’em! Albany County Comptroller Mike Conners.
Photo: John Whipple
County is being screwed by pharmaceutical companies, county
County Comptroller Mike Conners has instituted an audit of
prescription drug costs to the county for patients on Medicaid,
and if early results are any indication, Albany County is
being gouged by pharmaceutical companies.
Conners began his investigation due to a very noticeable 25
percent increase in the county’s Medicaid prescription drug
costs from 2002 to 2003. For the first 20 drugs audited, Conners
has found overcharges of about $2.2 million.
So far, the audit has looked into purchases from 2002, but
Conners predicts that, because of the 25 percent increase
in costs from 2002 to 2003, it is likely the overcharges in
2003 will dwarf those of 2002.
Before Conners began his audit, he invited 44 drug companies
to take part in a forum on the potential cost discrepancies.
Of the 44 invited companies, none attended the meeting.
was contacted by their law firms,” said Conners. “They all
said the day was inconvenient or had some [other] excuse.”
Conners was later told by two drug company lobbyists that
the companies feared Conners was looking for publicity for
his Congressional run. Conners points to the fact that he
invited the companies to take part in a meeting before he
began the audit and the fact that he did not bring the matter
up during his campaign as proof that his intentions were pure.
But now that the audit has begun, Conners has dispensed with
pleasantries and said “We’re going to have to sue the bastards!”
Conners’ frustration and adamance stems not only from the
overcharges the audit has revealed—only two of the first 28
drugs looked at so far have not been overcharged for—but from
the difficulty he encountered in trying to find out what the
companies should be charging in the first place.
After several unsuccessful attempts to obtain accurate data
on what the county had actually purchased and what it had
been charged, Conners finally received a disk from the Department
of Health with figures showing what was purchased, what was
charged, and what should have been charged. “We should be
charged 80 percent of the lowest wholesale price. Instead,
the companies institute a policy that creates artificial wholesale
prices, which amounts to a mechanism to enrich reimbursement
for drugs that assist the poor,” Conners states.
Albany County’s audit was inspired by a lawsuit the City of
New York filed against the same 44 drug companies for overcharging
its Medicaid program. Conners made it clear that the law firm
in charge of New York City’s law suit is very willing to take
on more litigants. Conners has officially recommended that
Albany County join the NYC lawsuit. “It’s up to the Legislature
now. I want to see them sue the bastards!” Conners repeats.
According to County Legislator Shawn Morse (District 18),
if Conners’ audit pans out, the legislature will take action.
“I can assure you that with all the financial problems Albany
County faces, if Albany has the chance to go after people
who are robbing our taxpayers, we will.”
According to Conners, while the gouging by pharmaceutical
companies is a huge problem, it is “only another proof that
Medicaid is irrevocably broken. We’re giving the poor low-quality
care and the county is paying for it at a Rolls Royce price.”
Again, Morse agrees, adding, “We need to create solutions.
We can’t just complain. I am familiar with Mike’s proposals
and I support him wholeheartedly.”
Conners’ proposals include passing legislation that will allow
the county to buy drugs at a group, wholesale rate and then
pass on the savings to the county’s taypayers. He also proposes
“hiring the young and senior poor for community outreach to
help care for the elderly in their homes. Keeping the elderly
from being shoved into a nursing home for even a year can
John McDonald, mayor of the city of Cohoes, who is also a
pharmacist, says that Conners’ efforts are admirable, but
he insists there is a larger issue at play here and that issue
is the power of pharmaceutical companies. “Getting drugs from
Canada isn’t the answer,” said McDonald. “The drug companies
can control their shipments and pricing in Canada as well
as they can here.” McDonald also sees the need for a limit
on advertising; he points to the pharmaceutical industry’s
ability to convince consumers through advertising that a new
more expensive drug is more effective than the cheap, older
one that they are also manufacturing.
As it stands now, Albany County’s audit has focused on 200
out of 6,000 drugs purchased by Medicaid in 2002. Conners
expects that as the audit progresses and more years of expenditures
are covered, things will look much worse. And he points to
the techniques pharmaceutical companies use to keep their
patents, techniques such as slightly tweaking a drug before
the patent runs out to make it new, preventing it from coming
up for grabs by generic drug manufacturers who can sell it
at a lower price.
Conners states it is estimated that “By 2013 our nation’s
prescription drug bill will jump from $250 billion to $520
billion. This increase is not sustainable. Something must
like to thank Mr. Collins for his comments. As
always they were enlightening.”
