Sunday, December 15, 2013

Critics call for Nevada to close legal loophole for school employee sex offenders

The only class of felony sex offenders in Nevada not required to register in a national database are school employees and volunteers convicted of having sexual relations with their students who are younger than age 18.

"I think the penalty should be more substantial," Clark County Chief Deputy District Attorney Jim Sweetin said. "There should be at least lifetime registration, possibly lifetime supervision."

Those offenders won't always show up on the National Sex Offender Public Registry, because there is no mandatory registration for them required under Nevada law. The age of consent in Nevada is 16. However, the law prohibiting sexual conduct between school employees and students covers students under the age of 18.

Sweetin finds that lack of required registration odd.

class of felony sex offenders in Nevada"It's very strange when you look at some laws. You would have to say that a teacher who is in a classroom with children, and who is committing these crimes, would have to fall into this area," Sweetin said. "A teacher attracted to children, that's somebody you definitely want to tag."

From 1994 to 2005, 16 Nevada teachers and other school employees or volunteers were convicted of sexual offenses against students but were not required to register as sex offenders in the national registry.

Those numbers were reported in a 2011 study done for the local nonprofit advocacy group S.E.S.A.M.E., or Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation.

Those 16 teachers were convicted under Nevada Revised Statutes 201.540 or 201.550, the laws prohibiting sexual conduct between a school employee and a student. But the laws, introduced in 1997, do not require those convicted to register as sex offenders.

"Our children spend the largest portion of their day awake at school. That should be the safest place for them," said Terri Miller, president of S.E.S.A.M.E.

Assembly Bill 265, proposed in the 2013 legislative session, sought to revise the statute to require school employees or volunteers convicted of sexual conduct with a student to register as sex offenders and have lifetime supervision.

The bill was supported by the Clark County School District, the Nevada District Attorneys Association and the Metropolitan Police Department, among others.

The Clark County public defenders office opposed the bill.

"The concern was that it would be a step away from how we typically looked at registration," Clark County public defender Steve Yeager said Thursday.

Yeager, a representative of government affairs for the public defender's office during the Legislature, said many of those convicted under the current law were in consensual relationships with students who were 16 or older.

"Traditionally, in these consensual relationships, laws have said that we won't mandate registration," Yeager said.

The bill never made it to a hearing for a vote in the Legislature. According to Assembly Judiciary Committee Chairman Jason Frierson, D-Las Vegas, there was not enough time for a hearing on the bill.

But the law as it stands is "too narrow in scope," Miller said. "We need to broaden the law or simply raise the age of consent."

In 2007, the Nevada Legislature approved the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, a federal statute passed in 2006 to enhance the punishments of sex offenders.

The Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act is commonly called SORNA. The first section sets stronger guidelines on sex offenses and the punishments that should accompany them.

Since the act was signed into law, the SORNA guidelines have been "substantially implemented" in 17 states, according to the law's federal website.

A SORNA implementation review of Nevada, done in 2011 by the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering and Tracking, requires any sexual conduct between an employee and student to fall under Tier II sex offender registration requirements. Those convicted under that law would have to register as a sex offender for a minimum 25 years.

Registration requires the person to enter information about their conviction in the national sex offender database. Sweetin said supervision requires a person to check in regularly with a probation officer. If a registered offender moves, they must update their address within 48 hours.

The reasoning behind registration and supervision is to identify those offenders "who are problematic with the chance of possibly re-offending," according to Sweetin.

"When a teacher offends against a child, I think that's much more substantial than someone off the street committing the same act," Sweetin said. "My preference would be to protect the community, to put up all of those roadblocks to re-offending that we possibly can."

Without those roadblocks, offenders could find themselves working with children shortly after their conviction.

"If they move from state to state, there's no real structure set up that's going to require those that they come in contact with to know their history," Sweetin said. "If you have someone who has to register, then you take care of that problem."

In many cases, because of issues involving the age of consent in Nevada, uncooperative witnesses, or the victim claiming to be in love with the teacher, the sexual conduct charge is the only tool prosecutors have in their pocket, Sweetin said.

"The statute gives us the ability to go after them, even if (the victims are) 16 or 17," Sweetin said.

By Colton Lochhead,, 702-383-4638, Follow @ColtonLochhead on Twitter

Source: The Las Vegas Review-Journal

Residents file legal claims over actions during the blaze

More than a dozen Yarnell-area residents filed a raft of legal claims on Friday with the Arizona Attorney General's Office seeking damages for loss of property and lost earning potential from the Yarnell Hill Fire and for emotional distress arising from a "cover-up."

Homes burn as the Yarnell Hill Fire burns in Glenn Ilah
Homes burn as the Yarnell Hill Fire burns in Glenn Ilah
In the notices of claim, the residents say that the fire destroyed their homes and other property and much of their community because of the "negligence, carelessness and intentional misconduct" of Yavapai County, Prescott, the state and the Yarnell Fire District.

They argue that with reasonable coordination and planning, firefighting managers could have prevented the area's "obliteration" without endangering the Granite Mountain Hotshots -- 19 of whom died in the June 30 blaze -- or other firefighters battling the blaze.

The notices of claim further charge that fire commanders had a duty to arrange an orderly withdrawal that would have allowed fleeing residents to save heirlooms, mementos and other personal property. That, the notices argue, would have "changed the last-minute, terror-filled, desperate flight for their lives into a calm, orderly and efficient retreat."

The claims seek damages from the state, Yavapai County, Prescott and the Yarnell Fire District. The Fire District handles firefighting in the area. The Arizona State Forestry Division was coordinating the fight against the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30.

Representatives of the county and the Forestry Division did not respond to calls for comment on the claims late Friday. A Prescott city representative declined to comment. Richard Mayer, a member of the Yarnell Fire District board, said that members have a regularly scheduled meeting Dec. 20 and that he did not want to comment until after the meeting.

A spokesman with the state Department of Administration said officials would not comment on active claims.

Craig Knapp, attorney for those who filed the notices, declined to comment. "We're not done, so I can't comment until we're done filing all the claims," he said. He declined to specify how many more will be filed other than that it is "a significant number."

The firefighting managers failed to develop a coherent strategy to fight the fire and protect the surrounding communities and residents, and then they ordered a disjointed evacuation, the residents claim.

"But for blind luck, the pluck of Yarnell's residents and a few fortunate flukes of wind, the firefighting managers would have caused massive deaths," the notices read. Chiefs bungled the effort from start to finish and then "lamely tried to cover up and whitewash their own negligence and intentional wrongdoing," the notices say.

The notices cited the 4-0 vote earlier this month by the Industrial Commission of Arizona to impose $559,000 in penalties against the Arizona Forestry Division for its handling and oversight of the fire.

The notices also underscored the emotional damage residents suffered, describing the hasty evacuation of that day, with burning embers raining down on terrified residents and heat so intense that vehicle tires exploded. "Swirling, choking smoke blanketed Yarnell, blotting out the sun, turning day into night, and making it almost impossible to breathe or to see where to walk or to drive," the notices read.

George DeLange, whose home in nearby Glen Ilah was destroyed, narrowly escaped. He is seeking $750,000 each from Yavapai County, the state, Prescott and the Yarnell Fire District. If those entities agreed to pool their resources, he would accept $750,000 total, according to the notice of claim.

DeLange, a 73-year-old retiree, started the foundation on his new home on Friday. He lost everything in the fire, including original paintings and sculptures, family photographs and heirlooms. The claim won't bring those back, he said, though any money they collect would help with the financial stress he and his family have endured.

"I think the whole thing was mishandled from the very beginning when the fire started," he said. "Because of that, I just feel that someone there should be responsible in my case for whatever losses I sustained. My own personal opinion is those deaths that occurred never should have happened to begin with."

Republic reporters Yvonne Wingett Sanchez and Anne Ryman contributed to this article.

By Kristina Goetz, The Republic

Source: The

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Legal fallout continues over Arkansas oil leak

Lawsuits and alleged safety violations are mounting against Exxon Mobil Corp. following the rupture eight months ago of a pipeline that spilled thousands of barrels of oil in central Arkansas.

Since Exxon's Pegasus pipeline ruptured March 29 and spilled the oil in the Mayflower community about 30 miles northwest of Little Rock, there have been at least 17 lawsuits against Exxon or its subsidiaries in state or federal courts.

