Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Surviving the allergy season

We're on the cusp of a beautiful time of year in Grand Rapids. The daffodils and tulips are out, the star magnolia trees are blossoming - perhaps a bit thinner than usual due to bud loss - and the leaves on the maples and blossoms on the regular magnolias are peeking out, preparing to wow us with their loveliness.

Plenty of us will be viewing all of this through hazy, watery eyes and keeping kleenex handy for the next little bit, however. Allergy season is upon us.  Of course, everyone is different. Some people may have problems with the leaf detritus left on the ground, a result of leaves falling late and snow falling early. When that gets raked up, as much of it has been already, things will improve. But for people with pollen allergies, it'll get worse before it gets better.

Here's a link to the Weather Channel's 4-day Pollen Count for Grand Rapids so you can know what to expect. It looks like this weekend might be challenging. If you have allergies, keep the windows closed, and get a family member who's not so allergic to do a thorough cleaning and vacuuming of your house. There are a number of natural remedies you might try for relief, including using a neti pot, but limiting your exposure to the allergen is your best bet.

As the Dutch say, "Gezondheid!"

Monday, April 28, 2014

Beginning to evaluate fruit damage from The Winter of 2014

Now that the snow is gone and we appear to have dodged spring flooding, for the most part, we will start to see what kind of damage the three rounds of polar vortex did to our trees and landscaping.

Earlier this month Michigan State University wrote a summary of their evaluation of blueberry crop damage due to road salting and extreme low temperatures. Blueberry bushes exposed to salt because of their close proximity to highways  (up to 100% in some places) had a higher dieback rate than blueberry bushes exposed just to cold, but both suffered substantial damage: "in areas where minimum temperatures dropped below 0 F for several days, we may expect to observe winter damage to blueberries in the range of 20 to 61 percent."

Apples and pears can take colder temperatures, but stone fruits like peaches and cherries are more vulnerable. Grape vines for table grapes and Michigan's growing wine industry were affected as well, although a decent grape crop is still a possibility even with significant bud loss.

Besides damage from the weight of snow and ice, trees and bushes also suffered predation from hungry animals who could not find other food in the harsh winter. Deer, rabbits, and mice nibbled at winter wheat and tree bark, inflicting an unusually high amount of damage on fruit trees.

It's also obvious that everything is going to be later than normal. It's the end of April, and tulips and daffodils are out. In many ways the long, slow warm up was the best possible outcome, both for avoiding flooding and for fruit outcomes, but it means later crops and smaller planting windows for early spring crops like sugar beets. The fields have taken a long time to drain as well, with so much snow melt. Fortunately, April was  not an overly wet month - a blessing.

Michigan is fortunate to have such a diversity of crops grown - all of our tables are improved by the abundance and variety of Michigan agriculture. But spring is a anxious time for farmers in many crop industries, particularly after the abnormal winter we just experienced. It seems likely that we as consumers won't see the vacuum of fruit as in 2012, but say a prayer or keep your fingers crossed for the farmers anyway. They need good crop years to reinvest in our foodshed and themselves.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Tech jobs: precariously balancing the education bubble and the employment bust

As mentioned before, the current employment situation in Michigan is complicated, both for young people and members of older generations. The University of Michigan's index of consumer confidence revealed higher than expected sentiment for April, but it remains to be seen whether this will be part of an overall trend or will follow the more common pattern of surge/slump.

Regardless, for workers trying to examine future trends - and parents of future workers - there seems to be some good news as regards manufacturing. The Michigan Legislature recently created the Skilled Trades Training Fund in order to ensure the education and development of a steady supply of skilled labor for our manufacturing sector.  According to the state's Workforce Development Agency website: "The STTF will provide competitive awards for the development and implementation of employer responsive training that will enhance talent incomes, productivity, and employment retention, while increasing the quality and competitiveness of Michigan's business." This fund will be used for technical training only, encourages the participation of manufacturing companies, and offers reimbursement incentives for employee retainment.

West Michigan manufacturing companies seeking to avoid a shortage of labor and turnover have also taken some of the training process into their own hands. Pridgeon & Clay, a Grand Rapids metal stamping company known for their manufacture of automotive parts has begun communicating with school districts and community colleges and has established an in-house training program to make sure their supply of skilled workers is not interrupted.  DeWys Manufacturing, Inc. also has created a 12-week training program to help maintain an active workforce at all times.

Other manufacturers are playing the long game. At a conference in Houston last month, Jim Fetterling, one of Dow Chemicals vice presidents, discussed the potential waves of economic revitalization resulting from the country's recent shale boom. The energy savings from cheaper, more plentiful natural gas offers new possibilities to U.S. companies. He believes that this new shale boom should not be squandered on exports, but used to rebuild the manufacturing sector and create jobs. Many of those new jobs will be skilled and Fitterling sees the fourth wave of the economic revitalization will be focused on research and development.

After what we Michiganders have seen happen to the auto industry over the past twenty years, it's hard to feel confidence about manufacturing, but the outlook for skilled workers, at least, is brighter. If you have a friend or family member graduating from high school in the next few years and considering college, direct them either to the STEM fields or skilled labor. That's where the future lies.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Butterworth and Blodgett merger - was it good for West Michigan health care consumers?

