Friday, February 26, 2010

Read Across America Day

Weekly Column by Senator Susan Collins

The poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away.” On March 2, we can all help our nation’s children set sail on a wonderful voyage of discovery, imagination, and possibilities by celebrating Read Across America Day.

For 13 years, this particular date has been set aside because it is the birthday of one of the world’s favorite children’s book authors – Theodore Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. Everyone has a favorite Dr. Seuss book, but the one that stands apart is, of course, The Cat in the Hat.
The story behind this classic book is fascinating. In 1954, Life magazine published an alarming report on illiteracy among school children, which concluded that children were not reading simply because many of their books were boring. Geisel, already a successful author and cartoonist, was given a list of 250 words by his editor and the challenge of turning them into a “book children can’t put down.” Geisel cut the list down to 236 words and produced a captivating book that hasn’t been put down ever since.
Despite much effort and some progress, early literacy remains a problem. The National Institutes of Health has estimated that about 20 million of America’s 53 million school-age children have difficulty reading, and intervention often occurs too late. For those children who reach the third grade without the ability to read, every assignment is a struggle and every day in the classroom can bring embarrassment. Children without basic reading skills are at a greater risk of losing their natural curiosity and excitement for learning.
The key to success is to attack the problem right away. If a child’s reading difficulty is detected early and he or she receives help in kindergarten or first grade, that child has a 90 to 95 percent chance of becoming a good reader. By contrast, if that intervention does not occur, the “window of literacy” closes, and the chances of the child ever becoming a good reader plummet. Moreover, if a child with reading disabilities becomes part of the special education system, the chances of his leaving special education are less than five percent.
While there are many ways that teachers and lawmakers are addressing this issue, nothing can replace the learning that takes place during interaction between parents and their children. Much of the learning and preparation that make reading possible occurs long before a child ever sets foot in a classroom. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, children whose parents read to them three or more times a week are almost twice as likely to be able to identify every letter of the alphabet by the time they enter kindergarten. They are also more likely to be able to count to 20 and write their own names. When a child enters kindergarten already recognizing letters and familiar with books, she or he is better prepared to learn and less likely to encounter difficulty in learning to read.
One of my first jobs as a teenager was reading to children during “Story Hour” at the public library in my hometown of Caribou. I learned at that early age that encouraging children to read is an investment in our children's education and, ultimately, an investment in the future of our country. That is why I have made it a priority to support funding for reading programs and to visit as many schools as I can throughout our state to read to as many children as possible.
To date, I have visited more than 170 schools throughout Maine and have had the wonderful opportunity to share some of my favorite books with thousands of children. I often read books by Maine authors, such as Antlers Forever by Frances Bloxam, Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney, and The Sea Chest by Toni Buzzeo. The words and illustrations in these books are wonderful, but reading books by Maine authors also helps show students that they too can grow up to write books. Taking the time to read to children is not only a worthwhile investment but also a rewarding experience.
Read Across America Day will be celebrated with special events in schools, libraries, and community centers throughout the country. But capturing the spirit of this special day can be achieved through a much simpler act: spending 30 minutes of your time each day to enlarge a child’s world through a book. It is my hope that “Read Across America” will continue to encourage families to get into a daily practice of reading to their children and helping them enjoy the magic of books.

I applaud schoolteachers, librarians, and most of all, parents, for their commitment to teaching children the joys of reading. I encourage all Mainers who have or spend time with young children to observe and enjoy Read Across America every day, and to help them begin this great adventure. Remember, as they say in Seussville, "You're never too old, too wacky, too wild, to pick up a book and read to a child.”

Friday, February 19, 2010

Seeking Bipartisan Health Care Solutions

Weekly column by Senator Susan Collins

President Obama recently announced that he plans to convene a health care summit with the goal of crafting consensus health care reform legislation. The summit, entitled “Next Steps,” could indeed be a positive step forward.

Rather than rehash the arguments surrounding the health care bills considered last year, it is time to look forward. The bitter rhetoric and partisan gridlock of the past year on health care legislation obscured a very important fact: there are many health care reforms that have overwhelming support in both parties.

Here are some of my thoughts on the specifics for this discussion. It is my judgment that the following seven proposals would win bipartisan backing and make a real difference in our health care system.

