Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Newspaper Blues, Mesothelioma Risks, Unfair Airfares, Boathouse Battle, and an Embattled Newsroom


HARD-CORE NEWSPAPER lovers in Marquette County are grieving.

After December 28th, out-of-town newspapers will no longer be trucked up here, except on Sundays.

Mader News Agency, the Green Bay newspaper distributor, says it doesn't make economic sense for them to make the trip anymore. The trucks will bring the papers as far as Iron Mountain but no farther.

Maybe we can find the Pony Express or a team of sled dogs to finish up the last 50 miles or so.

If we needed further evidence that the paper version of newspapers is dying, this is it. Mader says publishing and printing costs are too high, circulation is declining, and free Internet access to news is cutting into newspaper readership.

On the surface and in the short run, this is good news for the Mining Journal. It'll be the only game in town.

But for those of us who've been desperately clinging to our pulp-based New York Times or Detroit Free Press or USA Today, well....we'll now have to join the rest of the under-50 crowd, and click on to our computers or iPads for news.
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IT'S NOT LIKE we didn't know that mining could be hazardous to your health, but the latest study provides a few more facts.

It's a $5 million dollar, six year study conducted by the University of Minnesota and funded by the Minnesota state legislature.

The findings? Miners on the Iron Range of Minnesota working around taconite dust are more than twice as likely as the average person to get mesothelioma, a rare cancer.

The good news? The afflicted miners' families were not affected by the taconite exposure, nor were the surrounding communities. Just the miners themselves who were exposed to high levels of airborne mineral fibers.

The researchers strongly recommend that potentially exposed miners use respirators and other protective gear.

Cliffs Natural Resources says that's precisely what they do here in Marquette County: use respirators and conduct regular screenings with chest x-rays and breathing tests. Cliffs, which cooperated with this latest study, also says it supports continued studies on taconite exposure.

One other, unexpected finding in the Minnesota study: miners exposed to the ultra-fine dust particles had a 30% higher death rate from heart disease than the average worker.

Again, sadly, no huge surprise. Working at a mine is an inherently risky job.
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A QUICK COMPARISON of Delta airfares, roundtrip, to Detroit:

Leave Escanaba Dec 19, return Dec 21
     $447
Leave Marquette Dec 19, return Dec 21
    $584
That's a difference of $137.

Leave Escanaba Jan 1, return Jan 8
    $213
Leave Marquette Jan 1, return Jan 8
    $385
Difference? $172.

Leave Escanaba Dec 29, return Dec 31
    $517
Leave Marquette Dec 29, return Dec 31
    $1083
A difference of a mere $566. Pocket change.

It's crazy. The reason for the disparity, of course, is that Escanaba's airport (as well as Iron Mountain's and Houghton's) is federally subsidized. It gets almost three million dollars a year to keep the airlines at their facility, and keep their airfares artificially low.

It's all part of the Essential Air Service program, designed to guarantee air service to rural communities. Which is great, except that it punishes BIG, MASSIVE, HUGE airports like Sawyer International, which isn't considered small enough to qualify for EAS money.

Yeah, we're really big, like three flights a day.

Sawyer management also points out that our airfares are driven up because of supply and demand. Flights out of Marquette are usually full. Escanaba's aren't.

So that begs the question, why don't they bring more planes up here? That's a possibility.

Not only that, but with fuel prices now plummeting, maybe Delta and American will finally cut us a break on fares.

Yeah, and pigs will finally learn how to fly.
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IT AIN'T OVER til it's over.

That's the lesson the Upper Peninsula Community Rowing Club has learned yet again.

The rowers thought they were all set to start raising private funds to build a boat storage house (to be owned by the city) on the beach next to the Hampton Inn.

The City Commission, after a long, tedious process, finally approved the plan allowing the club to build the boathouse and then lease it back from the city. High-fives all around.

Well, the opposition never quite went away, and they're now circulating petitions to revoke the lease, or put it up for a vote of the people. The opponents have a daunting challenge--they need more than 1300 signatures of registered Marquette voters within a month or so. That's 10% of the voters.

Meantime, the two sides are hurling charges of misrepresentation, lies, and intimidation at each other.

Although it's debatable, the boathouse, as planned, does not seem obtrusive or unsightly. It'll cost taxpayers nothing. It'll provide boat storage space for the public (for a fee) and for the NMU rowing team, and also access for the handicapped. And it'll keep the rowers--a genuine asset to the community--in town.

