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

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    Flag-wrapped coffin of late Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov is carried to a plane during a ceremony at Esenboga airport in Ankara, Turkey, December 20, 2016.  Reuters/Umit Bektas  TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY   - RTX2VV2X

    Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

    HARI SREENIVASAN: In the day’s other news: Turkish police detained seven people in the assassination of Russia’s ambassador. Andrey Karlov was shot dead yesterday at an art gallery in Ankara. His remains were flown back to Moscow today, after a memorial ceremony.

    Turkey’s deputy prime minister insisted the killing won’t damage relations with Russia.

    TUGRUL TURKES, Deputy Prime Minister, Turkey (through translator): Those who ordered and carried out this attack didn’t kill Ambassador Andrey Karlov. They created a new place for him in history. Ambassador Andrey Karlov has become an eternal symbol for Turkish-Russian friendship.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: The gunman was a police officer. He shouted slogans about Aleppo in Syria and about jihad before being killed by security forces. So far, there’s been no claim of responsibility.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: In Syria, buses evacuated more people from East Aleppo, as the Syrian army warned that it’s about to enter the last rebel enclave. Estimates of how many people have left the city varied from 19,000 to more than 37,000. But rebels said thousands are still waiting for transport.

    Meanwhile, in Moscow, Russia, Iran and Turkey announced they’re ready to broker a final Syrian peace, leaving President Bashar al-Assad in power.

    SERGEI LAVROV, Foreign Minister, Russia (through translator): Our main priority shouldn’t be the regime change, but defeating terrorist threats. I am sure that we will be able to formulate our common approaches, based on the goals we have declared, to win over terrorism, to restore territorial integrity, sovereignty, independence and unity of the Syrian Arab republic. We are united in that.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: The talks were held without the U.S. or the U.N. being represented.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Security forces in Congo killed at least three protesters today and arrested dozens more. They were opposing President Joseph Kabila’s decision to stay in office. His term ended overnight, but new elections have been delayed indefinitely.

    Police and troops used live fire and tear gas against protesters who took to the streets in the capital city, Kinshasa. U.N. officials in armored carriers tried to keep the peace.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: China has returned an American underwater drone that it seized last week in the South China Sea. It was handed back to the U.S. Navy today. The Pentagon called it an illegal seizure in international waters. Beijing blamed U.S. surveillance in waters facing China.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Back in this country, President-elect Trump interviewed more job candidates and took time to confront former President Clinton. A suburban New York City newspaper had quoted Mr. Clinton as saying the incoming president — quote — “doesn’t know much besides how to get angry white men to vote.”

    Mr. Trump tweeted back that President Clinton didn’t even know how to turn out voters and — quote — “focused on the wrong states.”

    The Senate majority leader has again rejected calls for a select committee to investigate Russian interference in the election. Mitch McConnell says he still believes the standing Intelligence Committee can do the job. Several Republicans and Democrats have called for a special panel to be created.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Volkswagen reached a settlement today with regulators and owners of another 80,000 vehicles in its emissions-cheating scandal. Under the terms, V.W. agrees to buy back some vehicles and fix others. The company previously reached a deal affecting 475,000 other cars, but it could still face criminal charges.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: The state of Michigan has filed more criminal charges in the investigation of lead-tainted water in Flint. Two former emergency managers of the city and two other former city workers were charged today with conspiracy and other crimes.

    State Attorney General Bill Schuette said the investigation isn’t over, and he vowed to get justice.

    BILL SCHUETTE, Attorney General, Michigan: Flint was a casualty of arrogance, disdain and a failure of management, an absence of accountability, shirking responsibility. Flint deserves better. The people of Flint are not expendable. So, to move on is unacceptable.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: All told, 13 people have been charged in the ongoing investigation.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama today banned future oil and gas drilling in most federal waters of the Atlantic and Arctic oceans. It’s one of his last major environmental moves. President-elect Trump has called for more offshore drilling, but it’s not clear if he can reverse today’s action without going to court.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: On Wall Street, the rally resumed as bank stocks surged. The Dow Jones industrial average gained 91 points to close at 19974. The Nasdaq rose 26 points, and the S&P 500 added eight.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame introduced its latest inductees today. They include the late rapper Tupac Shakur, whose 1996 murder is still unsolved, the Seattle band Pearl Jam, who popularized grunge rock in the ’90s, and Joan Baez, political activist and mainstay of the folk movement. The formal induction is next April.

    The post News Wrap: Turkish police detain seven over Russian ambassador assassination appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Candles burn at a Christmas market at Breitscheidplatz in Berlin, Germany, December 20, 2016, to commemorate the 12 victims of a truck that ploughed into the crowded market.        REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke - RTX2VWZB

    Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

    JUDY WOODRUFF: The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility tonight for the Berlin truck attack that killed a dozen people and injured 50.

    That word came hours after German police let their main suspect go.

    Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports from Berlin.

    MALCOLM BRABANT: This normally bustling Christmas market was eerily quiet today, as investigators searched for clues.

    Swathed in fog, and with armed guards sealing off the area, Berlin was coming to terms with its new status as a victim of terrorism, after Paris, Brussels and Nice.

    German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke at a morning news conference.

    ANGELA MERKEL, Chancellor, Germany (through translator): There is still a lot that we don’t know about this act with sufficient certainty, but we must, as things stand, assume it was a terrorist attack.

    MALCOLM BRABANT: Police detained a Pakistani asylum-seeker shortly after the truck rammed into a crowd of people on Monday. But, today, he was released, due to insufficient evidence. Prosecutors said he matched a description of the suspected attacker, but he denied any involvement.

    The truck, which had been carrying steel beams, was towed away earlier this morning. The body of a Polish truck driver was found inside the cabin. He had been stabbed and shot after being hijacked. The gun used to kill him has yet to be found.

    PROF. PETER NEUMANN, King’s College, London: It was waiting to happen, no? I’m not, like, totally surprised.

    MALCOLM BRABANT: Berlin is the hometown of terrorism expert Peter Neumann. He believes German authorities were too complacent about the possibility of an attack and didn’t offer sufficient protection to the Christmas markets.

    PROF. PETER NEUMANN: I think, in Germany, people have been very blessed with the idea that they would be spared this kind of attack. And so I don’t think that German authorities were thinking as systematically about the threat from terrorism as authorities in Britain have or authorities in other countries.

    This will have to change. And there will be a very uncomfortable discussion in Germany about anti-terrorism measures, but also, of course, about the relationship with Muslim communities and with refugees.

    MALCOLM BRABANT: The chancellor and other senior officials laid white roses at a makeshift memorial to the victims. They toured the market and were briefed by senior police officers.

    Ordinary Berliners paid their respects, laying candles, flowers and messages of sympathy. Many said they believe this attack marked a turning point for Germany, especially as, for most of the past 24 hours, they were under the impression that the massacre had been perpetrated by an asylum-seeker admitted under Chancellor Merkel’s open-door refugee policy.

    SABINA AGARUNOVA: I definitely want to see stricter border control in Germany and in the European Union. I think I want to see more cooperation between the countries of the European Union and regarding refugee policy, because, at the moment, it’s out of control.

    HERMANN BORGHORST, Former Social Democrat Politician: I think it’s not yet today the time to think about the consequences for the refugee politics. I think today it’s a question of sadness and come here, see people come together, and bring flowers. And that’s most important. And I think we have a good system of asylum-seekers.

    MALCOLM BRABANT: Chancellor Merkel warned against letting the attack change Germans’ way of life, but she acknowledged her policies were under new pressure.

    ANGELA MERKEL (through translator): I know that it would be particularly hard for us all to bear it if it were to be confirmed that a person committed this crime who sought protection and asylum in Germany. This would be particularly sickening for the many, many Germans who work to help refugees every day and for the many people who really need our help and are making an effort to integrate in our country.

    MALCOLM BRABANT: At the Berlin State Parliament, where flags were lowered to half-mast, the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany Party and its regional deputy leader, Ronald Glaser, offered a harsher appraisal.

    RONALD GLASER, Regional Deputy Leader, Alternative for Germany Party: First of all, the terrorist is to blame for what happened. On the other hand, Angela Merkel and her welcome culture made all these refugees come to our country. And among them were a lot of fanatics and criminals. She’s not going to accept that her policy was wrong, but, of course, the German people is awakening and they maybe will force her to do so.

    MALCOLM BRABANT: Just outside the regional parliament is the largest remaining section of the Berlin Wall, whose demise 27 years ago led to Europe’s open borders. There could not be a more poignant reminder of what’s at stake as Europe grapples with terrorism and the wave of migration across the Mediterranean.

