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Medicaid work requirement bill passes Senate as debate briefly returns to expansion

A bill that would institute work requirements for Medicaid recipients sailed through the Senate this week over the protests of one lawmaker and despite opposition from the Wyoming Hospital Association.

“As you listen to the testimony, (lawmakers) think this is a great thing and it’ll help people better their lives,” said Eric Boley, who heads the hospital group. “But realistically, we’re dealing with the poorest of the poor. We’re dealing with single mothers with two children. So we’re not helping them, and we haven’t addressed the problem.”

The measure — titled Senate File 97 — would affect between 2,500 and 3,500 Wyomingites, as many of the state’s 60,000 regular Medicaid recipients are exempted because of their health or age. But for those who would be eligible, the measure would require they perform 20 hours of work, schooling, volunteering in a community organization, or participation in an employment training program per week.

The measure would effectively target able-bodied adults, who receive Medicaid benefits but are capable of working, supporters say.

“Wyoming has always been a state about a hand up, not a hand out,” Sen. Larry Hicks, a Baggs Republican and the Senate bill’s sponsor, told the Star-Tribune recently.

The debate over the work requirement has led into discussions about Medicaid expansion. Hicks said that, in the past, Wyoming lawmakers would have been more willing to hear out arguments in favor of expansion had a work requirement been attached.

Boley said that the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recently told states they could institute work requirements to help states that had expanded Medicaid. In those places, more people are able to enroll and it’s more likely there are a greater number of able-bodied adults participating in the program.

But in Wyoming, the Legislature has chosen not to expand Medicaid. Sen. Chris Rothfuss, a Laramie Democrat and advocate of expansion, spoke against the work requirement bill Tuesday, before it was overwhelmingly approved by his Senate colleagues.

“I have no idea why this chamber would want any of them to go out and get a job,” Rothfuss said of Wyoming’s Medicaid recipients. “If we had expanded Medicaid and we had able-bodied individuals part of program, some of these provisions would make sense.”

He continued in that vein, ticking off the groups that would be unable to participate in the work requirement. (Those same groups would be exempted from participating in Hicks’ bill.) He said that people earning less than 56 percent of the federal poverty line while also raising children would qualify for the work requirement.

“Nobody’s enjoying life at 56 percent of the federal poverty level when they’re responsible for children,” he said, arguing that those individuals would already be searching for jobs.

As his speaking time wound down, Rothfuss tried to tie the debate back toward his previous expansion efforts but was quickly shut down.

“I’ve been standing up here trying to expand Medicaid,” he said, “so we will, so you can write legislation — “

“Let’s stick to the bill, Sen. Rothfuss. Time’s up,” Senate President Eli Bebout said, cutting him off.

Sen. Charles Scott, a Casper Republican, argued the impoverished adults Rothfuss referenced were exactly who the state should be targeting with work requirements. He said those 3,500 or so Medicaid recipients in Wyoming would be better off with the bill and the “helping hand” it would provide.

The bill would block people who failed to meet the requirements from receiving Medicaid benefits for a year. Boley, the hospital association president, said his group had lobbied that provision be softened. An amendment to the measure, submitted by Sen. Fred Baldwin, would have made the punishment a month ban for the first offense and then six months for the second.

It was defeated, though Hicks said he would be open to the penalty being softened. But the bill is now headed to the House, where its fate lies with a chamber that already this session failed to support an identical measure.

Boley said health officials are concerned partly because those who are kicked off of Medicaid as a result of failing to meet the requirement will still require care, either for themselves or their children.

That means they may not be able to pay for their care, or they may wait so long to be seen by a doctor that they could end up in the emergency room — still unable to pay — and are much sicker. That means that hospitals will have to absorb more costs, Boley said. For the patients, the options will be fewer and the circumstances more dire, officials have said.

“I just think it’s pretty punitive, the way it is right now,” he said.

After deciding to close schools, the Natrona County School District will now hold a hearing on the buildings' futures

More than a year after the Natrona County School District decided to start closing schools, it plans to hold a public hearing on the buildings’ futures.

The school board voted at its bi-monthly meeting Monday night to hold the hearing, a month after Mills filed a lawsuit against the district over the imminent closure of the town’s last school. Part of the suit included an allegation that the district had failed to hold a public hearing before shuttering the school, in violation of state law.

After the meeting, Superintendent Steve Hopkins said the hearing was not related to the lawsuit, which was filed after Mountain View Elementary was slated for closure. He said the school district’s attorney told officials they had to hold the hearing before they could proceed with selling, bulldozing or indefinitely shuttering the buildings.

The district had two regularly scheduled meetings between announcing its board would consider closing the schools and voting to shutter them. But neither meeting had an explicit period set aside for discussing the fates of the buildings.

The decision not to hold a public hearing was controversial with parents and community members throughout the county.