Sure seems like a great idea, but if you believe that Marquette's coastline should be pristine and inviolable--and the rowers should just take a hike--then maybe another building on our shores is a problem.

Something else that's hurt the rowers' cause: the building of the Founders Landing condos a couple of years ago to a height that wasn't expected. A lot of residents were irate about it at the time but city officials, in response, just seemed to shrug their shoulders.

Distrust of our government? Nah, it doesn't seem possible.
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THE ORIGINAL REPORT out of ABC 10's newsroom was "hard times and mutiny."

Turns out that was a bit over-stated, but there is dissension within, and it concerns the new news director Greg Peterson, who's been known to step on a few toes from time to time.

Peterson has taken an aggressive approach to the news, which is not a bad thing. But at times, it's been a highly personalized and journalistically unsound approach, according to the critics.

They emphasize that Peterson knows news and has aggressively found news for ABC 10 but the presentation of the news has sometimes been sloppy, even unethical.

It should be noted that newsrooms are rarely mistaken for prayer circles or Kumbaya sing-alongs, but the rift at ABC 10 seems a little more serious than normal.

Strange: repeated attempts to contact Peterson on Tuesday failed. Staff members didn't know where he was or when he'd return, and he wasn't answering his cell phone.
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FOODIES REJOICE.

Spice Merchants, a brand new store featuring spices, teas, rubs, soups, chocolates and gifts, has opened downtown on Washington Street.

Looks pretty, smells great.

The owners are Mike and Carolyn Carl. She's a kitchen designer and he's been a commercial fisherman and schoolteacher. They both went to NMU, then migrated south to Florida before hearing the call to return north.

Now they're store owners, and Spice Merchants, which operates about 20 other stores, seems like a genuine enhancement to downtown, something that will attract both locals and tourists.

You looking for a Cranberry Maple Rub? Now you know where to go.


You got news? Email me at briancabell@gmail.com

If you want to be notified when Word on the Street is posted, go to Word on the Street by Brian Cabell on Facebook, and "like" it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Exiles from LA and Chicago, High Tech and Low Tech Jobs, Unemployed Sociologists, and Lug Nuts


THE DEAL TO sell the Landmark Inn, announced a few months ago, still hasn't been finalized but it's getting closer. The transfer of the liquor license and a few other minor details are all that need to be ironed out.

Graves Hospitality, which is buying the hotel, hopes to have it done in January...or by March at the latest.

Meantime, they're going ahead with transition plans. The Landmark's senior managers have undergone Graves training, the corporate chef has come in to take a look at the Landmark, and Graves executives are planning changes at the Landmark's upscale restaurant, Capers.

They won't be specific about their plans yet, but they do anticipate a significant change in the physical layout of the restaurant, as well as in the menu and the price point.

Translation: Graves wants Capers (Will they change the name?) to be younger, hipper, more welcoming, and less expensive.

Let's be honest. Even those of us who love the current Capers have to admit it's a little staid and stodgy, entirely appropriate for special occasions and big budgets, but less so for the younger, on-the-town crowd who are seeking an appealing destination for food and drink.

The man who will be managing the new food and beverage operations at the Landmark is Mike Mering. He's a local boy who's coming home after a decade in Chicago where he's most recently been the general manager of The Bedford, a highly-regarded "New American" restaurant.

Why the return to the U.P? He wants a lifestyle change--the outdoors, the friendliness, the ease of getting around. Yeah, we can relate to that.
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A SIMILAR STORY over on Third Street.

Superior Productions, a video production house, has been bought by B.J. and Kristen Alden. They've renamed it Northcoast Post.

The Aldens have family here in Marquette and also downstate but for the last 15 years or so, they've lived in Atlanta, where B.J. worked as a producer on CNN's Larry King Live, and in Los Angeles where he worked at FUSE, a video music channel.

Enough of the big city life, they say, enough of the glitz, glamor and insecurity.

They'll jointly operate Northcoast Post where B.J. will produce and edit, and Kristen will be art director and graphic designer. They'll continue to work with Superior's local clients--weddings and such--but they've also lined up corporate and institutional clients from across the nation. They can offer them high end design, graphics, and animation.

The Aldens are young, talented and energetic.

And what do they like about Marquette? Life is easy here. Their home, work, and children's school are all within blocks of each other.

Can't really say that about Los Angeles and Atlanta.
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WE SENSE A trend here.

Young people re-locating to a spot that, ten years ago, was considered too remote to offer a rewarding professional challenge.

