Cyber-crime: Irish government briefed by cyber security authorities

17 May 2021

Cyber security authorities and health officials have met government ministers after Ireland’s healthcare system was twice targeted in cyber-crime attacks.

Taoiseach (Irish PM) Micheál Martin was among those briefed by the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and Health Service Executive (HSE).

The NCSC has identified the gang behind the attacks, according to Irish broadcaster RTÉ.

It is believed to be the ‘Wizard Spider’ group, from Eastern Europe.

The criminal investigation team has contacted international law enforcement partners and sent digital footprints of the virus found on the computers to the Europol Malware Analysis Centre in The Hague.

The government said “its main concern is to secure a speedy resumption of all medical services as can possibly be achieved”.

The attack on the HSE has been described as the most significant in the state’s history.

RTÉ reported that the NCSC first became aware that malware had been inserted into systems at the Department of Health last Thursday, followed by the Health Service Executive (HSE) on Friday.

Digital ransom notes

It is understood specialists prevented the ransomware from “detonating” on the department’s systems, but not at the HSE.

Earlier, Irish Justice Minister Heather Humphreys met Garda Commissioner Drew Harris and members of the force’s National Cybercrime Bureau.

Mr Harris and Det Ch Supt Paul Cleary of the Garda National Cybercrime Bureau provided updates on the investigation.

It has been reported that digital ransom notes have been received from the cyber-crime group responsible for the attacks asking for a ransom, but the Irish government has said no money will be paid to restore the data.

The Covid-19 vaccine portal was forced to close temporarily on Friday but authorities have said the programme will continue as planned, with about a quarter of a million doses expected to be given in the next week.

However, officials said the attack has caused “substantial cancellations across outpatient services”.

It is expected to be a few days before the system is fully restored.

MAIN IMAGE: Digital footprints of the virus found on the computers have been sent to the Europol Malware Analysis Centre in the Hague. GETTY IMAGES

Biden signs executive order to improve government response to cyberattacks

The order is aimed at modernizing the government’s response to cyberattacks.

Ben Gittleson, Justin Gomez Luke Barr | 13 May 2021 |

The White House will create a “standardized playbook” for how it responds to attacks, including…Read More

Facing questions about why the U.S. isn’t better prepared to protect its infrastructure from hacks like the ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline, the order seeks to bring the federal government more up to speed

However, while it removes barriers to the private sector sharing info with the federal government about hacks, it stops short of mandating companies like Colonial Pipeline share information. A senior administration official clarified on a call with reporters that the federal government would mandate private companies “doing business with the federal government” share information with it about hacks.

“We pushed the authority as far as we could,” the official told reporters, “and said anybody doing business with the U.S. government will have to share incidents, so that we can use that information to protect Americans more broadly.”

“This executive order is about taking the steps necessary to prevent cyber intrusions from happening in the first place. And second, ensuring we’re well positioned to react rapidly to address incidents when they do occur,” the official continued.

The Biden administration has been working on this executive order since its second week, the official told reporters, and it is expected to help address hacks similar to the one that hit the Colonial Pipeline.

“Colonial fundamentally was an IT incident, and this executive order will make IT software more secure,” the official said.

The order will require all software bought by the federal government to meet certain security standards within nine months, the official said. And it “creates a pilot program to create an ‘energy star’ type of label so the government — and the public at large — can quickly determine whether software was developed securely,” the White House said.

“We’re working to bring visibility to the security of software,” the official said, “akin to the way New York brought visibility and cleanliness to New York City restaurants by requiring restaurants to post simple ratings like A, B, C or D, regarding their cleanliness in their windows.”


The Federal Government Will Now Give PPP Loans to Borrowers in Bankruptcy

by Lydia DePillis,
April 19, 2021

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.Series: The Pandemic Economy Fiscal Responses to COVID-19

The federal government has quietly reversed course on a policy that had kept thousands of businesses from applying for pandemic economic aid, with only weeks to go before funds are expected to run out.

In late March, ProPublica reported on a Small Business Administration rule that disqualified individuals or businesses currently in bankruptcy from getting relief through the Paycheck Protection Program, an $813 billion pot of funds distributed to small businesses in the form of loans that are forgiven if the money is mostly spent on payroll. The agency had battled in court against several bankrupt companies attempting to apply for PPP loans, and did not change course even after Congress explicitly passed legislation in December allowing it to do so.

