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Analysis, background reports and updates from the PBS NewsHour putting today's news in context.

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    A mother carrying an infant on her back attends a meeting of women from several communities eradicating female genital mutilation, in the western Senegalese village of Diabougo, September 10, 2007. Tostan, a small Senegalese aid group credited with launching a grass roots campaign to abolish female circumcision in West Africa, will be awarded the $1.5 million Hilton Prize in New York on Wednesday. Picture taken September 10, 2007. To match feature SENEGAL-MUTILATION/CAMPAIGN    REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly (SENEGAL) - RTR1TR55

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    Editor’s note: This report contains content that may not be suitable for all viewers.

    MEGAN THOMPSON: When Aissata Camara was 13, she immigrated to Queens, New York, from the West African Country of Guinea. She fit in, went to high school and college in the city, and earned a master’s degree at New York University. But there was a part of her life she told no one about, something she thought people here would not understand. She was subjected to female genital mutilation.

    AISSATA CAMARA: It was very lonely. Because who spoke to me about it? No one. So, you’re here, you’re carrying this big secret with you, and no one is there to help you.

    MEGAN THOMPSON: According to the World Health Organization, between 100 and 140 million women have under-gone female genital mutilation, also known as “cutting.” The United Nations says it’s practiced mostly in 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East, even though it’s been outlawed in most of them. In Egypt, Somalia and Guinea, it’s estimated more than 90 percent of women have been cut.

    The World Health Organization says the ancient practice ranges from removing part or all of a girl’s clitoris to, in the most severe cases, narrowing the vaginal opening by sewing it almost completely shut. The thinking behind it varies. In Guinea, Aissata says it’s believed to keep a girl from being promiscuous and more eligible for marriage. She was 11-years-old when her aunts came to take her. She hid under her bed.

    AISSATA CAMARA: You go to the cutter’s house. And then, you all sit down. And it’s by age. And the one person goes in. You hear them scream. They’re coming out crying. Next person goes in. You hear them scream. They’re coming out crying. Your basic human instinct is to run away. You don’t want to be there.

    MEGAN THOMPSON: Parts of Aissata’s clitoris and labia were removed by a cutter, who used no anesthesia. She says it happened to virtually every girl she knew, but no one talked about it. 16 years later, she still feels pain from the scarring, endures embarrassing conversations with doctors and boyfriends. And, she says, she will never forget the fear.

    AISSATA CAMARA: Obviously, prior to me being cut, I knew my body. I knew who I was. And– and then, once you are cut, you become a different person. So, I think also for me, the fear– I feel– wanting to run away from something and then not being able to. I think that it does something to you. I think that it– it really touches you to the core of yourself.

    MEGAN THOMPSON: No one knows how many women and girls living in the U.S. have been subjected to female genital mutilation, or “FGM.” There’s no system to track or report it. But in the last 15 years, the number of immigrants from Africa has doubled, to around 1.8 million. One research group — the Population Reference Bureau – estimates half a million African women and girls in the U.S. have been subjected to FGM or are at risk of it happening to them. It’s especially a concern here in New York, which has the largest population of African immigrants in the country.

    MARIAMA DIALLO: It’s horrible. It is a violation of the right of the woman. What they are taking will never come back.

    MEGAN THOMPSON: Mariama Diallo is a social worker serving New York City’s large community of African immigrants. She has seen a rising number of women grappling with the consequences of FGM, which can include trouble with menstruation and child birth. And, women can have trouble finding doctors sensitive to the issue. Diallo also sees girls threatened by FGM, and mothers facing social pressure to have it done on their daughters, even if they don’t want to.

    MARIAMA DIALLO: Someone who didn’t go through FGM is completely excluded from the community. So, the fear of being excluded from the community makes people go through it. Or the family honor. And some families don’t want to have a woman in- inside the family that is not mutilated because it can affect the reputation of the family. And also, some people say it is because it’s the way to become a woman.

    MEGAN THOMPSON: Diallo says it’s rare, but she’s seen young women sent back to Africa to have it done. It’s known as “vacation cutting” because it usually happens during summer vacation from school.

    MARIAMA DIALLO: I have four cases like that. They are U.S. citizens, born in the United States, but went for vacation and it happened. But I hear a lot from my client, also. Like, someone in the community, their neighbors who sent their child to Africa for the purpose of FGM.

    MEGAN THOMPSON: Diallo says doctors and educators could play an important role in identifying girls at risk, but many haven’t had the training. Diallo helped one client whose family planned to send her back to Africa to be cut. She’d tried to get help at school.

    MARIAMA DIALLO: And she went to school, she spoke with the guidance counselor who did not know what she was talking about. And the guidance counselor sent her back home. And I think if it was another case where the child went to see a guidance counselor, told the guidance counselor something as simple as, ‘I don’t feel safe. I’m not going back home,’ they would call the Children’s Services. But with FGM, they see it as a cultural problem. So, they don’t want to get involved. And I think this is a serious problem because it is, you know, it is a child abuse.

    JOE CROWLEY: No one knows about it.

    MEGAN THOMPSON: Congressman Joseph Crowley represents parts of Queens and the Bronx, both home to large immigrant populations. FGM is outlawed in the U.S., and in 2013, Crowley helped pass a law also making it illegal to take girls out of the country to have it performed. But there have been no prosecutions so far, and Crowley admits it’s nearly impossible to know how often it actually happens.

    JOE CROWLEY: I think it is a sensitive issue, but we need to talk about it. Right now there– there’s silence. It just happens. And I think that’s what really needs to be addressed.

    MEGAN THOMPSON: Do we know that this is a widespread problem? Or is it just maybe a few isolated incidents?

    JOE CROWLEY: We know that the potential is there. If it’s one girl, in my opinion, it’s one girl too many. And I think that’s what we need to focus on. We know it has happened, we know it can happen and probably will happen again. And we– our country, the United States, needs to do more.

    MEGAN THOMPSON: Crowley and others point to Britain where, last month, Prime Minister David Cameron called for a crackdown on the practice. Already, the U.K. offers passport inserts for girls traveling to Africa explaining that FGM is illegal. Last week, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued new guidelines for doctors to report cases they see, and how to better treat women subjected to it.

    MEGAN THOMPSON: When we’re talking about something that is so hidden, it’s so secretive, it involves girls who may not even understand what’s happening to them or happened to them? How do you police that?

    JOE CROWLEY: It’s very difficult. But I do think that we need an awareness campaign, to talk about the issue– to have posters at airports and have doctors and nurses and educators and law enforcement engage in understanding that it is against the law to do this and they should be on the outlook– lookout. I don’t think people want to willingly break the law. I think if they know that– that– that something has been made– illegal, that they will respect the law.

    MEGAN THOMPSON: Last year, advocates gathered more than 220,000 signatures on a petition to demanding better data.

    JAHA DUKUREH: In order to eradicate FGM here in the United States, we need updated statistics.

    MEGAN THOMPSON: In response, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now working on its own study of how many girls in the U.S. may be at risk. And the White House has asked federal agencies to find ways to address the issue. And next week, advocates are launching a new campaign to get more states to pass their own laws banning FMG – only about half of them currently do.

    Aissata Camara agrees with criminalizing the genital cutting that happened to her. But she says people need to understand families often think the practice in their girls’ best interest, not realizing the long-term consequences.

    AISSATA CAMARA: We need to stop looking at them as if they are barbarians coming from other places and we have to respect– people’s culture, no matter what it is. And then, from that respect is, ‘I respect your idea of thinking that you are protecting your child. But here are the reasons why you are not. And here are the reasons why you need to change this.’

    MEGAN THOMPSON: Aissata is speaking out about what she went through. She’s launching her own group to fight FGM in the U.S. She says most people don’t realize a problem that seems so distant could be hitting so close to home.

    AISSATA CAMARA: I look like you. I went to school here. I am as American as I think anyone is. But I went through it. So, let’s wake up. Let’s wake up. And let’s start thinking about the fact that there is someone around you that might be going through this.

    The post Advocates warn genital cutting may increase during summer months appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    Defense Secretary Ash Carter pauses on the tarmac before boarding a plane to Israel, Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, July 19, 2015. Officials say Washington has no plans to offer new weaponry as compensation for the Iran deal. Photo by Carolyn Kaster/Reuters

    Defense Secretary Ash Carter pauses on the tarmac before boarding a plane to Israel, Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, July 19, 2015. Officials say Washington has no plans to offer new weaponry as compensation for the Iran deal. Photo by Carolyn Kaster/Reuters

    WASHINGTON — In the face of Israeli outrage over the Iran nuclear accord, the Pentagon is moving quickly to reinforce arguably the strongest part of the U.S.-Israeli relationship: military cooperation.

    But officials say Washington has no plans to offer new weaponry as compensation for the Iran deal.

    Defense Secretary Ash Carter left for Tel Aviv on Sunday to push ahead with talks on ways the U.S. can further improve Israel’s security – not just with Iranian threats in mind, but an array of other challenges, including cyberdefense and maritime security.

    Israel also has expressed concern that U.S. sales of advanced weaponry to Gulf Arab states has the potential of offsetting, to some degree, Israel’s qualitative military edge.

    Aides said in advance of the trip that although Carter strongly supports the Iran deal, he had no intention of trying to reverse Israeli opposition to it. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has denounced the deal as a mistake of historic proportion.

    Carter is scheduled to meet with Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, as well as with Israeli generals, and visit troops in northern Israel. He plans to stop in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, U.S. allies whose leaders also are worried about implications of the nuclear deal.

    On the day the Iran accord was announced, Carter issued a statement saying the U.S. is “prepared and postured” to help Israel improve its security, although he offered no specifics. He added that the U.S. would “use the military option if necessary” to protect its allies, to “check Iranian malign influence” and to ensure freedom of navigation in the Gulf.

    The U.S.-Israel defense relationship has deepened in recent years, even as tensions between the two over how to contain Iran’s nuclear program has grown.

    The U.S. has invested hundreds of millions in an Israeli air defense system known as Iron Dome, designed to shoot down short-range rockets, mortars and artillery shells fired into northern Israel from southern Lebanon and into Israel’s south from the Gaza Strip. The U.S. has worked with Israel on anti-missile systems and a wide range of other defenses. Two years ago the Pentagon committed to providing advanced radars for Israel’s fleet of fighter jets and KC-135 refueling aircraft, and making Israel the first country to buy the V-22 Osprey hybrid airplane-helicopter.

    Just two months ago Washington announced a $1.9 billion arms sale to Israel for a range of missiles and bombs, including bunker busters that can penetrate reinforced defenses to reach underground targets. Not included is the Pentagon’s biggest bunker buster bomb.

    Israeli officials insist they are not prepared to discuss American “compensation” for the Iran deal, saying that would imply acceptance of the accord. Israel believes there are loopholes in the deal that will pave the way for Iran to eventually emerge as a nuclear power.

    “Everybody talks about compensating Israel,” Netanyahu said Sunday. “I guess the question you have to ask yourself is, if this deal is supposed to make Israel and our Arab neighbors safer, why should we be compensated with anything,” he told ABC’s “This Week.”

    “How can you compensate a country, my country, against a terrorist regime that is sworn to our destruction and is going to get a path to nuclear bombs and billions of dollars to boot for its terror activities,” he said.

    The U.S. and Israel have been holding talks on renewing a 10-year defense pact set to expire in 2018. Under the current deal, Israel receives about $3 billion in military aid from the U.S. each year. That number is likely to increase when the deal is renewed, and possibly before then.

