Thursday, March 29, 2012

O'Connor seeking to launch HIV/AIDS initiative

Posted By on Thu, Mar 29, 2012 at 2:55 PM

City councilman Corey O'Connor plans to introduce legislation next week to create the Pittsburgh HIV/AIDS Commission.

The 30-member volunteer commission would have representatives from the county and city, nonprofits, HIV/AIDS service providers, the state Department of Health, educational institutions, neighborhood groups and the business sector.

O'Connor, who represents District 5, says the panel's goal will be to create awareness and collaboration around the disease and help link people to resources.

"The attention really needs to be brought back to our neighborhoods, but also the business districts and city and county as a whole," O'Connor tells City Paper. The commission will offer a resource "so elected officials, organizations and businesses can learn more about HIV/AIDS and how to prevent it ... It's going to give people a place to go."

According to the legislation, the commission will:

  • Increase communication between service providers serving both consumers at high risk for HIV/AIDS and consumers living with HIV/AIDS.
  • Establish a collaborative of diverse community, business, academic and governmental agencies to assess needs, goals and objectives for effective HIV and STD prevention, education and treatment programs to better protect and serve the citizens of the Pittsburgh region.
  • Provide policy guidance, recommendations and consultation to the city's leadership and health community to remove barriers and promote achievement of goals and objectives set forth by the Commission.

O'Connor plans a formal press conference on the matter tomorrow. But he says he's already met with the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force, Shepherd Wellness Center, Persad, UPMC's Pittsburgh AIDS Center for Treatment Clinic, West Penn Allegheny Health System's Positive Health Clinic and the Southwestern PA AIDS Planning Coalition, who requested some sort of panel be formed and helped develop the idea. If city council approves its creation, O'Connor envisions launching the commission in the fall.

"It'll unify everyone under one voice and see where there are differences in organizations' [service]. It's a great conduit to reach out into the community and work with a broad group," O'Connor says. "The possibilities are endless."

Friday, March 16, 2012

HIV treatment, researched locally, takes step forward

Posted By on Fri, Mar 16, 2012 at 3:01 PM

A form of an antiretroviral drug to prevent HIV has been found safe, according to the Pittsburgh-based Microbicide Trials Network.

Since October 2010, researchers at the trials network, funded by the National Institutes of Health and based at the University of Pittsburgh and Magee-Women's Research Institute, have been studying a formulation of tenofovir gel, specifically for rectal use, to reduce the sexual transmission of HIV. They presented the results of an early phase of the study last week at the 19th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections.

"One of the most important findings in this study is the formula we used was safer and more acceptable than those in previous studies," Dr. Ian McGowan, co-principal investigator of the Microbicide Trials Network (MTN) tells City Paper.

McGowan notes that a previous study assessed the rectal use of a vaginal formulation of tenofovir, but found participants suffered from multiple "gastrointestinal issues."

"We really felt at the time it wasn't the ideal formulation for rectal use," says McGowan.

So researchers turned their attention to a rectal-specific formulation, and the results have been promising: 80 percent of participants reported only minor side effects. Adherence for the gel was also high; according to the MTN, 94 percent of participants used the gel daily as directed.

McGowan says researchers are preparing a second phase of the study, which will further study tenofovir. They will assess the effects of the rectal tenofovir gel used daily, used before and after anal sex and the daily use of an antiretroviral tablet. The study will focus on 186 men who have sex with men and transgender women — both among the most at-risk populations for HIV — in Pittsburgh, Boston, San Francisco, Thailand, Peru and South Africa.

Microbicides, or products used in the rectum or vagina to prevent or reduce the sexual transmission of HIV, "are emerging as a National Institutes of Health priority because of the [HIV] epidemic," McGowan says. "There needs to be other options out there for HIV-prevention and at the same time, we need to put a product out there for everyone."

The Phase II study of tenofovir is expected to begin later this year.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Ob-gyn doc: Republican posturing over ultrasound "doesn't make any sense"

Posted By on Thu, Mar 15, 2012 at 6:02 PM

There's been a lot of buzz over remarks Gov. Tom Corbett made recently about mandatory-ultrasound legislation. What does our state's leading small-government champion think about legislation creating burdensome government regulations on medical procedures? Well, we're talking about making women jump through hoops before getting an abortion. So not surprisingly, Corbett told reporters that he supported House Bill 1077 "as long as [the ultrasound] is not intrusive."

For some, the bill would seem intrusive by definition: It requires that the ultrasound be projected on a screen that would be shoved in front of the woman's face. But Corbett didn't see it that way. If a woman didn't want to see the images, he said, "You just have to close your eyes."

Corbett did have one caveat, however: He only favored an ultrasound requirement "as long as it's exterior, not interior."