Referencing ProPublica’s story, the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys wrote a letter to newly installed SBA Administrator Isabella Guzman urging her to follow Congress’ suggestion and tell the Executive Office for U.S. Trustees — a division of the Justice Department that oversees most American bankruptcy courts — to allow debtors to receive PPP loans.

The agency has not yet contacted the Justice Department. But on April 6, the SBA released new guidance as part of its frequently asked questions for the program, redefining what it means to be “presently involved in any bankruptcy.” Under the new interpretation, debtors who filed under Chapter 11, 12 and 13 — which cover businesses, family farms and individual consumers, respectively — are eligible for PPP loans once a judge has approved their reorganization plan. A spokesperson for the SBA said the explanation had been added for “clarity.”

A reorganization plan specifies the debtor’s path to paying off obligations to creditors, and is monitored by a trustee. In simple cases, a judge can confirm it within a few months of filing. This is what often happens in consumer Chapter 13 cases, about 279,000 of which were filed in 2019, as well as in relatively straightforward Chapter 11 cases that don’t require extensive litigation. About 5,500 companies filed for Chapter 11 in 2019.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts doesn’t track how many of those companies have confirmed reorganization plans in place, but it’s estimated to be in the thousands. Now, companies on the road out of bankruptcy — which usually takes years to complete — can apply for PPP loans before the program’s May 31 deadline. With $50 billion left after several extensions, PPP funds are likely to run out before then.

Ed Boltz, a bankruptcy attorney on NACBA’s board who circulated the organization’s letter, said he believes the SBA changed its position after becoming “aware of the foolishness of the prior administration’s position.”

The change would not have helped all the companies that sued the SBA over its policy. Florida-based Gateway Radiology Consultants, for example, didn’t have a confirmed reorganization plan before it applied for a PPP loan last year, prompting a lawsuit. But the bankruptcy lawyer in that case, Joel Aresty, said plenty of his current clients could benefit.

“If they were lucky enough to already be confirmed, they could freely qualify for a PPP loan — the fact that you were in bankruptcy is no longer a deterrent,” Aresty said. “It’s amazing how difficult they made such a simple proposition, really.”

The new definition may now help Mark Shriner, a coffee shop owner in Lincoln, Nebraska, who filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy in 2018 following a divorce. His plan was confirmed the same year. The SBA’s exclusion of debtors from the PPP originally prevented him from applying, forcing him to take on higher-interest loans to keep his doors open.

His cafe likely would have qualified for up to $25,000, and Shriner said he could have used some of the money to improve his online ordering or devise a takeout-friendly menu. Even now, he said, getting PPP money would help him plan for the future and bring back more staff.

Informed of the change last week, Shriner sent an application to his bank, which said it would hear back from the SBA within a couple weeks.

“Wow,” Shriner said. “That would be great.”

MAIN IMAGE: President Joe Biden pictured in Washington, D.C., after speaking about the American Rescue Plan and the Paycheck Protection Program, on Feb. 22, 2021. Credit: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Government’s LGBT advisory panel disbanded

By Jessica Parker
BBC political correspondent
13 April 2021,

The government’s LGBT advisory panel has been disbanded after three members quit last month, the BBC can reveal.

A government spokesman said a replacement for the panel, which was set up under Theresa May’s premiership, “will be set out in due course”.

Some members told the BBC they had been willing to stay on when their terms ended on the 31 March.

A Conservative backbencher has accused the government of a series of “unforced errors”.

It’s understood the panel has not formally met senior government representatives since last year, although government sources say there has been communication with officials.

Equalities Minister Liz Truss has now written to the remaining members thanking them for their “constructive input”.

In the letter, seen by the BBC, Liz Truss said: “I will also be shortly making an announcement concerning the International LGBT Conference and convening a new body that will take international LGBT rights forward.”

‘Untold damage’

The panel was set up as part of an LGBT Action Plan, established under Theresa May. It was to advise ministers “on issues and policies concerning lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.”

Three advisers quit last month over the government’s handling of LGBT rights and amid claims it was “dragging its feet” on a pledge to ban so-called conversion therapy.

The first to resign, Jayne Ozanne, accused ministers of creating a “hostile environment” for LGBT people.

She said it was “such a shame” that Ms Truss was disbanding the advisory panel.

