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bhetzler / Byron Hetzler, The Southern 

SIU guard Armon Fletcher (22) reacts after drawing a charge late in the second half against Indiana State at SIU Arena on Wednesday. The Salukis went on to win 82-77.

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In letter to VA secretary, Rep. Bost demands leadership changes at Marion VA Medical Center

MARION — U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, along with a congressional colleague, called on U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs Secretary David Shulkin to make changes in the human resources department at the Marion VA Medical Center, according to a news release from Bost’s office.


The call for change came in a letter to Shulkin, co-signed with Jack Bergman, the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

“We want our best possible care for our heroes, our veterans who are owed that care,” Bost, a Republican from Murphysboro, said.

Kevin Harris, of the Office of Public Affairs at Marion VA Medical Center, responded with the following statement in an email:

“Secretary Shulkin has made clear his drive for real change and fixing problems at VA. As a result, we’re taking steps aggressively to identify risks and vulnerabilities across the department before they grow into real problems.

“When we believe facilities need extra attention — such as in Marion — they receive it promptly. VA has sent multiple teams to Marion to assess and support the facility. The teams have made recommendations to positively impact personnel and morale concerns, improve accountability and strengthen communication structures. The Marion VA has been actively implementing these recommendations.  In fact, the Marion VA has already addressed 97 percent of the action items associated with review team recommendations.”

Bost said this is not the first time he's requested this specific action be taken at the Marion VA Medical Center. His concerns include problems in personnel morale, no continuing education, no clear job descriptions and no follow-up to make sure duties are being performed. He said the problems endanger operations.

“It is a problem that can be traced to the HR director,” Bost said.

In early 2017, the committee on oversight investigated the situation. Rodney Williams, VHA Chief Patient Safety and Risk Awareness officer and director, signed a report dated May 31, 2017 that called for an evaluation of all senior staff and a re-assessment of the culture of the facility by Marion VA Medical Center Director Jo Ann Ginsburg.

Another recommendation made in the report is to determine why several key recommendations from a 2008 investigation by the office of the inspector general were not initiated, specifically stating that individuals named in the 2008 report “appear to still be in leadership positions.” The 2008 report specifically addressed facility leadership.   

“After seeing the concerns, Jack Bergmann and myself signed a letter specifically asking for the human resources director to be removed,” Bost said.

Wednesday's letter is a follow-up to the original letter sent in June with a goal of curing long-term problems at the facility.  

The newest letter, dated Jan. 23, reads: “A persistent root cause of issues like prolonged difficulties recruiting and retaining staff, failures to track and enforce training standards, and the inability to discipline misbehaving employees is an absence of strong HR leadership and staff.”

Harris said some personnel changes were made in 2017, including appointments of a new medical center director, associate director, chief of staff, chief of extended care and rehab, chief of medicine, chief of engineering and chief of surgery.

“These key leaders add stability and direction to the growing team of VA health care professionals. In fiscal year 2017, the medical center hired 260 employees. To date, 65 positions have been filled in fiscal year 2018,” Harris said in the email.

In addition, a job fair in December drew more than 350 applicants, including 15 who have already been hired. Additional job fair applicants are expected to be hired in clinical and administrative professions.

Harris wrote that the Marion VAMC director has been diligently working for several months to address all concerns and recommendations. Additionally, the facility leadership team has worked aggressively to receive open feedback from all employees, improve communication, and develop and implement an action plan to train supervisors at all levels in order to promote a consistent leadership framework. 

“The Marion VAMC leadership team has openly welcomed all review teams, as we always strive to improve our care and our processes so we can provide the highest quality care to our Veterans,” the email reads.

“Remember, the job is to make sure the best medical services are provided to our veterans. This is a recommendation that is required to get those best services provided again,” Bost said.  

Designer's bright-light tree on West Main Street in Carbondale attracts lots of attention

CARBONDALE — Dale Budslick gave permission for her upstairs tenant, Mark Davis, to decorate a tree outside the office with lights. She watched during the days that Davis strung lights on the tree, using a cherry picker to reach high branches.

