Thursday, December 31, 2015

Since 2010, prescription overdose deaths dropped slightly while heroin overdose deaths tripled/ CDC

FIGURE 2. Drug overdose deaths* involving opioids,†,§ by type of opioid¶ — United States, 2000–2014
The figure above is a line chart showing drug overdose deaths involving opioids, by type of opioid, in the United States during 2000-2014.
Source: National Vital Statistics System, Mortality file.
* Age-adjusted death rates were calculated by applying age-specific death rates to the 2000 U.S. standard population age distribution.
Drug overdose deaths involving opioids are identified using International Classification of Diseases, Tenth Revision underlying cause-of-death codes X40–X44, X60–X64, X85, and Y10–Y14 with a multiple cause code of T40.0, T40.1, T40.2, T40.3, T40.4, or T40.6.
§ Opioids include drugs such as morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, heroin, methadone, fentanyl, and tramadol.
For each type of opioid, the multiple cause-of-death code was T40.1 for heroin, T40.2 for natural and semisynthetic opioids (e.g., oxycodone and hydrocodone), T40.3 for methadone, and T40.4 for synthetic opioids excluding methadone (e.g., fentanyl and tramadol). Deaths might involve more than one drug thus categories are not exclusive.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Editorial: Federal corruption watchdogs are being denied access to necessary information/ LA Times

See the blog post below this one (from the NYT) on how Inspector Generals from over 70 federal agencies have been (illegally) (and continue to be) denied information by the agencies they are supposed to oversee. This thwarts the Inspector Generals from doing their jobs to root out corruption and mismanagement.  This denial of information is supported at the highest levels (i.e., by the White House).  The Inspector General system, placing independent watchdogs in executive branch agencies, was instituted by Congress in 1978 as a check and balance to executive branch power. 

Now, a month later, the LA Times has editorialized about this huge problem to our democracy.  They suggest that Congress fix it during the next session.  I think a lawsuit might speed things along, since the executive branch is not complying with the Inspector Generals Act:
Since Congress created the first inspectors general for federal agencies in 1978, these in-house watchdogs have proved their worth again and again. Inspectors general have investigated the CIA's inhumane “enhanced interrogation methods,” revealed abuses in the FBI's acquisition of telephone and other records, and documented the selective enforcement by the Internal Revenue Service of regulations governing political spending by tax-exempt groups. 
Given the nature of their mission, it is not terribly surprising to learn from inspectors general for several federal agencies that their work is being hampered by the unwillingness of the officials they monitor to provide some necessary information — despite the fact that the Inspector General Act requires that inspectors general have access to “all records, reports, audits, reviews, documents, papers, recommendations or other material” necessary to do their job. 
The Justice Department has come under particular — and deserved — criticism for stymieing the work of its inspector general. Beginning in 2010, FBI lawyers argued that some records couldn't be shared because of protections in federal law. In July, the department's Office of Legal Counsel concluded that the inspector general could be denied access to some information in three categories: the contents of wiretaps, grand jury proceedings and credit information.
The author of that opinion, Deputy Assistant Atty. Gen. Karl R. Thompson, concluded that the Inspector General Act's requirement that inspectors general have access to “all records” must be qualified in light of the provisions of the federal Wiretap Act, the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure and Section 626 of the Fair Credit Reporting Act. His opinion said that the department could provide the inspector general with information protected by these laws for “many, but not all” of its investigations. 
That isn't good enough for Michael E. Horowitz, the department's inspector general, who said that without greater access “our office's ability to conduct its work will be significantly impaired.” But the problem isn't confined to the Justice Department. In a letter to congressional leaders, the council representing inspectors general from throughout the government warned that the Office of Legal Counsel's opinion “represents a potentially serious challenge to the authority of every inspector general and our collective ability to conduct our work thoroughly, independently and in a timely manner.” 
In fairness to the Justice Department, laws must be read in conjunction with others. And, legal interpretation aside, it's important to protect the privacy of personal information, including financial records and the products of electronic surveillance, which can capture private conversations of innocent people. But in such sensitive situations, information can be provided to inspectors general with the understanding that it will be redacted in any public report. 
A Justice Department spokeswoman said that the department would support legislation to clarify Congress' intent. Fortunately, there is a bipartisan effort in Congress to make it clear that, irrespective of other laws, inspectors general are entitled to “all records” necessary for them to perform their vital function. Enacting such a law must be a priority when Congress returns to work.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Obama's Stake in the Heart to the Inspector General system at 70 federal agencies: "No records for you!"

