September 13, 2010
by Erica Werner & Calvin Woodward
President Barack Obama told voters repeatedly during the health care debate that the overhaul legislation would bring down fast-rising health care costs and save them money. Now, he’s hemming and hawing on that.
So far, the law he signed earlier this year hasn’t had the desired effect. An analysis from Medicare’s Office of the Actuary this week said that the nation’s health care tab will go up — not down — through 2019 as a result of Obama’s sweeping law, though the increase is modest.
Obama offered some caveats when asked in his news conference Friday about the apparent discrepancy between what he promised and what’s actually happening so far. On several other topics, too, his rhetoric fell short of a full accounting.
A look at some of the claims at his news conference and how they compare with the facts:
OBAMA: Said he never expected to extend insurance coverage to an additional 31 million people “for free.” He added that “we’ve made huge progress” if medical inflation could be brought down to the level of overall inflation, or somewhere slightly above that.
THE FACTS: Those claims may be supported in the fine print of the plan he pitched to Congress and a skeptical public months ago. But they were rarely heard back then. “My proposal would bring down the cost of health care for millions — families, businesses and the federal government,” he declared in March.
Last August he predicted: “The American people are going to be glad that we acted to change an unsustainable system so that more people have coverage, we’re bending the cost curve, and we’re getting insurance reforms.”
On Friday, he conceded: “Bending the cost curve on health care is hard to do.” The goal: “Slowly bring down those costs.”
The White House contends that although health care costs will rise when most of the changes take hold in 2014 and coverage is extended to the uninsured, costs will go down over the longer term as controls kick in.
OBAMA: “We took every idea out there about how to reduce or at least slow the costs of health care over time.”
THE FACTS: One idea that most experts believe would do the most to control health costs — directly taxing health benefits — was missing in Obama’s plan. Opposition from unions and others was too great, and Obama himself had campaigned against the idea.
Some of the major cost controllers that did make it into the law — including a tax on high-value insurance plans — don’t start until 2018. That tax was watered down and delayed, and other cost-control approaches also softened after opposition from hospitals and other interest groups.
Health spending already accounts for about 17 percent of the economy and is projected to grow to nearly 20 percent in 2019.
OBAMA: “So these policies of cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans, of stripping away regulations that protect consumers, running up a record surplus to a record deficit — those policies finally culminated in the worst financial crisis we’ve had since the Great Depression.”
THE FACTS: The president probably meant the broader economic crisis and not the meltdown of the financial industry when he talked about the “financial crisis.” True enough, George W. Bush entered office with a $236 billion budget surplus in 2001, and in January 2009, before Obama was sworn into office, the Congressional Budget Office projected the deficit for the fiscal year 2009 to be $1.2 trillion.
But the surpluses the government foresaw in 2001 were based on a bubble economy that was bound to burst. And the deficit Obama inherited was only partly from Bush’s fiscal policies.
Mostly it was a result of a recession that sapped tax revenues, increased the costs of safety net programs and demanded more government spending to stimulate the economy. As recently as 2007, the budget deficit was just $161.5 billion. The current annual deficit is now an estimated $1.5 trillion.
OBAMA: Asked how he can lecture Afghan President Hamid Karzai about corruption when it’s fueled in part by U.S. aid dollars, Obama said: “I’ve said to my national security team … Let’s be consistent in terms of how we operate across agencies. Let’s make sure that our efforts there are not seen as somehow giving a wink and a nod to corruption.”
THE FACTS: While acknowledging the situation is messy, Obama seemed to minimize it.
“Are there going to be occasions where we look and see that some of our folks on the ground have made compromises with people who are known to have engaged in corruption?” he asked. “You know, we’re reviewing all that constantly and there may be occasions where that happens.”
The United States spends more than $100 billion annually in Afghanistan, the world’s second-poorest nation and one of the most corrupt. U.S. officials acknowledge that a significant percentage of the U.S. bankroll enriches shady characters even as it may finance worthy projects, or is stolen outright.