And on Nov. 6 the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration alleged nine "probable" violations of safety regulations related to the spill and proposed more than $2.6 million in civil penalties.

Exxon Mobil
Exxon Mobil has not said whether it will challenge the findings. Company spokesman David Eglinton told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette ( ) that the company "will directly engage" with the safety administration about the allegations.

Shortly after the company was notified of the safety allegations, Exxon Mobil issued a statement saying that was still reviewing the notice and had not determined what action it would take.

"Regarding next steps, we are still reviewing the NOPV (notice of probable violations) and have not yet determined our future course of action," according to the statement provided by spokesman Aaron Stryk.

Damon Hill, a spokesman for the safety administration, told the newspaper Friday that the agency had not received any response from Exxon Mobil.

By Associated Press

Source: The Sacramento Bee

Long-shot legal challenges to health care law abound

President Obama's signature health care law could get nicked by the Supreme Court next year when the justices take up the mandate that most businesses provide free coverage for contraception. But that's not the only legal hurdle it faces.

In courtrooms across the country, Republican state attorneys general and conservative groups are challenging the way the law was passed, the way it was worded and the bureaucracy it created.

President Obama and Chief Justice John Roberts
President Obama and Chief Justice John Roberts
Obama and the millions of Americans who stand to benefit from the law's insurance expansion, the good news is that the lawsuits are long shots. Most are pending at federal district courts, which gives the government more time to implement the law and could make judges less likely to rule against it.
Still, a favorable appeals court ruling in any of the cases might lead to another Supreme Court showdown like the one expected in March or April, when the justices will consider business owners' religious objections to providing certain types of birth control coverage.

"An act this complicated was always going to raise additional legal questions," says Randy Barnett, a Georgetown University law professor who was a primary force behind the original legal challenge to the health care law.

Perhaps the most closely watched lawsuits are those in the District of Columbia, Virginia, Oklahoma and Indiana that, ironically, accept the law's wording at face value.

As passed by Congress and signed by Obama in 2010, the law offers federal subsidies to - and threatens tax penalties on - individuals and businesses in state marketplaces, or exchanges. But 35 states are served by a federal exchange, and while proponents intended for the subsidies to apply nationwide, the law refers to them only in state exchanges.

The lawsuits challenge an Internal Revenue Service rule that applies the hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies to all states and subjects employers and taxpayers nationwide to penalties. A victory could threaten the subsidies, making health coverage unaffordable for millions and the health care marketplace unworkable.

One of the cases, Halbig v. Sebelius, will be back in federal district court in the District of Columbia on Tuesday. Judge Paul Friedman has said he will rule by mid-February. Another case in Virginia could be decided before the end of the year.

"If the courts rule for us, a majority of the country is not going to be under the subsidy provisions," says Sam Kazman, general counsel at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who is coordinating the legal action. "Politically, that has a huge impact."

Administration allies say the law clearly was intended to make subsidies available nationwide, and the IRS rule is just a logical step in that process. "Courts usually do not reach conclusions that defy common sense," says Robert Weiner, a former associate deputy attorney general and a leading defender of the health care law.

While those lawsuits could wreak havoc with the law, a longer-shot challenge has the potential to wipe it off the books.

That case, Sissel v. U.S., argues that the Affordable Care Act is a revenue-raising bill, which under the Constitution should have originated in the House of Representatives. After all, its proponents argue, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts upheld the mandate that people buy insurance only because the penalty can be seen as a tax.

The conservative Pacific Legal Foundation, which mounted the lawsuit, contends that when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid amended the House bill by wiping it out entirely and starting over, he violated the Constitution's "origination clause."

If that argument wins in court, says Cato Institute health economist Michael Cannon, "not only do they have to strike down every other revenue measure in the law ... they would have to strike down the entire law."

But no court ever has struck down a law based on its origination in the Senate rather than the House. U.S. District Court Judge Beryl Howell denied the challenge in June, reasoning that the law did originate in the House and was not the brand of revenue measure that had to start there anyway.

That case now goes to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, where others soon will follow. That court's decisions could be the final word for several health care cases -- one of the reasons why its makeup is considered crucial to both sides.

The Senate's recent decision to eliminate its 60-vote threshold for presidential nominations will enable Obama to get three pending nominees to that court confirmed by Democrats. That could help the law's chances in what has been a conservative-leaning court.

Yet another lawsuit comes from the conservative Goldwater Institute, an Arizona-based group that has challenged the powers of the Independent Payment Advisory Board, which was created under the law to control costs.

In its brief, the institute calls the board "perhaps the most egregious consolidation of power in American history."

District Court Judge G. Murray Snow dismissed that portion of the institute's challenge shortly after the law was upheld by the Supreme Court last year, but his ruling is being appealed and will be heard by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in January.

One problem for the administration as it fights the various lawsuits is that the law cannot be amended to make technical corrections, a common congressional procedure. That's because Republicans opposed to the law would attempt to undermine it during the amendment process.

"There's absolutely no prospect of making even small, modest changes to the law," says Josh Blackman, a conservative blogger and assistant law professor at South Texas College of Law who has written a book on the challenges to Obamacare. "The second anything is modified in this law, it would just be gutted."

By Richard Wolf, USA Today

Source: The

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Obama apologises for 'holes and gaps' in health law

US President Barack Obama has apologised to Americans whose health insurance plans have been cancelled as a result of his signature health law.

In recent weeks, insurance companies have reportedly cancelled policies that do not meet strict requirements under Mr Obama's 2010 healthcare overhaul.

President Barack Obama
"We didn't do a good enough job in terms of how we crafted the law," he said in an interview with NBC News.

But a senior Republican labelled his remarks a "half-hearted apology".

During his campaign for the passage of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, Mr Obama repeatedly insisted that people who liked their health insurance policies would be able to keep them.

'Tough position'

But it now appears that millions of people who purchased plans on the private individual market rather than receive health coverage from the government or their employers may in fact have to buy new, possibly more expensive plans.

"I am sorry that they are finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me," Mr Obama said.

"We've got to work hard to make sure that they know we hear them, and we are going to do everything we can to deal with folks who find themselves in a tough position as a consequence of this."

The health law's supporters have said most people thrown off their health plans will be able to buy better insurance policies at better prices, especially those eligible for subsidies provided under the health law.

The opposition Republicans, who have fought the president's healthcare law at every turn, have seized on the reports of the policy cancellations. Some have gone so far as to accuse Mr Obama of lying to the public during his campaign for the law's passage.

Even some of Mr Obama's fellow Democrats have suggested the administration delay parts of the law's implementation, including a requirement that people carry health insurance or face a penalty.

Mr Obama's remarks on Thursday came after weeks of serious problems with - a website established under the law - which allows consumers to shop for private health insurance plans.

Among other issues, it has been plagued by long wait times to sign up for an insurance plan and serious flaws on the back end where customers' data are processed and sent to insurance companies.

Mr Obama has vowed the website will be repaired.

The Republican response to Mr Obama's remarks was swift, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell saying "if the president is truly sorry for breaking his promises to the American people, he'll do more than just issue a half-hearted apology on TV".

Thursday's television interview was the latest effort by Mr Obama to win public support for the embattled healthcare law.

On Wednesday he travelled into the heart of Republican territory to talk up the measure.

"We are going to get this done," he told a crowd in Dallas, Texas.

The law's new coverage requirements for health insurance plans have been blamed for the policy cancellations.

Its other provisions include establishing the website and others run by the states; mandates that individuals carry insurance or pay a tax penalty; and subsidies to assist in the purchase of the insurance.

It also expands eligibility for the Medicaid government health programme for the poor.


Source: The BBC

Californians have their doubts about healthcare law

Poll shows California is more supportive of Obamacare than the U.S. at large, but many fear higher costs and economic damage.

Californians are more supportive of President Obama's healthcare law than the country at large, but they still worry it will raise healthcare costs and hurt the economy, a new poll of registered voters shows.

Statewide, 50% said they backed the Affordable Care Act and 42% opposed it, according to the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll. That runs counter to national polls that show more people disapprove of Obamacare than support it.

