Obama Breaks Promise on Healthcare Reform Coverage

Over and over in the healthcare debate, President Barack Obama said people who like their current coverage would be able to keep it. But an early draft of an administration regulation estimates that many employers will be forced to make changes to their health plans under the new law. In just three years, a majority of workers — 51 percent — will be in plans subject to new federal requirements, according to the draft. Employers say it’s more evidence that the law will drive up costs. Republicans say Obama broke his promise. The types of changes that employers would be forced to make include offering preventive care without copayments and instituting an appeals process for disputed claims that follows new federal guidelines. The law already requires all health plans to extend coverage to young adult children until they turn 26. But such changes also nudge costs up.

Obama Pushes New $80 Billion Stimulus

President Barack Obama and his aides are stepping up a push for further government spending to boost the economy as signs grow of the recovery’s fragility. The White House is calling urgently for Congress to pass measures to extend jobless benefits, aid cash-strapped states, and provide targeted tax breaks to encourage research and development by businesses. Obama’s Democratic allies, facing congressional elections in November, have grown cautious about additional spending. Seizing on voter anxiety about deficits, Republicans have cast the administration’s policies as fiscally reckless as they seek to challenge Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. Senate Democrats have introduced legislation that would renew expiring unemployment benefits and extend business and individual tax breaks. They would offset some of the bill’s costs by raising taxes on hedge fund managers and other steps. The bill complements one passed in the House last month that would authorize about $80 billion in new spending and add $31 billion to the deficit.

  • More debt to solve a debt crisis is not the answer, but rather fuel on the fire

ACLU Chief Disgusted with Obama

American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony Romero has lambasted the Obama administration for its handling of civil liberties issues, including its unwillingness to prosecute officials from the George W. Bush administration.  “I’m disgusted with this president,” Romero told a conference of liberal activists on Wednesday. “Guantanamo is still not closed. The administration still uses state secrets to shield themselves from litigation. There’s no prosecution for criminal acts of the Bush administration. Surveillance powers put in place under the Patriot Act have been renewed. If there has been change in the civil liberties context, I frankly don’t see it.” Romero added: “The unwillingness of the administration to stick by its guns and prosecute the Sept. 11 defendants in criminal court does not bode well for the broader civil liberties agenda.”  Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post, said most of Obama’s problems stem from his quest for bipartisanship with Republicans on almost every issue.

  • Liberals and conservatives need to realize that Obama is first and foremost a narcissistic politician, sure to disappoint both groups as he seeks a middle ground to ensure his re-election

Kagan Memos Released

Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, as a Clinton White House counsel, drafted legal language designed to narrow a proposed ban on a procedure that critics call “partial-birth” abortion. In a 1996 memo, Kagan argued it would be unconstitutional to prohibit the procedure outright — without an exception for cases where it was needed to avert “serious adverse health consequences” for the mother — and she recommended wording for such an exemption. Kagan wrote that one of the virtues of her proposal was that “it will not make the groups” — presumably abortion-rights groups — “go crazy … because it fully protects the right of the woman to any medically necessary procedures.” The memo is part of a roughly 40,000-page trove of documents released by the William J. Clinton Presidential Library on Friday that shed more light on what kind of justice Kagan might be. Most of them date from her stint as an associate White House counsel for Clinton from 1995 to 1996. Republicans complained that the documents are emerging too slowly.

Florida Gov. Vetoes Ultrasound Abortion Bill

As expected, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running for the U.S. Senate, has vetoed legislation that would have required a woman to get an ultrasound test before an abortion. “This bill places an inappropriate burden on a woman seeking to terminate a pregnancy,” Crist said in his veto message. The measure would have required most women to have an ultrasound before having an abortion, unless the woman could prove she was a victim of rape, incest, domestic violence or human trafficking. Women could choose not to see the ultrasound or hear a description of it. The bill also included language that legislative Republicans wrote to prevent what they considered the possibility of federal funding being used for abortion in Florida, along with some provisions intended to thwart President Obama’s national health care program. In April, when it became clear he would not win the primary, Crist left the Republican Party to run for the U.S. Senate as an independent.

