Wednesday, 26 February 2014 00:56 Published in National News
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Pressing for a final rush of health care enrollees, President Barack Obama said Tuesday that about 4 million people have signed up for health insurance through federal or state marketplaces set up under his health care law.
But with a key deadline approaching fast, he urged some of his most steadfast backers to help sign up millions more by then.
"We've only got a few weeks left. March 31st, that's the last call," Obama said, explaining that anyone not signed up by that date will have to wait until open enrollment begins anew in the fall. In the meantime, they risk being fined for not having coverage.
The White House has set an unofficial goal of 7 million enrollees by the end of March.
Nearly 3.3 million people, or less than half the total, had enrolled through the end of January.
Enrollment was slowed at the start of the sign-up period last October by numerous glitches in the health care website the administration created to help people find coverage. Some states running their own websites encountered problems, too.
Obama blamed the depressed enrollment on the bungled website and on an "implacable opposition" that he said has spent hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars to oppose the signature domestic policy accomplishment of his presidency.
The president promised a "big push these last few weeks" to sign people up. Already, he and first lady Michelle Obama have talked up the health care law in interviews with radio and TV stations that reach largely black and Latino audiences. Vice President Joe Biden appeared Tuesday on "The View" to encourage its largely female viewership to help get people to buy coverage.
"If they want health insurance now, they need to sign up now," Obama said.
Besides the 4 million enrollees, Obama said millions more Americans were benefiting from the health care law's expansion of Medicaid as well as a provision that allows young people to stay on their parents' plans until they turned 26.
Signing up enough people, particularly those who are young and healthy, is critical for the insurance pool at the heart of the law to function properly by keeping premiums low for everyone.
Obama spoke to more than 300 activists at an Organizing for America summit at a Washington hotel. He later delivered a shortened version of his remarks to about 60 supporters at a by-invitation-only dinner in a nearby room.
Organizing for Action is an advocacy group founded by former Obama campaign aides and supporters.
Obama also sought his supporters' help to pressure Congress to raise the federal minimum wage for all workers. The president noted his recent action to raise the hourly minimum to $10.10 an hour for people working on federal contracts. But that will make a difference for just a few hundred thousand workers and not until the government awards new contracts or existing ones are renewed.
Obama said a majority of Americans of all political persuasions support a higher minimum wage.
"Let's get that minimum wage done and give America a raise," he said.
Two hours before the president spoke, his former Republican presidential rival, Mitt Romney, was seen in the hotel lobby. A Romney adviser said the former Massachusetts governor was in Washington to deliver a speech and was staying at the hotel by coincidence.
Wednesday, 26 February 2014 00:30 Published in Local News
BONNE TERRE, Mo. (AP) — A Missouri inmate was executed early Wednesday for abducting, raping and killing a Kansas City teenager as she waited for her school bus in 1989, marking the state's fourth lethal injection in as many months.
Michael Taylor, 47, was pronounced dead shortly after midnight. Federal courts and the governor had refused last-minute appeals from his attorneys, who argued that the execution drug purchased from a compounding pharmacy could have caused Taylor inhuman pain and suffering.
Taylor offered no final statement. He mouthed silent words to his parents, two clergymen and two other relatives who witnessed his death. As the process began, he took two deep breaths before closing his eyes for the last time. There were no obvious signs of distress.
His victim, 15-year-old Ann Harrison, was in her driveway — carrying her school books, flute and purse — when she was abducted by Taylor and Roderick Nunley. The men pulled her into their stolen car, took her to a home, then raped and fatally stabbed the girl as she pleaded for her life.
Nunley also was sentenced to death and is awaiting execution.
In their appeals, Taylor's attorneys questioned Missouri's use of an unnamed compounding pharmacy to provide the execution drug, pentobarbital. They also cited concerns about the state executing inmates before appeals were complete and argued that Taylor's original trial attorney was so overworked that she encouraged him to plead guilty.
After using a three-drug execution method for years, Missouri switched late last year to pentobarbital. The same drug was used in three previous Missouri executions, and state officials said none of the inmates showed outward signs of distress.
Still, attorneys for Taylor said using a drug from a compounding pharmacy, which unlike large pharmaceutical companies are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, runs the risk of causing pain and suffering during the execution process.
The Oklahoma-based compounding pharmacy Apothecary Shoppe agreed last week that it wouldn't supply the pentobarbital for Taylor's execution, which left Missouri to find a new supplier. But Attorney General Chris Koster's office disclosed that a new provider had been found. Koster refused to name the pharmacy, citing the state's execution protocol that allows for the manufacturer to remain anonymous.
Taylor's attorneys said use of the drug without naming the compounding pharmacy could cause the inmate pain and suffering because no one could check if the operation was legitimate and had not been accused of any violations.
Pete Edlund doesn't want to hear it. The retired Kansas City police detective led the investigation into the teenager's death.
"Cruel and unusual punishment would be if we killed them the same way they killed Annie Harrison," Edlund said. "Get a damn rope, string them up, put them in the gas chamber. Whatever it takes."
