• WisBusiness

Friday, February 20, 2015

MaryBeth Matzek: Ruling raises farmer liability concerns

By MaryBeth Matzek
It's been more than six weeks since the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled manure that makes its way into the water supply is considered a pollutant, but there's still little guidance on what that may mean for the state's farmers.

The court ruling stemmed from a 2011 case against a farm near West Bend that had 600 cows. In that case, Robert and Jane Falk were notified by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources that their manure spreading activities led to well contamination. The couple turned to its insurance company, Wilson Mutual, to handle the claims filed against them by neighbors who said their water supplies were damaged. Wilson Mutual cited an exclusion for damage caused by pollutants and said it was therefore not responsible. In ruling that manure found in drinking water is a pollutant, the court let Wilson Mutual off the hook for the bulk of the filed claims.

In ruling that manure can be a pollutant, the court sent shockwaves through the farming community, said Elizabeth Wheeler, an attorney with Clean Wisconsin, a Madison-based non-profit focused on environmental protection. She thinks the ruling will put more attention on nutrient management plans. In Wisconsin, farms with more than 1,000 animal units or roughly 700 cows are required to file nutrient management plans with the state. Those plans spell out how much and when manure can be spread on farmland.

"Farmers don't think they are polluting. They think are just fertilizing their fields," she said. "Most farmers follow their nutrient plans and we really view it as a best practice that all farms have a plan in place for dealing with their manure."

Bill Schuster, head of Door County's Soil and Water Conservation Department, said farms of all sizes need to pay closer attention to their nutrient management plans.

"It doesn't matter if a farm has 250 cows or 1,200 cows – their waste can still wind up in the water and all farms need a plan in how to deal with it," he said.

Wheeler said the December ruling focused on liability issues so she's taking a "wait-and-see approach" to what may happen next.

Schuster thinks people who rent out their land to farmers may be most at risk since they could face a lawsuit if anything spread on their land winds up in the water supply.

"The landowners may be more likely to seek liability coverage in case something happens with the manure spread on their land," he said.

WMEP's impact

As manufacturers from around Wisconsin gather next Thursday in Milwaukee for the annual Manufacturing Matters conference, industry leaders have plenty to celebrate.

Manufacturing – which makes up the state's largest employment sector – added more than 9,300 jobs between July 2013 and July 2014, placing it fifth in the nation for manufacturing job growth.

With all the positive statistics, there's one Buckley Brinkman, executive director and chief executive officer of the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership, is especially proud of. Since WMEP started in 1998, its efforts with clients led to $3.1 billion in economic impact. Brinkman estimated that about 4,000 Wisconsin companies have been helped through WMEP services.

"Crossing the $3 billion milestone is a tribute to more than 15 years of focus on aligning multiple organizations, talents and energy to make the Wisconsin manufacturing environment the best in the world," he said.

WMEP, a private, non-profit consulting organization, provides a variety of services to help small and midsize manufacturers develop and implement plans that foster growth, increased profitability and improved global competitiveness. For example, it helps businesses looking at entering foreign markets or those looking at lean initiatives.

Hospitals improve quality

The Wisconsin Hospital Association recently issued a report showing the progress that 108 state hospitals made in 2014 to reduce avoidable hospital readmissions, decrease infections and prevent medication errors. The hospitals working with the WHA estimate they have improved care for more than 9,000 patients in the past three years and avoided more than $87 million in health costs. There are 32 other Wisconsin hospitals working with other improvement initiatives.

One area that is particularly important to patients is the prevention of hospital-acquired infections. Central line-associated blood stream infections (CLABSI) are among the most serious and often lead to extended stays in the Intensive Care Unit or place a patient at risk of death. Since 2008, Wisconsin hospitals have reduced those infections by 71 percent by standardizing best practices and with real-time monitoring, the WHA says.

Read the full report

-- Matzek, a freelance writer and editor, is the owner of 1Bizzy Writer. She has worked in the past as a news editor at Insight Publications and as business editor at the Appleton Post-Crescent.


Friday, February 13, 2015

MaryBeth Matzek: Milwaukee's HPS aims to simplify health billing process

By MaryBeth Matzek
Ask anyone who's been through a health crisis and they'll tell you: figuring out the bills – from both the health providers and then the insurance company – are enough to make you ill. They're confusing and complicated, leaving consumers unsure of how much they owe and where to send that money. A Milwaukee company – Health Payment Systems Inc. -- is seeking to change that by bringing together healthcare providers and insurance companies to produce one monthly statement with all the information they need to know.

After dealing with piles of his own Estimate of Benefits (EOBs) and bills, HPS founder Jim Brindley figured there had to be a better way and created a system that produces something similar to a monthly credit card statement.

"It has everything on one bill – what the service was, how much insurance is covering and what you owe," says Jay Fulkerson, HPS' president and chief executive officer, who worked Brindley on founding the company. "There's even a payment coupon that you can tear off and send in with your payment. It makes it much simpler for the consumer."

In addition, an entire family's medical bills for the previous billing cycle are on one statement.

"It's all right there and if the patients need to work out a payment system, they can do it right through us instead of going out and contacting the separate doctors," Fulkerson says.

For healthcare providers, working with HPS leads to faster payments, with the company paying the insurance provider and patient portion of the bill within a month, Fulkerson says. Health systems also no longer have to worry about tracking down patients to get them to pay their portions since HPS handles the collection process.

"HPS allows health systems to spend their time on clinical improvements rather than trying to come up with better billing systems," he says.

