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National news in brief

June 25, 2004 | Page 2

OTHER STORIES BELOW:
The real unemployment rate
When frozen food is "fresh"

Supreme Court helps HMO bosses
By Alan Maass

JUSTICE REMAINS blind when it comes to ordinary people screwed over by the HMO giants. In a unanimous vote, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that patients who believe that their HMO refused to authorize necessary medical care have no right to sue in state courts.

The decision is a huge victory for the HMOs, which feared that they would be hit with substantial penalties and judgements in state courts--and a disaster for the 140 million people who covered by health insurance through employer-plan HMOs.

The justices "effectively slammed shut the courthouse doors to the thousands of Americans each year who suffer serious harm because their health insurers wrongfully and unreasonably blocked the patients' access to much-needed medical care," said Syracuse University law professor Peter Bell.

The decision focused on a provision of a federal law, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), that bars lawsuits against HMOs for not approving treatment ordered by a doctor--something that health care advocates have realized was a way for politicians to give the HMOs a huge handout.

The Supreme Court's unanimous opinion--written by none other than notorious dimwit Justice Clarence Thomas--insisted that the provision pre-empts state laws in Texas and nine other states that give residents the right to sue HMOs. The ERISA provision, according to Thomas, was perfectly fair to maintain "efficiency" in managed health care.

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The real unemployment rate

OFFICIALS IN Lawrence County, Ohio, had to wonder when their official unemployment rate dropped to 5.7 percent in April. There just seemed to be more people out of work than that. So the county decided to conduct its own survey--which estimated that the real jobless rate was 17.9 percent, more than three times higher.

"We didn't dream it would come out this high," said Buddy Martin, director of the county's Department of Job and Family Services. Why the difference? The county study found that 10.4 percent of those questioned didn't have jobs, and weren't looking for work. These so-called "discouraged workers" aren't counted in federal unemployment statistics.

If you look at the fine print, the federal figures show the same reality--that overall participation in the labor force continued to fall through the beginning of this year, even though overall statistics showed the economy in a recovery. The local study also found that one in five families have an income below the poverty level, and one in four households receive some type of government assistance, such as worker's compensation, Social Security or disability.

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When frozen food is "fresh"

IT MUST have been a tribute to Ronald Reagan. Within days of the death of Reagan--who famously insisted that ketchup should be classified by the federal government as a vegetable--a federal judge tweaked the definitions for another junk food staple. U.S. District Judge Richard Schell endorsed the U.S. Department of Agriculture's changes in federal regulations that will redefine batter-coated French fries as a fresh vegetable.

Behind the scam is the Frozen Potato Products Institute, "which has spent decades pushing for revisions" to federal laws, according to the Chicago Tribune. Reading the scientific description of frozen fries pretty clearly undermines the potato baron's claims. "After partial dehydration, the potato strips are coated with an aqueous slurry," reads French-fry maker Lamb Weston's patent on how to make batter-coated fries.

"The aqueous starch enrobing slurry...is comprised of a combination of chemically modified ungelatinized potato starch, chemically modified ungelatinized cornstarch, rice flour and other optional ingredients." Not very fresh sounding. Then again, the USDA rule changes are so broad that chocolate-covered cherries, packed in a candy box, could qualify as...a fresh fruit.

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