News, schools, and views from a uniquely Lowell perspective

Health insurance enrollment period extended

I just learned that the city has extended its open enrollment period to June 18 for employees interested in changing health insurance plans.  The enrollment was orginally scheduled to end today, but due to a high volume of interest from employees and the significant savings generated when people switch off Master Medical (depending on the plan, savings of about $1,200 a year per family), the city manager decided to give it a few more weeks. On the school side, for every 14 employees who switch, we save about $50k, which will enable us to reduce layoffs and keep more staff in our schools. For information, contact Stephanie Vinas, benefits coordinator, at 978-970-4105 or check out the city’s website here.  Please note: it appears the website has not been updated about the extension, but I got my information directly from Ms. Vinas, so it should be accurate.

posted in Education, Healthy Living, Money Matters | 0 Comments

A tale of two health insurance plans

With the enrollment period ending tomorrow, there has been much talk regarding savings in health insurance costs and how those funds could be used to keep more people employed, especially on the school side where we have eliminated 60+ positions and still have a deficit.  Aside from government savings, what do these health plans offer our employees in terms of care and cost?

For the purposes of simplicity, I will compare some differences between the most-expensive Master Medical (MM) health insurance plan with the least-expensive Blue Cross Blue Shield Network (HMO) currently offered to Lowell employees. The city also offers Blue Cross Blue Shield Preferred (PPO). For a detailed comparison of all three in terms of costs and covered benefits, check here.

The HMO costs an employee about $1200 less annually than the MM for family coverage. The HMO requires a primary care physician and referrals for specialized care while MM does not require referrals but also does not cover any routine visits, such as annual checkups and tests. Any doctor’s visit with the HMO costs the employee a  $5 co-pay while with MM, employees pay 20% of the cost for the visit. With MM, an employee easily could be required to pay $350 for an annual checkup as well as all costs for preventative tests, such as a colonoscopy and gynecological exams, while an HMO employee pays $5 for everything.  For prescription drugs, HMO-covered employees pay $5 per prescription while MM-covered employees pay 20% of the drug’s cost, which also can get very expensive.

Aside from costs and preventative care, which clearly lands in favor of the HMO, some may have concerns regarding the HMO referral process. As a long-time subscriber, thankfully through decades of wellness and routine visits, I can tell you I have never had a problem getting a timely referral for any complaint. Nothing tested this coverage more than last year’s cancer diagnosis for my son, where the HMO coverage was exceptional. Another difference is that MM has no cap on stays in a skilled nursing facility or rehabilitation center, while the HMO provides 100 and 60 days respectively for each calendar year. This, however, does not include hospital stays where both offer complete coverage as needed.

Clearly, changing health insurance is a complicated and personal decision. For my family, the HMO has provided excellent coverage through years of good health and our recent life-threatening diagnosis. The savings to employees and the city are significant, so please examine your options closely. It’s worth a second look.

posted in Education, Healthy Living, Money Matters | 2 Comments

Abuse of prescription drugs televised tonight

Tonight’s Chronicle (channel 5) will include a special report on the rampant abuse of prescription drugs—with a particular focus on its impact on suburban communities. The show will include a spotlight on Joanne Peterson, the woman who started her own movement in response to her son’s addiction to OxyContin and heroin. Peterson was one of several who spoke before hundreds of parents, students and community members at Lowell High School last October to make folks aware of the problem and what could be done to counteract it. (See an earlier post on the issue here.) One of several suggestions was to limit prescription drug availability in homes by properly discarding unused medications. Several speakers were clear that drugs should not be flushed down the toilet or allowed to enter the water system. Contact the Lowell Health Department for their next collection date for unwanted prescription drugs (unfortunately they just had one yesterday).

posted in Healthy Living, In the News, Lowell High | 0 Comments

Drug abuse continues to plague communities

At the monthly meeting of the City Manager’s Anti-Gang Task Force this morning, we discussed the problem of rampant abuse of prescription drugs, not only in Lowell but throughout the state, and its impact on crime and overdoses. Lowell Police Chief Ken Lavallee noted that many of the city’s recent increases in car break-ins, in particular, are due to drug abuse. (Readers may recall a community event on opiates abuse in October.) An op-ed in today’s MetroWest Daily News argues that one way to reduce opiate abuse is to support recommendations from an opiates report recently released to the legislature. The OxyContin and Heroin Commission report notes: “Between 2002 and 2007 the Commonwealth lost 78 soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the same time period, 3,265 Massachusetts residents died of opiate-related overdoses. The Commonwealth is losing men and women on its streets at a rate of 42 to 1 compared to what the state is losing in two wars overseas. Addiction is a medical disorder, and we have a public health epidemic on our hands that is larger than the flu pandemic.”

