EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 12, 2013

Health care sign-ups up in November, still falling far short


The Eagle-Tribune

---- — WASHINGTON (AP) — With time running short, the nation’s health care rolls still aren’t filling up fast enough.

New sign-up numbers Wednesday showed progress for President Barack Obama’s health care law, but not enough to guarantee that Americans who want and need coverage by Jan. 1 will be able to get it. Crunch time is now, as people face a Dec. 23 deadline to sign up if they are to have coverage by New Year’s.

That means more trouble for the White House, too, after months of repairing a dysfunctional enrollment website. Next year could start with a new round of political recriminations over the Affordable Care Act, “Obamacare” to its opponents.

The Health and Human Services Department reported that 364,682 people had signed up for private coverage under the law as of Nov. 30.

That is more than three times the October figure but still less than one-third of the 1.2 million that officials had projected would enroll nationwide by the end of November. The administration’s overall goal was to sign up 7 million people by next March 31, when open enrollment ends.

Secretary Kathleen Sebelius assured Congress on Wednesday that “we are seeing very, very positive trends” now that HealthCare.gov is working reasonably well. She also announced that she’d asked the department’s inspector general for an independent investigation into contracting and management factors that contributed to the technology failure.

No shutdowns: Republicans, seeking stability, back budget deal though it means higher deficits

WASHINGTON (AP) — A newly minted budget deal to avert future government shutdowns gained important ground Wednesday among House Republicans who are more accustomed to brinkmanship than compromise, even though it would nudge federal deficits higher three years in a row.

There was grumbling from opposite ends of the political spectrum — conservatives complaining about spending levels and liberal Democrats unhappy there would be no extension of an expiring program of benefits for the long-term unemployed.

Yet other lawmakers, buffeted by criticism after last October’s partial government shutdown, found plenty to like in the agreement and suggested it could lead to future cooperation. The plan was announced Tuesday evening by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and quickly endorsed by President Barack Obama.

A House vote was expected as early as Thursday as lawmaker race to wrap up their work for the year.

“A lot of folks will probably vote for it even though they would rather not support this type of legislation, but we have to get the spending issue completed so that there is some consistency in the future,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla.

Prosecutors say they will not file domestic violence charges against George Zimmerman

MIAMI (AP) — George Zimmerman will not face domestic violence charges because his girlfriend did not wish to pursue the case and there was scant evidence of a crime, a state prosecutor said Wednesday.

Samantha Scheibe’s decision not to cooperate and the lack of other corroborating evidence would have made the case difficult to prove, State Attorney Phil Archer in Seminole County said in a statement.

“There is no reasonable likelihood of a successful prosecution,” Archer said.

Zimmerman, 30, had faced charges of aggravated assault, battery and criminal mischief following a Nov. 18 confrontation at the central Florida house he shared with Scheibe. She initially told police Zimmerman pointed a shotgun at her face during an argument, smashed her coffee table and pushed her out of the house.

She recanted much of that in an affidavit filed this week in which she referred to Zimmerman as “my boyfriend” and said she wanted him back.

Pope Francis selected Person of the Year by Time magazine, Snowden comes in 2nd

NEW YORK (AP) — Time magazine selected Pope Francis as its Person of the Year on Wednesday, saying the Catholic Church’s new leader has changed the perception of the 2,000-year-old institution in an extraordinary way in a short time.

The pope beat out NSA leaker Edward Snowden for the distinction, which the newsmagazine has been giving each year since 1927.

The former Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected in March as the first pope from Latin America and the first Jesuit. Since taking over at the Vatican, he has urged the Catholic Church not to be obsessed with “small-minded rules” and to emphasize compassion over condemnation in dealing with touchy topics like abortion, gays and contraception.

He has denounced the world’s “idolatry of money” and the “global scandal” that nearly 1 billion people today go hungry, and has charmed the masses with his simple style and wry sense of humor. His appearances draw tens of thousands of people and his (at)Pontifex Twitter account recently topped 10 million followers.

“He really stood out to us as someone who has changed the tone and the perception and the focus of one of the world’s largest institutions in an extraordinary way,” said Nancy Gibbs, the magazine’s managing editor.

FDA takes steps to phase out antibiotics in meat, asks drug companies to change labeling

WASHINGTON (AP) — Citing a potential threat to public health, the Food and Drug Administration is taking steps toward phasing out the use of some antibiotics in animals processed for meat.

Many cattle, hog and poultry producers give their animals antibiotics regularly to ensure that they are healthy and to make the animals grow faster. Now, the agency has announced that it will ask pharmaceutical companies to voluntarily stop labeling drugs important for treating human infection as acceptable for that growth promotion in animals.

