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OBAMA: 'LIVES HAVE BEEN SAVED' BY NSA PROGRAMS

Wednesday, 19 June 2013 11:35 Published in National News
BERLIN (AP) — Trying to tamp down concerns about government over-reach, President Barack Obama on Wednesday defended U.S. Internet and phone surveillance programs as narrowly targeted efforts that have saved lives and thwarted at least 50 terror threats.

"This is not a situation in which we are rifling through ordinary emails" of huge numbers of citizens in the United States or elsewhere, the president declared during a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He called it as a "circumscribed, narrow" surveillance program.

"Lives have been saved," Obama said, adding that the program has been closely supervised by the courts to ensure that any encroachment of privacy is strictly limited.

Merkel, for her part, said it was important to continue debate about how to strike "an equitable balance" between providing security and protecting personal freedoms.

"There has to be proportionality," she said. She added that their discussion on the matter Wednesday was "an important first step" over striking a balance.

Merkel appeared to be looking to avoid a public rift with Washington over the surveillance program, particularly since Germans benefit from U.S. intelligence. Much of the German criticism of the program has come from her junior coalition partners, facing the prospect of losses in the September election and looking for an issue.

The two leaders spoke to the media after meeting privately on a range of issues confronting U.S. and European leaders, including the fragile effort to bring peace in Afghanistan, where peace talks with the Taliban are in the offing to find ways to end the nearly 12-year war. Earlier Wednesday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai suspended talks with the United States on a new security deal to protest the way his government was being left out of the initial peace negotiations with the Taliban.

Obama said the U.S. had anticipated "there were going to be some areas of friction, to put it mildly, in getting this thing off the ground. That's not surprising. They've been fighting there for a long time" and mistrust is rampant.

Karzai said Wednesday that peace talks cannot begin amid "fighting and bloodshed." But Obama said it was important to pursue a parallel track toward reconciliation even as the fighting continues, and it would up to the Afghan people whether that effort ultimately bears fruit.

On another world trouble spot, the 2-year-old Syrian civil war, the president declined to provide details on the type of military support the U.S. will provide to opposition forces. But he said the administration had been consistent in working toward the over-riding goal of a Syria that is "peaceful, non-sectarian, democratic, legitimate, tolerant."

"I cannot and will not comment on specifics around our programs related to the Syrian opposition," he said.

The president said while world leaders at the just-completed Group of 8 summit in Northern Ireland could not agree on whether Syrian President Bashar Assad must go, he believes Assad cannot regain legitimacy.

And the president offered reassurances on another issue of particular concern in Germany. In response to a question from a German reporter, Obama said the United States doesn't use Germany as a launching point for unmanned drones to strike terrorist targets. He said he knows there have been some reports in Germany speculating that was the case, but it's not so.

Later Wednesday, Obama planned to draw attention to his plan for a one-third reduction in U.S. and Russian arsenals, rekindling a goal that was a centerpiece of his early first-term national security agenda.

His 26-hour whirlwind visit to the German capital caps three days of international summitry for the president and marks his return to a place where he once summoned a throng of 200,000 to share his ambitious vision for American leadership.

Obama will make the case for his nuclear plan during a speech at Berlin's iconic Brandenburg Gate. His address comes nearly 50 years after John F. Kennedy's famous Cold War speech in this once-divided city, and five years after Obama spoke in the city during his 2008 run for president.

The president has previously called for reductions to the stockpiles and is not expected to outline a timeline for this renewed push. But by addressing the issue in a major foreign policy speech, Obama is signaling a desire to rekindle an issue that was a centerpiece of his early first-term national security agenda.

Five years later, Obama comes to deliver a highly anticipated speech to a country that's a bit more sober about his aspirations and the extent of his successes, yet still eager to receive his attention at a time that many here feel that Europe, and Germany in particular, are no longer U.S. priorities. A Pew Research Center poll of Germans found that while their views of the U.S. have slipped since Obama's first year in office, he has managed to retain his popularity, with 88 percent of those surveyed approving of his foreign policies.

Obama also has an arc of history to fulfill.

Fifty years ago next week, President Kennedy addressed a crowd of 450,000 in that then-divided city to repudiate communism and famously declare "Ich bin ein Berliner," German for "I am a Berliner." Since then, presidents from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton have used Berlin speeches to articulate broad themes about freedom and international alliances.

Obama, fresh from a two-day summit of the Group of Eight industrial economies, placed his hand over his heart outside the sunny presidential palace as a German military band played "The Star-Spangled Banner," the American national anthem. He and German President Joachim Gauck inspected a lineup of German military troops before entering the palace, stopping to greet children who waved American and German flags.