Ann stepped out of her home the morning of March 22, 1989, to wait in her driveway for her school bus.
Authorities said Nunley and Taylor, then in their early 20s, drove past in a car they had stolen after a night of binging on crack cocaine. One of the men jumped out of the car and grabbed Ann, forcing her into the vehicle. Both claimed the other did it.
The men drove to the home of Nunley's mother. Ann was forced into the basement and raped — DNA testing linked Taylor to the crime. Afraid she would be able to identify them, the men used kitchen knives to stab the girl 10 times, including in her throat and torso, as she begged for her life.
She offered money if they would let her live. She died about 30 minutes later, according to the medical examiner.
The stolen car was then driven to a nearby neighborhood and abandoned, with Ann's body in the trunk. She was found the next day. But the crime went unsolved for about six months until a $10,000 reward led to a tip, and Taylor and Nunley were both arrested, Edlund said. Both pleaded guilty and were sentenced to death.
The case left even veteran officers traumatized, Edlund said.
"She just turned 15," the retired detective said. "It was a tragedy all the way around. This was an innocent child."
Tuesday, 25 February 2014 03:35 Published in National News
WASHINGTON (AP) — Even the scoreboards in high school gyms eventually will have to promote good health.
Moving beyond the lunch line, new rules that will be proposed Tuesday by the White House and the Agriculture Department would limit marketing of unhealthy foods in schools. They would phase out the advertising of sugary drinks and junk foods around campuses during the school day and ensure that other promotions in schools were in line with health standards that already apply to school foods.
That means a scoreboard at a high school football or basketball game eventually wouldn't be allowed to advertise Coca-Cola, for example, but it could advertise Diet Coke or Dasani water, which is also owned by Coca-Cola Co. Same with the front of a vending machine. Cups, posters and menu boards advertise foods that don't meet the standards would also be phased out.
Ninety percent of such marketing in schools is related to beverages, and many soda companies already have started to transition their sales and advertising in schools from sugary sodas and sports drinks to their own healthier products.
The proposed rules are part of first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move initiative to combat child obesity, which is celebrating its fourth anniversary this week. Mrs. Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will announce the new rules at a White House event.
"When parents are working hard at home, they need to rest assured that those efforts aren't being undone when kids are out of their control at school," Sam Kass, White House senior nutrition policy adviser, said ahead of the announcement.
The rules also would allow more children access to free lunches and ensure that schools have wellness policies in place.
The proposed rules come on the heels of USDA regulations that are now requiring foods in the school lunch line to be healthier.
Rules set to go into effect next school year will make other foods around school healthier as well, including in vending machines and separate "a la carte" lines in the lunch room. Calorie, fat, sugar and sodium limits will have to be met on almost every food and beverage sold during the school day at 100,000 schools. Concessions sold at afterschool sports games would be exempt.
The healthier food rules have come under fire from conservatives who think the government shouldn't dictate what kids eat — and from some students who don't like the healthier foods.
Aware of the backlash, the USDA is allowing schools to make some of their own decisions on what constitutes marketing and asking for comments on some options. For example, the proposal asks for comments on initiatives like Pizza Hut's "Book It" program, which coordinates with schools to reward kids with pizza for reading.
Rules for other school fundraisers, like bake sales and marketing for those events, would be left up to schools or states.
Off-campus fundraisers, like an event at a local fast-food outlet that benefits a school, still would be permitted. But posters advertising the fast food may not be allowed in school hallways. An email to parents — with or without the advertising — would have to suffice. The idea is to market to the parents, not the kids.
The rule also makes allowances for major infrastructure costs — that scoreboard advertising Coca-Cola, for example, wouldn't have to be immediately replaced. But the school would eventually have to get a new one with a healthier message.
The beverage industry — led by companies Coca-Cola Co., Dr Pepper Snapple Group and PepsiCo — is on board with the move. American Beverage Association President and CEO Susan Neely said in a statement that aligning signage with the healthier drinks that will be offered in schools is the "logical next step."
"Mrs. Obama's efforts to continue to strengthen school wellness make sense for the well-being of our schoolchildren," Neely said.
Although Mrs. Obama lobbied Congress to pass the school nutrition bill in 2010, most of her efforts in recent years have been focused on the private sector, building partnerships with food companies and retailers to sell healthier foods.
The child nutrition law also expanded feeding programs for hungry students. The rules being proposed Tuesday would increase that even further by allowing the highest-poverty schools to serve lunch and breakfast to all students for free. According to the USDA and the White House, that initiative would allow 9 million children in 22,000 schools to receive free lunches.
The USDA has already tested the program, which is designed to increase participation for students and reduce paperwork and applications for schools, in 11 states.
In addition, the Obama administration will announce new guidelines for school wellness policies. Schools have been required to have general wellness policies that set their own general standards for foods, physical activity and other wellness activities since 2004. But the new rules would require parents and others in the school community to be involved in those decisions.