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President Obama has announced plans to deliver an address on healthcare reform before a joint session of Congress next Wednesday. The news comes amidst reports the White House has privately revived a plan that would "trigger" a public option only if private insurers failed to provide suitable care and adequate competition. The proposal has reportedly been discussed as a so-called "compromise" in talks with Republican Senator Olympia Snowe. Progressive Democrats have vowed to oppose any healthcare reform bill that doesn’t establish a public option. Congress member Raul Grijalva, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said, "Without a robust public option, reform will enrich pharmaceutical and insurance companies because it will lack any significant competition and incentives to drive down health care costs for consumers."
In other healthcare news, a new study shows the top private health insurers in California rejected more than one in five medical claims over the last seven years. The California Nurses Association and National Nurses Organizing Committee says California’s six largest insurers rejected over 31.2 million, or 21 percent, of claims from 2002 through this past June. The groups’ co-president Deborah Burger said, "The United States remains the only country in the industrialized world where human lives are sacrificed for private profit, a national disgrace that seems on the verge of perpetuation."
More details have emerged on the lurid allegations surrounding the private military firm hired to guard the US embassy in Afghanistan. The firm, ArmorGroup America, has come under scrutiny after twelve guards came forward describing unauthorized armed missions in Kabul, security lapses and lewd behavior. On Wednesday, one of the guards said employees were forced to perform "deviant sexual acts" in order to gain promotions. The guard said company managers were not only aware of the acts but encouraged them. Danielle Brian of the Project on Government Oversight said employees were punished for not taking part.
Danielle Brian: "This involves supervisors. It’s not just a bunch of guys who are blowing off steam. It’s supervisors who are really sort of predatory, who are engaging young recruits into this really weird, deviant behavior. And if they refuse or complain about later, they’re retaliating against them. So it’s way more than just a party."
The State Department says it’s investigating ArmorGroup’s $189 million annual contract.
In Iraq, family members of the imprisoned journalist Ibrahim Jassam marked the one-year anniversary of his jailing Wednesday. On September 2, 2008, US and Iraqi forces raided Jassam’s home outside Baghdad. The US has held Jassam without charge despite an Iraqi court order for his release. Jassam’s brother, Qaiss, said Ibrahim was deliberately targeted for being a journalist.
Qaiss Jassam: "Even if he spent a year in prison, he will eventually be released. I tell you, Ibrahim has been arrested because of his job as a journalist. He has no enemies, and no one had filed a complaint against him. He has been arrested because he is a journalist."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to hold talks with ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in Washington today. On the eve of the meeting, Zelaya renewed his call for the US to block more aid to Honduras and freeze the assets of those involved in his overthrow. Clinton has yet to issue a decision on a State Department advisory that Zelaya’s ouster be officially declared a "military coup." The move would force the Obama administration to cut off as much as $150 million in funding to Honduras.
In Colombia, lawmakers have approved a bill to hold a national referendum on removing presidential term limits. The measure was introduced to pave the way for Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s expect bid run for a third term. Opposition lawmaker Orsinia Polanco criticized the vote.
Orsinia Polanco: "With this approval and the approval of the Colombian people, it would indefinitely perpetuate the power of a single person, and it would become a dictatorship in this country."
The Brazilian government is claiming deforestation in the Amazon forest is at its lowest level in more than two decades. Brazilian Environment Minister Carlos Minc said the decline was as much as 65 percent.
Brazilian Environment Minister Carlos Minc: "This year there was a 46 percent reduction in deforestation in relation to the previous year. According to the Amazon Research Institute, there was a 65 percent fall. This is still unsatisfactory. Deforestation rates are still very high, but this year we will have the smallest deforestation rate of the past twenty-one years."
In Sri Lanka, video footage has emerged reportedly showing Sri Lankan soldiers summarily executing Tamil rebels. The footage was supplied by a Sri Lankan advocacy group but hasn’t been independently verified. It reportedly shows Sri Lankan soldiers killing unarmed, naked and blindfolded Tamils during clashes earlier this year. Sri Lanka has dismissed the videos as a forgery. The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, said the videos could be taken up at the Security Council.
UN Ambassador Susan Rice: "These reports are very disturbing. They are of grave concern. We’d like more information as we formulate our own national response. And to date, going back now to council president, I’m not aware of a council member proposing that this be discussed on the council agenda, but obviously these reports are very fresh, and that could change."
The United Nations is calling for a massive influx of aid to fund the development of renewable energy sources in poorer countries. The UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs says developing nations will need between $500 billion and $600 billion annually to drop their reliance on the dirty fuels that cause global warming. The agency’s director, Rob Vos, said the proposal should figure in global talks ahead of the major climate summit in Copenhagen later this year.
Rob Vos: "What we are arguing in the report is that it is possible to promote development while saving the planet, but it will need enormous adjustments in the global economy and in turn will require a change in the mindset of the policymakers and their constituencies worldwide. And hopefully that change of mindset will be the thing that will drive us to seal a good deal in Copenhagen."
Back in the United States, a new survey has found the federal government is poised for a large hiring spree over the next four years. The Partnership for Public Service says federal agencies need to hire more than 270,000 so-called "mission critical" workers by 2012 to deal with a wave of expected retirements from baby-boom workers. Overall, the survey says the government will need to hire 600,000 new workers by the end of President Obama’s term.
The internal watchdog of the Securities and Exchange Commission has issued a detailed look at how regulators repeatedly squandered opportunities to uncover the massive $65 billion Ponzi scheme of the jailed financier Bernie Madoff. On Wednesday, the SEC’s Inspector General issued a report describing five separate investigations into Madoff dating back to 1992. All of them went nowhere despite glaring warning signs, including one instance where Madoff was caught making false statements. Investigators chose to believe Madoff’s assurances instead of following up. The report also reveals Madoff once claimed to have even been in line to head the SEC. In 2005, Madoff boasted to investigators he "was on the short list" to become the next SEC chair. He also successfully predicted that the now disgraced former SEC chair Christopher Cox would get the nod weeks before it was publicly announced. Madoff pleaded guilty for the Ponzi scheme in March and began serving a 150-year sentence in July.
The pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has agreed to a $2.3 billion fine as part of a settlement on allegations it improperly marketed thirteen of its brand-name drugs. It was Pfizer’s fourth such settlement since 2002 and the largest-ever criminal fine of any kind. Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General Dan Levinson said Pfizer will be forced to disclose drug risks as well as its payments to doctors to promote the drugs.
Dan Levinson: "Pfizer will be under an obligation to proactively identify potential risks associated with the promotion of individual products and actually implement plans to mitigate risks, so we have both internal and external compliance requirements, as well as a very robust plan, going forward, to avoid this kind of conduct from happening again."
Despite the record-setting amount, the $2.3 billion charge amounts to less than three weeks of Pfizer’s sales.
And in California, the outbreak of massive wildfires has now burned through more than 140,000 acres of land. More than 10,000 homes have been evacuated since the fire broke out last week. Firefighters say the fire is now 28 percent contained.