It's the "close your eyes" line that has set up a howl of protest, one so loud that it almost conceals the sound of Democratic hands rubbing together with glee.

But according to one of the state's leading obstetricians, Corbett's preference for "exterior" ultrasounds is at odds with how the law is currently written. And while the law can be amended to meet his concerns, previous changes have only made it worse ... and the whole exercise demonstrates how little thought Republicans have given to medical science.

Continue reading »

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

New Science Center Program Not All It's Fracked Up to Be

Posted By on Wed, Mar 14, 2012 at 4:44 PM

Sponsors and creators insist that the Carnegie Science Center's new touring program on natural gas is all about the science. But students, educators and parents should carefully examine the messages in "Colossal Fossil Fuels," which explains natural-gas drilling and exploration with help from EQT Corporation -- a $1.3 billion company which makes its money selling natural gas.

The Science Center and EQT collaborated on this latest addition to the Center's Science on the Road program, which last year served more than 212,000 students in nine states.

"Colossal Fossil Fuels" is headed out in April, with "at least a dozen" shows already booked, according to Science Center co-director Ron Baillie. But no one who sees "Colossal Fossil Fuels" will leave with the slightest idea that natural-gas extraction is controversial enough to warrant a moratorium in New York, or to have inspired countless incidents of pollution and countless studies about environmental risks.

Continue reading »

South Side fee proposal meets opposition at community meeting

Posted By on Wed, Mar 14, 2012 at 1:42 PM

A board of several South Side community groups are still mulling a proposal to create a special fee for additional neighborhood services. But many residents, it seems, have made up their minds against the notion.

Susie Puskar, outreach coordinator for the South Side Neighborhood Improvement District steering community, told community groups Tuesday "we are not calling for a vote" yet, based on public feedback and requests from city councilman Bruce Kraus.

Some 100 people were in attendance at the Brashear Association, which hosted yesterday’s monthly meeting of the South Side Planning Forum. Most residents were unhappy -- one crowd member charged that the fee proposal amounted to "double taxation" -- and some threatened vengeance on politicians who backed the fee.

The improvement district, also known as a NID, would assess an annual fee on residential and commercial-property owners in a proposed zone that runs between South 9th to South 29th streets, encompassing most of the area from the Monongahela River to the railroad tracks at the foot of the South Side Slopes. The additional assessment is expected to generate about $1 million for services beyond what the city provides.

Continue reading »

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Op-ed: Ruth Ann Dailey and Chris Potter -- allies at last!

Posted By on Tue, Mar 13, 2012 at 2:54 PM

"Did you see Ruth Ann Dailey's column?" a friend e-mailed me yesterday. "You're not going to like it."

The piece was Dailey's latest effort to take on the Obama administration, and its requirement that employers offer insurance that covers contraception -- even if the employer morally opposes birth control. As my friend knew, I've taken the other side of that issue. What's more, Dailey's column asserts that those who see a "war on women" taking place -- the subject of a column I wrote last week -- are in fact "waging war on the Constitution and on reason itself."

Ordinarily, this is where I'd up the rhetorical ante in turn and say, "Oh yeah? Well you're waging war on the universe." But my friend was wrong. A close reading of Dailey's column suggests that she and I may be on the same page after all.

That would no doubt surprise Dailey, a prolife conservative. But I'm gonna argue here that, in trying to attack lefties like me, she ends up knocking the pins out from her own allies. Let's watch!

Continue reading »

In state House 24, Gainey alleges forgery by campaign of incumbent Preston

Posted By on Tue, Mar 13, 2012 at 12:08 PM

Warm weather is finally here ... and so are the season's petition challenges!

In the state House race to represent District 24, the campaign of challenger Ed Gainey this morning trumpeted a legal challenge to the nominating petitions filed by longtime incumbent Joe Preston. Gainey supporters have asked Commonwealth Court to disqualify Preston, and in this morning's statement, the Gainey campaign accuses Preston's camp of forging signatures.

"The [petition] objections allege two pages of signatures that are comprised entirely of signatures that are blatant forgeries," the press release states. "Submitting forged signatures displays a blatant disrespect to the voters in the district."

Were signatures forged? The court will have to decide, but you can come to your own conclusions: Here are four pages of contested signatures provided by Gainey's campaign. Judge for yourself.

In addition to the forgery allegations, Gainey's campaign says Preston's petitions include "numerous signatures of individuals who were not registered to vote, who are not registered Democratic voters, who live outside of the district, or who provided incorrect information."

