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Oklahoma's health system among the nation's worst, study finds

Oklahoma has the next-to-worst health system in the country and is a lot closer to last than it is to the state just ahead of it, a report released Tuesday by the Commonwealth Fund says.

“Oklahoma and Mississippi stand out for poor performance even among poor performing states,” David Radley, one of the report’s authors, said during a teleconference.

Oklahoma ranked 50th among 50 states and the District of Columbia, just ahead of Mississippi and behind Texas. Hawaii’s system rated the best by far.

Tuesday’s report also highlighted a largely overlooked trend in the state. While much attention has been focused on opioids, deaths from alcohol actually grew at a faster rate than fatal drug overdoses from 2005 to 2017.

Drug deaths still outnumber those from alcohol, but the gap is closing. The death rate from drugs actually declined from 2013 to 2017, while the rate for alcohol-related deaths continued to increase.

The rankings released Tuesday were based on 47 criteria divided into five categories: access and affordability, prevention and treatment, avoidable hospital use and cost, healthy lives and disparity.

Oklahoma scored best for prevention and treatment, at 42nd, and worst for access and affordability, at 49th.

Of the ranking’s 47 criteria, the Commonwealth Fund said Oklahoma had improved on 13 since last year’s report, gotten worse in 10 and had seen no change in 22. Two of the criteria were new to this year’s report.

Oklahoma ranked 50th for uninsured adults and 49th for elderly patients receiving high-risk drugs, preventable deaths, colorectal deaths and certain hospital admissions.

The state ranked as high as fifth in a couple of categories — children 19-35 months with recommended vaccinations and home health patients enrolled in Medicare.

Nationally, the report found deaths from suicide, alcohol and drugs rising over a 12-year period, but that the effects of each were largely regional. It also found that rising health insurance premiums are being driven by higher costs, especially for prescription drugs and outpatient services, and not because of greater utilization of the system.

Efforts to expand access to health insurance have largely stalled and in some cases are retreating, the report says.

The Commonwealth Fund, created in 1918 with an endowment from New York socialite Anna Harkness, is a nonprofit dedicated to health care policy and delivery systems.

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Its 2019 “report card” released Tuesday is based primarily on 2017 data, which the authors said was the most recent available.

Trend data mostly covers 2005-2017.

Broken Arrow Public Schools proposes significant pay raises for teachers

Broken Arrow Public Schools, one of the lowest-paying districts in the Tulsa area, announced on Tuesday a proposed pay raise that would increase a starting teacher’s salary by nearly $3,700.

The district plans to invest an additional $4.2 million directly into teacher compensation next school year. If approved by the school board, the move would provide all teachers in the district with a salary that is $1,720 above the state minimum. It also would completely fund the 7.5% mandatory employee contribution to the state’s teacher retirement fund.

The proposal is possible due to recent increases in common education funding. The new state budget includes $74 million for the funding formula to allow schools to hire additional staff, lower class sizes and pay for materials. It also contains $58.8 million for a $1,200 teacher pay raise, on top of the average raise of $6,100 approved last year.

“We are so proud to make this historic investment in our teachers,” Superintendent Janet Dunlop said in a statement. “Our teachers deserve the best, and these increases will directly benefit our students in recruiting and retaining outstanding educators.”

Officials say the new scale would pay teachers with a bachelor’s degree in their first year a total compensation of $41,348, compared to the current $37,674. The total compensation includes base salary, the district-paid retirement contribution and life and disability insurance. The base pay would increase from $34,904 to $38,321.

The step increases aren’t even across the district’s pay scale, but the vast majority of teachers would receive a raise of more than $2,500, chief administrative officer Lori Kerns said.

Total compensation for teachers with a bachelor’s degree in their sixth year would increase nearly $2,800, according to the proposed 2019-20 pay scale. Those in their 26th year would see a $3,940 boost.

The school board is expected to vote on the proposal around August, with the pay raises taking effect in the fall. But first the plan needs to be ratified by the Broken Arrow Education Association.

Kerns said the board’s goal has been to make Broken Arrow the highest-paying district in the region. This pay raise would be a huge step forward in achieving that goal.

That kind of progress is especially noteworthy for Broken Arrow, which posted the lowest base salary among area districts in a December analysis by the Tulsa World.

It’s unclear where Broken Arrow would be located on the list with the salary increase, as several districts have yet to release their new pay scales. But Kerns is confident Broken Arrow will be one of the best in the state.

“We realized we were at the bottom of the region, so with the new operational funding that has come in, it is well-deserved for our teachers to receive all of it in their salary schedule,” she said.

Featured video

Actor Jason Lee talks about his new photo exhibit that is being shown at the same time as photos from Larry Clark's iconic photo book "Tulsa."

Read the story: Larry Clark, Jason Lee exhibits show Oklahoma from inside, outside

Virginia primary has lots of surprise, no clear message

RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia’s closely watched off-year primary contest produced plenty of surprises Tuesday, but little in the way of a coherent message.

