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Local
Santa, elves bring Christmas cheer to Snowflake Express riders

WATERLOO — Upbeat Christmas music started as soon as the Snowflake Express pulled away from Open Bible Church Saturday morning.

That immediately animated 18-year-old Blake Drinovsay, who was dressed in a green and red elf outfit with red and white striped sleeves and socks. He clapped while moving up and down the aisle of the train car and shouted “All right, are we ready?” before the chorus in an effort to get passengers to sing along.

“Yes, I love it. I’m the entertainer,” said Drinovsay, volunteering for the fourth year on the Christmas-themed train trip. “It just gets better every year. It’s a dream.”

The Iowa Northern Railway Co. train, normally known as the Hawkeye Express, was transformed for a day of nostalgic holiday travel. Passengers boarded at the church near downtown during six 50-minute trips between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., traveling south to Washburn before reversing direction to come back.

The train was packed for the first trip of the day, with many of the upper level seats also filled. A total of 5,400 seats were available for purchase throughout the day.

“Ticket sales are at 90 percent as of this morning,” said Ann-Marie Nielsen, one of the organizers of the event. A fundraiser for local charity The Magical Mix Kids now in its seventh year, money from ticket sales is used to take chronic and terminally ill children from Northeast Iowa to Disney World. Over the past 18 years, the nonprofit organization has provided the all-expense paid trip to 230 children.

Iowa Northern Railway helps make the event profitable with free use of the train for the day.

“They donate all of it and they’re a corporate sponsor,” said Nielsen. “They buy a block of tickets for their employees. They’re fabulous.”

Drinovsay and his family, of Hudson, started volunteering on the train after he was a recipient of the trip in 2014. They were among nearly 100 volunteers on the train or in the church, where people could get cookies and hot chocolate before or after their trip.

“It’s the best thing our family has ever been involved in,” said Wendy Drinovsay, Blake’s mom. “We get to put smiles on kids’ faces.”

It seemed to be working as Blake Drinovsay, in his elf outfit, moved from seat to seat.

“This our fourth year on the train and we always come to this car,” said Amanda Davis, because of Drinovsay. The Waterloo woman was there with her mom, Rose, and 5-year-old daughter, Kelly.

Drinovsay approached another family. “What do we all want for Christmas?” he asked.

“I want a hover board,” responded 6-year-old Bernard Taylor. His 7-year-old sister, Assyria, said she wanted a computer.

“We enjoy it,” said their mom Marvinia, of the train ride. “They woke right up this morning.”

Her 1-year-old daughter, LaReiara, and husband, Bernard, an employee of the Iowa Northern Railway, were also on the trip. The children were watching closely for Santa, who was methodically moving through the train’s cars with an entourage including Mrs. Claus and an elf.

“I’m going to yell ‘Santa,’” said 6-year-old Bernard, once the jolly old elf arrives.

Santa was played by Butch Peyton of Independence whose son, Ryan, was a recipient of the Magical Mix Kids trip in 2006. Ryan, now 20, was born with spina bifida and has also been a longtime volunteer on the Snowflake Express along with his mom, Becky. But she doesn’t play Santa’s wife on the train.

“I tried to get her to be Mrs. Claus,” said Ryan Peyton. “I just can’t get it to work out.”

As the train neared Waterloo on its return trip, volunteers handed out small sleigh bells to all the children, a nod to the book and movie, “The Polar Express.” Before long, many little hands were shaking and ringing those bells.

“They were just sad the train ride is about to end,” said Brooke Reiter of her children, Cael, 4, Peyton, 3, and Aspen, 1, when they received the bells.

“I guess once they get the bells out, I’m ready to go,” she quipped. The La Porte City woman and her husband, Nick, were riding the train for the first time.

“They did it last year with the grandparents and this year we were lucky enough to get tickets, too,” said Nick Reiter.

Mary Delagardelle and her husband, Glenn, who works for the railroad company, are the grandparents and were sitting nearby. “We’ve got 12 people here today,” she said.

Marcell Wright of Waterloo brought one person — her 3-year-old daughter, Dayana.

“This is our third year and she looks forward to it every year,” said Wright.

They started the tradition because “it’s for a good cause,” she said. But the event has become a part of their holiday celebrations.

With the annual train ride, “it feels more like Christmas,” said Wright.


