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Cash, Credit, or BerkShares?

Local currency project is gaining momentum in southern Berkshire County


Residents of southern Berkshire County are doing away with the green and making room in their wallets for crisp, colorful BerkShares, a new regional currency that’s being used as part of an effort to encourage local consumerism. For about two months now, community members have been able to use BerkShares instead of federal dollars to purchase goods and services from nearly 200 participating businesses.

“There’s already a culture of supporting locally owned businesses and locally made products,” said Susan Witt, administer of BerkShares Inc., the lead organization for the project, and executive director of the E.F. Schumacher Society, a co-sponsor of the endeavor. “The BerkShares are just a tool to make that kind of support more visible and make it easier for citizens to remember to shop locally, because with BerkShares in their pockets, they can’t go online to shop or at stores outside the region. They’ll have to go down to their Main Street businesses, which takes more time, but builds community and links us more closely to the people of our region and the products of our region.”

BerkShares are available in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 20 and 50, and can be purchased at five participating banks for a 10-percent discount—90 federal dollars will buy you 100 BerkShares. While their primary intent is to promote the local economy, BerkShares also celebrate local figures, landscapes, and the work of local artists, which are depicted on the colorful bills. Approximately 333,000 BerkShares currently are in circulation.

Louann Harvey is president of the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, another co-sponsoring organization, as well as a loan officer at Berkshire Bank, one of the participating banks.

“I can tell you at the bank every third customer that comes into the bank is purchasing BerkShares,” she said. “It’s unbelievable.”

The BerkShares Web site,, lists almost 200 businesses currently participating in the project. Merchants represent numerous industries, including retail, entertainment, legal services, and much more. New businesses are being added to that list weekly, said Witt. BerkShares also often are accepted by businesses not named as official participants.

Each business defines its own restrictions and rules about using the currency, but typically BerkShares can be used interchangeably with federal dollars.

“It has been incredible,” Harvey said. “People are so excited because what we’re all about is trying to keep people here spending money locally. We [the Chamber of Commerce] have 544 member businesses, and if we can keep our local people shopping with our local merchants, it just makes for very happy members.”

The BerkShares project, while unique to the Berkshire region, is one piece of a larger local-currency movement.

The E. F. Schumacher Society, which is based in Great Barrington, Mass., has been involved with the regional-currency concept since the organization was founded in 1980. The nonprofit is designed as an educational organization, promoting issues of social and environmental sustainability such as local currency. In 2004, the organization convened an international conference about local currency at Bard College, which drew people from around the world.

According to the organization’s Web site, local currencies were used widely in the United States during the early 1900s. Today, there are a handful of active local-currency projects in the United States, as well as three projects in Canada and one in Mexico. The specific operation of each local currency varies from project to project.

BerkShares are somewhat distinct from other projects in that they are backed by federal dollars. When a business or individual chooses to cash-in their BerkShares, they again take them to one of the five participating banks. The 10-percent discount that applied to the consumer’s initial purchase of the BerkShares is subtracted from the total cash-in value, so, if a business owner deposits 100 BerkShares, he or she will receive $90 in return.

When consumers purchase BerkShares from a participating bank, the 10-percent discount is designed to serve as incentive for them to spend more in the local community, explained Witt. “Ideally, what will happen is the increased volume of trade will make up for that 10-percent loss [that business owners incur when they cash in their BerkShares], but if the merchants respend that, then they don’t take any loss.” This serves as a form of incentive for businesses to recirculate the BerkShares within the community rather than trade them in for federal dollars.

The BerkShares project, as currently designed, will cease after one year. In June 2007, the organizational co-sponsors will meet with bankers, merchants and citizens groups to gather feedback, Witt said.

If the various community constituencies indicate they’d like the BerkShares project to continue, it can be extended. The summer expiration date, however, provides an opportunity to adjust the program, Witt said. For example, the 10-percent incentive could be reduced to 5 percent, or a debit-card option could be instituted, she suggested.