    Obama has indicated he is open to new ways of improving Israeli security, but he has played down the idea that ending economic penalties on Iran will drastically alter the balance of power in the region.

    “Do we think that with the sanctions coming down, that Iran will have some additional resources for its military and for some of the activities in the region that are a threat to us and a threat to our allies? I think that is a likelihood,” Obama told a White House news conference on Wednesday. “Do I think it’s a game-changer for them? No.”

    Some private analysts also suggest the concern about Iranian ascendancy may be exaggerated.

    “Naturally, with the lifting of sanctions there’s going to be concern by Israel and Saudi Arabia that Iran will become `normalized’ in the region. However, I think Iran is still going to face a certain amount of isolation,” Dalia Dassa Kaye, director of the RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy, wrote in an analysis.

    Obama’s principal military adviser, Gen. Martin Dempsey, met with Netanyahu and Israeli military officials just last month. The Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman told reporters with him in Israel that once an Iran nuclear deal was struck, Israeli and U.S. officials needed to “quickly and comprehensively” discuss the way ahead.

    “It will be incumbent on both of us to make sure that we provide the kind of reassurances that the state of Israel has always counted on us to provide. But we are going to have to do the same thing with the Gulf allies,” Dempsey said, alluding to deep concerns in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that removing sanctions on Iran would make it a greater regional danger.

    Dempsey said he understands why Israelis believe a nuclear deal will give Iran room to accelerate its funding of surrogate Shiite groups like Hezbollah.

    “I share their concern,” Dempsey said.

    The post Pentagon has no plans to offer Israel new arms deal appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    AURORA, CO - MARCH 25: Dr. Peter Witt, University of Colorado neurosurgeon who specializes in spinal surgeries, center, performs a percutaneous endoscopic lumbar discectomy, a surgery to repair a ruptured disc on patient Dean Hogsett at the University of Colorado Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus March 25, 2015. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

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    HARI SREENIVASAN: Now to the results of the new report by ProPublica about the importance of choosing the right surgeon and what can happen if you don’t do your research, especially when it comes to elective surgeries. Past studies have estimated as many as 200,000 patients die in U.S. hospitals every year due to preventable errors and complications during their stays. ProPublica analyzed the complication rates of 17,000 surgeons nationwide and released its findings this week.

    Joining me now is the co-author of the report, ProPublica’s Olga Pierce. You worked on this with Marshall Allen. So, first of all, what did you look at and what did you find?

    OLGA PIERCE: So we started with a pretty simple journalistic question: if you’re a surgeon, how many cases did you do and what became of your patients? Did they die in the hospital, or were they so sick or in so much pain that they had to come back within 30 days?

    HARI SREENIVASAN: So who tracks this, and where do you find the information?

    OLGA PIERCE: Really for patients right now, there’s almost no information publicly available. We’ve published the results for 17,000 surgeons online. But really, there’s almost no systematic tracking in American healthcare of these types of problems.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: So we’re not talking about all surgeries. You chose to focus on a specific set. Why? And what surgeries?

    OLGA PIERCE: So we looked at elective surgeries that are commonly done on healthy patients, mostly because we wanted to sort of get an apples-to-apples comparison for the surgeons in our data. So we looked at three types of spinal fusion, total knee replacements, total hip replacements, two types of prostatectomy, and gall bladder removal.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: And these were ones that were covered by Medicare.

    OLGA PIERCE: Yes. So there are a couple of important limitations of the data we’ve published. One is that because of the way American health care works, really the only comprehensive national data is in Medicare. So if a surgeon did a lot of cases outside it, we just can’t see them.

    Also, you know, there are complexities in cases that we can’t really see in the records we have. So that’s another thing to keep in mind.

    And finally, you know, it’s sort of like investments, right? Past performance doesn’t necessarily guarantee future performance.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: So if I typed a name of a surgeon into this scorecard, this database that you’ve built, what am I likely to find?

    OLGA PIERCE: So the first thing is how many cased did someone do in Medicare? And then how many of their patients died or had a complication within 30 days? And then on top of it, to provide extra context, we give an adjusted rate that takes into account things like what is the quality of the hospital where the surgeon does surgery, and are your patients especially complex or something like that.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: All right. Most people think about the hospital. They don’t necessarily even know that this data point exists about the specific surgeon, right? So I mean, some of the surgeons are going to come back and say, listen, I deal with the most complicated. I get somebody’s leftovers, and I have to deal with this. And maybe there’s a higher proportion of my patients that die.

    OLGA PIERCE: Yeah, so we’ve done everything we’ve could within the limits of the data to take those things into account. We screened out all kinds of patients who looked unusual in some way; they had a strange diagnosis or something like that. And then on top of it, we did sort of a statistical magic to kind of adjust for people who had what appeared to be extra-complex patients.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: So is there a certain level of almost acceptability in the error rate that’s happening in medicine today?

    OLGA PIERCE: I think so. I think at many hospitals, they sort of say, you know, what is a normal complication rate? Are we at it? Great. But in addition, you know, as you travel across the country investigating cases where someone seemed to be outside the norm, the first question we got almost every time from hospitals and surgeons was how did I do? Because they don’t know.

    And I think if anything is taken away from our reportage, I think that’s one of the most important things: that these things are not being measured. And because of that, we’re losing out on not just important information for the public, but there’s a real opportunity to learn and improve if we figure out who is doing the best.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: OK. And you also had an interesting finding, which was that a small hospital where there’s not that much staff actually had lower rates of complication. That seems almost counterintuitive versus if I go to a big hospital in New York with lots and lots of tools and people.

    OLGA PIERCE: Yes, I think the conventional wisdom here was that there are sort of good hospitals and bad hospitals. And if you choose a good hospital based on reputation or something else, there’s sort of a reasonable expectation at that hospital has sort of screened out any surgeons who are sub-par.

    That’s really not what we found in our research. We found that there are great surgeons in places you wouldn’t expect, and also surgeons that appear to be problematic at really elite institutions.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: And how does that distribution break down? Is it a small number of surgeons that account for a high number of complications?

    OLGA PIERCE: Sure. What we found was that about 10 percent of surgeons accounted for a quarter of all complications.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: And how do you – how do you kind of do the math? If you’re the person that’s going to go in for a hip replacement or a knee replacement, what are the questions you should be asking of both the hospital and the surgeon?

    OLGA PIERCE: Sure. I think the first question is, you know, when a surgeon says this surgery is low-risk, it has a two percent complication rate, ask them, “Well, what is your rate? What do you do? And do you even know?” And a reasonable expectation is that they would be able to answer those questions.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: And you also found that, was it in 63,000 Medicare patients suffered serious harm, 3,400 died after going for procedures like these?

    OLGA PIERCE: Yeah. There was quite a high count of people who had serious problems. And so another thing to keep in mind is that it’s very important to do your research before you go in for one of these surgeries. Not just using our tool, but also do all the things you would normally do. Ask your general practitioner, ask someone who has also had the surgery, those sorts of things.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: All right. You’ve pored over millions of records for this. You looked at five years’ worth of data in all these different surgeries.

    Olga Pierce from ProPublica, thanks so much for joining us.

    OLGA PIERCE: Oh, thank you.

    The post Here’s what you should know about choosing the right surgeon appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa June 29, 2014. The offshoot of al Qaeda which has captured swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria has declared itself an Islamic "Caliphate" and called on factions worldwide to pledge their allegiance, a statement posted on jihadist websites said on Sunday. The group, previously known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as ISIS, has renamed itself "Islamic State" and proclaimed its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghadi as "Caliph" - the head of the state, the statement said. REUTERS/Stringer (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST )  BEST QUALITY AVAILABLE - RTR4BHO3

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    HARI SREENIVASAN:  While the Islamic State militant group, or ISIS, captures cities in Syria and Iraq and carries out suicide bombings, it is also building a new generation of jihadist fighters.

    In a story published today, Associated Press reporter Zeina Karam describes how ISIS is indoctrinating young boys in schools and mosques and training them with weapons.

    She joins me now from Beirut via Skype.

    So, tell me, that — your report, one of the most disturbing facts is that little kids are beheading dolls for practice.  What’s happening there?

    ZEINA KARAM: That’s right.

    As we were reporting this story, we heard really horrific stories from people who fled the ISIS areas and residents who still live in them.  And one of them was a 14-year-old teenager, who told us about his time in a training camp in Raqqa in Northern Syria.

    The boy is a member of Iraq’s Yazidi religious community. He was picked up along with his family and hundreds of others from his faith when ISIS overran parts of Northern Iraq last summer.  And he ended up in this training camp in Raqqa and spent the next five months learning how to use weapons, training on explosives.

    They changed his faith to Sunni Muslim.  He was forced to memorize the Qur’an. And most disturbingly of all, he was — among other kids, he was forced to watch beheading videos. And he told us about how — how the kids were handed swords and guns and asked to chop off the head of the dolls as practice on beheadings.

    And he told us, you know, that, at first, he couldn’t do it. And then the Islamic State militants told them how to hold the swords and how to do it right. And they told them, this — these are the heads of the infidels.

    So — but that’s what kids are subjected to in Islamic State group training camps across Syria and Iraq.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: So, why is ISIS targeting children? I mean, do they feel that the parents are almost a lost cause, it’s harder to convert them or to get them to believe, but a kid, you can almost train and mold?

    ZEINA KARAM: Well, yes.

    Quite simply, the Islamic State group is trying to build a new generation of militants. They are trying to mold a new generation of loyalists. And the group has so many enemies, and they know that they are not popular, you know, particularly in Syria. And most of the places that they control, they know they are not popular.  They know that people — most — or many people actually hate them.

    And so, you know, one resident of Raqqa told us that they concentrate on the children because they believe that the adults are a long — a lost cause. And so they focus on training and brainwashing kids, almost to the point of obsession.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: And how many children are we talking about? Or how do you estimate that? Or how are also — how are they ingratiating themselves or winning the favor of these kids?

    ZEINA KARAM: They use lots of ways.  Any way at their disposal, they will use.

    They try — it starts on the streets.  They try to entice children off the streets and mosques. They use cash, gifts, intimidation. They give children toys on the streets. They have special events for children to try to entice them.

    And bit by bit, they subject them to their propaganda, and they turn them — eventually, they turn them against their parents.  We talked to one resident of Raqqa who told us about this teenager who left home because they turned him against — against his parents. He accused his parents of being nonbelievers and bad Muslims because they didn’t pray. And, eventually, he joined ISIS and disappeared.

    So that’s — that’s what they do.  And, unfortunately, parents are unable to do anything about this sad reality. Short of locking their children at home, there’s nothing they can do.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: You also point out that this is happening in some refugee camps.

    ZEINA KARAM: That’s right.

    I was — I was in Turkey as part of my work on this story, and we were told by many people there, people who — former residents of refugee camps, that the Islamic State group uses the camps to try and find new recruits as well under — sometimes, it’s done under the guise of — of humanitarian work.

    They go in, and they start talking to people.  You know, they find — maybe, sometimes, it’s orphans.  Sometimes, it’s children who are in desperate need of money.  And, sometimes, they give them cash, and they try to — to gain their sympathy that way.  And that’s — that’s how it starts.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Zeina Karam of the Associated Press, joining us via Skype from Beirut, thanks so much.

    ZEINA KARAM: Thank you.