Govt-and-politics
Cedar Falls council runoff vote is Tuesday

CEDAR FALLS — The makeup of the Cedar Falls City Council will be decided Tuesday.

A runoff election pits Rob Green, former head of the Overman Park Neighborhood Association, against businesswoman and Planning and Zoning Commission member LeaAnn Saul. Incumbent Nick Taiber did not seek re-election.

Neither Green nor Saul gained a simple majority of 50 percent plus one vote required for victory in the Nov. 7 general election. Green received 40 percent of the vote and Saul received 34 percent. The third-highest vote-getter, Erin Cornelius, earned 26 percent but was eliminated. Eligible Cedar Falls voters citywide may participate.

Saul said she’s been sending out flyers and working the phones to get out the vote, retaining her supporters and then some.

“I still think I’m the best candidate, so I’m working hard,” said Saul, who operates Professional Insurance Planners and Consultants with her husband, Greg, and is president of Cedar Falls Community Main Street.

“It’s obviously a get-out-the-vote battle,” Green said, “reaching people from across the political spectrum who sat out the November election and showing them why this runoff race matters.”

Saul said voters can see “there’s a difference between us,” particularly their positions on public safety — police and fire protection.

“I support the public safety program. I believe our city needs it. It could work,” Saul said. She supports cross-trained police as public safety officers to fight fires. However, she said the existing force of full-time firefighters should not be reduced and a full-time career firefighter should be hired to replace any career firefighter who leaves. She believes, though, public safety officers can “supplement” the city firefighting force.

Green has said he supports cross training of first responders, but does not believe a 1-1 replacement of firefighters with public safety officers is wise.

“I support hiring career firefighters and police officers separately and providing incentives for them to cross-train,” Green said. “But I don’t believe it’s in our best interest to take away career firefighter positions and give them over to this new public safety officer position. Police and fire should remain distinct and cross-train as appropriate.

Saul also supports construction of a new public safety building to get police and fire under one roof, though she questioned the building’s planned location in the southern part of the city. City property at the current Iowa State Patrol post on West First Street would have been better, she said. The city offered space near city’s public works building in a bid to acquire the the State Patrol location, but the state never acted on that proposal.

Green differs. “The new Public Safety Building seems to be a done deal,” he said. “I still have misgivings. The justifications they gave for it didn’t sway me to support approval right now. Eleven million dollars is a lot of money. Had I been on council, I’d have been the lone ‘no’ vote on it. It’s just a premature decision; a lot more discussion and buy-in was needed.”

However, he said, “I’m certainly not an obstructionist. We have to respect the council’s decision, and press ahead in good faith.” He would have liked to see Black Hawk County Emergency Management located there as well.

Saul noted she’s been criticized for being too conservative in matters unrelated to city business. She opposed a $118 million September 2014 school district bond issue for a new elementary and high school, which was defeated, but she backed a smaller $32 million April 2016 plan for a new elementary school in the southwest part of the city. A slightly larger $35 million proposal also was defeated in July 2015.

She also expressed concerns about municipal elections taking a partisan turn, noting many Democratic officials supported Cornelius. She questioned whether they would now back Green.

“The amount of money being spent is a huge difference, as well as, I think, the tones of the campaigns,” Green said. “I know I’m nowhere near being the top spender in this race, and that’s totally fine. We can accomplish so much more without letting labels and identity politics get in our way, and I really want to model that on City Council.”

Green has said he hoped to court Cornelius supporters this time around. Cornelius said, “I am not officially endorsing anyone.”


Govt-and-politics
Iowa Medicaid enrollees worried by new turmoil

DES MOINES — A month ago, when Iowa’s Medicaid system was thrown for a loop with the exit of one of its managed-care companies, Department of Human Services Director Jerry Foxhoven admitted there have been “some bumps” during the transition period.

“When Director Foxhoven said there would be ‘bumps’ in the road, I took great issue with that. I wrote to him two weeks later to say, ‘My son is not a bump in your road,’” said Jeff Edberg of Iowa City, referring to his 15-year-old son Colin.

Colin, who has mental and physical disabilities, lives at Dubuque-based Hills and Dales, an intermediate-care facility for children and adults. He relied on AmeriHealth Caritas for his Medicaid coverage.

But recent changes in Iowa’s Medicaid system have affected families such as the Edbergs, who are among thousands of Iowans who no longer have a choice in their managed-care provider.