    In the meantime, the German capital remains on high alert.

    KLAUS KANDT, Police Chief, Berlin (through translator): Of course people are worried. I believe people who live in the city should be vigilant.

    MALCOLM BRABANT: Security has also been tightened at Christmas markets and other outdoor venues all across Europe, out of an abundance of caution.

    And in Berlin this evening, mourners gathered for a candlelight vigil in the same square where the tragedy took place, as Germany’s leaders attended a solemn memorial service at a nearby church. The iconic Brandenburg Gate was illuminated with the images of both the German and Berlin flags.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And Malcolm joins me now from Berlin.

    Malcolm, now that ISIS has claimed responsibility, how is that affecting thinking there?

    MALCOLM BRABANT: It’s not really made that much of an impact, to be honest.

    The German interior minister acknowledged that ISIS had made this claim, but he didn’t really react to it. I don’t think anybody is particularly surprised. This attack was right out of the jihadist playbook. It’s the sort of language in the claim that they have made that they have used before.

    But what, I think, ISIS has achieved by saying what they have done is that they have perhaps helped to polarize Germany. They have helped to perhaps drive people into the arms of the Alternative for Germany Party, the right-wing anti-immigrant party. And they’re going to create hatred. And that’s really what their main objective is.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the perpetrator is still on the loose. Is there fear that he or she may strike again?

    MALCOLM BRABANT: That certainly is the worry.

    And people are being advised to stay indoors. The police are very much concerned. The interior minister did say that they do have some leads and that the police are following up on those leads.

    But they thought that they actually had their man in their sights, because the person they described as a brave witness to the attacks said that he followed the person that he thought was the truck driver. He had driven through the Christmas market, and was in touch with police all the time.

    But it now appears that he may have actually lost sight of the target during that particular time, which is perhaps why the wrong man was arrested.

    But there are certainly fears that there will be attacks again, and there are armed police at other Christmas markets around there. One pretty good indication of just how tense things are, there was a federal prosecutor who was giving a press conference in Germany earlier today, and he said that he certainly wouldn’t go to any Christmas markets, which is hardly an endorsement of the state of security here.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: No, it isn’t.

    Malcolm Brabant in Berlin, thank you.

    The post Is Berlin truck attack a turning point for Germany? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Firefighters and rescue personnel stand near a destroyed house after an explosion at the San Pablito fireworks market in Tultepec, Mexico on Dec. 20. Photo by Edgard Garrido/Reuters

    Firefighters and rescue personnel stand near a destroyed house after an explosion at the San Pablito fireworks market in Tultepec, Mexico on Dec. 20. Photo by Edgard Garrido/Reuters

    An explosion that set off a chain reaction in a fireworks market in Mexico on Tuesday destroyed surrounding homes and killed at least 31 people.

    The open-air market in Tultepec, north of Mexico City, burned to the ground. Nearly 50 people remained hospitalized for severe burns on Wednesday, including 10 children, the Associated Press reported.

    It was the fifth such explosion since 2005 in the San Pablito fireworks market and the ninth since 1997.

    Authorities were still investigating the cause of the latest blast on Wednesday morning. Past explosions were attributed to vendors giving customers improper permission to light the fireworks. Precautions that were put in place since the earlier explosions included putting fireworks under glass and building stalls from brick and concrete.

    Christmas is a popular time for Mexicans to stock up on fireworks, and San Pablito is one of the most frequented markets.

    Surrounding houses were destroyed in an explosion at the San Pablito fireworks market. Photo by Edgard Garrido/Reuters

    Surrounding houses were destroyed in an explosion at the San Pablito fireworks market. Photo by Edgard Garrido/Reuters

    “We are obviously in the high season,” Tultepec Mayor Armando Portuguez Fuentes told the AP. “There was more product than usual because we are a few days away from Christmas, a few days away from New Year’s, and those are the days when the products made here are consumed the most.”

    The post Mexican fireworks town has a history of explosions appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Delta airline name tags are seen at Delta terminal in JFK Airport in New York, July 30, 2008. REUTERS/Joshua Lott/File Photo   - RTSLQVN

    Delta airline name tags are seen at Delta terminal in JFK Airport in New York, July 30, 2008. REUTERS/Joshua Lott/File Photo – RTSLQVN

    The creator of a popular YouTube channel said on Wednesday he was removed from a Delta flight after speaking Arabic.

    Adam Saleh, 23, said he and a friend were removed from a Delta flight at Heathrow Airport in London after he spoke in Arabic to his mother on the phone and passengers complained. Saleh posted a video to social media that appeared to show his removal. The incident is still under investigation, according to Delta.

    There should be an embedded item here. Please visit the original post to view it.

    Delta issued a statement on the incident Wednesday that said two customers were removed and rebooked after “a disturbance in the cabin resulted in more than 20 customers expressing their discomfort.” Delta has not released any of those customers’ statements to date.

    The statement added, “We are taking allegations of discrimination very seriously; our culture requires treating others with respect.”

    Saleh’s social posts often show him pulling pranks. One video, posted on Saleh’s YouTube channel on Feb. 9, shows Saleh on a plane as he appears to joke with his travel companion on “what would ever happen” if they counted down from 10 in Arabic, “as a social experiment.” The video shows Saleh counting down in Arabic, then amicably chatting with a fellow passenger as the flight continues.

    But Saleh defended his experience on Wednesday. He told the Guardian and The New York Times the videos are authentic and that he plans to share more footage from the incident.

    “You can exactly see in the video a person sticking a middle finger up at the back, you see a guy defending us. The captain was quiet when I said what had happened,” Saleh told the Guardian. “We wouldn’t be here joking around.”

    Saleh told the Guardian that the incident began when he spoke with his mom on the phone. “Usually before I take off I speak to my mom. My mom is 66 years old and she only speaks Arabic, so I was speaking to her in Arabic – it was a 30-second phone call,” he said.

    Saleh said that a woman on the plane told him she was uncomfortable with his Arabic, and another person called for Delta to “Chuck them off the f-ing plane!” Then, the captain asked to speak to Saleh outside the aircraft and Saleh started filming, he said.

    PBS NewsHour reached out to Saleh for comment and his management team responded with his statement:

    I was speaking to my mom on the phone like I always do before getting on a flight. I call her before I take off and when I land so that she knows I am safe and well. I was speaking in Arabic when a female passenger began shouting that they felt uncomfortable. This encouraged almost 10 other passengers to agree and shout the same thing. We were kicked off the flight while those passengers mocked us. We are currently getting ready to get onto another flight with another Airline. I will keep everyone updated with the situation through social media! I appreciate everyone’s support and effort in raising awareness on this!

    The video, posted to Twitter and Periscope, appears to show Saleh and friend, Slim Albaher, being escorted off the plane. London’s Metropolitan Police escorted Saleh and Albaher to the terminal. “They were not arrested and no offences were disclosed,” the police said in a statement.

    “They kicked us off the plane because a lady, because a lot of people felt uncomfortable,” Saleh said. “Delta Air Lines just kicked us out for speaking Arabic.”

    The flight, which was scheduled to land in New York, was delayed by 53 minutes.

    The post YouTube star says he was removed from Delta flight after speaking Arabic appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    General view of the Alexandra Stadium. Photo by Action Images/Jason Cairnduff

    General view of the Alexandra Stadium. Photo by Action Images/Jason Cairnduff

    The sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the UK soccer world has grown in recent weeks, as more potential victims have reported abuse at the hands of youth coaches. Survivors were invited to come forward by an ex-professional player who told a British newspaper recently that a youth coach abused him as a child.

    Britain’s National Police Chiefs’ Council said there was a jump in implicated clubs, potential suspects and survivors after former Crewe Alexandra defender Andy Woodward and other ex-players publicly alleged sexual abuse in the sport’s youth programs.

    The NPCC released the latest numbers from the scandal Wednesday, saying that the bulk of the referrals came from a dedicated hotline set up to report child sex abuse. To date, the hundreds of calls made to police forces have raised the number of victims to 429, with survivors as young as 4 years old when the abuse occurred.

    Also, according to these latest figures, the number of potential suspects is now 155, while 148 football clubs have been implicated, suggesting a widespread culture of abuse in these youth programs. In the Dec. 9 update of their numbers, the NPCC said 83 potential suspects were identified and 98 clubs implicated.

    The NPCC said most, 98 percent, of people identified as victims are male and that a majority of the reports were related to the British soccer system, although other sports have been cited in the ongoing investigation.

    In his Nov. 16 interview with The Guardian, Woodward said that as a teen he was abused by convicted pedophile and former soccer coach Barry Bennell while at Crewe’s youth program.

