Smear Campaign
On Monday, if female city workers have their way, Mayor Ray Nagin's phones and faxes will be buzzing. "We want to let Mayor Nagin know," says Scheherezade Daftary, vice president of the Greater New Orleans National Organization for Women, "that women here in

the city are active and proactive."

Many of them are also sexually active, which means that they should be getting an annual Pap smear. But if the women are civil-service workers for the City of New Orleans, they won't get that test unless they pay for it out of pocket. Currently, the city's municipal health plan does not include a "well-woman benefit" or coverage for preventative exams like Pap smears and pelvic and breast examinations. The fax and phone campaign is out to change that.

The Pap smear was developed by Dr. George Papanicolaou in the 1940s, when cervical cancer was the leading cancer killer of American women. The test's widespread use is largely credited for knocking cervical cancer from that No. 1 spot down to No. 7, where it stands now. Annual Pap exams have become routine; the Web site, launched by the College of American Pathologists, is accessed by women who can sign up to receive an annual reminder. Coverage of yearly Pap tests is now common for most health plans.

That wasn't always the case. Women, who according to a study by the Women's Research and Education Institute spend 68 percent more on out-of-pocket health services than men, fought for coverage of the exam in the 1980s. In 1992, Louisiana passed legislation that required every health-coverage plan in the state to cover annual Pap exams. But there is a loophole: self-funded plans, like that of the city, are exempted.

Studies show that women who aren't covered for preventative health care -- especially low-income women -- are much less likely to get that care. In fact, the Institute of Medicine, in a study of private insurance plans, concluded that America's high pregnancy rate is directly related to the lack of contraceptive coverage in those private plans.

The city's plan manages the claims for about 18,500 people. Its administration, which had been in the hands of Total Benefit Services Inc. (TBS) and PPOPlus since 1991, was shifted by the Morial administration last fall to United HealthCare and is currently in court due to the bidding process. As a result of the litigation, the city has no comment for this story.

Jennifer, a city employee who didn't want her last name used, wishes that the court could wade through the litigation and decide in favor of the United HealthCare-administered plan, which according to spokesperson Shannon Courtney does cover annual Pap smears for women of 20 years or older or as prescribed by a physician. Jennifer says that there is a history of cancer in her family and so she's been paying for her own exams for years now. "It makes me feel like my employer doesn't care about me," she says.

By presstime, indications were that the city had won the legal battle to move to the United HealthCare plan, although appeals are likely.

Music to Their Ears
Opponents of the city's amusement tax spent a joyful Jazz Fest weekend celebrating the City Council's vote last week to repeal it. "This finally removes a 68-year-old stain on how New Orleans treats live music," said Steve Picou, assistant director of the Louisiana Music Commission, speaking the morning after the vote. "It was a very historic day."

Council members voted 4-3 Thursday to stop collection of the tax after a contentious debate in which supporters of the repeal, led by councilman Scott Shea, argued that the tax unfairly burdens small clubs and working musicians. Opponents charged that it would be fiscally irresponsible to cut the tax without knowing how the city will obtain the lost revenue.

Mayor-elect Ray Nagin called the chamber during the debate to voice his desire to kill the tax.

"He's an accountant. He'll go over the books; he'll find the money. I'm not worried," said Picou, who predicts that live music venues in New Orleans will boom after the tax repeal takes effect on Jan. 1.

"Just last night I was with people from California that were begging me to help them find a location for a music club. They want to have a small- to medium-sized neighborhood place that they want to have live music in. They own some successful clubs in L.A. and they love New Orleans, and the fact we got rid of this tax pushed them to decide they want to take a chance in New Orleans. That was immediate."

Picou was at the commission office in Metairie on Friday, gathering facts for a news release on the council decision. "I'd much rather be out there on the Fair Grounds right now, but honestly this is something I don't mind coming into the office for," he said.

Bonin's Boil
Traffic Court Judge Paul Bonin, who has been mentioned as a possible candidate for one of several seats on the state Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal in the fall elections, will be the guest of honor at an annual $100-person crawfish boil next week.

Hosted by "The 2002 Friends of Judge Paul Bonin," the annual fundraiser features music by The Bucktown Allstars, according to campaign chairman Frank Pringle. The event is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 14, at Jaeger's on the Lake. For more information, contact 586-0064.

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