Gary Domalewicz (District 11) after being cut
off by legislator Paul Collins (District 9) because
he was speaking about a proposal that had already
been sent to committee, which is against the rules.
(At the Nov. 8 County Legislature meeting.
Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American
Civil Liberties Union have filed a lawsuit against
a government requirement that nonprofits wishing
to participate in the federal employee payroll
deduction production certify that they do not
“knowingly employ individuals or contribute funds
to organizations found on the following terrorist
related lists.” The lawsuit argues that it is
unclear what constitutes “knowingly.” How often
are nonprofits expected to check the list, how
close a match does a name have to be, and what
actions need to be taken if there is a match?
The groups also note that the lists are unclear,
include multiple aliases, and numerous incredibly
common names with little other information.
Lifeline, For a Fee
York is one of the last two states that doesn’t
charge a fee for the high-school equivalency GED
test, but that may change next year. The federal
government has said the fund New York was using
for the test costs can only be used for instructional
purposes, and a new source of funds has yet to
be found. The idea has caused an outcry among
people who say it will further discourage high-school
dropouts already stuck in low-paying jobs.
We Get a Second Opinion?
the NYPD decided in August that officers charged
with misconduct surrounding the RNC protests by
the Civilian Complaint Review Board won’t be disciplined
until they get a second hearing from an internal
NYPD panel. The NYPD says the CCRB was encouraging
“anarchists” to file complaints. The NYCLU has
called upon Mayor Bloomberg to abolish the panel,
saying it would only delay the proceedings and
Vant to Know About You
Dec. 10, people reading the Times Union
online will have to register first. As with many
news sites, registration is free, but users must
enter their gender, age, location, and interests,
so advertising may be targeted to them. The privacy
policy seems standard, although the line “we may
share your information with entities under control
of, or under common control with Hearst” could
be broad enough to cause some readers to think
twice. We can’t help but think that bugmenot.com
will be gaining a few more users on Dec. 10.
R People 2
the robot contingent got in on last weekend’s “Blue State
Speaks Out” rally, as a pair of angry sign-toting bots shuffled
downtown to announce that they too were mad at “something.”
What they were actually mad at, we’re not quite sure—although
one of their human helpers from UAlbany mentioned something
about a “wave of robot inequality” overtaking the nation.
We’re not so sure that they were really the cybernetic organisms
they claimed to be, but here’s hoping they’re able to stem
that pesky tide of robot prejudice.
on a Minute
Common Council agrees to a moratorium on new charter schools
until further word on their success
a long, heated debate, Albany’s Common Council opted on Monday
to ask the state to make sure the local charter-school system
gets a passing grade before allowing it to expand any further.
almost three hours for the vote to occur, but council members
eventually voted 13-2 in favor of the resolution urging the
New York State Board of Regents and the SUNY Board of Trustees
to declare a moratorium on approving any new charter schools
for the city of Albany. In passing the resolution, the city
of Albany joins both the Albany County Legislature and the
Albany School Board in requesting that charter-school expansion
be halted until the success of the controversial program can
be better evaluated.
is something essentially wrong with a system which takes money
from one group of children for the benefit of another,” said
Bill Ritchie, president of the Albany Public School Teachers
Association, during the council’s public comment period. “The
citizens of Albany voted in legal referendums to rebuild and
reconstruct the majority of Albany public schools. Charter
schools were not included in any referendum on which citizens
of Albany voted.”
system has earned its share of support and criticism [“Waiting
for a Miracle,” Nov. 21, 2002] since the first charter school,
New Covenant, opened in downtown Albany in 1999. Currently,
Albany is home to two charter schools at the elementary level,
with two middle schools scheduled to open in the near future.