As of this past Friday, in addition to the state fee-for-service program, Iowa only has two insurers on its managed-care system — Amerigroup Iowa and UnitedHealthcare of the River Valley — to cover roughly 570,000 members, according to the latest DHS quarterly report. Not only was a large portion of the Medicaid population unable to make a choice in their managed-care organization, but an additional 10,000 people have been moved to a traditional fee-for-service program within the state due to lack of insurer capacity.

The Gazette followed the Edberg family through the first year of Iowa’s private managed-care rollout, launched in 2016. The paper checked back with the Edbergs at a time when they believe Colin’s services are in jeopardy.

“I am at a loss,” Jeff said. “I am sick about it. I’m afraid for my son and his future.”

Members moved

Recent confusion about the state’s managed-case system began in October when AmeriHealth — one of three managed-care organizations selected for the program — announced it was withdrawing from Iowa’s Medicaid program.

AmeriHealth, which covered the largest concentration of the state’s most in need — and therefore most expensive — population, exited the program Friday. Those members were moved to UnitedHealthcare, DHS officials announced early last month.

However, members were told they could opt to switch to Amerigroup before Nov. 16, the managed-care organization Jeff Edberg chose for Colin. This was the provider with which Hills and Dales, as well as the doctors’ group in Dubuque, Medical Associates, had signed.

Edberg received a card from Amerigroup last week confirming Colin was enrolled.

But the next day, a notice was sent out by DHS to state lawmakers stating Amerigroup did not “currently have capacity to take any new members, including those who have actively chosen Amerigroup Iowa as their (managed-care organization).”

DHS spokesman Matt Highland said 10,121 people chose Amerigroup following AmeriHealth’s withdrawal. As a result of Amerigroup’s statement, the department opted to provide coverage for those enrollees through the existing Iowa Medicaid Fee-for-Service program.

Providers signed on with AmeriHealth also will continue coverage of those switched to the fee-for-service program, he said.

“For providers to enroll with the (managed-care organizations), they must first enroll with the Iowa Medicaid Enterprise,” Highland said. “So AmeriHealth Caritas providers would already be enrolled with IME.”

Edberg said he’s heard from Hills and Dales and from the Dubuque doctors’ group Colin’s services still will be covered under the new program. However, he remains frustrated, saying he believes his son’s health is in the balance.

“This isn’t buying stationery, this isn’t where do I go to upgrade my iPhone,” Edberg said. “This is my son’s well-being and his very life.

“If he wandered outside of Hills and Dales, he would not live an hour. He would wander in front of traffic, he does not understand that sort of thing.”

On any given month, DHS’s Highland said, there are 40,000 members on the fee-for-service program, including those who are in their tentative assignment period before having coverage through a managed-care organization.

An additional 10,121 people would not be a significant challenge for the state to take on. However, in a memo sent to lawmakers last week, department officials noted they are reaching out to “current case management agencies to see if they are able to assist during the transition.”

“It’s important to know for members, there is no gap in coverage,” Highland said. “It’s just who is giving coverage that has changed.”

Iowa’s Medicaid population was covered under the state’s Medicaid fee-for-service model until the majority of the population was transitioned to managed care in April 2016.

Fee-for-service is a payment model in which services are paid separately to health care providers, whether it’s a procedure or a doctor’s office visit.

Rep. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha, said late last month the two programs also differs philosophically. Managed care would take a holistic look at a patient’s health for the long-term, rather just address a current need.

Highland said when the state learned AmeriHealth was withdrawing from Iowa’s Medicaid program, it reached out to Amerigroup and UnitedHealthcare to determine if the remaining two insurers could handle an influx of members.

At that time, Highland said the department learned Amerigroup did not have capacity to take on a high number of Medicaid enrollees from AmeriHealth. It was upon a follow-up — at an unspecified date — that DHS learned Amerigroup could not take on any new members.

An Amerigroup spokesman did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.

On Monday, the department posted on its website that officials are closely monitoring Amerigroup as it continues “ramping up their capacity.”

Highland said the state does not have a clear timeline when Amerigroup could take on more members.

The remaining managed-care organization, UnitedHealthcare, ramped up for the influx of new members Friday by expanding its provider network and hiring approximately 400 more case managers. (See sidebar on page B2.)