    The post How is ISIS recruiting the next generation of fighters? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    A nuclear reactor, part of the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant, is seen under construction in Taishan, Guangdong province, October 17, 2013. China's nuclear proliferation record  is facing scrutiny as the Obama administration seeks to renew an agreement that enables American involvement China's atomic energy industry. Photo by Bobby Yip/Reuters

    A nuclear reactor, part of the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant, is seen under construction in Taishan, Guangdong province, October 17, 2013. China’s nuclear proliferation record is facing scrutiny as the Obama administration seeks to renew an agreement that enables American involvement China’s atomic energy industry. Photo by Bobby Yip/Reuters

    WASHINGTON — China’s record on nuclear proliferation is facing congressional criticism as the Obama administration seeks renewal of a 30-year agreement that enables American involvement in the Asian nation’s fast-growing atomic energy industry.

    It’s a different beast and far less contentious than the new nuclear deal between Iran and the U.S. and other world powers aimed at preventing Tehran from acquiring atomic weapons. China has had the bomb for 50 years and has a stockpile of perhaps 250 weapons.

    This agreement facilitates the transfer of U.S. technology for civilian use, and blocking or delaying it could complicate already tense U.S.-China relations. In September, President Barack Obama will host Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the White House, amid growing strains over Beijing’s island-building in the South China Sea and alleged cybertheft of U.S. government and trade secrets.

    There are also major commercial implications. The U.S. nuclear industry is warning it needs swift renewal of the agreement, which expires at the end of this year. Four American-designed reactors worth $8 billion are under construction in China, and dozens more are planned or proposed that, industry advocates say, could support tens of thousands of U.S. jobs.

    Chances are the agreement will be renewed. Unless Congress passes a joint resolution or legislation to block it, the agreement takes effect after a mandated review period that began in April. Depending on the congressional calendar, the period could expire by the end of the month or extend into early September after the summer recess.

    The agreement has strong support from some lawmakers, mainly because of the economic benefits of nuclear trade with China, but has drawn stiff criticism from both Republicans and Democrats, particularly in the Senate.

    Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a presidential hopeful, last week co-sponsored a resolution seeking to block it, saying Chinese entities have continued to transfer sensitive military technology to Iran and North Korea and assisted Pakistan’s nuclear program.

    “The stakes are too high for us to continue a business-as-usual approach to China by letting this agreement enter into force,” Rubio said.

    Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., has also come out against it. He was a leading critic of the original 1985 agreement, when congressional concerns on proliferation delayed implementation for 13 years. He has said he wants strong conditions to be imposed on any new agreement to ensure China meets nonproliferation standards.

    But the Obama administration is warning that ending U.S.-China cooperation would be devastating to the U.S. nuclear industry and would hurt bilateral relations and diminish American leverage. It says China’s record on nonproliferation has improved. Beijing has signed international nuclear control accords and has ceased support to Pakistan and Iran’s nuclear weapons programs since the 1990’s.

    Thomas Countryman, the top State Department official on nonproliferation, told a congressional hearing Thursday that failure to implement the agreement “would be taken by the Chinese as a step backward by the United States from our professed desire to be partners where we can and to manage our differences where we have them.”

    But he acknowledged China has yet to show “the necessary capability and will” to stop illicit transfers of sensitive technology, including to Iran’s ballistic missile program by Chinese national Li Fangwei, also known as Karl Lee, who has a $5 million U.S. reward on his head.

    “There is a demonstrated wanton disregard for export restrictions in China,” Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., told Thursday’s hearing, accusing Beijing of refusing to punish violators.

    Asked for a response by The Associated Press, Chinese Embassy spokesman Zhu Haiquan said China strictly abides by its international obligations and will punish any violation of Chinese export control laws.

    But perhaps most damaging is the accusation that China violated the existing agreement by adapting U.S.-designed coolant pumps for nuclear reactors for military purposes on its nuclear submarines. While U.S. officials have declined to comment publicly on those allegations – first publicized eight years ago – lawmakers have hinted it may be true.

    It’s still unlikely to scupper the renewal. Even imposing extra conditions on the agreement would require uncommon unity of purpose among Republicans and Democrats.

    The U.S. has forged civilian nuclear pacts with two dozen countries – including its other main strategic rival, Russia. Nuclear cooperation with China also complements Washington’s shared interest with Beijing in curbing emissions amid the push for a global climate pact in Paris in December.

    But there is a downside to the China’s ambitious nuclear expansion plans.

    Experts have voiced concern over China’s ability to oversee safety as it rapidly expands nuclear power generation. Twenty-seven nuclear plants are already operating, 24 are under construction and dozens more are planned.

    And Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, is warning of a regional fissile material production race in East Asia.

    China has yet to decide to reprocess spent nuclear fuel on a commercial scale, but the agreement opens the way for that eventuality. After settling with the U.S. over security arrangements and safeguards, China could extract nuclear weapons-usable plutonium from spent fuel generated in U.S.-designed reactors whenever it chooses. Sokolski said China should be treated like Russia, which requires U.S. approval to reprocess on a case-by-case basis.

    Giving the green light to China could encourage Japan, which has strained relations with Beijing, to go ahead as planned next year to open up a massive, costly, reprocessing plant, he said. South Korea also wants the right to reprocess.

    The post China’s record under scrutiny as congress weighs nuclear energy deal appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    The U.S. flag flies alongside a sign in honor of the five Marines killed in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on July 17, 2015. The fatal shooting is an example of the kind of domestic terror that the FBI has worried about in recent years. Photo by Tami Chappell/Reuters

    The American  flag is shown in front of a sign honoring the five service members killed in Chattanooga, Tennessee, July 17, 2015. Photo by Tami Chappell/Reuters

    The family of Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez, who is accused of opening fire at two military facilities on Thursday and shooting five people in Chattanooga, Tennessee, has released a statement expressing condolences for the victims and their families, The Associated Press reported Saturday.

    “There are no words to describe our shock, horror, and grief. The person who committed this horrible crime was not the son we knew and loved. For many years, our son suffered from depression. It grieves us beyond belief to know that his pain found its expression in this heinous act of violence,” the family said in a statement provided to the AP.

    Abdulazeez, 24, first opened fire on Thursday at a recruiting center in Chattanooga, then drove several miles to a Navy and Marine reserve center, where he shot and killed the Marines and wounded the sailor, who died of his wounds on Saturday. Abdulazeez was shot to death by police.

    Abdulazeez is believed to have been born in Kuwait, although it is unknown whether he was a U.S. or Kuwaiti citizen. The shooting is being investigated as an act of domestic terrorism. It is believed that the Abdulazeez acted alone, and lived in the area.

    The family added that it is cooperating with the investigation, the AP reported.

    The post Family of Chattanooga gunman says son suffered from depression appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    regalii

    Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

    Last night, NewsHour’s Stephen Fee reported on the difficulties Somali immigrants in the United States face when trying to send money home. And it got us thinking — how has technology impacted our ability to send cash to loved ones abroad?

    Tonight, Stephen looks at one financial tech startup here in New York that’s hoping to change how immigrant families support one another.

    STEPHEN FEE: For 34-year-old entrepreneur Eddie De La Cruz, starting his financial tech company in the Bronx was a no-brainer.

    EDDIE DE LA CRUZ: This is where I come from. It gives me an opportunity to kind of reinvest in the very same community that I partook when I first came to this country.

    De La Cruz emigrated from the Dominican Republic at age nine. After high school, he worked as an airplane mechanic at JFK airport.

    EDDIE DE LA CRUZ: And throughout that time I was sending money back home in some way shape or form.

    STEPHEN FEE: How much usually?

    EDDIE DE LA CRUZ: It really varies, anywhere from 200, 300 dollars.

    STEPHEN FEE: In 2012, the Pew Research Center says immigrants in the US sent over $120 billion dollars abroad.

    But instead of sending cash, De La Cruz’ startup Regalii — a play on the Spanish word for gift — allows immigrants to directly pay bills for family and friends back home.

    EDDIE DE LA CRUZ: Instead of sending cash and having your grandmother, your aunt on the other side having to go pick up the money and having to go somewhere else to pay her electricity, her gas, her water, we enable immigrants here to control their families’ finances there.

    Traditionally money transfer operators wire cash from one storefront, like this one in the Bronx, to a storefront in, say, the Dominican Republic.

    Regalii uses that same network but eliminates the storefront on the recipients’ end, keeping fees lower. And Regalii’s customers can pay bills online or using their smartphones.

    EDDIE DE LA CRUZ: The act of sending money it’s not a transactional act as much as an act of really kindness and support, right.

    De La Cruz hopes his model — for now only available in Latin America — could go global.

    The post Startup helps families send money back to their home country appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    A dozen states that chose to expand Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act have seen their enrollment numbers far outpace projections, raising budget concerns as the federal government gets set to reduce its funding for the expansions, The Associated Press reported Sunday.

    Under the ACA, states had the option to extend Medicaid coverage to include all adults whose income is at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty level. Thirty states, and the District of Columbia, have opted to do so.

    Under the law, the federal government covers all the costs of the expansions through 2016. But next year the federal government will start to shift some of that burden to the states involved, which will have to bear 10 percent of the cost by 2020.

    That responsibility concerns some lawmakers in affected states, who worry that high Medicaid costs stemming from unexpectedly high enrollment numbers could cause gaps in state budgets, leaving less money available for state services like education.

    In Kentucky, nearly 311,000 people enrolled in the program during the 2014 fiscal year, more than double what the state expected. As a result of its high enrollment numbers, Kentucky has revised its 2017 Medicaid cost estimate from $33 million to $74 million. That figure is projected to rise to $363 million in 2021.

    “That is a monstrous hole that we have got to figure out how to plug, and we don’t know how to do it,” Kentucky state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who opposed the expansion, told the AP.

    Supporters of the expansion say that states that opt in will ultimately save money because the expanded Medicaid coverage will allow them to get rid of some redundant state-run health services and to reduce costly payments to hospitals and other institutions that provide medical treatment to uninsured.

    Some states, including Arkansas and West Virginia, have reported lower-than-expected costs from the program. But New Mexico, which saw higher enrollment numbers than were expected, will not make as much savings as projected, due to the difficulty implementing cost-cutting measures, according to the AP.

    “When you’re looking at a state budget and there are only so many dollars to go around, obviously it’s a concern,” New Mexico state Sen. Howie Morales told the AP.

    The post Higher-than-expected Medicaid enrollment numbers prompt state budget worries appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    Los Angeles county firefighters battle a wildfire  in Wrightwood, California, July 17, 2015.  The wildfire is one of several in California over the past month where firefighting efforts have been partially disrupted by people flying private drones. Photo by Gene Blevins/Reuters

    Los Angeles county firefighters battle a wildfire in Wrightwood, California, July 17, 2015. The blaze is one of several recent California wildfires in which firefighting efforts have been disrupted by people flying private drones. Photo by Gene Blevins/Reuters

    When a fire that started in the hills northeast of Los Angeles spread to Interstate 15 Saturday, drivers were forced to flee their cars because of flames that eventually destroyed 20 vehicles.

    A rare rainstorm helped to control the wildfire, which is now about 60 percent contained, but not before private drones flying over the wildfire grounded firefighting aircraft for almost half an hour.

    Saturday’s incident marks the fifth time in a month that firefighting operations have been temporarily grounded by a private citizen flying a drone.