That's what the new Smartzone will be all about--luring young, web-savvy, high-tech entrepreneurs to Marquette with the promise of resources, counsel, and networking that might ensure success.

Next step for the Smartzone is appointing a board of directors and finding an executive director. That should come within the next few months. After that comes the push to find the smart young guys and gals with great ideas and a little bit of money.

Can high-tech and web-related businesses succeed in Marquette? Hell, yeah. Take a look at 906 Technologies, Elegant Seagulls, Stang Decision Systems, RTI Surgical, Frontier Medical Devices, Biotech Navigators, Devicepatent. com, and others.

Yes, you can make money here, and live within five minutes of where you work, and buy a nice house for under $200,000...if you can put up with five months of winter.
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ANOTHER TREND.

Making technical education sexy and appealing here.

There are too many college graduates out there with sociology and literature degrees, and heavy student debt, who can't find appropriate jobs. You'll see them working at box stores, selling computers and TV's, or working as baristas at Starbucks.

The jobs simply aren't out there for them. But there are jobs, here in the U.P, for plumbers, auto technicians, and heavy equipment operators. Jobs that can pay $50,000 a year and more, and allow you to stay here where you want to live.

That's where the Career Technical Education (CTE) committee comes in. They got together a year ago--five of them--to get schools and colleges in the U.P. to focus more on good technical training because that's what local companies said they wanted and needed. They had the jobs but they couldn't find trained people to fill those jobs!

Now CTE has 19 members and about 30 companies working with them, and they're busy.

Ishpeming High School now offers a Geometry in Construction class that has students building and renovating structures. Marquette High School will offer the same class next year. NMU offers an auto technician program that gives the students paid internships at car dealers. An HVAC program may be next.

Programs at Negaunee High School, Marquette High School and NMU offer students the opportunity to get their high school degrees while simultaneously getting college credit in clinical science or industrial maintenance, tuition free.

And these kids will find jobs and make some money, enabling them to buy their computers from those frustrated sociology majors at the box stores.
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REMEMBER THE DOUG Garrison Show?

It was a slick, locally produced interview show that ran on TV6 for more than two years but then went off the air about a year ago.

Well, it's back on Local 3, the CBS station, and Garrison, who's talented and ambitious, hopes and thinks this time he'll get solid support from his employer. At TV6, he had to buy the half hour of time from the station, pay all the employees and then go out and sell commercials.

At Local 3, all he has to do is produce and host the show. The station picks up the costs and sells the commercials.

The show has aired a only couple of times so far, at 6:30 pm on Sundays before 60 Minutes--a great time slot but it's been irregular because it's frequently pre-empted by NFL football. After football season, it should air regularly.

The UP needs locally produced shows about the UP, but they need to make money. Maybe this will work.

Oh, rumor has it that some clown from Word on the Street will be on this Sunday's edition of the show.

(Correction: Garrison's show aired on TV6's sister station, Fox UP.)
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CALLING ALL CONTRACTORS.

The city needs someone to build a brand new, relocated Municipal Services Center. The old one's being torn down to make way for the new hospital.

The budget for the new building is $18 million, so if you've got a power saw and a hammer and some nails, you might want to put in a bid.

The city hopes to narrow it down to five companies a little later this month, then choose the builder by the end of January.

Site of the new building is still undetermined. City officials say they'll hold a town hall meeting before they make a final decision on the site. Understandably, they don't want to step on too many toes here in town.
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A FINAL NOTE that may further help explain why big city boys and girls are fleeing to remote outposts like the Upper Peninsula.

Reporter takes his vehicle into Pomp's Tires suspecting he needs new tires for the winter. At the very least, he'll get them rotated.

After ten minutes, reporter is informed by Pomp's employee that tires still have plenty of tread. No need to buy new ones.

Great. Reporter saves a few hundred bucks. So just rotate them.

Twenty minutes later, car is ready, tires are rotated. Mechanic reminds reporter to bring the car in after 50 miles to get lug nuts adjusted.

Great. Will do. The bill says $24.00.

Reporter: "Okay, how about I pay by debit card?"

Mechanic: "Oh no, it's free. You owe nothing. You bought the tires a couple years ago so it's free. Don't forget about the lug nuts."

Reporter, his wallet untouched, leaves shop thinking, Golly, we sure live in a nice community.


You got news? Email me at briancabell@gmail.com

If you want to be notified when Word on the Street is posted, go to Word on the Street by Brian Cabell on Facebook and "like" it.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A No-Holds-Barred Conversation About Our Hospital


SOMETHING DIFFERENT THIS week.