    Signs are seen at the Crewe Alexandra Football Club ground in Crewe, Britain. Photo by Phil Noble/Reuters

    Signs are seen at the Crewe Alexandra Football Club ground in Crewe, Britain. Photo by Phil Noble/Reuters

    When he entered the program at age 11, Woodward said he was “soft-natured,” and that “it was the softer, weaker boys Bennell targeted.” Throughout his career, Woodward said he has had to cope with depression and anxiety stemming from that abuse, adding that he has also been suicidal.

    At age 43, Woodward said it wasn’t until now that he felt he could break his 30-year silence.

    “I want to get it out and give other people an opportunity to do the same,” he told The Guardian. “I want to give people strength. I survived it … I came through the other side. Other people can have that strength,” he added.

    Days after Woodward’s story was published, former midfielder and Crewe player Steve Walters said he also suffered abuse by Bennell, adding that it was an open secret that the coach targeted boys.

    “It was the worst-kept secret in football that Barry had boys staying at his house but nobody at Crewe, as far as I can tell, used to think anything of it,” Walters told The Guardian.

    Woodward said Bennell used blackmail to manipulate Crewe boys, who aspired to becoming a professional player. He told CNN that Bennell was a “master of control.”

    In 1998, Bennell plead guilty to 23 charges of sexual abusing six children. He served a nine-year jail sentence in Britain. Previously, in 1994, Bennell was jailed for three years for sexually abusing a 13-year-old boy in Florida. In 2015, Bennell was also plead guilty of sexually abusing a boy in 1980. He has been jailed for two years.

    Since Woodward’s sexual abuse claims have been made public, at least 20 other former players have shared their stories of abuse.

    Football Association chairman Greg Clarke told BBC Sport the historical sexual abuse is one of the sport’s greatest crises.

    When asked about the lack of a broad administrative response, over the years, to the crisis, Clarke said he didn’t know if there was a cover-up, but suggested that the football clubs protected themselves.

    “I think institutionally, all organisations in the old days used to protect themselves by keeping quiet and closing ranks,” he said. “That’s completely inappropriate and unacceptable today.”

    The post UK soccer pedophilia scandal widens to 429 victims appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    A man holds up a "Drain the Swamp in Washington DC" sign as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump attends a campaign event on the tarmac of the airport in Kinston, North Carolina. Photo by Carlo Allegri/Reuters

    A man holds up a “Drain the Swamp in Washington DC” sign as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump attends a campaign event on the tarmac of the airport in Kinston, North Carolina. Photo by Carlo Allegri/Reuters

    WASHINGTON — One of Donald Trump’s advisers says the president-elect is no longer interested in his rallying cry “drain the swamp.”

    “I’m told he now just disclaims that. He now says it was cute, but he doesn’t want to use it anymore,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said in an interview that aired Wednesday on NPR. Gingrich, a vice chairman of the transition team, also predicted there would be “constant fighting” over Trump’s efforts to reduce the influence of lobbyists and Washington insiders.

    Trump’s aides say he remains committed to his underlying swamp-draining policies, such as banning outgoing Trump transition and administration members from lobbying for five years. Trump also prohibits any lobbyists from joining his transition team or administration unless they de-register.

    “President-elect Trump’s ethics reform policies are full speed ahead,” transition spokesman Jason Miller said. “We’re going to change the way business is done in Washington and start putting the American people first.”

    Yet Trump aide Corey Lewandowski’s decision to open up a consulting shop just a block from the White House shows that insiders will continue to play a role in the Trump administration.

    Lewandowski, who was Trump’s first campaign manager, and former Trump adviser Barry Bennett have formed a government relations and political consulting firm and are pitching their ties to Trump as they seek clients.

    Lewandowski has been a fixture at Trump Tower in New York as the president-elect forms his administration. But because he never had an official transition title, he doesn’t run afoul of Trump’s ban on transition officials going on to lobby the government. It’s also not clear if Lewandowski will register as a lobbyist.

    Gingrich said perhaps Trump feels that “he should be marginally more dignified” than leading crowds in “drain the swamp” chants.

    For Trump voters who had hoped he would shake up Washington, those may be irrelevant distinctions, said Meredith McGehee, chief of policy, programs and strategy at the government reform group Issue One.

    “‘Drain the swamp’ is one metaphor. I have another metaphor for this Lewandowski move and that’s ‘business as usual,'” she said. “It’s hard to describe hanging out your shingle close to the White House after serving in the campaign as anything other than exactly the kind of insider access and influence that many Americans thought they were voting against.”

    Lewandowski decried the role of Washington’s ruling class — which he is now joining — in a February interview with Steve Bannon, then the executive chairman of the conservative news site Breitbart. Bannon went on to become a Trump campaign executive and is headed to the White House as chief strategist.

    “What you have is a series of people who’ve made a very, very good living by controlling politicians through their donations and making sure they get the legislation done — or not done — in Washington, DC, to best benefit their clients,” Lewandowski said. “And those days are coming to an end.”

    In his new position, Lewandowski is cashing in on his Trump ties. “Everybody knows he will have access to the president,” McGehee said, “and if you pay him enough, he will use it on your behalf.”

    [Watch Video]

    Since winning the election, Donald Trump has nominated most of his cabinet and picked top White House staff, all significant players in shaping U.S. policy. He’ll also have Republican majorities in both houses of Congress on his side. NewsHour Weekend’s Jeff Greenfield joins Alison Stewart to analyze the balance of power in Washington.

    “‘Drain the swamp'” became a staple of the final month of Trump’s campaign, with crowds chanting it as loudly as they had been shouting “build the wall” and “lock her up.” The slogan also appeared on T-shirts and signs.

    It has remained part of Trump’s post-election “thank you” tour. Whether in Ohio or Florida, the crowd continued to shout along with the president-elect as he vowed to curtail corruption in Washington — even as he revealed that he wasn’t always crazy about the catchphrase.

    “Funny how that term caught on, isn’t it?” Trump mused during a rally this month in Des Moines, Iowa. “I tell everyone, I hated it. Somebody said ‘drain the swamp’ and I said, ‘Oh, that is so hokey. That is so terrible.'”

    “I said, all right, I’ll try it,” Trump continued. “So like a month ago I said ‘drain the swamp’ and the place went crazy. And I said ‘Whoa, what’s this?’ Then I said it again. And then I start saying it like I meant it, right? And then I started to love it, and the place loved it. Drain the swamp. It’s true. It’s true. Drain the swamp.”

    Gingrich told NPR that as the incoming president, perhaps Trump feels that “he should be marginally more dignified” than leading crowds in “lock her up” and “drain the swamp” chants. Gingrich said he supports Trump’s ethics reform proposals.

    Associated Press writer Jonathan Lemire contributed to this report from Palm Beach, Florida.

    SUBSCRIBE: Get the analysis of Mark Shields and David Brooks delivered to your inbox every week.

    The post Trump dropping ‘drain the swamp’ rally cry, Newt Gingrich says appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    A student walks through the Purdue Mall on the campus of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Photo by  Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty Images

    A student walks through the Purdue Mall on the campus of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Photo by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty Images

    Trudging in from the cold and dark after long days at work, students settle in on stackable chairs around folding tables in a room austere but for a whiteboard and a lonely plastic Christmas tree.

    Some wearily set down their books and wolf down fast food for their dinners. One has brought her son, still in his school uniform, who is soon absorbed in homework.

    The setting is a borrowed corner of a public housing complex for formerly homeless veterans on Indianapolis’ Near West Side, and the class — called “Planning for a Profitable Business” — has been arranged by Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, or IUPUI.

    “There’s a recognition that you can only play defense and hide out for so long and at some point you have to come forward and make your case directly with the public.” — Andrew Seligsohn, president, Campus Compact
    Tonight the students will be practicing the business presentations they’ll be making in front of an audience the next week, encouraging each other with suggestions and applause.

    These aren’t undergraduate economics majors. They’re current and aspiring entrepreneurs, many of them from this hard-luck neighborhood, which IUPUI is working to improve.

    It’s a tiny slice of a growing trend in which universities are reaching across the sometimes literal walls that have divided them from their communities and trying to provide the help their neighbors need.

    This movement is about more than sending students to fulfill community-service requirements by cleaning up litter or working in soup kitchens at the holidays. It’s about leveraging vast amounts of buying power, political clout and research capacity to do permanent good.

    Related: Defying political pushback, private colleges quietly enroll undocumented students

    Many people involved describe it as a return to a time when higher education saw itself as contributing to the public interest rather than solely training students for careers.

    They also say it’s in the universities’ self-interest, coming as it does at a time when decaying surroundings and urban crime discourage applicants, cash-strapped local governments are pushing these nonprofit institutions to pay more for the services they get, and the public has a low opinion of college costs, management and value.

