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Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

A display of pots and bowls at Dandee Pattee's new ceramics studio located at the old Roosevelt School Thursday evening, Dec. 20, 2018.


State-and-regional
Laramie lawmaker introduces bill to ban child marriage

Depending on the circumstances, it is technically legal for one to marry a minor in 47 states across the country, including Wyoming.

This winter, a handful of Wyoming state legislators are hoping to change that.

Spearheaded by House Minority Whip Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers are bringing forward a bill to amend the state constitution that, if passed, would require individuals to reach the age of 18 before becoming eligible for marriage. According to the bill text, the legislation would repeal an exception to state law that allows someone aged 16 or 17 to marry with the permission of a judge.

The law has not been updated since 1977, according to state records.

“My intent is that we not allow parents, courts or individuals to get someone to make a life-altering decision before they reach the age of majority,” Pelkey said. “There are extreme examples of underage people marrying someone substantially older. My own daughter did something when she turned 18 that before, even with my permission, she would not have been able to do: She went to Wal-Mart and bought dry ice. You have to be 18 to do something as simple as buy dry ice but, under certain circumstances, you can marry at a ridiculously young age.”

“Marriage is a major lifelong decision, and frankly, it probably shouldn’t be left in the hands of a minor,” he added.

Child marriage in Wyoming

Marriage laws in Wyoming are already stricter than in many other states. Some, like New Hampshire, Hawaii or Massachusetts, have provisions that allow exceptions in their laws for children younger than 16 to marry, either with a court’s permission, permission of the family or both.

These exceptions have been long-standing in many states around the country; however, many have begun work to repeal them. In May, Delaware became the first state to completely ban child marriage.

Legislation also has been proposed in states like Connecticut, New York, Texas, Missouri, Maryland and Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, where House Republicans defeated a child marriage ban by arguing that raising the minimum age for marriage to 18 would negatively impact young members of the military and pregnant teens.

Delaware was almost beat out by New Jersey which, in 2017, managed to pass a bill banning child marriage on to then-Gov. Chris Christie. However, the governor vetoed the bill, citing a potential violation of religious customs for sects of the state’s rapidly growing Orthodox Jewish community, which has a tradition of practitioners marrying young and having large families.

Many sects of Judaism, however, frown upon forced, coerced or arranged marriages and represented the opposite side of the debate as well.

Newly elected Gov. Phil Murphy signed the bill into law earlier this year.

The practice of youth marriage in Wyoming has been in steady decline over the past two decades. However, child marriage across the state is still prevalent. Between the years 2000 and 2015, approximately 1,200 minors were married — a rate of 33 per 10,000 people married, according to figures compiled by the Public Broadcasting Service.

Numbers of child marriages have continued to fall since their height in the early 2000s. According to numbers obtained by the Star-Tribune from Wyoming’s Department of Health’s vital statistics service, just 68 marriage applications involving someone under the age of 18 have been filed since the start of 2015.

Only eight of those have been filed in 2018 – down from 29 in 2015.

Why the need?

Pelkey said he was inspired to draft the bill, which currently has seven co-sponsors, after listening to an interview with the executive director of a group called Unchained At Last, which has sought to end child and arranged marriages across the country.

According to the group — and to most statistics documenting the practice of child marriage — the youths involved in child marriage are disproportionately female (87 percent, according to data compiled by PBS) and, often, are pressured into marriage either by religious laws, manipulative partners or social customs.

Pelkey also argues that youth marriage can also have significant adverse effects on minors, and that young marriages often result higher rates of divorce and higher rates of poverty, as well as lower rates of education. This is partly backed up by a long-term study examined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2013, which found divorce rates among non-high school graduates was almost twice as high as couples with a college education.

At its most rudimentary level, Pelkey said the bill’s objective is simply to bring the standards for marriage in line with other areas of the law.

“I want to put the idea out there and see what people think,” he said. “I think it’s valid to get the discussion going, and it’s important to discuss and examine the issue closely.”


Health
2019: A LOOK AHEAD
Looking ahead: As 2019 begins, a slew of health care-related challenges face Wyoming

The challenges facing Wyoming when it comes to health care are myriad, especially as the Affordable Care Act enters another year of profound uncertainty. From access and cost to transparency and reimbursements, health officials and providers here have highlighted a broad range of issues within the health sphere that will need attention, and soon.

Where to begin?

On a national level, the ruling by a federal judge in Texas that the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional has set the stage for months of legal battles, with an audience of 325 million Americans waiting to see how the outcome will affect their care. Most of Wyoming’s neighbors will likely be eyeing those proceedings more anxiously than the Equality State, as nearly all have expanded Medicaid.