Right now, HPS works with several health systems around the state including Froedert Health and Children's Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, ThedaCare in northeast Wisconsin, Mercy Health System in Janesville and United Hospital System in Kenosha.

"I haven't found another company like ours that does all the things we do. For providers, there's really no change in what they need to do and the same goes for insurance companies until it comes time to send their payment portion in. They just send it to us instead of the doctors," Fulkerson says.

Fulkerson hopes HPS' success in Wisconsin will lead to expansion outside of the state and is meeting with health systems who may be interested in having HPS handle their billing duties.

"It really works best with integrated health systems," he says. "We've been able to make the process easier for everyone involved."

New life for shuttered manufacturer

Canadian American Homes Inc. plans to reopen the Liberty Homes Inc.'s two closed manufacturing facilities in Clark County after buying the company's assets.

Liberty Homes, which designed and produced manufactured homes, closed in 2013 because of the downturn in the housing industry. The new owner plans to reopen the two facilities, which total 230,000 square feet, and begin producing modular homes there again. An estimated 150 jobs will be created once the factories in Dorchester are back up and running, according to an estimate from Canadian American Homes.

Orion cuts

A Manitowoc company that once grew so fast and was so successful that it attracted the attention of President Obama, who came to visit back in 2011 is cutting jobs. Orion Energy Systems announced this week it was cutting 40 jobs to help better position the company for the Orion is looking to step away from its work with fluorescent lighting and focus more on LED technology, which CEO John Scribante says is where the future of the industry is going. After the cuts are complete, the company will employ about 200.

-- Matzek, a freelance writer and editor, is the owner of 1Bizzy Writer. She has worked in the past as a news editor at Insight Publications and as business editor at the Appleton Post-Crescent.


Friday, February 6, 2015

MaryBeth Matzek: Scholarships help apprentices buy tools

By MaryBeth Matzek
Paying for education after high school is challenging enough, but throw in potentially expensive supplies – such as the proper tools and equipment if you're studying a skilled trade – and some students can have serious second thoughts.

With that in mind, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College teamed up with the Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corporation to provide scholarships to students in their apprentice programs. Madison-based Great Lakes awarded $1,000 scholarships to 11 students so they could purchase their own tools and safety equipment.

Todd Kiel, apprenticeship manager of the Trades & Engineering Technologies Department at NWTC, says the funds are sorely needed.

"Depending on the trade, there are different pieces of equipment needed for them to be successful," he says. "There is a huge demand out there now in the trades and they are well-paying jobs and students need their own equipment."

During the most recent downturn, Kiel estimates that the construction industry lost between 40 and 45 percent of its workforce as tradesmen (and women) took jobs in other areas, including manufacturing and transportation. As the economy has regained its footing, businesses are looking to expand their physical space and construction work is plentiful. A 2014 survey by the Associated General Contractors of America found that 83 percent of U.S. construction firms reported difficulty finding qualified workers.

Kiel says students are responding to the call for more workers. Since 2011, the number of students in NWTC's apprenticeship programs has doubled from 350 in 2011 to the current number of 700.

"These are in-demand jobs," he says.

In an apprenticeship, individuals receive on-the-job training from an employer and classroom instruction at a technical college. Since apprentices earn modest wages while learning their trade, it can be challenging to qualify for financial aid to help with paying for tuition and necessary supplies.

NWTC isn't the only technical college working with Great Lakes. The organization started handing out similar scholarships to students at Milwaukee Area Technical College in 2013 and then expanded it to all Wisconsin Technical Colleges last fall. Just last month, the organization awarded 170 of its Tools of the Trade scholarships to apprentices studying at a Wisconsin Technical College.

"We don't want to see the cost of a welding helmet or steel-toe boots stand in the way of program completion," says Great Lakes President and CEO Richard D. George. "We created Tools of the Trade scholarships to help cover program costs so hardworking apprentices can meet employer needs for skilled workers."

Kiel says the scholarships help students start their careers on the right foot. "It's nice to help these students as they get started in a new, well-paying career," he says.

UW students, faculty earn seed funding grants

Nine University of Wisconsin System faculty and student teams will receive up to $325,000 in the latest round of Ideadvance Seed Fund grants from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) and the University of Wisconsin- Extension Center for Technology Commercialization (CTC). 

Four teams are the first Ideadvance participants to progress to Stage Two of the program, and will receive grants of up to $50,000 each. They include:  Innovative Foundry Technologies, UW- Whitewater; Nannoaffix, UW-Milwaukee; Organic Research Corporation, UW-Milwaukee; and Tali Payments, UW-Milwaukee.

Five teams entering Stage One of the program include G1 Technologies, UW-Milwaukee; Gift of Tongues, UW-Eau Claire; Ictect, WiSys Technology Foundation; Tactical Athlete, UW-Milwaukee; and YourBook, UW-Platteville. Those teams are eligible to receive up to $25,000 in grants each.

Not prepared

AARP says a recent survey finds that most Wisconsin workers over age 45 aren't confident they'll have enough savings for retirement.

AARP's Building a Secure Financial Future in Wisconsin survey found that 60 percent of working registered workers older than 45 say they are "very" or "somewhat" likely to put off their retirement as long as possible because they don't have enough saved. Forty-two percent of that group say their employer does not offer a workplace savings retirement plan such as a 401(k) or 403(b). In addition, 59 percent of those who responded say their company doesn't offer a traditional pension plan.

-- Matzek, a freelance writer and editor, is the owner of 1Bizzy Writer. She has worked in the past as a news editor at Insight Publications and as business editor at the Appleton Post-Crescent.


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