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The Buzz

Need-to-know news

Issue: "Profiles in effective compassion," Sept. 26, 2009

Open door policy

President Barack Obama in his Sept. 9 speech to a joint session of Congress said, "If you come to me with a serious set of proposals, I will be there to listen. My door is always open." Advocates of innovative, patient-centered Christian healthcare groups may test that.

Representing about 34,000 families but growing, healthcare sharing ministries (HCSM), in which a pool of believers share their insurance costs, are pouring limited resources into lobbying efforts to ensure they are not left out of a final healthcare overhaul. But they face a long road.

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Samaritan Ministries International, Christian Care Medi-Share, and Christian Health Care Ministries are not recognized by the federal government as official health insurance providers. That's bad news if Congress passes a bill that includes mandates requiring individuals to purchase federally approved insurance plans. Such mandates are gaining wider bipartisan acceptance and are expected to be a part of any changes.

"We are looking at complete obliteration of the ministries as they exist," warned James Lansberry, president of the Alliance of Health Care Sharing Ministries.

The groups did not succeed in getting language protecting such organizations into the 1,000-page House healthcare bill that has already passed committee.

But Martin Hoyt, a lobbyist for the groups, said he is more hopeful about prospects in the Senate. They have submitted protection language to the Senate Finance Committee's bipartisan "Gang of 6" currently trying to hammer out a consensus. But such protection provisions were missing in Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus' preliminary outline.

These groups should be worried: Mandates would grant broad new enforcement powers to the Treasury Department, which would task the IRS with collecting the penalties for individuals and employers who forgo government-approved insurance. "The mandate is going to be a bigger problem than people think," worries Lansberry. "It's a backdoor reduction in our freedom to make individu l healthcare choices." - Edward Lee Pitts

Closed case

A New Orleans physician in charge of critically ill patients during Hurricane Katrina has admitted that he "hastened" the death of 79-year-old Jannie Burgess-a woman with advanced uterine cancer and liver failure-by increasing her morphine dose. "I gave her medicine so I could get rid of her faster," said Dr. Ewing Cook, who was working at Memorial Medical Center during a lengthy evacuation during the autumn 2005 disaster. "To me, it was a no-brainer, and to this day I don't feel bad about what I did."

Cook told ProPublica that medical personnel gave morphine and midazolam to critically ill patients who they thought couldn't be evacuated or survive the ordeal. Three Memorial staff members were arrested in 2006 on euthanasia allegations but were never indicted, even though forensic experts determined several of the 45 patient bodies recovered from the hospital had received lethal injections of sedatives. Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell says he will not reopen the Memorial euthanasia investigation.

Released

Nearly two months after at least seven Pakistani Christians died in Muslim attacks over alleged blasphemy against Islam, an Afghan journalist escaped a similar fate: A court in northern Afghanistan released Perwiz Kambakhsh, a reporter for an Afghan daily newspaper, nearly two years after sentencing him to death for criticizing Islam. Officials arrested Kambakhsh in late 2007 for downloading and distributing an article that said the Prophet Muhammad ignored women's rights. A court sentenced Kambakhsh, 24, to death, but later reduced his sentence to 20 years in jail following pressure from the Afghan media and Western critics.

The court released Kambakhsh in early September and the journalist relocated to an undisclosed country, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Arm in arms

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez arrived in Moscow Sept. 10 ready to buy tanks and other weaponry sufficient to double his armored vehicle arsenal. Chavez has previously amassed tanks at the Colombian border and has renewed tension over Colombia's plan to allow U.S. troops to use Colombian bases for anti-narcotics operations.

The Moscow stop was part of a world tour that included six countries. In Iran, Chavez emphasized the "axis of unity" between the two countries and announced plans for a "nuclear village" in Venezuela with Iranian assistance, "so that the Venezuelan people can count in the future with this marvelous resource for peaceful uses." The two oil-rich states plan to trade uranium yet to be mined in Venezuela for nuclear energy produced in Iran, which has earned Tehran UN Security Council sanctions.

Improvement indicators

The Federal Reserve's latest Beige Book report, an anecdotal measure of economic conditions by district, said five out of 12 Fed regional banks saw signs of economic conditions improving, while six reported stability. Don't want to take the Fed's word for it? The Institute for Supply Management's survey of factories and industry turned positive for the first time since spring, rising to 52.9, from 48.9 in July. A reading above 50 indicates expansion and growth; a number below 50 means economic contraction.

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