    “Institutions cannot succeed if the community is failing and the community cannot succeed if the institution is failing,” said Ted Howard, co-founder and president of the Democracy Collaborative, which supports this work.

    Meanwhile, under a divided political system, serious problems have gone otherwise unsolved. It was scientists from Virginia Tech — not the state or federal governments — who discovered high levels of lead in the drinking water in Flint, Michigan, for instance.

    To help fill such voids, colleges and universities and their faculties can leverage vast budgets and payrolls. Their endowment holdings alone add up to nearly half a trillion dollars and they have an annual economic impact of $1 trillion and employ nearly 4 million people, the Progressive Policy Institute reports.

    A growing number are diverting a little of that wealth to their communities.

    Related: The business decision segregating college students by income and race

    Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, for example, along with nearby hospitals, has helped get money for a new public-transit station and to redesign a congested traffic circle in its neighborhood, and attracted about $200 million of investment. Arizona State moved its schools of nursing and journalism and other programs into a once-blighted section of Phoenix in a project that includes student housing and private development. The University of Cincinnati is injecting about 10 percent of its $1 billion endowment into investments to revitalize that city’s Uptown District. Northeastern University is offering $6.5 million in loans to local businesses at below-market rates.

    Many institutions provide legal and medical clinics and intervene to improve their local public schools. Duquesne, in Pittsburgh, runs a community pharmacy. Rutgers University hosts a branch of the county public library. IUPUI also operates a dental clinic for veterans and is helping address a flare-up in the number of cases of HIV in southern Indiana.

    It’s no coincidence that these gestures come as local governments — squeezed for money and stretched to provide services — are putting universities and colleges under scrutiny. They’re especially focused on the wealthiest schools, which sit on multibillion-dollar endowments, pay high salaries to huge numbers of employees and take up large swaths of land that would otherwise be generating tax revenue.

    “If you’re a mayor, you look around and say, ‘What the hell is that?’” said Howard.

    Related: University bureaucracies grew 15 percent during the recession, even as budgets were cut and tuition increased

    Princeton University, the nation’s fourth-richest, was sued by residents of its New Jersey hometown demanding it fork over nearly four times the $11 million a year it pays in taxes on some commercial buildings it owns. Princeton in October settled the case by agreeing to pitch in an additional $2 million next year and $1.6 million more for each of the five years after that.

    Brown was arm-twisted into increasing by nearly $3 million a year its voluntary payments to its surrounding city of Providence, Rhode Island. Massachusetts lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to tax endowments over $1 billion, which would have affected Harvard ($36.4 billion), MIT ($13.5 billion), and at least seven other universities and colleges.

    Northeastern was called out for paying nothing at all in 2014 toward the $2.4 million the city of Boston requested to help cover the costs of police, fire, snow-removal and other services the university received.

    All of this has colleges and universities scrambling for new ways to contribute.

    “There’s a recognition that you can only play defense and hide out for so long and at some point you have to come forward and make your case directly with the public,” said Andrew Seligsohn, president of Campus Compact, a coalition of universities that provide community service.

    To commemorate its 30th anniversary, Campus Compact has asked its members to develop “civic action plans” by March reaffirming their commitment to what it calls the public purposes of higher education. Nearly 450 have signed on.

    One way of meeting that goal, and “not, in effect, being taxed,” said Howard, “is, for instance, you should be analyzing your supply chain, figure out which of those contracts can be redirected to local vendors who are going to hire people who really need jobs, and track that and report it.”

    He said: “Having self-interest by the institutions to do this work is not a bad thing. It’s part of the business proposition for these institutions, about why it makes sense.”

    Still, sometimes even the best intentions go awry.

    Colleges and universities control nearly half a trillion dollars in endowment money and have an annual economic impact of $1 trillion they can leverage to support their neighborhoods.
    One of the earliest examples of a university involving itself in its community came in 1959, when the University of Pennsylvania, among others, declared its West Philadelphia neighborhood to be plagued by “physical and social ills” and proceeded, in a partnership with the local redevelopment authority, to push an expansion that displaced thousands in a process since derided as “Penn-trification.”

    Related: New faces on campus: Students of all races welcome first black presidents to largely white colleges

    Syracuse University more recently moved to help its Rust Belt hometown by converting an abandoned warehouse in a high-crime, low-income neighborhood into classroom and studio space, renovating parks and creating an arts district. Faculty were encouraged to do research in the city. But critics complained that the ambitious plan shortchanged more traditional forms of scholarship and caused the university to fall in national rankings.

    There are growing forces driving colleges and universities to become more deeply involved in their communities, however.

    One is to improve their flagging PR. Nearly six in 10 Americans say colleges today care mainly about the bottom line, and 44 percent think they’re wasteful and inefficient, a September poll by Public Agenda found. Many of their neighbors already mistrust them after histories of unbridled expansion and heavy-handed treatment such as the kind that occurred in West Philadelphia. To build IUPUI in the late 1960s, for example, officials bulldozed a predominantly black neighborhood, something locals still remember.

    “It’s important for them to say to the community, ‘We’re not just about expanding and building and building,’” said Hope Hampton, one of the students in the Indianapolis entrepreneurship course. “They need to invest in this community.”

    Another incentive is that universities can’t pick up and move, and deteriorating neighborhoods with high crime and abandoned housing can affect their recruiting of students and employees. They are, as a new term of art calls them, “anchor institutions.”

    Yet they have often faced inward, and walled themselves off — in the case of some, including Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania, with actual walls.

    Widener’s former president, James Harris III, remembered being asked on his first day to review plans for a fence and a gate around a freshman quad. These were to reassure incoming students concerned about living in what was considered a bad neighborhood. It spoke to the separation of gown from town — which other administrators told him wasn’t worth wasting limited money on — and also a critical reason to fix it.

    Harris reached out, and today Widener runs a charter school for local children, offers free health and physical therapy clinics and is helping restore a museum.

    “I think maybe we had lost some of that broader focus of not only addressing the students, but also universities’ commitment to the country,” said Gretchen Mielke, assistant dean for civic engagement there, whose job it has been to follow through with this.

    Widener’s is an approach that appears to be spreading.

    “Fifteen years ago or so, there were very few universities that were really deeply engaged with their communities, or even with the idea that they should be,” Howard said. “There grew up the idea that basically students went to college for their own good. But now the idea is coming back that the role of the institution should be problem-solving in society. I’m not saying all of them are doing this, but there’s clear movement in this direction.”

    Back in the entrepreneurship class, Jerry Siegel is awaiting his turn to practice presenting his business plan. Siegel grew up in this neighborhood, where he now runs a catering company he hopes to expand with help from the university course.

    IUPUI is also building a community entrepreneurship center here, where there will be permanent training space and offices to meet with advisers.

    “The university is part of this community. The people who come to that university and are paying tuition come from this community. The people who are paying taxes come from this community,” said Siegel. “To me this is a great way for them to give back.”

    This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

    The post Bridging the town and gown divide appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Arminda Murillo, 54, reads a leaflet on Obamacare at a health insurance enrollment event in Cudahy, California. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

    Arminda Murillo, 54, reads a leaflet on Obamacare at a health insurance enrollment event in Cudahy, California. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

    WASHINGTON — “Obamacare” seems to be holding its own. The administration said Wednesday that 6.4 million people have enrolled for subsidized private coverage through HealthCare.gov, ahead of last year’s pace.

    Despite rising premiums, dwindling insurers, and the Republican vow to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care law, about 400,000 more people signed up through Monday than for a comparable period in 2015, the Department of Health and Human Services Department said.

    “Today’s enrollment numbers confirm that doomsday predictions about the marketplace are not bearing out,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell.

    But it’s too early for supporters of the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, to say “I told you so.”

    From the beginning of sign-ups to this week’s preliminary deadline, the number of new enrollees from this period, 2.05 million, did not match last year’s 2.4 million new enrollees who signed up for coverage, The Hill reported.

    It’s unclear if the administration will meet its overall target of 13.8 million sign-ups from new and returning enrollees.

    That’s partly because the share of new customers is down when compared with current consumers re-upping for another year. New customers are 32 percent of the total this year versus 40 percent last year. Administration officials said they’re going to focus on getting more new customers between now and the end of open enrollment Jan. 31.

    “There are zero signs that the ACA’s marketplaces are in danger of imminent collapse,” said Larry Levitt of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, who has followed the health care law from its inception.

    That carries an implicit warning for congressional Republicans, who have promised to move quickly to repeal the law. That repeal would be followed by a GOP-inspired replacement, but the whole process could take several years and it’s unclear what would happen to people with coverage in the meantime.