Latinos, who make up about half of California's uninsured population, were even more enthusiastic, supporting the healthcare law by a 2-1 margin. Forty-nine percent of whites were opposed, with 44% in favor.
L.A. Power Festival in South Los Angeles in September

Predictably, 77% of Democrats backed the president's healthcare plan, whereas 80% of Republicans surveyed said they were against it. Independents were more evenly split.

Cutting across partisan and racial lines, Californians as a whole were skeptical that the Affordable Care Act would live up to its name.

Sixty-five percent of respondents said people wouldn't be able to afford the health insurance they'll be required to have under the law's individual mandate. Forty percent think the program will have a negative effect on what they pay for coverage, compared with 21% who expect a positive outcome.

According to the survey, 46% of registered voters expect the Affordable Care Act to be a drag on the overall economy and 34% see an economic boost. Nearly 60% think the law's new requirements will raise healthcare costs and keep businesses from hiring more workers.

The poll was taken just as the national healthcare rollout was coming under intense criticism in Congress, even from some Democrats. Obama has apologized for the malfunctioning enrollment website and for millions of Americans receiving cancellation notices because their current coverage doesn't meet all the requirements of the healthcare law.

Those consumers have directed much of their anger at Obama's repeated pledge that Americans could keep their existing insurance if they liked it.

California is running its own insurance exchange, as are 13 other states, and its online enrollment hasn't experienced nearly as many problems as the federal marketplace for 36 states. But the sticker shock from higher premiums and concerns about losing access to preferred doctors and hospitals have taken a toll.

"California has had a pretty good rollout on its exchange compared to the national one, but people here are still feeling the negative repercussions of higher costs and lost policies," said David Kanevsky of American Viewpoint, the Republican firm that helped conduct the poll for the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and The Times.

The poll was conducted jointly by American Viewpoint and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a Democratic polling firm in Washington. They surveyed 1,503 registered state voters by telephone Oct. 30-Nov. 5. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, and larger for subgroups.

For Obama and his signature law, much depends on Californians embracing the changes. California wants to enroll more than 2 million people by the end of next year in subsidized health insurance or an expansion of Medi-Cal, the state's Medicaid program for the poor.

Poll respondents said they were upbeat about the law's potential to help many of the state's 7 million uninsured. Sixty-five percent expect there will be fewer people without coverage and 67% think patients will get more access to checkups and other preventive care.

"Fundamentally, Californians are viewing the Affordable Care Act as a mixed bag," said Drew Lieberman of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. "They harbor real concerns about the potential negative impact on costs and the economy."

Diana Sackett, 61, a software engineer in Pleasanton, has many of those worries even though she strongly supports the president's healthcare plan. She has battled cancer in the past and knows the value of quality health coverage. "In an advanced country like ours, everyone should be able to get the healthcare they need," Sackett said.

But she isn't optimistic that the healthcare law will stem the rising costs of medical care and fears it may even get worse with an influx of newly insured patients.

"I'm concerned it won't really address the cost problems," said Sackett, who pays for health insurance through her employer. "I think healthcare is still going to be pretty expensive."

According to the poll, the changes are being implemented at a time when voters are generally satisfied with their own healthcare. Ninety percent of respondents said they were happy with the quality of their medical care and access to their doctors.

The state's health insurance exchange, Covered California, also faces deep skepticism among its core audience.

By Chad Terhune

Source: The Los Angeles Times

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Republicans give Health Law Room to stumble

Many House Republicans are replacing their push to delay or defund the 2010 federal health law with a new strategy: Hang back and see if problems with the rollout continue or get worse.

It is an abrupt reversal of the activist approach of just weeks ago, when Republicans demanded changes to the law in exchange for funding the government or raising the nation's borrowing limit. Now, they say putting the spotlight on technical flaws of the law's health-insurance exchange may be more effective than a direct attack.

Rep. Michael Burgess (R., Texas)
Rep. Michael Burgess (R., Texas)
"It's its own worst enemy, and to some degree it is collapsing under its own weight," said Rep. Michael Burgess (R., Texas), who sits on the committee that pressed Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Wednesday to explain what is going wrong.

Weeks ago, Democrats had been unified against GOP efforts to delay parts of the law, particularly the requirement that people carry insurance or pay a penalty. But now, as problems in the rollout of the law prompt some Democrats to call for a delay, it is Republicans who say they are giving up on changing anything.

"There are folks in my caucus who say just let the Americans face the pain," said Tim Huelskamp (R., Kan.), who voted recently to link government spending to a one-year delay of the health law. Now, he says the fate of the law is out of the hands of Congress. "At this point in time I don't think we can change anything," Mr. Huelskamp said.

Democrats see the approach, which focuses on oversight hearings, as a not-so-veiled attempt to undermine the Affordable Care Act. "They hate this law," Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) said of GOP lawmakers. "They want it to fail. They're praying for chaos to affirm their suspicions that it's the wrong thing for America. Now, when they criticize the rollout as not being smooth and not being fair to the American people, it rings hollow."

Many Democrats say that once problems with the website are ironed out, Americans will see the law as an improvement.

One wing of the Republican Party has favored confrontation over the health law, while the current strategy shows the more pragmatic wing reclaiming the upper hand. Indeed, Republicans who have watched House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) for years say the approach is consistent with one of his political philosophies: If you perceive your opponent to be committing suicide, get out of the way.

"It's nonconfrontational: Here's your law, have at it. And things aren't going very well," said former Ohio Rep. Steve LaTourette, who was a close ally of Mr. Boehner's and is the head of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a centrist group.

There is a risk of new intraparty fights early next year, when government spending must be renewed and the borrowing ceiling must be raised again. And some Republicans still prefer trying to vote the law out of existence. "We've got to delay it until we repeal it," said Rep. Paul Broun (R., Ga.). "We've got to do everything we can."

Other House Republicans prefer to focus on boosting oversight of the law. On Thursday, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) said his panel issued a subpoena to Ms. Sebelius for documents related to the exchange website.

Republicans are speculating that Mr. Obama will have to delay the requirement that people carry health insurance. Last month, the administration effectively extended the deadline for Americans to avoid a penalty, giving them until March 31, but it has said the website will be fully functioning by the end of November and that there is no reason to discuss a delay.

Such a further delay would have real effects, according to David Axene, a fellow with the Society of Actuaries. Potentially, it could prompt younger people to forgo coverage and leave insurers to cover mainly older people, which could, in turn, lead to higher rates.

Some Democrats say that is why they are focused on making the online exchange work. "When you start making changes that particularly go to the question of being able to predict, for example, what premiums will be, it's got great implications," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.).

By Siobhan Hughes

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Health law may strain mental health system

The Affordable Care Act will open doors for more patients to get treatment, but resources may not be there to meet the demand in states such as Delaware.

Tricia Hill gave up trying to get health insurance years ago.

The 39-year-old Newark resident spent two decades in the throes of a chronic mental health disorder, a condition that made it hard for her to hold a job and easy for insurance companies to reject her applications for coverage.

"It seemed like it was hopeless," said Hill, who declined to detail her condition.

So she relied on disability benefits.

That's about to change dramatically for Hill and thousands of other Delaware residents, as the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, makes it illegal for those with pre-existing conditions to be rejected for coverage -- and mandates mental health care coverage starting in 2014.

But just because you'll be entitled to the services doesn't mean you'll get an appointment -- at least not a quick one in Delaware, which has a shortage of mental health practitioners, according to the U.S. Health Resources and Services Association.

"There is no way we can serve all of them," said Dr. Ranga Ram, a psychiatrist in Brandywine Hundred, who expects far more emerging patients than the system can absorb, with some estimates putting the number at 30,000. "The hope is that they will stagger in over a period of three or four years."

The number of working psychiatrists in Delaware is hard to come by. The number who are accepting new patients is even more elusive. The state Division of Professional Regulation reports 113 licensed psychiatrists in the state, but some are retired and/or not accepting new patients.

New avenues will have to open, Ram said -- for therapists, advanced practice registered nurses and others -- and more collaboration with primary care physicians will be needed.

But coverage starts in two months, and the gaps in the system will be enormous.

Effective treatment can have profound implications for those who need the care. When their condition is stabilized -- as Hill's now is -- they can get and keep better jobs, avoid medical problems triggered by unaddressed mental health conditions and avoid situations that lead to criminal charges and/or jail.

