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Mayor Stothert appoints neighborhood leader to fill vacant resident rep seat on OHA Board

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert is appointing a longtime north Omaha volunteer and neighborhood leader to represent Omaha Housing Authority residents on the OHA Board.

The appointee is Eric Burgin, 59. He lives at OHA’s Crown Tower public housing apartments. Burgin is president of the tower’s resident association. He also is president of the Monmouth Park and North Omaha Neighborhood Associations. Burgin has been a member of the Omaha Police Department’s northeast precinct advisory council for more than 15 years, and volunteers on a neighborhood citizen patrol.

Nebraska law requires the appointment of an OHA resident to the board. The seat has been vacant since February, when Steven Abraham, the previous resident representative, resigned. Stothert moved quickly to fill the seat after The World-Herald reported on the lengthy vacancy, although she has said that her staff had been working through a list of applicants submitted by the housing authority in June, and the agency’s leaders said they had fulfilled their duty by seeking residents’ applications and forwarding them to the Mayor’s Office.

Burgin’s name was not on the original list. The housing authority originally withheld it and dozens of others, saying the applications were incomplete. The agency forwarded Burgin’s and the others after he called the Mayor’s Hotline in recent weeks to inquire about the status of his application.

“Eric Burgin is not only qualified and in good standing with OHA, he is very active in neighborhoods, highly recommended and is excited to serve,” Stothert said. “He will represent the OHA residents exceptionally well.”

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City Council confirmation is needed for the appointment to become final. Stothert’s appointment is expected to go before the Omaha City Council on Nov. 5.

Burgin said he was happy to be appointed. He thanked Stothert and said he is eager to serve.

“I want to do what’s right for the people,” Burgin said Monday afternoon outside Crown Tower, where he was about to drive a neighbor from the apartments to a doctor’s appointment, after giving another neighbor a ride to a physical therapy appointment. “It’s really an honor to serve the people. With everything I’ve seen, I can really make some changes to help them.”

Another appointment could be coming soon.

The OHA Board also has no member from a racial minority. State law requires there to be at least one person of color on the board. The board has been all white since real estate executive George Achola, former in-house counsel for the housing authority, resigned from the board at the end of May.

OHA leaders and Stothert have said they have been searching for people qualified and willing to replace Achola. On Oct. 21, Stothert moved to accelerate the process; she asked the OHA board to give her a list of candidates by Oct. 25.

8 local mayors and their salaries

Articles
To save costs, carefully assess your options for health insurance
OPEN ENROLLMENT

It's that time of year again, when signs pop up in offices across the country, exclaiming "Open enrollment!" — as if making annual health insurance choices were just another fun fall activity, like eating pumpkin-flavored doughnuts or buying matching gloves and scarves.

But open enrollment is a serious — and expensive — matter.

Employer-sponsored health insurance for a family now costs an average of $20,576 a year in monthly premiums — a record high, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Workers pay about $6,015 of that, and their employers foot the rest.

That's up about 5% from 2018, meaning the cost of health insurance is rising faster than workers' wages, which increased about 3.4% from May 2018 to May 2019.

And that $20,576 doesn't include copays, deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs that can send families reeling.

The Tribune spoke with several experts ahead of open enrollment season to get tips on how to save money when choosing employer-sponsored health insurance plans.

COMPARE TOTAL COSTS, NOT JUST MONTHLY PREMIUMS

Don't just look at the premiums — the amount you pay for a plan — when selecting coverage.

Consider the deductible, the amount that you have to pay before the plan will start chipping in for medical services. Look at the out-of-pocket maximum, which is the upper limit on what a plan will ask you to pay in a year. The maximum doesn't include what you're paying in premiums.

Now, do some math. Multiply the monthly premium by 12 and then add it to the deductible to see, roughly, what a plan may cost over a year if you have significant medical expenses. If you expect a very large sum, add the premiums to the out-of-pocket maximum to see your potential total costs.

If you don't anticipate many expenses, you might not have to pay much of that deductible. Your costs might be limited to the premiums. But there's no guarantee. High-deductible plans may be tempting to healthy workers because they often have lower premiums — but proceed with caution, experts say.

"If you do fall and break something, or find a lump in the shower, or feel chest pains, all of a sudden your health needs are very different than in the past," said Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation. "Those bills are going to start coming, and they're going to be huge."

About 28% of workers were enrolled in plans with deductibles of $2,000 or more for an individual worker in 2019, according to Kaiser. For 2020, the IRS defines a high-deductible plan as one with a deductible of at least $1,400 for an individual or $2,800 for a family.

If you're considering a plan with the lowest monthly premiums, make sure your doctors and medications are included in that plan — or the out-of-pocket costs could be substantially higher.

"It could be that the cheaper plan is an HMO that doesn't happen to cover the psychiatrist you go to," Pollitz said. "That might save you a lot in premiums, but what if you had to pay 100% out of-pocket for your therapy?"

SEE IF YOUR COMPANY WILL HELP FUND A HEALTH SAVINGS ACCOUNT

High-deductible plans often come with the option of using a health savings account, which allows employees to set aside a portion of their paycheck, pretax, to help pay for medical expenses. Any unused funds roll over to the next year.