As the landscape of Iowa’s Medicaid evolves — and will continue to do so — Jeff Edberg said the issues with the system need to be solved for members like his teenage son Colin.

“Today he’s safe, but I’m still pretty terrified,” Edberg said.


Business
AP
McConnell: Tax bill won't add to nation's debt woes

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Fresh off his biggest legislative victory of the Trump era, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Saturday disputed projections that the Senate’s tax bill would add to the nation’s debt woes.

Back home in Kentucky just hours after the Senate narrowly pushed through the nearly $1.5 trillion tax bill early Saturday morning, McConnell predicted that the boldest rewrite of the nation’s tax system in decades would generate more than enough economic growth to prevent the burgeoning deficits being forecast.

“I not only don’t think it will increase the deficit, I think it will be beyond revenue neutral,” he told reporters. “In other words, I think it will produce more than enough to fill that gap.”

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump reveled Saturday in the Senate’s passage of a sweeping tax bill, predicting with swagger that he and his fellow Republicans were “unbeatable.”

The tax legislation now goes to a House-Senate committee, which will try to reconcile the versions passed by each chamber. “Something beautiful is going to come out of that mixer,” Trump said. “People are going to be very, very happy.”

Over the next decade, Republicans’ tax plan is projected to add at least $1 trillion to the national debt. That would be on top of an additional $10 trillion in deficits over the same period already being forecast by the Congressional Budget Office.

“I’m not one of the total supply-siders who just believes that if you cut taxes, no matter what amount, you turn out ahead,” McConnell said. “I still believe in revenue neutrality for tax reform, and I believe this is a revenue neutral tax reform bill.”

McConnell’s hometown congressman, Democrat John Yarmuth, said Senate Republicans had “abdicated any claim they had to being the party of fiscal responsibility.”

“There is nothing remotely responsible about forcing through a ... hastily conceived bill to give tax cuts to the already wealthy and multi-national corporations,” Yarmuth said in a statement.

McConnell predicted that the GOP-led House and Senate can resolve differences over the tax legislation and get it to President Donald Trump before Christmas. McConnell said he doesn’t foresee any compromises that would threaten the Senate Republican coalition supporting the bill.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., was the only lawmaker to cross party lines, voting in opposition along with Democrats.

McConnell also disputed claims by the bill’s critics that it focuses its tax reductions on businesses and higher-earning individuals, while giving more modest breaks to others.

“I haven’t run into anybody during this whole tax discussion who’s very successful who thinks they’re benefiting from it,” the Senate leader said.

The bill would award about $2,200 a year in tax relief to the average family of four, McConnell said. “And that’s pretty darn important to them,” he said.

Voters ultimately can look to the nation’s economic performance to determine whether Republicans or Democrats were right in the bitter tax debate.

“Look, a year or two from now, you guys can make an assessment which one of us was right,” he said to reporters. “The proof will be in whether or not the economy picks up and things get better.”

McConnell, the state’s longest-serving senator, also indicated during his appearance in Louisville that he plans to run for another Senate term in 2020.

Asked whether he’s bracing for a potential challenge from within his own party, McConnell said as a party leader he gets “a lot of slings and arrows.”

“I think the best way to judge a campaign is how did it end, not how did it begin,” he said, pointing out that he overwhelmingly carried the state in 2014 in the primary and general elections.

After landing in New York City for a fundraising trip, Trump’s motorcade drove near several hundred protesters decrying the tax bill and his administration’s entanglement in the Russia probe. But inside a large event space in Cipriani, where a large Christmas tree stood nearby, the president turned nostalgic about the 2016 election and recalled that few people expected him to notch the required 270 electoral votes to claim the White House.

Looking ahead, the president boasted that Democrats’ prospects in 2020 looked bleak.

“Right now unless they have somebody that we don’t know about, right now we’re unbeatable. We’re unbeatable,” Trump said. “And one of the reasons is what’s happening with the markets, what’s happening with business, what’s happening with jobs.”

The president noted that the Senate’s nearly $1.5 trillion tax overhaul passed with only Republican votes and predicted that Democrats would regret their opposition.

“That’s going to cost them very big in the election,” he said. “Because basically they voted against tax cuts and I don’t think politically it’s good to vote against tax cuts.”

Trump was attending three fundraising events in New York that were expected to raise $6 million for Trump Victory, a joint fundraising committee between the president’s campaign and the Republican National Committee.