    As if on cue, Democratic governors Wednesday fired off a letter to GOP congressional leaders, calling the repeal plan “nothing more than a Washington, D.C., bait-and-switch” that would leave millions uninsured and shift to states an estimated $69 billion over a decade in uncompensated care costs.

    The statistics released Wednesday are for 39 states served by the federal online insurance marketplace. Numbers from states running their own markets have not been fully tallied, and will be added later, raising the total. Toward the end of this month, several million current customers who are being re-enrolled automatically will be added to the count.

    Some of the biggest sign-up numbers so far are coming from states President-elect Donald Trump won in the election, including Florida (1.3 million); Texas (776,000); Georgia (352,000), and Pennsylvania (291,000). Vice president-elect Mike Pence’s home state of Indiana had 119,000 residents enrolled.

    Still, independent analyst Caroline Pearson of the consulting firm Avalere Health said the apparent slow-down in new customers should be a concern for the administration.

    “At this time, enrollment appears to be slightly behind the pace needed to reach the administration’s goal of signing up 13.8 million people,” she said. “However, if more people who are currently in the market renew their coverage, then that goal could still be achieved.”

    Premiums for a midlevel benchmark plan in HealthCare.gov states are going up an average of 25 percent next year, driven by lower-than-expected enrollment and higher medical costs. At the same time, about one-third of U.S. counties will have only one marketplace insurer next year because some major commercial carriers have left the market, and many nonprofit insurance co-ops created by the law have collapsed.

    The impact of premium increases has been softened by the law’s subsidies, which are designed to rise if the cost of insurance goes up.

    A study last week from the nonpartisan Center for Health and Economy found that the average monthly subsidy will increase by $76, or 26 percent, from $291 currently to $367 in 2017.

    But that means taxpayers will fork over nearly $10 billion more to cover double-digit premium increases. The study estimated that the cost of premium subsidies will increase by $9.8 billion next year, rising from $32.8 billion currently to $42.6 billion.

    SUBSCRIBE: Get the analysis of Mark Shields and David Brooks delivered to your inbox every week.

    The post Despite rising premiums and GOP threat of repeal, 6.4 million people signed up for Obamacare so far appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    fresh sliced Avocado

    Like with all great booms, there are unexpected consequences, writes Making Sen$e columnist Vikram Mansharamani. Photo by Getty Images

    Despite being a staple of Mexican diets for thousands of years, the avocado has enjoyed a global surge in popularity over the last few years.

    Today, the avocado market is booming. It’s gone from an exotic fruit (yes, it’s a fruit … actually, a berry) to a mainstay on menus. In fact, avocado toast has become so common it now appears on the menu of McDonald’s restaurants in Japan. And after years of suffering the indignity of not having its own digital character, social media efforts and online petitions earlier this year successfully convinced Apple to include an avocado emoji in its latest iOS release.

    American per capita consumption of avocados rose from 2 pounds per person to over 7 pounds per person between 2000 and 2015.

    But the avocado wasn’t always a dining darling. In fact, as noted by NPR, it took innovative marketing efforts of California growers in the early 1900s to drive its current mass-market appeal. These farmers met to discuss how they might overcome the challenge of the fruit’s name: it was then called ‘ahuacate,’ the Aztec word for testicle, which was not particularly easy to pronounce. It had also been colloquially called “alligator pear,” an equally unappealing name. Their solution was to rename the fruit, and from then on, it was known as an avocado.

    Demand grew steadily, and really began to accelerate over the last 15 years. According to the USDA, American per capita consumption of avocados rose from 2 pounds per person to over 7 pounds per person between 2000 and 2015, meaning the U.S. consumes well over 4 billion avocados per year. This growth, notes the Washington Post, was driven by the loosening of restrictions on imports from Mexico, a surging Hispanic population in the United States, and the avocado’s association with healthfulness.

    And it’s not just America that has fallen in love with avocados. British café operator Pret A Manger noted that avocado was its fastest growing ingredient in 2015 and helped push sales to a record high. In addition, London is also home to the world’s first “all-avocado” restaurant. (Call me a rebel, but I’d probably sneak in a chip or two!) Australians are also eating ever-increasing volumes of the fruit. Over the past 12 years, per capita consumption has risen from around 3 pounds per capita per year to over 6.5 pounds. And growth in demand for avocados is booming in China, albeit from a very low base.

    In Mexico, a work stoppage earlier this year virtually stopped exports from the world’s largest avocado producing region, creating what commentators called the “great guac crisis of 2016.”

    On the supply side, weather and other factors have disrupted the steady growth needed to meet demand. The drought affecting California, for instance, has hurt avocado production – but not in the way you might expect. As northern California water is less available, San Diego farmers have come to depend on water from the Colorado River. Except that water has more salt, and avocado trees are very sensitive to salt. The result: smaller fruit. San Diego had been America’s avocado capital, producing more fruit from the 18,000 acres of avocado trees than any other county in the country. In Mexico, a work stoppage earlier this year virtually stopped exports from the world’s largest avocado producing region, creating what commentators called the “great guac crisis of 2016.”

    In Asia, both New Zealand and Australia suffered from weather-related growing disruptions that took supply down by around 30 percent, driving avocado prices to over $4 in Australia earlier this year. And given Mexico’s importance in the avocado trade, the July to October disruption of its exports translated into higher prices. The price of a 48-count case of avocados surged from around $45 to $100 in the United States, leading retailers to increase prices by more than 100 percent. In some cases, restaurants were unable to secure any avocados. As a result, American regulators have proposed importing avocados from Colombia to address the shortage amidst unending demand growth.

    But like with all great booms, there are unexpected consequences. First, there’s climate change. According to Newsweek, a small plot of avocado trees can generate up to $500,000 a year. As more and more Mexicans seek to profit from global demand, they have been destroying forests to plant avocado trees. Vast swaths of pine and fir trees are being illegally cut down. The deforestation has already impacted the monarch butterfly and water flow patterns. According to experts, a mature avocado orchard uses twice the water of a dense forest. And local residents are complaining that the incidence of breathing and stomach illnesses has risen as pesticides used in the mountain orchards have made their way into water supplies.

    Because of the violence the business has generated, some now refer to fruit from the state as “blood avocados.” 

    Second, the combination of strong demand, high prices and regular disruptions to supply has generated a strong incentive to traffic in avocados. The economics have also attracted some nefarious actors, leading to gang warfare in the Michoacán state of Mexico. It’s estimated that 80 percent of the avocados consumed in the United States are from this area, and because of the violence the business has generated, some now refer to fruit from the state as “blood avocados.” Separately, high prices have led thieves in New Zealand to steal cases of avocados from growers and sell them on the black market.

    So what can we do about these dynamics? Is there a way to mitigate the footprint of our avocado-consuming addiction? One opportunity to consider is an expansion of avocado orchards in Florida. The state has plenty of water, a hospitable climate and is dealing with a collapse of its citrus industry. We might even take the locavore movement to its logical end and grow our own avocado trees. They’re apparently easy to plant and grow quite quickly. They can help offset the cost of a Super Bowl party, and given the Aztecs believed the avocado was an aphrodisiac, your plant may also prove useful on Valentine’s Day.

    The post Column: How avocado mania drives climate change and crime appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Attendees wearing social security-themed AARP shirts await the start of an event for John Kasich, governor of Ohio and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, in Madison, Wisconsin, U.S., on Monday, March 28, 2016. Kasich would beat Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton in a national general-election matchup, according to a Bloomberg Politics poll conducted by Iowa-based Selzer & Co. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images Related words: Social Security, retirement, seniors

    Retirement expert Philip Moeller answers your Social Security and Medicare questions in “Ask Phil.” Photo by Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

    Editor’s Note: Journalist Philip Moeller, who writes widely on aging and retirement, is here to provide the answers you need. Phil is the author of the new book, “Get What’s Yours for Medicare,” and co-author of “Get What’s Yours: The Revised Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security.” Send your questions to Phil. And check out his Recommended Reading section with links to notable stories and reports at the end of today’s post.

    Suzi: What can we do to protect Medicare and Social Security? Where can we volunteer? We are a part of the baby boomers. We need to be able to depend on Medicare and Social Security. What about all of that money that we put into these programs during our working lives? Is there anything we can do?

    READ MORE: Column: Social Security needs to be reformed, not have its funding cut

    Phil Moeller: AARP and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare might welcome volunteers as they step up their efforts to protect these programs. You also can register your feelings with your U.S. representative and senators. As Republican proposals take specific shape, I will be writing about them and will make a point of looking for how people can make their concerns known.