But the tax savings isn't the only benefit. Many companies that offer HSAs contribute funds to them. On average, companies contributed $572 to individuals' HSAs and $1,062 to families' HSAs last year, according to Kaiser.

That can go a long way toward helping aworker pay down a high deductible, should that worker get sick or injured.

High-deductible plans can help employers save cash because they have lower premiums, which is why many companies try to give their workers an incentive to choose them, said Chad Schneider, senior director of channel sales at Chicago-based Jellyvision, which sells software to help employers communicate with workers about their benefits.

"They can take some of the premium savings and say, 'OK, employee, if you go this route, we'll put $250 into this HSA because you picked this plan," Schneider said.

LOOK AT YOUR SPOUSE'S PLAN

Often in households where both spouses work, the couple will be on the same plan.

But at some companies, that can add unnecessary costs. About 10% of large companies that cover spouses who are eligible for health insurance through their own employers require those spouses to pay more for that coverage, according to Kaiser. Those "spousal surcharges" could include higher premiums or cost-sharing.

"In some cases it would be cheaper for the spouse to get (his/her) own coverage," Pollitz said.

INVESTIGATE OPTIONS EARLY

Workers spend only about 18 minutes, on average, on open enrollment for health insurance, and 41% of workers wait until the last days to make their choices, according to PlanSource, which sells benefits administration technology.

The annual open enrollment period closes Dec. 7, with plan coverage beginning Jan. 1.

It would be better to get an early start on the process, in case there are questions for human resources departments or health plan representatives, said Cheryl Larson, president and CEO of the Midwest Business Group on Health.

Experts have differing opinions about whether it's worthwhile to switch plans each year. Researching options each year and potentially choosing a new plan could save a consumer money, some say. Others, however, say that if a plan is working for you it might be safer to stick with that plan than choose a new one just to save some cash.

LOOK FOR SAVINGS AFTER OPEN ENROLLMENT

Many companies offer ways for workers to save money on health care throughout the year.

About 98% of large employers now offer telehealth to their employees, according to a 2019 National Business Group on Health survey. Instead of heading to the doctor's office or an urgent care facility, employees can get help from doctors over the phone or video. Often, such services are free or cost less than going to a traditional doctor's office or urgent care site.

Some employers and insurers encourage workers to go to "centers of excellence" for certain procedures. The centers are generally hospitals offering high-quality care in certain specialties. Employers and insurers can get price breaks from those hospitals, and employees who use the centers for certain procedures might have many out-ofpocket costs reduced or waived, Larson said.

Also, workers should look to employee assistance programs to help with personal, emotional or mental health issues. Some of those therapy services may be available for free, Schneider said.

"It could be that the cheaper plan is an HMO that doesn't happen to cover the psychiatrist you go to. That might save you a lot in premiums, but what if you had to pay 100% out-of-pocket for your therapy?"

Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation


State_and_regional
Nebraska Supreme Court hears arguments in fight over lethal injection drug records

LINCOLN — Lawyers for a civil rights group and Nebraska media argued Tuesday that state corrections officials violated public records laws in withholding documents that identified the supplier of lethal injection drugs used in an August 2018 execution.

In years past, the state had provided records that identified the source of drugs to be used in executions, the lawyers said. But “at crunch time” before the 2018 execution of Carey Dean Moore, they said that corrections officials changed their minds and rejected public records requests filed by the ACLU of Nebraska and two newspapers, including the Omaha World-Herald.

Carey Dean Moore

Instead of denying such records requests, corrections should have “used a Sharpie,” one attorney said, and redacted portions of the purchase records that identified any members of the state’s execution team (which, by law, are to remain confidential), then released the records.

“You’re required to take out the confidential information and provide the records,” Shawn Renner, the attorney for The World-Herald and the Lincoln Journal Star, told the seven judges.

However, the lawyer for the State Department of Correctional Services told the court that the state’s public records laws didn’t apply to this case, and that the prison agency enjoys an “exemption” elsewhere in state statutes from disclosing the identity of its execution team or “any information reasonably calculated to lead to the identity of such members.”

Ryan Post of the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office argued that releasing the identity of the drug suppliers could lead reporters to investigate and ultimately unmask those prison staffers who participated in the execution.

“We know that in death penalty cases, any new shred of information is going to be investigated,” Post said.

The arguments came fast and furious as lawyers tried to present their cases within the time allotted by the Supreme Court and answer multiple questions from the judges. Six of the seven judges asked questions. Typical oral arguments get far fewer questions and fewer judges involved.

The ACLU, followed by the two newspapers, filed lawsuits in December 2017 after a prison official refused to release records revealing the identity of Nebraska’s lethal injection drug supplier.

After a trial before Lancaster County District Judge Jodi Nelson, the judge ruled that corrections had violated the Nebraska Public Records Act and must release all communications with the drug supplier, Drug Enforcement Administration records, invoices, inventory logs and photographs of drug packaging. The judge did rule, however, that the prison agency could withhold records that directly identified execution team members.