The CIA has paid Afghan warlords and power brokers for years, relying on them as informants and as leverage in the country’s internal ethnic and tribal squabbles. Intelligence officials say payouts are cheap insurance, but development officials and diplomats say the money supports a culture of bribery.
Obama pledged to keep up pressure on Karzai. The Afghan leader recently intervened to free a presidential aide arrested on suspicion of soliciting a bribe. U.S. investigators played a central role in fingering the aide.
September 13, 2010
by Jonathan Benson
Patients who undergo magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans are often given drug injections to enhance the quality of scan images. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently announced that these drugs will now require a black box warning label–the strongest in the industry–because they can cause a rare, and sometimes fatal, condition known as nephrogenic fibrosing dermopathy (NFD).
The drugs contain a magnetic, metallic chemical called gadolinium that travels throughout the heart and other organs to help clarify image quality during scans. Gadolinium is a known liver toxin that is also harmful to the unhealthy kidneys, but the FDA has permitted its use in medical imaging drugs since 1988.
Symptoms of NFD include skin hardening as well as tissue growth in the eyes, internal organs and joints.
Seven MRI drugs containing gadolinium have been approved by the FDA, and all can cause NFD in patients with kidney disease. But three in particular are “chemically more unstable” than the others, according to the FDA, meaning they are more likely to release the toxic chemical into the liver. These three are Bayer Healthcare’s Magnevist, General Electric Healthcare’s Omniscan and Covidien’s Optimark.
Rather than pull the drug, the FDA is requiring stronger labeling that instructs physicians to use the drug only on patients who have healthy kidneys. It also instructs physicians to screen all patients for kidney disease prior to administering any gadolinium-containing drugs.
Back in 2006, the FDA announced that it was aware of gadolinium’s dangers, but for whatever reason did not issue a black box warning at that time. The FDA continues to suggest that gadolinium is safe to use in patients with healthy kidneys, even though there is no evidence that the drug does not harm healthy kidneys.
According to reports, there are two imaging drugs on the market that do no contain gadolinium, but the FDA has only approved them for use during liver scans.
September 13, 2010
by David Gutierrez
Mothers who took 4,000 IU of vitamin D daily cut their risk of premature delivery by half, in a study conducted by researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina and presented at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies in Vancouver.
“We never imagined it would have as far-reaching effects as what we have seen,” lead author Carol Wagner said. “The message is that all pregnant women should be supplementing with 4,000 IU per day of vitamin D.”
Researchers assigned 494 women between their 12th and 16th weeks of pregnancy to take either 400 IU, 2,000 IU or 4,000 IU of vitamin D per day. They found that the more vitamin D a pregnant woman took, the higher the levels of the vitamin in her blood and in that of the child at birth.
Higher levels of vitamin D were significantly associated with a lower risk of infection, preterm labor and preterm birth.
Premature birth is the foremost cause of newborn death in Canada.
Vitamin D has long been known to play an important role in the development and maintenance of healthy teeth and bones, and newer research has implicated it in maintaining a healthy immune system and preventing infection, cancer, heart disease and autoimmune disorders. Yet for a long time, researchers falsely believed that the vitamin could cause birth defects.
Later, researchers discovered that the defects initially attributed to vitamin D were caused by a genetic defect that affected the vitamin’s metabolism in the body.
“For 30-plus years it was dogma that [vitamin D in pregnancy] was dangerous, that you didn’t need very much and what you did need you could get from just casual sunlight exposure,” Wagner said. “What we know now, from a decade of very intensive research, is that that’s not the case.”
Wagner cautioned that even though the study took place in South Carolina, 85 percent of participants had insufficient vitamin D levels when the study began.
“This is even more important for Canadians,” Wagner said. “You’re at a much higher latitude. The best that you can have is probably six months of sunlight exposure, at your lowest latitude, where you can actually make vitamin D.”