Coast Guard/Obama Pressures BP

The Coast Guard has demanded that BP step up its efforts to contain the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico by the end of the weekend, telling the British oil giant that its slow pace in stopping the spill is becoming increasingly alarming as the disaster fouled the coastline in ugly new ways Saturday. The Coast Guard sent a testy letter to BP’s chief operating officer that said the company urgently needs to pick up the pace and present a better plan to contain the spill by the time President Barack Obama arrives on Monday for his fourth visit to the beleaguered coast. The dispute escalated on the same day that ominous new signs of the tragedy emerged on the beaches of Alabama. Waves of unsightly brown surf hit the shores in Orange Beach, leaving stinking, dark piles of oil that dried in the hot sun and extended up to 12 feet from the water’s edge for as far as the eye could see.

President Obama heads to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill Monday to begin a critical week that includes his first prime-time address on the growing environmental disaster and a sit-down with BP’s top executives. Facing growing complaints about his handling of the deep-sea oil gusher, Obama plans to demand that BP set up an escrow account to pay claims of individuals and businesses harmed by the spill, the president’s top political adviser said Sunday. Democratic senators want BP to set aside $20 billion to pay for cleanup and other costs from the Gulf oil spill.

A pair of deepwater relief wells still represent the best chance of stopping the leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. Instead of drilling for oil, workers are targeting the 7-inch-wide steel-casing pipe located just above the spot where the well enters the oil reservoir 18,000 feet deep. While containment chambers and “top kill” and “junk kill” attempts at the well’s failed blowout preventer have made headlines, the relief wells have quietly continued. If all goes as planned, the wells will intersect the leak hole, far beneath any leaking fractures of the casing pipe and the faulty blowout preventer, then pour mud and cement inside to seal it forever. Relief well 1, started May 2, has drilled to a depth of 13,978 feet. Relief well 2, started May 16, has halted at 8,576 feet down, while BP engineers double-check its blowout preventer. If the ongoing relief wells stop the BP leak in early August as planned, it will have occurred after about 100 days of spewing crude into the Gulf of Mexico.

Homegrown Terrorist Threat

A homeland security expert thinks Americans should be concerned with the increase in the number of U.S. citizens being “radicalized” to Islam, often with a Somali connection. FBI agents recently arrested Mohamed Mahmood Alessa and Carlos Eduardo Almonte as they prepared to fly from New York to Egypt, then to Somalia. “I think we have to be concerned that there seems to be an increase in the number of U.S. citizens being radicalized,” notes Jena Baker McNeill, policy analyst for homeland security at The Heritage Foundation. She goes on to point out that Somalia has unfortunately not had a functioning government for more than a decade. “Clearly, because of that, al-Qaeda organizations like al-Shabab, which is the group under scrutiny right now, operate freely within their borders,” McNeill laments. The policy analyst adds that she has serious concerns about the Obama administration’s ability to stop terrorist plots earlier in the process, which she contends has to be done in order to stay ahead of the terrorists.

A Decade Later, Genetic Map Yields Few New Cures

Ten years after the first draft of the human genome was complete, medicine has yet to see any large part of the promised benefits, the New York Times reports. For biologists, the genome has yielded one insightful surprise after another. But the primary goal of the $3 billion Human Genome Project — to ferret out the genetic roots of common diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s and then generate treatments — remains largely elusive. Indeed, after 10 years of effort, geneticists are almost back to square one in knowing where to look for the roots of common disease. One sign of the genome’s limited use for medicine so far was a recent test of genetic predictions for heart disease. A medical team led by Nina P. Paynter of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston collected 101 genetic variants that had been statistically linked to heart disease in various genome-scanning studies. But the variants turned out to have no value in forecasting disease among 19,000 women who had been followed for 12 years. The old-fashioned method of taking a family history was a better guide. The pharmaceutical industry has spent billions of dollars to reap genomic secrets and is starting to bring several genome-guided drugs to market. While drug companies continue to pour huge amounts of money into genome research, it has become clear that the genetics of most diseases are more complex than anticipated and that it will take many more years before new treatments may be able to transform medicine.