“It was a force for good, where the needs of LGBT people could be heard and understood.

“This does nothing to rebuild trust or reassure LGBT community of their grave concerns,” she added in a Twitter message.

Crispin Blunt
Tory MP Crispin Blunt says the government is damaging its reputation

Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, who leads the all-party parliamentary group on Global LGBT+ rights, said government delays and inaction mean the prime minister is “in breach of promise on causes he supports”.

“The government is led by one of the most socially liberal, live-and-let-live leaders in our history,” he said, “yet it is making a series of unforced errors that will serve to wholly unnecessarily alienate LGBT+ people and do untold damage to his reputation”.

If the prime minister wanted to establish the values of Global Britain on human rights then “it is hardly the moment to dispose of your experts,” he added.

Conversion therapy

Nancy Kelley, chief executive of campaign group Stonewall, who was one of the remaining panel members, said: “Many key commitments from the UK LGBT Action Plan remain incomplete, including delivering an effective ban on conversion therapy, and the pandemic has only deepened the inequalities LGBTQ people experience, particularly in mental health.”

Stonewall was “keen to continue working with the government to progress LGBT+ rights”, she added, and she urged the government to ensure the new advisory panel included experts on “both domestic and global LGBT+ policy”.

In her letter to the panel, Ms Truss said: “I am pressing ahead with our commitment to ban conversion therapy in order to protect LGBT people from these abhorrent practices. I look forward to announcing these measures shortly.”

A government spokesman said: “The LGBT Advisory Panel was created under the previous administration and the term of all panel members ended on 31 March.

“The Minister for Women & Equalities has written to panel members to thank them for their contributions, and plans for a replacement for the Panel will be set out in due course.”

MAIN IMAGE: Equalities minister Liz Truss plans to set up a new advisory group

New Mexico Bans Qualified Immunity For All Government Workers, Including Police

Nick Sibilla,
Apr 7, 2021

In a landmark law signed today, New Mexico barred all government employees from using “qualified immunity” as a legal defense in state court and created a new way to challenge government agencies that violate constitutional rights. By making it much easier for victims of police violence and other government abuses to sue for damages, the New Mexico Civil Rights Act marks one of the most sweeping police reform bills passed in the aftermath of the tragic killing of George Floyd.

Created by the U.S. Supreme Court nearly four decades ago (and found nowhere in the Constitution or relevant federal law), qualified immunity lets government officials escape legal liability for violating someone’s constitutional rights, unless those rights were “clearly established.” In practice, this means finding a prior case with identical facts from the same appellate jurisdiction where the violation occurred. This can spawn downright Kafkaesque results. 

Consider James McGarry, who was wrestled to the ground in his own home in Lincoln County, New Mexico. A federal judge ruled that the officer responsible “used excessive force” in part because McGarry “posed no immediate threat.” Nevertheless, the judge, “with reluctance” granted qualified immunity because McGarry’s rights were not “clearly established” and “a nigh identical case must exist for the law to be clearly established.”

Since qualified immunity is a federal doctrine, it can only be fully abolished by Congress or the Supreme Court. But state and local lawmakers can still act to protect everyone’s constitutional rights.

Enter the New Mexico Civil Rights Act. Under HB 4, if a state or local government employee infringes someone’s rights within their scope of employment, the victim can sue the government employer for damages under the state constitution. Crucially, this new “cause of action” specifically bans qualified immunity as a legal defense. 

In other words, agencies are held vicariously liable for the actions of their employees, while the individual government workers are not at risk of personal liability. Notably, indemnification was already a long-standing practice in the Land of Enchantment. A 2014 study by UCLA Law Professor Joanna Schwartz found that lawsuits against the Albuquerque Police Department led to nearly $14 million paid out in civil rights settlements and judgments; officers didn’t contribute a single cent. 

HB 4 was supported by an ideologically diverse coalition, including the founders of Ben and Jerry’s, the Institute for Justice, the Innocence Project, the National Police Accountability Project, and the local chapters of the ACLU and Americans for Prosperity.

To get HB 4 across the finish line, the Act’s sponsors amended it to make a few concessions to municipalities. The law has a liability cap of $2 million, exempts certain infrastructure and water projects, and allows (but doesn’t require) courts to award attorney’s fees to prevailing plaintiffs. And while the Act generally has a three-year statute of limitations, those suing a law enforcement agency must provide the agency with “a written notice stating the time, place and circumstances of the loss or injury” within one year of the incident. 