It's little surprise the gloves are coming off in this race between the two Democrats. Preston, who has served in the state House since 1983, has fended off two previous Gainey campaigns. Gainey, chair of the city's Democratic committee and a community development aide to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, almost bested Preston in 2006, losing by just 1.3 percentage points. Two years before Gainey's challenge to Preston ended prematurely when he was booted from the ballot. The reason? A problem with paperwork.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Metcalfe bill would end domestic partner benefits

Posted By on Mon, Mar 12, 2012 at 4:00 PM

Advocates and LGBT-organizations across the state are gearing up for what could be a marriage-battle on Pennsylvania's own soil.

An anti-marriage bill from Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Cranberry), is up for discussion and potential vote tomorrow before a state House government committee that Metcalfe chairs.

The bill, according to Metcalfe's web site, would amend the state's constitution to read "only a marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in this Commonwealth, and neither the Commonwealth nor any of its political subdivisions shall create or recognize a legal status identical or substantially equivalent to that of marriage for unmarried individuals."

Same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania is already illegal. But as Ted Martin, executive director at Equality PA points out, "this bill is much worse and meaner." Martin says that if it passed, future discussion of civil unions or domestic partnerships "would be off the table." And, it would forcefully terminate domestic partnership benefits provided to public employees. 

"But it doesn't create one job and will cost taxpayers to advertise this," he says.

Martin also points out that no one in the state is calling for such a measure and that support in it is waning as there are more than 50 less co-sponsors this year then in 2006, the last time such an amendment was attempted. But, with every state bordering several states near Pennsylvania either allowing marriage or civil unions, Martin says his sense is "that the crazies feel surrounded and said ‘we have to do something.'"

Martin and other advocates are lobbying for citizens to call their representatives. "This issue is radioactive," says Martin. "We have to tell people how ridiculous this [is]."

Local blogger Sue Kerr has a nice take (and social media strategy) here, as does Tom Waters.

Equality PA is also circulating an online petition against the bill: http://equalityfederation.salsalabs.com/o/35029/p/dia/action/public/?action_KEY=602

The committee convenes tomorrow at 9 a.m. in room G-50, Irvis Office Building; advocates are meeting at 8:30 a.m. in the Capitol Rotunda to gather to go to the meeting together.

You can find your state representative here: http://www.legis.state.pa.us/index.cfm.

More EDMC layoffs reported

Posted By on Mon, Mar 12, 2012 at 10:32 AM

City Paper has received word of more layoffs taking place at Pittsburgh-based for-profit educator Education Management Corporation. Company officials have kept mum, however, and it is unclear at this time if any of the lost jobs occurred in Pittsburgh.

We began receiving emails last week about layoffs of as many of 100 employees at the brick-and-mortar Art Institutes EDMC operates around the country. The news comes just two months after EDMC laid off several hundred employees in its online division at the same time it was investing company revenues in a stock buyback program.

According to sources inside the company, who asked not to be named out of fear for their jobs, the layoffs began last Thursday. EDMC, the second largest for-profit educator in the country, owns several schools including the Art Institutes, Argosy University, Brown Mackie College, South University and Western State University.

Over the weekend CP received an email dated March 8 purportedly sent from Todd Cunningham, the president of the Art Institute of Washington -- which is located in the D.C. suburb of Arlington, Va. -- to AI employees.

"As you may have heard, there have been some organizational changes at our school," Cunningham writes. "The Reduction Program is an effort to maintain close alignment with staffing in our schools and market demand. We have an obligation to our students to provide the highest quality education in the most efficient and cost-effective manner possible."

The "reduction program," the message continues, is being "driven in part by the demand for certain programs at our schools and we are realigning faculty to meet those demands." Among the areas cut, the email says, were positions in graphic design and general education.

Although the number of employees affected was not laid out in the email, laid-off employees "were advised they will no longer have roles with us after April 5, 2012."

The email concluded:

"We extend our sincere best wishes to all those affected, and we thank them for their contributions which have benefited our students over the long term; and we will do what we can to help our displaced colleagues during this difficult time. We remain a vibrant organization. It is important that we continue to strive to be as healthy, efficient and streamlined as possible so that we can continue to invest in and support growth where we see the greatest need and demand."

Several other campuses have also apparently been affected. At the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, for one, an online petition is being circulated regarding the layoffs of some 15 instructors last week. According to the petition, the instructors taught illustration, graphic design, web design, fashion, psychology and in the culinary programs.

"This sweep of layoffs affected the lives of FIFTEEN instructors at our school from all majors and the general education field," the petitioners write. "This kind of mindless corporate layoff practice needs to be addressed with awareness and guidance."

There has been no formal company release about the reported layoffs. We've requested a comment from EDMC, and will provide updates if they become available.

The company has undergone some financial hardships lately due to lower revenues and declining enrollment last quarter. Ever since it announced its quarterly results in early February, the company's stock has fallen sharply. The stock hit almost $30 on Jan. 3, but opened this morning at less than $17 per share.