Violence on the Rise in U.S. Hospitals, Clinics

More and more violent crimes are occurring in America’s hospitals, clinics and other health care facilities, according to a new alert issued by the Joint Commission, an independent health care oversight group. Since 2004, there have been “significant increases in reports of assault, rape and homicide, with the greatest number of reports in the last three years,” the group said in its “Sentinel Event Alert” released last week, the latest in a series of alerts on serious adverse events occurring in health care settings. According to the Joint Commission’s voluntary reporting system for these adverse events, there have been 256 assaults, rapes or homicides of patients and visitors to American health centers since 1995, with 110 of those acts occurring since 2007. And the report also noted that the actual numbers are believed to be significantly higher. Only a very small percentage of violent incidents are reported, the commission says. A number of reasons for the increase in violent outbreaks in health care settings include an increase in drug and alcohol abuse and a lack of adequate care for psychiatric patients.

Experts Revise Guidelines for Brain Death

Determining brain death is a complex process that requires dozens of tests to make sure doctors come to the correct conclusion. With that goal in mind, the American Academy of Neurology has issued new guidelines — an update of guidelines first written 15 years ago — that call on doctors to conduct a lengthy examination, including following a step-by-step checklist of some 25 tests and criteria that must be met before a person can be considered brain dead. The goal of the guidelines is to remove some of the guess work and variability among doctors in their procedure for declaring brain death, which previous research has found to be a problem. According to the U.S. Uniform Determination of Death Act, brain death occurs when a person permanently stops breathing, the heart stops beating and “all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem” cease. While no one disagreed with that description, a 2008 study that included 41 of the nation’s top hospitals found widespread and worrisome variability in how doctors and hospitals were determining who met the criteria.

Military Fails on Brain-Test Follow-Ups

The Pentagon has failed to comply with a congressional directive to give all troops tests before and after they serve in combat to measure their thinking abilities and uncover possible brain injuries, military records show. More than 562,000 tests of troops taken before they deployed have not been readministered on their return by military health officials, the records show. That means the Pentagon could be missing thousands of cases of brain injury. Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, the Army surgeon general, and other Army officials say the test is flawed and no better than a “coin flip.” The test, called the Automated Neuropsychological Assessment Metrics (ANAM), produces too many false positive results, said Lt. Col. Michael Russell, head of the Army’s ANAM program.

Puerto Rico Scraps Birth Records

In an effort to end what it describes as a brisk black market in Puerto Rican birth certificates, which confer U.S. citizenship, the Puerto Rican government decided in December to invalidate all existing birth certificates. Those born on the island, including about 1.35 million who live on the mainland, must apply for a new birth certificate. The black market is not fueled by counterfeiting but by multiple official copies of individual certificates. In Puerto Rico, it is customary to hand over an official birth certificate to register for school or sports leagues. In 2008, federal agents confiscated 14,000 stolen birth certificates in an investigation that resulted in five convictions, says Ivan Ortiz, a spokesman for the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency in Puerto Rico. In previous cases, birth certificates were bought from drug addicts for $25 and then sent to the U.S. mainland to be sold for $5,000 each.

Economic News

From big banks’ exotic trades to the credit cards in people’s wallets, it only takes a few of the most contentious issues to upend a careful political equilibrium as lawmakers try to blend House and Senate bills into a single rewrite of U.S. banking regulations. The final measure, which President Barack Obama wants by July 4, is intended to prevent another financial crisis like the 2008 meltdown, which triggered a deep recession. Rep. Barney Frank, chairman of a panel resolving differences in the two bills, and Sen. Christopher Dodd, who shepherded the Senate’s measure, must fend off industry efforts to dilute the final legislation. And they will need to hold together a fragile Senate coalition that included only four Republicans. The financial industry is no stranger to the lawmakers working on the legislation. At least 56 industry lobbyists have served on the personal staffs of the 43 Senate and House members who will have a hand in shaping the bill over the next two weeks, according to an analysis by Public Citizen and the Center for Responsive Politics, two government watchdogs.

