and momentum that it creates for lasting quality improvements for these facilities because we are on the front lines of medical care in some of the most remote parts of our country,” Smith said.

The agency’s long standing inability to hire and retain well-qualified administrators and management is due in part to the remote location of many of its hospitals, housing shortages in those areas and lack of competitive pay. At the same time, tribal leaders for years have complained about the agency’s decision to keep its mediocre staff providers and ineffective managers.

At the clinician level, for example, the hospital in South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation had to stop offering surgical and obstetrics services last month after a staff member died. Its emergency room closed seven months ago in part because the agency struggled to maintain appropriate staffing levels. Since then, nine people have died and five babies have been delivered in ambulances on their way to other facilities.

Meanwhile, the management challenges were exemplified during the hearing using the case of a physician whose recent appointment as acting chief medical officer for the Great Plains region came weeks after she publicly apologized for comments made regarding the birth of two babies in the bathroom of that hospital.

“That official clearly has disdain for our people and should work elsewhere,” said William Bear Shield, chairman of the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Health Board.

Noem’s bill specifically provides guidelines to remove or demote employees for poor performance or misconduct; it forces the agency to implement mandatory cultural competency training for health providers and offers relocation reimbursements for certain employees who move to work at facilities that are “located in a rural area or medically under-served area.”

The dire problems at IHS-run facilities began to surface in May 2015 with a report from inspectors from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services who toured a facility on Nebraska’s Winnebago Reservation. Following inspections of facilities in South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Rapid City and Rosebud uncovered similar quality-of-care deficiencies.

Victoria Kitcheyan, tribal treasurer of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, pleaded to Congress on Tuesday to continue to work on the issue even if the legislation becomes law.

“It’s going to take a team effort, additional resources, consistent congressional oversight. And furthermore we have 10,000 people back at home who need their hope restored. ... Until those systematic changes are made within the IHS system, Winnebago hospital will continue to be the only place where you can legally kill an Indian.”

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Panhandle mosquitoes test positive for West Nile Virus

A Panhandle mosquito pool has recently tested positive for West Nile Virus. This positive pool gives Panhandle Public Health District (PPHD) an indicator of the location of the virus and the potential for it to be spread through human contact. Several counties in the Panhandle have been routinely testing sites to trap and monitor mosquitoes over the summer months.  

To help reduce the risk of West Nile Virus spread, Melissa Cervantes, Environmental Health Coordinator for PPHD, urges residents to follow these precautions to protect themselves and their families:

• Use a mosquito repellant that contains DEET.

• Wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants, shoes and socks.

• Take extra precautions when going outdoors at dawn and dusk when mosquitoes are most active.

• Drain standing water.

• Add larvicides to animal drinking troughs. 

• Keep window screens in good repair.

West Nile Virus is contracted through mosquitoes that have bitten an infected bird. Generally birds cannot pass the virus on it is only through the bite of a mosquito that humans can become infected. West Nile includes flu-like symptoms that can include a slight fever and headaches. Severe symptoms of West Nile can lead to encephalitis which can cause inflammation of the brain, disorientation, convulsions and paralysis. People over 50, infants, and pregnant women are especially susceptible to this disease. 

The positive mosquito pool indicates that PPHD is no longer accepting dead birds for testing. If you suspect you have a bird that has died of unknown origins related to West Nile, dispose of it by sealing it in a Ziploc bag and throwing it away. Do not touch a bird with your bare hands, use gloves or an inverted bag to handle and dispose of. Birds can still be called in to PPHD to be reported to the state but will not be collected. 

If you have any questions regarding birds or West Nile Virus, please call Melissa Cervantes at 308-487-3600 extension 108 or e-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Panhandle Public Health District is working together to improve the health, safety and quality of life for all who live, learn, work and play in the Panhandle. Our vision is that we are a healthier and safer Panhandle Community.

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3 men missing on South Dakota reservation found dead

PINE RIDGE, S.D. (AP) ­-  Three men who went missing more than two weeks ago on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation have been found dead.

Oglala Sioux tribal officials said Tuesday that the men died in a single-car accident on the rural reservation. Details about the wreck haven’t been released.

Tribal Police Capt. Anthony Long Soldier confirmed the accident involved one vehicle. He said the victims have been identified as 24-year-old Juan Lamont, 21-year-old Tevin Tyon and 23-year-old Tyrell Wilson.

The tribe’s Office of Public Safety released the same information on its Facebook page.

The men were last seen May 7 in the town of Pine Ridge. The tribe declared a state of emergency four days later.

Searches for the men included all-terrain vehicles, horses, aircraft and SUVs, along with hundreds of volunteers.