Last year, the district sold the old Roosevelt High building and the Fairground Center, apparently without a prior public hearing. After Monday’s meeting, trustee Dave Applegate said he didn’t think those buildings had their own meetings prior to their sale. Hopkins could not remember if they had but suspected they hadn’t.

The batch of buildings that will be discussed at the board’s March 12 meeting are largely from two waves of closures. Four of them — the district’s special education building and Grant, Mills and North Casper elementary schools — are up for sale or demolition.

The remaining five schools — Mountain View, Willard, Willow Creek, University Park and Westwood — would all be mothballed, or effectively emptied and maintained, should the district decide it needs them in the future. The process costs between $6,000 and $8,000 per building in one-time costs, largely for antifreeze, the district’s facilities manager said.

“A building is considered mothballed when there is spare footage of a district building that is closed and not operational,” Doug Tunison wrote in an email forwarded to the Star-Tribune. “To mothball a building: domestic water system is drained and filled with antifreeze, water heater is drained, heat is set to 55°F. Phone and mail service is stopped. Equipment, materials and personal items removed from the building.”

Hopkins said the buildings will be mothballed should they be needed in the future. The district’s board voted to close Grant, Willard, Mountain View and University Park because of a drop in enrollment and declining state funding. But, he said, both of those conditions may change in the future, and the district may find itself in need of a building again.

He predicted that Mountain View — the prepared closure of which prompted the Mills lawsuit — would be the first to reopen should more students and dollars flow into Natrona County.

Asked after the meeting if the hearing signaled the district was close to a buyer for one of the for-sale buildings, Applegate suggested the hearing may clear the path for officials to begin discussions with buyers.

Astronomers glimpse cosmic dawn, when the stars switched on

WASHINGTON — After the Big Bang, it was dark and cold. And then there was light. Now, for the first time, astronomers have glimpsed that dawn of the universe 13.6 billion years ago when the earliest stars were turning on the light in the cosmic darkness.

And if that's not enough, they may have detected mysterious dark matter at work, too.

The glimpse consisted of a faint radio signal from deep space, picked up by an antenna that is slightly bigger than a refrigerator and costs less than $5 million but in certain ways can go back much farther in time and distance than the celebrated, multibillion-dollar Hubble Space Telescope.

Judd Bowman of Arizona State University, lead author of a study in Wednesday's journal Nature, said the signal came from the very first objects in the universe as it was emerging out of darkness 180 million years after the Big Bang.

Seeing the universe just lighting up, even though it was only a faint signal, is even more important than the Big Bang because "we are made of star stuff and so we are glimpsing at our origin," said astronomer Richard Ellis, a professor at University College London, who was not involved in the project.

The signal showed unexpectedly cold temperatures and an unusually pronounced wave. When astronomers tried to figure out why, the best explanation was that elusive dark matter may have been at work.

If verified, that would be the first confirmation of its kind of dark matter, which is a substantial part of the universe that scientists have been searching for over decades.

"If confirmed, this discovery deserves two Nobel Prizes" for both capturing the signal of the first stars and potential dark matter confirmation, said Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb, who wasn't part of the research team. Cautioning that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," he said independent tests are needed to verify the findings.

Bowman agreed independent tests are needed even though his team spent two years double- and triple-checking their work.

"It's a time of the universe we really don't know anything about," Bowman said. He said the discovery is "like the first sentence" in an early chapter of the history of the cosmos.

This is nothing that astronomers could actually see. In fact, it's all indirect, based on changes in the wavelengths produced by radio signals.

The early universe was black and cold, filled with just hydrogen and helium. Once stars formed, they emitted ultraviolet light into the dark areas between them. That ultraviolet light changes the energy signature of hydrogen atoms, Bowman said.

Astronomers looked at a specific wavelength. If there were stars and ultraviolet light, they would see one signature. If there were no stars, they would see another. They saw a clear but faint signal showing there were stars, probably many of them, Bowman said.

Finding that trace signal wasn't easy because the Milky Way galaxy alone booms with radio wave noise 10,000 times louder, said Peter Kurczynski, advanced program technology director for the National Science Foundation, which helped fund the research.

"Finding the impact of the first stars in that cacophony would be like trying to hear the flap of a hummingbird's wing from inside a hurricane," Kurczynski said in an NSF video.

Because the high end of the frequency they were looking in is the same as FM radio, the astronomers had to go to the Australian desert to escape interference. That was where they installed their antennas.

They then labored to confirm what they found, in part by testing it against dummy signals in the lab, and it all showed that what they spotted was the existence of the first stars, Bowman said.

So far, the scientists know little about these early stars. But now that astronomers know where and how to look, others will confirm this and learn more, Bowman said.

The research does not establish exactly when these stars turned on, except that at 180 million years after the Big Bang, they were on.

When this signal was found and examined, it showed that the hydrogen between stars was "even colder than the coldest we thought possible," said Rennan Barkana, a Tel Aviv University astrophysicist who wrote a companion study on the dark matter implications of the discovery. The researchers expected temperatures to be 10 degrees above absolute zero, but they were 5 degrees above absolute zero (minus 451 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 268 degrees Celsius).