    Debra: What might it be like if Social Security were to be privatized? I am 57 years old and planning to retire at age 60; my husband is already retired at 60. We are not rich and wonder what happens to the money we have paid into Social Security for more than 40 years if, in fact, Social Security were ever to be privatized?

    Phil Moeller: I was going to reply that I think privatization is unlikely, but of course so much about where we find ourselves these days seemed unlikely just several weeks ago. So I understand and appreciate your concern.

    During the Great Recession, Social Security continued meeting its full payment obligations, even as many 401(k)s became 201(k)s due to stock-market losses.

    I have never seen a privatization proposal that would take away the funds you’ve already contributed nor the benefits they have entitled you to under the current rules. More likely, you would have the option of placing some of your accumulated payroll taxes in a choice of private investments while leaving the rest in the current trust fund, where it is invested in a special series of U.S. Treasury bills.

    As an investment decision, people who are relatively close to retirement, such as you, would want to minimize your investment risks and would thus minimize the amount of money you place in privately managed funds.

    Younger people, however, might have greater appetite for risks, especially since many of them already believe the Social Security trust fund will be depleted by the time they retire. They may well prefer private investment accounts to the current system.

    I have long believed the current Social Security system is preferable to one with private investment choices. During the Great Recession, Social Security continued meeting its full payment obligations, even as many 401(k)s became 201(k)s due to stock-market losses. People nearing retirement simply do not have the time to recover from such a huge hit to their retirement funds.

    READ MORE: How plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act could affect Medicare

    Another great strength of Social Security is that its payments are guaranteed by the U.S. government. Unless private investment firms paid substantial insurance payments in a privatized system, as banks do to insure deposit funds, I could not support the continuance of such a guarantee.

    Jolanta: My husband passed away at the age of 64. I am 62 now and visited Social Security to find out about my survival benefit. They told me I can either take my benefit which is $694 per month until I am 66 and then apply for his full benefit (which will be always the same amount as it was at the time of his death — $2,700) or I can take a reduced amount of $2,250 now and receive it until the end of my life without possibility of changing it. Does this mean that I should receive my reduced benefit of $694 and my husband’s benefit of $2,250 or $2,700 at the same time? I am very confused. I wanted to go with the option of receiving mine until I turn 66 and then his full amount, but they told me this would be very unwise and that I would lose a lot of money. I did the math, and it depends on how long I will live. If I live more than 13 years, it seems like my choice would be better. Could you please help?

    Phil Moeller: Condolences on the loss of your husband. From what you’ve described, it seems like your best choice is to take your retirement benefit now and then switch to your survivor benefit at age 66 when it will have reached its maximum value. You say Social Security told you this would be unwise and cost you a lot of money. However, I don’t understand why they would tell you this. I certainly do not see why you would want to take a reduced survivor benefit now and get locked into this reduced amount for the rest of your life. Unless your health is bad, you stand to live another 20 to 30 years. You need to plan on how to have enough money when you’re 92, not 62!

    Under Social Security rules, you would never get the full value of two benefits at once. If you were applying for two benefits, Social Security would look at them and provide you a payment that was about equal to the greater of the two. However, in the case of survivor benefits, you are permitted to apply for either that benefit or your own retirement benefit and to let the benefit you’ve not applied for increase over time.

    Nancy: I just turned 65. I am working, and my agency has over 20 employees, which I understand means I do not have to sign up for Medicare now. However, my employer health insurance is not very good. Can I sign up for Medicare? Would Social Security help me? Would it become my primary and cover the hospital costs? How do I figure out what Medicare will cost me? I am very confused.

    READ MORE: Column: Under a President Trump, Medicare reforms are a matter of when, not if

    Phil Moeller: You certainly can sign up for Medicare. Under the rules of large employer plans, which is how yours would be defined, your group insurance is primary, and Medicare would be the secondary payer of any claims.

    You might want to look into getting just Part A of Medicare at 65 and avoiding the extra expenses of Part B and D premiums. Part A covers hospital expenses and would pay secondary to your group policy. There is no premium for Part A for anyone who’s worked long enough to qualify for Social Security benefits, and you don’t have to file for Social Security benefits to qualify for Part A. It’s yours when you turn 65 if you want it. Part A is not compatible with high-deductible health plans, however, so if you have an HSA, you do not want to sign up for Part A.

    Steve: My wife intends to draw a spousal benefit on my earnings record when I retire and draw Social Security. I am currently 66 and a half years old and plan on working until 67 and a half. If I apply for benefits for an effective date of December 2017 and elect the six-month retroactive payment, will my wife be eligible for the same treatment? If so, does this make financial sense?

    Phil Moeller: The key date here is not when you retire, but how old your wife is when she applies for a spousal benefit. Her spousal benefits would max out at half of the benefit you’re entitled to at your full retirement age, which is now 66, not half of what you actually collect. And to max out at this level, your wife has to wait to file for the benefit until she is of full retirement age.

    Also, please keep in mind that spousal benefits are not retroactive in this case. Your wife is not eligible for a spousal benefit until you have filed for your own retirement benefit. And she is only eligible for retroactive benefits if she is older than her full retirement age. So if you filed when you were 67 and a half, and she was at least 66, she would only get retroactive benefits if she then delayed her filing for up to six months. But unless I’m missing something, there would be no reason for her to delay in this case.

    Further, your retroactivity is hardly free money and comes at a price. By claiming that six-month retroactivity, you would be giving up six months of delayed retirement credits. Doing so would reduce your monthly benefit by 4 percent for the rest of your life. You might think this trade-off is worth it, and that’s fine. But if you live into your late 80s or 90s, you might wish you had that extra money. You might want to consider just delaying your filing and thus boosting your monthly benefit.

    Heather – N.Y.: I pay $104 for Medicare, am on disability and have limited income. I have no dental or vision insurance and a high-deductible plan. I also have high copays. How do I go about getting lower payments?

    Phil Moeller: Medicare has a number of support programs for lower-income folks and what’s called the Extra Help program to defray drug costs. It can be complicated to figure out whether you qualify, so I’d suggest you use the free Medicare counseling service provided by the State Health Insurance Assistance Program, or SHIP. Please let me know how things turn out, and best of luck.

    Pom: My mom is a widow of 20-plus years. She is now 80 and is collecting her Social Security. Her husband was a retired military guy. And her husband before that is also dead, and he was a retired engineer. After she read your book, she went back down to Social Security to find out how to collect on widow’s pay, and Social Security told her she was not entitled to it. Because her second ex was military, they said she couldn’t collect Social Security. And because the first ex-husband made less than she did, they said she was ineligible. The first husband was an engineer and highly paid. My mom was an administrator her entire life, making only minimum wage. Is there anything she can do to get a widow’s benefits or half of either husband’s Social Security benefit?

    Phil Moeller: Based on your explanation, your mom may have been given accurate information by Social Security. If her second husband never paid Social Security payroll taxes on his earnings, then he wouldn’t have been entitled to Social Security and neither would she.

    However, he might have been entitled to a military pension, and your mom might be eligible for a survivor benefit linked to his pension. I suggest you contact a local Veteran Affairs’ office to find out; make sure you have details so the VA can find him in its records.

    I also can’t tell if what you were told was right or wrong concerning her first husband. I don’t know how much her first husband earned, how old he was when he filed for Social Security, or whether he had filed for it or was even old enough to file when he died. All of these variables can make a difference. So can her own earnings.

    What she needs is access to Social Security’s “earnings record” on him. It will list his income every year and the amount he paid in Social Security payroll taxes. These are the numbers on which the size of his benefits — and her widow’s benefits — would be based. If she has his Social Security number, she should contact the agency and see if they share that information. She probably will need to provide them copies of her marriage certificate, divorce record and an official record of the date of his death.

    Lastly, survivor benefits are higher than divorce spousal benefits, so this is the benefit she should seek. As I said, I simply can’t tell if she was given correct information or not. Thanks for taking the time to write, and best of luck.


    Pharmacies miss half of dangerous drug combinations

    Reporters for The Chicago Tribune took pairs of prescriptions to 255 Chicago-area pharmacies. The drugs were safe individually, but were known to have dangerous and even life-threatening side effects when taken together. Yet more than half the pharmacies dispensed both drugs without issuing any warnings about these side effects. By Sam Roe, Ray Long and Karisa King for The Chicago Tribune.

    Plan to Reduce Medicare Drug Costs Is Withdrawn After Bipartisan Criticism

    Last March, Medicare proposed reducing the prices it would pay for drugs administered to Medicare enrollees under Part B of the program in outpatient settings such as doctors’ offices and hospital clinics. The proposal would have reduced the share of such prices received by prescribing doctors. Some consumer groups supported the idea, but it was heavily criticized by most health care groups, including doctors and the pharmaceutical industry. Last week, the outgoing Obama administration pulled the plug on the idea. By Robert Pear for The New York Times.

