Thursday, October 07, 2010

Condoms Blocking Toilets at Commonwealth Games?

President of Games Says Latest Fiasco "Is a Very Positive Story that Athletes Are Being Responsible"

  • (CBS/ AP)  Mike Fennell has had to endure lengthy grilling over poor attendance, food quality, the state of venues and transportation problems at these Commonwealth Games.

    On Thursday, the president of the Commonwealth Games Federation had a question of a different sort. And he handled it with aplomb.

    Asked whether he could respond to newspaper reports that used condoms were blocking toilets at the athletes village, Fennell said: "I think that is a very positive story that athletes are being responsible."

    He said that the issue had been controversial in the past "but promoting safe sex is a very responsible thing to do."

    The stopped-up toilet fiasco is just the latest setback for trouble-plagued organizers in New Delhi.

    British media reported Thursday that 20 percent of the England team's swimmers - about eight to 10 competitors - had been struck down with a stomach virus. The Australian team confirmed at least six of its swimmers had been sick, including Andrew Lauterstein, who had to withdraw from the 50-meter butterfly.

    Organizers rejected speculation that the water quality at the aquatics complex was to blame.

    Craig Hunter, the head of England's delegation, issued a statement saying he had received assurances from the games' organizing committee that water was safe. The England team said only 8 percent of its 541-member delegation had experienced any kind of stomach virus in the previous 28 days, which was lower than expected. That's 43 people from one team in a month.

    Whether it was the water or just a case of "Delhi Belly," which isn't uncommon for visitors to India, it was yet another problem to plague an event that has been seen construction delays, pre-games complaints about filthy conditions in the athletes' village, allegations of corruption and concerns about security and outbreaks of mosquito-borne dengue fever.

    In another development, police confirmed Thursday that three Ugandan officials were injured by a malfunctioning security barrier at the games' village, and a senior official from that country raised allegations of discrimination by Indian officials.

    Late Thursday, a scoreboard crashed to the ground when a chain support snapped at the rugby venue, where competition does not begin until next week.

    The games, which run until Oct. 14, have also been plagued this week by sparse attendance at many events. Organizing committee chief Suresh Kalmadi said 125,000 tickets had been sold Wednesday for future events, allaying concerns about the empty seats at some of the venues.

Federal judge upholds health care law

A federal judge in Michigan has upheld as Constitutional a provision in the health care reform bill requiring uninsured individuals to purchase insurance.
U.S. District Court Judge George Steeh ruled Thursday that the so-called individual mandate — a requirement President Barack Obama opposed during the presidential campaign but later embraced as part of sweeping changes — falls squarely within Congress’s ability under the Constitution to regulate interstate commerce.
“The decision whether to purchase insurance or to attempt to pay for health care out of pocket is plainly economic,” Steeh wrote in a 20-page opinion. “These decisions, viewed in the aggregate, have clear and direct impacts on health care providers, taxpayers and the insured population, who ultimately pay for the care provided to those who go without insurance.”
Steeh’s ruling represents a major legal victory for the Justice Department since the decision rejects the central legal argument against the landmark health care reform bill Obama signed in March and a provision that has become a focus of popular anger on the right.

The decision stemmed from a lawsuit brought by a Christian legal group, the Thomas More Law Center, and four individuals who objected to a provision in the law that imposes a penalty on those who fail to buy or otherwise obtain health insurance. The judge rejected their arguments that Congress has no authority to regulate those who opt out of the medical insurance market.

“The health care market is unlike other markets. No one can guarantee his or her health or ensure that he or she will never participate in the health care market. Indeed, the opposite is nearly always true,” wrote Steeh, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton. “Far from ‘inactivity,’ by choosing to forgo insurance, plaintiffs are making an economic decision to try to pay for health care services later, out of pocket, rather than now through the purchase of insurance.”
Opponents of the health law say Congress doesn’t have the authority to regulate the purchase of insurance — let alone the act of not purchasing insurance. Steeh agreed with the government’s contention that the clause covers “economic decisions” and not just “economic activity.”

The administration argued that if the Commerce Clause isn’t enough, the law is sound because it relies on Congress’ power to tax — an argument that ruffled Republicans who say that the “tax” would be a violation of President Barack Obama’s promise not to tax people earning less than $250,000 per year.

"This ruling marks the first time a court has considered the merits of any challenge to this law, and we welcome the court's decision upholding the health care reform statute as constitutional,” a Justice Department spokesperson said. “The court found that the minimum coverage provision of the statute was a reasonable means for Congress to take in reforming our health care system. The department will continue to vigorously defend this law in ongoing litigation."