September 13, 2010
by David Gutierrez
Toddlers who watch television are significantly more likely to have poor health and poor educational performance by age 10, according to a study conducted by researchers from the University of Montreal and published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
“Although we expected the impact of early TV viewing to disappear after seven-and-a-half years of childhood, the fact that negative outcomes remained is quite daunting,” said lead researcher Linda Pagani. “Our findings make a compelling public health argument against excessive TV viewing in early childhood.”
“This is yet another study reinforcing the need for our society to finally accept that quite aside from good or bad parenting, children’s daily screen time is a major independent health issue,” said Aric Sigman of the British Psychological Association, who was not involved in the study.
As part of the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development Main Exposure, researchers questioned parents about their children’s television exposure at both 29 and 53 months of age. They found that the average two-year-old watched just under nine hours of TV per week, while the average four-year-old watched just under 15. Fully 11 percent of two-year-olds and 23 percent of four-year olds watched more than two hours per day.
At the age of 10, children who had watched more TV as youngsters were significantly more likely to be rated by their teachers as having lower levels of classroom engagement and poorer performance in math. They were also less likely to be active and more likely to drink more soft drinks and have a higher body mass index.
“Early childhood is a critical period for brain development and formation of behavior,” Pagani said. “High levels of TV consumption during this period can lead to future unhealthy habits.”
“Common sense would suggest that television exposure replaces time that could be spent engaging in other developmentally enriching activities and tasks that foster cognitive, behavioral and motor development.”
September 13, 2010
by Tom Krisher
New General Motors Co. CEO Daniel Akerson will get the same $9 million pay package as the man he replaced, Ed Whitacre.
Akerson, a former telecommunications industry and private equity executive, will receive $1.7 million in annual salary, $5.3 million in short-term stock payable over the next three years, and another $2 million in stock that’s part of the company’s long-term executive compensation plan.
The automaker, which is 60.8 percent owned by the U.S. government, disclosed the pay package in a filing on Friday with the Securities and Exchange Commission. It is identical to what the company disclosed for Whitacre in February.
Akerson also is on GM’s board of directors, but will receive no compensation for his duties there, the filing said.
Akerson, GM’s fourth CEO in less than two years, took over leadership of the company on Sept. 1.
Whitacre, CEO since December, said he stepped down because the company needed a chief executive who would be in charge long after it sells stock to the public. The sale, called an initial public offering, is expected in mid-November.
Whitacre, 68, a retired CEO of telecommunications giant AT&T Inc., said he didn’t want to stay too long after the stock sale.
It was unclear how much of the $9 million pay package that Whitacre will receive for his roughly eight months as CEO. GM also disclosed that he will get $300,000 to remain on as chairman until the end of the year when Akerson takes over that role as well.
Like Whitacre, Akerson has worked as a top executive at major telecommunications companies, holding leadership posts at both MCI and Nextel. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Akerson was appointed to GM’s board by the government in July of last year after GM emerged from bankruptcy protection. He also led global buyouts for The Carlyle Group, a private equity firm.
GM’s SEC filing said that Akerson agreed to the pay package after the government’s pay czar approved it Wednesday. Pay czar Kenneth Feinberg stepped down on Friday and was replaced by Treasury Department lawyer Patricia Geoghegan. The pay czar is responsible for setting pay guidelines for top executives at the four companies still getting exceptional assistance from the government’s $700 billion bailout fund.
In addition to GM, those companies are American International Group, Chrysler Group LLC and Ally Financial Inc., the financing arm for GM and Chrysler.
The U.S. government got its stake in GM after giving the Detroit auto giant a $50 billion bailout to live through bankruptcy protection last year. GM has repaid $6.7 billion, and the government hopes to get the rest of its money back through the common-stock sale.
GM itself also plans to sell preferred shares to raise capital and pay off debt.