Yet even with those compromises, opponents of the bill still claimed it would lead to a tidal wave of costly litigation. But as the New Mexico Civil Rights Commission astutely observed, “the cost of protecting the rights of New Mexicans involves values fundamentally different from other budget questions the legislature faces.” Without a legal remedy to vindicate their rights, the legislature is effectively “forcing those harmed by government misconduct to bear the cost for the state or responsible local government.” 

“In response to some of the commentary surrounding this measure, I will say: This is not an anti-police bill,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “This bill does not endanger any first responder or public servant—so long as they conduct themselves professionally within the bounds of our constitution and with a deep and active respect for the sacred rights it guarantees all of us as New Mexicans.”

Thanks to HB 4, New Mexico is now at the forefront of a growing trend to hold government officials accountable. Last June, Colorado became the first state to pass legislation that explicitly bans qualified immunity as a defense. While law enforcement lobbyists warned that Colorado’s reform would lead to mass resignations, that hasn’t come to fruition. According to the Denver Post, “at least 1,756 Colorado peace officers left their departments in 2020, which is fewer than the 2,061 separations recorded in 2019 and the 2,050 recorded in 2018.”

Over the past year, ConnecticutMassachusetts, and New York City have also approved bills limiting qualified immunity, though none are as broad as the reforms in Colorado or New Mexico. Massachusetts, for instance, only revokes qualified immunity for police officers who have been decertified. The New York City ordinance is only limited to “unreasonable searches and seizures,” including claims of excessive force. But infringing other constitutional protections, like the right to free speech, assembly, or equal protection, remain without a remedy. 

Colorado’s law is broader since it covers any and all violations of the Colorado Bill of Rights, but only authorizes civil lawsuits against law enforcement officers. By comparison, the New Mexico Civil Rights Act covers violations of the New Mexico Bill of Rights and eliminates qualified immunity across the board for all civil servants, not just cops. 

“For too long, qualified immunity has denied victims a remedy for violations of their constitutional rights,” said Institute for Justice Attorney Keith Neely, who submitted testimony in favor of the New Mexico bill. “With the governor’s signature, New Mexico has made enormous strides toward holding law enforcement officers and other government employees accountable.”

MAIN IMAGE: New Mexico statehouse staff talk during a break on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, at the New Mexico Rotunda in Santa Fe, N.M. (AP Photo/Russell Contreras) ASSOCIATED PRESS

Fauci Says Federal Government Won’t Mandate Vaccine Passports

The administration’s chief medical adviser also urged people not to “declare victory prematurely” against the coronavirus by forgoing public health measures like physical distancing.

by Andrea Germanos, staff writer,
April 05, 2021

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Biden administration’s chief medical adviser, said Monday that Covid-19 vaccine passports are “not going to be mandated from the federal government.”

“I doubt that the federal government will be the main mover of a vaccine passport concept,” Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview on the “Politico Dispatch” podcast.  

It could be a different story, however, with individual entities like theaters or educational institutions. 

“You could foresee how an independent entity might say, ‘Well, we can’t be dealing with you unless we know you’re vaccinated.’ But it’s not going to be mandated from the federal government,” Fauci said.

The interview came amid a rising number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. for a third straight week and fears of a potential fourth surge.

That surge could be prevented, Fauci said, with continued progress on Americans getting inoculated and sustained public health measures to contain the virus. Fauci pointed to the need to “put your foot on the accelerator when it comes to vaccinations”—which he called “incredibly efficacious.”  But “we can’t declare victory prematurely,” he added, cautioning against the lifting of coronavirus restrictions just yet.

Fauci’s comments came amid swirling criticism from the left and right over the idea of vaccine passports.

The effort, though, is already underway in some parts of the world, as France24 reported:

Some countries have already introduced such policies, with Iceland becoming the first European nation to issue vaccine certificates in late January. Greece on Tuesday unveiled a digital vaccination certificate for those who have received two doses of the vaccine. Among the countries that are currently issuing or asking for vaccine certificates are Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, and Sweden.

Across the English Channel, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Monday his government would consider Covid-19 “status certificates” as a pathway out of the health crisis.