The visit was attracting widespread attention in Germany. People waved and snapped photos as Obama sped by after his arrival and a thick cluster awaited the motorcade as it passed the Brandenburg Gate. An evening news show in Berlin devoted itself to the president's visit, highlighting "Das Biest," or "The Beast," as the president's armored limousine is called.

There have been a few small protests, including one directed against the National Security Agency's surveillance of foreign communications, where about 50 people waved placards taunting, "Yes, we scan."

Merkel has said she was surprised at the scope of the spying that was revealed and said the U.S. must clarify what information is monitored. But she also said U.S. intelligence was key to foiling a large-scale terror plot and acknowledged her country is "dependent" on cooperating with American spy services.

For Merkel, the visit presents an opportunity to bolster her domestic standing ahead of a general election in September.

The U.S. and the Germans have clashed on economic issues, with Obama pressing for Europe to prime the economy with government stimulus measures, while Merkel has insisted on pressing debt-ridden countries to stabilize their fiscal situations first.

But the two sides have found common ground on a trans-Atlantic trade pact between the European Union and the U.S. At the just-completed G-8 summit, the leaders agreed to hold the first talks next month in the U.S.

___ Associated Press writers Julie Pace, Robert Reid and Frank Jordans contributed to this report.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Medicare begins a major change next month that could save older diabetics money and time when they buy crucial supplies to test their blood sugar - but it also may cause some confusion as patients figure out the new system.

On July 1, Medicare opens a national mail-order program that will dramatically drop the prices the government pays for those products but patients will have to use designated suppliers. The goal is to save taxpayers money but seniors should see their copays drop, too.

Don't care about the convenience of mail delivery? Just over half of the 4.2 million diabetics with traditional Medicare coverage used mail-order last year, but starting July 1 beneficiaries also can get the new lower price at drugstores enrolled in the Medicare program.

"Those who like the face-to-face interaction with the pharmacist have that choice," stressed Jonathan Blum, Medicare deputy administrator. "We want to preserve both options."

It's the biggest expansion yet of a larger, and somewhat controversial, initiative that's predicted to save taxpayers nearly $26 billion over the next decade by cracking down on waste and fraud in the medical equipment industry. Diabetics aren't the only Medicare patients affected. Depending on where they live, patients who rent home oxygen gear and hospital beds, or who need power wheelchairs, walkers and certain other equipment also could see changes in their suppliers and lower prices as a pilot test of this so-called competitive bidding program expands from nine metro areas to a total of 100 on July 1. Medicare is supposed to apply the lower pricing nationally by 2016.

The diabetes initiative is the first to go nationwide - and Blum said it should put an end to unscrupulous practices such as shipping cartons of supplies to diabetics who haven't run out yet and billing Medicare for the cost.

The concern: Potentially hundreds of thousands of older patients may have to switch mail-order suppliers. The American Diabetes Association worries they won't get the word before their supplies run short - or might be pressured to switch to a cheaper brand of blood-sugar monitor and the matching supplies even though that's against the rules.

"We're sort of torn, truthfully," said Krista Maier, the association's associate director of public policy. "It will save the Medicare program money, which is good for its sustainability. The challenge is ensuring that beneficiaries' testing of their blood glucose isn't disrupted."

Here are some questions and answers about the program:

Q: What's the big change?

A: Until now, hundreds of mail-order companies could bill Medicare for the test strips, lancets and other supplies that diabetics use to measure and track their blood sugar. Under the new national program, Medicare patients can order from only 18 mail-order companies that won government contracts and will be subject to more oversight. (The change doesn't apply to Medicare Advantage patients.)

Check the list at HTTP://WWW.MEDICARE.GOV/SUPPLIER or by calling 1-800-MEDICARE. Some companies operate under multiple names.

Q: What if the new companies don't sell my brand?

A: Medicare's list shows different suppliers sell a mix of top-selling brands as well as generics - and you're not required to change your existing monitor. But you may need to shop around or get a doctor's note that specifies you need a specific type, so plan ahead.

Q: What's the price difference?

A: Medicare has paid about $78 for 100 test strips and lancets, just over a month's supply for someone who tests his or her blood sugar three times a day. Remarkably, that rate was higher than other insurers typically pay. Starting July 1, that reimbursement will drop to about $22. The patient copay is 20 percent, so it will drop from about $15 to less than $5.

Q: What if I want to buy at my local drugstore instead?

A: Ask if it accepts "Medicare assignment," meaning it has to honor the July 1 prices. Some large chains are reassuring customers that they're participating. But pharmacies that aren't enrolled in Medicare are allowed to charge patients more.

Q: How did the program work in the nine test cities?

