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Rome to extend school days to make up time
• The BOE announces the change for at least the first two weeks of April.

Lou Byars, Rome City Schools superintendent

Instead of making a calendar change in response to the loss of instruction time from inclement weather school closings, Rome City Schools will extend school days for at least the first two weeks in April.

The decision was announced during Tuesday's Rome Board of Education meeting. A decision on how much longer school days will be for April 2 through April 13 will not be made until the winter season has come to a close, Superintendent Lou Byars said.

The extended days will follow the system's spring break the last week of March. Byars said this will provide more time for students to have a "refresher" on material before state testing takes place.

The system has closed school four times this year for either winter weather or the football state championship game.

Also during Tuesday's meeting, Byars addressed how the system is moving forward with projects funded by the 1-cent education local option sales tax.

Bids for installing air conditioners at each of the elementary school gyms are currently being accepted. Byars said the hope is to have the installation complete by the start of next school year. This project will be funded by the current ELOST.

Collections for the current ELOST had a good month in December, with the system bringing in $89,971 more than the monthly average of $434,000. The boost in collections cut the total deficit between what the system has taken in — $19,300,590 — and what it expected by December 2017 — $19,530,000 — down to $229,410. The deficit had been $301,356 through August 2017.

For projects to be funded by the ELOST extension approved by voters this fall, the construction of a new Main Elementary is set to get underway following a groundbreaking ceremony Friday.

Also, property is being prepared at Rome High for the installation of a new practice football field, since the current one is the site for a planned multipurpose facility and college and career academy. The system will move forward with building the new facility once the new field is built.

The board also approved an energy savings project with Georgia Power. West End and West Central elementary schools will be completely outfitted with new LED light fixtures, to cut down on energy bills.

The system doesn't have to commit any upfront capital for the project, which is estimated to result in 50 percent to 80 percent in energy savings. Georgia Power will have a written guarantee that annual savings will be at least $36,268. These energy savings will in turn be used to pay for the project over a 10-year period.

The total cost of the project is $301,379, but a $39,878 rebate would knock that down to $261,501.

100 people plant 200 trees
• Rome's annual Arbor Day event brings its largest crowd ever to Heritage Riverways Trail along the Oostanaula River.

Mary Hardin Thornton

Rome and Floyd County are running out of places to hang their Tree City USA flags. Georgia Forestry Commission Chief Ranger for Floyd and Chattooga counties Mike Brunson presented Rome with a flag for the 28th time Friday during Arbor Day ceremonies that brought more than 110 people to the trail behind State Mutual Stadium to help plant 200 trees.

Representatives of the Rome Federated Garden clubs, both Rotary clubs in Rome, government officials, college students and other volunteers, divided up into five work units to plant a variety of species of trees along the Heritage Riverways Trail along the Oostanaula River.

Rotary clubs around the world have been challenged to plant a tree for every member during 2018 and both Rome clubs were heavily represented during the festivities, swapping suits for jeans and boots to plant everything from saw tooth oaks, saw tooth gobblers, tulip poplars, catalpas and other species.

The volunteers were assisted with the planting by a Nature Conservancy fire crew led by Rachel Fonvielle.

The Nature Conservancy workers dug most of the holes and folks like Extension Service agent Keith Mickler, Berry College student Jake Hager, trails advocate Julie Smith and others, including the Rotary representatives, dropped the seedlings into their holes and helped tamp the dirt back around the tender root systems.

Brunson told the crowd that in order to be certified as a Tree City USA, a community has to have a tree board or commission, an official tree ordinance, devote at least $2 per capita in the local budget for tree-related activity and hold a formal Arbor Day celebration.

A special part of the event was the rededication of a tree to former Keep Rome- Floyd Beau tiful Director Mickie Dobbs. Her daughter Anne Dobbs Gilbert was on hand for the ceremony along with former assistant city manager Jim Dixon, arborist Terry Paige and urban forestry division employee Ernest Watson. Dobbs succeeded Mary Louise Payne, the first KRFB director. That post is currently held by Mary Hardin Thornton.

House panel weighs legislation to ease access to vital medicine

Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta

Kristine Werner

Rep. Kim Schofield, D-Atlanta

Brannen Whirledge was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease, two years ago at age 4.

His family tried for months to find an effective medicine for him that didn't produce unpleasant side effects, such as nausea and fatigue. Finally, they found what his mother, Melissa Whirledge, calls "a miracle pill,'' the drug Colazal.

His symptoms went away, and he thrived, she told House lawmakers Monday.

Then the Atlanta family's health insurer told them it would no longer cover the drug, she said. The family appealed, and the insurer eventually granted a temporary exception, said Whirledge. But that exception "expires this spring,'' and now she's worried about whether they can get another.

Whirledge joined patients and their advocates at the state Capitol on Monday to testify about legislation that aims to ease access to medications for serious illnesses by facilitating exceptions to insurer drug requirements.