However, the government’s legal position may not fare as well in two other major lawsuits pending in other federal courts challenging the individual mandate.
In August, a federal judge in Virginia refused to dismiss a lawsuit the state brought against the legislation that critics deride as Obamacare. That judge said the legal questions in the case were too close to dismiss at an early stage.
Another suit, brought by 20 states and a small-business group, is pending in Florida. No ruling has been issued yet, but after arguments last month, many observers said the judge seemed receptive to arguments that the health care reform law is unconstitutional.

A lawyer for the Thomas More Center, Rob Muise, said Steeh’s decision will be appealed. If an appeal goes forward immediately, it’s possible the Michigan case will be the first health reform challenge to reach an appellate court, in this instance the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

“This thing is set up quite nicely, actually, for an appeal,” Muise told POLITICO.
Muise said Steeh’s decision is wrong, in part, because it would open almost any decision of private individuals to federal control.
“The trouble, if you think about it, is if Congress has authority to regulate nonactivity then it has the ability to regulate anything,” Muise said. Congress can “tell you to exercise three times a week, to take certain vitamins, to refrain from eating certain foods because, at some point, costs are going to be incurred to the health care market. I find that very troubling when we have a federal government that’s supposed to be of limited, enumerated powers,” he said.

A separate part of the Michigan suit relating to abortion funding in the new health care scheme has yet to be ruled upon by Steeh. The plaintiffs are arguing that the mechanism the legislation uses to finance abortion coverage violates their rights to religious freedom.
Jennifer Haberkorn POLITICO


30 Companies, Other Groups Escape New Health Care Rule for Now

The federal government has granted 30 companies and organizations one-year waivers to exempt them from one of the newly-implemented health care reforms.

A set of consumer protections enacted in President Obama's health care overhaul kicked in last month, including a requirement for insurers to gradually phase out annual coverage limits. The waivers granted last month exempt the organizations in question from that requirement; they were approved for organizations offering limited-benefit plans, such as Jack in the Box and the United Federation of Teachers Welfare Fund (a New York-based union health care provider). The 30 entities granted waivers are listed here and listed below.

The waivers were granted after insurers threatened to raise premiums dramatically or drop the limited-benefit plans all together rather than pay for the additional coverage. The exemptions apply to insurance plans for nearly a million people. Limited-benefit plans are often used to cover part-time or low-wage employees, and they often have low premiums and high deductibles. The Department of Health and Human Services opted to grant those entities waivers rather than allow consumers to lose coverage or see their premiums rise.

"The waivers are about insuring people and protecting the coverage they have until there are better options available to them in 2014," White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs said today.

The bulk of the new health care reforms will go into effect in 2014. At that point, some large employers that drop coverage for their workers will be subject to a fee. Consumers will also have the option of using new state-based health care exchanges to access the individual health care market.

By 2014, insurers will be completely barred from limiting annual benefits. The new regulations are being phased in until then: companies without waivers will have to provide a minimum of $750,000 in coverage next year, $1.25 million in coverage in 2012, and $2 million in 2013.

"HHS is to committed strengthening employer-based coverage for employees and retirees, while building a bridge to a new competitive marketplace in 2014," HHS spokesperson Jessica Santillo said.

The waiver granted to the United Federation of Teachers Welfare Fund will have the biggest impact in terms of numbers, applying to 351,000 enrollees of the Fund's supplemental insurance plan. McDonald's insurance carrier, BCS Insurance, received a waiver to cover 115,000 enrollees.

Gibbs said today that the White House does not perceive the need to grant the waivers as a flaw of the new health care reforms.

"This is about implementing a bill correctly," he said, to ensure that "as reform ramps up, we protect consumers and don't put them at the mercy of health insurance companies."

Below are the 30 entities that received waivers, along with the number of enrollees impacted:
  1. Fowler Packing Co. (39)
  2. Baptist Retirement (127)
  3. BCS Insurance (115,000)
  4. Local 17 Hospitality Benefit Fund (881)
  5. Greater Metropolitan Hotel (1200)
  6. UFT Welfare Fund (351,000)
  7. Aegis (162)
  8. Maritime Association (500)
  9. Aetna  (209,423)
  10. UABT (17,347)
  11. Reliance Standard (varies)
  12. QK/DRD (Denny's) (65)
  13. Guy C. Lee Mfg. (312)
  14. I.U.P.A.T (875)
  15. HealthPort (608)
  16. Jack in the Box (1,130)
  17. Allflex  (34)
  18. Transport Workers (107)
  19. Tri-Pak (26)
  20. Cryogenic (19)
  21. Metro Paving Fund  (550)
  22. Health Connector (3,544)
  23. Health and Welfare Benefit System (41)
  24. PS-ILA  (8)
  25. PMPS-ILA (15)
  26. Maverick County (1)
  27. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc. (326)
  28. GS-ILA  (298)
  29. Allied (127)
  30. CIGNA (265,000)


Plouffe: For GOP, anything short of sweep would be 'colossal failure'

Trying to reshape expectations for the midterm elections, David Plouffe said Thursday that the Republicans should be expected to make a full sweep of Congress - and key gubernatorial races - given the environmental advantages they have. Anything less, he said, should be seen as a disgrace.