Over capacity

Federal officials estimate that one in four people with no insurance have mental health or substance abuse conditions. They expect 32 million new patients to seek care under the new law.

In Delaware, which has an estimated 90,000 uninsured residents, that would mean about 22,500 with potential need for care -- not counting those who already have some kind of medical insurance but none for mental health or substance abuse.

Dr. Ranga Ram, a psychiatrist in Brandywine Hundred, Del., expects far more emerging psychiatric patients than the state's system can absorb
Dr. Ranga Ram
Meanwhile, Delaware's mental health system is already over capacity, psychiatrists and others in the field say, sometimes leaving patients to wait three or four months for an appointment with a psychiatrist.

"We've had a pinch in supply and demand all the way along the line," said Dr. Michael Marcus, director of outpatient services in psychiatric and behavioral health for Christiana Care.

Christiana Care is expanding its approach to mental health care, and the state has been aggressive in its expansion of community-based care to comply with requirements of a 2011 settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Department of Justice settlement is an important part of the context, because its 2009 investigation found that the "vast majority" of patients at the Delaware Psychiatric Center should be living in the community, not in the state's largest psychiatric hospital. The state is required to make sweeping reforms to support community-based care.

A growing network of service and support is emerging statewide -- crisis services, drop-in centers, peer supports and mental health services.

Still, according to 2012 data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, only about 39 percent of the state's need is met at current levels.

"We have under-supply and a mismatch in distribution," Christiana's Marcus said. "Fortunately, we've had some lead time to work on this. We're hiring behavioral health care professionals on an ongoing basis and we're in close consultation with state officials to coordinate our plans. … We have to step up all of our games."

To address more severe shortages in rural areas, Lewes-based Beebe Healthcare now has a partnership with In-Sight Telepsychiatry, offering its staff video consults with psychiatric specialists. That capacity is available in the emergency department and on the hospital floors, according to Beebe spokeswoman Sue Towers.

In addition to Beebe, In-Sight is providing telepsychiatry services to Kent-Sussex Counseling in Dover and Crossroads of Delaware in Wilmington, and recently established a partnership with Resources for Human Development (RHD) for its programs in New Castle and Kent counties, said In-Sight account executive Dan Khebzou.

Marcus said another good expansion strategy is the use of "physician extenders" -- advanced practice registered nurses, for example -- who can assist with evaluations and medications.

But the best strategy is finding ways to integrate mental and medical care, Marcus said.

"Behavioral health care and medical-surgical services have been somewhat siloed," he said. "It's not just more treatment that is needed, but treatment that will improve people's health care," he said. "We have to really keep adding capacity and in a smart way. … So it's not necessarily more of the same, but in a more innovative way."

Christiana Care's decision to embed a psychiatrist in its cardiac center is an example, Marcus said. A person with an undiagnosed anxiety disorder may arrive at the hospital in a full panic attack, with symptoms indistinguishable from cardiac distress, he said. They would get a full cardiac "workup" to find out what's going on medically, Marcus said.

Having a psychiatrist available for a mental health consultation makes it possible to diagnose psychiatric problemswith greater accuracy and treat the patient more effectively.

Removing barriers

The Affordable Care Act removes several artificial barriers to care, psychiatrists Marcus and Ram said. Refusal to cover those with mental health problems will be illegal, and some limits to care have been removed, too. A 20-visit cap on therapy sessions, for example, will be gone, though Linda Nemes of the Delaware Insurance Commissioner's office says all care will be reviewed and managed as it unfolds.

Nemes said health insurance issuers Highmark and Coventry were required to certify an adequate network of providers to gain the marketplace contracts in Delaware. The state will monitor performance to be sure those requirements are met, she said.

The new coverage may open new doors for Hill, who is working part-time as a peer specialist to help others with mental health conditions gain traction in their recovery. Under present rules, she can't take on additional responsibilities or get a full-time job because she must keep her monthly income at or below $1,040 or lose her disability benefits.

If she can get the health care she needs through the Affordable Care Act, she may be able to live her dream -- finish her college degree, get a master's, and become a full-time social worker.

"I've made a lot of progress," she said. "I was at a point where I was completely unable to function without a lot of care. I received a lot of assistance. Now, I'm at the point where I have almost no assistance.

"I've come a really long way. I decided to take personal responsibility for my own recovery and started working toward making that happen."

By Beth Miller, The (Wilmington, Del.) News Journal

Source: The USA Today

Sunday, October 13, 2013

JPMorgan’s loss is Corporate Law Firms’ gain

The calls started flooding into JPMorgan Chase last month.

As settlement talks with the federal government over the bank's mortgage business heated up, lawyers began aggressively seeking a lucrative piece of work. The lawyers wanted the plum assignment of serving as monitor for JPMorgan's mortgage operations -- a corporate baby-sitting role that is typically part of a settlement.

JPMorgan's announcement on Friday that it had set aside $9.2 billion to cover its mounting legal expenses -- leading it to report its first quarterly loss under Jamie Dimon -- underscored how the numerous regulatory woes at the nation's largest bank are proving to be a boon for the country's most sophisticated law firms.

Mr. Dimon, JPMorgan's chief executive, described the legal expenses on Friday as "painful." But that pain is profit for the bank's outside law firms, which include some of the cream of the Wall Street bar: Sullivan & Cromwell; Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; and WilmerHale.

Even as defense lawyers publicly complain that government regulators are being too aggressive, they privately celebrate the windfall. Law firms in New York and Washington are collectively earning many hundreds of millions of dollars representing JPMorgan in cases ranging from weak controls against money laundering to commodities trading, according to interviews with senior partners at several of top firms.

JPMorgan Chase
"It's pretty straightforward: Whenever regulators go after the big financial institutions and corporations, it's very good business for the law firms that represent them," said Allen D. Applbaum, a co-leader of global risk and investigations at FTI Consulting and a former federal prosecutor.

Mr. Dimon warned investors that even with a huge legal bill for the most recent quarter, the costs could "continue to be volatile over the next several quarters."

Bracing for additional legal costs, JPMorgan has set aside a $23 billion cushion for litigation reserves, a figure that the bank disclosed for the first time on Friday. A large portion of that will most likely go toward penalties levied by the government, as well as to pay advisers like accounting and consulting firms.

Other big banks have been plagued by huge legal bills in recent years. Since the financial crisis, Bank of America has doled out more than $20 billion in legal costs, according to government filings.

All the legal work resulting from government scrutiny of big banks has propped up earnings at the country's top-tier law firms, which have struggled with soft performance since the financial crisis. Traditional profit centers like mergers and acquisitions and bankruptcy have been especially uneven.

"Overall demand for legal services has been essentially flat for the last three and a half years leading to meager revenue growth," said Dan DiPietro, chairman of the law firm group at Citi Private Bank. "This has been one of the few bright spots in an otherwise tepid environment."

The litigation boom is being driven, in part, by a stepped-up effort from government authorities to increase the oversight of Wall Street after they were criticized for not doing enough in the years before the financial crisis.

In a speech earlier this month, Andrew J. Ceresney, the new co-head of enforcement at the Securities and Exchange Commission, trumpeted what he saw as his agency's more combative approach. "When I first started, I had said that one of my goals was to help bring the swagger back to the enforcement division," he said. "And I feel like we have succeeded in doing that."

Adding to the headaches for banks -- and the opportunities for lawyers -- are the swelling number of regulatory agencies. The newly minted Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, for example, has taken aim at banks' credit card practices. In New York, the state's banking authority, the Department of Financial Services, has gone after banks for funneling billions of dollars on behalf of nations like Iran.

Corporate law firms have long positioned their practices to capitalize on the business trends of the day, from the boom in bankruptcies in the wake of Enron and WorldCom to the leveraged buyout mania of the last decade. The recent insider trading investigations have generated hours upon hours of billable work. But for the most part, those cases are not especially lucrative as they are leanly staffed with only a small team of lawyers.

Cases involving money laundering or mortgage-backed securities, however, require large teams of lawyers to review millions of pages of documents and to interview armies of bank executives. These sprawling investigations have forced Wall Street banks to divert billions of dollars in profit from shareholders into the coffers of corporate law firms.

Other big banks have come under fire. In a civil case, federal prosecutors in Manhattan accused Bank of America last October of carrying out a scheme through its Countrywide Financial unit that supposedly defrauded government-backed mortgage agencies by churning out loans without adequate controls.