    In the past month, drones have gotten in the way of firefighters in San Bernadino County, the Plumas National Forest and, most recently, Interstate 15, which connects Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

    A July 12 incident at the edge of the San Bernadino National Forest grounded firefighters’ air tankers for eight minutes.

    “That may not seem like a huge amount of time, but in a fire emergency every minute counts,” U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Carol Underhill told the Associated Press.

    Part of the conflict between private drones and public safety is a lack of clear, legislated regulation around what drone owners can and cannot do, partly because the tecnology is relatively new.

    State lawmakers in California are currently drafting a bill that would impose heavy fines and potential jail time on anyone whose personal drone interferes with firefighting efforts.

    California law currently states that interfering with firefighters is a misdemeanor, but the proposed legislation would severely heighten that punishment.

    The post Consumer drones interfere with CA firefighting efforts appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    The logo of Mitsubishi Motors is seen on a board at a showroom of the Avtomir company, a Mitsubishi cars dealership, in Moscow, April 1, 2015. Mitsubishi Materials Corp., another branch of the Mitsubishi name, apologized to American prisoners of war on Sunday for forcing around 500 of them to work as laborers in their mines during World War II. Photo by Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters

    The logo of Mitsubishi Motors is seen on a board at a showroom of the Avtomir company, a Mitsubishi cars dealership, in Moscow, April 1, 2015. Senior executives from Mitsubishi Materials formally apologized Sunday for using American prisoners of war as forced laborers during World War II. Photo by Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters

    Senior executives from Mitsubishi Materials held a press conference at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles on Sunday to formally apologize for using American prisoners of war as forced laborers during World War II.

    Mitsubishi used around 500 American POWs as forced laborers between 1943 and 1945, according to the Associated Press.

    The apology was given to one of the World War II veterans who worked in Mitsubishi’s labor camps in the 1940s.

    James Murphy is a Santa Maria, California, native and a 94-year-old veteran who spent one year working in a Mitsubishi-owned copper mine near Hanawa, Japan, during the war.

    Murphy accepted the apology on behalf of all POWs who worked in forced labor camps. He is one of only two living veterans whom Mitsubishi could find to accept the apology, according to the BBC.

    The Japanese government formally apologized to U.S. veterans and their families five years ago, but this is the first example of a Japanese company doing the same.

    According to the Associated Press, an estimated 12,000 American prisoners of war were used as forced laborers in Japan over the course of the war, and about 10 percent died.

    The post Mitsubishi apologizes for using American POWs as laborers in WWII appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari L in the Oval Office Monday. Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

    U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari L in the Oval Office Monday. Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

    WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama welcomed Nigeria’s new president to the Oval Office on Monday and praised him for working to bring “safety, security and peace” to a nation challenged by economic strains, a history of corruption and violence unleashed by the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram.

    Obama met with President Muhammadu Buhari less than eight weeks after Buhari took office to underscore the importance the U.S. attaches to good relations with Nigeria.

    The president said Buhari had “a very clear agenda in defeating Boko Haram and extremists of all sorts inside of his country. And he has a very clear agenda in terms of rooting out the corruption that too often has held back the economic growth and prosperity of his country.”

    Obama, speaking to reporters at the outset of the meeting, said the U.S. hoped to partner with the African nation “so that Nigeria ends up being not only an anchor of prosperity and stability in the eastern part of the continent, but can also be an outstanding role model for developing countries around the world.”

    He added that he would discuss with Buhari how the two nations can cooperate on counter-terrorism and how the U.S. “can be helpful in addressing some of the corruption issues that have held Nigeria back.”

    Buhari, for his part, said Nigeria would be “ever grateful” to the U.S. for its support of free elections in his country. Buhari said U.S. and European pressures to ensure the election was “fair and credible led us to where we are now.”

    U.S. relations with Nigeria soured over failures by the government and military, including the inability to locate more than 200 school girls, most of them Christian, who were kidnapped by Boko Haram from the northern town of Chibok in April 2014. The abduction led to international condemnation and a campaign to “Bring Back Our Girls” that reached as far as the White House.

    Then-President Goodluck Jonathan was angered by the U.S. refusal to sell his government helicopter gunships and retaliated by halting a U.S. military training program.

    Relations are now expected to improve under Buhari, a 72-year-old former military dictator who has pledged allegiance to democracy and promised to address U.S. concerns.

    Obama extended his invitation for a visit to Buhari almost immediately after he was declared the winner of the March election.

    “This feels to us like Nigeria is at an important moment in which there can be real reforms across the board,” Grant Harris, the senior director for African affairs at the National Security Council, told reporters last week. “We’re looking forward to what we can do with a president who has staked out an agenda that we think is the right agenda at the right time.”

    Nigeria’s new leader has been criticized for being slow to form a Cabinet. He has yet to name any ministers.

    Last week, Buhari fired the entire top echelon of the military, which he has accused of corruption that prevents what once was Africa’s mightiest armed force from curbing the Islamist insurgency based in Nigeria’s northeast. The insurgency has killed more than 13,000 people and driven another 1.5 million from their homes.

    Besides the Oval Office meeting with Obama, Buhari is to meet with Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and other senior administration officials.

    The post Obama praises Nigerian leader for pursuing safety, security appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    The PBS NewsHour will debut a new look and a new sound tonight. Listen to the new theme.

    You’re not hearing things — the PBS NewsHour has new theme music.

    With our new look debuting on tonight’s broadcast will also come brand new music, recorded in a months-long process involving more than 40 musicians and dozens of instruments.

    The theme’s composer Edd Kalehoff, who has also composed music for “The Price is Right,” ABC’s “World News Tonight” and “Good Morning America,” among others, said he began the process by watching NewsHour — a lot of NewsHour — and learning more about the program’s legacy. The music balances a variety of elements and moods, aiming to move the program forward while respecting its tradition, Kalehoff said.

    The new main title is composed in the key of C and begins with an ascending brass section, with French horns dominating a developmental bridge. The horns are joined by a string section that interweaves with the melody in “a kind of tapestry,” Kalehoff said.

    It is rooted in a traditional orchestral sound, but several elements, such as a grunge-influenced electric chug guitar, bring an updated, “modern” feel to the new music, he said. Kalehoff also added some sequenced synthesizer sounds to several transitions, a move meant to convey the influence of digital technology, he said. It is also meant to balance the expansiveness of the program’s coverage with the intimacy of its relationship with viewers. “I wanted to be able to draw in the viewer with trust,” he said.

    NewsHour’s new theme music is part of a larger history of music serving as an important component of a broadcast news show’s identity, one that extends back to the 1960s, Kalehoff said.

    One of the first widely-used television themes came from the “Tar Sequence” scene in the 1967 Paul Newman movie “Cool Hand Luke,” in which a prison crew races to lay down blacktop on a rural road. Composer Lalo Schifrin wrote the scene’s adrenaline-inducing soundtrack with a strong drum and brass line, overlaid with a woodwind staccato rhythm, to accompany the workers’ speed.

    Warner Brothers licensed the “Tar Sequence” music to ABC News for its program “Eyewitness News” in 1968, and the theme spread to other local ABC affiliates. It was a “big move forward” for the role of theme music in news shows, Kalehoff said.

    The music’s widespread appearance on news programs did cause some confusion for Schifrin, who said in an interview with the Archive of American Television that years later, people were asking him why he incorporated the “Eyewitness News” theme into the soundtrack.

    The 1970s brought a variety of new theme music on local news shows, many of which had a strong influence from disco rhythms. The NewsHour, in its first incarnation as the “MacNeil/Lehrer Report,” had a horn-dominated theme with an upbeat, casual rhythm.

    The development of new synthesizing recording techniques in the 1970s opened up new possibilities for composition, Kalehoff said. One example: the “ticking” sound from the “60 Minutes” theme, which Kalehoff helped to record. “No one could get a stopwatch to sound like ‘tick-tick-tick’ when they put the microphone too close to it — you’d hear all the springs and levers and it didn’t sound like a stopwatch,” he said. “We had filters with the synthesizers that could take all that out.”

    Broadcast news music hit another milestone in the 1980s with John Williams’ composition of “The Mission,” an orchestral piece for NBC News. NBC has used music from “The Mission” for a number of years on its programs, including “NBC Nightly News” and “Meet the Press.”

    Meanwhile, the NewsHour rebranded to become “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” in 1983, and with it came a new theme. The melody stayed similar to the older theme, but this one was shorter, with a clear build and decisive end on a three-note sequence.

    Then, in 2009, the show became the “PBS NewsHour” with another musical update:

    Kalehoff said the newest music makes a strong statement: “We’re growing. We’re important. We’re here to stay.”

    What do you think about the new theme? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and tell us which version of the music you like the best.

    The post The NewsHour has a new theme song, and we assume you’ll want to talk about it appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    Democrats see the issue of high out-of-pocket payments the insured have to pay as the next health care issue to address. Credit: Ariel Skelley/Blend Images via Getty Images.

    That urgent care visit might not be as cheap as you thought. Ariel Skelley/Blend Images via Getty Images.

    Sallyann Johnson considers herself a pretty savvy health care consumer. When she fell and injured her hands and wrists, she didn’t head for an expensive emergency room, choosing an urgent care clinic near her Milwaukee home instead.

    Before seeking treatment, she asked the key question: Did the center accept her insurance? Yes, Johnson was assured, both on the phone and then again when she arrived at the clinic.

    After X-rays and a visit with a physician assistant, Johnson learned her wrists were sprained, but weeks later, it was her wallet that sustained the most damage.

    Bill urgent care 770“I received a bill from a doctor for $356,” said Johnson, 62. “I felt I asked all the right questions. I even re-asked the questions.”

    Long seen as a lower-cost alternative to hospital emergency rooms for minor illnesses or injuries, urgent care centers are increasingly popular with consumers – and their insurers.

    But like doctors and hospital ERs, urgent care can also present payment headaches if they are not part of a patient’s insurance network. And consumers may need to ask specifically about network participation to find out.

    Earlier this month, the New York State attorney general wrote businesses that operate dozens of urgent care clinic locations, saying the health plan participation information on their websites may be “deceptive” and asking for specific information about which insurance plans they participate in as in-network partners. The inquiries went to stand-alone clinics, as well as those affiliated with hospital systems and retail outlets, including Duane Reade and CVS stores.

    In New York and nationally, insurance coverage information provided on urgent care clinic websites is often unclear. Some centers’ websites say they “accept most major insurance plans” while others list specific insurers they “accept,” or “work with” or “bill.” But what does that mean?

    Accepting insurance might mean a consumer will owe the balance between what the clinic charges and what an insurer pays toward an out-of-network visit, which is generally far less than payment for an in-network provider.

    Such statements “may lead consumers to believe that an out-of-network urgent care center is … ‘in network’ with their health plan,” say the July 2 letters from N.Y. Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman.

    The centers may well be in-network with some insurers. But if they’re not, “consumers may receive unexpected, and often costly, bills … when they believed that they would be responsible solely for their copayment …,” the letters say.

    A spokesman for Walgreens, owner of Duane Reade stores, said the company is reviewing the attorney general’s letter but would not comment further. The industry’s trade group, the Urgent Care Association of America, would not comment directly on the letters, but in a statement said it “encouraged members to be as clear and transparent as possible regarding billing matters.”