Then, in January, Nelson ruled that the state should pay $60,000 in legal fees to the newspapers and ACLU. She said the media and civil rights group had “substantially prevailed” in their arguments that the records were public.

The state appealed Nelson’s rulings, which led to Tuesday’s oral arguments before the State Supreme Court. A decision is not expected for several weeks.

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Renner, as well as the ACLU lawyer, Spike Eickholt of Lincoln, said the case is clearly about public records statutes. Renner told the judges that the Nebraska Legislature had twice debated and rejected proposals to keep secret the identity of the execution drug suppliers. Gov. Pete Ricketts, a death penalty proponent, has backed such proposals.

Several death penalty states, along with Nebraska, have tried to keep the identity of drug suppliers secret amid increasing difficulties in obtaining the necessary drugs. Several manufacturers have barred the use of their drugs in executions, and several states, including Nebraska, have been forced to change the drugs they use because some are no longer available.

Nebraska, in its past searches for execution drugs, has made some missteps in looking overseas. In 2010, federal authorities destroyed one batch of drugs because the state lacked the proper import license. In 2015, the state paid a broker out of India $54,000 for another batch of drugs, but never received a shipment.

A prison official did say that the four drugs used in the Moore execution were obtained in the U.S. but did not reveal the source.

The ACLU, which opposes capital punishment, has argued that it’s impossible to determine the purity of lethal injection drugs, and whether they’ll work, if the supplier is unknown. The newspapers consider the identity of the drug suppliers a matter of public interest and maintain that the state improperly withheld that information.

Those executed and their victims

Education
Nebraska ACT scores reveal college-readiness gap between ethnic, racial groups

Nebraskans must be more obsessive about closing the college-readiness gap in Nebraska ACT scores.

And the efforts must start long before kids are old enough to take the test.

That’s according to Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt.

ACT scores released Wednesday reveal substantial gaps in readiness between ethnic and racial groups — with poverty correlating closely to lower test scores.

White and Asian students in the 2019 graduating class were more likely to be prepared for the academic rigor of college, according to ACT.

The ACT organization of Iowa City released its annual report, The Condition of College and Career Readiness, detailing performance of the class.

In Nebraska, 24,744 graduates took the ACT exam, which gauges college readiness in reading, English, math and science.

Some 42% of white test-takers and 38% of Asians met three or all four of ACT’s college readiness benchmarks.

Benchmarks are the target scores that the nonprofit organization uses to predict success on college coursework.

Other Nebraska groups were substantially lower: 9% of black students, 14% of Hispanics, 9% of American Indians and 19% of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders.

Closing the gaps is a long-term project, Blomstedt said.

“Addressing next year’s sophomores is probably not going to eliminate those gaps,” he said.

He said that doesn’t mean pushing younger students with intensive drilling, but addressing underlying conditions like poverty and encouraging creativity and engagement that he said sets apart the American education system.

ACT reported that, nationwide, college readiness levels remained “alarmingly low” for low-income, minority and first-generation college students.

A large majority of those subgroups across the nation met only one or none of the benchmarks.

Students who hit the benchmark subject scores have a 50% chance of obtaining a B grade or higher or about a 75% chance of obtaining a C or higher in corresponding credit-bearing first-year college courses.

In 2019, 22% of Nebraska graduates met all four benchmarks, same as 2018, and 40% of Nebraska graduates met no benchmarks, up from 39% in 2018.

THE WORLD-HERALD 

A student takes a practice ACT exam at Millard South High School. Nebraska is one of 15 states that test all public school students.

The nonprofit testing organization reported a continued slight decline in college readiness nationwide. Officials noted longer-term downward trends in math and English.

Nationally, the percentages of graduates meeting math and English benchmarks are the lowest in 15 years, the organization said.

However, readiness among students who took the recommended four years of English and three years each of math, science and social studies has stayed steady in math and English over the past five years, even as the national averages went down.

“As we’ve been pointing out for many years, taking the right courses in high school dramatically increases a student’s likelihood to be ready for success when they graduate,” said ACT chief executive officer Marten Roorda.

The nation’s Asian American students have improved their readiness over the past five years. This year, 62% of Asian test-takers met at least three of the four benchmarks, unchanged from the past two years but up from 59% in 2015, the organization reported.

Nebraska is one of 15 states that test all public school students.

The state’s composite score of 20 was down from 20.1 in 2018, but still placed among the highest in that group.

The top possible score is a 36.

Nebraska tied Ohio for third among the 15. Utah and Wisconsin led the group at 20.3. Nevada was last with 17.9.

The Archdiocese of Omaha reported a 24.8 composite average for its schools. Subgroup scores were: Hispanic students, 23.3; black students, 20.5; Asian students, 26.9; and American Indian students, 21.1.

In Iowa, where just 66% of graduates took the ACT, the composite average was 21.6.

Nationally, an estimated 52% of graduates took the ACT with an average composite score of 20.7.


Omaha-area high schools ranked by 2019 ACT scores

Omaha-area high schools ranked by 2019 ACT scores