Editorial Roundup:

 
 
Updated 5/19/2020 11:00 AM

The (Fort Wayne) Journal Gazette. May 17, 2020.

Customers' losses still top priority over utilities'

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Gov. Eric Holcomb's COVID-19 executive orders included a necessary moratorium on utility service disconnections. With an order to shelter at home, families and individuals need electricity, gas, water and sewage services, even if their paychecks might have stopped arriving.

Now, Indiana's privately owned utilities are seeking not only to protect themselves from losses on delinquent bills, but also to require customers to make up a share of revenue lost when factories and other businesses were forced to shut down. A petition filed by 10 utility companies with the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission seeks 'to defer as a regulatory asset certain incremental expense increases and revenue reductions.'

Utility company spokesmen caution the petition doesn't mean customers will see immediate increases.

'There will be no immediate impacts or changes in rates,' wrote Nick Meyer, director of communications for Northern Indiana Public Service Company, which serves both natural gas and some electric customers in northeast Indiana. 'Any recovery mechanism would be determined at a future date and subject to full regulatory review.'

'This is a prudent regulatory accounting step that a regulated company must responsibly take to ensure the continued reliable delivery of a service that our customers count on when they flip the light switch, expect their milk to be cold, or plug in the family computer,' wrote Brian Bergsma, director of corporate communications and government affairs for Indiana Michigan Power, in a statement.

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That's true, but the petition's purpose is to inoculate NIPSCO, I&M and other privately held utilities from greater financial losses at the same time most customers '" residential and business '" are themselves reeling from economic catastrophe. The utilities' concern for shareholders appears to outweigh their concern for ratepayers.

And the Indiana Energy Association, the trade group representing the utilities, isn't entirely forthcoming when it suggests 29 other states have approved similar regulations. Other states agreed to allow their utilities to defer costs related to disconnections and unpaid fees. They have not agreed to allow utilities to make up for energy that wasn't used.

'Utility companies are still incredibly financially healthy, their earnings are fine, their paychecks are clearing, service is being delivered to customers, where's the issue?' Kerwin Olson, director of Citizens Action Coalition, told the Indianapolis Star. 'Who needs to be bailed out? Monopoly utility companies, or customers?'

Holcomb said last week he might extend the order preventing utility disconnects for non-payment. He should do so to prevent the mass disconnections likely to follow. A task force, with representatives from consumer groups, public service agencies and public and private utility companies, should be established to figure out how to handle the crisis once the moratorium is lifted. The office of the Indiana Utility Consumer Counselor has called on the state to study the pandemic's impact on utility rates and overdue accounts.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Hoosiers have plenty of headaches without worrying about higher utility rates. There's no reason for Indiana to place the recovery of investor-owned utilities before anyone else's recovery.

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South Bend Tribune. May 17, 2020.

Hoosiers have a right to know what's happening in the state's nursing homes

Unlike its neighboring four states, Indiana doesn't publish facility-level data on nursing home cases and deaths attributed to COVID-19.

Instead, state officials say they are relying on those facilities to report information directly to residents' families.

It's confounding that this information is withheld from Hoosiers - despite complaints from relatives of home residents about a lack of communication about illnesses and deaths. Especially when you consider last week's report from the State Department of Health that 584 people had died from the coronavirus at 121 long-term care facilities across the state, representing 41% of Indiana's total number of COVID-19 deaths.

In St. Joseph County, about 160 of the 826 people who have tested positive for the virus, or about 19%, have been in long-term care facilities. And 17 of the county's 32 confirmed coronavirus deaths, or 53%, have come from long-term care facilities.

Gov. Eric Holcomb's rationale for his refusal to name the facilities is that they are private businesses. But a March investigation by the Indianapolis Star revealed more than 90% of Indiana's nursing homes are owned by county hospitals, which are units of local government. They are also heavily dependent on public money, receiving billions in Medicaid and Medicare payments each year.

It was only under pressure that Indiana officials agreed to share regular weekly updates on nursing homes, but only statewide, aggregate numbers - and nothing about individual facilities.

In a recent Indianapolis Star report, Lynn Clough, who leads the state's long-term care ombudsman program, said that 'the majority of local ombudsmen around the state are experiencing an increase in calls with questions and complaints from frustrated family members not receiving information they seek regarding their loved ones.

Hoosier families and the public at large have a right to know what's happening in nursing homes across Indiana - something that other states have acknowledged by releasing information about COVID-19 cases and deaths in individual facilities. Providing this data is critical, and contrary to Holcomb's claim, would not violate the rights of private business.

We've seen this move against transparency play out in St. Joseph County, where most of the COVID-19 cases and deaths in long-term care facilities come from one facility in particular. According to Dr. Mark Fox, the county deputy health officer, the facility is the only one in the county with an 'outbreak,' with 107 people - 94 patients and 13 employees - testing positive there; 12 of the patients have died. And like state officials, county officials have declined to identify the facility.

But several family members of residents have told The Tribune that it is Cardinal Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in South Bend. Family members also expressed their frustrations about a lack of communication regarding their loved ones.

In the midst of a pandemic, with the public desperate for accurate, timely information, secrecy on matters of life and death - from state and county officials - is a disservice to all Hoosiers.

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The (Anderson) Herald Bulletin. May 16, 2020.

Sheltering the homeless is key to slowing the spread

The current crisis has exposed a lack of shelters in Anderson for homeless women and children.

If this pandemic has proven anything, it's that homelessness is not just someone else's problem. When a viral pandemic sweeps through the world, we are all vulnerable.

Perhaps the most vulnerable of all are those women and children who are in abusive homes. We've seen reported incidents of domestic violence significantly increase in these past few months in which many people have been out of work and stuck at home.

Perhaps as vulnerable as those who are stuck at home are those who have no homes to be stuck in. Homeless people have no choice but to continue to move in public spaces and they often lack the means for basic health care, meaning that they continue to present a risk to themselves and others during the pandemic.

The United Way and other agencies are doing what they can to address the problem, but they need our support.

Reporter Rebecca Bibbs' article in Tuesday's edition provided accounts of how honest working people have found themselves out of work as the coronavirus brings some industries to a halt. It is easy to see that without a strong support network, such people can become homeless through no fault of their own.

Hard times can affect any of us, and these days they're affecting all of us.

We as a community owe it to ourselves to see to it that resources are available to provide shelter for the homeless and for women and children who are in danger at home. This is a key element in slowing the spread of the coronavirus and future outbreaks that may threaten us.

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