    In March, one of the broadest laws in the country concerning out-of-network bills went into effect in New York, imposing new requirements on hospitals, doctors and other medical providers who send so called “surprise bills” to insured consumers. As a result, insured patients will, in most cases, see their payments limited if treatment was provided at an in-network facility, but by out-of-network providers. The New York law also requires most health groups and facilities to disclose in writing or on their websites the names of the health plans with whom they participate. Regulations issued don’t specifically mention how the law will apply to urgent care centers.

    Surprise bills, also known as “balance bills,” are part of the complex way that health care is paid for in the U.S. Insurers form networks as one way to slow rising health care costs, in part by getting doctors and hospitals who join to agree to negotiated rates, which are generally lower than their usual fees. Out-of-network hospitals and doctors can set their own fees and “balance bill” patients for the portion insurers don’t cover.

    Some patients choose to go out of network because they want a specific doctor or hospital. But, as insurers shrink networks, some patients may be unable to find an in-network provider. And others may get a balance bill after choosing an in-network hospital, only to learn later that the anesthesiologist or the lab were not included in their insurer’s network. Balance bills can run into thousands of dollars.

    While the problem predates the Affordable Care Act, the president’s signature health care law largely sidesteps the issue. It says only that insurers must not charge policyholders higher copayments for emergency department services at non-network hospitals because patients often can’t choose where they go. Medicare, however, strictly limits how much patients can be balance billed by doctors who don’t participate in the program.

    Other than for emergency care, though, relatively few states have addressed balance billing, mainly because solutions are difficult and generally pit powerful rivals — hospitals, doctors and insurers — against one another.

    Blake Hutson, the interim director of health reform at Consumers Union, applauded the New York attorney general’s action, adding that more clarity is needed to help patients determine whether an urgent care clinic and its staff are part of their health plan. While it’s hard to know how common the problem is, Hutson said, “if we’re seeing it in New York, we’re probably seeing it in other states, too.”

    The key question to ask when calling an urgent care center, Hutson said, is not whether it accepts your insurance, but whether it participates in your insurance plan.

    Even then, as Johnson in Milwaukee learned, you might still get billed. In her case, the urgent care center was in network. But the doctor group overseeing the care was not. Hence the $356 bill, which Johnson paid. Even her insurer was surprised, she said.

    “They also didn’t know that all the doctors were subcontracted,” she said.

    The post Is urgent care always a lower-cost alternative to the emergency room? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    Family mourns the death of 17-year-old Vonzell Banks

    Family mourns the death of 17-year-old Vonzell Banks at hs funeral in Chicago. Still photo from NewsHour video

    Editor’s Note: On Monday’s PBS NewsHour, special correspondent Chris Bury reports on the uptick of deadly violence in Chicago. One of the hundreds of victims who have died in 2015 so far was a teenager named Vonzell Banks. In this essay, producer Dan Morris reflects on the emotion of attending Banks’s funeral and seeing “a community confronting yet another outrageous murder of one of its young.”

    When we asked the Rev. Derail Smith if we could film the funeral of 17-year-old Vonzell Banks the next day, he hesitated — for obvious reasons. His instinct clearly was to protect the privacy of a family in the throes of unspeakable grief over the sudden loss of their child. But the circumstances of the death ultimately outweighed such concerns. “Oh, OK, why not,” he said. “People need to see what’s going on here.”

    What’s going on is the killing of hundreds of children in Chicago by gunfire, many of them unintended targets of the shooters. And many of them among the city’s most promising youth, including Banks, an active member of Rev. Smith’s Cosmopolitan Church of Prayer. He was looking forward to a summer job, his senior year of high school and graduation.

    “His pastime was Cosmopolitan Church of Prayer, his pastime was bible class,” Reverend Smith said. “Pastime was choir rehearsal. Then outside of that it was school.”

    When our crew of four arrived at the church that Saturday morning, we were well aware of our status as outsiders – members of the media at an ostensibly private event, each of us white, amongst a congregation nearly 100 percent black. We were determined to be as respectful and unobtrusive as possible, knowing that resentment towards our presence would be understandable.

    And yet there was none. We experienced nothing but warmth and welcome from a community confronting yet another outrageous murder of one of its young.

    As we sat in the pews awaiting the start of the service, special correspondent Chris Bury was the first to spot a couple of other obvious outsiders – two guys in suits wearing earpieces, talking into their sleeves — clearly security for someone important.

    “It’s gotta be either Rahm or McCarthy,” Chris said, referring to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy.

    The mayor it was, much to our surprise and, to be perfectly honest, our delight. The hard-driving Emanuel’s presence was sure to inject an additional element of energy into a situation already brimming with drama and human pathos.

    Suddenly the choir exploded in sweet harmony and gospel rhythm, driven by a crack combo of organ, guitar, bass and drums, the congregation spontaneously on its feet, rocking out in a simultaneous expression of sorrow and joy, the likes of which I have never before witnessed.

    As journalists we always try to — and must — keep our emotions in check when confronting the suffering and sorrow of others. It’s the only way to get the job done, the job of telling their story to the world. But sometimes the armor cracks, as was the case that Saturday morning when the music and the emotion of the crowd were as one, the collective focus on the gleaming white casket at the altar. Our crew got the job done, but not without tears.

    Nor was the mayor immune. After offering private words of comfort to Rufus and Latasha Banks, parents of Vonzell, he was among the first to address the crowd of mourners. But at first he couldn’t. Eyes and nose red and swollen, voice breaking, he croaked out, “Do you think it’s too much for a city to let its parents see their kids graduate?” Another crack in the armor.

    Mr. Emanuel regained his composure, mostly, and proceeded to deliver a fiery, funny, inspiring speech, or, rather, sermon. At times he resembled a preacher himself, relishing a classic call and response dialogue with the spirited congregation.

    By the end of the nearly two-hour service we were simultaneously wrung out and exhilarated. Wrung out by the raw pain of the community that had welcomed us into its midst. Exhilarated by the knowledge that the access they’d allowed would result in a powerful portrayal of their tragic story, not least because of the camera work by photographer Gary Levens, who has a sixth sense for always being in the right place at the right time.

    What we witnessed that morning at Chicago’s Cosmopolitan Church of Prayer is what anyone should see who hopes to comprehend the devastating toll of rampant gun violence on a downtrodden community. As Reverend Smith said, “People need to see what’s going on here.”

    The post Why a Chicago church allowed us in to film a teenager’s funeral, and why that’s important appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    Chicago’s Nightcrawler:  Freelance photographer Paul “Pauley” Lapointe documents city violence. In the passenger seat: PBS NewsHour special correspondent Chris Bury. Still photo from NewsHour video

    Paul Lapointe, a Chicago “nightcrawler” documents violence in the city, with PBS NewsHour special correspondent Chris Bury in the passenger seat. Still photo from NewsHour video

    Editor’s Note: On Monday’s PBS NewsHour, special correspondent Chris Bury reports on the uptick of deadly violence in Chicago. In the report, he introduces us to Paul “Pauley” Lapointe, a news photographer who has witnessed much of this violence, and who serves as a “guide” to the NewsHour’s crew as they drive Chicago’s streets on a recent Friday night.

    Our introduction to Paul “Pauley” Lapointe resembled a scene out of a classic film noir or perhaps, “The Dark Knight,” the Batman movie in which Chicago serves as a shadowy Gotham. We met just after 10 p.m. in a dimly lit warehouse parking lot just south of Chicago’s downtown. The veteran freelance photographer told us he starts his work soon after the local TV newscasts sign off.

    Lapointe’s office is a 2004 black Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor brimming with so many antennas that it could easily be mistaken for an unmarked squad car. Inside, the Crown Vic is equipped with more than a dozen scanners that monitor Chicago’s police and fire departments, and other emergency radio frequencies. Our PBS NewsHour crew outfited the car with three small GoPro cameras, two on the dashboard and one on the roof, to capture Lapointe’s working night with minimum interference from us.

    Lapointe, 43, is wearing a bullet-resistant vest, as he does every night. “People call it ‘Chi-raq’ for a reason,” he tells me. “There are bullets flying every night in Chicago and I have a family.”

    I climb in the front seat while producer Dan Morris, photographer Gary Levens and audio engineer Joe Leo follow in a van.

    For the first 30 minutes, we cruise neighborhoods adjoining the Dan Ryan expressway on Chicago’s south side. So far, the night is quiet. “This is the best part of it,” Lapointe says. “We’re sitting here waiting. What’s it going to be tonight? Is it a big fiery wreck? Is it a shooting?”

    At 11:15 p.m., the police scanners come alive with reports of the first shooting of the night. I can barely understand what the radio voices are saying, but Lapointe knows their coded language well: “Just the whole inflection. You get to know all the dispatchers voices. Most of them I’ll never meet, but they’re in my life every night.”

    Lapointe steps on the gas, speeding to the scene so quickly that my crew, following in the van, has no chance to keep up. Lapointe jumps out of the car with his Canon XA 20 to take video of the crime scene. By now, the victim — a 25 year-old man — is already in the ambulance. He will die a few hours later; one of three men shot to death in Chicago that Friday night.

    We spend only minutes at this shooting scene because another, potentially bigger story is breaking a few blocks away. Two men who’ve been shot in the doorway of a restaurant stumble across the street and a vacant lot before collapsing. Lapointe arrives in time to get close-ups of police marking bullet casings on the street. He tells us local stations are more likely to buy this footage, so he quickly uploads it to his web site, capturednews.com. Later, he’ll cover a triple shooting after a party on the city’s west side.

    After 20 years of covering Chicago’s violence, Lapointe is actually optimistic that things are improving. He mentions that the Englewood neighborhood, among the city’s deadliest, witnessed no killings over the July 4 weekend, when 54 people were shot and 10 killed elsewhere in Chicago.

    Lapointe said mothers from the neighborhood patrolled the streets that weekend, and he credits their efforts to keeping the peace in Englewood, however briefly.

    “I believe in my heart it was (them),” Lapointe says. “It was real people doing a real thing for their community and real mothers coming out there and saying, ‘you’re not going to take over our streets.’”

    The post A Chicago ‘nightcrawler’ knows the city’s violence all too well appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    dance nyc

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: For nearly 40 years, the National Dance Institute in New York has given free lessons to New York public school students.

    And, as Jeffrey Brown found out, these kids are learning some incredible steps. Take a look.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Fifth graders at Public School 2 in New York’s Chinatown are learning to think on their feet. They’re among 6,000 New York City schoolchildren who receive dance instruction each week, at no cost, but, according to their teacher, at great benefit.

    SHUEN LIN, Teacher, P.S. 2: They find a different form to express themselves. They find their self-confidence, and you really see them becoming their own person.

    JEFFREY BROWN: It’s the work of the National Dance Institute, a nonprofit that’s been sending instructional teams into public schools here for nearly 40 years, filling a gap where school budgets fall short, filling a need, says Shuen Lin, where educational priorities are elsewhere.

    SHUEN LIN: In our school, and in any school right now, we’re so focused on high-stakes testing. And kids do nothing but basic reading, math, and reading and math. They sit so much in my classroom. And this provides an opportunity for them to not really just get away from learning, because they’re still learning.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Ellen Weinstein is NDI’s creative director and a longtime instructor.

    ELLEN WEINSTEIN, National Dance Institute: The children learn grit and tenacity and to take chances, and to learn that it’s OK to make a mistake, because if they work hard and they commit to something, they’re going to be successful.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Assistant principal Joanna Cohen:

    JOANNA COHEN, Assistant Principal: Ninety-six percent of our kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. And many of our students are very recent immigrants to the United States. All I can say is there’s not enough of it. Schools desperately, children desperately need more.