If the residents and businesses choose to shut down the program, community members would have three months to redeem the BerkShares for federal dollars. Any difference between what was put in circulation and what was cashed in would be donated to charity.

Neither Witt nor Harvey expects merchants and residents to be ready to end the program any time soon, however. “We’ve printed 860,000 worth of BerkShares, so we expect to grow and we are ready for growth,” Witt said.

—Nicole Klaas

What a Week

Mayoral Fender Bender

According to a Dec. 9 article in the Times Union, the dents in Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings’ city-owned SUV are the result of his plowing the car into a fire hydrant while returning from a college basketball game a week earlier. Jennings claims that he hit the fire hydrant after swerving to miss a car that was pulling out of a gas station on New Scotland Avenue, but the mayor was unable to describe the car. Police Chief James Tuffey was the first to report to the scene, at the mayor’s request.

Your Outgoing Congressman Needs a Hug

John Sweeney (R-Clifton Park) has not taken his defeat very well, or so reported the Times Union. In the Dec. 10 article, it was noted that Sweeney has become a bit of a recluse, avoiding his new basement cubicle office in Washington (outgoing congresspeople get booted from their more spacious suites) and missing most of the votes. According to a fellow congressman, Sweeney’s health is also on the decline due to “a bug” the legislator claims he picked up during official trips to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Maybe Next Year

President George W. Bush was scheduled to deliver a country-uniting, faith- inspiring speech on Iraq before Christmas, during which he would reveal a new war plan. However, finding a new way in Iraq is going to take longer than expected, and an announcement has been rescheduled until after the holidays. “The president believes that in putting together a way forward, he will be able to address a lot of the concerns that the American public has, the most important of which is, ‘What is your plan for winning?’ ” White House spokesman Tony Snow told the press.

Who Are You to Tell Us We Are Wrong? Oh, You’re Kofi Annan!

Outgoing U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan ruffled some feathers with his farewell speech this week. What shocking thing did he say that has sent conservatives like Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) into finger-shaking overdrive? “When power, especially military force, is used, the world will consider it legitimate only when convinced that it is used, and is being used, for the right purpose—for broadly shared aims—in accordance with broadly accepted norms,” he said.

Ready When Your Provider Is

A cervical-cancer vaccine has been approved, but insurance questions and lack of government policy limit its availability

“Each year in the U.S., thousands of women learn they have cervical cancer. I could be one less.” That’s the opening statement in one of two commercials airing on television across the country as part of Merck pharmaceutical company’s recently launched “one less” campaign, which is intended to educate the public about the company’s Gardasil vaccine, the world’s first and only vaccine to prevent cervical cancer.

“The uptake has been very swift and robust,” said Marc Boston, a Merck spokesman, describing the response to the vaccine’s availability after it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in June.

Although Merck has received orders for the vaccine nationwide, patient requests for the vaccination often cannot be satisfied immediately, as women and hospitals sort through questions about availability, government regulation and insurance coverage.

Albany Medical Center’s obstetrics and gynecology office provides Gardasil, but physicians are advising women to first check with their insurance provider to determine if the company covers the vaccine, which costs around $120 for each of the three required doses. Physician Stephen Cohen said he’s aware of roughly one inquiry about the vaccine every couple of days, although he has yet to personally provide an injection.

Since demand for the vaccine is low, Cohen said the OB/GYN division does not currently stock the vaccine. Instead, women seeking it must make an appointment with a physician in order to receive a prescription for Gardasil. The script would then be filled at a pharmacy, and the woman would bring the vaccine back to the office during the first of three scheduled office visits, at which times she would receive the injections.

Not all pharmacies will be able to fill a script for Gardasil immediately, either. Michael Levine, pharmacist at Chazan Pharmacy in Albany, said he has yet to see a prescription for the vaccine. If he were presented with such a script, he said he would need to inquire about ordering the vaccine from his supplier.

Elsewhere in the Capital Region, both Planned Parenthood and St. Peter’s Hospital do not offer the vaccine, but spokeswomen for both institutions said they plan to do so in the future.