September 13, 2010
by Rania El Gamal
U.S. Staff Sergeant Kendrick Manuel swung his rifle over his shoulder and grumbled about being viewed as a “non-combat” soldier in Iraq.
“When NBC talked about the last combat troops are gone, they made it sound like everything is basically over,” he said, after escorting a 19-truck convoy through a part of northern Iraq where roadside bombs and mortar attacks are still a danger.
“To us it was like a slap in the face, because we are still here … we are still going in harm’s way every time we leave out of the gate,” Manuel said at a U.S. military base, Camp Speicher, near Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit.
On August 31, the U.S. military formally declared an end to its combat mission in Iraq, 7-1/2 years after the invasion that removed Saddam and led to sectarian warfare and a fierce insurgency in which tens of thousands of Iraqis were killed. More than 4,400 U.S. soldiers have been killed since 2003.
U.S. networks such as NBC showed what the U.S. military labeled the last combat brigade rumbling into Kuwait. Soldiers whooped and shouted on camera that the war was over.
Yet, there are still six brigades made up of 50,000 troops in Iraq, ahead of a full withdrawal at the end of 2011. Their focus is to assist and advise their Iraqi counterparts, not lead the fight against insurgents, but they remain heavily armed and face frequent threats.
On September 7, two U.S. soldiers were killed and nine wounded when an Iraqi soldier opened fire on them at an Iraqi commando base.
The hype around the change of mission, which allowed President Barack Obama to say he was fulfilling a pledge to start ending the unpopular war, set off complaints among some soldiers left behind who were no longer viewed as combat troops.
U.S. military convoys are still shot at and bombed, and bases are mortared, despite a change in the name of the U.S. mission from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn.
“That doesn’t really change a thing, it is still dangerous,” said 22-year-old Specialist Byron Reed, on his second deployment in Iraq, as he prepared to escort a convoy to Camp Speicher from Balad air base in Salahuddin province.
Manuel said changing the mission’s name meant little if any of his soldiers were to be killed by a roadside bomb.
“If a life is gone, it is gone,” he said. “As long as we are going in harm’s way, it (the war) is not over for us.”
LITTLE REAL CHANGE
U.S. soldiers said there had been little change in their mission since September 1. Most U.S. military units switched their focus to training Iraqi troops and police when they pulled out of towns and cities on June 30 last year.
While overall violence has dipped sharply in the past two or three years, Iraq is still a fragile place and al-Qaeda-linked insurgents and Shi’ite militia are active. Furthermore, tension has been heightened by the failure of politicians to form a new government six months after an inconclusive election.
“We do present a big target for the enemy, we still get attacked, just not as frequently,” said Lieutenant Colonel David Gooch, an infantry battalion commander, at Balad, about 80 km (50 miles) north of Baghdad.
“Over the last week, I think we probably got attacked, say, five times. Those attacks are becoming less lethal I guess you would say, because we have some really good vehicles as you can see,” he said, standing in front of a U.S. army MRAP — Mine Resistant, Ambush Protected trucks.
The MRAP, heavily armored and V-hulled to deflect bomb blasts, is credited with saving many soldiers’ lives in Iraq.
Soldiers who were in Iraq during the worst of the sectarian bloodshed between once dominant Sunnis and majority Shi’ite Muslims who rose to power with Saddam’s fall are happy to take a back seat and let the Iraqis fight the war.
“It is their country you know,” said 37-year-old Sergeant First Class Dana Campell, adding that security had greatly improved since 2007.
“I think they are doing a great job. They came a long, long way,” he said, dressed for battle in the remote northern town of Rabiya near the Syrian border.
Gone are the days when U.S. soldiers kicked in doors and searched for insurgents and weapons, U.S. officers say, adding that they cannot even enter towns now unless invited and escorted.
However, a tip-off that a suicide bomber from the Iraqi affiliate of al-Qaeda planned to attack a joint Iraqi-U.S. checkpoint in western Nineveh during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which started on Friday, led U.S. troops to take the initiative in a raid last week.