    JACQUES D’AMBOISE, Choreographer: I always thought I would be either a doctor or an archaeologist or a crook, a really good crook.

    (LAUGHTER)

    JEFFREY BROWN: The force behind all this is a legend in the world of dance, Jacques d’Amboise, who calls himself the New Yorker with a fancy French name.

    In fact, d’Amboise grew up in hard circumstances in 1930s and ’40s New York. His mother started him in ballet at 7 as a way to keep him out of trouble. He left school at 15 to pursue dance full-time and, at just age 17, became a principal dancer in the New York City Ballet.

    JACQUES D’AMBOISE: If you think back, why are you doing what you’re doing, it’s those early influences, your teachers especially, and your parents, that kind of write the scripts that you end up acting out the rest of your life.

    JEFFREY BROWN: D’Amboise would dance on stages around the world for decades. And, in 1976, even while still with the New York City Ballet, he began going into public schools to offer free lessons to students.

    JACQUES D’AMBOISE: I know how it transformed me. And I never paid a nickel or a dime for a lesson. I had free all the time.

    JEFFREY BROWN: The institute grew into a citywide force, with a headquarters in Harlem. There, every Saturday, children selected by their NDI instructors come for additional higher-level training, also free, in preparation for a year-end performance.

    D’Amboise still comes down to watch and offer a few pointers.

    JACQUES D’AMBOISE: It’s the best theater. It’s better than Broadway to watch these fabulous New York City children. It sets my Saturdays off like having a birthday party.

    JEFFREY BROWN: The organization has been around long enough that former students, like Dufftin Garcia, have themselves become instructors. Garcia was just eight when he was selected to join NDI’s Saturday program. He says his schoolmates didn’t make it easy at first.

    DUFFTIN GARCIA, National Dance Institute: They totally made fun of me and they called me twinkle toes. And of course I quit because I couldn’t handle the pressure. I thought it just wasn’t for me, and I went into martial arts, thinking, maybe I can get my manhood back that way.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Distant memories now. Garcia found his way back to dance and uses laughter and his own experience to put children at ease.

    JACQUES D’AMBOISE: You make it so that the ones who don’t feel like they’re cool, you make it cool. The ones who don’t feel like they’re maybe comfortable, you make them comfortable. Those that you feel like maybe it’s just not for them, you make it so that they understand that it’s for everyone.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Eleven-year-old Jonathan Rosario had clearly decided dancing is for him.

    I was watching and the teacher was saying attitude, attitude, right? What does that mean to you, attitude?

    JONATHAN ROSARIO, Student: Like put more of your own spice in it.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Your own what, spice? What does that mean?

    JONATHAN ROSARIO: Like your own movement. Like, when you walk, you go one, two, three, four, five.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Jonathan’s mother, Jessica Candelario, danced in school, and says her son has gained friends and confidence from the program.

    JESSICA CANDELARIO, Mother of Jonathan: He talks about going to college, and, mommy, I want to do this dancing, I want to go for this. I’m like, do it.

    JACQUES D’AMBOISE: Children will play until they drop, right? Ask them to put out the garbage, I’m too tired, mommy. I’m too tired.

    But if you say, can you put out the garbage walking backwards and then hop on one leg, or singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” make play and testing part of the game, and people will kill themselves to be able to do it.

    JEFFREY BROWN: A glimmer in his eye, a lightness to his step, d’Amboise told us how dance almost killed him, nearly every bodily part broken or replaced at one time or another.

    What keeps you going now at nearly 81?

    JACQUES D’AMBOISE: Well, breathing and a heartbeat, hopefully, hopefully.

    (LAUGHTER)

    JEFFREY BROWN: From Harlem, New York, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

    The post Free dance lessons teach NYC students to think on their feet appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    screenshot of animation by Breakthrough Initiative

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    GWEN IFILL: The search for signs of intelligent life in the universe may have been a fruitless one so far, but the effort got a major boost today with a new initiative from scientists Stephen Hawking and others.

    Using some of the world’s biggest radio telescopes, the project will spend the next 10 years surveying a million of the closest stars to Earth, trying to find any signals from the 100 closest galaxies. It’s called the Breakthrough Initiative and it’s funded by Russian billionaire and Silicon Valley tech investor Yuri Milner. He’s pledged $100 million for the project.

    Earlier today in London, physicist Stephen Hawking spoke to reporters about the eternal quest.

    STEPHEN HAWKING, Physicist (through computer voice): It’s time to commit to finding the answer to search for life beyond Earth. The Breakthrough Initiatives are making that commitment. We are alive. We are intelligent. We must know.

    GWEN IFILL: Andrew Siemion is director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center and is affiliated with the Breakthrough Initiative. The acronym SETI stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

    Andrew Siemion, thank you for joining us.

    So, aside from Hollywood movies, how hard have we been looking for extraterrestrial life in the universe?

    ANDREW SIEMION, Director, Berkeley SETI Research Center: We have been looking pretty hard.

    The modern radio search for extraterrestrial intelligence, this is the experiment to try to detect extraterrestrial technologies by their radio emissions, has been going on for about 55 years.

    GWEN IFILL: This $100 million investment that’s being made, how significant is that and what will it do?

    ANDREW SIEMION: It’s absolutely incredible. And it’s coming at a very fortuitous time.

    In the last couple of years, we have learned that at least 10 percent of the stars in our galaxy have an Earth-like planet, a planet about the size of the Earth that liquid water could exist on the surface. And at the same time, our computing technology has advanced dramatically. So we have the opportunity now to pair our knowledge of extrasolar planets and possibilities for life in the universe with incredible advances in computing technology to conduct the most sensitive search for extraterrestrial intelligence that we have ever undertaken in the history of humanity.

    GWEN IFILL: Now, you’re speaking to a laywoman here. What are we talking about, bigger telescopes, higher-frequency radios signals?

    ANDREW SIEMION: That’s right.

    Well, so it turns out that we don’t know exactly what frequency extraterrestrial intelligence might be transmitting on. So we need to scan as much of the electromagnetic spectrum, as much of the radio spectrum as we possibly can.

    And that’s what the computing technology gets us. It gets us the ability to search a huge amount of the radio spectrum, 20 to 50 times more of radio spectrum than we have ever been able to look at before, and we’re hooking those — these instruments that we’re building up to the largest radio telescopes in the world, so that we can conduct a very sensitive search.

    GWEN IFILL: OK. One of the things that caught my attention is that the public can be involved in this search.

    ANDREW SIEMION: That’s absolutely right.

    There’s a broad open philosophy to this entire project. All of the data that we collect from these telescopes will be open. All of the software we use, all of the hardware we use, everything will be open source.

    And a component of that is a pairing with the SETI@home project. This is a screen saver that some of your audience may have heard of that they can download on their computer and run it and they can actually analyze some of the data from these telescopes that we collect on their home computer and contribute to the search.

    GWEN IFILL: So there are two pieces of this. One is what we want the world — the universe to know about us and what we want to learn about the universe. So who gets to decide how much we want them to know about us?

    ANDREW SIEMION: That’s right.

    Well, that’s the beautiful thing about this project, is, is that we all get to decide. Two Breakthrough Initiatives were announced today. One is Listen. That’s the search for extraterrestrial intelligence initiative that we just talked about. The other is called Message.

    And this is a project that’s going to try to unite the world in considering what we might want to say to an advanced civilization that we might some day get in contact with. It’s important to point out that there’s no commitment to send the message, but this is just a project to try to determine what type of message we might send. Would it be art, would it be music, would it be pictures, would it be sound?

    And the whole world will participate in that endeavor to think of this message.

    GWEN IFILL: What if we discover life out there that is not friendly and, therefore, there is only so much we want them to know about us? Who controls that?

    ANDREW SIEMION: Well, that’s a very good question. As I said, there’s no commitment to send a response.

    And I personally think that if we do detect advanced life, we should undertake a broad discussion with all segments of humanity, social, political, governments, economic, and consider whether we do want to try to communicate with the life we encounter.

    GWEN IFILL: Very fascinating, a lot of questions to be answered, as well as asked here.

    Andrew Siemion with U.C. Berkeley SETI project, thank you very much.

    ANDREW SIEMION: Thank you.

    The post To find life in the universe, a new initiative to help us hear the signals appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    flying eye

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    GWEN IFILL: Next: delivering cutting-edge medical care from a most unusual vehicle.

    Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports from Vietnam. It’s part of his ongoing series Agents for Change.

    FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Back in 1970, when this wide-body DC-10 first went into service, war was still raging all around this airport in Hue, Vietnam. In the town center, there are still reminders of the conflict that ended 40 years ago, including an exhibit that captured American military hardware, but at the airport a very different perception.

    The DC-10 crew got a flowery welcome. Then they quickly got to work on board.

    DR. AHMED GOMAA, Medical director: We convert this airplane into a fully equipped eye hospital, state-of-the-art facility. We have a team of 22 professionals covering all what is needed to run the hospital.

    FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Dr. Ahmed Gomaa is medical director of the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital, started in 1982 with grants from the U.S. government and from corporate and individual donors. It has visited 92 countries. This is the sixth visit to Vietnam.

    Many of the staff are volunteers, including the pilots. Nurses and doctors do hands-on care during the week-long visit, but the main goal is training, to sustain care long after they leave, says California-based surgeon Mary O’Hara.

    DR. MARY O’HARA, Eye surgeon: This is very, very different than being the great white surgeon who comes in and does some magical surgeries and then leaves without imparting any of the magic to the surgeons in the community. It’s teaching the doctors the surgical skills to go forth and do good things for the community and also teach other doctors, so there’s a ripple effect.

    FRED DE SAM LAZARO: So, well before the plane arrives, Orbis has alerted local eye care providers, who in turn alert likely patients.

    For 8-year-old Thuy, it’s a rare chance at surgery for her strabismus, or lazy eye.

    WOMAN (through interpreter): We took her to see the doctor four years ago.

    MAN (through interpreter): We were afraid to even ask how much it would cost.

    FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Thuy’s father is disabled. Her mother earns less than $2 a day gathering and selling recyclables.

    CHILD (through interpreter): I hope the doctors can help me. I don’t want to be cross-eyed anymore.

    FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Strabismus is common, affecting perhaps 4 percent of all people. Patients can lose sight in the wayward eye and depth perception. There also are painful psychosocial effects, says Dr. O’Hara.

    DR. MARY O’HARA: We’re keyed to be attracted to symmetry and repulsed by asymmetry on a very subconscious level. And people who have crooked eyes tend to be down-rated in society.

    FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Just because of the appearance of that person.

    DR. MARY O’HARA: Right.

    FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Six-year-old Van doesn’t seem affected by social stigma, at least not yet.

    MAN (through interpreter): Her life is pretty normal. She gets teased a bit, but her life is pretty normal.

    FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Van’s parents also struggle to make ends meet and cannot afford surgery.

    MAN (through interpreter): We had been to a doctor three years ago. They said wait for a charity group to come.

    FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The next day, they and others gathered at the local eye hospital for screening. About 75 patients are being screened here at the local hospital. Some 45 will be chosen for surgery or laser treatment, based on a variety of criteria. They need to be particularly good teachable cases. Young patients with good prognoses have priority, as do those in danger of losing their sight altogether.

    Orbis volunteers surrounded by local doctors and students assessed patients with various eye diseases, including diabetes-related conditions, glaucoma and strabismus.