In the U.S., the concept of a vaccine passport isn’t popular; just 44% of likely voters back the idea, according to a Rasmussen poll out last week. Bolstering such lackluster support are privacy concerns about vaccination documents. From PBS NewsHour:  

[T]here are growing concerns about data privacy as documents verifying Covid-19 vaccination would exist and generally be accessed digitally. These digital health records would operate outside of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, or HIPAA, which protects people’s private medical information from being disclosed by healthcare providers, health plans, or businesses. And there are instances when HIPAA allows that information to be released, such as when it is in the public interest. More broadly, some people are concerned that their data could be used against them by law enforcement, accessed by hackers, or sold to third-party vendors if regulators fail to offer appropriate oversight.

Further concerns, according to The Lancet, are that vaccine “certificates” threaten to exacerbate vaccine inequality. An editorial this month explained:

From a societal standpoint, granting vaccine certificate bearers access to select activities, venues, or international travel would undoubtedly provide impetus to the reopening of some sectors of the economy, such as hospitality, non-essential retail, and tourism. But it also risks generating hierarchical societies in which vaccinated individuals have exclusive privileges that are denied to those who have not received the vaccine. In countries where vaccine rollout is advancing rapidly, this inequity might be resolved in few months, but elsewhere it could be protracted for longer periods. And at an international level, against the backdrop of the currently limited availability of Covid-19 vaccine doses and their inequitable global distribution, the deployment of vaccine certificates for travel will afford citizens of high-income countries greater freedom of movement than citizens of low-income and middle-income countries.

At a Monday press briefing, meanwhile, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Rochelle Walensky expressed concern the nation is “entering our fourth week of increased trends and cases.” But the positive news, she said, is that an increasing number of Americans are being vaccinated against Covid-19.

“To date, more than 106 million people have received at least one dose, and more than 61.4 million, or 18.5%, are fully vaccinated,” said Walensky.

She pointed to a February event at a bar in Illinois that’s been linked to 46 Covid-19 cases as a reminder of “the continued need for layer prevention strategies,” including mask-wearing and physical distancing.

MAIN IMAGE SOURCE: In this photo illustration, a message saying Covid-19 PCR test result has been verified from the Travel Pass app mobile application by IATA (International Air Transport Association) seen displayed on a smartphone screen in front of IATA logo.  (Photo Illustration: Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Following WHO Report, Pandemic Origins Remain Murky

by Michael Schulson,
April 2, 2021

On Jan. 14, an international team of experts arrived in Wuhan, China to investigate the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. For four weeks, the World Health Organization-convened team — which included epidemiologists, virologists, and specialists in veterinary medicine — interviewed people in Wuhan, reviewed hospital records, and even analyzed sales data from retail pharmacies.

Their much-anticipated report, released on Tuesday, rehashes conclusions familiar from weeks of press conferences and communications: The team believes that the coronavirus likely passed from an animal, probably a bat, to humans, either directly or through some intermediate animal host. They describe the theory — heavily pushed by the Chinese government, and widely dismissed by scientists — that SARS-CoV-2 arrived in Wuhan via frozen foods as “a possible pathway” for the virus. Meanwhile, the team describes another theory, the “introduction through a laboratory incident,” as “an extremely unlikely pathway.”

Instead of offering clear answers, the report promises to intensify speculation about the origins of a virus that has shut down entire countries and killed an estimated 2.8 million people worldwide.

At least in the U.S., the report appears at the same time that the lab-leak hypothesis has begun to gain mainstream attention, including recent coverage in USA Today, on NPR, and on “60 Minutes,” the iconic CBS News show. Critics, including the governments of the U.S. and other countries, have charged the Chinese government with giving the WHO team too little access to important data. Those critics appeared to receive support on Tuesday from WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who said the independent team’s investigation of a laboratory incident was not “extensive enough,” and called for “further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to deploy.”

As Charles Schmidt reported for Undark last month, the idea that SARS-CoV-2 may have accidentally escaped from a lab has become highly politicized, with partisans wielding it to attack China or criticize scientific researchers. Amid the finger-pointing, the whodunit drama, and the geopolitical wrangling, it can be easy to overlook the actual stakes of the investigation: to collect information that will help scientists and policymakers prevent future pandemics.