In the late 1990s the two largest Grand Rapids hospitals, Blodgett and Butterworth, merged to form Spectrum Health. Prior to the merger, both hospitals had been profitable, efficient, and reputable care centers strongly competitive for the West Michigan healthcare market. When the planned merger became public knowledge, there was significant concern that this would create a near monopoly of services  and the cost to the public for healthcare services would rise significantly. The Federal Trade Commission became involved, and "had alleged in an administrative complaint that the merger of Butterworth Hospital and Blodgett Memorial Medical Center would violate antitrust laws by substantially reducing competition in the market for acute-care inpatient hospital services in the Grand Rapids area."

In September of 1997, the FTC its administrative challenge, and the Spectrum merger of Grand Rapids hospitals proceeded. Since then Spectrum Health has only grown larger with the addition of the Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center, Helen DeVos Children's Hospital, and the Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion. Other health related education and research centers such as the MSU College of Human Medicine Secchia Center, the GVSU Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences, and the Van Andel Institute have since been built, inspiring the nickname "the Medical Mile" for this area of downtown Grand Rapids.

It's clear that for patients needing "acute-care inpatient hospital services" in West Michigan the resources are available and substantially better than they were twenty years ago. Spectrum Health consistently earns high ratings for its clinical care from healthcare ratings organizations like HealthGrades. I have toured Spectrum's laboratories with my cub scouts, and they are quite impressive. The limited experience I've had with Spectrum's inpatient and outpatient care has been consistently high quality as well.

From the real estate standpoint, the Medical Mile has been a godsend as well, especially after the 2008 economic crisis and the subsequent collapse in real estate values. A great deal of housing downtown has been built, renovated, or is planned in order to accommodate healthcare workers seeking homes, apartments, or condos near to work. All of this construction has been a job creator as well, and the Grand Rapids economy is one of the most vibrant in the state.

The question of Spectrum's provision of affordable healthcare is more complicated, however. As Americans as we've seen healthcare become more impressible and more capable of intervention and healing, we've also seen its cost spiral out of control and our own ability to pay for it - either directly or through insurance, decrease significantly over time. Separating that general trend from any increase in the price of services resulting from the merger is, of course, complex.

Before the merger, the Blodgett and Butterworth agreed to abide by a "Community Commitment" and not to raise prices, and the federal court overseeing the merger uncharacteristically allowed it based on these promises. An assessment of costs by FTC officials only three years after the merger found that, though Spectrum had followed the community commitment they agreed to, the resultant savings the hospital achieved as a result of the merger was less than expected and not entirely attributable to the merger. The conclusion they reached was that the federal court had erred in their decision and that "self-regulation is an inadequate substitute for competition."

Further complicating matters is the fact that Spectrum has not only become the area's largest healthcare provider, but also one of the largest insurance payers through it's 95% ownership of Priority Health. When the same large business entity gives with one hand and takes with another, the price lowering protection healthy competition offers is bypassed. Additionally Spectrum has acquired numerous other hospitals in small cities across West Michigan as well as several physicians and practitioner groups including MMPC.

In 2011 the Grand Rapids Business Journal accused Spectrum of violating its merger compact and of participating only with insurance networks that were in their own self-interest, sidelining senior citizens with medicare plans and patients with other small insurance carriers. Spectrum has also raised prices numerous times. It's difficult for the average user to determine whether these price raises were in line with increased costs, inflation, price raises at similar sized hospitals nation-wide because healthcare prices in general are so opaque and have become utterly unaffordable for the average person, with or without insurance, government subsidized or not.

Overall, the jobs that Spectrum Health created in this area and the revitalization it brought to the Medical Mile have been a good change. From a healthcare perspective, it's more of a mixed bag. It's wonderful to have access to life saving medical care in our community and a reputable facility with significantly lower mortality rates serving the people of West Michigan. But if it bankrupts us to take advantage of that healthcare, are we overall better off?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Spring Has Sprung In Michigan

Spring has finally arrived in Michigan.  After the drudgery that was this winter, there is no doubt that Michiganders are more than ready for some spring fun.  This season check out some of the following family activities.  

1.  Take an outdoor trip with the family to the Blandford Nature Center.  There is no better way to enjoy the excitement of spring than to be surrounded by the beauty that Michigan has to offer.  With 143 acres of land and wildlife, Blandford Nature Center offers numerous trails, wildlife exhibits, and the enjoyment of pure nature.  You can even bring the dogs (as long as they stay on a leash)

2.  Nothing signifies spring in Grand Rapids more than the annual Butterflies Are Blooming exhibit at Frederik Meijer Gardens.  This yearly exhibition is the largest tropical butterfly display in the nation.  Guests can surround themselves with the tranquility of hundreds of butterflies from around the world.  The exhibition ends April 30, so there is still time to experience this fantastic treat. 