A: Medicare says patients had plenty of supplies. But surprisingly, mail-order claims dropped the first year. The Department of Health and Human Services' inspector general discovered that some suppliers were billing Medicare for drugstore-sold supplies - which at the time were reimbursed at a higher rate - even though they actually shipped cheaper mail-order supplies. Congress later closed that loophole, mandating the same reimbursement for drugstores and mail-order starting July 1.

Q: What's happening with other medical equipment?

A: That part of the initiative has hit some bumps. Medicare had awarded contracts to nearly 800 suppliers of those items but it turned out that some didn't have certain licenses required by state authorities. Medicare says it has voided 30 of 96 supplier contracts in Tennessee, but that enough remain to do the job. It is investigating the situation in Maryland.

The home supply industry's American Association for Homecare, which opposes Medicare's competitive bidding program, says the licensing issue is a symptom of broader problems. Members of Congress last week asked Medicare to delay the program's expansion, but that's not expected to happen.

© 2013 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED. Learn more about our PRIVACY POLICY and TERMS OF USE.

NONPROFIT LAUNCHES CAMPAIGN TO REACH UNINSURED

Wednesday, 19 June 2013 11:29 Published in Health & Fitness
CHICAGO (AP) -- A nonprofit group helping to spread the word about President Barack Obama's health care overhaul launched a campaign Tuesday that will target states with high numbers of uninsured Americans and tackle their skepticism with straightforward messages.

The "Get Covered America" campaign will include door-to-door visits by volunteers, brochures handed out at farmers markets and churches and, possibly, partnerships with sports leagues and celebrities, said Anne Filipic, a former White House official who recently became president of Enroll America, the group sponsoring the campaign.

The group's research shows 78 percent of uninsured adults don't know about opportunities that will be available to them in 2014 under the Affordable Care Act, Filipic said Tuesday during a phone call with reporters. The campaign is expected to cost tens of millions of dollars, including a seven-figure media ad buy.

"If they don't know about it, then they won't enroll," Filipic said. "We've done our research. We know people want to know what the law means for them in a `just the facts' sort of way."

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has drawn criticism from Republicans for making fundraising calls for Enroll America. Earlier this month, Sebelius told members of Congress she made five phone calls for Enroll America, two of which involved actual fundraising solicitations, to Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and H&R Block, entities not regulated by HHS.

She also called three health care companies to "suggest that the entities take a look at the organization (Enroll America)" but did not make a fundraising solicitation to those three. They were Johnson & Johnson, Ascension Health and Kaiser Permanente.

Sebelius said the HHS secretary has the legal authority to raise money for initiatives that support government health programs.

The federal government itself will spend millions on marketing and advertising about the health law, but the spending will vary greatly across the nation because some Republican-led states haven't sought federal dollars for ad campaigns.

Enroll America's campaign will start with 50 events in 18 states, Filipic said. The group has staff on the ground in eight states, including Texas and Florida and others where government officials have resisted key parts of Obama's health law such as the expansion of Medicaid.

"We know that most of the uninsured don't know about the new coverage options coming this fall, let alone whether or not their state is expanding Medicaid," Filipic said. "Many of the uninsured are eligible for Medicaid today but have not enrolled, and those who are not eligible for Medicaid may qualify for coverage through the marketplace."

Obama's national health law requires that nearly all Americans have health insurance beginning in 2014 or pay a penalty. New insurance marketplaces are scheduled to be operating in every state by Oct. 1. People who are uninsured will be able to comparison-shop for affordable health plans on these websites and many will qualify for tax credits to help them pay for coverage.

The organization is building a predictive model to determine where to target the uninsured and will track which of its tactics are most effective, Filipic said.

"We're going to be doing a lot of testing to see what works," she said. "What moves someone to attend an event or call a phone number? We'll be doing a lot of work to test and analyze that."

In a parallel effort, a group called Doctors for America plans to host training sessions for doctors and print posters and brochures for medical waiting rooms.

Skepticism about the law's benefits is widespread. Enroll America's January survey of 1,814 adults found that most people are skeptical they'll be able to find affordable health insurance that covers their needs. When presented with a specific premium amount they might pay, less than a third of respondents felt that the premium was in the affordable range.

"Survey results suggest using a specific premium amount may actually turn away just as many people as it might motivate," according to the survey report on Enroll America's website.

Broader statements - such as "You might be able to get financial help to pay for a health insurance plan" and "If you have a pre-existing condition, insurance plans cannot deny you coverage" - tested better with the survey group.

Enroll America has staff on ground in Texas, Florida, Ohio, Arizona, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. It soon will add staff in Illinois and Georgia.

Kicking off the campaign this week, the Get Covered America team and its community partners plan to host more than 50 events in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas.

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