Wolf announces plan to expand broadband in Pa.

The Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority has released the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Statewide Broadband Plan, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Monday. 

Both the immediate and long-term needs of Pennsylvanians are addressed in the State Broadband Plan. 

Wolf stated that broadband is as essential in today’s world as electricity and water but noted that there exists in Pennsylvania a digital divide. “This plan will ensure consistent, affordable, quality statewide broadband to keep children learning, businesses growing, and opportunities abounding for all Pennsylvanians.” 

In December 2021 Wolf signed legislation to create the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority. Created through bipartisan partnership, the authority serves as a one-stop shop for all things broadband in Pennsylvania and manages more than $100 million in federal funds while working to close the state’s digital divide. 

The focus of the authority’s plan to expand broadband across the state is on improving broadband service infrastructure and availability, device and technology access, and digital literacy and technical support. As there are up to 800,000 unserved Pennsylvanians, the plan includes steps to achieve universal broadband access. 

Meeting this goal means committing to the following: 

  • Maintaining current and accurate data on unserved and underserved populations 
  • Reducing obstacles to broadband deployment 
  • Supporting and maintaining a skilled workforce 
  • Ensuring devices are made available and affordable 
  • Ensuring multiple affordable service options are available 
  • Ensuring affordable options are sustainable 
  • Providing training so that every person can meet foundational digital literacy skills 
  • Developing a technical support network. 

Brandon Carson, the authority’s executive director, said in a statement that if Pennsylvania is to remain competitive, equal access to the internet, regardless of income or location, must be provided. “Broadband access affects every area of our lives – from work, to education, to health, and safety. Closing the digital divide helps enhance our communities and fosters economic growth and innovation for all Pennsylvanians.” 

In 2018, the Wolf Administration launched a $35 million Pennsylvania Broadband Investment Incentive Program to expand broadband in rural areas. 

In 2021, the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development launched the Unserved High-Speed Broadband Funding Program to further support the deployment of high-speed broadband infrastructure to unserved areas with $10 million in funding. 

Funding approved for RTP grants in Cumberland, Dauphin, and Perry counties

More than $7 million in funding for 13 improvement projects in Cumberland, Dauphin, and Perry Counties has been approved by the Harrisburg Area Transportation Study (HATS). Funding was approved under HATS’ 2022 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) Implementation Grant Program.

Under the RTP, the status of transportation projects and programs is documented, long-term needs are identified, and projects are recommended to meet those needs. The long-range RTP establishes a framework and priorities for the expenditure of federal transportation funds over a 25-year period. It currently extends to 2045.

HATS staff and PennDOT District 8 will coordinate with awardees on the timing of the projects based on readiness and availability of matching funds, said HATS Coordinating Committee Chairman Jeff Haste.

“This important grant program helps municipalities to fund local transportation projects that otherwise may not fit existing sources,” said Haste. “It really fills a gap and helps implement the goals of the regional transportation plan.”

The following is a list of the 2022 grant awards:

Cumberland County

  • Camp Hill Borough: $88,000, Camp Hill Bypass Alternative Transportation Feasibility Analysis.
  • Lemoyne Borough: $938,560, Phase II Streetscape Improvements.
  • Silver Spring Township: $96,000, Carlisle Pike Alternative Transportation Corridor Study.
  • South Middleton Township: $434,596, Forge Road Bicycle Facilities Implementation Project.

Dauphin County

  • Hummelstown Borough: $48,000, Hummelstown Alternative Transportation Study.
  • Hummelstown Borough: $924,323, Hummelstown Borough Pedestrian Improvements.
  • Lower Paxton Township: $977,427, Union Deposit Road Corridor Improvements
  • Middletown Borough: $1,074,081, Emaus Street Streetscape Project.
  • Millerstown Borough: $56,000, Millerstown Borough Bike/Ped Feasibility Assessment.
  • Susquehanna Township: $30,000, Susquehanna Township Comprehensive Bike, Pedestrian, and Greenway Plan.

Perry County

  • Newport Borough: $520,000, Sidewalks and Curbs Reconstruction Phase 2.
  • Perry County: $1,000,000, County Covered Bridge Bundle Project 1.
  • Perry County: $869,428, County Covered Bridge Bundle Project 2.

A GIS-based story map of the awardees was developed by HATS to aid in meeting discussions and subsequent outreach and communication efforts.

HATS is the federally designated Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) for Cumberland, Dauphin and Perry counties and their 103 municipalities. It works with federal, state and local agencies and officials from throughout South-Central Pennsylvania, including the City of Harrisburg and Capital Area Transit, to meet the transportation needs of an area covering nearly 1,700 square miles.

HATS’ lead staff agency is the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission (TCRPC), located in Harrisburg.