Among other things, the commission’s report calls for taking away the threat of prosecution for individuals who seek help for an overdose victim or who assist police in identifying drug sources. Likening it to the Safe Haven Law that allows parents to abandon infants without fear of prosecution and the lives saved from that initiative, Middlesex District Attorney Gerry Leone said he could support similar legislation for drug users as long as it came “with limitations that didn’t allow drug pushers a free pass.” Leone went on to explain that lives are lost when drug-users are afraid to get help for themselves or friends because they fear prosecution. Another problem is the availability of prescription drugs on the streets and the lack of awareness: from doctors who may over prescribe these medications, and from people who don’t realize the risks of addiction and easy access due to storing these drugs without safeguards. For more information, watch replays of the Lowell community program on cable channel 22, at these times: more »

posted in Healthy Living, In the News, Local Groups, State Concerns | 0 Comments

Glorious Morning

This morning, admidst swirling leaves, warm sunshine and bright blue skies, I finally got out on the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail from Lowell to Westford. Between work schedules, travel, and bike maintenance issues, I hadn’t yet had the chance to try the trail, although I’ve been an avid supporter for over ten years. Today turned out to be perfect for an inaugural ride. I caught the trail by taking Stedman Street from Westford Street to Route 110, riding straight across and taking a left which let me check out the first leg, which starts from the parking lot at the Crosspoint Towers. The tunnel under Route 3 could possibly be intimidating on a dark afternoon, but was utterly benign this morning, and the presence of joggers, families on bikes and dog-walkers gave the whole trail a pleasant ambiance. I turned around at Crosspoint, biked back across Golden Cove, and met friends in Chelmsford Center where there is bike trail parking by Brickhouse Pizza – I couln’t find a website but here is a write-up from Chowhound. Our friends had stopped there on a previous bike ride and raved about the quality food and good value. The Chelmsford street crossings are a bit convoluted, routing the bikers onto narrow sidewalks at times, but really, no complaints, just happy to not be biking through the Center with traffic which I have done in the past. (This was much better!) When biking through Chelmsford, it was interesting to see how local businesses were advertising to bikers and walkers, and given the amount of people out today, it could well be a recession-buster for these enterprising companies. Leaving Chelmsford, we paralleled route 27, where we escaped traffic noise and viewed marshes, a beautiful lake (I don’t think it could be Freeman Lake, but am not sure what other lakes Chelmsford has) and gorgeous fall colors. Away from the center, even on a busy day, the trail was quiet and allowed for three-abreast biking for long stretches. Arriving at the end of the trail, about six miles from Chelmsford where Route 225 crosses 27, we turned back and retraced our path, about 12 miles in all. I’m so pleased to have finally been out on the trail, to see how well-used it is, and to enjoy this beautiful day outdoors. Thanks to Bruce Freeman who had the vision, the Friends of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail who saw it to fruition, and to all the supporters who helped make this a reality. It is truly an asset to our communities.

posted in Healthy Living, Sports | 0 Comments

Three veggies and two fruits a day

Remember when President Reagan said that ketchup counted as a vegetable in school lunches? Well, apparently today’s youth are not only forgetting to eat their ketchup, but they’re way behind in their consumption of fruit cocktail. (I use these foods facetiously; obviously ketchup is not the best vegetable, nor is processed fruit soaked in corn syrup the best fruit.) According to this article in the Boston Globe, 90 percent of American high school students are not eating enough fresh fruits and vegetables. The Center for Disease Control, which ranked the diet of American high-school students as poor, requires three servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit a day for a healthy diet. Another interesting point in the article: Some New England states ranked higher (with Vermont the best of that bunch), and those states with students consuming more fruits and vegetables also had more farmers markets and school vending machines stocked with healthier options.

A few years ago, the Lowell School Committee developed a wellness policy that included healthier food options at lunch, and limited the amount of candy and junk food sold during school hours. Since we started serving fresh fruits, carrots and celery sticks in elementary and middle-school lunches, the children are eating the healthier choices. Also according to the new wellness policy, LHS students were required to stop fund raising by selling candy bars during the school day, and high-school vending machines were stocked with water, low-sugar beverages, and healthier choices. Clearly, however, the problem extends beyond school control and has more to do with what’s happening in our homes. Like most aspects of parenting, the real work is modeling the behavior we wish to see in our children; in this case, it means eating healthy ourselves, and making fruits and vegetables part of our own, as well as our children’s, daily diets.

posted in Education, Healthy Living, In the News, Lowell High | 2 Comments

Swine flu confirmed in Lowell

Two students from a Lowell parochial school have been confirmed to have swine flu. The students and their mother, who is a paraprofessional in the public schools, never attended school since returning from their vacation in Mexico, which means their exposure to others has been limited and did not include school buses or classrooms. Given confirmation of their illness, the students and their mother will not be returning to school until this is behind them. Lowell schools will also follow the protocol recommended by the Mass. Dept of Public Health, which allows that students and school staff who have recently traveled to an area where swine flu cases have been confirmed and who do not have symptoms may attend school. (Keep in mind, the flu has a 24-hour incubation period.) Obviously, everyone is on heightened alert, and school nurses will be educating staff and children about ways to avoid exposure. According to the Mass. DPH website on influenza, you can protect yourself and others from swine flu the same way you protect yourself from seasonal flu: Avoid holding, hugging, kissing, or shaking hands with anyone who has a cold or the flu. Wash your hands often with soap and warm water, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.  Avoid touching your nose, mouth or eyes, and clean areas that are touched often like door handles and telephones.