First, to expand access to health care, we should recognize that 63 percent of uninsured workers are employed by small firms. Tax credits to help small businesses afford health insurance for their employees would, therefore, reduce the number of uninsured.

I have heard from so many Maine small business owners who want to provide coverage but who cannot bear the burden of health insurance premiums that continue to increase by double-digits year after year. And if they pass on a greater percentage of the cost to their employees, workers often decline coverage because they simply cannot afford the additional cost.

These tax credits also should help the self-employed. For the self-employed and their families, the problem of affordability can be insurmountable since they are paying the entire monthly premium which often exceeds their mortgage payment. A generous tax credit, made refundable for low-income individuals who are self-employed, would help them afford coverage.

Second, we need reforms of the insurance market. Consensus reforms would include:

·preventing insurance companies from denying coverage to children who have pre-existing conditions,

·permitting children to remain on their parents’ policies until age 26,

·requiring standardized claim forms to reduce costs,

·allowing interstate sales of insurance with appropriate consumer protections, and

·enabling small businesses to join together to purchase health insurance to have the kind of bargaining clout now available only to larger companies.

Third, cost containment must be a primary focus. The soaring cost of health care is the reason millions are uninsured and millions more are struggling to pay their premiums. We should enact reforms that reward value rather than volume and quality over quantity.

Dartmouth College has done extensive work in comparing health care costs and quality across the United States. Some areas of the country, like here in Maine, are known for high quality care at a lower cost. Others, like Louisiana, are known for the opposite: lower quality and higher costs. If all health care providers were able to achieve the same level of efficiency as the famed Mayo clinic, Dartmouth researchers estimate that overall health care spending in the U.S. could be reduced by as much as 30 percent!

Because of its impact on cost, I would like to this bill include medical liability reform. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that medical liability reform could save $54 billion over the next decade. Doctors should not be forced to practice defensive medicine and order unnecessary and expensive tests just to protect themselves from potential litigation. That does nothing to improve quality and exacerbates costs.

I understand, however, that these reforms may not enjoy bipartisan support. Perhaps more modest medical liability reforms modeled on Maine’s successful pre-litigation screening panels would garner support on both sides of the aisle.

Fourth, reforms must help improve the quality of care. Greater use of electronic records, for example, would reduce medical errors. Everyone likes to joke about physicians’ indecipherable hand-writing, but it is no laughing matter when it leads to serious medication errors. Repeating medical tests because a primary physician’s office cannot transmit the results electronically to the specialist not only increases costs, but also can expose patients to needless risk.

Improving quality also means cracking down on hospital-acquired infections. An estimated 1.7 million Americans acquire an infection during a hospital stay each year, resulting in 99,000 deaths. In addition to the terrible human toll, these infections extend hospital stays and increase costs by $30 billion annually.

Fifth, we need greater transparency throughout the health care system. It is now difficult, and in some cases impossible, for health care consumers to compare cost and measures of quality. In deciding where to have a colonoscopy, for example, shouldn’t a person be able to easily compare the cost of the procedure at all the area hospitals that would be logical choices?

Sixth, virtually everyone agrees that our health care system should focus more on wellness and disease prevention. Federal law, however, limits the ability of large employers who self-insure their employees to reward those who participate in smoking cessation programs, monitor their blood pressure, or take advantage of work-site exercise programs. We must not penalize workers for having health challenges, but we should provide incentives for them to improve their health through wellness programs offered by the employer.

Seventh, we must address the serious health care workforce shortages that plague rural and small-town Maine. Simply having an insurance card will do you no good if there is no one available to provide the care.

The problem of access to health care is not limited to the uninsured, but is shared by the millions of Americans living in areas like Aroostook County that have severe shortages of physicians, nurses, mental health professionals and other critically important health care providers. Moreover, a recent report released by Maine’s Office of Rural Health and Primary Care found that Maine’s rural residents tend to be older, poorer and sicker than residents of our more urban areas. While they suffer disproportionately from chronic illness, just 39 percent have a personal doctor. In terms of their medical care, they are hanging on by a thread.

