A Bush administration proposal to encourage Medicare beneficiaries to enroll in private insurance plans for prescription drug coverage would severely restrict those patients' choice of doctors, a new Public Citizen study finds. The report looked at the effects such a proposal would have in Maine, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and West Virginia. The traditional fee-for-service Medicare system allows seniors to see doctors of their choice, which has made beneficiaries reluctant to enroll in private insurance plans that might reduce their choice of doctors. To overcome that reluctance, the administration and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) wanted to offer significant prescription drug coverage only to those willing to join private plans (either PPOs or HMOs). They see the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) as the model for reforming the Medicare program. But the report found that most doctors participating in traditional Medicare do not participate in the PPO plans offered through the FEHBP. In the 20 counties studied, less than half the Medicare general physicians were in the Blue Cross and Blue Shield PPO, the private plan with the most Medicare doctors. Fifty-two percent of Medicare cardiologists and a fourth of Medicare oncologists were in the Blue Cross and Blue Shield plan. "Being able to choose a doctor is extremely important to seniors, and this study shows that the Bush administration's plan would really place beneficiaries between a rock and a hard place," said Ben Peck, legislative representative with Public Citizen's Congress Watch. The report is available on the Web at www.citizen.org/congress/medicare5states/. As this went to press, House Republicans reportedly joined their Senate colleagues in rejecting the White House plan to provide better drug benefits for participants in private health plans, but the House GOP would introduce into Medicare controversial "means testing" for drug assistance, or requiring more affluent patients to pay more of their drug costs. And the White House hasn't given up on its plan.

ILLINOIS DEMS DO ALRIGHT. Illinois joined the small band of states with all Democratic control last fall and the results this spring have already been stunning, Nathan Newman noted at www.nathannewman.org. "It highlights what a difference getting full Democratic control of a state can make, especially for workers rights," Newman wrote. The Legislature has passed bills:

• Raising the minimum wage to $6.50 per hour by Jan 1, 2005.

• Investing in 195,000 jobs through expansion of O'Hare airport.

• Prohibiting disparities of pay on basis of gender.

• Granting the right to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for victims of sexual or domestic violence.

• Waiving Illinois' 11th Amendment immunity to federal anti-discrimination laws, essentially nullifying recent "states rights" Supreme Court decisions in Illinois. This gives state workers rights to sue under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act.

• Letting public employees form unions based on card-check recognition, meaning when a majority of workers signs cards, the union automatically is recognized as the bargaining unit.

• Amending the Illinois Human Rights Act to recognize a civil rights violation for employers adopting or implementing so-called "English-only" work rules.

• prohibiting state procurement contracts from using foreign-made goods produced by forced, convict, or indentured labor.

• Amending the Employment of Strikebreakers Act and the Day and Temporary Services Act to prevent employers from contracting with day and temporary labor service firms to replace workers during a strike or a lockout.

• Protecting whistleblowers by barring employers from creating rules or policies preventing employees from disclosing violations of law to state or federal law enforcement agencies.

MONEY TALKS. Executives of a Kansas-based energy company believed that $56,500 in donations to political groups linked to four key Republican lawmakers last year would prompt Congress to exempt their firm from a problematic federal regulation, according to documents disclosed as part of a federal investigation of the company, the Washington Post reported June 6. An executive of Westar Energy Inc. told colleagues in an e-mail that "to get a seat at the table" of a House-Senate conference committee on the Bush administration's energy plan would cost $56,500 to campaign committees, including some associated with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Tex.), Rep. Joe Barton (Tex.), Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (La.) and Sen. Richard C. Shelby (Ala.). The e-mail, which is among the exhibits in Westar's own inquiry into company practices, said Tauzin and Barton "made this request" for donations, and Shelby "made a substantial request" for another candidate. It not specify a direct request from DeLay. The exemption that Westar sought was inserted into the legislation by Barton, but it was later withdrawn after a grand jury began investigating the company for alleged wrongdoing, including securities fraud, the Post reported.

DERAIL THE WTO. Participants in the Hemispheric and Global Assembly against the Free Trade of the Americas and the World Trade Organization, held in Mexico City on May 11-12, 2003, declared a commitment to derail the Fifth Ministerial of the World Trade Organization that will take place in Cancun in September. "The WTO Ministerial will take place in the context of escalating US military aggression against the peoples and nations of the world. Washington's invasion and occupation of Iraq is simply the latest and most outrageous case of the Bush administration's unrestrained unilateralist foreign policy," the assembly resolved. "The WTO is war by other means. ... The neoliberal, free-trade paradigm incarnated in the WTO subverts the interests of people both in the South and the North. Its legacy is greater poverty, inequity, gender inequality, and indebtedness throughout the world. It has also accelerated the destruction of the global environment." The assembly will convene a week-long People's Forum for Alternatives to the WTO on Sept. 9-14, 2003. It calls for massive united and coordinated demonstrations on Sept. 9, the Day of Global Action against the WTO, and on Sept. 13, the Day of Massive Demonstrations against Globalization and War. See www.tradewatch.org.