Yesterday, Lowell Public School students were sent home with an advisory from the state that included preventative information; additional information will come home with students today in English, Khmer, Portuguese and Spanish as needed as well as a ConnectEd phone call being made to parents at 5 pm tonight. If you have other questions, the Health Department advises calling Massachusetts Resources at the toll-free number:1-877-211-6277 or for more on the swine flu, check the Center for Disease Control website.

posted in Education, Healthy Living, In the News, Youth | 1 Comment

Which water bottle?

I’ve been baffled for some time about which reusable water bottle to get. I got the message that disposable plastic bottles are bad, especially if they’ve been sitting in the sun, because besides the waste issue, they leach some nasty stuff into the water you’re thirsting for. So, then I bought a Nalgene bottle because I thought I heard somewhere that the hard plastic was better, then I heard that even hard plastic is bad if you put them in the dishwasher. Now, one of my health websites that sends me emails is talking about the “BPA”s that leak into water” from even hard plastic bottles. They have links to SIGG, Camelbak, and Klean Kanteen - all companies that offer alternative bottles made of lightweight aluminum for around $20. Before you rush out and get one, Globe Magazine had a provocative article defending plastics, specifically saying that if we would all recycle our plastic it would eliminate the environmental argument against plastic. Too true! The recycling statistics cited are abysmal – in 2006, Americans only recycled 7% of the more than 29 million tons of plastic in use; the recycling rate for Boston is only 12% which is the lowest in the state (lower than Lowell?) which averages about 30%.

Addressing the water bottle issue only in passing, author Keith O’Brien seemed to buy into the argument that the cost of replacing plastic containers would far outweigh the benefits (I wasn’t convinced). A chemist explains that plastic bottles can be reused “if washed with hot, soapy water and thoroughly dried” – is it even possible to thoroughly dry one of those skinny-necked bottles? The net advice seems to be to be cautious and avoid the hard plastic bottles that can leach BPAs and only reuse a purchased plastic bottle in an emergency. So, I guess I’m shopping for an aluminum water bottle; how about you?

posted in Environment, Healthy Living | 0 Comments

Another case against plastic bags

Margaret wrote a post a few weeks ago about making the effort to bring your own bags to the grocery store. Today, my brother emailed me this link for more disturbing information about the damage plastic bags inflict on our environment. I am getting better at remembering to bring my own bags, and I’ve gathered quite a collection of them now. Returning them to the car after unloading appears to be the biggest challenge at this point. Other than trying to increase awareness, it seems the best way to get more people involved is to model what I saw in Ireland: have stores charge a decent fee per bag or as some stores are already doing here, give five cents off for each bag you bring yourself. Keep in mind, bringing your own bags comes in handy for other types of stores as well.

posted in Environment, Healthy Living | 0 Comments

Our dilemma

Today’s article in the Globe about a non profit that builds and donates raised-bed gardens to low-income households along with Dick’s post on Victory Gardens got me thinking about The Omnivore’s Dilemma again. As I’ve said before, anyone who eats should read this book by Michael Pollan – it will truly change the way you think about food! Of course, whether that translates to changed behavior is a different story.  I haven’t eaten fast food for over 20 years, ever since I realized how bad it made me feel, and I avoid transfat and processed foods, but I have not become a “localvore,” the term for those who only eat locally produced food; I still buy strawberries in the winter and make salads every night, all year. The new dilemma is:  how much can one person do, and will it make a difference anyway?  A recent column by Pollan in the New York Times Magazine, entitled “Why Bother,” takes on this malaise and with typical Pollan thoroughness digs down to find its cause.  He traces it to the division of labor, allowing specialization, which has given us our modern civilization with all its advantages, but which has also created, in the words of the poet, Wendell Berry, whom Pollan quotes, “a split between what we think and what we do.”  Berry was writing about this issue during the oil crisis of the seventies (remember that quaint time of lines at the gas pump, when everyone was driving smaller cars, turning their heat down and not using their automatic dishwashers or clothes dryers?)  which he called a “crisis of character” caused by our overreliance on specialists to handle our every need.  This dependence has led to a feeling of helplessness in the face of an overwhelming problem such as climate change, so we decide to “cross our fingers and talk about the promise of ethanol and nuclear power–new liquids and electrons to power the same old cars and houses and lives.”  But Pollan is not hopeless, and his point is that we can, and should, bother, that we can and should try to grow a little of the food we eat. The benefits are many and to quote Berry again, “is one of those solutions that, instead of begetting a new set of problems — the way that ’solutions’ like ethanol or nuclear power inevitably do – actually beget other solutions”  (increased health and well-being for starters).  Can we really feed ourselves?  Maybe not entirely, but Pollan points out that the World War II Victory Gardens invoked by Dick Howe supplied more than 40% of our produce.  So, I second the motion, let’s get out there and plant something!

posted in Books, Environment, Healthy Living | 2 Comments

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