Administration Alters Rule on End-of-Life Planning

The Obama administration, reversing course, will revise a Medicare regulation to delete references to end-of-life planning as part of the annual physical examinations covered under the new health care law, administration officials said Tuesday. The move is an abrupt shift, coming just days after the new policy took effect on Jan. 1. While administration officials cited procedural reasons for changing the rule, it was clear that political concerns were also a factor. The renewed debate over advance care planning threatened to become a distraction to administration officials who were gearing up to defend the health law against attack by the new Republican majority in the House. Although the health care bill signed into law in March did not mention end-of-life planning, the topic was included in a huge Medicare regulation setting payment rates for thousands of physician services.

Feds’ Rhetoric Imperils Christian Values, Beliefs

A California-based organization has released its annual list of anti-Christian acts in America for 2010. The list included stories like the Department of Homeland Security’s report on “Rightwing Extremism,” which labeled conservative Christians as potential terrorists — or when police officers were called to a middle school in Kentucky to stop eighth-graders from praying during lunch for a student whose mother was tragically killed. The number-one anti-Christian event in 2010, according to the poll’s final tally, was the continued push for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) — a bill that, if made law, would force ministries to hire individuals who oppose their beliefs or who live in open defiance of their values. “Attacks are real; the discrimination is growing; the threats are not just rhetorical now — some of them have even resulted in physical violence,” says Dr. Gary Cass, president and CEO of DefendChristians.org.. “And probably the most ominous thing is that some of the threats are now coming to us directly from the government.”

  • · Persecution of all things Christian will continue to increase as the end-times roll onward

Cross Atop San Diego Mountain Ruled Unconstitutional

A federal appeals court has ruled that a mountaintop cross in San Diego is unconstitutional but that it might be possible to modify the landmark to keep it part of a war memorial. The ruling, by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, overturns a lower-court decision in the 20-year legal dispute over the 29-foot-tall cross atop Mount Soledad, on land Congress ceded to the Pentagon in 2006. “The Memorial, presently configured and as a whole, primarily conveys a message of government endorsement of religion that violates the establishment clause,” wrote Judge M. Margaret McKeown, a Clinton appointee, whose chambers are not far from the cross. She added, however, that the ruling “does not mean that the Memorial could not be modified to pass constitutional muster, nor does it mean that no cross can be part of this veterans’ memorial. We take no position on those issues.” The case was filed by the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America and several individuals. “The decision represents a judicial slap in the face to the countless military veterans honored by this memorial,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice. “The panel has an extreme view of the establishment clause that amounts to hostility to religion,” Alliance Defense Fund Senior Counsel Joe Infranco explained.

Incoming Chairman Targets ‘Broken Bureaucracy’

The Obama administration can expect congressional hearings this year on WikiLeaks, foreclosures, corruption in Afghanistan and food safety as Republicans take over the House oversight committee. That’s the agenda that Rep. Darrell Issa, the incoming chairman of the committee, laid out Monday. Issa spokesman Kurt Bardella said in a written statement that all the hearings will “advance an agenda focused on reforming a broken bureaucracy and addressing waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement.” Among the topics for hearings will be the impact of government regulations on job creation. “Why hasn’t the economy created the private sector jobs the president promised?” Bardella said. The role of government-sponsored mortgage backers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the housing crisis and the failure of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission to agree on a root cause of the financial meltdown will also be investigated

Natural Catastrophes on the Increase

A leading reinsurer said Monday that extreme natural catastrophes in 2010, including severe earthquakes, floods and heat waves, led to the sixth-highest total of insurers’ losses since 1980 and showed evidence of climate change. Munich Re said in its annual review that insured losses came in at $37 billion this year, up from $22 billion in 2009. It said total economic losses, including losses not covered by insurance, rose to $130 billion from last year’s $50 billion. Altogether 950 natural catastrophes were recorded last year, including five “great natural catastrophes:” the earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and central China, the heat wave in Russia and the floods in Pakistan. The company wrote that 2010 not only resulted in substantial losses, but also an exceptionally high number of fatalities. More than 220,000 people were killed in the earthquake in Haiti and at least 56,000 people died as a result of heat and air pollution in Russia.

Bumblebees Dying Off

Several species of American bumblebees are rapidly dying off, and scientists aren’t sure why, according to a new study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “The abundance of four species has declined by up to 96 percent in the last 10-15 years,” the study reports. The bees’ geographic ranges have contracted by anywhere from 23 to 87 percent. This isn’t just an academic exercise: Bumblebees pollinate about 15% of all crops grown in the nation, worth about $3 billion. They are excellent pollinators, the study reports, thanks to their large body size, long tongues, and high-frequency buzzing, which helps release pollen from flowers. The study suggests two possible causes for the decline: The spread of a deadly fungus known as Nosema bombi and low genetic diversity, which renders the bees susceptible to other pathogens and environmental pressures. This is a separate issue from what’s known as colony collapse disorder, a nationwide phenomenon that’s causing honeybee populations to also disappear.