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Nebraska Legislature exempts itself from open records law

By GRANT SCHULTE

Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) – Nebraska’s one-house Legislature was created with the promise of greater transparency in state government, but that promise falls short when it comes to some of the records lawmakers keep.

Legislators have exempted themselves from the state’s public records law, allowing them to withhold “correspondence, memoranda and records of telephone calls’’ that other state agencies and local governments must disclose. Such documents give the public insight into who is trying to influence elected officials on important policy decisions.

To test Nebraska’s public-records law, The Associated Press asked for emails and daily schedules from three leading state senators and Gov. Pete Ricketts during the week of Feb. 1-7. The request was made for Sunshine Week, a national initiative beginning Sunday to promote government transparency and freedom of information. Similar inquiries to legislative leaders in all 50 states were met with more denials than approvals.

In Nebraska, legislative leaders rejected requests for emails from their state accounts but agreed to release detailed daily schedules.

For Ricketts, the answer was the opposite: The governor turned over nearly 600 pages of emails and his “public schedule’’ – a list of appearances the media are invited to attend – but his staff declined to make public a more detailed daily calendar that lists closed-door meetings. Most of the governor’s emails consisted of correspondence from constituents and Twitter notifications.

Lawmakers cited several reasons for withholding their emails.

Sen. Mike Gloor, chairman of the Revenue Committee, said he had already deleted many of the messages and his staff was too busy to retrieve them. Gloor said he might be able to release some emails if the request was more specific, but he also wanted to protect personal and sensitive information sent by constituents.

“Breaking their confidence is a serious problem,’’ said Gloor, of Grand Island.

Speaker of the Legislature Galen Hadley, who leaves office in January, said he didn’t want to set a new precedent for future legislators.

Withholding the emails is “consistent with normal practice of other legislative members who have received similar requests,’’ Hadley, of Kearney, wrote in his denial letter.

Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, said he wouldn’t release his emails because constituents who contact him may not want their names and emails used publicly.

A government watchdog group said the public should have access to the records so voters know who is trying to influence elected officials.

“If you’re working on a public computer, in a public office, then your records should be public,’’ said Jack Gould, issues chairman of the group Common Cause Nebraska.

Gould said he understands that some citizens may want to keep conversations private, but he argued that such cases are rare and easily avoided. The governor’s website, for instance, includes a warning that all emails to the office are considered public records.

Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage said the governor’s staff “is careful to redact personal, sensitive information from public records’’ when state law allows.

Lawmakers approved the public records exemption in 1983 after a candidate for Legislature requested the phone records of an incumbent he was trying to unseat. The attorney general issued an opinion that the records were public, but noted that some could be exempt if they were connected to a lawmaker’s efforts to investigate a public policy matter.

Senators at the time argued that the exemption would ensure that constituents could speak freely to them about sensitive matters, such as a nursing home employee who witnesses abuse but doesn’t want to lose his job.

During the 1983 committee hearing on the bill, one senator said he simply didn’t want to disclose who had called his office.

“Quite frankly, I think it’s none of your damn business,’’ then-Sen. Tom Vickers told a lobbyist for Nebraska media outlets.

Nebraska’s one-house Legislature was designed with transparency in mind. George Norris, the U.S. senator and statesman who promoted the system, argued that a smaller unicameral would be more open to public scrutiny and thus less corrupt.

Norris contended that the unicameral would eliminate the need for conference committees, where senators shape legislation behind closed doors. Reporters are also allowed to attend executive sessions, where committees discuss and vote on legislation, even though those meetings are closed to the public.

Daily schedules released by Hadley, Gloor and Mello included meetings with lobbyists and other elected officials.

Hadley’s schedule for the week showed an evening reception with local chambers of commerce, a legislative breakfast with farm groups and a half-hour meeting with Ricketts.

Mello’s calendar included a speech to the Lincoln Federation of Business, a downtown luncheon with the AFL-CIO and a meeting with Nebraska Department of Roads Director Kyle Schneweis.

Gloor’s schedule listed meetings with fellow senators and University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Perlman, as well as a speech to the Nebraska Association of School Boards. Gloor said he asked his staff to delete personal appointments, such as haircuts and doctor’s visits.

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Supporters unveil new plan to cover Medicaid gap population

By GRANT SCHULTE

Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Lawmakers unveiled a new plan Tuesday to cover the so-called Medicaid gap population in Nebraska while opponents made clear that the proposal faces a steep uphill slog.

Supporters hailed the latest bill as a bipartisan, business-friendly approach to cover an estimated 77,000 childless, low-income adults. Three previous attempts to expand Medicaid coverage under the federal health care law have failed because of conservative opposition.

