Report calls for disability community involvement in solving health disparities

A new report recommending the disability community’s involvement in solving health disparities has been released by the Arc of Pennsylvania. 

Facilitated for the COVID-19 Health Disparities Task Force, the report includes contributions from people with lived experience of a disability, caretakers, and family members of those with a disability, and professionals in support fields. It recommends 10 core solutions for Pennsylvania’s Department of Health, including involving people with disabilities, their families and caregivers in policy making and healthcare decisions. 

“Let’s be clear: This isn’t just a COVID issue,” Sherri Landis, executive director of The Arc of Pennsylvania, said in a statement. “These barriers existed long before COVID. The pandemic just shined a light on them. The solutions report goes far beyond COVID to address disparities that have existed for far too long.” 

COVID-19 health care barriers among people with disabilities, their families, and caregivers were identified in an August 2022 report from the Task Force and The Arc. The report identified the effects the COVID-19 emergency response had on the disability community. 

The Arc convened regional workgroups to ask members of the disability community about solutions to address those barriers in the future. It noted that health decisions for people with disabilities are made without their insight and involvement, despite the community being among the country’s largest groups experiencing health disparities. 

The task force’s latest report, “Recommendations for Addressing COVID-19 Health Disparities Among the Disability Community,” concluded a multi-year effort funded with a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Health through the CDC’s National Initiative to Address COVID-19 Health Disparities Among Populations at High-Risk and Underserved. 

Contributors to the report included people with lived experience of a disability, caretakers, and family members of those with a disability, and professionals in support fields. Individuals with diverse types of disabilities, including physical, intellectual, developmental, and behavioral, as well as emotional, sensory impairment, and complex medical disabilities, were among the contributors. 

Hundreds of individuals from diverse racial, ethnic, and rural populations participated in the initiative through regional and local interviews, surveys, meetings, and listening tours that served as focus groups to identify the barriers, core solutions, and recommendations. 

The recommended core solutions specific to the Pennsylvania Department of Health were: 

  • Involve people with disabilities, their families, and caregivers in policy making and healthcare decisions. 
  • Reactivate the Governor’s Cabinet and Advisory Committee for People with Disabilities. 
  • Keep helpful policy changes from the COVID-19 pandemic. 
  • Expand community-based healthcare, including telehealth services and mobile clinics. 
  • Include disability representatives in the Office of Health Equity Advisory Committee. 
  • Provide disability-specific training for healthcare professionals. 
  • Designate people with disabilities as a Medically Underserved Populations. 
  • Collect standardized data on the health needs of people with disabilities. 
  • Provide information in multiple languages, easy-to-understand and easy to access formats. 
  • Remove disability as a factor in healthcare decision making during emergencies. 

“The disability community faces complex and nuanced health barriers,” said Landis. “The first step to addressing these issues is for policymakers to listen to individuals with lived experience. Without their insights, health disparities will continue to plague the disability community.”

Columbia’s Riverview Terrace sold to State College company

Roman Empire Holdings LLC of State College recently purchased Riverview Terrace, a four-story, 33-unit apartment building at 132 Locust Street in downtown Columbia.

Previously owned by 789 Main Street LLC, Riverview Terrace sold for $5.9 million, according to public documents.

In November 2022, the building was listed for $8.2 million. The price was reduced to $7.9 million in January.

Lancaster real estate developer Eberly Meyers’ apartment project marked the first time in some 50 years that a new residential building had been built in Columbia Borough. Construction was completed in 2022 following four years of delays due to COVID-19 and lack of financing.

Benjamin Myers, one of three partners at Eberly Myers, said at the time that the biggest hurdle was financing and obtaining market data that proved project revenue could support the cost.

“There hasn’t been a new multifamily, new residential housing project like this [in Columbia] in a long time,” Myers said.

Located on three parcels of land comprising 14,500 square feet, Riverview Terrace had a store front and 33 studio and one-bedroom apartments and close proximity to the Susquehanna River and Northwest Trail. Situated just 500 feet from the river and trail, the location listed direct access to local biking and hiking paths.

Construction of Riverview Terrace was first announced in November 2021. Construction was completed in the summer of 2022.