These seven steps, I believe, could be the foundation for a health care bill that could pass with strong bipartisan support and demonstrate to the American people that their President and their representatives in Washington can work together to tackle a major problem.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Protecting a Woman’s Heart

Weekly column by Senator Susan Collins

February brings to mind thoughts of Valentine's Day and images of hearts. But the heart is much more than a symbol - it is also a vital organ that is all too often taken for granted. Cardiovascular diseases are our nation’s number-one killer. Every year since 1963, Congress and the President have joined together to proclaim February as American Heart Month to urge Americans to join the battle against these diseases.
Nearly 80 million Americans suffer from heart disease, stroke, or some other form of cardiovascular disease. The toll is especially high among American women, taking the life of one female in the United States nearly every minute. Studies have shown that while the heart disease death rate is declining in men under age 45, the rate in young women has actually increased. Yet many women do not even realize they are at risk – nor do their physicians. Among women, cardiovascular disease truly is the “silent killer.”
That is why I have joined my Senate colleagues to sponsor the HEART (Heart Disease Education, Analysis, Research, and Treatment) for Women Act. This bipartisan legislation, a top priority of the American Heart Association, takes a multi-pronged approach to improving the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of heart disease and stroke.
The first step is education. This legislation would raise awareness of this threat through grants to better educate women and their health-care providers about the prevalence and unique aspects of care for women in the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease. It also would provide funding for the Medicare program to conduct an educational awareness campaign for older women about their risk for heart disease and stroke.
It also would strengthen analysis, research, and treatment efforts for women. Experts believe that a primary reason women are at such great risk of dying from cardiovascular disease is that the preponderance of studies, including the research their physicians are most familiar with, have been targeted at men. As a result, women with heart disease are less likely to be diagnosed until their disease is at an advanced stage and less likely to receive aggressive treatment. In many cases, it is not even known whether new drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat cardiovascular disease are safe and effective in women.
The HEART for Women Act would address this shortcoming by requiring that health-care data that are already being reported to the federal government be broken down by sex, as well as by race and ethnicity. This information would include clinical trial results, and data on pharmaceutical and medical device approval, medical errors, hospital quality, and quality improvement. This body of knowledge will greatly increase the ability of our health-care providers to diagnose and treat cardiovascular disease among their female patients.
This legislation also would improve upon a program that already is producing outstanding results. WISEWOMAN (Well-Integrated Screening and Evaluation for Women Across the Nation), which is administered by the Centers for Disease Control, provides hearts disease and stroke prevention screening, such as tests for high blood pressure and high cholesterol, to low-income uninsured and underinsured women in 14 states.
The benefits of this program are clear: women who participate in WISEWOMAN are more likely to return to their health-care provider for regular health screenings, and have experienced significant reductions in blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Best of all, 10 percent who came into the program as smokers have quit! The HEART for Women Act would expand this proven program to all 50 states, including Maine.
It is vitally important that women and their healthcare providers become more aware that cardiovascular disease is not just a “man’s disease,” and that we address disparities in the diagnosis and treatment of heart disease and stroke in women. The HEART for Women Act will help provide much-needed knowledge and resources to fight back against this silent yet devastating killer.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Maine State Society: A Home Away from Home for Mainers

Weekly column by Senator Susan Collins

Every year, a group of Mainers living and working in our nation’s capital get together for breakfast with the members of the Maine congressional delegation to catch up on the news and to discuss the state we all are proud to call home. I recently enjoyed an opportunity to speak to this group, called the Maine State Society.

Fifty-five states and U.S. territories have societies in the Washington area. Founded in 1894, Maine’s is one of the oldest and most active. The society describes itself as a “home away from home” for Mainers who live and work around Washington, D.C., and members frequently get together for events, volunteer for community service projects, and gather each summer for the Society’s annual Maine lobster dinner – a tradition that dates back to 1945. One of the most well-known members of the Society is former Maine Governor John Reed.

The handprints of Mainers are all over this nation’s history; they are evident even in the architecture of Washington, D.C. Who can stand in the Lincoln Memorial, read the Gettysburg Address and not think of Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine at Little Round Top? Who can walk The Mall, that great battlefield of the Civil Rights movement nearly a half century ago, and not think of Hannibal Hamlin who, as a Senator more than century earlier, jeopardized a brilliant political career by breaking with his party over slavery?