According to Blue Carreker, director of marketing and public affairs for Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood, Planned Parenthood supports the provision of Gardasil but is waiting for clarification of coverage by both state and private health-insurance programs. Such decisions are expected to happen after the Center for Disease Control publishes a formal policy about the vaccine.

The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization and Practices, which is charged with developing vaccine recommendations, set forth several suggestions for the use of Gardasil. These recommendations, however, will not become official policy until they are accepted by the CDC director as well as the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and then are published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The ACIP’s provisional recommendations include approval of Gardasil for girls and women between the ages of 9 and 26. The committee also indicated Gardasil should be placed on the childhood immunization schedule for girls between 11 and 12 years of age and should be included in the federal Vaccines for Children Program, which provides free vaccines to qualified uninsured children.

“We’re expecting, at that point [once the recommendations are published in the MMWR], that insurers will get on board and the [New York] department of health will be able to cover this,” Carreker said. “It is a very expensive vaccine and, unfortunately for us, because we’re faced with so many difficult financial issues, we need to be sure of what it will cost us and then what it will cost our patients before we can provide it.”

When and if the ACIP’s recommendations become policy, health officials and political observers expect states will begin to develop their own health-department policies and enact legislation in regards to the provision of Gardasil.

Women in Government, a policy-focused nonprofit, launched its Challenge to Eliminate Cervical Cancer Campaign in 2004. After the approval of Gardasil, the nonprofit launched a task force to develop several policy recommendations for implementing use of the vaccine. The task force report included recommendations for states to provide funding to support offering Gardasil through Vaccines for Children programs, require the vaccine for girls entering middle school, encourage health coverage by both state- and private-insurance providers, and develop educational programs.

Susan Crosby, executive director of Women in Government, said few states have adopted legislation and resolutions that address the task force’s recommendations, but she noted a handful of exceptions. For example, Crosby named Michigan as being on the “cutting edge” of the vaccination effort. In September it became the first state to consider legislation to require the cervical-cancer vaccination for school entrance.

New Hampshire also is set to become the first state to provide the vaccine free to all girls ages 11 to 18 when it begins providing Gardasil through its child-immunization program in January.

Crosby expected more states would develop similar policies when their legislatures return to session in January and as the federal recommendations are clarified by the CDC.

As the current questions about insurance coverage and government recommendations are answered by providers and state legislators, many expect demand for the vaccination will increase considerably.

“I think we’ll see a huge number of requests for it,” Cohen said. “There’s a backlog, obviously, right now because nobody in America has been vaccinated for it.”

Several years from now, when everyone who wants the vaccine has received it, Cohen said he expected Gardasil will no longer be provided in gynecological offices, which rarely stock vaccines, and will shift to pediatric departments and become a vaccine that’s provided almost exclusively to children.

Gardasil is said to prevent cervical cancer caused by certain types of human papillomavirus, which can be transmitted through sexual activity. Researchers have yet to determine whether the vaccine will require a booster later in life, as research data demonstrating Gardasil’s continued effectiveness currently extends only five years.

—Nicole Klaas

PHOTO CREDIT: Alicia Solsman

Standing in Solidarity

On Tuesday, more than a dozen members of the Muslim Defense Committee stood vigil outside the Federal Courthouse in Albany as part of a weekly show of support for Yassin Aref and Mohammad Hossain. The two men were convicted of terrorism and money-laundering charges in October after a yearlong FBI sting (“Prosecution or Persecution?” Sept. 28). “Right after the trial, we formed,” said May Saffar. “The FBI did a great job of putting us together.” The group members plan to continue their weekly vigils until the sentencing in February. Also, Saffar said, they are planning a 24-hour vigil in January outside the Rensselaer County Jail, where Aref is being held. “Cold, yes,” Saffar said. “I know. But what these men have to go through, this is the least we can do.”

—Chet Hardin

Loose Ends

-no loose ends this week-

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