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Secret meetings spark criticism of Pa. opioid trust

Plus, how Pa.'s Medicaid purge compares to other states'.

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Thursday, June 1, 2023
In private, hot schools, disenrollment rates, map misses, MMJ discrimination suit, out of business, and a plane crash on the Turnpike. Welcome to June.

A board tasked with ensuring local governments appropriately spend hundreds of millions of dollars set to come their way from settlements with opioid companies operated in secret for months, continues to hold meetings out of public view, and says it’s not covered by the Right-to-Know Law.

The court order creating the Pennsylvania Opioid Misuse and Addiction Abatement Trust required it to follow Pennsylvania's transparency-minded Sunshine Act, and the group's chair, Tom VanKirk, urged openness. 

But VanKirk, former chief legal officer for Highmark Health, also defended holding meetings in secret and barring the public from speaking at them, adding: "If everybody from the public that wanted to get up and make comment at these meetings got up, the meeting would go forever."

Read Spotlight PA and WESA's full report: Secret meetings by board overseeing Pa.’s $1 billion in opioid settlements draw criticism

THE CONTEXT: The trust received about $130 million in opioid settlement funding in 2022, most of which it distributed to counties, VanKirk said. But it's unknown how much of that money the counties have spent so far, in part because the trust waived a reporting requirement in March.

Transparency advocates say the trust should err on the side of public access and input, dismissing claims that operational efficiency would suffer. The Sunshine Act allows short notice for public meetings.

The stakes are high with debates ongoing about how the money should be spent — feeding the war on drugs vs. bolstering treatment — and new large-scale settlements incoming, including hundreds of millions from an immunity-delivering deal with the family behind the rise of Oxycontin. 

Read more: Expecting more than $1 billion in opioid settlement money, Pa. grapples with policing versus treatment.

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"It appears, at the early stages of this investigation, that one of the victims was targeted. The other three victims were uninvolved."

Police Chief Bret Fisher on a shooting that left two boys, 8 and 9, and a 19-year-old man dead in Lebanon on Tuesday; a 33-year-old was injured
» ELDER LAW: Join us TODAY at 6 p.m. ET via Zoom for a free Q&A on Pennsylvania's elder protection laws and how they could be improved. Register here and submit questions to events@spotlightpa.org

"Sherbert" Ti plants at Longwood Gardens in Chester County, via Don N. Send your photos by email, use #PAGems on IG, or tag @spotlightpennsylvania.

A closeup of Sherbert Ti plants colored pink, yellow, and green.
Today's top news story in Pennsylvania.'HEAT DAYS': Pittsburgh Public Schools will transition to remote learning for the rest of the week in 40 of its facilities that lack air conditioning as temperatures rise. "Heat Days" are increasingly common in places like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The Hechinger Report says climate change is adding to learning hurdles nationwide and many schools are "gravely unprepared."

Today's second top news story in Pennsylvania.MEDICAID DATA: The share of Pennsylvanians kicked off Medicaid is lower than what's being reported in other states amid a mass reenrollment touched off by the end of a COVID-19 pause on eligibility checks, per KFF. Ten percent of Pennsylvanians who reapplied have been disenrolled — the national median is 24%; Florida's rate is 54%. However, KFF says Pennsylvania's data only includes people "whose coverage was maintained due to the continuous enrollment provision." Here's what to do if you're among the thousands impacted here.

Today's third top news story in Pennsylvania.INFORMATION GAPS: City & State reports Pennsylvania missed identifying thousands of unserved internet areas and could lose out on millions in federal funding as a result. Pennsylvania was tasked with pinpointing where high-speed internet is still unavailable so that federal funding could be targeted. But one expert told City & State that as many as 600,000 potential locations may have been overlooked.

Today's fourth top news story in Pennsylvania.MMJ SUIT: A federal court in Pennsylvania says a discrimination lawsuit can proceed against Cleveland Cliffs Steel over its rescinding of a job offer to a medical marijuana patient who tested positive for the drug. The company argued that the engineer's marijuana card was expired. Spotlight PA found vague legal safeguards for patients in Pennsylvania that force some to choose between their job and medicine.

Today's fifth top news story in Pennsylvania.GROW GAME: Gov. Josh Shapiro was in Carbon County on Wednesday to mark the opening of the largest indoor-grown leafy greens facility in the state, per Capital-Star. In Luzerne County, construction of the world's largest indoor grow operation has been called off. The company behind it, Upward Farms, is out of business after collecting at least $1 million in state funding for the project, per WVIA. 

GUILTY PLEAS: Adrian Oswaldo Sura Reyes, 24, of Nescopeck has pleaded guilty to first-degree murder after killing his mother and 19 counts of attempted first-degree murder after he ran his car through a crowd of people at a Berwick fundraiser last year, WHTM reports.

TURNPIKE CRASH: At least two people were injured when an airplane crashed into a truck on the Pennsylvania Turnpike near the I-83 interchange in York County on Wednesday. Road and ramp closures followed.

BEACH CURFEW: Ocean City, New Jersey's beaches will close at 8 p.m. now as officials say they're working to "stop gatherings of drunken teens" after police responded to 999 incidents over the holiday weekend.

LUCKY'S SPOT: In honor of Pride Month, a 2022 Pittsburgh City Paper story about Lucky's — the gay bar in The Strip District that stayed standing while surrounded by a massive demolition project.

NOW OPEN: Valosh Patisserie, a Puerto Rican-inspired French pastry shop, is now open in Elizabethtown, Lancaster County. Chef/owner Valeria Garcia interned at a bakery in Paris and is now striking out on her own.

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