Current protocols often require that a patient "try and fail" on one or more meds before insurers provide coverage for a drug that was originally prescribed. House Bill 519 would establish reasons for exemptions from such protocols.

A subcommittee of the House Insurance Committee heard sometimes wrenching testimony on the bill Monday. The Medical Association of Georgia and the Georgia Pharmacy Association said they support the bill. But health insurers — the presumed opponents of the legislation — did not testify.

State Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, the sponsor of House Bill 519, cited a CNN report that California's insurance commissioner is investigating Aetna after learning that a former medical director for the insurer admitted under oath that he never looked at patients' records when deciding whether to approve or deny care.

Cooper said 16 states have passed similar legislation on medication exceptions.

No vote was taken on the medication bill.

Another proposal — to reduce "surprise" medical bills involving hospital ER visits — was also debated by the panel without a vote.

Kristine Werner, 40, of Smyrna, told lawmakers that several medications proved unsuccessful after her multiple sclerosis was diagnosed in 2012. She was hospitalized at times, and lost the ability to speak for six months.

Last year, she started a new drug, Ocrevus, which she said has been better for her.

But after she went through a divorce and had to get a different health plan, she said, the new insurer wanted her to try two other medications before she could get Ocrevus again.

"MS is not a one-size-fits-all disease,'' Werner told the panel.

Her twice-a-year infusion of Ocrevus costs $65,000 to $75,000. "I can't do without it," she said.

The insurer now has given her a pre-authorization for the infusion of the drug, but she doesn't know how much of the cost will be covered.

'The right thing to do'

Jon Ramsey of the Georgia Asthma Coalition said some patients with severe asthmatic conditions "have to jump through a lot of hoops'' to get access to biologic drugs, which are produced from living organisms or contain components of living organisms and can be very expensive.

Ramsey talked of his own experience with asthma, and that of a Georgia girl who was stabilized on a drug that was approved by an insurer after she had already racked up more than $1 million in medical bills.

And state Rep. Kim Schofield, D-Atlanta, who has lupus, told the panel that the legislation "is the right thing to do. We've been fighting this battle for a long time."

The bill would require a health plan to grant or deny an exception to its drug protocols within 24 hours in an urgent health care situation, and in 72 hours for a non-urgent case.

The legislation on surprise billing, also sponsored by Cooper, would require a hospital not in an ER patient's network to contact the insurer once the patient had been medically stabilized. Then the insurer could order a transfer to an in-network facility or authorize further care at the hospital where the patient had been stabilized.

The measure, House Bill 799, is supported by Kaiser Permanente. A Kaiser vice president, Kirk McGhee, told the Insurance subcommittee that the legislation can reduce the surprise charges that ER patients often face.

He called it a "moral issue'' for the problem to be resolved.

The legislation is opposed by the hospital industry.

Anna Adams of the Georgia Hospital Association said the bill would create delays in patient care. Rural hospitals don't have sufficient staffs to comply with the proposal if it's enacted, she said.

Finley: No business too small to be hacked
• Cyber security programs get the attention of business leaders.

Robert Finley

The biggest danger related to cyber security today is complacency, according to information technology security specialist Robert Finley. The technology consultant told members of the Rome Rotary Club Thursday that cyber security must be constantly updated as different threats emerge daily.

"Cyber crime is a business run by professionals in their field," Finley said. "The digital underground has a thriving black market."

Finley told the civic leaders hacking is not something that is targeted solely at big businesses such as J.P. Morgan or Equifax.

"No one is too small," Finley said. He asserted that as many of 20 percent of the small businesses across the nation are victims of cyber crime annually, and that half of all cyber attacks are aimed at small to medium sized businesses.

Social media is a frequent pass through for cyber criminals.

"600,000 Facebook accounts are hacked every day," Finley said. He also said nearly one million malware threats are released every day. "Hacking is no longer a fringe activity," Finley said. He said "social engineering" is an everyday sounding name for the criminal activity.

A common way someone gains access to information involves receipt of an email asking the receiver to click on an electronic address to obtain some piece of information that may seem important. Once that click happens, the cyber criminal has access to just about anything on the computer or mobile device.

Finley suggested for those who do a lot of business on the internet to have a separate computer for doing their banking business as one of the best means of limiting access by cyber criminals to bank accounts.

"The FDIC does not protect against bank fraud," Finley said.

He explained that the average cost of repairing records for victims of hack attacks is more than $200.

Finley also said it was important for people to have strong passwords and that a lot of service providers now want more than the old standard of eight characters for a password. Club member Jim Manis also suggested that two factor authentication was a good way to control access to a computer.

"Most of us, including me, are too lazy. But I think we're all going to have to tighten up," Manis said.


Today's artwork is by Aamiyah Hicks, a first-grader at East Central Elementary School.