Companies bring back in-person events, keep virtual element

With the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, companies have resumed in-person gatherings after a pandemic hiatus. 

But they’re not just going back to what they did before; it’s a different reality, and the technology used for virtual meetings during the pandemic is being incorporated into current event planning, too. The combination of in person and virtual makes these meetings even more useful – and often fun – for attendees and enables the message to reach a wider audience.  

The key is finding the right blend of virtual and in person that helps companies engage and retain employees and achieve their business goals. 

Jason Menicheschi, who leads strategy for the event division at the full-service marketing agency JPL, said the company already had a virtual platform ready to go when COVID restricted in-person meetings. 

“The event industry was hit really hard by the pandemic,” he said, as sports, entertainment and businesses shut down. 

So JPL, which is based in Harrisburg and has three additional offices, started using the virtual platform as its primary one, Menicheschi said. 

The 100-plus-employee agency produces events for such large local companies as The Hershey Co., Select Medical, The GIANT Co., the agricultural machine manufacturer New Holland, and others outside the region including Rite Aid, Total Wine & More and Kellogg’s. 

Today, some businesses are back to holding in-person gatherings, he said. 

“The whole event industry has changed,” though, Menicheschi said, with more safety and sanitary precautions taken to reduce overpopulated spaces, for example. 

Mark Lowery, director of network development for New Holland Agriculture, said face-to-face interaction with the company’s independent dealer network is required to maintain dealer satisfaction. 

Training and updates are better in person, he said. “People get to know each other.”  

“It’s important for us to provide an experience,” Lowery said. “We simply can’t do that virtually.” 

One change New Holland has made is holding large, in-person meetings less frequently. 

Ashley Garcia, marketing and events manager, handles events for High Real Estate Group and the Greenfield mixed-use community. Greenfield rebranded in the midst of COVID-19, she said, with a soft roll-out, but by 2022 annually hosted more than 150 in-person events for some combination of people who live there, work there and are members of the public. 

“We’re definitely on track for more than 150 in 2023,” Garcia said. 

Menicheschi said a benefit of in-person events is that when people get together they share best practices. “We really missed those.” 

Also, “celebrating together – that’s a feeling I think people missed,” he said, and is one of the key drivers of getting back together. 

Companies might resume a different in-person meeting schedule than before, perhaps gathering fewer times a year and adding a virtual component when they do, he said. 

JPL made its virtual platform so much easier to incorporate into events, Menicheschi said. “That broadens what people can bring to the table.” 

A virtual element allows more people to tune in. It also means speakers can be recruited from across the globe without having to fly to the U.S. Organizers only need them to be available an hour or so via video. 

The pandemic was a difficult period for many businesses, and a number of events companies closed, but the technology advances made when people had to go virtual are coming in handy now with hybrid events. 

“With any event, you’re only as good as your content,” he said, and JHL’s virtual platform can be used to accentuate that content. 

Employees are already experienced with platforms like Zoom, so they know to navigate virtual meetings. The downside to virtual, Menicheschi said, is “you can’t tell if someone is paying attention.” 

Still, virtual isn’t going anywhere. The global virtual events market size was valued at $114.12 billion in 2021 and is anticipated to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 21.4% from 2022 to 2030, according to a report from Grand View Research. 

But in person is still the only chance to hold a meeting in three dimensions, he said. “You can engage all the senses with a live event. You can only do so much on screen.” 

Paula Wolf is a freelance writer 

Wolf leaves complicated, conflicting legacy for Pa. businesses

Governor Josh Shapiro was just minutes into his inaugural speech on Tuesday, Jan. 17, when he turned to address the outgoing chief executive, Gov. Tom Wolf. 

“Thanks to his leadership,” Shapiro stated, “we now find ourselves in the strongest financial shape in the history of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, allowing us to make critical investments for tomorrow.” 

Supporters of Wolf likely found Shapiro’s praise for his predecessor providing a moment of warmth on a day otherwise chilled by wintry wind and leaden skies. The President & CEO of Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp., Don Cunningham, believed Wolf’s greatest contribution to the state’s businesses and economy to be the reduction of the corporate net income tax from 9.99% to 4.99% by 2031. 