The risks to a robust global recovery have “risen significantly” as many governments struggle with debt, a top International Monetary Fund official has warned. “After nearly two years of global economic and financial upheaval, shockwaves are still being felt, as we have seen with recent developments in Europe and the resulting financial market volatility,” Naoyuki Shinohara, the IMF’s deputy managing director, said last week. “The global outlook remains unusually uncertain and downside risks have risen significantly,” Shinohara said, according to Britain’s Daily Telegraph. Some economists fear that moves by countries ranging from Britain to Spain to rein in public spending at the same time will set back a global recovery.

The Dow Jones industrial average has logged its first winning week in a month. The Dow rose 39 points Friday and ended the week with a gain of 2.8%, its best weekly advance since mid-February. The Reuters/University of Michigan consumer sentiment index showed consumer confidence rose to its highest level since January 2008 and came in well ahead of forecasts.

Israel

EU officials said Monday there were indications Israel may agree to relax its blockade of Gaza by opening at least one border crossing to large-scale commercial traffic. EU diplomats also said Israel would likely drop its restrictive list of goods permitted into the region, which has left the territory’s 1.5 million Palestinians mired in poverty. Instead, there would be a short, agreed list of items banned because of Israeli security concerns. Israeli security officials have said talks are now underway to replace the Israeli supervision with an international presence, with the involvement of the Palestinians and the Egyptians. The 27-nation EU bloc has been pressing Israel to ease its three-year old blockade which was instituted when the terrorist Hamas organization violently took control of Gaza.

Kyrgyzstan

Ethnic riots wracked southern Kyrgyzstan over the weekend, forcing thousands of Uzbeks to flee as their homes were torched by roving mobs of Kyrgyz men. At least 100,000 had fled for the border and were awaiting entry into Uzbekistan. The interim government begged Russia for troops to stop the violence, but the Kremlin offered only humanitarian assistance. Officials said more than 77 people were killed and more than 1,500 injured in the violence. Interim President Roza Otunbayeva acknowledged that her government has lost control over the south as its main city of Osh slid further into chaos. Her government sent troops and armor into the city of 250,000, but they have failed to stop the rampage. Much of central Osh was on fire Saturday, and the sky was black with smoke. Gang gangs of young Kyrgyz men armed with firearms and metal bars marched on minority Uzbek neighborhoods and set homes on fire. Stores were looted and the city was running out of food. Thousands of terrified ethnic Uzbeks were rushing toward the nearby border with Uzbekistan. An Associated Press reporter at the border saw the bodies of children killed in the panicky stampede.

Iraq

Iraq‘s new parliament convened Monday in what was little more than a symbolic inaugural session because of unresolved differences over key positions including parliament speaker, president and prime minister — a precarious political limbo three months after inconclusive elections. The sides are sharply divided over the formation of a new government, and analysts and some lawmakers have warned that a decision could still be months away. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is battling to keep his job after the rival Sunni-backed Iraqiya list narrowly won the most seats in the March 7 balloting. Under Iraq’s constitution, the legislature should have chosen a parliament speaker and a president, but these appointments had to be put off because they are part of the negotiations between major political blocs over the rest of the new leadership — including a prime minister and top Cabinet officials.

Insurgents wearing military uniforms stormed Iraq‘s central bank Sunday during an apparent robbery attempt, battling security forces in a three-hour standoff after bombs exploded nearby in a coordinated daylight attack that left as many as 26 people dead. The assault on Iraq’s top financial institution stoked fears that insurgents are taking advantage of political deadlock after inconclusive March 7 national elections to try to derail security gains as the U.S. prepares to withdraw its forces by the end of next year.

Afghanistan

A team of U.S. geologists and Pentagon officials has discovered vast mineral wealth in Afghanistan, conceivably enough to turn the scarred and impoverished country into one of the world’s most lucrative mining centers, a senior military official told Fox News on Monday. “There is stunning potential here,” Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the United States Central Command, told the New York Times in a report published Monday. The geologists discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, including iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium, according to the report. The Times quoted a Pentagon memo as saying Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and cell phones.