Just in case you still think the US government has a functioning system of checks and balances, the following article in yesterday's NY Times' by Eric Lichtblau should disabuse you of such a quaint notion.

As the article explains, the Inspector General (IG) watchdog system was instituted in the wake of Watergate to provide independent oversight of 72 agencies in the executive branch of government:  i.e., so the President cannot become the Emperor, and secret operations would not be conducted by the agencies, because they could be unmasked.  

Other Presidents chafed under the IG regimen; Reagan fired 15 IGs. But Obama has thrown the biggest wrench in the works so far, advising agencies to "Just Say No" when the IGs ask for agency records to learn what the agencies they oversee are doing.

The ramifications are huge.  What can be done with a 3.8 trillion dollar federal budget when no one is looking? Here is the piece in full:

WASHINGTON — Justice Department watchdogs ran into an unexpected roadblock last year when they began examining the role of federal drug agents in the fatal shootings of unarmed civilians during raids in Honduras.
The continuing Honduran inquiry is one of at least 20 investigations across the government that have been slowed, stymied or sometimes closed because of a long-simmering dispute between the Obama administration and its own watchdogs over the shrinking access of inspectors general to confidential records, according to records and interviews.
The impasse has hampered investigations into an array of programs and abuse reports — from allegations of sexual assaults in the Peace Corps to the F.B.I.’s terrorism powers, officials said. And it has threatened to roll back more than three decades of policy giving the watchdogs unfettered access to “all records” in their investigations.
“The bottom line is that we’re no longer independent,” Michael E. Horowitz, the Justice Department inspector general, said in an interview.
The restrictions reflect a broader effort by the Obama administration to prevent unauthorized disclosures of sensitive information — at the expense, some watchdogs insist, of government oversight.
Justice Department lawyers concluded in a legal opinion this summer that some protected records, like grand jury transcripts, wiretap intercepts and financial credit reports, could be kept off limits to government investigators. The administration insists there is no intention of curtailing investigations, but both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have expressed alarm and are promising to restore full access to the watchdogs.
The new restrictions grew out of a five-year-old dispute within the Justice Department. After a series of scathing reports by Glenn Fine, then the Justice Department inspector general, on F.B.I. abuses in counterterrorism programs, F.B.I. lawyers began asserting in 2010 that he could no longer have access to certain confidential records because they were legally protected.
That led to a series of high-level Justice Department reviews, a new procedure for reviewing records requests and, ultimately, a formal opinion in July from the department’s Office of Legal Counsel. That opinion, which applies to federal agencies across the government, concluded that the 1978 law giving an inspector general access to “all records” in investigations did not necessarily mean all records when it came to material like wiretap intercepts and grand jury reports.
The inspector-general system was created in 1978 in the wake of Watergate as an independent check on government abuse, and it has grown to include watchdogs at 72 federal agencies. Their investigations have produced thousands of often searing public reports on everything from secret terrorism programs and disaster responses to boondoggles like a lavish government conference in Las Vegas in 2010 that featured a clown and a mind reader.
Not surprisingly, tensions are common between the watchdogs and the officials they investigate. President Ronald Reagan, in fact, fired 15 inspectors general in 1981. But a number of scholars and investigators said the restrictions imposed by the Obama administration reflect a new level of acrimony.
“This is by far the most aggressive assault on the inspector general concept since the beginning,” said Paul Light, a New York University professor who has studied the system. “It’s the complete evisceration of the concept. You might as well fold them down. They’ve become defanged.”
While President Obama has boasted of running “the most transparent administration in history,” some watchdogs say the clampdown has scaled back scrutiny of government programs.
“This runs against transparency,” said the Peace Corps inspector general, Kathy Buller.
At the Peace Corps, her office began running into problems two years ago in an investigation into the agency’s handling of allegations of sexual assaults against overseas volunteers. Congress mandated a review after a volunteer in Benin was murdered in 2009; several dozen volunteers reported that the Peace Corps ignored or mishandled sexual abuse claims.