When the switch was finally set to be turned on, she and her husband, Alan H. Kim, left the building at 706 W. Main St. in Carbondale. They returned shorty after to get the full effect.

They were blown away.

"We were astounded," Budslick said. "I mean, we knew it was going to be beautiful — we had no idea. He worked so long on it. It's a sculpture."

Looking back at them were about 11,300 lights — white lights wound around the trunk or base of the magnolia tree and yellow from the bare canopy top — adding joy to the nighttime.

Theirs is a true bright spot along a darkened strip of West Main Street in Carbondale, leading to several inquisitive and helpful telephone calls, emails, walk-up visitors and those who drive into the parking lot for a closer look and pictures.

The installation is a second for Davis, an interior designer who was invited by Budslick to establish his studio-workspace on the second floor. He is also the interior designer for Budslick's office space on the main level, where the walls are a light grey and a natural-looking area mat covers part of the living room floor.

Also on Davis' level there are several rooms, including a bathroom with an antique tub, a kitchen decorated in black and a bedroom — big enough for a bed with an old-fashioned bed frame — converted from what was once a back porch.

"His touches are what give it that feel," Budslick said.

The house once belonged to John Taylor, one of the founders of Memorial Hospital of Carbondale.

Though Davis and Budslick had talked about decorating the tree for Christmas since they moved in five years ago, they never got around to it until this past year, they said.

"It's been hectic here," as they adjusted, by redoing the floors and kitchen and apartments throughout the building, she said.

Buzz about the tree made its way to Keep Carbondale Beautiful, a group that awards business and property owners for landscaping and other displays that beautiful the city.

The project won January's Bright Spot Award.

“Oh man, there has been nonstop enthusiasm for that display that he made," said Sarah Heyer, the executive director of Keep Carbondale Beautiful, "and since I posted it on Facebook, people are saying, ‘I want one, too.’"

This is the second tree that Davis says he has decorated this way; the first was a tree in his own yard that he laced with red lights. The May 2009 superderecho that blew through Southern Illinois, however, destroyed the tree.

What would it cost someone to have him replicate that artwork?

Davis says he still hasn't figured that out, but noted that he labored for about a week, working alone all day, to put up the lights and make adjustments where needed.

Those who want to see the tree or get a final look at it can do so until February, when Davis plans to turn off the lights.

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President Trump | Year One
Coal in 'regulatory reset' after Trump's first year

CARBONDALE — As promised, the Trump Administration reversed federal regulations that are spelling good news for the coal industry, even as its members look to stabilize their numbers.

The year since Trump was inaugurated has been a good once for the coal industry, local experts say. The Illinois Coal Association didn't endorse Trump, but did support his campaign, noting that it was a 'no brainer,' as Hillary Clinton promised to "... put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business."

"The term I've been using is that it's been a 'regulatory reset'," Phil Gonet, president of the Illinois Coal Association, said, "because what the Trump Administration has done is they have undone, by either (divulging) or repealing all of the 'war on coal' regulations that came about from the Obama Administration. Now they haven't done all of them, but quite a few have been overturned, starting with the Stream Protection Rule."

Trump signed legislation overturning the Stream Protection Rule in February 2017, Gonet noted.

"So within month of his presidency, he had started keeping the promises that he made to the coal industry by repealing or revoking some of these regulations that hurt coal," Gonet said.

The next month, he signed an Executive Order that repealed the Clean Power Act.

"What the (Trump-enacted) regulations did was to stop the bleeding, in effect," Gonet said. "In my experience, I've never had a politician keep his promise to an industry like Trump has to the coal industry."

Gonet said for now he is hopeful that the industry will maintain its current standing: there are about 3,074 coal jobs in the state. He doesn't expect that the coal industry will ever return to the golden heydays when it employed 10,000 people and mined a billion tons of coal.

He notes that, in the state, a few more jobs were gained during 2017 than in 2016.

In 2008, the year before Obama took office, some 1.2 billion tons of coal were mined in the United States. In 2016, the country mined some 739,000 million tons of coals, a reduction of almost 40 percent production; in Illnois, that year, companies mined 43.5 million tons of coal.