“It’s very significant for those of us to do economic development,” Cunningham said. “He proposed it in his budgets and finally got agreement from Senate Republicans. That’s what leaders do.” 

Not everyone on that gray inaugural day shared Shapiro’s sunny sentiments for Wolf’s impact on Pennsylvania’s businesses. State Senator Scott Martin (R-Berks/Lancaster) said there was “a lot of frustration” the past eight years. The reason being that many of Wolf’s policies were, said Martin, “counterproductive to Pennsylvania tapping into its full economic potential.” 

David N. Taylor, president & CEO of the Pennsylvania Manufacturer’s Association, cites the “deeply disturbing” practices of the Wolf Administration that he says have destroyed an untold number of businesses in Pennsylvania. 

“Governor Wolf, during his tenure, was markedly unhelpful to Pennsylvania’s business competitiveness,” Taylor said. “At every turn, he was pushing for more government, higher spending, and he did a number of specific things that were especially damaging to the economy.” 

One such thing, said Taylor, was the 2017 Tax Cuts and Job Act (TCJA), which changed the depreciation, deductions, tax credits, and tax items that affect business. 

“When the tax policy was changed at the federal level, that was the starting gun for the process of American companies considering where to bring those overseas earnings to reinvest in America,” Taylor said. “Pennsylvania was the only state to say ‘no’.”  

Another point of contention was the additional tax on the production of natural gas in Pennsylvania that Taylor said Wolf called for in his annual budget addresses. 

“Even though he was never going to get that, the fact that you had the sitting governor calling for it rendered our investment environment uncertain,” Taylor said. “If you want to go back and look at when the rigs stopped coming in or when did they start leaving, 2015 was that turning point.” 

Jon Anzur, vice president of public affairs for the PA Chamber, called Wolf’s record on working with the business community “a mixed bag.” 

At the beginning of Wolf’s first term, he had what Anzur said was “a very adversarial” relationship with the business community. The issue at the heart of the impasse were business-related, a tax-and-spend approach not in line with the business community. 

“As Wolf went along,” said Anzur, “rather than treat the business community as an adversary, he treated it as a partner.” 

Supporters of the Wolf Administration point to what they see as life-changing investments in the people of Pennsylvania and the building of a business-friendly climate via the following actions: 

  • Collaborated with 430 companies to create and retain close to 194,000 jobs. 
  • Diversified state contracting so that diverse, small, and veteran businesses comprise 20% of Pennsylvania’s contractors. 
  • Eliminated the Capital Stock and Franchise Tax. 
  • Launched Manufacturing PA to link job training to career pathways. 
  • Partnered with the private sector to address the worker shortage. 
  • Placed Pennsylvania on track to a Corporate Net Income Tax rate of 4.99%. 
  • Reformed Occupational licensure to cut red tape, help workers, and strengthen the workforce. 
  • Distributed grants to help more than 10,000 small businesses and the hospitality industry survive the pandemic. 

“He did some things that were very focused on what we need to do to grow the economy,” Cunningham said. 

At the same time, Wolf’s handling of COVID-19 came under criticism. A state audit called the business waiver program confusing and inconsistent, declaring that it created for Pennsylvania companies an unfair playing field. 

Martin agreed. “Direct competitors, even in my own district, one would get a waiver to stay open and their direct competitor would not,” he said. 

Taylor recalled Wolf’s shutting down of businesses being done without the okay of those whose livelihoods were affected by the decision. 

“There was no outreach to say, ‘How will this play out in the real world?’” Taylor said. “You would think any leader would want to have the most comprehensive overview information as to how will this play out… Governor Wolf didn’t reach out to anyone.” 

Like many politicians, Wolf leaves behind a legacy that is complicated and conflicting. Supporters say it abounds with innovative programs, people-driven policies, and investments aimed at creating a more prosperous Pennsylvania. The Rainy Day Fund, dangerously low when Wolf took office, now stands at an historic $5 billion, and his administration secured a $5.3 billion budget surplus, albeit aided with federal funding. Still, Wolf is the first governor since 1987 to hand his successor a surplus. 

