Wednesday, November 30, 2011

From the House

Bluffton Today

The response to last week’s column was simply overwhelming, particularly with regard to the passing of my brother, Tom. We are immensely grateful for all the kind words and stories about Tom and how he conducted himself in his civic life and in his business. Although our holiday was a little subdued, we are resolved to carry on in the spirit of thanksgiving, enjoying friends and family and all the pleasures, great and small, of living in this not-so-little-town. Thank you.

The official kick-off to the Christmas season is, of course, the amazing and spectacular Bluffton Christmas Parade. It is always held the first Saturday of December. This year, that is the third of December.

When Mary and I first attended the parade many years ago, we were so charmed, it kind of sealed the wisdom of our moving to Bluffton. These were obviously our kind of folks. At that time, Miss Babbie was the parade organizer, and as with most of her events, it was so well put together it seemed as if an interesting group of people just happened to show up at town hall at the same time and follow one another down Calhoun St. and around the corner down to Scott’s Grocery.

The Bluffton Christmas Parade is a bit more formalized now, an understandable and necessary consequence of just crazy popularity. Most years there are at least ten thousand spectators lining the route, oftentimes ten deep, not counting the little ones scurrying about to retrieve the tons of candy launched from the passing floats and vehicles.

The parade will leave Bluffton Town Hall around 11a.m. and follow Bridge St., turning right onto Calhoun St., taking May River Road to Pin Oak St. and finishing at Oscar Frazier Park. Folks will start lining the route early, so plan accordingly.

The Friday evening before the parade is also a special night with the lighting of the Town Hall Christmas Tree at 5 p.m., followed at 8 p.m. by the lighting of the Promenade Christmas Tree. In between, the Bluffton Old Town Merchant’s Society will again be having the “Light Up the Night” celebration. Businesses and art galleries will stay open late for an interesting shopping experience lit by the glow of some 400 luminaries. The “Holiday Trolley” will also be on hand to ferry shoppers and partiers around the Old Town area from 5 to 8. There will also be four or five bands stationed throughout the neighborhood to liven up the evening.

For the last few years, “Light Up the Night” has been an extremely successful and enjoyable event. After the galleries and shops close, a lot of folks like to patronize the restaurants and low-key bars situated in the historic district and Promenade. As always, be sure to have reservations for dinner and a designated driver for the bar scene. (Sorry, I can’t help myself—I’m a dad).

Every year, the Hilton Head Island/Bluffton and Beaufort Regional Chambers of Commerce do a great job of reminding us to “Shop Local.” Great events like “Light Up the Night” certainly make it easy and fun to patronize the local shops and galleries, especially in Old Town. It just makes sense to support the merchants that make the area so vibrant and inviting. But don’t forget that Shop Local is also about your insurance agent, and HVAC installer, and all the service people you count on, from doctors to landscapers. These are your neighbors and friends, as well as the folks whose success creates the jobs we need to grow our local economy. Spread the love—Shop Local.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

From the House

Bluffton Today

I want to thank all of you for the emails, questions, and positive suggestions concerning the last two columns devoted to Medicaid/Medicare issues. We always appreciate it when we get calls from people saying they now have a better understanding of issues we try to help with, both in the column and from the office. We do our very best for each constituent, but there is something humbling and gratifying when we get a modicum of acknowledgment for our efforts. None of us are immune to the powerful charm of the simple “thank you.”

I also want to give thanks on behalf of my family to all the good folks who stopped by the office, called, or emailed us at the passing of my brother, Tom. The long contest with his ultimately terminal adversary showed us a man of persistent optimism, immune to despair, who endured his trial with good grace and humor even as the inevitable approached.

Tom was trained as an accountant, with interests around Beaufort County as well as in the mountains of North Carolina. While he was frequently about his businesses both here and away, we shared an office in Bluffton for almost eighteen years. More times than I can count, as Cathy and I would struggle to keep up with the issues and demands of my legislative office, Tom would pitch in. He became so familiar with the workings of state government and with the people who run the offices at the various agencies; he became an integral part of the team. He was so personable that many of those agency heads became his personal friends, eager to help with our requests. Everyone liked Tom, but those who knew him best, liked him the most. He will be missed.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. If the truth be told, most of us in District 118 have so much to be thankful for, a proper tally of gratitude would fill a dozen issues of Bluffton Today. Our blessings and abundance also require that we share with those who might be momentarily excluded from prosperity, or facing health challenges, or simply don’t have the good choices most of us enjoy. Local civic and church groups offer a huge array of opportunities for service. The local Rotary is ringing the bells for the Salvation Army. Bluffton Self Help and the new Volunteers in Medicine both need helpers, both as workers and as check-writers. Service is the active form of gratitude.

Speaking of gratitude, there were boatloads of grateful folks last Sunday out on the high bluff over the Colleton River at the Waddell Mariculture Center for the 4th Annual Taste Of Waddell celebration. Sponsored by the Friends of Waddell and the HHI Sportfishing Club, the event was a benefit for the cobia, red drum and sea trout enhancement program, as well as the Port Royal Sound red drum study and other essential projects carried on by Al Stokes and his crew at the mariculture center.

Participants not only had a gorgeous Lowcountry afternoon to enjoy, they also got to taste some of chef Mike Sigler’s specialty shrimp dishes, enjoy Bluffton bluegrass with Lowcountry Boil, and compete for some pretty impressive auction items donated by local charter captains and merchants.