TRADE CASUALTIES BRIEF CONGRESS. US Trade Rep. Robert Zoellick argues that free trade helps US workers, saying, "It is our shared hemispheric vision that free trade and openness benefits everyone and provides opportunity, prosperity and hope to all our peoples." But since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, the US has lost three million jobs. Today, Americans in the post-NAFTA economy work longer hours with less job security and fewer benefits. Wages have remained stagnant and low-skill jobs created by free trade agreements on average pay 13% less than before. "One of the great myths perpetuated by the United States government is that free trade helps poor people and communities in America," said Anuradha Mittal, co-director of Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, which organized a June 12 briefing on the harsh reality behind free trade. "With our economy on the skids and unemployment on the rise, now more than ever, it is time for us to review how NAFTA and our trade policies have had a damaging effect on this economy," said US Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio), chairman of the House Progressive Caucus. For more information, see www.foodfirst.org.

WHITE HOUSE THREATENS HEAD START. On May 8, the Bush administration sent a letter to Head Start programs nationwide warning them to shut up about the president's policies toward the early childhood program, Salon.com reported May 31. The letter, signed by Windy Hill, associate commissioner of the Head Start Bureau in the Department of Health and Human Services, was a response to a campaign by the private, nonprofit National Head Start Association urging Head Start parents and employees to write or email their representatives to protest what they say is the president's dismantling of the program. "Your political activities are governed and, in many ways, restricted or limited by federal law," Hill's letter said. The National Head Start Association insists it never asked Head Start staff to spend either time or resources on protest. It simply tried to mobilize Head Start supporters in a letter-writing campaign against the president's plan -- much of which is incorporated in a House bill introduced May 21. Head Start money now goes directly from the federal government to community associations that administer the program. Under the Bush proposal, though, governors could request their share of the money as a block grant to be administered on the state level. According to Edward Zigler, a Yale psychology professor who helped invent Head Start and ran it in the Nixon administration, the states wouldn't be required to involve parents in the same way they now do, nor would they be required to provide the same level of healthcare and social services to Head Start families.

US TAKES PRISON SWEEPSTAKES. With a record-setting 2 million people locked up in American jails and prisons, the United States has overtaken Russia and has a higher percentage of its citizens behind bars than any other country, the Baltimore Sun reported June 1. "Why, in the land of the free, should 2 million men, women and children be locked up?" asks Andrew Coyle, director of the International Centre for Prison Studies at the University of London and a leading authority on incarceration. During the 1990s, the US and Russia vied for the highest incarceration rate on the planet. But in the past few years, Russian authorities have carried out large-scale amnesties to ease crowding in disease-infested prisons, and the US has emerged unchallenged into first place, at 702 prisoners per 100,000 population. Russia has 665 prisoners per 100,000. Today the United States imprisons at a far greater rate not only than other developed Western nations do, but also than impoverished and authoritarian countries do. On a per capita basis, according to the best available figures, the US has three times more prisoners than Iran, four times more than Poland, five times more than Tanzania and seven times more than Germany. Maryland has more citizens in prison and jail (an estimated 35,200) than all of Canada (31,600), though Canada's population is six times greater.

A major cause of the increase is the war on drugs. In 1980, says Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project in Washington, about 40,000 Americans were locked up solely for drug offenses. Now the number is 450,000, three-fourths of them black or Hispanic, although drug use is no higher in those groups than among whites. Many governors and legislators are wondering whether they can afford to house more and more offenders at an average of $25,000 a year each. Justice Department figures show that nine states reduced their prison populations last year, including Texas, Illinois and New York.

BUSH'S NAZI TIES. When George W. Bush started his trip to Europe and the Middle East with a May 31 visit to the former Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, in Poland, he reportedly meant to drive home the "dangers of evil unchecked." Unnoticed in the mainstream media was the Bush family's financial ties to the Nazi regime before and during World War II. In 1942, under the Trading With the Enemy Act, the US government seized several companies in which George W. Bush's grandfather, Prescott Bush, had an interest, including the Union Banking Corp. (UBC), for doing business with Germany. Prescott was an investment banker with Brown Brothers Harriman (BBH), which funneled US capital into Germany during the 1920s and '30s. Bush's great-grandfather, George Herbert Walker, was president of UBC, which was controlled by German industrialist Fritz Thyssen, an early financier of the Nazi party. UBC was seized by the US government for trading with Germany. When UBC was liquidated after the war, the $1.5 million Prescott Bush received helped stake the first business venture of son George H.W. Bush (father of the current president), according to John Loftus, a former prosecutor in the Justice Department's War Crimes Unit, who later was president of the Florida Holocaust Museum in Saint Petersburg, Fla. (See www.john-loftus.com/Thyssen.asp.)

PHILLY SETS CIVIL LIBERTIES SAFE ZONE. The Philadelphia City Council with a 15-3 vote May 29 joined 115 other local governments and three state governments from around the country in declaring the city a "civil liberties safe zone" and calling for repeal of certain sections of the USA PATRIOT Act and federal executive orders that threaten essential liberties. Introduced by Councilman Angel Ortiz, the resolution called for the "Philadelphia Congressional Delegation to vigilantly monitor the implementation of the USA PATRIOT Act and to actively work to repeal the Act." Citing the long struggle for civil liberties in the United States, several council members spoke out in favor of the resolution. None spoke in opposition. See the Bill of Rights Defense Committee website at www.bordc.org for information on the national grassroots movement to restore civil liberties.

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