Friday, April 14, 2006
Big Easy health care falls on hard times
It's 5:15 p.m. when two nurses pull back the curtain to speak with Martha Breaux about her chest pains. She has been in the emergency room at East Jefferson Hospital in New Orleans since 5 a.m.
Considering how long she's been there, the elderly patient is in amazing spirits.
"The doctors and nurses have been great," she tells me. "There's just no room to put me in."
This is the norm these days here in New Orleans. Only five hospitals remain open in the area post-Hurricane Katrina. Couple that with the fact that as many as 40 percent of doctors have left the area in the past seven months, according to the Orleans Parish Medical Society, and it's clear why overcrowding is a problem.
On top of that, the hospitals still open are bleeding money, in part because they're treating more uninsured patients than they were before Katrina.
Until it flooded after the hurricane, Charity Hospital had been treating most of the uninsured patients in New Orleans, bolstered by more than $400 million in annual state funding.
But with Charity closed, the remaining hospitals are picking up much of Charity's work. They are doing this without most of the $400 million that Charity had been receiving, because the state eliminated the bulk of this money from its budget, another result of its post-Katrina financial crisis.
Local health officials have lobbied lawmakers in Baton Rouge and Washington, D.C., for extra funding, but they have come back empty-handed, dire news for a city struggling to provide health care to its residents.
Generals question Rumsfeld's leadership
Last night, we had a great discussion with three retired generals. The topic was Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and the question on the table was why are so many former generals calling for Rumsfeld to resign?
I don't take sides, but what I find interesting about the current debate
is that for the first time we are hearing from high-level officers who served on the ground in Iraq.
For years now, Rumsfeld and others in this administration -- from President Bush on down -- have said that they take their cues from commanders on the ground. Whenever asked about troop levels and whether there are enough forces on the ground, they've said that if the commanders wanted more, they would have asked for them.
Well now it seems we are hearing from commanders who are saying that's not the way it really worked.
Some supporters of Rumsfeld will say, well, these guys are politicized or they are trying to scapegoat Rumsfeld. And those arguments should be taken into account.
But I thought Major General John Batiste, who commanded the Army's First Infantry Division in Iraq, was compelling last night when he said that for him at least, this isn't about politics. Batiste says he's been a Republican all his life and that his criticism of Rumsfeld is about protecting troops on the ground, about winning the war.
We'll talk with more generals tonight.
Thursday, April 13, 2006
Five reasons Rumsfeld won't leave easily
Friends and foes alike know Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld does not easily bend. And they suggest at least five reasons why he's unlikely to bow under the current battering
1. It is not the Rumsfeld way -- He is tough and approaches his critics head-on. Here's Nixon's view from 30 years ago: "...At least Rummy is tough enough. He's a ruthless little bastard to be sure of that..."
2. Impact on the military -- The future of Iraq is uncertain, Osama bin Laden remains free, and Iran is rattling its saber. Some military analysts say Rumsfeld bears some blame, but others say Rumsfeld's removal would send a dangerous signal of weakness to enemies.
3. White House wants him to remain -- Through Afghanistan and Iraq, Rumsfeld has led this administration's signature initiative, the battle against global terrorism. The White House stands by him and expects the same in return. Here's Scott McCellan's take: "Secretary Rumsfeld is doing a great job overseeing two fronts on the global war on terrorism."
4. Politics -- Critics, such as Democratic Sen. Joe Biden, want Rumsfeld out. "It would energize American forces. It would energize the political environment. Yes, he should step down," Biden said. But this administration, Rumsfeld included, seems unshaken, almost oblivious to its political critics.
5. Personal conviction -- Rumsfeld says the war in Iraq is difficult, but he sees progress. And he thinks newsmakers and news reporters, who he says focus on the negative, are mistaken and defeatist. "The steady stream of errors all seem to be of a nature to inflame the situation and give heart to the terrorists," Rumsfeld said.
In sum, Rumsfeld has lost bureaucratic and political battles in the past, but it is not his nature to ever go down without a fight.
Herb induces hallucinations, proposed laws
When I told people we were doing a story on Salvia Divinorum, most said to me that they had no idea what I was talking about. And that is one of the major points of this story.
Salvia Divinorum is considered the world's most potent "natural" hallucinogen. It has been used for hundreds of years by indigenous people in Mexico, but very little is scientifically known about it. And that may be one of the reasons that it is completely legal to use and buy in 48 of the 50 United States.
The herb is sold on the internet and in many smoke shops. It is smoked or chewed and can make people feel they are in another place and time. It is not yet used by a lot of youth in this country, but its use is increasing, which brings us to the tragedy that recently unfolded.
Brett Chidester, a 17-year-old Delaware high school senior, committed suicide this past January. His parents knew he had experimented with salvia and asked him to stop. He said it was legal, but he would discontinue using it. But his parents now believe his depression was worsened by the salvia, and they believe it contributed to his death.
A Delaware state senator took notice and sponsored legislation to criminalize its use and distribution. The state senate has passed the bill; the state house is expected to follow suit. The bill is expected to pass. If it does, Delaware will join Missouri and Louisiana as the only states to criminalize the herb.