But JPMorgan alone has become a full-employment act for corporate lawyers as the bank, once a favorite in Washington, faces scrutiny from at least seven federal agencies, several state regulators and two foreign countries. On Friday, Marianne Lake, JPMorgan's chief financial officer, cautioned that legal expenses exceeded what "we could have anticipated even a short while ago."

The last time JPMorgan reported a loss for the quarter was also a result of legal expenses -- in 2004, when settlements related to their business dealings with Enron and WorldCom weighed on the bank's results.

This time around, the bank has retained several powerhouse firms to represent it. Lawyers from Sullivan & Cromwell, for example, have snagged coveted work advising JPMorgan on an investigation by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which is pushing the bank to admit wrongdoing connected to its trading loss in London, according to people briefed on the matter.

Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz is helping JPMorgan navigate an investigation by prosecutors and the F.B.I. in Manhattan into whether the bank failed to alert authorities to suspicions about Bernard L. Madoff's Ponzi scheme.

The bank tapped Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison to handle scrutiny from the S.E.C. and the Justice Department into the bank's decision to hire the children of well-connected Chinese officials -- an issue at the center of a wide-ranging bribery investigation. And WilmerHale was hired related to a federal inquiry of the bank's energy trading business.

Beyond the government investigations, lawyers are benefiting from a desire within JPMorgan to bolster its internal controls. To do that, the bank has gone on a hiring spree, scooping up some experts in money laundering from the Manhattan district attorney's office, for example, as the bank increases its staff handling legal and regulatory issues.

Outside lawyers are jockeying for work related to an anticipated settlement between the bank and government authorities over its sale mortgage securities.

During those negotiations, JPMorgan has offered to pay a fine of roughly $7 billion and provide $4 billion in relief for struggling homeowners, people briefed on the matter said.

The settlement, which is still in flux, could result in the assignment of a monitor to oversee JPMorgan's mortgage business. The Justice Department often installs monitors inside companies as part of their settlements.

Most recently, as part of its guilty plea last December, BP agreed to pay $4.5 billion in criminal fines and penalties, and said it would retain a risk management monitor and an ethics monitor.

Dennis Kelleher, the head of Better Markets, an advocacy group focused on financial industry reform, was a partner earlier in his career at the large law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. He blames the bank for its prodigious legal bills.

"This massive morass that JPMorgan and Jamie Dimon find themselves in is of their making," Mr. Kelleher said. "Improve your behavior and you won't need to hire so many lawyers."

By Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Peter Lattman

Source: The New York Times

Colorado farmers harvesting industrial hemp despite federal drug law

Southeast Colorado farmer Ryan Loflin tried an illegal crop this year. He didn't hide it from neighbors, and he never feared law enforcement would come asking about it.

Loflin is among about two dozen Colorado farmers who raised industrial hemp, marijuana's non-intoxicating cousin that can't be grown under federal drug law, and bringing in the nation's first acknowledged crop in more than five decades.

Industrial hemp
Emboldened by voters in Colorado and Washington last year giving the green light to both marijuana and industrial hemp production, Loflin planted 55 acres of several varieties of hemp alongside his typical alfalfa and wheat crops. The hemp came in sparse and scraggly this month, but Loflin said but he's still turning away buyers.

"Phone's been ringing off the hook," said Loflin, who plans to press the seeds into oil and sell the fibrous remainder to buyers who'll use it in building materials, fabric and rope. "People want to buy more than I can grow."

But hemp's economic prospects are far from certain. Finished hemp is legal in the U.S., but growing it remains off-limits under federal law. The Congressional Research Service recently noted wildly differing projections about hemp's economic potential.

However, America is one of hemp's fastest-growing markets, with imports largely coming from China and Canada. In 2011, the U.S. imported $11.5 million worth of hemp products, up from $1.4 million in 2000. Most of that is hemp seed and hemp oil, which finds its way into granola bars, soaps, lotions and even cooking oil. Whole Foods Market now sells hemp milk, hemp tortilla chips and hemp seeds coated in dark chocolate.

Colorado won't start granting hemp-cultivation licenses until 2014, but Loflin didn't wait.

His confidence got a boost in August when the U.S. Department of Justice said the federal government would generally defer to state marijuana laws as long as states keep marijuana away from children and drug cartels. The memo didn't even mention hemp as an enforcement priority for the Drug Enforcement Administration.

"I figured they have more important things to worry about than, you know, rope," a smiling Loflin said as he hand-harvested 4-foot-tall plants on his Baca County land.

Colorado's hemp experiment may not be unique for long. Ten states now have industrial hemp laws that conflict with federal drug policy, including one signed by California Gov. Jerry Brown last month. And it's not just the typical marijuana-friendly suspects: Kentucky, North Dakota and West Virginia have industrial hemp laws on the books.

Hemp production was never banned outright, but it dropped to zero in the late 1950s because of competition from synthetic fibers and increasing anti-drug sentiment.

Hemp and marijuana are the same species, Cannabis sativa, just cultivated differently to enhance or reduce marijuana's psychoactive chemical, THC. The 1970 Controlled Substances Act required hemp growers to get a permit from the DEA, the last of which was issued in 1999 for a quarter-acre experimental plot in Hawaii. That permit expired in 2003.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture last recorded an industrial hemp crop in the late 1950s, down from a 1943 peak of more than 150 million pounds on 146,200 harvested acres.

But Loflin and other legalization advocates say hemp is back in style and that federal obstacles need to go.

Loflin didn't even have to hire help to bring in his crop, instead posting on Facebook that he needed volunteer harvesters. More than two dozen people showed up -- from as far as Texas and Idaho.

Volunteers pulled the plants up from the root and piled them whole on two flatbed trucks. The mood was celebratory, people whooping at the sight of it and joking they thought they'd never see the day.

But there are reasons to doubt hemp's viability. Even if law enforcement doesn't interfere, the market might.

"It is not possible," Congressional Research Service researchers wrote in a July report, "to predict the potential market and employment effects of relaxing current restrictions on U.S. hemp production."

The most recent federal study came 13 years ago, when the USDA concluded the nation's hemp markets "are, and will likely remain, small" and "thin." And a 2004 study by the University of Wisconsin warned hemp "is not likely to generate sizeable profits" and highlighted "uncertainty about long-run demand for hemp products."

Still, there are seeds of hope. Global hemp production has increased from 250 million pounds in 1999 to more than 380 million pounds in 2011, according to United Nations agricultural surveys, which attributed the boost to increased demand for hemp seeds and hemp oil.

Congress is paying attention to the country's increasing acceptance of hemp. The House version of the stalled farm bill includes an amendment, sponsored by lawmakers in Colorado, Oregon and Kentucky, allowing industrial hemp cultivation nationwide. The amendment's prospects, like the farm bill's timely passage, are far from certain.

Ron Carleton, a Colorado deputy agricultural commissioner who is heading up the state's looming hemp licensure, said he has no idea what hemp's commercial potential is. He's not even sure how many farmers will sign up for Colorado's licensure program next year, though he's fielded a "fair number of inquiries."

"What's going to happen, we'll just have to see," Carleton said.

By Associated Press

Source: The Fox News

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Illegal immigrants allowed to practice law in California

Illegal immigrants can be licensed to practice law in California under one of eight bills expanding immigrant rights that were signed by Governor Jerry Brown on Saturday.

The California Supreme Court, which finalizes requests of applicants to be licensed as a lawyer in California, is now authorized to approve qualified applicants regardless of their immigration status.

Other new laws prohibit law enforcement officials from detaining immigrants based on federal government instructions except in cases of serious crimes or convictions, and make it illegal for employers to retaliate against workers on the basis of their citizenship.

"While Washington waffles on immigration, California's forging ahead," Brown said in a statement. "I'm not waiting."

The new laws, including the one letting undocumented immigrants become lawyers, could set a precedent for the nation. They are part of a push to increase immigrant rights in the strongly Democratic state. About 38 percent of California's population of 38 million is of Hispanic descent.

On Thursday, Brown signed a law making undocumented immigrants eligible to apply for drivers licenses. California, which will join at least nine other states when the law takes effect in 2015, expects 1.4 million people to apply for licenses over three years.

