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Why Pa.'s health department is taking us to court

Plus, the governor's race could decide the future of abortion access in Pa.

A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA

May 5, 2022 | spotlightpa.org
Abortion access, primary guide, mail ballots, guv panel, information lawsuit, relative rules, child welfare, academy allegations, and Senate subtracted.
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The outcome of the Pennsylvania governor’s race could determine the future of legal abortion access in the state, which is uncertain following the leak of a draft U.S. Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade.

It's important to note that the leaked draft is just that — a draft. For the moment, abortion is still legal in Pennsylvania.

And should the court strike down Roe, nothing would immediately change for Pennsylvanians. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, a former Planned Parenthood clinic escort, has vowed to veto any efforts to curtail abortion access. 

But Wolf's final term ends in January. There's a race this November to succeed him, and at least five GOP candidates say they want to ban abortion with no exceptions for rape, incest, or the health of the pregnant person, Spotlight PA reports. 

Also this week, we have two new May 17 primary guides. Kate Huangpu has a complete guide to what you need to know to vote , and Ethan Edward Coston has one focused on mail ballots

Finally, Spotlight PA is celebrating its 10 Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association awards, including three of the top prizes. We thank all of our members for making this coverage possible.
"We will continue to review pending pro-life legislation and any further decisions will be made through the course of the normal legislative process."

—House GOP spokesperson Jason Gottesman on how his caucus will respond to a draft opinion that indicates Roe v. Wade could be overturned
» PRIMARY PRIMER: Join us today at 6 p.m. via Zoom for a free Q&A on Pennsylvania's candidates for governor, how they plan to lead, and how to spot misinformation. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org
» A complete guide to the May 17 primary

» Everything you need to know about your mail ballot

» Your guide to the Democratic and GOP candidates for governor

» A guide to the often-overlooked race for Pa. lieutenant governor

» Big donations to GOP guv candidates: Who gave and how much?

» Josh Shapiro is amassing a big war chest. Who gave and how much?

» Watch Spotlight PA's debates: GOP governor candidates, GOP U.S. Senate candidates debate, and Dem U.S. Senate candidates debate

» Tell Spotlight PA what election coverage matters the most to you

» Pennsylvania’s 2022 U.S. Senate race: What we know so far
» Spotlight PA wants your help flagging school health hazards

» Why independents can’t vote for candidates this May

Why the Department of Health is taking Spotlight PA to court over a request for data

A panel of Commonwealth Court judges is set to hear arguments this month over whether the Wolf administration must reveal details of how patients and physicians are using the state’s medical cannabis program for addiction treatment.

Nearly a year ago, Spotlight PA sought information on how often physicians approve patients for the program to treat opioid use disorder. An independent agency that settles public records disputes involving the Wolf administration ordered the Department of Health to release the records last September, but the health agency refused and appealed to Commonwealth Court.

Here’s what you need to know about the case, why it matters, and what comes next.

What did Spotlight PA request?

In Pennsylvania, only patients suffering from specific medical conditions can qualify for the state’s medical cannabis program. The list of 23 qualifying conditions includes anxiety disorders, severe chronic or intractable pain, epilepsy, and opioid use disorder. 

Since Pennsylvania lawmakers legalized medical cannabis in 2016, physicians have certified hundreds of thousands of patients for the program.

Spotlight PA requested information about how many of those patients were approved for each of the qualifying conditions. The newsroom specifically asked for aggregate data — meaning the information would not identify individual patients.

Why is Spotlight PA fighting for the records?

The newsroom wanted to better understand the impact of the Wolf administration’s unusual and controversial decision to endorse cannabis as a treatment option for opioid use disorder. The Wolf administration has released similar aggregate data in other instances, including the total number of patients certified in the program, the number of patients approved because of an anxiety diagnosis, and the number of patients in specific counties.

What is the Wolf administration’s argument for not providing the records? 

The medical marijuana law has confidentiality rules and clear limits on what information can be released, attorneys for the Department of Health argued in a legal brief. Summarized information about patient certifications isn’t one of the specific items identified as a public record in the state’s medical marijuana law, and attorneys said releasing that information could lead to “criminal liability” for health department employees.

What is Spotlight PA’s argument? 

Paula Knudsen Burke, an attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press who is representing Spotlight PA for free in the case, said the medical marijuana law exempts individual patient records — not aggregate data. She said the department’s argument relies on a mischaracterization of the law.

“The records sought in this case are exactly the kind for which the [Right-to-Know Law] was enacted,” she wrote in a January brief. Releasing the information “will enable the public to better understand the implementation of a new government policy in which the public has tremendous interest.”

What’s next?

A hearing before a panel of judges is scheduled for May 17 in Pittsburgh. After the court issues its decision, which could take several months, both sides could petition the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, asking for permission to appeal. Ed Mahon, Spotlight PA

DROPOFF RULE: WLVR reports Democratic state lawmakers from the Lehigh Valley want to introduce legislation allowing spouses and blood relatives to drop off mail ballots for each other, something that isn't allowed under state law now. The announcement came days after Lehigh County's Republican DA unveiled a zero-tolerance approach enforced by detectives at drop boxes. State officials warned of a chilling effect. 

RISK ASSESSMENT: An algorithm is being used to guide child welfare investigations in Allegheny County, giving the technology an outsize role in a decision-making process with real-world consequences for often impoverished families. The county says the tool is only a guide for human social workers. Critics point to glitches, racial disparities, and a lack of transparency around the pioneering program.

'NEGATIVE PRESS': Former Valley Forge Military Academy cadets tell Mother Jones the famed institution is a Lord of the Flies cage match with hazing, fighting, and sexual assaults. One former officer said of leadership: "All they cared about was that there was no negative press, even if it meant that kids were being sodomized or kids were having inappropriate sexual relations, or getting drunk or getting high, or whatever."

OPEN TABS: Pennsylvania's House of Representatives passed a bill last week that would require legislators to post their taxpayer-funded expenses online. There was one notable change, however: It no longer includes the Senate, which already posts member expenses online but not in the easy-to-use format this bill requires. The Caucus reports it's unclear if the change makes the Senate more or less likely to vote yes.

POLICE WATCH: The amount of disciplinary action taken against Pittsburgh police doubled between 2017 and 2021 compared with the preceding five-year period, PublicSource and City Cast Pittsburgh found. But there are disagreements about the underlying causes of that jump (more vigilance or worse behavior?) and few trends to be found with regard to the resulting punishments that were meted out.


» ROLLING STONE: LG hopeful's wife is seeking a protective order

» BUZZFEED: Child abuse registries punish unsuspecting parents

» CNN: Pa.'s open US Senate seat still the likeliest in nation to flip

» PUBLICSOURCE: Fee fuels doubt about Pa.'s new 988 crisis lifeline

» WESA: Immigration court closes, making cases long-haul efforts

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

NOT IT (Case No. 145)Forward I am heavy. Backward I am not. What am I?

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Last week's answer: Five minutes (Find last week's clue here)
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