Advocates for salvia use say it should be regulated, not criminalized. They say it should only be used by adults, and when responsibly smoked or chewed, it can be used as a meditative tool. In addition, some users say it relieves depression. But all acknowledge it can cause serious hallucinations.
So why is it still easily attainable in the great majority of the country?
Well, it's not because politicians are against criminalizing it. The answer is more basic. Most lawmakers and even law enforcement officials know little or absolutely nothing about it. Efforts like Delaware's are likely to lead to many more states looking at criminalizing Salvia Divinorum.
Brett Chidester's parents are broken up about the loss of their only child, but they see Delaware's proposed law as his legacy. The name of the legislation, by the way, is Brett's law.
Wednesday, April 12, 2006
New book captures BTK killer
While on assignment recently in Wichita, Kansas, I met Stephen Singular, the author of a new book, "Unholy Messenger: The Life and Crimes of the BTK Serial Killer." Singular spent a year digging through the personal history and motivations of Dennis Rader, aka the BTK killer, a subject we cover in tonight's show.
So what would possess a man to do what Rader did?
Singular said that when he looked in the BTK killer's childhood he learned that Rader would get aroused when his mother spanked him. When Rader visited his grandparents' farm, he would watch with fascination as chickens were being slaughtered. One day, he killed a cat. It may have been an accident, Singular said, but it was an event that had a lasting impact on Rader.
"I think it started the feeling of liking killing," Singular said. "I also think it's about power. It's about being something where you can see and feel a sense of power, and you can see and feel having an affect on the world around you."
Rader was in essence two different people: He was married, had kids, and was active in his church. On the outside, he was the stereotypical guy next door. But on the inside, he was another person, someone who killed ten people.
"He'd gotten to know this other person so well that he'd given it a name and a face -- Factor X, or sometimes Rex - and imagined it as a demon that resembled a small, nasty-looking, demented frog. He drew pictures of the creature who kept coming round and fueling his fantasy of having a live, pretty, helpless woman at his command," Singular wrote in his book.
We all know that BTK stands for bind, torture, kill. It's what Rader liked to do to his victims, but in a way, he identified with his victims too.
Here's Singular's take: "...that image of being tied up...I think it's a two-edged sword. Not only does he want to tie somebody up, but he himself is terribly constrained in this environment that he's in. He can't talk to anybody about it. He can't get out of it -- at least he doesn't think he can."
Rader never talked about what was going on in his head until he was caught. Would these people still be alive if Rader had revealed his inner demons sooner? It's an interesting question, but not one that can ever be answered definitively.
Does immigration debate matter?
Just wanted to say it's really nice to be back. I was off last week -- a rare attempt to actually have a vacation. The truth is, after a day or two off, once I'd caught up on sleep, I looked around and said to myself, "OK, so now what?" So it's nice to be back.
One of our guests last night on the program said she didn't think people in the United States really cared about the immigration debate. She was basically saying it's a creation of "the media" responding to press releases from right wing think tanks.
I didn't quite understand the logic. Clearly, the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who have poured into the streets this week and in past weeks think this is an important issue. There are 11 million illegal immigrants in this country now (Lou Dobbs says he thinks the number is closer to 20 million), many of whom would like some legalization of their status. They must believe it's an important issue. Certainly those Americans concerned about border security believe this is an important issue.
Is it the MOST important issue facing our country? That's an arguable point, but I don't think dismissing the debate about border security and immigration reform is valid. Of course, the debate often just degenerates into a shouting match, which may be entertaining to watch for a while, but doesn't really serve any purpose, so we'll continue to focus on the topic in the coming weeks, and try to look at the issue from as many different angles as possible.
Also tonight on the program, we'll continue to look at the sorry state of America's education system. Oprah Winfrey is devoting two shows this week to the topic, and I went and shot some pieces for her in Washington D.C. Yesterday, I profiled two schools in Washington that are literally falling apart, and today's story is about a school that seems to be working.
What's amazing about this school is that it has taken students from failing Washington schools along with kids who were told by their own teachers that they'd never amount to much, and it has helped those kids become top performers. I was in a fifth grade class in this inspiring school, and all these little kids knew the date they were going to college. Not the date they were graduating high school, because that's not their goal. College is the goal, and these little kids could even tell you what colleges they wanted to attend!
Anyway, I'll be on Oprah today with a report about this school, and we'll talk more about it on "360°" tonight.
Tuesday, April 11, 2006
Specter of flooding still haunts Crescent City
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently fell on its sword so to speak, regarding the collapse of the levees that protected New Orleans from flooding.
Less than two months before the start of another hurricane season, the Corps admitted that it was their design flaw that allowed soil along the canal to erode, thereby causing the floodwall to cave in. After that, water went pouring into the city, and the rest, as they say, is history.
To local residents, the admission wasn't much of a surprise. Many here never believed early arguments that the flooding of New Orleans by a category three hurricane was caused by water pouring over the top of the levees and overwhelming them.