Since the 1990s, researchers have warned of the growing risk that emerging infections pose to the world. Even before SARS-CoV-2 swept around the world, Ebola, Zika, the H1N1 flu, and SARS triggered serious recent outbreaks with global repercussions. Today, Schmidt writes, “pandemic preparedness faces two simultaneous fronts.” Researchers need to study coronaviruses, influenza viruses, and other pathogens in order to understand and combat them. But sometimes that very research introduces the risk of lab accidents that, some experts warn, could trigger a disaster. The lab-leak dispute is not just about blame or closure; it’s about how to weigh those various risks.

For now, the debate over SARS-CoV-2’s origin is far from over. “Bloody hell,” one virologist told Nature reporter Amy Maxmen, “this will go on for years.”

Also in the News:

• Driven by more infectious coronavirus variants, Covid-19 cases are rising across the United States, with hotspots emerging in Michigan, New York, Massachusetts, and other states. “Right now, I’m scared,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said in a Monday press briefing, warning that the country was at risk of experiencing a fourth wave of the virus. Anthony Fauci, director the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, echoed those concerns, saying that the fast-spreading variants could erase some of the country’s gains in reducing infection, even as vaccinations, which appear to be highly effective against existing variants, protect more and more Americans from Covid-19. Most countries, though, have vaccinated far fewer people than the U.S. — and, in some, variants are driving waves of new cases. In France, infections have risen so sharply that the country’s president ordered a full national lockdown on Wednesday. Eastern European countries are also undergoing a coronavirus wave, with Hungary experiencing some of the highest Covid-19 death rates in the world. Variants are also driving surges in India and Pakistan, as well as in Latin America. “Without preventive action, our region could face an upsurge even larger than the last one,” said the head of the Pan America Health Organization this week. (Multiple sources)

• On Wednesday, President Joe Biden announced a $2 trillion plan to overhaul U.S. infrastructure. The plan earmarks $250 billion for research, according to Science. A fact-sheet provided by the White House in advance of Biden’s announcement, which took place at a carpenters training center outside of Pittsburgh, says that the administration will ask Congress to allocate $50 billion to the National Science Foundation and another $14 billion to the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The plan also calls on Congress to “invest $40 billion in upgrading research infrastructure in laboratories across the country,” with half of the funds going to historically Black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions. The plan puts an emphasis on research and development for new technologies, as well as tackling global challenges such as climate change and future pandemics. As Science notes, much of that spending is in line with bipartisan legislation recently proposed in Congress. “We’re one of only a few major economies in the world whose public investment in research and development as a share of GDP has declined constantly over the last 25 years,” Biden told the crowd outside Pittsburgh. “And we’ve fallen back. The rest of the world is closing in and closing in fast. We can’t allow this to continue.” (Science)

• Unaccompanied migrant children held at government facilities near the U.S.-Mexico border are testing positive for Covid-19, raising concerns that overcrowding and unsanitary conditions could be allowing the virus to spread. Reporters who got a rare look inside a facility in Donna, Texas this week published photos of young children packed into playpens — some cared for by older siblings — and families sleeping shoulder to shoulder. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, more than 17,600 unaccompanied minors were in government care as of Tuesday — 5,606 in CBP custody and the rest with the Department of Health and Human Services. CBP does not have the capacity to conduct Covid-19 testing itself, but many children are coming up positive once they transfer from CBP custody to other government sites. At the San Diego Convention Center, for instance, which is holding teenagers age 13 to 17, HHS officials told ABC affiliate KGTV that 82 teens have tested positive. And at an HHS facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, more than 10 percent of children have tested positive for Covid-19, a source with knowledge of the conditions told ABC. In contrast to a Trump administration policy that removed unaccompanied minors from the U.S., Biden has allowed them to stay while their cases are being processed. (ABC News)

• Amid mounting evidence that Black and Brown communities are bearing the brunt of Covid-19’s impacts comes a study suggesting that the pandemic is magnifying health disparities even among people who don’t get the disease. As Amina Khan reports at the Los Angeles Times, researchers at two UCLA Medical Centers examined the rates at which patients were hospitalized for avoidable health problems — including hypertension, diabetes, and urinary tract infections — both before and during the pandemic. African Americans have long suffered such preventable hospitalizations at higher rates than Whites, but the team found that the pandemic had nudged the gap even wider. As many Americans opted to curtail hospital visits during the pandemic, the rate of avoidable hospitalizations fell by more than half for non-Latino Whites, but by just 8 percent, a statistically insignificant amount, for African Americans. The researchers say the results likely stem from Black patients having poorer access to outpatient care, which can prevent minor health issues from growing into major ones. For instance, the researchers noted that, among other things, people of color may be more likely to have a job that doesn’t allow them to take time off to visit a doctor during the day. (Los Angeles Times)