But Peace Corps lawyers initially refused to turn over abuse reports, citing privacy restrictions. Even after reaching an agreement opening up some material, Ms. Buller said investigators have been able to get records that are heavily redacted.
“It’s been incredibly frustrating,” she said. “We have spent so much time and energy arguing with the agency over this issue.”
The Peace Corps said in a statement, however, that it was committed to “rigorous oversight” and has cooperated fully with the inspector general.
Agencies facing investigations are now sometimes relying on the Justice Department’s opinion as justification for denying records — even records that are not specifically covered in the opinion, officials said.
At the Commerce Department, the inspector general this year shut down an internal audit of enforcement of international trade agreements because the department’s lawyers, citing the Justice Department’s guidance, refused to turn over business records that they said were “proprietary” and protected.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general has reported a series of struggles with the organization over its access to documents, including records the agency said were classified or covered by attorney-client privilege. And investigators at the Postal Service, a special Afghanistan reconstruction board, and other federal agencies have complained of tightened restrictions on investigative records as well.
Hopes of a quick end to the impasse have dimmed in recent days after the Obama administration volunteered to restore full access for the Justice Department’s inspector general — but not the other 71 watchdogs.
Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, asked about the issue at a House hearing last week, said the proposal was intended to ensure, at least at the Justice Department, “that the inspector general would receive all the information he needed.”
 “It’s no fix at all,” said Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, who leads the Judiciary Committee.
In a rare show of bipartisanship, the administration has drawn scorn from Democrats and Republicans. The Obama administration’s stance has “blocked what was once a free flow of information” to the watchdogs, Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said at a hearing.
A Justice Department spokeswoman, Emily Pierce, said in a statement on Friday: “Justice Department leadership has issued policy guidance to ensure that our inspector general gets the documents he requests as quickly as possible, even when those documents are protected by other statutes protecting sensitive information. The department is unaware of any instance in which the inspector general has sought access to documents or information protected from disclosure by statute and did not receive them.”
Nowhere has the fallout over the dispute been felt more acutely than at the Justice Department, where the inspector general’s office said 14 investigations had been hindered by the restricted access.
These include investigations into the F.B.I.’s use of phone records collected by the National Security Agency, the government’s sharing of intelligence information before the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, a notorious gun-tracing operation known as “Fast and Furious” and the deadly Honduran drug raids.
In the case of the Honduran raids, the inspector general has been trying to piece together the exact role of D.E.A. agents in participating in, or even leading, a series of controversial drug raids there beginning in 2011.
Details of what happened remain sketchy even today, but drug agents in a helicopter in 2012 reportedly killed four unarmed villagers in a boat, including a pregnant woman and a 14-year-old boy, during a raid on suspected drug smugglers in northeastern Honduras. They also shot down several private planes — suspected of carrying drugs — in possible violation of international law.
An investigation by the Honduran government cleared American agents of responsibility. But when the inspector general began examining the case last year, D.E.A. officials refused to turn over emails on the episodes from senior executives, the inspector general’s office said. Only after more than 11 months of back-and-forth negotiations were all the records turned over.
The D.E.A. refused to comment on the case, citing the investigation. A senior Justice Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the continuing review, said the refusal to turn over the records was the flawed result of “a culture within the D.E.A.” at the time — and not the result of the Justice Department’s new legal restrictions.
Mr. Horowitz, the inspector general, said the long delay was a significant setback to his investigation. He now hopes to complete the Honduran review early next year.
In the meantime, the watchdogs say they are looking to Congress to intervene in a dispute with the administration that has become increasingly messy.
“It’s essential to enshrine in the law that the inspector general has access to all agency records,” said Mr. Fine, who is now the Pentagon’s principal deputy inspector general. “The underlying principle is key: To be an effective inspector general, you need the right to receive timely access to all agency records.”