In 2014, Illinois had 4,000-some coal jobs; at the end of 2017, there were about 3,074 jobs.

"(When Trump was elected) everyone heard that he was going to bring coal back," Gonet sad. "Well, that just can't happen. Because we had too many power plants that went off line because of the mercury rule."

"I kind of caution people to not be too optimistic, because those power plants aren't going to come back on line."

While the state's coal industry might not ever regain the standing it once had, its processors are adept at marketing their coal to other states and other countries, Gonet said, noting that he expected that to continue.

Trump's campaign promise to make coal king again is facing an almost insurmountable wall from the global market economy, another local expert on coal said.

Tomasz Wiltowski heads the coal and renewables energy institute at Southern Illinois University — SIU's Advanced Coal and Energy Research Center — and U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry recently invited him to serve on the National Coal Council.

"President Trump, through his appointments to key agencies — the U.S. Department of Energy, and under it, the Office of Fossil Fuel and the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration under the Department of Labor — can have a positive influence on the coal industry and the men and women who mine in it," Wiltowski said.

"I am optimistic that federal investment in the environmentally responsible mining and use of coal, its by-product and carbon utilization, can keep Illinois’ abundant coal reserves a part of America’s energy mix," Wiltowski said. "The job ripple effect in Southern Illinois coal mining communities is important and should not be trivialized."

The vast majority of the coal produced in Illinois is shipped to other states and outside the country, where factories there have scrubbers and other systems that can better process Illinois' coal.

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Randy Dunn responds to senator's questions on alleged herpes vaccine research abuse at SIU medical school

CARBONDALE — Southern Illinois University System President Randy Dunn has issued a response to a U.S. senator’s questions regarding a late SIU School of Medicine researcher who reportedly injected an unapproved herpes vaccine into human subjects without appropriate oversight.

According to investigative reports by Kaiser Health News, SIU professor William Halford administered the experimental herpes vaccine to patients who were not enrolled in an approved study, without acquiring written consent from subjects, in a Holiday Inn Express and a Crowne Plaza Hotel in Springfield in 2013. He later moved his research to the Caribbean.

Halford died in June from cancer. SIU denied knowledge of his research practices, and an investigation by the university’s Internal Review Board found “serious noncompliance with regulatory requirements.”

Earlier this month, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, sent a letter to Dunn asking what “corrective action” SIU had taken to ensure that such noncompliance would not occur again.

On Wednesday, Grassley’s office provided a copy of Dunn’s response, dated Jan. 18, 2018. A copy of the letter is available below. The full response contains a copy of the IRB’s policies.

Read the letter with SIU's response to Sen. Chuck Grassley's questions about vaccine research

In his response, Dunn said the IRB reported the findings of its investigation to the Food and Drug Administration and the Office for Human Research Protections and that the university has also opened another investigation into Halford’s activities through the school’s Misconduct in Science Committee.



“SIU is committed to fully understanding the circumstances that led to the issue in question and has every intention of implementing corrective actions that are identified as necessary and appropriate, but until this investigation has concluded, it would be premature for SIU to attempt to finalize any corrective actions,” Dunn said.

Grassley had also asked what process SIU follows after receiving a complaint about unapproved research, how many reports of unapproved research the university has received in the past five years, how many cases have resulted in an internal review and how many cases have resulted in referral to law enforcement.

Dunn said the IRB has received three reports alleging potential unapproved research in the last five years, including Halford’s. In a 2013 case, the IRB determined that a respondent had engaged in unapproved research and “terminated respondent’s research protocols, terminated respondent's research privileges, reported the findings to the SIU Misconduct in Science Committee, and reported the findings to the FDA and OHRP.”

In the third case, which occurred in 2014, the IRB did not find noncompliance.

“As previously stated, the University takes this matter very seriously and continues to take steps to address it. The institution has a strong IRB review process for human subjects research under its purview and intends to implement any corrective actions identified as necessary and appropriate as a result of its review,” Dunn said.