Two more schools have applied, but have yet to get approval
from the state.
of the criticism surrounding charter schools centers on the
use of public funds to operate the schools, despite their
for-profit private ownership. For each student attending the
school, that student’s school district is required to foot
the bill for enrollment. Critics contend that the schools
not only drain funds from the district’s public schools, but
because charter schools are not required to meet the same
standards as their public counterparts, they are not held
accountable for taxpayers’ investment.
taxpayers in Albany, simply put, cannot afford any more experiments,”
said Councilman Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1).
of the speakers who opposed the moratorium, including Councilman
Michael Brown (Ward 3), whose district includes both of the
charter schools currently operating in Albany, cited a need
for parents to have an alternative to public schools they
categorized as “failing.” Brown and Councilwoman Sarah Curry-Cobb
(Ward 4) cast the two dissenting votes, arguing that the passage
of such a moratorium would prevent more parents from having
a choice about where to send their children.
schools did not cause this problem,” said Brown before the
vote, gesturing toward representatives of the Albany School
Board who had spoken earlier in the night. “It was the school
district that caused the problem. . . . You had all the time
in the world to get this thing right, and you didn’t.”
of a student at Brighter Choice, the other charter school
currently operating in Albany, said that the school had “lived
up to everything it promised me” and said that she hoped other
parents would have the same opportunity to choose what school
their children attend. Because Brighter Choice began operating
in 2002, its performance relative to the district’s public
schools and New Covenant, which failed to meet many of the
expectations initially proposed by its organizers, has yet
to be determined.
Michael O’Brien (Ward 12) and other sponsors of the resolution
repeatedly stated that, if the state agrees to the moratorium,
the number of charter schools currently operating in Albany
would not be reduced—in fact, they said, the schools would
probably see a boost in enrollment. According to many of the
resolution’s supporters, a moratorium would simply give the
state time to properly evaluate the charter-school system
before it expands beyond control.
this resolution came about, I first felt that we as a common-council
body should not get involved,” said Councilwoman Shirley Foskey
(Ward 5), who admitted to changing her opinion on the need
to regulate the expansion of charter schools. “However, I
listened to everyone that spoke, and we’re not giving a choice
away—we’re just giving a moratorium on new schools for now.”
peace a chance: participants in last weekend’s
protest against the Iraq war draws large and spirited crowd
a football team that fell a few points short of the championship,
the local peace movement turned out last weekend to refocus
their efforts and kick off a new season of social action with
the “Blue State Speaks Out” rally in downtown Albany.
first challenge for the peace movement now is to put ourselves
forward as the real ‘values voters,’” announced Steve Breyman
of Veterans for Peace, one of the many groups whose members
endured the cold Saturday morning to protest local politicians’
continuing support for the war in Iraq.
many attendees argued that Saturday’s rally was simply a continuation
of the same activism that preceded the presidential election,
the content of speeches and signs—and there were many of both
at Saturday’s rally—reflected a more post-election-revival
mood. “Is this what you mean by moral values, Mr. Bush?” asked
one sign, while another simply stated, “We’re not going away.”
And they certainly don’t seem to be. If last weekend’s rally
was any indication of the election’s effect upon the peace
movement, Bush’s reelection would appear to have only increased
the numbers of those willing to voice their opposition to
An energetic crowd of more than 70 teachers, church workers,
parents, children, veterans and other assorted activists gathered
outside the Leo W. O’Brien Federal Building to remind everyone
that it was the votes—and continuing support—of New York state’s
elected officials that have made the war in Iraq possible.
Sens. Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton, along with Rep.
Michael McNulty, all have offices in the O’Brien building
and have cast supporting votes for much of the legislation
leading to American military involvement in Iraq.
time for the senators and representatives to take a stand
against this war,” said Alison Guernsey, a member of Women
Against War and one of the organizers of the rally. “[New
York’s elected officials] need to stop looking at the politics
of the war, and start looking at the humanitarian aspects
Geralyn McDowell, a Catholic worker with Troy’s Rosa House
Peace Community, questioned elected officials’ use of religion
in justifying the war, saying that if they truly wanted to
act upon their faith, they would “perform works of mercy.”
the hungry, sheltering the homeless—these are acts of faith.
I am not going to allow [elected officials] to say that Christianity
is this,” said McDowell, gesturing in the direction of a sign
with the words “100,000 Dead. Enough?”
Along with offering up a list of the challenges facing the
peace movement, Breyman also made a few predictions about
the future of politicians’ response to the peace-minded constituents.
According to Breyman, Americans can expect to see a non-binding
resolution against the war come across the desks of their
senators and representatives in the near future.
we can’t support something like that,” said Breyman, arguing
that such legislation is simply a way of appeasing the peace
movement without actually taking any action against the war.
“If it’s not binding, it’s not the answer. It will only sidetrack
us and cause us to focus our energy to no valuable end.”
to speak out: Moonhawk River Stone.