President Hamid Karzai gave the green light to a major security crackdown in the Taliban birthplace of Kandahar on Sunday, assuring residents the operation was aimed at battling corruption and bad government as much as insurgents. Hundreds of tribal and religious leaders, sitting cross-legged in a steamy conference hall, publicly endorsed the plan, although Afghan officials acknowledged skepticism remains over the high-stakes operation, seen as a possible turning point in the nearly nine-year-old war. Afghan and international forces already have started to ramp up security, raising fears among the estimated half-million people living in and around the city that military action will lead to more bloodshed.

Five Afghan police and a NATO serviceman died Saturday in separate roadside bomb blasts. Violence has spiked recently in Afghanistan’s volatile south as Taliban insurgents step up attacks ahead of a planned major operation by NATO forces to secure the main city of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, said in Brussels on Friday that insurgents have killed 59 Afghans last week, 54 of them in Kandahar. He told NATO ministers that insurgents also wounded 116. Separately, NATO announced Friday that it has opened an alternate supply route to Afghanistan via Russia and central Asia — a critical development that gives the alliance the ability to bypass the previous ambush-prone main routes through Pakistan.

Pakistan

Pakistan‘s main spy agency continues to arm and train the Taliban and is even represented on the group’s leadership council despite U.S. pressure to sever ties and billions in aid to combat the militants, said a research report released Sunday. The findings could heighten tension between the two countries and raise further questions about U.S. success in Afghanistan since Pakistani cooperation is seen as key to defeating the Taliban, which seized power in Kabul in the 1990s with Islamabad‘s support. The report issued Sunday by the London School of Economics offered one of the strongest cases that assistance to the Taliban is official Inter-Services Intelligence agency policy, and even extends to the highest levels of the Pakistani government.

Egypt

Egyptian security forces hit protesters and knocked some to the ground before rounding dozens up at a demonstration Sunday against a police beating that killed a young man a week ago. Human rights groups say police torture — including sexual abuse — is routine in Egypt though the government denies it is systematic. Reformers say a three-decade-old emergency law they describe as a central tool of repression by President Hosni Mubarak‘s regime is to blame. Cases of police brutality rarely result in punishment. A couple hundred protesters gathered near the Ministry of Justice in the capital Cairo Sunday afternoon, some chanting “Down with Hosni Mubarak” and others holding up signs calling for an end to military rule and the prosecution of the interior minister for Said’s death. Security forces, some of them in plainclothes, beat protesters and knocked some to the ground. They put them in headlocks and handcuffed them before dragging them off to waiting trucks for arrest.

Kenya

An explosion ripped through a park in Nairobi‘s capital during a packed political rally late Sunday, killing three people and wounding 75, officials said. The rally was held to protest a draft constitution the country will vote on in August. The country’s president and prime minister support it, but several prominent political leaders do not. Prime Minister Raila Odinga confirmed the toll of dead and wounded. He said officials don’t yet know the cause of the blast.

Mexico

At least 30 gunmen burst into a drug rehabilitation center in a Mexican border state capital and opened fire, killing 19 men and wounding four people, police said. Gunmen also killed 16 people in another drug-plagued northern city. The killings marked one of the bloodiest weeks ever in Mexico and came just weeks after authorities discovered 55 bodies in an abandoned silver mine, presumably victims of the country’s drug violence. Violence has surged this year amid a turf battle between the Gulf cartel and its former ally, the Zetas gang of hit men.

Weather

Floodwaters that tore through an Arkansas campground, killing at least 19 people, also washed away records of who was there, making the daunting search for dozens of missing in heavily wooded forest even more difficult as anguished families waited for word of their loved ones. Crews planned to use ATVs, canoes and horses as they resumed their search Saturday morning in the Ouachita National Forest, where heavy rains caused the normally quiet Caddo and Little Missouri rivers to climb out of their banks early Friday. The search was expected to take several more days — and perhaps even weeks.

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