But the Corps had another shocker. It won't cost $3.5 billion to shore-up the levee system, as the Corps had predicted. No, repairs will cost about $6 billion more, for a total price tag of $9.5 billion. That's because the rebuilt levees have to be higher and need more reinforcement than the old ones.
New Orleans residents fear that if the city floods again it is going to be the death knell here. Take Liane Buchert (that's BOO-shay for those of you outside this area). Her home and restaurant were both ruined by the flood after Katrina.
But she exemplifies the strong character of so many people who remain here. She now sells boiled crawfish in front of her washed-out restaurant, and judging by the lines, business is good. But she thinks it would be too hard financially and emotionally to pick up the pieces again if another hurricane blasted the city.
"If the levees break again, I doubt I will be back," Liane said.
And there is no guarantee $10 billion dollars in improvements will protect the city from the next hurricane.
Lt. Gen. Carl Strock of the Army Corps put it this way: "Without being trite or cute here, how do you say to the people in San Francisco that no one will die in an earthquake?"
That's not exactly what stressed-out residents thought they would hear from the man in charge of repairing the levee system as the hurricane season bears down on them June 1.
Politics colors immigration debate
As the bipartisan immigration bill was breaking down in the Senate, I asked Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy, who was standing with the Republicans he had worked with, if his own Democratic party leaders had held up immigration to try to use the potent issue against the GOP during this fall's elections.
He laughed sheepishly, and then quipped, "Ask John McCain, my spokesman."
Well, earlier, Republican Sen. John McCain told me (and anyone who would listen) he did think Democratic leaders made a political calculation not to pass a bill putting millions of illegal immigrants on a path to U.S. citizenship. Why?
Because Democratic political strategists knew hundreds of thousands of people were getting ready to march across the country just three days later to express outrage at the GOP over a House bill that would make illegal immigrants felons. Republicans say Democrats didn't want to pass something marchers would like, because it could diminish the impact of the long-planned protests aimed at the GOP.
Democrats insist that's not the reason they let the Senate agreement stall, but a few told me it was an "added benefit."
There is one thing Democrats and Republicans agree on: The massive demonstrations are proof the Hispanic community has exploded into a political force to be reckoned with.
There has been bipartisan awe at what the marchers pulled off. Through Hispanic radio, churches, and word of mouth, organizers were able to stage demonstrations the likes of which veteran political operatives work their whole careers to engineer. And both sides agree the Hispanic vote, which is the fastest growing minority group, is up for grabs, and that the immigration debate will dictate where many Hispanics fall.
Grover Norquist, a Bush ally, put it in stark terms: "If the Republican Party maintains its competitive position with the Hispanic vote -- 40 percent and more -- it will govern America for the next 50 years. If it falls to a low percentage of the Hispanic vote, it won't."
Monday, April 10, 2006
Arizona officer: Illegal immigrants akin to burglars
As of this writing, I'm standing among the tens of thousands of people who took to the streets in Phoenix today to demonstrate for immigration. Because of the size of the crowd, there is a heavy police presence. But one of those standing guard isn't here of his own choosing.
His name is Sean Pearce, and he's a deputy with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. In late 2004, he was shot by an illegal alien while executing a search warrant on a murder suspect.
There's no doubt about where he stands on the issue of illegal immigration. "We have laws that you need to enforce, and if you don't abide by those laws...to me it's no different if you're burglar," Pearce said.
He's not the only one with that last name to feel that way. His father, Russell Pearce, is a state representative who is one of the loudest voices in the state when it comes to illegal immigration. His son's shooting has made the issue even more personal to him.
Nonetheless, Deputy Pearce must do his job, even if that job involves standing guard to protect a crowd that includes some illegal immigrants, the very people he says are causing many of the state's problems.
Irish still coming to America
Imagine not being able to get a driver's license, or not having a valid Social Security number, or worrying that any day in the United States could be your last.
That is life for millions of illegal immigrants living in this country, including about 50,000 illegal Irish immigrants. Half of those illegal Irish immigrants live in the New York area, including Brian M. (he asked us not to use his last name).
Brian has been living in the Unites States for 10 years, after first coming here on a tourist visa that has long since expired.
He owns a plumbing company and a home with his wife in Yonkers, New York. He also pays taxes through a special tax identification number, because he doesn't have a Social Security number. He says he's a NASCAR fan and an avid hunter. Yet he lives in the shadows of American society.
For tonight's show, we spent some time with Brian and watched how he struggles daily because of his status as an illegal immigrant. He can't get a driver's license, but works six days a week, so he hired someone just to drive him to and from work.
Until they got married in New York last October, Brian and his wife hadn't seen their families in seven years. Travel, and the risk of being detained at an airport, is just too risky for them.
Brian thinks it's important to put a face on immigration, so he is traveling around the country speaking at any rally he can. He wants illegal immigrants like himself to be granted the same rights as their forefathers. And like the tens of thousands of people demonstrating today across the United States, he wants his voice to be heard.