“Being that it is a credible threat specifically against U.S. forces, we kind of have to act,” said Captain Keith Benoit, a squadron commander in the 7th Cavalry Regiment, at the checkpoint a few hours before the raid.
The mission was planned by U.S. forces but it was to be carried out by the Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga security forces, while U.S. soldiers stood about 100 meters away, said Benoit.
“If we were to capture these folks alive tonight, I have a specific interest in this … so I would probably join in the questioning, but there is no unilateral questioning by U.S. forces any more,” he said.
“Because it is not my country, really, it is their country.”
September 13, 2010
Economists peddling dire warnings that the world’s number one economy is on the brink of collapse, amid high rates of unemployment and a spiraling public deficit, are flourishing here.
The guru of this doomsday line of thinking may be economist Nouriel Roubini, thrust into the forefront after predicting the chaos wrought by the subprime mortgage crisis and the collapse of the housing bubble.
But other economists, who have so far stayed out of the media limelight, are also proselytizing nightmarish visions of the future.
Boston University professor Laurence Kotlikoff, who warned as far back as the 1980s of the dangers of a public deficit, lent credence to such dark predictions in an International Monetary Fund publication last week.
He unveiled a doomsday scenario — which many dismiss as pure fantasy — of an economic clash between superpowers the United States and China, which holds more than 843 billion dollars of US Treasury bonds.
Kotlikoff warned such a move would spark a run on banks and money market funds as well as insurance companies as policy holders cash in their surrender values.
“In a short period of time, the Federal Reserve would have to print trillions of dollars to cover its explicit and implicit guarantees. All that new money could produce strong inflation, perhaps hyperinflation,” he said.
“There are other less apocalyptic, perhaps more plausible, but still quite unpleasant, scenarios that could result from multiple equilibria.”
According to a poll by the StrategyOne Institute published Friday, some 65 percent of Americans believe there will be a new recession.
“It is true: Today’s economic problems are structural, not cyclical,” argued New York Times editorial writer David Brooks.
He said the United Sates is losing its world dominance much in the same way the British Empire began to crumble more than a century ago.
“We are in the middle of yet another jobless recovery. Wages have been lagging for decades. Our labor market woes are deep and intractable,” Brooks said.
Nobel Economics Prize winner Paul Krugman also voiced concern about the fate of the fragile economic recovery if voters return the Republicans to political power.
“It’s hard to overstate how destructive the economic ideas offered earlier this week by John Boehner, the House minority leader, would be if put into practice,” he wrote in a recent editorial.
“Fewer jobs and bigger deficits — the perfect combination.”
The Wall Street Journal, usually more favorable to Boehner’s call for tax cuts, ran a commentary from another Nobel Prize-winning economist — Vernon Smith — that failed to provide much comfort for readers.
“This fact needs to be confronted: We are almost surely in for a long slog,” Smith wrote.
And it seems such pessimism has even filtered into the IMF, which warned on Friday that high levels of national debt and a still shaky financial sector threaten to derail the global economic recovery.
“The foreclosure backlog in US property markets is large and growing, in part due to the recent expiration of the home buyer’s tax credit. When realized, this could further depress real estate prices.”
This could lead to “disproportionate losses” for small and medium-sized banks, which could in turn “precipitate a loss of market confidence in the recovery,” the IMF warned.
Click here to read the full report
September 13, 2010
by Thomas Frank
The Homeland Security Department plans to test futuristic iris scan technology that stores digital images of people’s eyes in a database and is considered a quicker alternative to fingerprints.
The department will run a two-week test in October of commercially sold iris scanners at a Border Patrol station in McAllen, Texas, where they will be used on illegal immigrants, said Arun Vemury, program manager at the department’s Science and Technology branch.
“The test will help us determine how viable this is for potential (department) use in the future,” Vemury said.