Photo: Teri Currie
activists target Albany county proposal to extend human rights
to transgender people
supporters, Albany County’s proposed Local Law B guarantees
basic rights to those being denied them. Opponents feel it
would force nontraditional values down their throats and support
Law B would add three classes to the anti-discrimination provisions
of the county’s 2000 human-rights law: active-duty military
personnel, victims of domestic violence, and transgendered
persons. The law includes transgendered people by listing
“gender” as a protected category and then later defining gender
as “actual or perceived sex and shall include a person’s gender
identity, self-image, appearance, behavior or expression,
whether or not that gender identity, self-image, appearance,
behavior or expression is different from that traditionally
associated with the legal sex assigned to that person at birth.”
Law B was introduced on Oct. 12 by John Frederick (District
6), and is co-sponsored by five other legislators. Although
a similar provision passed the city of Albany with no opposition
in April, the transgender portion of the county’s proposal
has come in for some fierce resistance. (Frederick has been
out of town this month and was unavailable for comment for
important for people going through [a gender] transition,
or who have gone through one, to be protected from being fired
from their jobs, thown out of housing, denied credit,” said
Libby Post, president of Communication Services and founding
chair of the Empire State Pride Agenda. “They’re taxpayers
people are chronically unemployed or underemployed, not because
of their skills, but because of fear and discrimination,”
added James Ross, executive director of In Our Own Voices,
an organization that serves lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender
people of color. “At a very basic level, [passing anti- discrimination
provisions] suggests that people have value,” he said. When
discrimination is legitimized, says Ross, it encourages anti-transgender
violence, which some have estimated claims the life of one
to two people per month in this country.
The county law would have a more direct effect on the lives
of many transgender people than the city one did, because
most social services are provided at the county level. Harry
Davis, who works with people with HIV/AIDS at the Whitney
Young Health Center and also with Gay Men of Color Alliance
and the Colored American Transgender Society, has seen discrimination
directly affect his clients. “There were almost no services
for them,” he said. “Nowhere would accept them, such as the
shelters. I had transgender clients who had to go to the City
Mission; they were afraid, one of them had physical problems.”
A major problem often occurs with substance-abuse in-patient
treatment centers, which are gender-segregated. Davis has
worked with several local institutions to come up with separate
transgender units, or to appropriately accommodate those who
are comfortable in the general population. “It’s getting better,”
he said, but more needs to be done.
The employment problem, for example, is big enough that many
transgender people are forced into prostitution, said Davis.
“We need to look at this as a health issue. We’re cutting
off our nose to spite our face if we’re not giving these people
jobs, housing, substance-abuse treatment,” he said.
Both advocates and transgendered people spoke in favor of
Local Law B at a public hearing on Oct. 26. A week before
the hearing, Steve Kidder of the New York Family Policy Council,
which is associated with the national group Focus on the Family,
got a call from a legislator opposed to the bill. Kidder informed
Bill Carlson, chairman of the local Association of Political
Active Christians, who turned out five people to speak in
opposition to the bill.
Carlson argues at different times that transgenderism is either
a “choice” or a “mental illness” (gender identity disorder
is recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of
Mental Disorders, as homosexuality used to be), and therefore
not an “immutable characteristic” like race, deserving of
civil rights protections.
effectively a government endorsement of transgender behavior,”
said Carlson. When asked if that meant the Americans With
Disabilities Act’s protections for people with mental illness
was a government endorsement of mental illness, Carlson said
he was unfamiliar with the ADA.
Active military duty, which APAC does not oppose being added
to the law, is also choice, but Carlson says it’s different
because joining the military “is not, shall I say, disruptive
to society at large.”
Carlson also argues that the law is too vague, and said he
was afraid it would lead to a disgruntled employee cross-dressing
in order to be able to claim discrimination.
Chagrined by the quick passage of the city bill and their
small turnout at the hearing, APAC organized people to show
up at the regular county legislature meeting on Nov. 8. Though
several supporters of the bill passed around an e-mail from
APAC and urged supporters to show up, many people got the
message too late or called and found out the issue wasn’t
on the agenda, and so didn’t go. APAC turned out close to
75 people, who began arriving up to an hour before the comment
period to sign up for slots, leaving several supporters who
did show too late to get on the speakers’ list.
Though some bill opponents, like Carlson, tried to frame secular
arguments, other speakers relied heavily on claims that transgenderism
and homosexuality (sexual orientation is already a protected
class in the bill) are “against God.”