A study by the University of Southern California has found that more than 2.6 million people, most of them Latinos, lack legal status in the state.

Assemblyman Luis Alejo, a Democrat from Watsonville, said the new laws illustrate the change in California over the last 20 years.

Illegal immigrants in California
"The bills that were signed by the governor today show that California is bucking the trend that we've seen in other states over the last few years - Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi, all states that have enacted legislation that really restricted or attacked immigrants in those states," Alejo said.

California is doing what it can at the state level in the absence of immigration reform by the U.S. Congress, he said.

Earlier this year, the Democratic-led U.S. Senate approved a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants living in the United States illegally, but the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is unlikely to follow suit.

The California law that allows illegal immigrants to practice law grew out of a case of an undocumented Mexican immigrant, Sergio Garcia, who was brought to the United States as a baby and later graduated from a California law school. He has received the support of the State Bar of California and the state attorney general.

Critics of Garcia's bid to gain admission to the California bar included the U.S. Justice Department, which opposed it in a brief filed with the state's Supreme Court last year.

While Garcia may now be admitted to the California bar, two other Mexican immigrants -- one in New York and another in Florida -- are pursuing similar cases.

By Noreen O'Donnell

Source: The Reuters

Flood of consumer inquiries could make – or break – Obama health law

Strong consumer interest heartens backers of Obama's healthcare law, but persistent glitches could spell trouble.

Kentucky health officials thought they might get a handful of serious shoppers when they flipped the switch Tuesday on Kynect, the new online insurance marketplace the state created under President Obama's healthcare law.

"We weren't even hopeful that a couple hundred people would apply," said Carrie Banahan, Kynect's executive director.

Backers of President Obama's healthcare law are heartened by strong consumer interest
Backers of President Obama's healthcare law are heartened by strong consumer interest, but problems accessing the new online insurance exchanges have been a major headache
By the end the week, more than 16,000 Kentucky individuals and families had begun online applications to get health coverage next year.

It has been a similar story across the country. Since the new marketplaces opened Tuesday, millions of Americans have flooded websites, call centers and insurance offices seeking information about health coverage offered through the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

More than 8.5 million people visited the federal site last week, according to officials at the Department of Health and Human Services.

California's marketplace, Covered California, had 514,000 unique visitors to its website the first day of enrollment.

Blue Shield of California said its consumer call volume more than doubled last week with hundreds of people asking about their options under the healthcare law and whether they qualified for federal subsidies.

For residents of 36 states that are not running their own online markets, the federal website is the main portal to get health coverage provided by the new law next year. Additionally, the federal call center received 406,000 calls.

Very few of those potential customers have been able to complete the process of applying for coverage. Legions have been thwarted by technical problems that repeatedly shut down many of the online marketplaces, including the federal site. And although officials probably have several weeks to fix the glitches -- particularly with public attention focused on the federal government shutdown -- lingering problems still threaten to make the debut a disaster.

But if the enrollment process smooths out, the unexpected initial surge of consumers may end up being the most important story to emerge from the first days of Obamacare's signature new markets.

"Clearly there is a lot of interest in getting health insurance out there," said Joel Ario, a former state insurance commissioner and Obama administration official who, like many, was surprised by the outpouring.

Before enrollment began last week, public opinion polls consistently showed that Americans remained deeply skeptical of the 2010 law and unfamiliar with many of its core provisions.

Fewer than 4 in 10 adults in a recent nationwide Gallup survey said they were familiar with the new marketplaces. Lack of knowledge was even more pronounced among the uninsured, with three-quarters saying they were unfamiliar with the marketplaces.

Obama administration officials and many state leaders have worried they would be unable to get enough consumers, threatening the viability of the markets, which depend on strong enrollment by young, healthy customers. Officials hope to enroll 7 million people next year.

The online marketplaces, one for each state, are designed to allow Americans who don't get coverage through employers to shop for health plans. Insurers selling on the markets must for the first time meet new basic standards and are prohibited from turning away consumers with preexisting medical conditions.

Millions of low- and moderate-income Americans who make less than four times the federal poverty level -- or about $46,000 for individuals and up to about $94,000 for a family of four -- will qualify for government subsidies to help with their premiums.

The open enrollment period lasts until March 31, though consumers who want coverage to start Jan. 1 will have to select health plans by Dec. 15. Many experts believe the real crush of consumers will come ahead of the December deadline.

In coming weeks, the marketplaces will face several critical tests.

One will be whether potential customers continue to visit them once the initial surge of interest wanes.

Another will be whether the administration can fix the numerous technical glitches that have frustrated consumers. The problems with the site were so severe last week that in many states, only a small fraction of consumers appear to have been able to successfully apply for health coverage. Obama administration officials have declined to say how many people have enrolled so far.

In Louisiana, which has more than 900,000 uninsured residents, just seven people had applied for a plan from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Louisiana through the first two days of the federal marketplace.

Kentucky, which minimized disruptions on its website by using a simpler design than the one on the federal site, enrolled 4,739 individuals and families by Friday.

Obama administration officials said they were taking additional steps to expand online capacity and planned to take the site down for maintenance over the weekend during off-peak hours. "We expect that Monday … there will be significant improvements in the online consumer experience," the Health and Human Services Department said in a statement Friday.

Several information technology experts predicted there would be even more technical problems as online systems confront premium payments, changes in eligibility and other complex tasks.

"Is this just the tip of the iceberg?" asked Harold Tuck, former chief information officer for San Diego County. "There ought to have been better beta testing of the systems, and these errors wouldn't have come up."

Bill Curtis, chief scientific officer at CAST, a New York-based firm that analyzes information technology systems, said the heavy traffic probably explained many of the problems. "When you have this kind of volume, it exposes all kinds of weaknesses," he said.

Nevada's marketplace, Nevada Health Link, had 60,000 unique visitors on its first day, spokesman C.J. Bawden said.

Many visitors may be curiosity seekers, an analysis advanced by critics of the law suggested.

"I think if you subtract out members of Congress and their staff and reporters who called in those first 48 hours, the numbers will be considerably lower," Rep. Michael C. Burgess (R-Texas) told CNN last week.

But insurers such as Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City have also reported significant increases in direct customer inquiries.

And the spokesman for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Louisiana, John Maginnis, said the insurer's 80-member enrollment task force has been "overwhelmed" by consumer interest.

In Kentucky, marketplace officials were equally pleased that small businesses were seeking coverage in unexpected numbers.

Banahan said the state had hoped to get about 10 businesses enrolled on Kentucky's small-business market by Christmas. By the end of last week, 178 had already started applications.

"There is just a lot of pent-up demand," Banahan said.

By Levey

Source: The Los Angeles Times

Sunday, September 15, 2013

In Iowa, Biden to face anti-war Democrats who are cool to talk about an airstrike on Syria

Vice President Joe Biden is heading into the belly of Democrats' anti-war opposition, venturing into a politically influential heartland state for the first time since President Barack Obama publicly endorsed a possible military strike on Syria.

Biden is scheduled to headline a fundraiser in Iowa Sunday for Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, an annual steak picnic for the senator who is popular with anti-war Democrats.

Even if Biden sidesteps talk of Syria, the issue will be as much a part of the backdrop as the bales of hay and smoke from the grilling steaks, and in a place where he will have to plant his flag should he seek the presidency in 2016.

Joe Biden
"That's going to be a little sensitive," said eastern Iowa Democrat Richard Machacek, an Obama delegate in 2008, referring to possible military action against Syria. "It flies in the face of what the president campaigned on here."

Obama rode an anti-war wave to victory in Iowa's 2008 presidential caucuses. He had proposed limited air strikes in Syria in response to a chemical weapons attack last month against more than 1,400 people in a Damascus suburb. The administration says Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government was behind the attack.

On Saturday Secretary of State John Kerry announced that he and Russia's foreign minister had reached an agreement to rid Syria of its chemical stockpile. Obama said in a statement the agreement was welcome news, but added that "if diplomacy fails, the United States remains prepared to act."

His own party remains cool at best to a military strike. Obama has struggled to win support from members of Congress, including Democrats, whose constituents have endured more than a decade of war.