"By their definition, success is winning back the House, winning back the Senate and winning every major governor's race," Plouffe, Obama's 2008 campaign manager, said. "When you've got winds this strong in your favor, that's the kind of election you need to have - or it should be considered a colossal failure."

Three weeks out, both parties are in a mad scramble to define what success would look like on Election Day. Although Republicans held a significant lead last month, it has appeared to narrow some, and whichever party winds up controlling Congress might do so by a narrow margin.

 Democrats would like to be considered winners if they merely hang on to the Senate, which some strategists in both parties expect them to do.

Plouffe, speaking to reporters at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, argued that Democrats are turning their trajectory around and are poised, 26 days out, to fare better Nov. 2 than it appeared they would last month.

But he said he expected Democrats to "show progress gradually," in contrast with Republicans who have "maxed out or close to it."

Plouffe, a key Democratic Party strategist, also embraced the tea party surge as a welcome development for the Democrats, calling it the "hijacking of the Republican Party."

French fashion police?

France's plan to ban the burqa and other Islamic face coverings in public places is legal, top constitutional authorities in France ruled Thursday, clearing the final hurdle before the ban becomes law.
In September the French senate approved the law – making France the first European country to nationally impose such a measure. The legislation was overwhelmingly approved by the lower house of parliament in July. It is scheduled to come into effect in the spring.
French people back the ban by a margin of more than four to one, the Pew Global Attitudes Project found in a survey earlier this year.
Some 82 percent of people polled approved of a ban, while 17 percent disapproved. That was the widest support the Washington-based think tank found in any of the five countries it surveyed.

I have more faith in the voters!

Poll: Palin favorability rating at 22%

Fewer than one in four Americans have a favorable view of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a standing that would present a considerable hurdle if she were to jump into the race for president in 2012, according to a CBS News poll.

The poll, released Wednesday night, found that 22 percent of the 1,129 Americans surveyed had a favorable opinion of the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, while 48 percent viewed her unfavorably.

Nearly one in three Americans said they were undecided or not sure about her.

Among those who viewed Palin unfavorably were 73 percent of the Democrats surveyed, 44 percent of independents and 22 percent of the Republicans.
By contrast, 44 percent of Republicans and 6 percent of Democrats had a favorable opinion of her.

The CBS poll came on the heels of another survey that showed that Palin’s endorsement of California Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina may be hurting Fiorina's campaign.

Fifty-three percent of those surveyed in California said they would be less inclined to vote for a candidate endorsed by Palin, while 21 percent said they would be more inclined to do so, according to the Field Poll.

Palin also has endorsed a number of tea party candidates in GOP primaries this year, including Senate hopefuls Christine O’Donnell of Delaware and Sharron Angle of Nevada.
The CBS poll found that Palin had stronger support among fans of the tea party movement. Six in 10 Americans who viewed the tea party movement favorably also had a positive opinion of Palin.
Americans were split on their opinion of the overall tea party movement, with 22 percent viewing it favorably and 21 percent unfavorably. A majority had not yet formed an opinion.

The nationwide CBS telephone survey was conducted from Oct. 1 to Oct. 5 and has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.



Scientists and Soldiers Solve a Bee Mystery
DENVER — It has been one of the great murder mysteries of the garden: what is killing off the honeybees?

Since 2006, 20 to 40 percent of the bee colonies in the United States alone have suffered “colony collapse.” Suspected culprits ranged from pesticides to genetically modified food.
Now, a unique partnership — of military scientists and entomologists — appears to have achieved a major breakthrough: identifying a new suspect, or two.
A fungus tag-teaming with a virus have apparently interacted to cause the problem, according to a paper by Army scientists in Maryland and bee experts in Montana in the online science journal PLoS One.

Exactly how that combination kills bees remains uncertain, the scientists said — a subject for the next round of research. But there are solid clues: both the virus and the fungus proliferate in cool, damp weather, and both do their dirty work in the bee gut, suggesting that insect nutrition is somehow compromised.