3.  The updated Roger B. Chaffee Planetarium in downtown Grand Rapids is now open!  All of the new shows in the planetarium will feature the latest projection technology and advanced surround sound for the ultimate stargazing experience.  With over $1 million in upgrades, the new shows are worth scheduling an outing for.  To access shows and prices, visit

4.  Bring the kids down to John Ball Park Zoo, Saturday May 3 for Party for the Planet.  With over 20 participating organizations, this is a wonderful way to spend a Saturday afternoon.  Learn how to preserve the world’s resources through science experiments, demonstrations, and craft activities.  Great family fun for the spring!

5.  Yet another outdoor activity to soak up the natural Michigan beauty this spring is hiking Reed’s Lake Trail in East Grand Rapids.  The trail is a 4.2 mile hike that loops around Reed’s Lake.  It travels through wooded areas, wonderful views of the water, and wetlands.  The trail is extremely family friendly and accessible for bikes, joggers, and dog-walkers.  

These are just a few activities to do with the family this spring.  I assume I speak for many here in Grand Rapids when I say that the warmer weather is a welcome stranger.  Any activity that involves the natural beauty of Michigan should be top priority after the intensity of this winter.      

Friday, April 11, 2014

Gay Marriage in Grand Rapids

On March 21, 2104 Federal District Judge Bernard Friedman ruled Michigan's ban on gay marriage to be unconstitutional and did not issue a stay on his ruling, intending that counties in Michigan could begin issuing marriage licenses the following Monday. But in response to the ruling, four counties in Michigan opened on Saturday - Oakland, Washtenaw, Ingham, and Muskegon - so 315 licenses were issued and hundreds of couples were married before the Sixth Circuit Court put a temporary stay on the ruling Saturday afternoon. Later that week, on March 25, a federal appeals court issued a indefinite stay on the ruling, making those couples married on Saturday the only "legally" married gay couples in Michigan for the foreseeable future.

While the State of Michigan will not be able to recognize these marriages, pending appeal, until perhaps the summer of 2015, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder stated on March 28 that gay couples who married before the stay are recognized by the federal government and will receive federal benefits.

West Michigan is a conservative part of the country, and this issue has been polarizing for the community. People have strong feelings both for gay marriage and against. It's only been ten years since the amendment to the state constitution defining marriage as "the union of one man and one woman" passed with 58.6% of the vote. Yet clearly there has been a large shift in public opinion about who should be able to legally marry since then. The dialogue on this issue has devolved over time, with accusations of bigotry and hatred being flung from both sides, and positions on the battlefield being carefully selected and staked out. Legalizing gay marriage would seem to affect only a small portion of the population, but given the high profile lawsuits involving wedding cake bakers and photographers as well as the coerced resignation of Brendan Eich last week from Mozilla, a company he co-founded, tensions are high. Any sample Mlive article's comments section gets heated and goes on and on. People feel pretty passionate on this issue.

Since Kent County did not issue any marriage licenses on Saturday, March 22, the delay in state recognition of those marriages doesn't directly affect any Grand Rapids couples, but, of course, there are many couples who would marry if they could - as well as thousands, tens of thousands, or more Grand Rapidians who feel very uncomfortable with yet another redefinition of what constitutes marriage.

My Facebook feed has been quiet on this issue, which is interesting to me considering how many friends' profile pictures went red in support when the Supreme Court was debating gay marriage related cases last summer. Is this because the issue is unlikely to be settled soon? Is it because people are afraid to say something publicly and be labeled a bigot or whatever the current ad hominem attack words are? Or get fired from a work position now or in the future? Are they just tired of hearing about it or weary of this skirmish in the culture wars? After all, it's in court hands now and will be decided by unelected judges not democratic referendums or marketing campaigns, and the average person has no power to decide things either way. So silence is perhaps the best strategy.

But out of the public eye, in my acquaintance, Grand Rapidians and West Michiganders do have their opinions, and they are not silent about them. We live in interesting times.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The snow has melted, now what?

Fortunately for Grand Rapids, after a relentless winter, we had a cool and dry March - which gave the 5 inches of water we'd built up in snow form a chance to melt and run off slowly. So far, despite a bit of ice dam panic, we haven't had too much flooding.

In the last week we've had warmer days, and most of the snow is now gone. Over the next few days, we could see some very wintry precipitation, including snow, ice, freezing rain, and rain, and next week looks likely for some wetter weather. Which means we could see the Grand River rising again, something no one wants after last year's destruction - which cost $13.1 million in Kent County alone.

The City of Grand Rapids has been negotiating with FEMA over the height of its floodwalls and attempting to woo Walker into sharing the cost of extending them along the river's northwest side.  Engineers have analyzed the weaknesses in the current floodwall system. A 100-year flood event - or a flood that has a 1% risk of happening in any year - would result in significant city flooding. In the interim, although city manager Greg Sundstrom does not believe we are looking at even lesser category flooding like last year's, the city has purchased 50,000 sandbags just in case so that, if necessary, the levees near Turner Ave. could be sandbagged and flooding in the city, like it saw in 1904, would be avoided. The wastewater treatment facility, which was sandbagged last year, is also a concern.

Sandbags are certainly good to have around in the short term, but it would be nice to feel confident that the city is on top of this issue. Because April is traditionally quite a rainy month, and our ground is still pretty saturated. It wouldn't take that much more rainfall to cause problems - now or some other spring.