  • · All sorts of environmental catastrophes will herald the end-time march to the Great Tribulation

No Seat Belts in Police Crashes

At least 42% of police officers killed in vehicle crashes over the past three decades were not wearing seat belts or other safety restraints, according to a federal review. The study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which analyzed 733 crashes from 1980 through 2008, comes less than a week after a separate report found that fatal traffic incidents in 2010 were the leading cause of officer deaths for the 13th straight year. Some officers resist wearing seat belts because the restraints slow their movement in and out of the cars, Floyd says. Others complain that the straps get tangled in utility and gun belts.

  • · Do as they say, not as they do – typical government behavior.

Invasive Medusahead Weed Threatens Western Ranches

According to a 2010 Oregon State University study, medusahead is rapidly crowding out native grasses in the western USA, and once established, it eliminates more than 80% of a land’s grazing value. Medusahead, native to the Mediterranean area and introduced to the United States in the 1880s, now covers about 1 million acres of Oregon and is spreading across 10 Western states with between 30 million and 76 million acres of public and private land infested. Pesticides, controlled burning and grazing during the brief period in the annual weed’s early life that it is edible can all help reduce spread of medusahead, but effective control is unaffordable for many ranchers. The USDA is now in its second year of a $3.6 million demonstration program to identify methods to control the weed, but efforts can be costly and often “problematic.” The silica-rich weed, which forms thick mats after dying and stays on the ground for years, also poses an increasing wildfire risk across the West.

  • · Symbolic of the spiritual weeds that are choking all the USA

Economic News

The largest U.S. companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index are sitting on a record $902.4 billion in cash, up 10% from a year earlier, S&P says. The stockpiling of cash, though a drag now, could be “our biggest stimulus yet,” once companies start spending, says Jim Paulsen of Wells Capital Management. Of course, a big use of cash would be to hire new employees, something companies have been reluctant to do thus far as they rack up record profits.

Private sector payrolls soared 297,000 in December, payroll processor ADP announced Wednesday. The gain marks the 11th consecutive month of increases. The increase in hiring was led by the services sector, with employers adding 270,000 jobs in December. That’s the highest jump on record, ADP said. In another sign that the weak job market might have bottomed out, 2010 was the lowest year for job cuts in 13 years, according to a separate report issued Wednesday. Employers announced plans to cut nearly 530,000 jobs in 2010, a 59% plunge from 2009, when job cuts reached a seven-year high.

Detroit automakers made a strong sales showing last month, capping a comeback year amid hopeful predictions that families may be ready to replace their old jalopies in 2011. The auto industry saw auto sales climb 11.1% from a dismal 2009, selling almost 11.6 million cars and trucks last year. While better than the 10.4 million of 2009, it’s still a far cry from years in which it sold more than 16 million vehicles last decade.

The growth in bankruptcies around the country slowed significantly in 2010 from its breakneck pace in recent years, with about a dozen states recording a decline in filings from consumers and businesses, according to an Associated Press tally Tuesday. Filings collected from the nation’s 90 bankruptcy districts showed 113,000 bankruptcies in December, down 3% nationwide from the same month a year ago. That followed a similar year-over-year decline for the month of October. It had been four years since an individual month showed such an improvement. In total, the nation recorded 1.55 million filings in 2010, an increase of 8% from 2009 and a far slower growth rate than the 32% jump recorded in the year before and the 33% jump the year before that.

Bank of America said it agreed Monday to pay $2.8 billion to taxpayer-funded Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to settle claims that it sold the mortgage giants bad home loans. The agreement is the biggest so far between Fannie and Freddie and lenders that sold them loans during the subprime lending boom and before standards were tightened. More such agreements are likely as Fannie and Freddie, which now buy about two-thirds of all home loans, then package and sell them to investors with a promise to cover losses, seek restitution for loans that they say failed to meet their underwriting standards. The financial industry may face about $52 billion in costs from such mortgage claims, according to a consensus of Wall Street analyst estimates. While the costs will be huge, Monday’s agreement underscores that they won’t put banks out of business.