If the drug companies sign on — and two major companies have already signaled they will — using those antibiotics to promote growth in animals would be illegal. Prescriptions would be required to use the drugs for animal illnesses.

The FDA has been debating how to address the issue of antibiotics in meat for several years as antibiotic-resistant diseases have risen and consumers increasingly have clamored for antibiotic-free meat. McDonald’s, among other companies, has moved to limit the drugs in their meat, pushing many animal producers to go along. The restaurant chain Chipotle also has tried to use meat raised without antibiotics, but has cited challenges in finding enough of it.

FDA officials said the move is designed to limit antibiotic-resistant diseases in humans as antibiotic resistance has become a growing public health problem. Repeated exposure to antibiotics can lead germs to become resistant to the drug so that it is no longer effective in treating a particular illness.

Man signing on stage for Mandela memorial was an imposter, South African deaf federation says

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The sign-language interpreter on stage at Nelson Mandela’s globally broadcast memorial service was a faker who was waving his arms around meaninglessly, advocates for the deaf said Wednesday.

The allegation raised questions of how and why he managed to insert himself into a supposedly secure event attended by scores of heads of state, including United States President Barack Obama.

As one world leader after another took the stage in a gigantic soccer stadium to pay homage to Mandela, the man at arm’s reach from them appeared to interpret for the deaf at the hours’ long memorial so the world’s deaf population could understand the historic event.

The allegation of the use of a bogus sign interpreter was yet another example of bad organization at the service Tuesday. Other problems included breakdowns in public transportation that hindered mourners from getting to the soccer stadium and a faulty audio system made the remarks of world leaders inaudible for many. Police also failed to search the first wave of crowds who rushed inside the stadium after authorities opened the gates just after dawn.

The unidentified man, who stood about one yard (one meter) from Obama and other leaders, “was moving his hands around but there was no meaning in what he used his hands for,” Bruno Druchen, the deaf federation’s national director, told The Associated Press.

A year after Newtown, gun control advocates still have hopes for new laws, despite inaction

NEWTOWN, Conn. (AP) — Having already lost her 6-year-old son, Nicole Hockley insists she won’t lose the fight to reduce gun violence — no matter how long it takes.

She is among a group of “accidental activist” parents brought together one year ago by almost unthinkable grief after the Newtown school massacre. The shootings were so horrific that many predicted they would force Congress to approve long-stalled legislation to tighten the nation’s gun laws.

They did not.

A divided Congress denied President Barack Obama’s calls for changes. The national gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, is arguably stronger than ever. And surveys suggest that support for new gun laws is slipping as the Newtown memory fades.

A new Associated Press-GfK poll finds that that 52 percent of Americans favor stricter gun laws, while 31 percent want them left as they are and 15 percent say they should be loosened. But the strength of the support for tighter controls has dropped since January, when 58 percent said gun laws should be tightened and just 5 percent felt they were too strong.

India’s top court says law criminalizing homosexuality to stand, dealing blow to gay activists

NEW DELHI (AP) — India’s Supreme Court struck down a 2009 lower court decision to decriminalize homosexual conduct, dealing a blow Wednesday to gay activists who have fought for years for the chance to live openly in India’s deeply conservative society.

The judges said only lawmakers and not the courts could change a colonial-era law that bans homosexual acts and makes them punishable by up to a decade in prison.

The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community across India reacted to the surprise decision with defiance.

“We cannot be forced back into the closet. We are not backing off from our fight against discrimination,” said Gautam Bhan, an activist who had petitioned the court.

After the ruling, dozens of activists outside the court began crying and hugging each other in consolation.

Nigerian who survived 3 days in sunken boat almost missed diver who eventually rescued him

WARRI, Nigeria (AP) — He had survived three days in an upside down tugboat at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and then he saw lights in the water. Air bubbles rose around the cook as he squatted in an air pocket. A diver was coming. Rescue seemed imminent for Harrison Odjegba Okene.

But then the lights disappeared. Desperate, Okene swam through pitch-dark waters in the sunken boat to grab the diver. Okene couldn’t find him and, with the air in his lungs giving out, he swam back to the cabin that held his precious, but dwindling, pocket of air.

In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, Okene described the ordeal and his miraculous rescue that was videotaped and which went viral after it was put on the Internet this month.

The 29-year-old still has nightmares and vows to never return to the sea again. He has taken a new job as cook on firm ground instead.

Okene was the only survivor in a crew of 12 when the boat capsized in May. It still haunts him. In addition with being saddled with survivors’ guilt, some Nigerians believe he saved himself through black magic.