Still, should the ACA disappear, Wyoming will undoubtedly feel the impact. For one, it will leave thousands of chronically ill Wyomingites without the protections afforded under the ACA. Second, hospitals here — and across the nation — will likely cry foul. When the health law was being drafted and negotiated, American hospitals agreed to give up $150 billion in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements under the assumption that more people would be insured.

With the ACA gone and no replacement in place, that money would be gone, the number of insured Americans would drop, and charity care — hospital service that patients will not or cannot pay and the hospital absorbs — would jump.

Third, any prospect of expanding Medicaid here — and insuring 27,000 more Wyomingites within four years — will evaporate. Incoming Gov. Mark Gordon has expressed little interest in such a move anyway, though his predecessor, Gov. Matt Mead, has been a supporter for years. (Speaking of Gordon, he has not yet said if he supports the lawsuit that could unravel the ACA.)

Fourth, the roughly 25,000 Wyomingites who’ve signed up for health insurance via the federal exchanges created by the ACA would similarly face an uncertain future in a post-ACA world.

“To me, I think our congressional leaders, our delegates, would have a pretty hard time telling those 25,000 people that, ‘You’ve played by the rules, you’ve lived up to what we’ve passed here in Washington, D.C., and we’re taking it away from you,” Wyoming Hospital Association President Eric Boley told the Star-Tribune last month.

Not to say the ACA has been an overwhelming success story in Wyoming. Those same 25,000 people faced heavy premium price increases in 2017, after months of debate in Washington and a series of moves by the Trump administration. (One of those moves — the decision to stop repaying insurance companies who are legally required to provide subsidies to lower-income Americans — actually made insurance cheaper for some, however.)

Still, the cost increases were extreme and prompted officials around the country to search for a solution. In Alaska, officials filed a waiver with the federal government allowing the state to start a reinsurance program, which places the sickest — and, for insurance companies, most expensive — people on the exchanges into a separate pool. The result has been steadier and more affordable premium prices for Alaskans.

Wyoming has followed in Alaska’s footsteps and is prepared to file the same waiver, with support from Gordon. The Legislature must next approve that move; it will consider doing just that in its upcoming session. Should the waiver receive lawmakers’ approval, officials will then have to busy themselves establishing this reinsurance program and ensuring it cuts costs the way it’s supposed to.

Beyond the ACA

Those are a handful of the potential impacts facing Wyoming should the ACA be repealed without a replacement waiting in the wings. But they are not the only issues facing the state’s broader health care system.

At the top of the list for Tom Forslund, the director of the state Department of Health, is the state’s rapidly aging population. Forslund has been banging the drum about the looming costs of an older Wyoming for well over a year. As those people grow older, many will need long-term care, and few will have the financial resources to pay for it themselves.

As a result, Forslund told lawmakers in October 2017, the cost of long-term care here could balloon to $312 million by 2030. According to an AARP report, the population of Wyomingites age 65 or older grew 3.7 percent between July 2016 and 2017, the fastest pace in the country.

There’s no fighting the demographics or the progression of time. Forslund and other state officials have said the best way to keep costs down — while best serving the elderly — is to keep those people in their homes for as long as possible. That still costs money, money that the state and federal governments will have to provide, but it’s less than what would be necessary if every older Wyomingite checked into a long-term care facility.

There are signs already that policymakers are taking this concern seriously. In his supplemental budget request, Mead included $13.5 million in all to take care of the elderly, with $2.5 million for nursing home enrollment, according to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. But the issue will not be blunted by one budget or one legislative session; it will likely be a concern for Gordon throughout his time in Cheyenne and may persist beyond his tenure.

More health care-related challenges await policymakers. There’s the continued frustration of the lack of transparency in health care pricing — something Gordon and other gubernatorial hopefuls had expressed concern about. This is a problem nationwide but one felt especially acutely here, where there are few choices for most health consumers.

For instance, data compiled by a coalition of health groups — including the Health Department — shows Wyomingites routinely pay more for services across the health care spectrum than the average American, for reasons that are less than clear. A Casperite covered by the state’s Cigna plan is covered by Wyoming Medical Center but not by the hospital’s emergency room, which happens to be the only one in the state’s second-largest town. Policymakers at both a state and a federal level have expressed interest in making health care pricing more accessible for the average person, but doing that is easier said than done.

And still more challenges ...

The opioid crisis that has swept across America has drawn the attention of Wyoming legislators, even if the Equality State has thus far been spared the worst of the epidemic. A slew of bills aimed at reducing abuse and overdoses are set to go before the Legislature later this month, with former Senate President and current Riverton lawmaker Eli Bebout being a vocal supporter of tighter restrictions on the narcotic that contributes to the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans each year.