Liaisons between the military and academia are nothing new, of course. World War II, perhaps the most profound example, ended in an atomic strike on Japan in 1945 largely on the shoulders of scientist-soldiers in the Manhattan Project. And a group of scientists led by Jerry Bromenshenk of the University of Montana in Missoula has researched bee-related applications for the military in the past — developing, for example, a way to use honeybees in detecting land mines.

But researchers on both sides say that colony collapse may be the first time that the defense machinery of the post-Sept. 11 Homeland Security Department and academia have teamed up to address a problem that both sides say they might never have solved on their own.
“Together we could look at things nobody else was looking at,” said Colin Henderson, an associate professor at the University of Montana’s College of Technology and a member of Dr. Bromenshenk’s “Bee Alert” team.
Human nature and bee nature were interconnected in how the puzzle pieces came together. Two brothers helped foster communication across disciplines. A chance meeting and a saved business card proved pivotal. Even learning how to mash dead bees for analysis — a skill not taught at West Point — became a factor.

One perverse twist of colony collapse that has compounded the difficulty of solving it is that the bees do not just die — they fly off in every direction from the hive, then die alone and dispersed. That makes large numbers of bee autopsies — and yes, entomologists actually do those — problematic.
Dr. Bromenshenk’s team at the University of Montana and Montana State University in Bozeman, working with the Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center northeast of Baltimore, said in their jointly written paper that the virus-fungus one-two punch was found in every killed colony the group studied. Neither agent alone seems able to devastate; together, the research suggests, they are 100 percent fatal.

“It’s chicken and egg in a sense — we don’t know which came first,” Dr. Bromenshenk said of the virus-fungus combo — nor is it clear, he added, whether one malady weakens the bees enough to be finished off by the second, or whether they somehow compound the other’s destructive power. “They’re co-factors, that’s all we can say at the moment,” he said. “They’re both present in all these collapsed colonies.”

Research at the University of California, San Francisco, had already identified the fungus as part of the problem. And several RNA-based viruses had been detected as well. But the Army/Montana team, using a new software system developed by the military for analyzing proteins, uncovered a new DNA-based virus, and established a linkage to the fungus, called N. ceranae.

“Our mission is to have detection capability to protect the people in the field from anything biological,” said Charles H. Wick, a microbiologist at Edgewood. Bees, Dr. Wick said, proved to be a perfect opportunity to see what the Army’s analytic software tool could do. “We brought it to bear on this bee question, which is how we field-tested it,” he said.
The Army software system — an advance itself in the growing field of protein research, or proteomics — is designed to test and identify biological agents in circumstances where commanders might have no idea what sort of threat they face. The system searches out the unique proteins in a sample, then identifies a virus or other microscopic life form based on the proteins it is known to contain. The power of that idea in military or bee defense is immense, researchers say, in that it allows them to use what they already know to find something they did not even know they were looking for.

But it took a family connection — through David Wick, Charles’s brother — to really connect the dots. When colony collapse became news a few years ago, Mr. Wick, a tech entrepreneur who moved to Montana in the 1990s for the outdoor lifestyle, saw a television interview with Dr. Bromenshenk about bees.

Mr. Wick knew of his brother’s work in Maryland, and remembered meeting Dr. Bromenshenk at a business conference. A retained business card and a telephone call put the Army and the Bee Alert team buzzing around the same blossom.

The first steps were awkward, partly because the Army lab was not used to testing bees, or more specifically, to extracting bee proteins. “I’m guessing it was January 2007, a meeting in Bethesda, we got a bag of bees and just started smashing them on the desk,” Charles Wick said. “It was very complicated.”

The process eventually was refined. A mortar and pestle worked better than the desktop, and a coffee grinder worked best of all for making good bee paste.
Scientists in the project emphasize that their conclusions are not the final word. The pattern, they say, seems clear, but more research is needed to determine, for example, how further outbreaks might be prevented, and how much environmental factors like heat, cold or drought might play a role.

They said that combination attacks in nature, like the virus and fungus involved in bee deaths, are quite common, and that one answer in protecting bee colonies might be to focus on the fungus — controllable with antifungal agents — especially when the virus is detected.

Still unsolved is what makes the bees fly off into the wild yonder at the point of death. One theory, Dr. Bromenshenk said, is that the viral-fungal combination disrupts memory or navigating skills and the bees simply get lost. Another possibility, he said, is a kind of insect insanity.

In any event, the university’s bee operation itself proved vulnerable just last year, when nearly every bee disappeared over the course of the winter.