    After-Hours ER Care May Come With A Doctor’s Surcharge

    Even with health insurance, eternal vigilance is the word of the day for consumers and their families. This is especially true when it comes to surcharges for providers who are not in your health plan’s network and, in the case of Medicare, may not even accept Medicare’s fee schedule. For an emergency room that’s open 24 hours a day, consumers can understandably be surprised if not shocked by what are called “after-hours surcharges.” By Michelle Andrews for Kaiser Health News.

    The post Column: What can we do to protect Medicare and Social Security? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    President-elect Donald Trump pauses as he talks to members of the media after a meeting with Pentagon officials at Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

    President-elect Donald Trump pauses as he talks to members of the media after a meeting with Pentagon officials at Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

    PALM BEACH, Fla. — Denouncing the deadly attack on a Christmas market in Germany, President-elect Donald Trump renewed his vow to stop radical terror groups and appeared to suggest a willingness to move ahead with his campaign pledge to ban temporarily Muslim immigrants from coming to the United States.

    Trump proposed the Muslim ban during the Republican primary campaign, drawing sharp criticism from both parties. During the general election, he shifted his rhetoric to focus on temporarily halting immigration from an unspecified list of countries with ties to terrorism, though he did not disavow the Muslim ban, which is still prominently displayed on his campaign website.

    The president-elect, when asked Wednesday if the attack in Berlin would cause him to evaluate the proposed ban or a possible registry of Muslims in the United States, said “You know my plans. All along, I’ve been proven to be right, 100 percent correct.”

    “What’s happening is disgraceful,” said Trump, who deemed the violence “an attack on humanity, and it’s got to be stopped.”

    A transition spokesman said later Wednesday that Trump’s plans “might upset those with their heads stuck in the politically correct sand.”

    “President-elect Trump has been clear that we will suspend admission of those from countries with high terrorism rates and apply a strict vetting procedure for those seeking entry in order to protect American lives,” spokesman Jason Miller said. But transition officials did not comment on whether Trump could also push for the overarching ban on Muslims.

    Video by Associated Press

    The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for Monday’s attack in Berlin that left 12 people dead and 48 injured. On Wednesday, German officials launched a Europe-wide manhunt for a “violent and armed” Tunisian man suspected in the killings.

    Former Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said during an interview with ABC on Thursday morning that Trump is “the guy out there saying we need extreme vetting policies, that we need to have a better system vis a vis countries that train, harbor and export terrorists.”

    “He said during the campaign long after he originally proposed that that this would be more strictly tied to countries where we know they have a history of terrorism and that this is not a complete ban,” she added.

    A woman wearing a Muslim headscarf walks past people holding Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump signs before the annual Muslim Day Parade in the Manhattan in September. Photo by Stephanie Keith/Reuters

    A woman wearing a Muslim headscarf walks past people holding Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump signs before the annual Muslim Day Parade in the Manhattan in September. Photo by Stephanie Keith/Reuters

    Trump’s transition team announced Thursday that Conway is headed to the White House, where she’ll serve as counselor to the president.

    Trump, who addressed reporters for less than two minutes Wednesday outside his palatial South Florida estate, said he has not spoken to President Barack Obama since the attack. Aides said that he received the classified presidential daily intelligence briefing on Wednesday and met with incoming White House national security adviser Michael Flynn.

    Trump was spending the final days of 2016 huddled with advisers at Mar-a-Lago, his grand resort in Palm Beach. He also met Wednesday with the heads of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, companies with high-dollar government contracts that Trump has criticized. Boeing has a contract to build two new Air Force One planes and Lockheed Martin builds the F-35 fighter jet.

    Trump said of his meeting with Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson, “It’s a little bit of a dance. We’re trying to get costs down.”

    Dennis Muilenburg, CEO of Boeing, said his company was committed to working with Trump to lower costs on the Air Force One project.

    President-elect Donald Trump attends a metting at Mar-a-Lago estate  in Palm Beach, Florida. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

    President-elect Donald Trump attends a metting at Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

    The president-elect was also finalizing his senior White House team, wrapping up a decision-making process that has been dogged by infighting among rival factions within Trump’s organization.

    Conway, a pollster who served as Trump’s third campaign manager, is widely credited with helping guide him to victory. She is also a frequent guest on television news programs.

    Conway “will continue her role as a close adviser to the president and will work with senior leadership” in the White House “to effectively message and execute the administration’s legislative priorities and actions,” the president-elect’s transition team said in a statement.

    Trump praised Conway as “a tireless and tenacious advocate of my agenda” who has “amazing insights on how to effectively communicate our message.”

    But some of Trump’s original campaign aides have expressed concern to the president-elect himself that they are getting boxed out in favor of those more closely aligned with incoming chief of staff Reince Priebus, former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

    Among the early advisers who will not be joining Trump at the White House is Corey Lewandowski, his combative first campaign manager. But the operative won’t be far away — Lewandowski announced plans to start a political consulting firm with offices just a block away from the White House.

    Lewandowski oversaw Trump’s campaign through the Republican primaries, but he clashed with the candidate’s family and was fired. Still, he remained close to Trump, talking with him frequently and showing up occasionally at the president-elect’s offices during the transition.

    Lewandowski said he was offered “multiple opportunities” to join the administration, though people with knowledge of the process said those opportunities did not include senior positions in the West Wing.

    The president-elect announced plans to hire economist Peter Navarro to run a new National Trade Council that will be housed in the White House. Navarro, author of “Death by China,” has endorsed a hard line approach toward relations with Beijing.

    In a statement, the Trump transition team said the creation of the council “demonstrates the president-elect’s determination to make American manufacturing great again.”

    Trump also named billionaire investor Carl Icahn as an adviser on regulatory reform, though the transition team said Icahn would not be serving as a federal government employee.

    Transition officials said additional announcements on White House jobs were expected this week.

    Meanwhile, Democrats were looking ahead to confirmation hearings for Trump’s Cabinet picks, including Steve Mnuchin, his nominee to lead the Treasury Department. Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown sent Mnuchin a letter Wednesday asking him to explain his involvement with OneWest, a bank that critics have called a “foreclosure machine.”

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    An employee of Teva Pharmaceutical Industries watches pill bottles on a conveyor belt at the company's Jerusalem oral solid dosage plant (OSD) in 2011. Photo by Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

    An employee of Teva Pharmaceutical Industries watches pill bottles on a conveyor belt at the company’s Jerusalem oral solid dosage plant (OSD) in 2011. Photo by Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

    The high prices Americans pay for generic drugs may have been cooked up by pharmaceutical salespeople on golf courses, at a New Jersey steakhouse or over martinis at a “Girls Nights Out” in Minnesota.

    Details emerging from an ongoing investigation show that drug company employees gathered regularly at such swanky locations and conspired to keep prices and profits high, according to interviews and a complaint filed last week in U.S. District Court by Attorneys General in 20 states.

    “The wining and the dining and the dinners and the social repertoire sort of led to an atmosphere in which follow up conversations could occur [and] where price fixing could occur … because they had these relationships,” said Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson in an interview. “I think people should be absolutely appalled.”

    The lawsuit hits home for many middle-class families who have struggled in recent years to pay for generic medications while prices for some drugs soared more than 8,000 percent. The price for a decades-old antibiotic called doxycycline, for example, jumped from $20 for a bottle of 500 pills in October 2013 to more than $1,800 in April 2014.

    That price hike was the result of secret efforts by generic drugmakers to make as much money as possible, the complaint says. Maine Attorney General Janet T. Mills said, “It is unconscionable for anyone to manipulate the system in order to line their pockets at the expense of people who need access to affordable medications in order to remain healthy.”

    The ongoing Attorneys General investigation began in 2014, according to the complaint, and has “uncovered evidence of a broad, well-coordinated and long-running series of schemes.”

    The companies accused of price fixing include Aurobindo Pharma USA, Citron Pharma, Heritage Pharmaceuticals, Mayne Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals USA and Mylan Pharmaceuticals, which has come under fire for an unrelated increase in the cost of its EpiPen, used for severe allergic reactions. The Justice Department also charged two former executives at Heritage with price fixing.

    In addition to doxycycline, the companies and executives were charged with fixing the price of an oral diabetes drug called glyburide, which helps control blood sugar.


    Spokeswomen for Teva and Mylan denied any wrongdoing. In a statement, Heritage said that it fired the two employees accused of price fixing in August and has filed a separate lawsuit against them, accusing them of embezzlement.