Let's call it a candid conversation about our community's hospital, with the voices of people from the inside--employees who work at UP Health System Marquette, formerly known as Marquette General Hospital.

We've all heard the murmurings, mumblings and grumblings within the hospital over the past few years, and they seem to have gotten louder since Duke LifePoint took over. But understandably few of the hospital's nearly 2000 employees want to voice their criticism publicly. They worry that they might lose their jobs.

And the media, who have their own economic concerns, also seem reluctant to take on what is arguably the most powerful institution and business in the county.

So we'll take a crack at it.

A couple of notes first. The four employees who spoke to us did so anonymously. We'll call them Doctor A, Doctor B, Physician Assistant, and Nurse.

After we conclude with their comments, we'll get responses from hospital CEO Ed Banos.
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WHAT MANY OF us have heard anecdotally over the last couple of years, especially recently, is that doctors are leaving the hospital. Quitting. Bailing out.

"Absolutely," says Doctor A. "It's not normal turnover. Doctors are fed up. It hasn’t been good and now it's getting worse."

"There's definitely been a spike in 2014," Doctor B agrees. "People are always coming and going, but we’ve lost some key doctors recently, and many of them were people we spent a long time trying to recruit. A big part of it is a lack of respect. The administration makes it clear that everyone can be replaced at any time. You can hit the road if you don’t like it."

So what's caused the problem? Is Duke LifePoint the culprit here? Well, that may be a little simplistic and unfair.

"The transition to Duke LifePoint has been rocky," the Physician Assistant concedes. "But nonprofits are being bought up by for-profits all over the country. This kind of transitioning is taking place everywhere, not just in Marquette County. When you make changes like this, people get apprehensive because you wonder whether the administration is looking for people to cut."

The Nurse noticed the change almost immediately. "When Duke LifePoint took over, they told us we had to get our nursing budget under budget," she says. "Otherwise, we were told they'd start slashing the staff. They were threatening people. I have a lot of friends whose positions were eliminated and some of them were awesome people."

"Ed Banos recently told a meeting 'We're going to get rid of negative people,'" Doctor A explains. "That sure seemed like a threat. If we try to bring issues up, we're reprimanded, we're called naysayers. A nurse recently brought up a problem and she was called a troublemaker. But she was right!"

The Nurse has kinder words for the CEO. "I have seen Ed Banos around. He seems to be putting in an effort, but the rest of them (the administrators), we never see them. I don't even know who they are. And the problem is, they're making staffing decisions without knowing what it takes to work on the floor."

"Comunication is essential," the Physician Assistant tells us. "The senior administrators need to let us know what we're doing and why, and they should listen to us. They don't do that very well, especially the senior staff. We never see them."

Possibly the biggest problem, according to the four employees, lies in the fact that the hospital is now owned by a for-profit, out-of-state corporation.

"Every decision comes out of Tennessee now," Doctor B says. "That's made a huge difference."
 
"Our supervisors and managers here have no say," the Nurse agrees. "Nobody at the hospital has any say. Everybody is a number. Everybody is replaceable."
 
"We're now practicing corporate medicine," Doctor B continues. "It's all about money. It used to be, What can we do for the community's benefit? We used to feel that we had a medical mission. No more. That feeling is gone."
 
"It's all about money," Doctor A says. "See more patients, earn more money, but do it with less staff. What can we do about it? We can leave or we can do what they want. We have to see more patients, we have to make more money. We're being asked to make a profit on people's suffering."
 
The single, indisputable fact is that Duke LifePoint is in business to make money. It has to be concerned with the bottom line. That's the nature of the beast. Increasingly, whether we like it or not, that's American medicine in the twenty-first century.
 
"An administrator said to me, 'What can be done to increase your productivity and our revenue?'" the Physician Assistant tells us. "It’s that simple. We all realize that’s what they want and if we want to keep our jobs, that’s what we have to do."
 
"There's a constant pressure to see more patients," Doctor B says. "It’s always, 'Can you see two more?' We’ve always been encouraged to increase our patient load but now the emphasis has really changed. It's always 'Can you squeeze a few more in?'"
And for the doctors who aren't seeing enough patients, there can be consequences. Their performance and salary are determined by their total of Relative Value Units (RVU's) which takes into account the number of patients seen and the severity and complexity of the patients' conditions. Doctors are encouraged to boost their RVU's.
 
