Wednesday, March 31, 2010

UN Haiti Donor Pledges Surpass Targets To Reach $5.3 Billion

The amount - to be spread out over the next two years - exceeds the $4bn requested by the Haitian government to rebuild infrastructure. In total, donors pledged $9.9 billion for the next three years and beyond, UN chief Ban Ki-moon said in New York.

"This is the down-payment Haiti needs for wholesale national renewal," Mr Ban said.

The aim of the conference was to help the country "build back better" after the 12 January earthquake killed 200,000 people and left one million more homeless. The biggest contributions came from the United States and the 27-member European Union. The question on many minds is oversight and accountability. Also will this be enough to help the 'wayward child' of the Caribbean?

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Iranian Scientists Defects To US

An Iranian nuclear scientist who has been missing since June has defected to the US, according to a US media report. ABC News is reporting that Shahram Amiri had been resettled in the US and was helping the CIA in its efforts to block Iran's nuclear program.

Mr Amiri disappeared in Saudi Arabia while on a Muslim pilgrimage.

Iran accused the US of abducting him but Washington denied any knowledge of the scientist. The CIA has declined to comment on the latest report.

Mr Amiri worked as a researcher at Tehran's Malek Ashtar University, according to Iran's state-run Press TV channel.

However, some reports said he had also been employed by Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, and had wanted to seek asylum abroad.

CIA operation? The US and its Western allies suspect Iran of secretly developing nuclear weapons - a claim denied by Tehran. According to ABC, the scientist has been extensively debriefed, and has helped to confirm US intelligence assessments about the Iranian nuclear program.

His defection was apparently the result of a wider operation, under which the US has been approaching Iranian scientists, sometimes through relatives living in America, to try to persuade them to defect.

By making this defection public, it appears the Americans are putting more psychological pressure on the Iranian authorities, says the BBC's Tehran correspondent Jon Leyne, who is in London.

Iran's nuclear program is the subject of extensive intelligence work in the West with the aims of gathering information on it, preventing Iran buying equipment for it and, reportedly, sabotaging the program by selling Iran defective parts on the black market, our correspondent says.

Quite how important Mr Amiri is, or what information he can provide, has not emerged, our correspondent adds.

US Navy Aircraft Goes Down In Arabian Sea

A US Navy plane with four crew members on board has crashed into the Arabian Sea, the US Fifth Fleet said.

It said in a statement that the E-2C Hawkeye aircraft experienced mechanical malfunctions, forcing the crew to perform a controlled bail-out. Three of the four crew were later recovered and a search is now under way for the fourth crew member.

An investigation has been launched into the incident. The crew was stationed on the USS Dwight D Eisenhower. The aircraft had crashed into the sea at about 1400 local time (1000 GMT) on Wednesday, the statement said.

It said the plane "was returning from conducting operations in support of Operation Enduring Freedom" in Afghanistan when the problems had occurred.

The identities of the crew are being withheld pending notification of next-of-kin.

Obama Eases Offshore Drilling Ban

Oil firms could be given the chance to explore for reserves off the US coast for the first time in decades, under plans outlined by President Obama.

The White House says drilling will be allowed off Virginia and considered off much of the rest of the Atlantic coast. The plans would overturn moratoriums on exploration put in place in the 1980s. Analysts say the move, designed to cut dependency on foreign oil, is aimed at appeasing Republicans to help pass Mr Obama's climate-change proposals.

The Democrat-backed climate change bill, which calls for binding emissions' limits, has been languishing in Congress for months amid Republican opposition.

But Republicans have opposed much of Obama's domestic agenda, and were quick to dismiss his oil drilling plans. John Boehner, Republican leader in the House of Representatives, welcomed the end of the moratorium in the east, but said keeping the ban on other areas "makes no sense".

Environmental campaigners also denounced the plans, with Greenpeace saying it added to the US "addiction to oil".

Seniors Fear Health Reform Will Hurt Medicare

Seniors aren't breaking out the champagne for President Obama's health care law, and for good reason.

While Democrats hail the overhaul as their greatest health care achievement since Medicare, seniors fear it's a raid on that same giant health care program - a bedrock of retirement security - in order to pay for covering younger, uninsured workers and their families.

