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Abuse amendment, others mired in partisan disputes

Plus, how researchers at Geisinger used medical marijuana data Spotlight PA won in court.

This is The Investigator, a free weekly newsletter with the top news from across Pennsylvania.
A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom producing investigative journalism for Pennsylvania.

January 18, 2024 | spotlightpa.org
Constitutional amendments, 911 fee, summer shut-offs, marijuana research, VA concerns, cut short, law challenge, defense-less, and FTC scrutiny.
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Partisan differences in Pennsylvania's General Assembly are keeping constitutional amendment proposals with bipartisan support from reaching voters, including one that would give survivors of childhood sexual abuse a chance to sue their abusers past the statute of limitations.

Should the legislature fail to agree on a way to move forward on that issue before the November election, the process will need to begin again, Spotlight PA's Kate Huangpu reports.

Also this week, an increase to the monthly phone fee users pay to support emergency services will help fill staff vacancies and upgrade infrastructure. Still, county officials say the 30-cent raise isn’t enough to prevent local tax increases to sustain the 911 system’s long-term needs.

Finally, Pennsylvania lawmakers have until the end of 2024 to reauthorize a key area of state law that protects low-income utility customers from sudden shut-offs when they fall behind on their bills, and some are taking advantage of the deadline to push for new consumer protections.

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"We’ll try to convince the governor to get that number up, but we also know this is a really serious, meaningful first step."

—Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, of the Public Interest Law Center, on the $5.4 billion a report advanced by Democrats says is needed to close the gap between rich and poor schools


» New law aims to make guardianship a last resort in Pa., but some experts say it doesn’t go far enough

» Pennsylvania needs to spend $5.4B to close gap between rich and poor schools, report advanced by Dems says

How researchers at Geisinger used medical marijuana data Spotlight PA won in court

After a 15-month legal battle, Spotlight PA in 2022 won access to data showing the reasons why hundreds of thousands of patients qualify for the state’s medical marijuana program. We published a big investigation based on the records last year.

And we’re not the only ones using the data to better understand the state’s medical marijuana program.

In February 2023, the Pennsylvania Department of Health shared the data that Spotlight PA won access to with academic researchers across the state, according to a department spokesperson.

Researchers with the Geisinger health system seized upon the chance. 

“Not all states are as transparent with this information,” said Brian Piper, an assistant professor of neuroscience with the Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine. “So it was a very valuable opportunity.”

Piper and his colleagues used the data to analyze relationships between dispensary locations and the proportion of adults with medical marijuana certifications in certain areas. The study also examined the link between dispensary locations and the proportion of certifications issued for certain medical conditions — ones categorized as having no or insufficient evidence to support or refute the effectiveness of medical marijuana as a treatment.

In an article, the researchers described the work as “the first study in the U.S. of the association between dispensary locations and qualifying conditions.”

Annemarie Hirsch, an associate professor in Geisinger’s Department of Population Health Sciences and director of the Center for Community Environment and Health, is listed as the first author of the team’s article. She described the study as a “hypothesis generating” one that could inform further research.

The findings were distributed in August as a preprint article, meaning it had not yet completed the peer review process to be published in a scientific journal. As of January, the researchers were going through that process, which can often take several months.

“We’re using this preprint as a mechanism to get findings out to the general community who can benefit,” Piper told Spotlight PA.

In December, Spotlight PA made the qualifying condition data it won in court available online for anyone to analyze. Those anonymized data do not identify individual patients or doctors.

Drexel University’s Medical Cannabis Research Center cited Spotlight PA’s analysis — which found that anxiety disorders are the top reason patients qualify for the program — last year in a review of the research around cannabis and anxiety. Ed Mahon, Spotlight PA

🏆 NEXT QUESTION: Did you stay on top of the news this week? Prove it with the latest edition of The Great PA News Quiz: Fetterman memoir, seriously cold, Bidenomics, and underfunded schools.
This week's top news story in PennsylvaniaVA CONCERNS: Federal lawmakers want answers from officials with Pittsburgh's Veterans Affairs health care system — one of nine VA facilities out of 114 nationwide to earn a single-star rating from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, via WESA.

This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaCUT SHORT: Philly was set to record its first child homicide victim of 2024 on Monday, with Tyshaun Welles, 16, taken off life support one week after a subway shooting. The Inquirer (paywall) has a powerful look at the 23 young lives lost to gun violence there in 2023.

This week's third top news story in PennsylvaniaLAW CHALLENGE: Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner is suing to block a new state law that removes his authority over crimes on SEPTA property and requires the attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor, The Inquirer (paywall) reports. Krasner said the new law is “politically motivated” and an attempt to remove power from an official elected by voters. 

DEFENSE-LESS: A new study says that Schuylkill County’s Office of the Public Defender is severely understaffed and underresourced, the Republican Herald reports. The county’s chief public defender told the paper a lack of state funding has hampered the office. As Spotlight PA recently reported, Pennsylvania lawmakers have agreed to spend $7.5 million to help fund these offices, an amount the report called “a drop in the bucket.”

FTC SCRUTINY: The Federal Trade Commission is looking at UPMC's planned merger with Washington Health System in Washington, Pennsylvania, a deal opposed by unions and workers who point to past UPMC acquisitions that resulted in hospital closures.


» APBiden stops by Pa. stores to talk up his record on small businesses

» CNHIReport highlights COVID-19 losses suffered by hospitals

» NBC10: Fetterman, Casey call for federal support of SEPTA

» PENNLIVE: Shapiro offers peek at 2024-25 budget plan priorities 

» WPXI: Tree of Life Synagogue building demolition begins

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NOT ADDING UP (Case No. 239): Where is 61 > 100?
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