Critics call Wolf’s business policies catastrophic and see the former governor, in Taylor’s words, “hurling down thunderbolts from on high” during the pandemic, preventing citizens and their enterprises from adapting to the circumstances, forcing them to “sit back, do nothing, and watch their business die.” 

Martin likewise believed Wolf’s policies made the pandemic worse, and that Pennsylvania’s businesses have not fully recovered. 

“Businesses continue to struggle and some no longer exist because of the policies he put in place,” said Martin. “It had a lasting impact.” 

Cunningham noted that Wolf was operating in real time and trying to find the balance between keeping people safe and keeping businesses open. 

Good and bad, Wolf’s two terms provided what Anzur termed “an evolution in office,” the former governor finding “common ground to move the ball forward for Pennsylvania.” 

Pa. food merchants address key issues at Hershey conference

Key issues ranging from holiday trends to inflation challenges to the potential impact of upcoming elections were addressed as industry leaders and government insiders met with members of the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association (PFMA) recently in Hershey. 

The Fall Legislative Conference began Wednesday, Oct. 26, and spanned two days. Sessions included discussions and panels focused on challenges and opportunities food retailers anticipate for 2023, including the tobacco sector. Topics facing the food industry include transportation issues, supply chain, and the possibility of a recession. 

The conference concluded the following day with Alan Novak and T.J. Rooney of Rooney Novak Isenhour Group discussing potential outcomes and impacts of upcoming elections. PFMA also shared milestones from its 70 years in food retail. Rep. Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland County, recognized PFMA’s 70 years serving and supporting the food retail industry and presented the association with an anniversary citation. 

“It’s always a pleasure to connect with our members and hear from industry experts on trends and challenges facing the industry,” Alex Bogna, president and CEO of PFMA, said. “This is a particularly special year for PFMA as we celebrate 70 years as an association. 

“We are able to accomplish what we do because we have an in credibly supportive and active membership. The conference provides an opportunity to prepare for future challenges we’ll face together as an industry.” 

Leslie Sarasin, president and CEO of The Food Industry Association (FMI), served as keynote speaker and thanked the PFMA for its “faithful service to the food industry.” The PFMA’s unified voice, Sarasin added, is “critical when meeting with federal legislators on complex issues.” 

Sarasin spoke at length on holiday trends, online shopping, out-of-stocks, the public perception of the business sector, and shifting shopper concerns. 

“We’re still feeling our way along as we move from pandemic to endemic, still trying to figure out work styles, deal with the economic aftereffects of COVID-19 exacerbated by the war in Ukraine,” said Sarasin. She added the FMI is working to “figure out which consumer shopping behaviors that shifted during the pandemic are going to stick and require further investment and development from the food industry.” 

Sarasin spoke to the need to make things better for shoppers, citing it as “a way of helping heal our world and improving the public’s image of itself.” 

The next PFMA Annual Conference is scheduled for May 9-10, 2023 and will be hosted by the Lancaster Marriott at Penn Square. 

Pandemic-related tax changes means many haven’t seen returns

It may be more than halfway through 2022, but accountants are still dealing with the 2021 tax return season thanks to pandemic related changes and backlogs with the Internal Revenue Service. 

Ruthann Woll, a tax partner and CPA with RKL LLP, said millions of people have still not received their rebate checks and some have not yet filed their return because of some of the reconciliations that needed to be done because of COVID relief stimulus from the federal government. 

“We’re dealing with the reconciliation of the third recovery rebate payment of $1,400, which was made in January of 2022,” she said. 

She said the new advanced child credit also needed to be reconciled on families’ tax returns. 

Stephanie Kane, senior manager in RKL’s tax services group, said the same is true for many businesses. 

Tax incentive programs due to Covid-19, such as PPP forgiveness and ERTC credits, impacted returns again this year. PPP forgiveness was tax free money, while ERTC credits actually increased taxable income for businesses. For that reason, Kane said careful planning is important for businesses filing their tax returns. 

“Certain tax rules changed for 2019 and 2020 were reinstated for 2021,” said Kane. “Excess business loss limitations and interest expense limitations had been lifted to help with cash flow for Covid-19. They are now back in place.” 