    “We are fully cooperating with all aspects of the Department of Justice’s continuing investigation,” Heritage said. Aurobindo, Citron and Mayne did not respond to requests for interviews.

    In an interview Friday, Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen said, “The issues we’re investigating go way beyond the two drugs and the six companies. Way beyond … We’re learning new things every day.”

    Generic drugs now account for 80 percent of prescriptions in the U.S., with sales of $74.5 billion in 2015. These drugs saved consumers $193 million in 2011 alone, because their prices are typically a fraction of the cost of brand-name drugs. Both consumers and taxpayers have been hurt by skyrocketing drug costs, according to the complaint. Medicaid plans spent more than $500 million from June 2013 to June 2014 on generic drugs whose prices more than doubled.

    Generic drugmakers have explained recent price increases as the result of “a myriad of benign factors, such as industry consolidation, FDA-mandated plant closures or elimination of unprofitable generic drug product lines,” according to the complaint. In truth, the explanation for soaring prices is “much more straightforward and sinister — collusion among generic drug competitors,” the complaint said.

    “It’s always suspicious when you see dramatic increases in price in areas where there’s really no market protection, either through patents or something else,” said Dana Goldman, director of the Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics at the University of Southern California.

    Executives from Heritage, a New Jersey company described as the “principal architect and ringleader of the conspiracies,” sought out competitors and got them to “agree to raise prices for a large number of generic drugs,” according to the complaint.

    A Heritage saleswoman from Minnesota would allegedly organize the Girls Nights Out, Swanson said. The gatherings were sometimes called “women in the industry” meetings, as if the aspiring executives intended to mentor each other on the secrets to getting ahead in a man’s world.

    But the cozy cocktail conversation veered far from career advice. Instead, the saleswomen shared sensitive information about their companies’ business plans, according to the complaint.

    “The issues we’re investigating go way beyond the two drugs and the six companies,”
    Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen said.

    Male drug industry executives weren’t idle, either. In 2014, at least 13 male CEOs, company presidents and senior vice presidents allegedly met at a steakhouse in Bridgewater, N.J. At these “industry dinners,” one company typically paid for dinner for all of the guests. Executives decided which company would pay based on alphabetical order. Drug company representatives socialized at trade shows, golf outings and conferences, as well, the complaint said.

    Executives discussed how to divvy up market share to avoiding competing with each other for business, according to the complaint. Companies either declined to bid for certain customers or offered “cover bids” that they knew would be rejected. Companies knew they were breaking the law and took care to have most of these discussions on cell phones or in person, to avoid leaving a paper trail. Employees destroyed evidence from text messages and emails, the complaint said.

    Heritage and other companies routinely consulted their competitors before selling new medications so that they could avoid competing on prices, the complaint said. The agreement gave the illusion of competition, but kept prices high.

    In 2014, for example, Heritage “devised a scheme whereby it would seek out its competitors” and arrange to “raise prices for a large number of generic drugs,” including glyburide, whose price was targeted for a 200 percent increase, according to the complaint. Executives instructed the Heritage sales team to immediately contact competitors to agree on price increases.

    Heritage executives destroyed incriminating emails, knowing that the company didn’t have a policy about keeping copies of old messages, according to the complaint. Employees involved in the scheme “deleted all text messages from their company iPhones regarding their illegal communications with competitors.”

    “In August 2016, following an internal investigation that revealed a variety of serious misconduct by the individuals charged today, Heritage Pharmaceuticals terminated them,” the statement from Heritage said. “We are deeply disappointed by the misconduct and are committed to ensuring it does not happen again.”

    Minnesota’s Swanson noted that some information in the complaint has been blacked out at the request of government officials. Eventually, though, Swanson said she wants all of the allegations’ details made public.

    “I’m committed to try to see this through and have an unredacted copy of this complaint eventually get filed so people can see just what’s in all of these text messages an emails and what was occurring,” said Swanson. “I think that’s important.”

    The investigation has uncovered a hidden side of the generic pharmaceutical industry, said Michael Carrier, a professor at Rutgers Law School who specializes in antitrust law in the drug industry. “It’s a bombshell,” he said.

    The charges should prevent generic drugmakers from dramatically raising prices in the near future, Carrier predicted.

    “These sorts of charges can filter out over months if not years,” Carrier said. Based on the complaint, he said, “it’s not just two bad apples acting alone.”

    The victims of the alleged price fixing include both consumers and taxpayers, who support government insurance programs, the complaint said.

    “Many Mainers rely on lower-cost generic prescription drugs in order to make ends meet,” said Mills.

    The price fixing charges have surprised even pharmaceutical industry experts.

    “There are some economic experts who have suspected that there is some tacit collusion among brand-name drugmakers not to lower drug prices,” said Dr. Hagop M. Kantarjian, chair of the department of leukemia at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, who has analyzed the strategies brand-name drugmakers use to keep their products out of the generic market. “But nobody has thought that possibly the generic companies could be potentially colluding to develop monopolistic prices.”

    Kantarjian called for stiff penalties that drugmakers can’t write off as the cost of doing business. “If they’re guilty, they should be penalized in a deterrent fashion,” he said.

    Goldman said drugs that have been used for years and cost pennies to make shouldn’t be regarded as ordinary consumer products.

    “They should be thought of like electricity or something we all need,” Goldman said. “In electricity, we take the view that there is a safe and steady supply and we provide a fair return to the manufacturers.”

    Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., had asked Heritage for details about doxycycline’s price increase in 2014. In a letter to the company released Friday, they noted that Heritage never sent the information. When asked about the drug’s price increase, an attorney for Heritage replied that “Heritage has not seen any significant price increases” for doxycycline in the U.S.

    In their new letter, Sanders and Cummings said that statement now seems “disingenuous at best” and repeated their request for information about doxycycline’s sales and pricing.

    This report is a cross-post from the Kaiser Health News website. KHN’s coverage of prescription drug development, costs and pricing is supported in part by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

    The post Drug companies fixed prices over martinis at ‘Girls Nights Out,’ lawsuit says appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Members of Join MoveOn and DRUM march past the White House during a protest to shut down the existing Muslim registry program NSEERS in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 16, 2016. Photo by Gary Cameron/Reuters

    Members of Join MoveOn and DRUM march past the White House during a protest to shut down the existing Muslim registry program NSEERS in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 16, 2016. Photo by Gary Cameron/Reuters

    WASHINGTON — The Obama administration said Thursday it is officially scrapping a post-9/11 requirement for immigrant men from predominantly Muslim countries to register with the federal government. The U.S. hasn’t used the program since 2011, but a top immigration adviser to President-elect Donald Trump has spoken of renewing it.

    The decision to end the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, or NSEERs, comes amid growing international terror fears and Trump’s suggestions that he could ban Muslim immigrants from the United States. After a truck attack killed 12 in a Christmas market in Berlin this week, Trump told reporters, “You know my plans.”

    The program’s elimination could make it more complicated for Trump’s administration to launch its own registration system for Muslims.

    Trump never publicly spoke about introducing such a program. But a close adviser, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, said last month he was in favor of launching an updated system for all foreigners from “high-risk” areas.

    Meeting Trump in New York, Kobach carried a document labeled “Department of Homeland Security Kobach Strategic Plan for First 365 Days.” It listed an NSEERS reboot as the top priority. Kobach helped draft the program while working at the Justice Department under President George W. Bush.

    The registration system started about a year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, requiring men and boys from a variety of mostly Middle Eastern countries to register with the federal government upon their arrival in the United States. Such people already in the country had to register with immigration authorities inside the U.S.

    Registration, which also applied to immigrants from North Korea, included fingerprints and photographs. People also were required to notify the government if they changed addresses.

    The administration will publish its decision in the Federal Register on Friday. It had been widely derided by civil libertarians as an effort to profile people based on race and religion.

    The program is “not only obsolete,” said Neema Hakim, spokeswoman for the Homeland Security Department, “its use would divert limited personnel and resources from more effective measures.”

    The American Civil Liberties Union, which has opposed the program since its inception, described it as a “failed counterterrorism tool and massive profiling program that didn’t yield a single terrorism conviction in nearly a decade.”

    “With this action, the U.S. is on the right path to protect Muslim and Arab immigrants from discrimination,” said Joanne Lin, the organization’s senior legislative counsel.

    The program never prohibited travel for men and boys from the more than 20 affected countries, including Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

    When the Obama administration abandoned the system in April 2011, it said a newer data collection program would be sufficient to collect biometric information for all foreigners coming into the country. At the time, more than 80,000 foreigners were registered.

    READ MORE: Could President Trump really create a tracking system for U.S. Muslims?

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