U.S. top court rebuffs state bids to cut Planned Parenthood funds

FILE PHOTO: Healthcare activists with Planned Parenthood and the Center for American Progress pass by the Supreme Court as they protest in opposition to the Senate Republican healthcare bill on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., June 28, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected appeals by Louisiana and Kansas seeking to end public funding by those states to Planned Parenthood, a national women’s healthcare, and abortion provider, through the Medicaid program.

The justices left intact lower court rulings that prevented the two states from stripping government healthcare funding from local Planned Parenthood affiliates.

Three conservative justices, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, dissented from the decision by the nine-member court, saying it should have heard the appeals by the states.

The case is one of a number of disputes working their way up to the Supreme Court over state-imposed restrictions on abortion. The two states did not challenge the constitutionality of abortion itself.

Planned Parenthood’s affiliates in Louisiana do not perform abortions, but some in Kansas do. Medicaid, the state-federal health insurance program for low-income Americans, pays for abortions only in limited circumstances, such as when a woman’s life is in danger.

Louisiana and Kansas announced plans to terminate funding for Planned Parenthood through Medicaid after an anti-abortion group released videos in 2015 purporting to show Planned Parenthood executives negotiating the for-profit sale of fetal tissue and body parts. Planned Parenthood denied the allegations and said the videos were heavily edited and misleading.

The organization’s affiliates in each state, as well as several patients, sued in federal court to maintain the funding.

Legal battles over other laws from Republican-led states could reach the court in the next year or two. Some seek to ban abortions in early pregnancy, including Iowa’s prohibition after a fetal heartbeat is detected. Others impose difficult-to-meet regulations on abortion providers such as having formal ties, called admitting privileges, at a local hospital.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

Waffle House shooting shows pitfalls in patchwork of U.S. gun laws

FILE PHOTO: Metro Davidson County Police inspect the scene of a fatal shooting at a Waffle House restaurant near Nashville, Tennessee, U.S., April 22, 2018. REUTERS/Harrison McClary

By Andrew Hay

(Reuters) – When Travis Reinking’s semi-automatic rifle was confiscated after his attempt to enter the White House last year, he simply moved from Illinois to nearby Tennessee where signs of mental illness are no bar to gun ownership.

How and when Reinking’s father returned the AR-15-style weapon and other firearms to his 29-year-old son, accused of shooting dead four people and wounding four at a Waffle House restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee remain unclear.

Confusing as well are the myriad of U.S. state gun laws that can make it difficult to stop crimes like Sunday’s mass shooting.

The U.S. federal system leaves it up to states to set most gun laws. Less than half of U.S. states require background checks before private sales, and only a small number require “universal checks” for all purchases, including at gun shows.

Virginia has improved mental health reporting after a 2007 college campus massacre but has no laws requiring firearms to be registered. Alaska, with the highest state rate of gun deaths per capita, does not allow firearms to be registered. Most states let residents carry firearms in public, and all states permit the carrying of concealed weapons in some form.

The assault on Sunday is the latest mass killing to stoke a fierce debate that pits gun control proponents against gun rights advocates who defend constitutional rights to own guns.

The debate has sharpened since the Feb. 14 shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school. That massacre prompted an upsurge of teenage gun control activism, including a nationwide student walkout on April 20, two days before the Nashville shooting.

The discussion has aired demands for national laws that would provide uniformity, including regulations on the transport of guns from state to state, as with the Reinking case.

“We need to have national laws that protect against these over-the-border kinds of transfers,” said Illinois state Representative Kathleen Willis, a Democrat who is sponsoring “red flag” legislation to let family members request the seizure of firearms from relatives facing mental health problems.


The variety of ways that gun laws address mental illness has prompted concern. A study by Mother Jones magazine showed that in 62 mass shootings between 1982 and 2012, 38 of the shooters displayed signs of mental health problems before the killings.

Reinking himself has a troubled past. He believed that pop singer Taylor Swift was stalking him and threatened to kill himself, according to police records.

The National Rifle Association, the country’s most powerful gun-rights lobbying organization, says it supports legislation to ensure records of those judged mentally incompetent or “involuntarily committed to mental institutions” be made available for use in firearms transfer background checks.

“The NRA will support any reasonable step to fix America’s broken mental health system without intruding on the constitutional rights of Americans,” the group says on its website.

That support stops short of legislation like Willis’ red flag bill with its “insinuation that gun ownership makes you a danger to yourself or others,” the group said last month.