Iris scanners are little used, but a new generation of cameras that capture images from 6 feet away instead of a few inches has sparked interest from government agencies and financial firms, said Patrick Grother, a National Institute of Standards and Technology computer scientist. The technology also has sparked objections from the American Civil Liberties Union.
ACLU lawyer Christopher Calabrese fears that the cameras could be used covertly. “If you can identify any individual at a distance and without their knowledge, you literally allow the physical tracking of a person anywhere there’s a camera and access to the Internet,” he said.
Iris scans can be quicker than fingerprints. “You can walk up to a wall-mounted box, look at the camera, and that’s it,” Grother said.
Homeland Security will test cameras that take photos from 3 or 4 feet away, including one that works on people as they walk by, Vemury said.
In 2007, the U.S. military began taking iris scans of thousands of Iraqis to track suspected militants. The technology was used in about 20 U.S. airports from 2005 to 2008 to identify passengers in the Registered Traveler program, who could skip to the front of security lines.
Financial companies hope the scans can stop identity fraud, said Jeff Carter of Global Rainmakers, a New York City firm developing the technology. “Iris is going to completely reshape the fraud environment,” he said.
September 13, 2010
by Niall Firth
It sounds like something straight out of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
But, in a chilling echo of the computer Hal from the iconic film, scientists have developed robots that are able to deceive humans and even hide from their enemies.
An experiment by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology is believed to be the first detailed examination of robot deception.
The team developed computer algorithms that would let a robot ‘decide’ whether it should deceive a human or another robot and gave it strategies to give it the best chance of not being found out.
The development may alarm those who are concerned that robots who are able to practice deception are not safe to work with humans.
But researchers say that robots that are capable of deception will be valuable in the future, particularly when used in the military.
Robots on the battlefield with the power of deception will be able to successfully hide and mislead the enemy to keep themselves and valuable information safe.
‘Most social robots will probably rarely use deception, but it’s still an important tool in the robot’s interactive arsenal because robots that recognise the need for deception have advantages in terms of outcome compared to robots that do not recognise the need for deception,’ said the study’s co-author, Alan Wagner, a research engineer at the Georgia Tech Research Institute.
A search and rescue robot may need to deceive a human in order to calm or receive cooperation from a panicking victim.
The results were published online in the International Journal of Social Robotics.
The researchers looked at how one robot could attempt to hide from another robot to develop programs that successfully produced deceptive behaviour.
Their first step was to teach the deceiving robot how to recognise a situation that warranted the use of deception.
Wagner and Arkin used interdependence theory and game theory to develop algorithms that tested the value of deception in a specific situation.
A situation had to satisfy two key conditions to warrant deception – there must be conflict between the deceiving robot and the seeker, and the deceiver must benefit from the deception.
Once a situation was deemed to warrant deception, the robot carried out a deceptive act by laying a false trail about its movements.
The robot was even able tailor its deception based on how much it knew about the particular robot it was trying to trick.
To test their algorithms, the researchers ran 20 hide-and-seek experiments with two autonomous robots. Coloured markers were lined up along three potential pathways to locations where the robot could hide.
The hider robot randomly selected a hiding location from the three location choices and moved toward that location, knocking down coloured markers along the way.
Once it reached a point past the markers, the robot changed course and hid in one of the other two locations. The presence or absence of standing markers indicated the hider’s location to the seeker robot.
‘The hider’s set of false communications was defined by selecting a pattern of knocked over markers that indicated a false hiding position in an attempt to say, for example, that it was going to the right and then actually go to the left,’ explained Wagner.
The hider robots were able to deceive the seeker robots in 75 percent of the trials, with the failed experiments resulting from the hiding robot’s inability to knock over the correct markers to trick the ‘finding’ robot.
‘The experimental results weren’t perfect, but they demonstrated the learning and use of deception signals by real robots in a noisy environment,’ said Wagner.
‘The results were also a preliminary indication that the techniques and algorithms described in the paper could be used to successfully produce deceptive behavior in a robot.’