Air ambulances remain a problem, as well. The transports cost tens of thousands of dollars to Wyomingites and families who typically have little other choice — if they’re capable of making a choice at all — in an emergency situation. But Wyoming recently lost a lawsuit to a group of ambulance companies who said that the state could not cap how much it paid air ambulances for workers comp claims because of a 1978 federal law that supersedes any state regulation. Officials have signaled frustration at the cost of air ambulances, but it’s unclear what — if anything — can be done on a state level.

Wyomingites continue to drink and smoke at high rates, the suicide rate is similarly troubling, and access to care in such a rural state is limited. These are persistent problems here that are nonetheless pressing population needs.

In short, the list of health-related issues facing Wyoming in 2019 is lengthy. What is not addressed this year will not fade away but will return in 12 months, likely in a more perilous position.


National
AP
Congress leaders invited to White House for border briefing

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Tuesday invited congressional leaders to a White House briefing on border security as the partial government shutdown dragged on over funding for a border wall, with Trump tweeting, "Let's make a deal?"

The briefing will happen at 3 p.m. today, the day before the Democrats take control of the House, but the exact agenda wasn't immediately clear, according to a person with knowledge of the briefing who was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

The White House said the briefing would be provided by senior Department of Homeland Security officials.

Republican leaders will be attending. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as well as the top incoming House Republicans, Kevin McCarthy of California and Steve Scalise of Louisiana, are planning to be at the briefing, according to aides. Retiring Speaker Paul Ryan will not.

Nancy Pelosi, who is expected to take over as House speaker, and top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer will also be in attendance.

Pelosi said Democrats would take action to "end the Trump Shutdown" by passing legislation Thursday to reopen government.

"We are giving the Republicans the opportunity to take yes for an answer," Pelosi wrote In a letter to colleagues late Tuesday. "Senate Republicans have already supported this legislation, and if they reject it now, they will be fully complicit in chaos and destruction of the President's third shutdown of his term."

The White House invitation comes after House Democrats released their plan to re-open the government without approving money for a border wall — unveiling two bills to fund shuttered government agencies and put hundreds of thousands of federal workers back on the job. They planned to pass them as soon as the new Congress convened Thursday.

Trump spent the weekend saying that Democrats should return to Washington to negotiate, firing off Twitter taunts. He then revised his aides' comments to state that he still wants to build a border wall. And last week, he blamed House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi for the impasse that led to the shutdown.

On Tuesday morning, after tweeting a New Year's message to "EVERYONE INCLUDING THE HATERS AND THE FAKE NEWS MEDIA," Trump tweeted, "The Democrats, much as I suspected, have allocated no money for a new Wall. So imaginative! The problem is, without a Wall there can be no real Border Security."

But he seemed to shift tactics later in the day, appealing to Pelosi, who is expected to take over as speaker when the new Congress convenes.

"Border Security and the Wall 'thing' and Shutdown is not where Nancy Pelosi wanted to start her tenure as Speaker! Let's make a deal?" he tweeted.

Whether the Republican-led Senate, under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, would consider the Democratic bills — or if Trump would sign either into law — was unclear. McConnell spokesman Donald Stewart said Senate Republicans would not take action without Trump's backing.

"It's simple: The Senate is not going to send something to the president that he won't sign," Stewart said.

Even if only symbolic, the passage of the bills in the House would put fresh pressure on the president. At the same time, administration officials said Trump was in no rush for a resolution to the impasse.

Trump believes he has public opinion on his side and, at very least, his base of supporters behind him, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

The Democratic package to end the shutdown would include one bill to temporarily fund the Department of Homeland Security at current levels — with $1.3 billion for border security, far less than the $5 billion Trump has said he wants for the wall — through Feb. 8 as talks continued.

It would include another measure to fund the departments of Agriculture, Interior, Housing and Urban Development and others closed by the partial shutdown, providing money through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.

Democrats under Pelosi were all but certain to swiftly approve the package in two separate votes Thursday.

The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the House proposal. Republican senators left for the holidays refusing to vote on any bills until all sides, including Trump, were in agreement. The lawmakers were frustrated that Trump had dismissed their earlier legislation.

The president has not said he would veto the Democratic legislation if the bills were to land on his desk. But a prolonged crisis could hobble House Democrats' ability to proceed with their agenda, which included investigations of the president and oversight of his administration, including Russian interference in the election.

At least one Republican, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, encouraged Trump to use the budget impasse as an opportunity to address issues beyond the border wall. But a previous attempt to reach a compromise that addressed the status of "Dreamers" — young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children — broke down last year as a result of escalating White House demands. Graham said Trump was "open minded" about his proposal

The partial government shutdown began Dec. 22 after Trump bowed to conservative demands that he fight to make good on his vow and secure funding for the wall before Republicans lose control of the House on Wednesday. Democrats have remained committed to blocking any funding for the wall.

With neither side engaging in substantive negotiation, the effects of the partial shutdown spread and extended into the new year.