The top Democrat in the state Senate narrowly won his primary despite heavily outspending a progressive challenger, and another incumbent lost her seat to a former Virginia lawmaker who used to spend his days at the state Capitol and his nights in jail after being accused of having sex with his teenage secretary. Conservative challengers upset with Republican incumbents who backed Medicaid expansion had mixed results. One delegate in a key swing district lost to a more conservative challenger, while a moderate senator easily cruised to victory.

Once a key swing state that’s been tilting increasingly toward Democrats, Virginia’s 2017 elections were an early warning signal that a blue wave of opposition to President Donald Trump would wash over the 2018 U.S. midterms. Now political analysts are looking for clues about what message voters may send for the 2020 presidential race.

The main takeway won’t come until November, when all 140 seats in the Legislature are up for grabs. Democrats will try to wrest control from Republicans, who have narrow majorities in the House and Senate.

Normally sleepy affairs, this year’s primaries had drama, as moderates in both parties took fire from their flanks.

On the Democratic side, progressive challengers looking to upset the status quo failed to generate much enthusiasm, as most incumbents easily won. One glaring exception: Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw’s near-loss to human rights lawyer Yasmine Taeb in northern Virginia.

“The other guy’s been in there too long,” said John Laszakovits, a 60-year-old engineer from Falls Church, who said he voted for Taeb.

Saslaw, who is pro-business and chummy with Republicans, has not faced a primary challenger in 40 years. This year he faced two, including Taeb, who painted Saslaw as too conservative and cozy with special interests.

But 71-year-old retiree Laura Harris said she voted for Saslaw because of his long track record of getting results.

“He’s done so much in terms of human services,” she said.

On the GOP side, lingering resentment over last year’s vote to expand Medicaid in Virginia fueled divisive contests.

Republican voters in a swing district punished Del. Bob Thomas, who voted for the expansion. They opted instead for a more conservative challenger, Paul Milde, who could make it harder for Republicans to keep their majority in the House.

But Republican Sen. Emmett Hanger, one of the state’s most powerful senators, easily fended off his challenger.

Hanger played a key role in the Medicaid expansion that made 400,000 low-income adults eligible to enroll. Opponent Tina Freitas said Hanger had betrayed constituents on the Medicaid issue and wasn’t conservative enough on guns or abortion. Hospitals spent heavily to help Hanger.

Democrats hope to continue a three-year streak of electoral gains in the state, powered largely by suburban voters unhappy with Trump.

But the party lost a major advantage earlier this year when its top three statewide office holders became ensnared in scandal. A racist yearbook photo surfaced in February and almost forced Gov. Ralph Northam from office. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax was then accused by two women of sexual assault, which he denied. And Attorney General Mark Herring, after calling for Northam to resign, revealed that he too wore blackface once in college.

Adding a significant new headache for Democrats was Joe Morrissey’s victory over incumbent Sen. Rosalyn Dance in a Richmond-area senate district. Morrissey was jailed four years ago after a sex scandal involving a teenager, who Morrissey later married. He denied wrongdoing but entered an Alford plea to a misdemeanor, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, acknowledging that prosecutors had enough evidence for a conviction.

Voter Melvin Washington said he picked Morrissey because he believes he understands the district’s neighborhoods. Washington said he is not bothered by Morrissey’s past legal problems.

“People try to blow things up more than what it is,” he said. “Ain’t none of us perfect.”

TPS police chief wants more data-driven school safety decisions with new records management system

Tulsa Public Schools Police Chief Matthias Wicks says he’s up many nights wondering how to glean more from a more robust data system installed by the district a year ago.

Wicks, in speaking Tuesday at the Mayor’s Policing and Community Council, focused on how he wants to better use data to inform decisions for school safety. He was sworn in as head of campus police in July 2017.

Wicks said his department emphasizes finding solutions that aren’t arrests, such as giving students wraparound services or calling mental-health crisis specialists.

“I’m not saying we won’t arrest,” Wicks said. “But we have to look at alternatives. We want our students to graduate.”

Perhaps the Tulsa Police Athletic League is an option to help a struggling student find a sense of self and belonging. Wicks said his job is to create a safe and secure environment so that teachers can teach.

Positive experiences create feelings of safety and security, so he said helping students have fun is key. Maybe an officer visits with a student as a friend for 3 to 5 minutes once a week for two months.

“So if they’re feeling good about the learning process, guess what they aren’t worried about: somebody shooting it up,” Wicks said. “If they’re feeling good about being with their friends they aren’t worried about their friends shooting it up.

“So it’s so important that we create a safe environment where they actually enjoy learning, and they feel good being around each other and that they belong.”

Wicks said if data indicates a particular school has a high concentration of threats or fights or calls, an officer can be dispatched to spend time with counselors. From there, they can find out what the behaviors specific to that school are and if alternative interventions may help.

“I want officers who love what they do, I want officers who can think through a process, come up with a resolution and can also be in alignment with what the district is trying to do,” Wicks said.

Shawn Houchin, campus police’s lead on the records management system, also was in attendance. She said a simple application of the data is resource deployment, such as identifying busy periods in which an extra officer would be helpful.

Wicks called the data system robust. He wants campus police to become more assertive in how it’s applied to operations.

“Our work is evolving on a regular basis,” he said.