• And finally: On Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it will remove more than 40 outside experts appointed by former president Donald Trump to the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) and the Science Advisory Board (SAB), two panels that shape regulatory decisions. The move reflects criticisms that the Trump-appointed advisers were too friendly toward regulated industry, and at times went against scientific consensus. The Biden administration characterized the move as a step toward reestablishing scientific integrity within federal agencies. But the purge, which The Washington Post described as an “unusual decision,” has drawn criticism from some former EPA officials, who argue that the administration is preventing advisory panels from maintaining members with differing viewpoints. Jeff Holmstead, who led the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation during the George W. Bush administration, complained the decision was “ham-handed” and undermined trust in the agency. Retired EPA employee Chris Zarba countered that the Trump-appointed advisers’ stances “did not accurately represent mainstream science.” (The Washington Post)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Deborah Blum, Brooke Borel, Lucas Haugen, Jane Roberts, and Ashley Smart contributed to this roundup.

This article was originally published on Undark. Read the original article.
Main Image: Tine Ivanič / Unsplash

Democrats Gave Americans a Big Boost Buying Health Insurance. It Didn’t Come Cheap.

By Noam N. Levey, KHN.COM
MARCH 24, 2021

When Democrats pushed through a two-year expansion of the Affordable Care Act in the covid-relief bill this month, many people celebrated the part that will make health insurance more affordable for more Americans.

This story also ran on NPR. It can be republished for free.

But health care researchers consider this move a short-term fix for a long-term crisis, one that avoids confronting an uncomfortable truth: The only clear path to expanding health insurance remains yet more government subsidies for commercial health plans, which are the most costly form of coverage.

The reliance on private plans — a hard-fought compromise in the 2010 health law that was designed to win over industry — already costs taxpayers tens of billions of dollars each year, as the federal government picks up a share of the insurance premiums for about 9 million Americans.

The ACA’s price tag will now rise higher because of the recently enacted $1.9 trillion covid relief bill. The legislation will direct some $20 billion more to insurance companies by making larger premium subsidies available to consumers who buy qualified plans.

And if Democrats want to continue the aid beyond 2022, when the relief bill’s added assistance runs out, the tab is sure to balloon further.

“The expansion of coverage is the path of least resistance,” said Paul Starr, a Princeton University sociologist and leading authority on the history of U.S. health care who has termed this dynamic a “health policy trap.”

“Insurers don’t have much to lose. Hospitals don’t have much to lose. Pharmaceutical companies don’t have much to lose,” Starr observed. “But the result is you end up adding on to an incredibly expensive system.”

By next year, taxpayers will shell out more than $8,500 for every American who gets a subsidized health plan through insurance marketplaces created by the ACA, often called Obamacare. That’s up an estimated 40% from the cost of the marketplace subsidies in 2020, due to the augmented aid, data from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office indicates.

Supporters of the aid package, known as the American Rescue Plan, argue the federal government had to move quickly to help people struggling during the pandemic.

“This is exactly why we pay taxes. We want the federal government to be there when we need it most,” said Mila Kofman, who runs the District of Columbia’s insurance marketplace. Kofman said the middle of a pandemic was not a time to “wait for the perfect solution.”

But the large new government commitment underscores the disparity between the high price of private health insurance and lower-cost government plans such as Medicare and Medicaid.

Acutely aware of this disparity, the crafters of the ACA laid out a second path to provide health insurance for uninsured Americans beside the marketplaces: Medicaid.

The half-century-old government safety net insures about 13 million low-income, working-age adults who gained eligibility for the program through the health law and make too little to qualify for subsidized commercial insurance.

Medicaid coverage is still costly: about $7,000 per person every year, federal data indicates.

But that’s about 18% less than what the government will pay to cover people through commercial health plans.

“We knew it would be less expensive than subsidizing people to go to private plans,” said former Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat who as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee helped write the Affordable Care Act and has long championed Medicaid.

For patients, Medicaid offered another advantage. Unlike most commercial health insurance, which requires enrollees to pay large deductibles before their coverage kicks in, Medicaid sharply limits how much people must pay for a doctor’s visit or a trip to the hospital.