The need to address many of those reconciliations and tax changes caused many to file for deferment, to give them more time to work out the implications. 

Woll said the IRS had 54 million tax returns filed by the original April deadline but expects around 160 million returns to be filed by October of this year. 

Woll said those deferments have added to a number of other problems the IRS has been dealing with in handling the late and more complex returns, the IRS still hasn’t processed about 2 million returns that were expected to be refunds. 

Part of the problem, she said, is that the IRS, like many employers, is dealing with a staffing shortage. 

However, the IRS has been hiring more workers to help deal with the backlog. 

But the IRS is also facing problems with the increase in fraudulent returns that began during the pandemic, a similar problem that the Department of Labor & Industry had with unemployment compensation claims. 

“The last two years it’s been a really crazy environment to help the taxpayers through,” said Woll. 

However, Kane said things should be a little easier heading into the 2022 tax season. 

“Looking to the 2022 tax year a lot of the same things will impact our tax season coming up,” she said. “Practitioners should be working with clients on their quarterly estimates to make sure these items are being accounted for correctly and that there are no surprises for owners on these specific items. We don’t have significant tax overhaul concerns for 2022 at this point. Just making sure we are adjusting and taking into consideration the items we are aware of and their impact on taxes and cash flow.” 

Midstate restaurants prepare for busy Valentine’s Day weekend 

Area restaurants are geared up for a busy Valentine’s Day weekend as industry-wide workforce shortages continue. 

Valentine’s Day, one of the biggest days of the year for restaurants, is set to be a particularly busy one this weekend with many midstate businesses reporting full houses on both Saturday and Monday. 

“It should be a good weekend all the way around. There is a pent-up demand to get out,” said John Longstreet, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association (PRLA). “It’s one of the biggest nights of the year and this year they get a bonus because they get it on Monday night.” 

This time last year Pennsylvania restaurants had indoor capacity limits placed on them by the Wolf Administration up until May. However, while restaurants can now operate at full capacity, many lack a full staff thanks to workforce shortages and staff out of work with COVID-19. 

The Left Bank Restaurant and Bar in York currently has a staff that is 50 to 60% of what it was prior to the pandemic. That cut in staff means that keeping staff healthy is more important than ever. 

“Currently our staff is wearing masks, but we don’t require guests wearing masks,” said Sean Arnold, chef and owner of Left Bank. “If we lose one or two staff, we lose a quarter of our front or back house. We are trying to make sure that our staff stays healthy so we can stay open.” 

On the customer side, there seems to be very little reluctance about going out for the weekend following the rise of the COVID-19 Omicron variant in December and January, said Longstreet, adding that while there may be slight edginess among customers, it hasn’t stopped the reservations from flowing in. 

Friday, Saturday and Monday are all nearly sold out at 1700 Degrees Steakhouse in Harrisburg. The restaurant, part of Hilton Harrisburg, expects the weekend to kick off a busy 2022 for the hotel, which already had advanced bookings from March through June. 

The next step for the hotel will be to rehire its banquet staff, which took a larger hit during the pandemic. 

“We see our numbers going back to a pre-pandemic volume by the fall,” said Joe Massaro, general manager at the Hilton Harrisburg. “We are feverishly looking to build back the rest of our team. We have to hire a significant amount of people for that end of the business to grow.” 

While the labor market is still thin among restaurants and hotels, it has definitely improved from where it was in 2021, said Sam Wilsker, a partner at Holiday Inn Lancaster and its adjoining restaurant, The Imperial. 

Like most restaurants, The Imperial had a slower January and is looking to pick up pace moving into February and March. 

“The Imperial is definitely in a stronger position for Valentine’s Day this year as opposed to last year,” said Wilsker. “We are happy to welcome indoor diners this year. Last year we were only able to offer To Go meals at this time.” 

The three restaurants said that they expect that the strong weekend will move into an equally strong restaurant season. 

“This Valentine’s Day weekend, based on reservations, looks to be a good start to our season,” said Arnold. “November and December were good months. People came out and celebrated. We hope that continues into 2022.”