There's no doubt that broad cuts in projected Medicare payments to insurance plans, hospitals, nursing homes and other service providers will sting. What hasn't sunk in yet is that the new law also improves the lot of many Medicare beneficiaries. Obama is hoping that most will eventually conclude the plusses outweigh the minuses.

Keenly aware that this is a congressional election year, Democrats structured the law so virtually all the cuts start next year and take effect only gradually. For this year, the law provides a sweetener. More than 3 million seniors who have been falling into a Medicare prescription coverage gap will get a $250 rebate, a down payment on closing the "doughnut hole."

Nonetheless, seniors are anxious.

It's going to take a while before the verdict is in. Change will come slowly to Medicare, which covers 46 million seniors and disabled people. There will be winners and losers:

  • Gross cuts in projected payments to insurers, hospitals and other providers total $533 billion over 10 years, according to a preliminary analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation. About $100 billion will be plowed back into Medicare, leaving a net cut of $428 billion. Medicare spending will continue to grow under the law, just not as fast. The reductions are smaller (about 6 percent) than Democratic President Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress came up with in 1997 (12 percent). Still, they're deep enough that some experts believe a future Congress will reconsider them.
  • The law strengthens traditional Medicare, which covers about three-fourths of seniors, by improving preventive care and increasing payments to frontline primary care doctors and nurses serving as medical coordinators. But it gradually reduces generous government subsidies to private insurance plans, Medicare alternatives that have lately gained popularity. That could lead to an exodus from the private plans.
  • The most significant new benefit - closing Medicare's prescription coverage gap -- won't be fully phased in until 2020. That's a long time if you're old and frail. The coverage gap starts after the first $2,830 spent on medications in a year. Seniors then pay entirely out of their pocket until they have spent $4,550, when the government starts picking up 95 percent of the tab. After the rebate this year, seniors in the gap will get a 50 percent discount on brand name drugs in 2011, and a smaller break on generics. The discounts gradually ramp up until the "doughnut hole" is closed.
  • One change has received little attention but could have major consequences. The law authorizes a variety of experiments to provide better care for seniors struggling with multiple chronic illnesses - about half the program's beneficiaries. Prominent voices in the medical community have been clamoring for the government to use Medicare as a laboratory for change. If the approach succeeds, fewer people may end up in the hospital for bad drug reactions and other common problems.

Many seniors in private insurance plans under Medicare Advantage will face higher premiums and reduced benefits as subsidies are scaled back over three to six years to bring the private plans' costs in line with those of traditional Medicare.

"Beneficiaries will notice that, and they're going to be unhappy because it's a takeaway," said Moon, who directs the health care program at the American Institutes for Research.

Government payments to the private plans - about 10 percent richer than per-person spending for traditional Medicare - have enabled them to offer comprehensive coverage for less. Seniors flocked to sign up, boosting enrollment to about one quarter of all Medicare beneficiaries.

The same cuts will benefit seniors in traditional Medicare, who have been paying higher monthly premiums to support the government's generosity. There's also a potential silver lining for private plans. The law allows them to earn bonus payments for high quality.

Such nuances got lost in an emotional debate that veered off into "death panels" and "pulling the plug on grandma." Nothing that drastic was ever in the bill. Still, Republicans accuse Obama of slashing Medicare, and polls show the message has stuck.

An Associated Press-GfK survey in March found that 54 percent of seniors opposed the legislation then taking final shape in Congress, compared with 36 percent of people age 18-50.

AARP and other major organizations representing seniors supported the law, despite the polls. Now they're planning a sustained outreach campaign to call attention to the legislation's benefits. It might not be an easy sale.

Explosion Levels Northern Kentucky Home

A huge explosion leveled a home in northern Kentucky on Wednesday, firefighters said. A dispatcher said the Fort Wright home exploded and caught fire just before 10 a.m., Cincinnati TV station WLWT reported.

No injuries were reported. Images from the scene show some walls were blown out and the roof collapsed after the blast. The home's owner told WLWT the house had been vacant for some time and that she had recently taken a deposit check from prospective renters. The owner said the house is insured.

Firefighters said they were leaning toward a gas leak as the cause of the blast. Gas and electric services were still turned on at the home.

UN; ABC News; USN/US DoD; AP; WLWT-TV, Cincinnati.

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