An Associated Press poll taken Sept. 6-8 showed 34 percent of Democrats said they wanted Congress to back military action. And more than three-fourths of Democrats said they thought any military action in Syria was at least somewhat likely to turn into a long-term commitment of forces, including 44 percent who said it was extremely likely.

The poll was taken before Obama pledged not to deploy ground troops in Syria.

Cedar Falls Democrat David Kabel, an early and devout Obama supporter, is skeptical, even after Obama's speech. "I just don't know that you can reel it in once you get started," he said.

The reaction to anything Biden says about Syria will be closely watched and noted. He is weighing another run for the White House in 2016, and the crowd he mingles with Sunday -- many of them familiar with the two-time presidential candidate -- will have the opening say during the caucuses.

Including Harkin

Harkin has said that he was leaning against supporting a military strike, though a vote has been postponed to allow the diplomatic option to develop.

"Harkin has always been the anti-war candidate," said longtime Iowa Democratic activist Paulee Lipsman. "His strongest supporters agree with that position."

While Harkin supported limited strikes in Kosovo in 1997 and Libya in 2012 under Democratic presidents, Harkin has largely opposed recent wars under Republican presidents, endearing him to his party's left.

He voted against the 1991 Gulf War resolution under President George H. W. Bush. And while he voted for the resolution ahead of the 2003 Iraq war under President George W. Bush, he later called the vote a mistake and endorsed anti-war candidate Howard Dean in Iowa's 2004 presidential caucuses.

Obama made a special appeal during Tuesday's speech to "my friends on the left," asking them to consider the images of the hundreds of children who died in the August 21 gas attack. "Sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough.

He may as well have been speaking directly to those Iowa Democrats who were drawn to his vocal opposition to the war in Iraq, a position that set him apart from chief rival Hillary Clinton and on the path to winning the White House.

Harkin aides and supporters play down any possible outward hostility toward Biden, as he strolls the Warren County fairgrounds south of Des Moines, flips a few steaks for the cameras and speaks Sunday afternoon.

"People will be polite," Lipsman said.

By  Associated Press

Source: The Washington Post

Calif. police say Ariz. mom arrested in killing of kids after she directs them to hotel bodies

An apparently suicidal Arizona mother was arrested on suspicion of killing her two children after crashing her car in a Southern California supermarket then directing police to a nearby hotel room where the kids lay dead, authorities said.

The 42-year-old woman from Scottsdale, was released from a hospital into police custody on Saturday night, Santa Ana police spokesman Cpl. Anthony Bertagna said.

Calif. police Arizona
Coroner's officials were investigating the scene late Saturday, and the identities of the mother and two children along with the kids' cause of death were being withheld while relatives were notified, Bertagna said.

Earlier in the day, police in nearby Costa Mesa were called to an Albertsons parking lot where the woman had crashed her gray Honda Accord with a Georgia license plate into protective poles surrounding an electrical box, Costa Mesa police Sgt. Tim Starn said.

Police said the woman appeared to have been suicidal when officers responded to the crash site.

"It was clear that it was an intentional act," Costa Mesa Sgt. Tim Starn said.

As paramedics were taking her to the hospital, the woman told police where to find the children and what had happened to them, Bertagna said, but did not offer more details.

Officers found the children dead in a third-floor room at the Hampton Inn & Suites in Santa Ana.

The cause of death was under investigation, Bertagna said, but no weapon had been recovered from the scene.

It was not clear why the woman and her children were in Orange County.

Hotel guests were stunned at the discovery at the quiet inn on a sunny weekend in Southern California.

"My goodness if there's two children involved that's just horrendous to say the least," Mike Ramey, who was staying at the hotel with his fiancee, told KABC-TV. "As a parent, it's just a heartbreaker."

By  Associated Press

Source: The Washington Post

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Mississippi high court upholds state's open-carry gun law

The Mississippi Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously upheld the state's open carry-gun law, allowing it to take effect after a circuit judge's order had kept it on hold about two months.

"This court now finds that the circuit judge erred as a matter of law when he found House Bill 2 to be vague and, therefore, unconstitutional. He also erred when he stated that a 'reasonable person reading the bill could not discern what the law allows and what it prohibits,'” according to the ruling signed by Justice Randy Pierce.

Earlier this year, legislators passed and Gov. Phil Bryant signed the bill that says adults don't need a permit to carry a gun that's not concealed.

Several officials, including the Hinds County district attorney, sued to block the law, saying there could be chaos if people were openly carrying guns in public places. Circuit Judge Winston Kidd put the measure on hold just before it was to become law July 1.

The Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the state's open carry gun law
After hearing arguments, Kidd issued an injunction July 12, saying the law was on hold until the Legislature can clarify it.

Justices overturned Kidd's injunction Thursday. They made the ruling based on written arguments filed by opponents and supporters of the law; they did not hear oral arguments.

The main sponsor of House Bill 2, Republican Rep. Andy Gipson of Braxton, said Thursday that he's pleased with the justices' unanimous ruling.

"It just confirms, in a very real sense, the right to keep and bear arms,” Gipson told The Associated Press.

Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat, defended the open-carry law in court. Hood issued a nonbinding legal opinion June 13 that says guns can still be banned in courthouses and other public buildings. At many places, including the Capitol and in public parks, officials have posted signs to show that weapons are prohibited.

Opponents of the open-carry gun law say it has caused confusion about where people may carry guns that aren't concealed. They also say it could put law enforcement officers in danger if people with no training are carrying guns.

Republican Bryant, like many supporters of the law, has said it restates the right to bear arms that's in the Mississippi Constitution.

Even with the open-carry law taking effect, a previous law bans guns on school and college campuses. Bryant has said he has no argument with guns being banned in government buildings.

Many counties and cities have implemented bans of openly carried guns in public buildings.

By Associated Press

Source: The Fox News

More health law info, but from what sources?

The public's awareness of new marketplaces established under the Affordable Care Act is growing, but potential customers are getting much of their information about the health law from sources they don't trust very much, according to a poll released Aug. 28.

Starting Oct. 1, people lacking insurance can begin enrolling in plans through online marketplaces, also called exchanges, which will be run by the federal government, 16 states and the District of Columbia. About 7 million people next year will get coverage under these policies, which take effect Jan. 1, according to the Congressional Budget Office. By 2017 that number is expected to grow to 24 million people.

Supporters of the law and insurance companies have begun mobilizing to educate people about new insurance offerings.

The new poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 33 percent of the public reported hearing "a lot" or "some" information about the exchanges, up from 22 percent in June.

District of Columbia
The most common source of that information was the news media from newspapers, cable TV shows, online news or radio. But only 8 percent of respondents said they have "a lot" of trust in the news media.

The second most common source of information was friends and family: 49 percent of people said they had heard something about the law from them.

The third most commonly mentioned source of information was social networking sites, which the respondents ranked dead last among accurate sources of information, with only 3 percent crediting them as consistently reliable.

The most commonly cited source of accurate information about the law are doctors and nurses, with 44 percent of the public citing them as trustworthy resources.

Only 22 percent of people said they had heard something about the law from them.

One of three people said they trust information put out by federal and state health agencies, but only one in six said they had heard information about the law from those sources.

Overall, the views about the health law remain constant. The public is basically split on it, with 42 percent opposing and 37 percent supporting.

But 57 percent oppose cutting off funding, something that some congressional Republicans have been pushing in negotiations over raising the federal debt limit.

Only 36 percent favor defunding the law. The most popular reason for opposing defunding is a procedural one: that if lawmakers want to get rid of the law, they should repeal it, not undermine it by cutting off funds.

The poll was conducted from Aug. 13 through Aug. 19 among 1,503 adults and has a margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

By Jordan Rau, Kaiser Health News

Source: The San Antonio Express

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Obama signs bipartisan student loan bill into law

President Barack Obama Friday signed into law a bipartisan student loan bill which the House overwhelmingly approved late week. The Senate OK'd the measure by a vote of 81 to 18 two weeks ago.

Without congressional action, interest rates on loans to college students were increasing from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. But under the law signed by Obama the interest rate for undergraduate loans will fall back to 3.86 percent. The interest rate on graduate student loans will be 5.41 percent.
Obama's signature on the bill ends months of arguments over how much the federal government should subsidize student loans and whether students in the next several years will face crushing repayment burdens if interest rates go up, as most observers expect they will.