"And they have a scorecard at the end of the month," Doctor A explains. "The fewer the patients, the worse. Names and identities are attached to the scorecards, so everybody knows the score. They try to shame you. It's like churches that used to publicize who put how much into the offering plate."
 
So is there something wrong with encouraging doctors to be more productive?
 
"Absolutely," says Doctor A. "Patients get the idea that we have to hurry up because we have other patients waiting so when they're talking to us, they leave things out. And then we as doctors are going to miss something because of the pressure to hurry up."
 
Clearly, there is pressure--to see more patients, to make more money, to make certain the hospital is economically viable.
 
"It’s a competitive market," the Physician Assistant points out. "Duke LifePoint is worried about Aspirus. Its just like Walmart in competition with Target."
 
"There's a fear of Aspirus," Doctor A agrees, "a fear that Aspirus is stealing our patients. And that's a possibility because patients are fed up with the long lines, the long waits, and appointments that are too short. The lack of attention. I don't blame them."
 
The picture they paint isn't pretty, but they concede that this may not be just a local problem.
 
"For a city this size, this is a good hospital," the Physician Assistant tells us. "We're blessed to have the physicians and the technology we have. Yes, we have egos and problems, but that’s probably like everywhere else. My feeling is the major villain in all this is the insurance companies and federal government with Medicare and Medicaid. They force us to treat patients like numbers, not individual patients."

The doctors are less kind.

"The Hippocratic oath says nothing about money," Doctor A says. "We all swear by it, but that's not how we're allowed to practice." 

"I'm not really optimistic about the future," Doctor B says. "How can you recruit doctors to a damaged place full of bitter doctors?" 
 
And the Nurse has the final word. "The hospital today is not about taking care of people. It's all about big money, big business." She pauses. "You know, I love my work. I love taking care of people but everything has changed and it's sad. It's really sad."
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NO SURPRISE, CEO Ed Banos has a different take on what's happening at his hospital.

Unusually high turnover among doctors? Not really. "We've had some specialists who've decided to leave recently," he explains, "but overall turnover has been normal. And those who decided to leave left for good jobs." 
 
Banos says he and an outside group have done their best to gauge employees' morale, and their conclusion is that it's actually rising.
 
"This has been a busy summer and a busy fall, and people have been working a lot of hours, but overall I think we're doing well," he insists. "And our patient satisfaction scores are improving. When I came here a year and a half ago compared to now, our quality scores are up."

How about the criticism that Duke LifePoint is pushing the staff to see more and more patients?

"I'd like to say its like that in any business," he explains. "We’d like them to see more patients and serve more patients. There are standards in this business and we want our doctors to perform what a normal practice can do. We’re trying to stop patients from migration. We don't want them to go to Green Bay."

As for the charge that the hospital is trying to weed out staff members who are maybe...too negative, Banos doesn't deny it.

"We make thorough evaluations of all of our employees and we take those evaluations seriously," he says. "We have a commitment to quality. We want to make sure we’re all on the same page here. We want to act as a team. If not, then maybe some employees might find that they're not the right fit for our hospital."

He says he understands that transitions can be difficult and that he, himself, is still relatively new to the hospital, but he insists he's trying to build a positive relationship with his staff. 

"I can't get out and see all 2000 employees every month," he tells us. "I do structured rounds and informal rounds every month and and we have employee forums. I try to get out as much as possible, especially in departments under stress."

 So ultimately, why is there such vehement criticism of the hospital and the way it's now operated?

"I think it’s only a small minority who aren’t happy in their jobs," Banos concludes.
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SO THERE YOU have it. Two very different sides of the issue.
 
Now, you could conclude that the four employees, from different departments, are not representative of the rest of the hospital, and that maybe they're just whiners.
 
Or on the other hand, you could decide the CEO is oblivious or disingenuous, and Duke LifePoint is nothing but a cold-blooded, cold-hearted, money-grubbing corporation.
 
It goes without saying that all big businesses and all big institutions have problems. Employees are frequently critical of management. Who hasn't thought, at one time or another, that his or her boss was an idiot?
 
But the internal, critical noise does seem to be a little louder here. 
 
Transitions are tough. Maybe we'll get over it. A brand new, state-of-the-art hospital, still at least a couple of years away, will certainly help.
 
It's just that hospitals occupy such a special, unique place in their communities.
 
We care deeply about them because they take care of us. And this is our hospital in our community.

 
 
You got news? Email me at briancabell@gmail.com

If you want to be notified when Word on the Street is posted, go to Word on the Street by Brian Cabell and "like" it.