    Thuy, it turns out, wasn’t a good candidate for surgery. Dr. O’Hara says she needs more patching therapy, in which the good eye is covered up, so the wandering one can be exercised.

    DR. MARY O’HARA: We really need to have her in her glasses and have her amblyopia treated and then think about surgery.

    FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The letdown was plain to see on the faces of Thuy and her mother.

    WOMAN (through interpreter): Of course we’re sad, seeing my daughter sad. We were hopeful working with these people, so it’s a little sad that nothing came of it.

    DR. MARY O’HARA: And is she otherwise healthy?

    FRED DE SAM LAZARO: It was Van’s turn.

    DR. MARY O’HARA: See how much bigger the exotropia is here than down here?

    FRED DE SAM LAZARO: And happier news.

    DR. MARY O’HARA: I would do 10-millimeter bilateral lateral rectus recessions.

    FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Meaning Van would get surgery on both eyes to bring them into alignment.

    The next morning, as she and her father walked up to the airplane, lectures were already under way in what normally is the first-class section. It’s now a 48 seat classroom. In the back, the team led by Dr. O’Hara was preparing.

    WOMAN: Are you ready? Does she have any allergies?

    WOMAN: No.

    FRED DE SAM LAZARO: No allergies, and clearly no fear. As she underwent a 90-minute procedure, it was followed closely on video screens in the classroom.

    While there are more economical ways of teaching doctors, such as using video links or even flying trainees to Dr. O’Hara’s California hospital, Orbis says a key part of its mission is to raise awareness of eye disease, is often neglected amid myriad other challenges faced in developing nations.

    Dr. Gomaa says the plane’s sheer gee whiz factor attracts visits from influential officials in the host country

    DR. AHMED GOMAA: The young doctors, a generation coming, is amazing, very good doctors. So, they need support. They need support. They need machines.

    WOMAN: Slow. Good. Up. Beautiful.

    FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Back in the operating room, Van’s surgery was wrapping up, with Dr. O’Hara guiding local surgeon Thao Phuong.

    DR. MARY O’HARA: The surgery went fine. The person I was training on this particular surgery had done surgery before, and she was very good and attentive listening to instruction and following instruction.

    DR. THAO PHUONG, Vietnam (through interpreter): Dr. O’Hara was very clear in her instructions. The whole process, from tiny things, from anesthesia, it was very detailed, step by step.

    FRED DE SAM LAZARO: She and other local doctors hope Orbis will help them expand care to allow families like Thuy’s to get help. For its part, Orbis needs a lot of money to run its operation, but it gets almost as much in kind through volunteers like pilot Bob Rutherford.

    BOB RUTHERFORD, Pilot: You will see things that you never see in life. Young children who’ve never had vision, they have their sight restored. Those things really kind of pull at your heartstrings. It makes it easy to do.

    WOMAN: She will be completely healed in two weeks.

    FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The morning after surgery, Van was still puffy and a bit groggy. But Orbis sent us this video taken a few days later, a child who, in Dr. O’Hara’s words, had symmetry restored to her life.

    This is Fred de Sam Lazaro for the PBS NewsHour in Hue, Vietnam.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And Fred’s reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota.

    The post Flying eye hospital delivers new outlooks to patients around the world appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    Senior woman reading Social Security form. Photo by Jim McGuire/Getty Images

    What do you do when Social Security informs you and your credit card company that you’re deceased? Photo by Jim McGuire/Getty Images

    Boston University economist Larry Kotlikoff has spent every week, for over two years, answering questions about what is likely your largest financial asset—your Social Security benefits. His Social Security original 34 “secrets”, his additional secrets, his Social Security “mistakes” and his Social Security gotchas have prompted so many of you to write in that we feature “Ask Larry” every Monday. Find a complete list of his columns here. And keep sending us your Social Security questions.

    Kotlikoff’s state-of-the-art retirement software is available here, for free, in its “basic” version. His new book, “Get What’s Yours—the Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security Benefits,” (co-authored with Paul Solman and Making Sen$e Medicare columnist Phil Moeller) was published in February by Simon & Schuster.

    Watch Larry explain how Paul and his wife could collect an extra $50,000 in Social Security benefits:


    I recently persuaded a long-term gay couple, who I’ll call them Liz and Jane, to get married in order to take advantage of spousal and potentially, widow benefits. Liz and Jane are two very lovely ladies who have been together for 35 years. Both are flower children, so neither was interested in anything conventional, including marriage. Liz is a bit older and has much higher earnings than Jane. They got in touch to ask me whether or not it would pay them to get married  from a Social Security perspective.

    “A lot!” I said. “Jane will be able to get a full spousal benefit and also collect Liz’s larger retirement benefit if Liz were to predecease her.”

    It took repeated cajoling (involving the notion that more money wasn’t such a bad thing and marriage wasn’t going to end their relationship) and bingo, they agreed to tie the knot this August in fact!

    And get this. They invited me and my fiancee to their wedding (yes, love is in the air), which we hope to attend.

    Will it be in a big fancy schmancy country club or expensive restaurant or in a venerable house of worship? No chance. Not for these two. It’s going to be on the beach, rain or shine!

    But in the meantime, Liz found out that she was dead, well, at least according to Social Security.

    But Liz wasn’t dead. She was alive and well and about to get married.

    This is my gist of the interplay between Jane and Social Security:

    “No,” Social Security insisted, “our paperwork says you are dead. So, sorry, you’re dead.”

    “I can’t be dead. Here, feel my pulse.” said Liz, “It’s normal.”

    “Okay, okay, you’re not actually dead, but you’re officially dead.”

    “Well, make me officially alive.”

    “Oh no, we can’t do that. If you’re dead, you’re dead. Live with it. Now you could be able to write us a letter telling us you aren’t dead, but only living people can write letters about being not dead, and you are dead, so, sorry, you’re really permanently dead. Have a good day.”

    Here’s Liz’s version.

    My Social Security fiasco

    Several months ago, I tried to activate a new American Express Card online. When I completed all the steps, a response came back saying that I needed to call as there was a problem with the activation. When I called, they advised me that Social Security had notified them that I was deceased. Needless to say, I was a bit taken aback by the news. Despite the fact that I was on the line with American Express, they said they needed verification from Social Security. When I contacted Social Security, who indeed had me in their files as alive, they said they were unable to provide documentation supporting that over the phone. With dread in my heart, I went to Social Security with my passport, birth certificate and original Social Security card. When I was finally seen, they said they were unable to provide me with any documentation certifying that I was not deceased. I spoke with the head person at the office, who again confirmed that this request was not possible to fulfill, given that they are “not allowed to originate any correspondence and could only fulfill my request if it was possible to do by form letter, which it was not. This was in spite of my in-person presence with all the appropriate verification in hand! In the meantime, I continued to receive cancellation notices of all my American Express cards and several condolence notices to my estate.

    At my wits end, I decided to call my representative’s office, Joe Kennedy III, given that I was having difficulty with a federal agency. When I spoke with the liaison to Social Security, he was sympathetic, but concerned that there was nothing that could be done. He agreed to connect with his contact at Social Security to see if he could facilitate any resolution, but I was unconvinced that he would be successful. After a bit of back and forth, he was able to arrange a process where I would pay $38 in-person for them to compose “original correspondence” documenting my viability, which I could send to American Express to have my credit restored. Having already taken off a half-day of work the first go-round, I said I refused to go to the Social Security office another time. I then followed all the directions (sent the check by mail to the designated person) and received by mail a pre-written form with a one sentence addendum stating: “The above named person is alive and not deceased.” I sent the form to American Express, and they immediately restored my credit.

    The process took place over several months and caused much angst. In describing my ordeal to American Express at a later time, they credited me $38.00 for my expense.

    What’s the moral to this story?

    Our bureaucrats are the best in the business. They’d out bureaucrat any other country’s bureaucrats hands down. Maybe we should stage a bureaucracy Olympics. But, on second thought, that would require actually getting something done.


    Susan – Chino Valley, Ariz.: You have mentioned the advantages of filing and suspending at full retirement age and then collecting maximum Social Security benefits at age 70 — with the option of collecting everything owed to you should you need the money before reaching age 70. However, you never mention whether there’s an advantage to start collecting a higher monthly amount at, say, age 68 or 69, without getting everything owed previous to that. My full retirement age is 66.5, and I hope to work till 67 or 68 in the nursing field. I don’t know if I can continue working till 70. My husband is three years younger, and I carry the health insurance for us both through my job. I think I’d rather collect a higher monthly Social Security check for life than get everything owed and collect less monthly thereafter. What do you think? Can I still do it this way even if I file and suspend?

    Larry Kotlikoff: I’ve mentioned the big advantages of file and suspend, which is primarily the ability to activate benefits for spouses, ex-spouses and children on your work record while still waiting until 70 to collect your own retirement benefit. But I’ve also mentioned an important risk of file and suspend. Once you do, you can’t collect a full widow’s benefit, full divorcee widow’s benefit, full spouse’s benefit or full divorcee spouse’s benefit. These benefits are called auxiliary benefits, and I’m referencing auxiliary benefits you’d be collecting on a spouse (alive or deceased) or an ex-spouse (alive or deceased to whom you were married for a decade or more). Filing for your retirement benefit, whether or not you suspend it, leaves you able to collect only your excess auxiliary benefits, not full auxiliary benefits. An excess auxiliary benefit is the excess of your full auxiliary benefit over your retirement benefit. In many cases, excess auxiliary benefits are zero or negative. So I’m worried about high earners who don’t need to file and suspend right away (in terms of activating auxiliary benefits not for themselves, but for their current and former spouses and their children) nonetheless doing so early to have the option of taking a lump sum payment of their suspended benefits, if circumstances make that desirable. Doing so runs the risk of having your spouse or your ex pass away and you no longer being able to collect a full widow(er) benefit on their work records. This is why we are very careful in my company’s software when it comes to recommending filing and suspending to married or divorced people, before it can be used to activate an auxiliary benefit for someone off the worker’s record.

    Having gotten this off my chest, let me respond to your question. I’m not advocating that you take everything that you’re owed at some age, be it 68 or even 70. I’m not advocating you unsuspend your suspended benefit unless you are in an emergency situation and desperately need the cash or are, for example, a never-married single person who was diagnosed with a terminal disease. In your case, I recommend you work as long as you can and take your retirement benefit at 70, but that if you can collect a full spousal or full divorcee spousal benefit at full retirement, do so. Also, if your spouse (if you are married) or your ex (if you were married for 10 plus years) passes away, make sure you optimize your benefits by using very accurate commercial software and decide whether to take a widow’s benefit as early as possible and your retirement benefit at 70 or your retirement benefit at 62 and your widow’s benefit before or at full retirement age. This depends on what’s optimal given when your spouse or ex dies and whether or not he took his retirement benefit early.


    Anonymous – N.C.: My husband worked in France and the U.K. before emigrating to the United States in 1987 and subsequently becoming an American citizen. His U.S. Social Security earnings record only reflects his work in the United States from 1987 onward; however, he worked for three years in the U.K. and nine years in France and paid into these countries’ retirement systems before coming to the U.S. Is there any way to have his non-U.S. work record and contributions “count” toward his U.S. Social Security benefits? I know the U.S. has agreements with France and the U.K., but I am not sure what this means and if it is of any benefit to us.