That can have a huge impact on a patient’s finances.

Take, for example, a 50-year-old woman living outside Phoenix with a part-time job paying $1,000 a month. With an income that low, the woman could enroll in Arizona’s Medicaid program.

If, one day, she slipped on her steps and broke an arm, her medical bills would likely be fully covered, leaving her with no out-of-pocket expenses.

If the same woman were to find a full-time job that pays $4,000 a month but doesn’t offer health benefits, she would still be able to get coverage, this time through a commercial health plan on Arizona’s insurance marketplace.

Taxpayers would still pick up a portion of the cost of her health plan, in this case about $300 a month, or half the $606 monthly premium for a basic silver-level plan from health insurer Oscar, according to a subsidy calculator from KFF, a health policy nonprofit. The woman would have to pay the rest of the monthly premium.

Unlike Medicaid, however, her Oscar “Silver Saver” plan comes with a $6,200 deductible.

That means that the same broken arm from her fall would likely leave her with medical bills topping $4,700, according to cost estimates from the federal marketplace.

The main reason commercial health plans cost more and saddle patients with higher medical bills is because they typically pay hospitals, doctors and other medical providers more than public programs such as Medicaid.

Often the price differences are dramatic.

For example, health insurers in the Atlanta area pay primary care physicians $93 on average for a basic patient visit, according to an analysis of 2017 commercial insurance data by the Health Care Cost Institute, a research nonprofit.

By contrast, Georgia’s Medicaid program would pay the same physician seeing a patient covered by the government health plan just $41, according to the state’s fee schedule.

“It’s much cheaper to deliver health coverage to people through public programs like Medicaid than through private insurance because the prices paid to doctors, hospitals and drug companies are so much less,” said Larry Levitt, executive vice president for health policy at KFF.

The price disparity also explains why the health care industry, including insurers and providers, for years has fought proposals to create a new government plan, or “public option,” that might pay less.

Industry officials frequently argue that hospitals and physicians couldn’t stay in business unless they charge higher prices to commercial insurers to offset the low prices paid by government programs.

The Biden administration and congressional Democrats for now skirted a battle over this issue by simply upping subsidies for private health insurers.


UK government to allow new North Sea oil and gas exploration

Joint investment of up to £16bn tied to industry promise to cut carbon emissions by 50% by end of decade

Jillian Ambrose Energy correspondent
24 Mar 2021,

Ministers will allow oil drillers to keep exploring the North Sea for new reserves, despite the government’s pledge to tackle carbon emissions, as long as they pass a “climate compatibility” test.

The government has offered to help the North Sea oil and gas industry cut its carbon emissions through a joint investment of up to £16bn to help support 40,000 North Sea jobs. In return, the industry has promised to cut its carbon emissions by 50% by the end of the decade.

The government said its “landmark deal” would help support the oil and gas industry’s transition to a clean energy future. But it has dashed hope among green campaigners and policy experts that the UK would follow the lead of Denmark and France by agreeing to ban new oil exploration licences.

Instead, the government plans to introduce a new “climate compatibility checkpoint” to determine whether each application is “compatible with the UK’s climate change objectives”.

The checkpoint will use the latest evidence for the UK’s domestic demand for oil and gas, the North Sea’s projected production levels, the availability of clean energy, and the sector’s progress against its emissions reduction targets ahead of each planned licensing round.

If the checkpoint – to be designed later this year – suggests that future oil and gas exploration would undermine the UK’s climate goals, the licensing round would not go ahead. up to the daily Business Today email

Kwasi Kwarteng, the business and energy secretary, said the North Sea deal sends “a clear message around the world” that the UK will be “a nation of clean energy”. He added that the UK will “not leave oil and gas workers behind” in the “irreversible shift away from fossil fuels”.

Mel Evans, the head of Greenpeace UK’s oil campaign, described the deal as “a colossal failure in climate leadership in the year of Cop26”.

“Instead of finding ways to prop up this volatile and polluting sector, a better proposition for workers and communities would be for the government to confirm a ban on new licences, and put all its energies into a nationwide programme of retraining, reskilling and investment in renewables and green infrastructure,” Evans said.

MAIN IMAGE SOURCE: Applications for drilling licences will be assessed against a new ‘climate compatibility checkpoint’. Photograph: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images