In a later column, I will detail how Waddell went from nearly being defunded every budget cycle for a decade to being the centerpiece of the newly expanded water quality effort being spearheaded by the Friends of the Rivers’ successor organization, Port Royal Sound Foundation.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

From The House

Bluffton Today

We certainly appreciate all the calls and emails this last week, particularly on the Medicaid/Medicare issue. The number of constituent contacts was around 385, which is very close to record territory and uncharacteristically high for the off season. The cost of medical care is something nearly everyone is focused on, especially in light of the expected changes relating to the federal law known as the Affordable Care Act, which will start to kick in with a vengeance in 2014.

Just a reminder: If you have questions or need help with Medicaid related matters, we are the folks you want to call. If we can’t help you, we can send you to the right person or office. If your questions are concerning Medicare, please call Rep. Joe Wilson’s office.

Last week, we drew a clear distinction between Medicaid and Medicare, as well as who is covered by each program, and some commentary on why this is an important distinction. I also gave a small preview of some major changes in store for the state administered program, Medicaid. Nearly all of those changes are mandated by the aforementioned Affordable Care Act, which, in its current form, will become a factor in our state budget process beginning in 2014, and really slamming us in 2017.

One of the well-meaning, but stunningly misguided, intentions behind the Affordable Care Act is to reduce or eliminate the uninsured from our medical care delivery system. One of the ways this will theoretically be accomplished is by dramatically expanding the Medicaid program. While Medicaid is currently the state administered, state/federal jointly funded healthcare program for our very poor, elderly, and disabled, the new mandate enlarges the program to cover essentially all uninsured persons or families making less than 133 percent of the federally defined poverty standard. Although the numbers don’t always match up, this means that a family of four making less than $30,800 in 2011 would now be eligible for Medicaid. There are quite a number of folks between the ages of 26 and 65 that fall into this category.

From inception in 2014 going forward for three years, the federal government will pay for the newly eligible Medicaid enrollees. After three years, they become the responsibility of the states. Most states, and our state in particular, currently are struggling to keep up with their Medicaid obligations. By 2017, this newly created unfunded mandate will absorb an unmanageable portion of our state budget. This assumes, of course, that the feds don’t modify the system in light of the unsustainable financials, as they did with the Long Term Care portion of their “reform.”

As a consequence, we are looking at a level of imposed uncertainty on our state budget that has this legislator losing sleep. As a member of Ways and Means, I will be responsible for deciding what we will have to cut in order to comply with this federal mandate. In my view, there are not too many good options at this time. This is time when I have to ask for your help, to tap the wisdom and experience of the voters of District 118.

If, in your experience, there is a more effective way to organize our health care system, now is the time to share it. There is consensus only in the fact that our present system is headed for a point where healthcare costs and GDP become the same number. The system represented by the Affordable Care Act essentially rearranges the various payers, but does little, again in my view, to attack the core of the issue, which is how to have acceptable healthcare at an acceptable cost.

Let me hear from you.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

From The House

Bluffton Today

After my recent comments regarding volunteering for the many boards and commissions that make every level of government run more effectively, we had a few folks call and indicate a willingness to serve. One of the first was my friend Chuck Stewart of Rebel Dog Cycles in Bluffton. After reviewing Chuck’s very impressive resume of civic volunteerism, I believe that with a few more good citizens like the CEO of Rebel Dog Cycles on our myriad boards and commissions, we would see a marked improvement in their overall performance. Thanks, Chuck.

I guess the thing is this: we all have the right to complain and I welcome your input whether it’s positive or negative. However, the corollary of complaint is service. If you can contribute a little time and effort, your suggestions for improvement usually carry more weight. Those suggestions are usually more informed as well. Together, we are a lot smarter than any one of us individually.

Several of the many calls we received this week were concerning the difference in Medicare and Medicaid, and why is Medicaid such a big issue now.

Simply put, Medicare is federal and Medicaid is state. Medicaid is a 46-year-old health care program for the very poor, elderly and disabled. It is means tested, jointly funded by the federal and state governments, but managed by the states. It is known as the nation’s health care program for low-income Americans, though it currently covers only certain categories of people.

In 2010, Medicaid covered about 60 million people, with around 46 million of those being low-income children and their parents. It is the largest source of health insurance for our country’s children. Medicaid also covers almost 9 million non-elderly people with disabilities, among them 4 million children with physical and mental illnesses and 8 million low-income seniors who also qualify for Medicare. The dual qualified seniors usually are much sicker and poorer than regular Medicare recipients. Medicaid helps to pay these senior’s Medicare premiums, as well as pay for long-term or nursing home care. There is also a pregnancy benefit for low-income women that extends for the duration of the pregnancy.

The reason the Medicaid financials loom so large in our budget is that with the economic downturn, the numbers of potential Medicaid recipients has escalated dramatically. It essentially is a negative multiplier of the effects of poverty in our state. We receive less revenue from all sources, but the obligations on our system are increased exponentially by this “safety net” insurance feature.

This is one of the reasons for my fixation on jobs and economic development. As we create more good jobs, fewer South Carolinians fall into the safety net, so that even modest job gains boost our bottom line by a big number since the negative multiplier is reduced. Just as one lost job can create a whole family of Medicaid recipients, one new, good job can take all those family members off the Medicaid rolls.

Next week, I will offer a preview of some of the changes likely to be made in the Medicaid landscape.

For some good news, we only have to look as far as Old Town Bluffton. A week after the success of the Arts and Seafood Festival, this weekend saw great turnouts for both the Art Walk on Friday and the Palmetto Animal League (PAL) Beer and Oyster event at the Promenade on Saturday evening. Let’s extend the streak to the Taste of Waddell celebration next Sunday from 3-7 on the bluff at the Waddell Mariculture Center. I guarantee a great time for all.