Afghanistan

Influential local elders in one of southern Afghanistan’s deadliest regions have agreed to stop insurgent attacks and to expel foreign militants from their area, raising hopes that a growing number of civilians are turning on the Taliban and supporting Afghan and coalition forces. The agreement centers on Sangin, one of the Taliban’s remaining pockets of resistance in southern Helmand province, a former Taliban stronghold. As part of a surge of U.S. forces, coalition and Afghan troops have stepped up pressure over the past year to push the Taliban from Helmand. The Sangin agreement invites comparisons to a tribal revolt in Iraq, which came to be known as the Awakening. The movement grew in power in 2006 and 2007, becoming a turning point in the Iraq War.

Pakistan

The governor of Pakistan’s powerful Punjab province was shot dead in the capital Tuesday by one of his own guards, who later told interrogators afterward that he was angry about the politician’s stance against the country’s blasphemy law The killing of Salman Taseer was the most high-profile assassination of a political figure in Pakistan since former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December 2007, and it rattled a country already dealing with crises ranging from a potential collapse of the government to a virulent Islamist insurgency. The killing could also add to concerns about inroads by Islamist extremists and fundamentalists into Pakistan’s security establishment and represented another blow to the country’s Pakistan’s embattled secular movement.

Iran

Iran has invited representatives of several nations to visit its nuclear installations this month, including Russia, China and the European Union, but has excluded the U.S. from the proposed trip, according to diplomats briefed on Tehran’s correspondence. The Obama administration and a number of European and Arab governments quickly dismissed Tehran’s overture, saying they viewed it as an attempt by Iran to reduce mounting economic pressure aimed at curbing its nuclear program. “A tour for some countries is not a substitute for sustained and transparent cooperation,’ State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Monday. ‘Iran continues to be in violation of its international obligations and the international community won’t be distracted by this ploy.”

Egypt

The New Year’s Day suicide bombing of a church that killed 21 people has opened up a vein of fury among Egypt’s Christians, built up over years of what they call government failure to address persistent discrimination and violence against their community. Christian protests spread to Cairo from the northern city of Alexandria where the attack took place. Protesters threw bottles and stones at riot police outside the cathedral, injuring 45 policemen, security officials said. Elsewhere, demonstrators threw stones at cars on two main highways, and hundreds marched in other parts of the capital. In the last couple years in particular, the country’s Coptic Christian minority, which makes up 10% of the country’s 80 million, has felt under siege following a string of incidents.

Sudan

Sudan‘s president says he is ready to welcome and assist Southern Sudan as a new country if it votes for independence in a referendum that begins Sunday. President Omar al-Bashir was in the southern capital of Juba on Tuesday for talks five days before the week-long vote begins. The result is widely expected to be for independence, splitting Africa’s largest nation in two. “Imposing unity by force doesn’t work,” al-Bashir told southern officials and civil society leaders. Hundreds of pro-independence demonstrators waited outside the airport for al-Bashir, chanting and waving placards.

Weather

Residents of an Australian city cut off by some of the country’s worst flooding in decades are being warned to stay out of the water, and not just because of the risk of being swept away: Debris, snakes and even crocodiles could also pose a danger. Large parts of the coastal city of Rockhampton were under water Tuesday. The waters were still rising, with the 75,000-strong population bracing for the floods’ expected peak in over the next couple of days as a huge inland sea spawned by heavy rain across Queensland state drains toward the ocean. Residents on boats made their way through Rockhampton’s flooded streets, while police checked houses to see whether they were occupied. Rockhampton is the latest of 22 cities and towns in Queensland to be swamped by floods that began building just before Christmas.

Gamblers on the Las Vegas Strip awoke to snow flurries Monday morning as part of a winter storm that turned the main highway between Southern and Central California into a snowy, icy parking lot. Hundreds of motorists returning from the New Year’s holiday found themselves stuck after Interstate 5 was closed for a second day over the 4,160-foot-high Tejon Pass, about 70 miles north of Los Angeles. The California Highway Patrol closed a 30-mile stretch of the freeway shortly after 12:30 p.m. Sunday because of blowing snow. Blizzard conditions eased to light snow flurries early Monday but the road remained clogged with snow and patches of ice. The Highway Patrol finally started escorting vehicles over the pass Monday afternoon in groups of about 500.

At least 49 children died last year of heatstroke while trapped in hot cars, trucks, vans or SUVs. This is the most deaths nationwide in a year since Null began keeping track in 1998. Parts of the country may have been hotter than normal, but such fatalities can happen even at relatively normal temperatures. At least 494 children have died since 1998 from heatstroke (also known as hyperthermia) in vehicles in the USA. In an average year, 38 children die from being trapped in hot vehicles. Although July is the deadliest month for children in cars, it’s not strictly a summertime issue. Research shows that children have died as early as February and as late as December.

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