Over a dozen emotionally charged speakers quoted from the
Bible and warned that the bill would lead to gay marriage.
(The bill includes an explicit provision saying it does not
confer marriage rights.) The director of the Capital District
Prayer and Healing Center asked the legislators not to do
anything that would “further harm the family structure” in
Arbor Hill, and a youth pastor claimed the bill would add
to the confusion of teenagers who are questioning their own
identities. “I urge this body not to be exploited by a larger
gay agenda,” said one speaker.
a Christian myself, I find it really offensive that Christianity
is used as a way to separate and divide people,” responded
Ross. “I am thankful that I come from a tradition that’s about
love, faith, tolerance, and grace.”
they talk to God on the phone before the meeting? Did they
get a telegram? Or, is God so tech-savvy that he has a blog
on the web that only the righteous have the password for?”
wrote Post in her weekly commentary for WAMC the week after
the Oct. 26 hearing.
experience in the hearing is they seemed to use [this law]
as a stepping stone for the whole anti-gay agenda,” said Moonhawk
River Stone, a psychotherapist specializing in transgender
issues. “People spoke in fear-mongering ways. One person threatened
a lawsuit. They were really trying to place fear in legislators
on something that should be a nonissue.”
The recent elections and the elevated profile of gay marriage
have “really increased the conservative and religious right’s
attention to our issues,” noted Keith Hornbrook, director
of the Capital District Gay and Lesbian Community Center,
who attended the original hearing. “No one in this community
will be unaffected by what has happened.”
Bill supporters argued that the stigma against transgender
expression should make it clear that transgender people are
not acting capriciously. “This isn’t just a choice that someone
decides to get up in the morning and put on a dress [or] cut
their hair short. This is really about who you are,” said
would make this choice?” asked Post. “Clearly this is innate.”
One African-American woman who spoke against the bill on Nov.
8 shook her Bible at the legislators and said several times,
“I dare you try to pass this law like a civil rights law.”
Ross admits that the religious right has often been “very
effective in mobilizing certain segments of communities of
color,” but he notes that just as they don’t speak for all
Christians, nor do they speak for all people of color. “I
think that there is no way that one can not draw parallels
between this desire for civil rights and the historic African-American
quest for rights,” he said. “Are there differences? Of course
there are. But that doesn’t mean that the basic fundamentals
are not the same. People are people and deserve to be treated
Transgender anti-discrimination provisions are neither new
nor particularly rare. In New York state they are in place
in Albany, New York City, Ithaca, Buffalo, and Rochester,
and Suffolk and Tompkins counties. Outside of New York, they
have been instituted in four states and dozens of major cities.
And in all those places, the scare stories of problems in
the schools or people trying to take advantage of the laws
to get back at an employer or secure a marriage license, simply
haven’t happened, said Post, Hornbrook and others. Numerous
large companies, including Aetna, IBM, Bank One, J.P. Morgan,
and Lucent Technologies, also have transgender non- discrimination
Transgender issues are complex, admitted Post. “I’m hopeful
that the county legislature doesn’t rush to judgment and goes
through the process of being educated,” she said. “It took
me a while to come around. It took a lot of us a while.”
The measure is expected to be back on the agenda at the county’s
next meeting on Dec. 6.
groups promoting budget and procedural reforms
at the state level [“Reform or Bust,” Newsfront,
Oct. 7] blasted Gov. Pataki’s veto of budget reform
legislation, and are calling on the governor to
come up with budget reform he can support. Otherwise
they are asking the Senate and the Assembly to
override his veto of a bill that would have, among
other things, created an Independent Budget Office
and allowed for contingency budgets. . . . Another
coalition, including labor and religious groups,
has renewed its call for the Senate to join the
Assembly in overriding the governor’s veto of
the bill to raise the minimum wage [“Race to the
Bottom,” FYI, Aug. 5]. The Legislature is expected
to return today (Thursday, Nov. 18). . . . Even
though the city did commit to preserving the Wellington
Hotel [“Bringing Down the House,” Newsfront, Aug.
26], Sebba Rockaway Ltd., which owns the Wellington
and adjacent buildings, has refused to fix code
violations and announced an intention to demolish
them. Preservation and neighborhood groups promised
to show up in number at a Historic Resources Commission
hearing on the demolition yesterday (Nov. 17).