There is never a day that I go to the Capitol without being aware of the giants who preceded me. Thomas Reed, Margaret Chase Smith, and Edmund Muskie are but a few of the Mainers whose principles were large enough to fill that enormous building.

Usually, when I speak with a group of Mainers, my task is to provide an update on what’s going on in Washington. With a group of Mainers who know Washington, I chose instead to offer an update on what’s going on in Maine.

I began by advising them about what they won’t see on their next trip home – the heaviest trucks needlessly clogging our downtowns and secondary roads. Last December, after years of hard work, I finally was able to convince my colleagues in Congress to approve a one-year pilot project to allow these trucks to use the interstate highways in Maine. This has always been one of my top priorities.

I am confident that this pilot project will show positive results in reducing heavy truck traffic through our downtowns and residential areas, saving fuel, and decreasing emissions. Most important, it should greatly improve safety for motorists and pedestrians. This pilot project received strong support from public safety and law enforcement agencies throughout Maine.

Another notable development back home isn’t as immediately noticeable, but it will eventually make a great difference – the leadership role Maine is taking in securing America’s energy future. Meeting the challenge of developing energy alternatives will provide great opportunities for Maine to build an economy for the future, with new industries and thousands of good jobs.

This endeavor received a significant boost last October when the U.S. Department of Energy announced an $8 million grant for offshore wind research at the University of Maine, and Congress approved $5 million for the Maine Offshore Wind Initiative at UMaine that I advanced. This January, the Department of Commerce announced a $12.4 million laboratory construction grant for the University of Maine. That brings the total federal funding that I have helped secure to $25 million to support deepwater wind power off Maine’s coast.

I strongly advocated for these projects because Maine has great potential as an ideal location for offshore wind projects and has the potential to take the lead in the development of clean, renewable, and affordable energy for America. Estimates are that development of five gigawatts of off-shore wind in Maine – enough to power more than 1 million homes for a year -- could attract $20 billion of investment to our state and create more than 15,000 green energy jobs that would be sustained over 30 years

I concluded by noting one very important way the Society remains connected to our state. For the past 18 years, the Worcester Wreath Company in the Washington County town of Harrington has donated thousands of wreaths to decorate the graves at military cemeteries throughout America. Maine State Society members are always among the most devoted volunteers at Arlington National Cemetery laying wreaths in tribute to our fallen heroes.

The Society’s annual Congressional Breakfast is a wonderful tradition in which we can all come together to celebrate our Maine roots. I have enjoyed attending each year since I first came to the Senate, along with several members of my Washington staff who also hail from Maine. While there’s no place like home, it is always wonderful to be in the good company of fellow Mainers.


WASHINGTON, D.C.—U.S. Senator Susan Collins, Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, today announced that the Department of Homeland Security has awarded $409,688 in grant funding to seven Maine fire departments. The funding is provided through the "Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program," or FIRE Act.

“Our career and volunteer firefighters are among our bravest public servants. The Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program is an extremely critical source of funds for our fire and rescue personnel,” said Senator Collins. “Since the creation of this program, Maine fire departments have been awarded more than $50 million to help purchase new, used, or refurbished vehicles, and to obtain equipment for firefighting, interoperable communications, chemical detection, and other purposes that are essential to first responders.”

Funding will be distributed to the following Maine fire departments through the Operations and Firefighting Safety Program, which consists of training, equipment, wellness and fitness, and modifications to the departments’ facilities.

* Allagash Volunteer Fire Department--- $39,900
* Bristol Fire and Rescue---$116,931
* Chebeague Island Fire Department---$6,818
* Milford Fire-Rescue Department---$38,380
* Norridgewock Fire Department---$20,650
* Oakland Fire Department---$40,616
* Winthrop Fire Department---$27,643

Additionally, the following fire department is being awarded funding through the Vehicle Acquisition Program, which helps local departments purchase equipment such as pumpers, brush trucks, tankers/tenders, rescue vehicles, ambulances, aerials, foam units and fire boats.

* Milford Fire-Rescue Department---$118,750

Senator Collins strongly supported the creation of the FIRE Act Grant program. These grants are awarded to fire departments across the United States to increase the effectiveness of firefighting operations, firefighter health and safety programs, emergency medical service programs, and Fire Prevention and Safety programs, and to purchase new fire equipment.