Friday, March 9, 2012

"It's not about Cyril": Fitzgerald responds to Wecht letter

Posted By on Fri, Mar 9, 2012 at 4:45 PM

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has been in office for a couple months now. But in this town, you're nobody until you've gotten an angry letter from Cyril Wecht, longtime Allegheny County coroner, and living legend. Fitzgerald's letter, as we reported earlier, came in the mail this week. So ... mazel tov, Mr. Fitzgerald!

"I've been having a lot of people come up and tell me about how they've gotten letters from Dr. Wecht," says Fitzgerald, somewhat ruefully.

Wecht, who was forced to resign as coroner in 2006 thanks to former US Attorney Mary Beth Bucahanan's misbegotten attempt to prosecute him, was seeking to reclaim his old position. But his letter claims Fitzgerald torpedoed that effort, on the basis of "artefactual, meaningless reasons." Those reasons, Wecht wrote, were a policy requiring any outside work to be cleared by the county manager, and requiring Wecht to "request permission in advance of any public comments or news media interview that I might be asked to give."

Wecht contends that the current medical examiner, Karl Williams, has conducted outside work -- a fact which makes Fitzgerald's position "blatantly hypocritical," Wecht wrote.

"This letter is not intended to ask you to reconsider your decision," Wecht wrote. "As far as I am concerned, your decision is final, and I have accepted it. However, I believe that I am entitled to a full and candid explanation as to how you arrived at that decision."

Fitzgerald was loath to discuss the matter in too much detail. Personnel matters, he noted, are ordinarily confidential, and he declined to answer some of Wecht's more pointed requests for an explanation (such as "I want to know who -- besides a small cabal manipulated by little Stevie boy Zappala behind the scenes, and some other personal Wecht-haters -- have influence you to make this decision.")

"I want people to be candid when they talk to me" about potential hires, Fitzgerald says, "and not be dragged into a public discussion." Still, he says, "Dr. Wecht for whatever reason decided to do this, so I'm kind of forced to reveal things I don’t ordinarily do." Suffice it to say, however, that it's just as well that Wecht didn't expect his letter to change Fitzgerald's mind.

Fitzgerald confirms that the two did discuss the possibility of Wecht's return, and Fitzgerald says he agrees that Buchanan's prosecution of Wecht -- which cost Wecht his county post in the first place -- was unfair. (Fitzgerald points out that as county council president, he pushed for legislation to name the medical examiner's laboratory after Wecht.)

Still, Fitzgerald also confirms that Wecht would have had to bend to certain conditions. "He was offered the opportunity to come back, under the proviso that any outside work be approved by the county manager. That's the same rule Dr. Williams and everybody else in this administration has. It's not about Cyril."

Fitzgerald noted that while the coroner was once an independently elected office, county row-office reform had placed it under the county executive's authority. "And the people who work in my administration need to share my vision and my goals. With all these positions, you have to be part of a team." What's more, Fitzgerald says, where the ME position is concerned, he had to be sure of a candidate's team spirit on the front end: By law, once the ME is appointed, he or she serves a five-year term and can only be removed by court action. "I don't have the ability to remove that person, so if he decides to do something I totally disagree with, I can't do anything about it -- unlike the head of public works, or any other department."

Fitzgerald confirms that Wecht would have had to clear media appearances as well. "Anybody in the administration who is putting out a message in public has to clear that with our director of communications, Amie Downs. That was also part of the discussion. That was not acceptable to Dr. Wecht. It was like: 'What if they need me on the air in five minutes and I can't get ahold of her?' Well, there's nothing that CNN is going to need that is going to move this county forward."

In his letter, Wecht writes that he "would be willing to [follow the media policy] despite my concern about the need for timely response, and my question as to what in-house overall expertise you and your staff possess to determine what should be said about matters that have nothing to do with Allegheny County Government." Fitzgerald says that Wecht's "position has changed," since the time the two discussed the matter.

Fitzgerald also forcefully rejects Wecht's surmise that "your rejection of me" might be related to Wecht's willingness to investigate potential police misconduct.

"No, absolutely not," Fitzgerald says.

Wecht's letter notes that since he departed his county post, the county ME office has not conducted a single coroner's inquest -- a legal proceeding carried out to investigate cases where the circumstances of death are murky. Wecht held numerous such proceedings, often in cases involving police shootings, though there were efforts to rein in that authority even before Wecht left the county.

Clearly, Wecht isn't going to be hired back, which means there likely won't be more inquests in the future. Given lingering doubts about the justice system's ability to police its own, that may be a problem in its own right. We may also have to get by with fewer colorful exchanges between county officials in the media. And that, one suspects, is part of what Fitzgerald is hoping for.

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