What seems likely is dark matter may be cooling that hydrogen, he said. Dark matter makes up about 27 percent of the universe, but scientists know little about it except that it's not made of normal matter particles called baryons.

Scientists have known dark matter exists, indirectly, through measurements based on gravity. If this interpretation of the data is correct, it would be the first confirmation of dark matter outside of gravity calculations, Barkana said.

It also potentially reveals something new about the nature of dark matter.

"If the result is correct it constitutes an indirect detection of dark matter and, moreover suggests something of fundamental importance (its interaction with baryons)," Johns Hopkins University astrophysicist Marc Kamionkowski, who wasn't part of the study, said in an email. "This therefore is about as important as you can get in cosmology."

Company withdraws application for controversial well to dispose oil and gas water near Cheyenne

EOG Resources, a major oil and gas firm drilling in eastern Wyoming, withdrew an application for a controversial injection well east of Cheyenne recently.

The well would have been located within a half mile of the Triple Crown Estates subdivision, alarming locals who had questioned its impact on their community and their wells.

Pole Creek 148-25H, as the well was called, was planned to dispose of the water used to drill for oil and gas by pumping it 5,000 feet below the surface in the Sussex aquifer. Some argued the aquifer is a designated drinking water source for future use.

EOG is one of a handful of companies whose presence in the Denver Basin of southeast Wyoming has grown in recent years. The Houston-based firm is credited with unlocking the formation for oil and gas that had been tricky to reach previously.

A spokesman for EOG said the company would continue to pursue its application for two other injection wells in the area. Pole Creek, he said, was deemed unnecessary for their current drilling plans.

The company noted in earlier interviews that EOG’s workers live in the area too, and shared concerns that development should be done responsibly.

The issue for landowners was not simply the Pole Creek well, however, but all three injection wells planned near their homes, hinting at the expected growth from firms like EOG in the prairies east of the state capital. With one well off the table, those concerned by the increase development say there are still questions about water in the area.

“We see this as a major win, but we have some work to do in regard to these other wells,” said Casey Quinn, a member of the Cheyenne Area Landowners Coalition.

Red tape

Wyoming regulators still hold applications for two injection wells in Laramie County from EOG. One of those wells includes a request to expand the area within the Sussex aquifer where EOG is allowed to pump produced water.

Tom Kropatsch, deputy supervisor for the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said staff was reviewing the applications.

“Once we have the required information we will evaluate the applications, review the public comments and make a final decision,” he said in an email Tuesday.

The right to interfere with a water source that has been marked as a potential drinking water source requires approval from the Environmental Protection Agency as well. The EPA offices in Denver received the exemption request from EOG last year and had requested that the company re-evaluate the area and the proximity of local water wells to the proposed injection well.

The EPA is still awaiting that updated information from the company.

A basin leader

Reporting on its 2017 earnings Wednesday, EOG noted that it had driven down costs in the Denver Basin of Wyoming. The company completed three wells in the area during the last few months of the year, as well as nine wells further north in the Powder River Basin.

Though based in Texas, the firm is an interesting player in Wyoming. Other firms watch EOG due to its record of drilling achievements in the state’s enigmatic eastern fields. Where EOG goes, others tend to follow.

The three largest operators in Laramie County increased production by 545 percent from 2012 to 2016, with EOG at the helm.

In an interview last year, spokesman Creighton Welch said EOG tries to keep regular communication with those who live near their operations.

“EOG remains focused on all permitting, monitoring, and reporting requirements to protect groundwater and the safety of our communities,” he said.

Water in the rock

The Sussex aquifer lies about 5,000 below the surface bound by the Pierre Shale. State regulators say the rock above and below will inhibit migration of the salty water touched by chemicals from oil production up to the domestic water wells closer to the surface. Officials also say their regulations on injection well construction are meant to keep leaks from happening. Local water officials argued in previous interviews with the Star-Tribune that the Sussex was too far down to be used as a drinking source in the foreseeable future.

Others disagree. Landowners point out a number of reasons why injection wells are worrisome from the inevitable degradation of wells over time that leads to leakage, to the long term viability of an aquifer in an arid region.

Laramie County is looking at nearly 5,000 permits to drill for oil and gas, said Shannon Anderson, a lawyer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a sister to the Cheyenne Area Landowners Coalition.

“That’s a huge number, and there is a large waste stream associated with those wells,” Anderson said. “There are traumatic impacts to aquifers for the drilling of those wells.”

The focus of the landowner objection to EOG’s injection wells was in part a look at the larger water issue associated with growing development in the Denver Basin.

Companies like EOG are also laying the groundwork for a massive development in Converse County to the north. Again there is a question of water — where it will come from and what to do with contaminated water afterwards, she said.

“It’s just important to take a pause,” she said regarding the injection well debate. “What is the best way forward both for the regulators and the company?”