- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 1, 2008

MEDICARE

Agency to delay doctor payments

The Bush administration said Monday it will delay paying doctors for treating Medicare patients in early July to give Congress more time to block a scheduled 10.6 percent fee cut.

The decision by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services doesn’t block the cut, scheduled to take place Tuesday. It’s up to Congress to decide that.

But to give Congress more time to act, the agency will instruct its contractors not to process any physician or non-physician Medicare claims for health care services given during the first 10 business days of July. Claims for services received on or before June 30 will be processed as usual.



“CMS will not be making any payments on the 10.6 percent reduction until July 15,” at the earliest, agency spokesman Jeff Nelligan said.

Congress, not willing to face millions of angry seniors at the polls in November, will almost certainly act quickly when it returns to Washington the week of July 7 to prevent the cuts in payments for some 600,000 doctors who treat Medicare patients. The cuts were scheduled because of a formula that requires fee cuts when spending exceeds established goals.

HOUSE

51 Republicans seek cut in ethanol

More than four dozen House Republicans asked the Environmental Protection Agency on Monday to reduce required ethanol production this year, saying renewable fuel standards enacted by Congress will boost already high corn prices in the wake of Midwest floods.

“The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) is a significant factor in the increased cost of commodities, which is causing severe economic harm for low-income Americans and livestock producers,” the 51 lawmakers, led by Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia, senior Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, said in a letter to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson.

“The [Bush] administration can immediately impact the supply of corn that will be used for food and feed and lessen the severe economic harm facing millions of Americans,” Mr. Goodlatte and the others wrote.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry asked EPA in April to cut by half a requirement in last year’s energy law to produce 9 billion gallons of ethanol in 2008 for blending into gasoline. That’s 30 percent to 35 percent of the nation’s corn crop this year, the Agriculture Department says.

Corn prices have surged more than 80 percent in the past year due to sharp increases in global demand to feed people and livestock and to make ethanol for gasoline blends.

HOUSE

Bush aides said to shun EPA e-mail

White House officials refused to open e-mail from the Environmental Protection Agency that said global warming threatens public welfare and urged more fuel-efficient cars, congressional staff said Monday.

The e-mailed documents were sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget in December, staff on the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming said.

This was part of the environment agency’s response to a landmark 2007 Supreme Court ruling that for the first time found that greenhouse gases can be regulated as a pollutant under the U.S. Clean Air Act.

The documents included two key findings, the staff members said in a telephone interview with Reuters news agency, speaking on the condition of anonymity: first, that climate change is a threat to public welfare and second, that boosting fuel efficiency in motor vehicles would help address the problem.

But Bush administration officials at the Office of Management and Budget said they would not accept the e-mailed documents, the congressional staff members said, after reviewing the documents and interviewing EPA workers.

WHITE HOUSE

Mum’s the word on anti-Iran funds

The White House declined to comment Monday on a report that Congress last year approved $400 million to ramp up covert operations in Iran to undermine Tehran’s leadership.

“I couldn’t comment either way,” spokeswoman Dana Perino said after the New Yorker magazine reported that Congress passed President Bush‘s funding request for a dramatic increase in such secret operations.

Asked about the likelihood of U.S. military action against Tehran’s disputed nuclear program before the president leaves office in January 2009, the spokeswoman said Mr. Bush “is singularly focused on trying to solve this issue diplomatically.”

The New Yorker, which cited former military, intelligence and congressional sources, said the funding revealed a “major escalation” in clandestine operations aimed at destabilizing the Islamic republic’s religious leadership amid concerns over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

Among the methods being used are increased U.S. support for minority and dissident groups and intelligence gathering about Iran’s nuclear facilities, said the article, written and reported by Seymour Hersh.

COURTS

‘Torture’ victim loses U.S. case

NEW YORK | A Canadian who says he was whisked off a plane in New York and sent illegally to Syria where he was tortured for a year lost his case against the U.S. government Monday on a technicality.

Maher Arar, a Syrian-born software engineer, sued U.S. officials in 2004 over his arrest during a 2002 stopover in New York and subsequent deportation to Syria because of suspected links to al Qaeda.

In a case that roiled U.S.-Canadian relations, he says he was imprisoned in Syria for a year and tortured.

Mr. Arar had argued his constitutional rights were violated when he was confined without access to a lawyer or the courts and then forcibly returned to Syria, where U.S. authorities had reason to believe he would be tortured.

But the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, affirming a lower court decision, ruled that Mr. Arar failed to establish that the federal court had jurisdiction to hear his complaint.

“Arar has not adequately established federal subject matter jurisdiction over his request for a judgment declaring that defendants acted illegally by removing him to Syria so that Syrian authorities could interrogate him under torture,” the ruling said.

WHITE HOUSE

Order streamlines background checks

President Bush signed an executive order Monday streamlining the background checks undergone by federal employees, including those who need security clearances to access secret information.

The move is the latest in a series of efforts to reduce the delay and duplication that has characterized these processes for many years, leading to frustratingly long waits for new hires. It is a problem that has dogged successive administrations, but which has become especially severe since the huge expansion of U.S. intelligence agencies and contractors following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

“Everybody - Congress, the administration, industry - wants this to work,” Clay Johnson, the deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget told United Press International. “They want us to make these determinations faster.”

POSTAL SERVICE

‘Focal points’ aim to smooth work

The Postal Service on Monday announced a reorganization that officials expect to streamline agency operations.

The change will create two “focal points” for the agency, one to deal with shipping and mailing services and the other to work with customers and others outside the post office.

Robert F. Bernstock has been hired as president of the newly created Shipping and Mailing Services Division, Postmaster General John Potter said.

Mr. Bernstock has served as president and chief operating officer of Scotts Miracle-Gro Co., senior vice president and general manager of the Dial Corp., president and chief executive of Atlas Commerce and executive vice president of Campbell Soup Co.

His division is responsible for about $70 billion in annual business for the post office and consolidates portions of the agency involved in air and ground shipping.

Mr. Bernstock “is not shackled with a mail background,” allowing him to bring an outside business perspective to the agency, Mr. Potter said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press.

The second focal point, Customer Relations, will combine consumer and business customer relationships, external and internal communications and pricing under Stephen Kearney, a current postal officer.

LOUISIANA

Jindal vetoes raise for state legislators

BATON ROUGE, La. | Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has vetoed a bill that would have doubled salaries for the state’s lawmakers.

The Republican had previously said he would not veto the bill even though he didn’t agree with the raise. The veto came after several election recall petitions were filed against Mr. Jindal and other state legislators.

The pay raise has been sharply criticized by bloggers and talk-radio hosts.

The bill would have paid lawmakers $37,500 a year. The National Conference of State Legislatures says it would have made Louisiana legislators the highest-paid in the South and the 14th highest-paid in the country.

From wire dispatches and staff reports

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