The new bill would use federal Medicaid dollars to buy private health coverage for residents without access to an employer-sponsored plan, and would pay a worker’s share of premiums if an employer does offer coverage. People deemed medically frail would receive coverage through the state’s current Medicaid program.

Sen. John McCollister of Omaha, the bill’s leading sponsor, said it would help the state economy by pumping an estimated $2 billion into the state economy, providing new health care jobs and helping the uninsured become more healthy and productive.

“Those states that expand Medicaid will have an economic tail wind versus those that don’t,” said McCollister, a Republican.

It also would create a program to refer new enrollees to optional job-training and education programs, in hopes of weaning them off of public benefits.

“We feel this is an extremely important new component to help people transition out of their dependence,” said Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, a leading co-sponsor.

Campbell said the bill encourages personal responsibility and makes use of employer-sponsored coverage when it’s available, reducing the cost to the state.

Even so, opponents said they had at least 19 of the Legislature’s 49 votes - more than the 17 required to block the bill with a filibuster. Fifteen of those lawmakers stood with a leading opposition think tank Tuesday morning during a news conference to criticize the new bill.

“Every single conservative in the Legislature opposes Medicaid expansion,” said Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion.

Jim Vokal, the CEO of the Omaha-based Platte Institute for Economic Research, said similar legislation adopted in Arkansas resulted in far greater enrollment and expense for the state than initially predicted. Vokal argued that the new proposal would extend benefits to able-bodied adults when the program has traditionally been used for poor children, pregnant women, seniors and people with disabilities.

Nebraska is one of 19 primarily conservative states that have rejected efforts to expand Medicaid, the health care program for the poor and disabled. Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia have agreed to the expansion, and governors of three non-expansion states - South Dakota, Virginia and Wyoming - are now advocating it in their latest budget proposals.

The Nebraska plan would cover an estimated 77,000 childless adults whose incomes are too high to qualify for regular Medicaid but too low to receive tax subsidies available through the federal health care exchange.

The coverage gap exists because tax subsidies are only available to people with household incomes between 100 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty level.

The Affordable Care Act doesn’t provide the subsidies for people who make less than that because the law originally required all states to expand Medicaid, which would have covered that population and made the subsidies unnecessary. But in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government can’t punish states that don’t expand Medicaid.

Among those in the gap is Sarah Parker of Lincoln, who said she worked full-time until her father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2011. Parker said she now works part-time without coverage so she can care for her father, while her medical bills have mounted. A recent eight-day stint in the hospital is pushing her toward bankruptcy.

“I don’t need an entitlement program,” Parker said. “But I do need a little help.”

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Nebraska senators advance ban on celebratory flying lanterns

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A bill to outlaw small, flame-powered paper air balloons in Nebraska has sped through first round debate in the Legislature.

Lawmakers voted unanimously on Tuesday to advance the measure.

The bill’s advocates say the lanterns create dangerous fire hazards if they land in neighborhoods or dry fields. If the bill passes, violators would face a $100 fine. The lanterns are made of flame-retardant paper and lifted by hot air from open flames at their bases. They’re often released into the sky at memorials or celebrations. Hot air balloons large enough to carry people would not be included in the ban.

Sen. Jerry Johnson of Wahoo has designated the bill his priority this session.

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Conference will focus on ways to protect wildlife habitat

KEARNEY, Neb. (AP) - An annual state conference next month will focus on ways to preserve wildlife habitat in the state.

This year will be the 25th annual version of the Nebraska State Habitat Meeting that brings together landowners, hunters and wildlife professionals.

The event will feature presentations from Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

The event will be held Feb. 13 at the Holiday Inn near Interstate 80 in Kearney. It costs $30 for members of the public and discounted rates are available for Pheasants Forever members or students.

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New Nebraska Medicaid bill to offer ‘private option’

By GRANT SCHULTE
Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) _ After three failed attempts to expand Medicaid under the federal health care law, Nebraska lawmakers will unveil a new proposal this week that would offer private coverage to low-income residents.

The bill is modeled after the so-called private option adopted by Arkansas, which received a federal waiver to spend Medicaid dollars on private insurance.

The plan by Sen. John McCollister of Omaha would cover an estimated 77,000 Nebraska residents whose incomes are too high to qualify for regular Medicaid but too low to receive tax subsidies available through the federal health insurance exchange.

It's expected to face opposition from Gov. Pete Ricketts and many lawmakers, who argue it's not sustainable. Ricketts spoke against Medicaid expansion in his State of the State address last week, calling it too risky for taxpayers.

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