WellSpan Health and Gateway health announce value-based partnership

WellSpan Health is partnering with Pittsburgh-based managed care organization Gateway Health Plan in a move the two organizations say will lower health care costs for Gateway’s 24,000 Medicaid members living in South Central Pennsylvania.

Gateway and York-based WellSpan announced this week that they entered a value-based partnership agreement that will allow the two entities to utilize data insights to improve the health outcomes for WellSpan patients with Medicaid through Gateway.

The agreement will also let WellSpan lower health care costs for Gateway’s Medicaid members through value-based programs where it will receive incentives for meeting health care quality and cost-reduction targets.

“Gateway Health is proud to partner with WellSpan to provide our Medicaid members with enhanced value-based care that they can really count on,” said Ellen Duffield, COO at Gateway Health. “We are committed to connecting our members to the type of care they need to live healthier lives and achieve not just physical health, but whole life health.”

The two organizations intend to proactively contact Gateway’s Medicaid members without a primary care provider and address their barriers to care to help avoid costly emergency department visits in the future, WellSpan wrote in a press release on Thursday.

“A key driver in growing our relationship with Gateway Health is learning more about the most effective ways to provide care to patients that promotes lifelong wellness,” said Dr. Geoff Nicholson, Jr., senior vice president of population health at WellSpan. “Together, we can keep patients healthier and strive for a shared vision of higher quality care at lower costs.”

Wolf’s workforce plan could be dead on arrival

Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed “Back to Work PA” plan would invest $3 billion to strengthen Pennsylvania’s workforce through a severance tax on the natural gas industry that legislators on both sides of the aisle call a non-starter.

Wolf outlined his post-COVID-19 workforce and economic development plan on Monday.

The plan, which his administration says would build a stronger and more diverse workforce and support workers hit hardest by the pandemic, was first announced as part of the Governor’s 2021 legislative plan.

“Pennsylvania needs a comprehensive, forward-thinking plan to jumpstart our economy and support our workforce,” Wolf said. “Back to Work PA will make strategic and comprehensive investments to build a stronger and more diverse workforce, support Pennsylvania businesses while attracting businesses to the commonwealth, and assist communities with economic recovery efforts – all of which will help us get back on track and build a brighter future for Pennsylvania.”

Investments through the plan would go to three pillars which include: strengthening the state’s workforce through digital literacy and apprenticeship programs, updates to the state’s workforce development services; a reshoring initiative to tackle supply chain issues across the state; and getting broadband internet access to all Pennsylvanians.

Back to Work PA’s $3 billion price tag would be provided through a $3 billion, 20-year bond issue to be paid off through approximately $300 million of annual tax revenue from Wolf’s proposed severance tax.

The severance tax would intertwine with the state’s impact fee, meaning that drillers would be taxed for each operating well and for the amount of gas they produce.

Wolf said the tax is an example of the commonwealth taking its destiny into its own hands and using the resources available to it to recover from the pandemic.

He added that the tax would primarily impact companies outside of Pennsylvania seeing as though 75% of the state’s gas is exported.

“We would keep the impact fee and the combination would be, we estimate as a percentage of the market price, about 2.8% which is well below many other states and in line with every other state,” Wolf said on Monday. “The 2.8% would allow us to bring in over and above the impact fee, about $300 million a year.”

This is not the first time that Wolf has recommended a severance tax on Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry and the proposal could face an uphill battle seeing as though both Republicans and Democrats have shown disinterest in such a tax.

Shortly after Wolf first announced the plan earlier this year, State Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Greene/Fayette/Washington and chairwoman of the Pennsylvania House democrats’ Southwestern Delegation, said that the tax was not just a tax on the oil and gas industry, but a tax on Pennsylvania’s pandemic recovery.

“Targeting a single industry with another layer of taxes – our oil and gas industry that employs tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians – is a nonstarter,” Snyder said. “This industry was deemed an essential industry by Governor Wolf last year, has produced the materials to manufacture the PPE that allowed us to respond to the pandemic, and is now producing the byproducts that are fueling the manufacturing, storage, and distribution of the vaccine to Pennsylvanians.”

Rep. Sue Helm, R-Dauphin/Lebanon, echoed Snyder’s statement this month, noting that the tax would single out these companies.

“The last thing we should be doing is singling out an industry that is so critical to our pandemic response, especially when Pennsylvania currently ranks 44th out of 50 in vaccine distribution,” said Helm.

If the plan is stalled in either the House or the Senate because of the tax, Wolf said he doesn’t see an alternative way to provide the long term workforce assistance.

Gov. Tom Wolf initiates plan for comprehensive health care reform

Governor Tom Wolf unveiled a plan on Friday that addresses comprehensive health reforms. PHOTO PROVIDED.