Illinois is unusual in giving law enforcement the right to revoke a gun license and take away guns from persons if their mental health appears to pose a danger. In Tennessee, like most states, police can only seize guns if a person is involuntarily committed to a mental health facility and judged a danger. Even then, the owner can keep their firearms.

In Reinking’s case, Illinois state police revoked his gun license, and his firearms were transferred to his father after U.S. Secret Service agents arrested him last year for being in a restricted area near the White House.

Authorities have not disclosed whether his father gave him back his guns in Illinois, where it would likely be a crime, or in Tennessee, where it would not.

The U.S. Congress has not passed any substantive national gun laws since the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, due in large part to opposition from gun-rights groups.

Yet some gun-control advocates see steady movement towards uniform gun laws through actions at the state level.

“Our movement is chipping away and convincing lawmakers that they should be voting for public safety,” said Jonas Oransky deputy legal director of gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety.

For example, after the Waffle House shooting, Tennessee lawmakers drafted legislation to make it illegal to buy or possess a gun if a person had been subject to “suspension, revocation or confiscation” in another state.

For Illinois lawmaker Willis, it is too little too late.

“All the red flags were there. They followed all the gun laws in Illinois,” she said. “Until we have national laws to restrict this, it’s not going to stop.”

(Reporting by Andrew Hay; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Cynthia Osterman)

Voters could legalize marijuana for quarter of all Americans

Pedestrians pass by a DC Cannabis Campaign sign in Washington

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) – Nearly a quarter of Americans will live in areas where recreational marijuana use is legal if voters approve initiatives on Tuesday permitting the recreational use of cannabis in California, Massachusetts and three other states.

With pot already legal for use by adults in four states and the District of Columbia, a win for legalized marijuana in California alone would make the entire West Coast a cannabis-friendly zone, completing a geographical march begun in Washington state and Oregon.

Potential victories in Arizona, Nevada, Massachusetts and Maine would fill in much of the rest of the West and extend recreational use to the Northeast. Opinion polls show voters favoring the initiative in all five states.

In addition, measures to legalize medical marijuana or expand its use are on the ballot in North Dakota, Montana, Arkansas and Florida.

An unnamed worker waters cannabis plants on Steve Dillon's farm in Humboldt County, California,

An unnamed worker waters cannabis plants on Steve Dillon’s farm in Humboldt County, California, U.S. August 28, 2016. REUTERS/Rory Carroll/File Photo

Twenty-five states already have legalized cannabis in some form, whether medical or recreational, or both.
In California, where medical marijuana has been legal since 1996, a recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California showed 55 percent of likely voters supported a ballot initiative that would authorize the state to tax and regulate retail cannabis sales much like it does alcoholic beverages.

That was similar to the numbers favoring legalization from opinion polls in Massachusetts and Maine. Slimmer majorities or pluralities also point to legalization in Arizona and Nevada.

Approval by California alone, America’s most populous state with 39 million people, would put nearly a fifth of all Americans living in states where recreational marijuana is legal, according to U.S. Census figures. That number grows to more than 23 percent if all five state measures pass.

Backers of legalized marijuana sales have tried for decades to win support at the ballot box, with little success until the past few years, starting with victories in Colorado and Washington state in 2012.

Experts say the latest initiatives include more sophisticated regulatory mechanisms aimed at keeping cannabis away from children and banning the involvement of criminal gangs and drug cartels. Public opinion has rapidly swung toward favoring legalization.

“It’s changed in the minds of these voters from being like cocaine to being like beer,” said University of Southern California political scientist John Matsusaka.

Legalization by even a few of the states where measures are on the ballot could prod the federal government, which still classifies marijuana in the same category as heroin, to begin rethinking its laws and policies, Matsusaka said.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Peter Cooney)




U.S. states on Zika’s frontline see big gaps in funding

A Greater Los Angeles County Vector Control District worker pours away stagnant water as she searches for mosquitoes in a backyard

By Julie Steenhuysen

(Reuters) – In Mississippi, a small team of entomologists has begun the first survey of mosquito populations in decades. Experts do not believe the kind of mosquitoes most likely to carry the Zika virus are active in the state, but they cannot know for sure.

By contrast, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, has been active since the late 1920s. With an annual budget of over $15 million, it now deploys four helicopters, two airplanes and 33 inspectors covering 125 square miles.

Because they are funded by local taxpayer dollars, U.S. mosquito control programs reflect deep economic disparities between communities, leaving some at-risk locations badly unprepared for the virus that is spreading through the Americas.

First detected in Brazil last year, Zika has been linked in that country to more than 1,300 cases of microcephaly, a rare birth defect defined by unusually small heads.