    Larry Kotlikoff: I’m not yet an expert on SS’s totalization agreements with France and the U.K. I’ve asked our Social Security Technical Advisor, Jerry Lutz, to weigh in.

    Jerry Lutz: The Social Security Administration has totalization agreements with both the U.K. and France, but the U.S. would not combine your husband’s foreign and domestic earnings to increase his Social Security benefit. Both the U.K. and France may, however, credit his U.S. earnings in order to qualify him for benefits under their programs. He should probably apply for them either directly with the foreign agencies or at any Social Security Administration office. Although entitlement to foreign benefits could reduce his U.S. benefits due to the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP), his combined benefits would be higher due to the Windfall Elimination Provision’s guarantee provision.


    Bruce – Fresno, Calif.: For 20 plus years I paid into Social Security. Then I started a new career in education. I have been a teacher in California for 15 years. As a teacher I do not pay Social Security taxes, since we pay into a teacher’s retirement program called STRS. I have heard it rumored that this makes me ineligible for Social Security benefits. Is this true? I am now 62 years old. I plan to teach for another five years. Can you give me some advice?

    Larry Kotlikoff: Your Social Security benefit will be somewhat reduced by the Windfall Elimination Provision. The spousal, divorcee spousal, widower and divorcee widower benefits you may be able to collect on current and former spouses will be reduced by the Government Pension Offset (GPO) provision. But these won’t kick in until you start collecting your California pension. That would to lead you to believe that you ought to take your Social Security benefits now. But there is another gotcha here, namely Social Security’s earnings test, which can mean losing all your Social Security benefits if you earn too much. This earnings test ends when you reach full retirement age. Also, were you to quit working in the non-covered sector, you’d potentially end up with 30 years of substantial covered earnings, which would eliminate the WEP, but not the GPO.


    Sandra – Elkins Park, Pa.: I was married to my ex for 21 years. I was a homemaker and he was a pharmacist. After our divorce, I worked at several jobs, but my jobs did not pay very much. I am 75 and he is 77. I receive $903.00 from SS each month plus $143.00 from a pension plan. I was told by the SS office that I do better using my own salary information. I do not understand this. My ex is living a good life. I live in a Federation Building for low income people over 62 years of age.

    Larry Kotlikoff: Once you are taking your own retirement benefit, which you are, you get, roughly speaking, the larger of your own retirement benefit and half of your ex’s full retirement benefit. But when you ex passes away (not wishing for this, mind you), you should be able to collect his full check in the form or a divorcee widow benefit.

    The post If Social Security tells you you’re dead, don’t believe them appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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    People gather for a candlelight vigil against gun violence in the Englewood neighborhood in Chicago, Illinois, United States, July 3, 2015. Extra police patrols and long shifts were not enough to prevent nine deaths and about 50 injuries from gun violence in Chicago over the Fourth of July weekend, when homicides jump almost every year. Chicago, with 2.7 million people, is the most violent large city in the United States, with poverty, segregation, dozens of small street gangs, and a pervasive gun culture all contributing to the problem. Picture taken July 3, 2015.   REUTERS/Jim Young    - RTX1JA3U

    Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

    JUDY WOODRUFF: In Chicago this summer, police are dealing with an unsettling spike in violent crime, after a drop in the homicide rate over the last two years, this weekend, 11 dead and 34 injured.

    More now from special correspondent Chris Bury.

    CHRIS BURY: In Chicago, this is the season of sorrow and grief. Every summer, tears flow as the body count climbs with the temperatures. This is the killing season.

    Many of those killed are kids filled with promise, including Vonzell Banks, just 17. For his family, the pain is unbearable. But so many young people like him are dying that the whole city is grieving, too.

    MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL, Chicago: Do you think it’s too much for a city to let parents see their kids graduate?

    CHRIS BURY: Even Chicago’s hard-charging mayor, Rahm Emanuel, had to choke back his tears.

    MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL: I will tell you this as a father of three. This is not natural. This is not right. They deserve better.

    CHRIS BURY: By all accounts, Vonzell Banks deserved better, too, playing by the rules, staying out of trouble, spending time at church. They called him drummer boy for his talent keeping the beat for the choir.

    For his pastor, Derail Smith, the pain is personal. He watched Vonzell grow up.

    REV. DERAIL SMITH, Pastor, Cosmopolitan Church of Prayer: He was brought up in a traditional type family where it was yes, sir, yes, ma’am, and thank you very much, and I appreciate you, those type of things.

    So, therefore, there was never any indication for me to see that he had any type of interaction with drugs or with any type of violence. He wasn’t that, no, not at all.

    CHRIS BURY: So a good kid.

    REV. DERAIL SMITH: Absolutely. Absolutely.

    CHRIS BURY: That promising life ended during a family outing over the July 4 weekend at this playground, a gritty slab of asphalt on the city’s South Side. In a bitter irony, it had recently been renamed for Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old honor student whose killing drew national attention when she was shot to death in another park just days after performing at President Obama’s second inauguration.

    Her parents were beyond dismayed to learn of Vonzell’s killing here.

    NATHANIEL PENDLETON, Father of Hadiya: I was devastated. The park, you know — we just got the park renamed, and already, you know, there was a murder here.

    CLEOPATRA COWLEY-PENDLETON, Mother of Hadiya: My emotions really got the best of me, to be perfectly honest, because the situations were so similar between what happened to my daughter and what happened to their son.

    CHRIS BURY: Like Hadiya Pendleton and so many others in Chicago, Vonzell Banks died from a bullet intended for someone else, in this case, a gang member who ran onto this basketball court fleeing a rival. Police say the gangbanger pulled out a gun and fired indiscriminately, hitting Banks in the back. His cousin, also shot, survived.

    CLEOPATRA COWLEY-PENDLETON: Vonzell died in his father’s arms. A father not only lost his son. He held him as he took his last breath.

    CHRIS BURY: Already this year, Chicago has seen more than 1,100 shootings, the number of murders, more than 200, climbing again after dropping each of the last two years. Summer nights are the worst.

    PAULEY LAPOINTE, News Photographer: It’s definitely related to heat. There’s definitely more shootings when it gets warm out. That’s just the way it goes.

    CHRIS BURY: We spent a recent Friday night with Pauley LaPointe, a nightcrawler who races to crime scenes to shoot footage for local TV stations. Just after 11:00, police radios crackled with reports of the first of 10 shootings that night.

    What have you heard from the scanner so far? What do you know?

    PAULEY LAPOINTE: So far, we got a person shot. Sounds like a victim in their 20s, critical condition. Ambulance is en route.

    CHRIS BURY: When we arrive, a young woman is clearly distraught; 25-year-old Keith Cannon has been shot in the chest. He died a few hours later, one of three men killed that night. Even as police investigated that shooting, another erupted a few blocks away.

    CHRIS BURY: More shootings.

    PAULEY LAPOINTE: Yes. Here they come.

    CHRIS BURY: This time, two men have been shot outside this fast food joint, the gun casings still in clear view. By the end of the weekend, 32 people had been shot. Six of them died.

    How frustrating is it for you to see the level of violence that Chicago is experiencing this summer?

    GARRY MCCARTHY, Superintendent, Chicago Police Department: Well, it’s very frustrating, because I see clearly what needs to be done.

    CHRIS BURY: Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy says coping with Chicago’s violence is like drinking from a fire hose. His officers take more illegal guns off the street than New York and L.A. combined: more than 3,400 in the first six months of this year. But even that has not been enough to stem the killings.

    GARRY MCCARTHY: The biggest reason is, the people who we arrest with firearms do not do jail time here in the state of Illinois. Possession of a loaded firearm, illegally, in the state of Illinois is not even considered a violent crime for sentencing purposes.

    And it’s very frustrating to know that it’s like 7 percent of the population causes 80 percent of the violent crime. Well, let’s put that 7 percent of the population in jail. Somebody has to go to jail.

    CHRIS BURY: McCarthy also blames a Chicago gang culture that is even more entrenched and deadly than the ones he knew during previous stints in New York City and Newark.

    GARRY MCCARTHY: The gangs here are traditional gangs that are generational, if you will. The grandfather was a gang member, the father’s a gang member, and the kid right now is going to be a gang member.

    CHRIS BURY: How easy is it for these kids, 12, 13 years old, to get guns?

    DIANE LATIKER, Founder, Kids Off the Block: It’s so easy for kids here to get guns, it’s like comparing it to going to the gas station and getting a 50-cent juice.

    CHRIS BURY: For 12 years, Diane Latiker has run an after school program called kids off the block in one of Chicago’s deadliest neighborhoods.

    In 2007, she built a memorial with bricks containing the names of children and teens killed in Chicago violence. After 374 bricks, she had to stop. There was no more room. Nearly 600 more young people have died violently since then.

    DIANE LATIKER: If we would have kept with the bricks, it would have took over the whole block, sadly, sadly.

    CHRIS BURY: Diane Latiker’s idea is to keep kids away from gangs before they can be recruited.

    DIANE LATIKER: A big percentage say they made the decision to join a gang, or not to join, or participate in violence between fifth and eighth grade. So I said, well, that’s who I should target, because if they make that decision at that time, maybe I can get a few of them to say, no, I’m not going to do it, because I’m involved in something positive, I feel like I have hope, and I have a future.

    CHRIS BURY: Nearly all of the kids here told us they had heard gunshots and knew someone who had been shot. What many fear most is becoming the unintended targets of bullets meant for others.

    STUDENT: I have to come outside every day, and people just end up killing innocent people, like mostly every day.

    STUDENT: When it’s hot outside, people do dumb stuff. Everybody be outside. They gets into arguments, and they have guns and point them at the wrong person, shoot for no apparent reason.

    CHRIS BURY: The deadly violence that afflicts Chicago is rarely visible in the gleaming downtown that tourists see. Nearly all of it takes place in the impoverished neighborhoods of the South and West Sides, the victims overwhelmingly black and Latino.

    For Diane Latiker, the strongest antidote to the killing is shoring up the economy.

    DIANE LATIKER: Jobs, investment, economics. Business is afraid to come here because of crime. It’s like a catch-22. We need the investment and the economics to show up, so we can stop having the guns so readily available.

    CHRIS BURY: But, from the police point of view, poverty alone doesn’t lead people to shoot each other. Superintendent McCarthy is convinced that only tougher penalties on gun law violators, much stiffer prison terms will make a real impact.

    GARRY MCCARTHY: It’s just such a simple formula. New York State did it. Stiffen the gun laws, lighten up on the narcotics penalties, and you will see incarceration rates go down, you will see gun seizures go down, and you will see murders go down at the same time.

    CHRIS BURY: For Chicago’s Mayor Emanuel, the fundamental problem and solution is a matter of values. At the funeral of Vonzell Banks, he struck a strident tone on the role of fathers, in particular.

    RAHM EMANUEL: There’s a big debate out there about fatherhood. It’s a fair discussion. Let’s have it, because the fathers have to be present. The fathers have to be there and teach.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

    RAHM EMANUEL: These are God’s children. These are your children. These are my children.

    CHRIS BURY: In the lively gospel service, mixed with notes of sorrow, were songs of joy for the life that this 17-year-old lived and demonstrations of faith that his spirit was now in a better place.

    But the songs and prayers could not mask the deeper anguish in this congregation and in this city that far too many of its children are taken away in senseless acts of violence.

    I’m Chris Bury for the PBS NewsHour in Chicago.

    The post Gangs and guns fuel Chicago’s summer surge of violence appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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