Gov. Tom Wolf established a number of councils and commissions on Friday that his administration says will help the state address comprehensive reforms in both physical and behavioral health and make health care easier to access for Pennsylvanians.

The reform package, which has three components, was created to make health care more affordable, hold health care corporations accountable and tackle health inequalities resulting from systemic racism, Wolf said after unveiling the plan.

“Even before the pandemic, there were warning signs that Pennsylvania’s health care system wasn’t working for everyone,” he said. “Many Pennsylvanians found it hard to pay their medical bills due to rising health care costs, including families who have health care coverage and often have to pay higher premiums and more out-of-pocket costs every year.”

As part of the three-part plan, Wolf signed an executive order establishing the Interagency Health Reform Council (IHRC). The council, made up of commonwealth agencies involved in health and the governor’s office, will develop recommendations to streamline the state’s health care systems by the end of the year.

The Wolf Administration wrote in the accompanying release that the recommendations could include information on how systems can increase joint purchasing of medications, align value-based purchasing models and better utilize data from state agencies.

Wolf’s plan also calls for the formation of five Regional Accountable Health Councils across the state. The councils will be asked to develop regional plans to reduce disparities in health care, address social disparities in the state that effect health and align value-based purchasing agreements.

Wolf will work with the legislature to create a Health Value Commission charged with keeping all payers and providers accountable for health care cost growth. This, administration says, will “provide the long-term affordability and sustainability of our health care system, and to promote whole-person care.” More than 1.5 million Pennsylvanians are expected to become uninsured as a result of the pandemic, according to the administration.

Dr. Doug Jacobs, chief innovation officer at the state Department of Human Services, supported the plan, saying it is crucial for health care in Pennsylvania to be both affordable and offer a “whole-person approach to care.”

“Governor Wolf is proposing a whole-person health reform package that will make comprehensive, quality health care more affordable and accessible,” he said.

State officials announce tiered prioritization plan for COVID-19 testing

State officials revealed a new plan that outlines the state’s priorities when it comes to who should be tested for COVID-19 and when.

While any Pennsylvanian who wants or needs a COVID-19 test can request one from providers and labs, the state announced the new four tier prioritization plan to help public health officials, health care providers and laboratories know who to test first.

“When we established our testing strategy, we wanted testing to be accessible, available and adaptable and we are working to meet that challenge,” said Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine. “Anyone who believes they have symptoms of COVID-19 can get tested today in Pennsylvania.”

The plan first prioritizes anyone hospitalized with signs or symptoms of the virus, symptomatic individuals that are close in contact with someone who has COVID-19 and asymptomatic individuals with certain underlying health conditions who are in close contact with someone with the virus.

Tier two of the plan gives priority to all other individuals with COVID-19 symptoms, close contacts of confirmed cases who are asymptomatic and asymptomatic individuals who live in congregate care facilities or work in health care, non-long-term congregate-care facilities, home health, emergency services, child and adult protective services, correctional facilities and compassionate care and hospice services.

Someone falls into tier three of the state’s prioritization plan if there is a high prevalence of the virus in their community and they work in an industry where it is difficult to maintain six feet of space from other people such as retail and manufacturing.

The fourth priority is for anyone who as asymptomatic and does not fall into any other category.

Pennsylvania testing facilities currently offer two different kinds of tests: PCR tests, which the state considers the gold standard but is limited in supply and has a longer turnaround time, and antigen tests, which are more widely available with same-day results but can vary in accuracy.

Cicero named executive director of PLAN

Patrick M. Cicero. (Photo: Submitted)

Attorney Patrick M. Cicero has been appointed as the new executive director for the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network (PLAN), taking the helm as the organization’s seventh leader.

Cicero will succeed longtime executive director Sam Milkes, who has held that position since 2001 and will officially step down on March 31.

Attorney Jay Alberstadt, president of PLAN’s board of directors, led a nationwide search for the new leader of the Harrisburg-based nonprofit, deciding to go with someone who already had ties to the organization.

“We are very pleased with the results of this search and look forward to Patrick’s leadership for years to come,” Alberstadt said.

Before accepting his new role, Cicero served as the executive director of the Harrsburg-based Pennsylvania Utility Law Project, a statewide legal aid program that is part of PLAN’s network. He also served as a clerk for the Hon. Sylvia Rambo of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and a staff attorney with MidPenn Legal Services, the Harrisburg-based civil legal aid organization serving residents in 18 counties.

“I believe that Pennsylvania has some of the strongest legal aid programs in the country,” Cicero said. “We have reliable funders, excellent project directors and staff, strong public support, and robust client participation.”

PLAN is a statewide consortium of independent legal aid programs providing civil legal services to low-income individuals and families. Last year more than 73,000 individuals and families in Pennsylvania were helped by the organization.