In the Senate, the compromise bill was crafted by a bipartisan group including Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Angus King, I-Maine.

Obama signed into law a bipartisan student loan bill
Obama signed into law a bipartisan student loan bill
"We have demonstrated to the American people that this body has the capacity to overcome partisan differences….," King said when the Senate passed the bill. He said the bill "offers a long-term, market-based solution that lowers and caps interest rates for all students taking out a loan and finally gets Congress out of the business of setting rates."

At the signing ceremony at the White House, attended by King and other members of Congress, Obama said it "feels good signing bills. I haven't done this in a while."

Under the new law, the government establishes variable interest rates on Stafford loans for undergraduate college students, but caps the rate at 8.25 percent. The variable rate each year will be pegged to the rate on 10-year Treasury notes, plus 2.05 percent.

The law also sets the interest rate on loans issued to graduate or professional students at the rate on high-yield 10-year Treasury notes plus 3.6 percent, but caps that rate at 9.5 percent.

The law applies to loans made on or after July 1.

In June, Senate Democrats got 51 votes for a measure offered by Sen. Jack Reed, D- R.I., that would have set a fixed 3.4 percent interest rate for student loans over the next two years, but Reed fell short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a potential filibuster. All Democratic senators except Manchin voted to advance Reed's measure to final passage; no Republican voted for it.

One Democrat who supported the Reed bill, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, called the final compromise bill "obscene." She said that supporters of the bill "say that it will lower interest rates for students this year, and that's all that matters. That's the same thing the credit card companies said when they sold zero-interest credit cards and the same thing subprime mortgage lenders said when they sold teaser rate mortgages."

She added, "Nobody disputes the fact that within just a few years, according to our best estimates, students, all students, will end up paying far higher interest rates on their loans than they do right now."

By Tom Curry, NBC News national affairs writer

Source: The NBC News

Law enforcement can't harass suspected undocumented immigrants

For the crime of appearing Hispanic, Roxana Santos, a native of El Salvador, attracted the attention of Frederick County sheriff's deputies in 2008. At the time she was noticed and racially profiled by the deputies, Ms. Santos was doing nothing more than sitting on a curb and eating a sandwich outside the food co-op in Frederick where she worked as a dishwasher.

In Frederick, where Sheriff Charles Jenkins has publicly pledged to make life unfriendly for undocumented immigrants, it's open season for law enforcement on anyone who looks the part -- meaning anyone who looks Hispanic.

The deputies, Kevin Lynch and Jeffrey Openshaw, acted on no suspicion of criminal conduct. Indeed, Ms. Santos, who is undocumented, has no criminal history. Nonetheless, they approached her, asked for her identification and, after a considerable wait, told her to sit tight while a federal data base digested her name. No, she would not be on time for her shift.

Laws for immigrants
On Wednesday, a federal appeals court slapped down Mr. Jenkins and the county sheriff's department. The appeals court said that law enforcement officers may not go around accosting people merely on the suspicion that they may lack immigration documents, no matter what they look like or how limited their facility with English. As the court pointed out, an individual's unauthorized presence in the United States is not a crime; it's a civil violation of immigration law.

The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, is consistent with last year's Supreme Court ruling on Arizona's anti-immigrant statute. In that case, the Supreme Court allowed police to determine the immigration status of people they stop or arrest for other reasons. But Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the court's majority, noted it is not a crime for an illegal immigrant to be present in the country. "Detaining individuals solely to verify their immigration status would raise constitutional concerns," he wrote.

In the case of Ms. Santos, the appeals court pointed out that police who start asking questions based solely on the race or ethnicity of their interlocutor may also run afoul of the Fourth Amendment's equal protection clause.

All this may come as news to Mr. Jenkins, whose tough-guy political persona is wrapped up in harassing illegal immigrants, whom he blames for all sorts of problems, including Maryland's budgetary travails.

About 8 percent of Frederick County's 240,000 people are Hispanic, and minorities generally have contributed heavily to the county's rapid growth. That may be jarring to some county residents; it surely has presented political opportunities to officials such as Mr. Jenkins, who have gotten mileage from bashing illegal immigrants.

Nonetheless, it is the sheriff's job to uphold the law. And in the absence of probable cause to suspect criminal activity, the Fourth Amendment prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures forbids police from harassing people based solely on their presumed immigration status.

Ms. Santos, a mother of three, remains in the country while her court case continues, although she may still face deportation. In the meantime, the appeals court has determined that her constitutional rights were violated. Let's hope Mr. Jenkins gets the message.

By Editorial Board

Source: The Washington Post

Friday, August 2, 2013

Gay couples rush to wed under new Minnesota law

Dozens of gay couples began tying the knot early Thursday morning at Minneapolis City Hall as Minnesota became the latest state to legalize same-sex marriage.

The law allowed weddings to begin just after midnight Wednesday, and 42 couples were expected to be married by Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and several Hennepin County judges in the hours before dawn.

Weddings were scheduled to start at the stroke of midnight at Minneapolis City Hall, St. Paul's Como Park, Mall of America's Chapel of Love and at county courthouses around the state. One group planned a cluster of weddings in a Duluth tavern.

"I don't think either of us ever thought we'd see this day," said Mike Bolin, of the Minneapolis suburb of Richfield, who was marrying Jay Resch, his partner of six years, at Minneapolis City Hall. "We met at low points in both of our lives, and to have arrived at this point -- there's going to be a lot of tears."

Minnesota legalizing gay marriage
On the eve of Minnesota legalizing gay marriage
Rhode Island was joining Minnesota on Thursday in becoming the 12th and 13th U.S. states to allow gay marriage, along with the District of Columbia. The national gay rights group Freedom to Marry estimates that about 30 percent of the U.S. population now lives in places where gay marriage is legal. The first gay weddings in Rhode Island were planned for later Thursday morning.

In Minnesota, budget officials estimated that about 5,000 gay couples would marry in the first year. Its enactment capped a fast turnabout on the issue in just over two years. After voters rejected a constitutional ban on gay marriage last fall, the state Legislature this spring moved to make it legal.

Rhode Island becomes the last New England state to allow same-sex marriage. Lawmakers in the heavily Catholic state passed the marriage law this spring, after more than 16 years of efforts by same-sex marriage supporters. Both Minnesota and Rhode Island will automatically recognize marriages performed in other states.

Bolin and Resch celebrated Wednesday night with several hundred others at Wilde Roast Cafe along the Mississippi River north of downtown Minneapolis. Many at the event planned to walk to City Hall for the mass nuptials.

Dayton proclaimed Aug. 1 to be "Freedom to Marry Day" in Minnesota.

Golden Valley-based General Mills Inc. donated Betty Crocker cakes for the event, which was also to feature performances by local musicians and services donated by wedding photographers, florists and other businesses.

Weddings were not limited to the Twin Cities. In St. Cloud, Stearns County court administrator Tim Roberts planned to marry a couple at 12:01 a.m. at the courthouse. "It feels historic. It's an honor to be a part of it," Roberts said. Midnight weddings were also planned for courthouses in Clay County, Polk County and elsewhere.

At Mall of America, Holli Bartelt and Amy Petrich from the southeastern Minnesota town of Wykoff were set to become the first couple married at the Chapel of Love. Owner Felicia Glass-Wilcox said she hoped to start the ceremony a few minutes early, so the vows could be pronounced seconds after midnight.

"We'd like for them to be able to say they are the very first married in the state, but for sure they'll be able to say they're one of the first," Glass-Wilcox said. She said the chapel had four more gay couples booked for weddings in the next five days.

Bartelt, 33, proposed to Petrich, 37, in April in a photo booth at the Bloomington mall. It was a few weeks before the Legislature approved the law, but Bartelt said she was confident by then that it would pass. She had been in contact with a mall employee about the proposal, who later suggested the couple could be first to get married at the chapel.

Bartelt, a health coach, planned to wear an ivory-colored dress, while Petrich, a baker for Mayo Clinic, was wearing an ivory suit. A group of about 50 family members and close friends were planning to join them, including Bartelt's 10-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter.

"Everybody deserves the right to be happy," said Bartelt. "That's really what it's all about. It's a big day for us, and a big day for Minnesota, and something I hope my kids look back on some day and say, ‘Wow, we got to be part of that.'"

By Patrick Condon, AP

Source: The Time