The outbreak is expected to reach the continental United States in the coming weeks as temperatures rise and mosquito populations multiply. In interviews with Reuters, more than a dozen state and local health officials and disease control experts say they worry they will have neither the money nor the time to plug gaping holes in the nation’s defenses.

They say the poorest communities along the Gulf of Mexico with a history of dengue outbreaks are at the highest risk.

States in the south are “woefully under-invested,” said Dr. Thomas Dobbs, epidemiologist for the Mississippi State Department of Health. “You have these gaping holes in capacity,” he said, with many poor communities mobilizing their first mosquito control efforts in years.

Among the best-prepared is Harris County, Texas, which includes the city of Houston. It dedicates $4.5 million a year to controlling disease carriers, or vectors, such as mosquitoes, ticks or rodents.

The 50-year-old program is considered one of the best in the country. Traps have been set up in 268 areas in the county to capture and catalog mosquitoes and test them for pesticide resistance. It is adding new traps for the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that carry Zika.

New York City plans to spend $21 million over three years to combat the virus. Aedes aegypti have never been found in the city, so its efforts will target Aedes albopictus, a mosquito believed to be capable of spreading the virus.

At the other end of the spectrum, some communities may only have a “Chuck in the truck” – someone who does spraying runs with a fogger attached to his pickup, said Stan Cope, president of the American Mosquito Control Association. Many municipalities do not even have that much.

The Obama administration has asked Congress for nearly $1.9 billion to fight Zika, including $453 million to assist with emergency response, laboratory capacity and mosquito control. Lawmakers in the House of Representatives and Senate have presented their own funding proposals, which each fall far short of that sum.


To help plug some of the gaps until Congress acts, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is adding $38 million to an existing infectious diseases grant program to expand lab testing capacity and surveillance for Zika.

For the first time, CDC will also provide an additional $15 million to help local programs most in need, CDC entomologist Janet McAllister told Reuters.

She said states’ proposals are due by the end of May and could cover funding for trucks, equipment and chemicals, as well as hiring contractors.

The CDC has also earmarked $25 million for at-risk states and territories, though the funds would primarily go health departments to help them deal with Zika cases.

But the CDC money is not expected to reach states until August at the earliest, late in the game to do mosquito surveillance.

The agency estimates that Aedes aegypti could be present in as many as 27 U.S. states, though the chief worry will be areas with recent dengue fever cases, McAllister said. Those include South Florida, South Texas, Southern California, areas along the U.S. border with Mexico, Louisiana and Hawaii. (Graphic: http://tmsnrt.rs/1QvaMW6)

Frank Welch, medical director for the office of community preparedness for Louisiana, a state with 64 different types of mosquitoes, said his concern was that federal emergency funding might get delayed until the fall.

“That would certainly be too late for immediate Zika preparedness,” he said.


Even communities with established, well-funded insect-fighting programs may lack the tools to prevent an outbreak.

“We don’t feel horribly confident that anybody in the world is very good at controlling these mosquitoes,” said Susanne Kluh, Scientific-Technical Services Director for the Greater Los Angeles County Vector Control District.

One reason is that most U.S. programs are designed to deal with nuisance mosquitoes or those carrying West Nile, which are controlled by spraying at night and dropping tablets that kill mosquito larvae into catch basins.

Confronting Aedes aegypti, a daytime biter that lives in and around homes and breeds in tiny containers of water, is more expensive and inherently less efficient.

“It’s a different animal. It requires a very different method to control,” said Michael Doyle, a former CDC entomologist who directs mosquito control in the Florida Keys.

In 2009, Doyle oversaw efforts to fight dengue, also carried by Aedes aegypti. Inspectors went door to door every week, dumping containers of water in back yards that could serve as breeding sites, spraying pesticides to kill adult mosquitoes and using a liquid non-toxic bacterial formulation to kill larvae. After every rainstorm, they continue to spray 80,000 acres with the larvicide.

That has proved expensive at $16 per acre (0.4 hectare) plus helicopter costs. The efforts have only reduced the Aedes aegypti mosquito population by half since 2010, which Doyle said is not enough to prevent disease transmission.

In California, Aedes aegypti mosquitoes arrived as recently as 2013 and have spread to seven counties from south of Fresno to San Diego. “It has really changed the manpower needs,” Kluh said.

Kluh said her district traditionally treats easily accessible public areas, such as catch basins, storm drains and the occasional swimming pool.

“This battle against these mosquitoes happens in every backyard and in tiny sources as small as a bottle cap filled with sprinkler water.”

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Tomasz Janowski)