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New data reveal Pa. pandemic-era overdose surge

Plus, a look at the expensive and crowded race for Pa.’s open U.S. Senate seat.


A daily newsletter by Spotlight PA
Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
July 16, 2021
'No cover-up,' Senate hopefuls, overdoses surge, class masks, Barr fight, PPE place, and the scariest-looking insect Pennsylvania has to offer. It's Friday!
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Pennsylvania's top labor official insists there wasn't a deliberate attempt to conceal an error that resulted in thousands of people being overcharged millions of dollars in interest on payments they owed her agency.

The Department of Labor and Industry identified the error five years ago but did not tell the public until a Spotlight PA inquiry about the issue last week. Department head Jennifer Berrier wrote in an email to the chairs of the state legislative committees that oversee labor issues that "there is no cover-up."

But the agency has refused to answer why it waited so long to publicly acknowledge the problem, five years after it was first discovered. 

Similar questions face the Office of Inspector General, which completed its internal investigation into the multimillion-dollar mistake in mid-2017 but failed to make the findings public until this week.

Gov. Tom Wolf's office said the governor only learned about the problem last Friday. In her email to legislators, Berrier said she became aware of the error after Spotlight PA filed a public-records request earlier this year.

THE CONTEXT: What is increasingly clear is that once the error was discovered, there was a communication breakdown.

The Office of Inspector General was alerted to the problem in mid-2017, when an unnamed state worker complained about it, according to state officials. The office investigated the matter, determining within a few months that it was a result of "human error" and lack of oversight.

Inspector General spokesperson Jonathan Hendrickson said his office at the time sent a one-page "investigative letter" with its findings to the Labor and Industry Department's then-acting secretary. Wolf’s Office of General Counsel was copied on it, Hendrickson said.

But unlike with other inquiries, the Office of Inspector General did not make the findings of this investigation public until pressed to do so by Spotlight PA earlier this week. 
Huge issues are being debated in Harrisburg, from voting changes to redistricting, that could have ramifications on our state for years to come. Now more than ever, we need unflinching investigative journalism in Pennsylvania.

And Spotlight PA is answering the call in a bold new way.

We built Spotlight PA on the premise that you, our loyal readers, will step up and contribute to journalism that holds the powerful to account and gets results. Put another way, without your support, we cease to exist.

If you value our vital investigative journalism, make a contribution of any amount and become a member now. 

"As bishops, we welcome this moment of the reinstatement of the obligation for all Catholics in Pennsylvania." 

—Rev. Nelson Perez, Archbishop of Philadelphia, on Pennsylvania's bishops requiring in-person mass attendance again starting in August
VACCINE UPDATE: A Bucks County firm says it can tell how effective your vaccine is with a test that measures the immune response, the strength of that response, and the length. For vaccine providers, use the federal government's online tool, call 1-800-232-0233, or text your ZIP code to 438829 (GETVAX).

>> THE HIDDEN TAB: Join us Wednesday, July 28 at 5 p.m. ET via Zoom for a free Q&A about Pennsylvania lawmakers spending millions of taxpayer dollars on personal accommodations, and how these expenses are obscured from the public. Register here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org

Thanks, Doug W., for this shot of the Westmoreland Heritage Trail following Turtle Creek valley. Send us your hidden gems, use the hashtag #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
SENATE SURVEY: U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) isn't running for reelection and his open seat has drawn plenty of interest from Democrats looking to shore up a narrow congressional majority, and Republicans looking to limit key aspects of the Biden agenda. Spotlight PA looks at the sprawling, divergent field currently destined for 2022 primary ballots.

DIRE DATA: The pandemic saw a surge in overdose deaths in Pennsylvania and nationwide, new federal data show. The AP reports the CDC tallied 5,172 overdose deaths in Pennsylvania last year, a jump of 16% from 2019, and 93,000 nationwide, a 29% increase. Overdose antidote naloxone is available free of charge in Pennsylvania.

MASK RULE: Philadelphia public school students and staff will wear face masks when they go back to in-person classes this fall, NBC10 reports, despite CDC guidance saying it's OK for the fully vaccinated to go without. The Pennsylvania Department of Education said last week it would align its state recommendations with the CDC's, via Morning Call.

FULL SEND: Former Philadelphia federal prosecutor Bill McSwain is mulling a Republican bid for Pennsylvania governor and seeking former President Donald Trump's endorsement. In a letter to Trump, McSwain says he was blocked from investigating unnamed election issues by Trump's attorney general, touching off a war of words, per The Inquirer.

PPE PLAN: Pennsylvania's PPE stockpile is on the move and leaving the Farm Show Complex after more than a year. That means larger events are expected to return to the Harrisburg facility by mid-September, along with the revenues lawmakers had been clamoring for. The PPE's new location can't be disclosed under CDC rules, per ABC27.
BOLO: The first monthly cash payments under the expanded child tax credit are due to hit bank accounts soon. The IRS sent $15 billion in payments for almost 60 million children Thursday, most via direct deposit, per a thorough explainer from CBS News.

MISSED CALLS: Pennsylvania has a "Do Not Call" list you can join to cut down on unwanted calls from legitimate telemarketers, WTAJ reports. It probably won't help with illegitimate calls from scammers and robots, but it's free to use and registration is for life.

BIG YIKES: The scariest-looking insect in Pennsylvania is probably the dobsonfly. Described by the Morning Call as being up to 5 inches long with sickle-shaped mandibles capable of drawing blood, the insects pose little to no real danger and actually might be a good ecological sign.

SELL OUT: Remember that Kraft Heinz-branded mac and cheese-flavored ice cream from Wednesday's PA Post? Turns out it was so popular it crashed the manufacturer's site and then sold out for real soon after. "Looks like our ultra cool collab was too hot for our servers to handle," Kraft Heinz tweeted.

BEST OF: One of the best films of 2021 (so far) is "The Inheritance," "Ephraim Asili's intricately written and directed study of a West Philadelphia Black Liberationist group," which "wrings deadpan visual and verbal jokes out of competitiveness and claustrophobia," per The Ringer.

Unscramble and send your answer to scrambler@spotlightpa.org. We'll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA swag.

Yesterday's answer: Unrequited

Congrats to our daily winners: Bob R., Michelle T., Diane P., Mike B., Mary Ellen T., Susan N., Doris T., Irene R., Elaine C., Neal W., Mark O., Susan D., Eddy Z., John A., Christine M., Al M., Elizabeth W., Patricia M., Heidi B., George S., James B., David S., Craig E., Don H., Brandie K., Matt H., Jessica K., Dennis M., Beth T., Bill C., Catherine J., Kim C., Kevin H., Karen W., David W., Lance L., Barbara A., Jill A., Joel S., Carol D., Tish M., and Myles M.
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