August 3, 2015

Wisconsin Ag officials lift avian flu quarantines at three sites

File photo: DACTP

File photo: DACTP

The state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection has ended quarantines at three of the nine poultry producers hit by avian influenza earlier this year.

The affected operations are in Chippewa, Barron, and Jefferson counties. The end of the quarantine means they will be able to restock their barns and resume business, months after they were shut down and forced to destroy their flocks.

Cases of avian influenza spiked this spring, with several neighboring states also seeing a large number of outbreaks. In Wisconsin, the virus forced the destruction of more than a million birds.

There are still six sites in the state under quarantine. They are in the final stages of testing for the highly contagious flu virus before they will be allowed to reopen.

While the virus has not been seen in Wisconsin since this spring, ag officials caution it could make a return this fall when temperatures fall and wild birds begin to migrate.

Wisconsin WIC program transitions to electronic payments

A state program that helps provide nutrition to mothers and their young children is changing the way it makes benefits available.

The Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC nutrition program has paid out benefits to participants using paper checks since the 1970s. That started to change in June, says Wisconsin WIC program director Patti Hauser. The program is in the midst of moving to electronic debit cards, similar to those used to provide FoodShare benefits.

Hauser says there’s not much cost savings for the state with the switch, but it will make it easier for recipients to check-out at grocery stores. “The transaction goes just much quicker at the cash register. The family doesn’t need to sort their WIC foods from their other foods,” she says. Also, they are able to pay with just a swipe of their card.

The state began issuing cards in June and is phasing them in across the state over the summer. Hauser says they hope to have the funds transfer system fully implemented by the end of September.

Bill offers Wisconsin health care workers flu shot exemption

Rep. Thiesfeldt

Rep. Thiesfeldt

A bill introduced in the Wisconsin legislature would permit more health care workers in the state to refuse flu shots. Current state law does not require such employees to get the influenza vaccination, but some health care facilities require workers to do so. A state lawmaker wants them to be able to refuse for personal reasons.

“What we mean by personal exemption is you just simply don’t want it, you don’t need any specific reasons,” said Hariah Hutkowski, research assistant to state Representative Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac). “We think it’s a matter of personal freedom, for individuals to make their own personal health care decisions without having the high pressure of losing one’s job.”

“You base that against the risk . . . to those who are being protected from the flu, and I think it’s pretty simple,” said Steven Rush with the Wisconsin Hospital Association, which opposes the measure. “This is really allowing folks to just have a personal choice that they don’t want to have the flu vaccine. “You’re really trying to weigh that concern, versus the concern of protecting our patients.”

“In Wisconsin last year, 3,000 individuals were hospitalized due to influenza,” said Rush. “Four hundred of those were so sick they had to be in ICUs. Especially at risk are the populations that are most vulnerable: elderly, children and those who are immune-compromised” Rush said 93 percent of hospital workers got the flu shot in 2014.

Hutkowski noted that some health care providers do allow their employees to opt out of the shot. “I did a little research, and we found that UW Health in Madison and Meriter have offered an essentially personal exemption,” he said. “UW Health’s is called a personal conviction exemption, and Meriter’s is a non-medical reason.”

Nichole Marty with OakLeaf Pediatrics in Eau Claire said all employees receive the flu shot for patient safety, and that even if the bill from Thiesfeldt becomes law, OakLeaf employees who opt out of getting a flu shot will be required to wear masks during the work day in order to protect their young patients from getting the flu.

Thiesfeldt offered a similar measure in the previous session of the legislature.

Planned Parenthood Wisconsin responds to calls for investigation

Several Republican lawmakers have called for an investigation of Planned Parenthood health clinics in Wisconsin, following the release of a video from an anti-abortion group that claims to show discussions about the sale of fetal body parts.

Planned Parenthood has described the secretly recorded video as “heavily edited” and said the discussions about pricing were actually about reimbursement costs for transporting donated tissue to research facilities, which it says is a common practice. The provider said any tissue is donated voluntarily and “there is no financial benefit…for either the patient or for Planned Parenthood.”

Officials with Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin argue there’s no reason for an investigation of its state operations, because fetal tissue donations are not allowed at any of its facilities. Executive Director Tanya Atkinson says it’s due to the extensive infrastructure that’s needed to participate.

AUDIO: Tanya Atkinson, Planned Parenthood (:08)

Atkinson called requests for an investigation by Republicans an attempt to turn the video into a “political opportunity,” noting that the group behind the video and its supporters are advocates for completely abolishing abortion and placing other restrictions on how women access health care.

State Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Cedarburg), one of the lawmakers calling for an investigation, does not accept Planned Parenthood’s claims that tissue collection is not done in Wisconsin. “No, I’m not going to just take their word for it. I think we need to see that and confirm that.”

AUDIO: Sen. Duey Stroebel (:14)

Atkinson says Planned Parenthood, which operates 22 health centers in the state and is entering its 80th anniversary in Wisconsin, will continue to be here, “despite all of the political attacks that will obviously come our way.”

Wisconsin attorney general sues over drug testing requirement

Attorney General Brad Schimel

Attorney General Brad Schimel

Wisconsin’s attorney general has filed a federal lawsuit aimed at allowing the state to enforce a new drug testing requirement for food stamp recipients.

The provision, included in the state budget signed by Governor Scott Walker over the weekend, allows the state to require a drug test for any able-bodied adult without dependents who applies for FoodShare benefits. Federal officials have told the state that it will be unable to enforce the mandate, because federal law prevents states from imposing eligibility requirements for food stamp programs that differ from federal standards.

Governor Scott Walker has said the requirement is intended to make it easier for welfare recipients to be “job ready,” arguing that many employers have complained about being unable to find job applicants who can pass a drug test. In a statement released Tuesday, the governor said that “by requiring able-bodied adults to be drug free, we aren’t making it harder to get government assistance; we are making it easier to get a job. Our reforms offer a hand up to those who need it, so they can get back on their feet through drug treatment and access to employment training.”

The state maintains it is allowed to require testing, based on a 1996 law that allows states to test “welfare recipients” and impose sanctions on them. The Department of Justice is arguing that “FoodShare recipients are “welfare recipients” and therefore may be tested and sanctioned for the use of controlled substances” and Attorney General Brad Schimel said that there needs to be more “clarity” from the federal government about the issue.

The state is asking for a federal judge to issue an injunction, which would allow the drug testing requirement to go forward.