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web posted January 15, 2001

Ontarion Tories back off fingerprint plan

The provincial government is backing away from a proposal to fingerprint every Ontarian for its new smart-card program.

"The likelihood of going ahead with biometrics is very, very low," Alexandra Gillespie, press secretary to Management Board Chairman Chris Hodgson, said January 9.

Even though the province has hired a New York biometrics consulting company to study the possibility of using finger scans with smart cards, the idea will likely go nowhere, she said, explaining that there are concerns over privacy.

"The minister's primary concerns are really around privacy. If he could, he would be calling it a privacy card," Gillespie said.

But earlier in the day, she said it was for reasons of protecting privacy that the province has commissioned the International Biometrics Group to undertake a feasibility study of integrating biometrics with smart cards. Options under consideration include finger scans or retinal scans for all Ontarians.

"We're looking at retinal scans and fingerprints as a possibility," Gillespie said.

"That's been one of the considerations for a while. That's definitely part of the process.

"If we were to go ahead with biometrics, the most likely use would be a finger scan," she said, noting that it would be more cost effective than a retinal scan.

But after speaking with Hodgson later in the day, she said the minister had cooled to the idea.

The province plans to table legislation paving the way for smart cards this spring.

The high-tech cards would replace OHIP cards, drivers' licences, birth certificates, hunting and fishing licences, and any other cards that access government services.

The province's privacy commissioner, Ann Cavoukian, said she's "delighted" the province is steering away from biometrics.

"We've always advised the minister that it's not the way to go," she said.

The standard of privacy required would be so high, no available technology could meet that and the privacy of Ontarians could be violated, she explained.

"Unless there are strict controls on the use of the technology, it could be very invasive," Cavoukian warned.

"Potentially, police could have access to it and other arms of law enforcement."

The smart cards could replace new photo health cards that are currently being issued to Ontarians.

More than 3.5 million photo health cards are currently in circulation in Ontario.

They are issued to new residents, new babies, people who have lost cards and those enrolling in primary-care projects.

High court hands blow to wetlands

A US Supreme Court decision on January 9 placing limits on wetlands protection is raising new questions about how far the federal government can now go in safeguarding the environment.

Business groups and local governments applaud the court ruling, which effectively returned oversight to the states. But environmental groups worry that many hard-fought federal protections are being swept away as the court continues to erode federal power.

It comes at a time when the incoming Bush administration faces scrutiny on which tack it will take on sensitive environmental issues.

In a 5-to-4 decision, the Supreme Court justices found that the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 did not extend to seasonal ponds used by migratory birds. A group of localities in suburban Chicago is looking to build a landfill atop such ponds.

"Permitting the [government] to claim federal jurisdiction over ponds and mudflats," such as those in the Illinois case, "would also result in a significant impingement of the states' traditional and primary power over land and water use," Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the majority.

Environmentalists worry that large tracts of sensitive wetland will be opened up to unregulated development.

"This decision has potentially devastating effects for our nation's efforts to protect water quality," says Derb Carter, a North Carolina lawyer who specializes in wetlands law at the Southern Environmental Law Center.

"The court has, in this decision, turned the clock back 23 years on a clear understanding of what the Clean Water Act extends protection to." Carter says it's troubling to see the court's efforts to return more power to the states extend into the arena of environmental protection.

While the court upheld the challenge to the clean-water law based on language, it did not decide the constitutional question of whether Congress intended the law to extend to such wetlands.

Handgun crime soars despite Dunblane ban

The number of crimes in Britian involving handguns reached its highest level for seven years in 2000, leading the pro-gun lobby to suggest that the ban introduced after the Dunblane massacre of 16 children and a teacher has proved ineffective.

The use of illegal weapons rose dramatically with 42 people killed. Richard Law, secretary of the Shooters' Rights Association, said: "This proves that the problem was not the licensed gun owners - illegal ownership was the problem in the first place.

"Every year there was a slight increase in gun crime and every year the Government blamed it on licensed holders. Now they've got nobody to blame but themselves." He suggested that the government should consider giving back firearms to licensed holders. Last year's 3,685 crimes involving handguns included 310 attempted murders, 2,561 robberies and 204 burglaries.

The total was more than a third up on the previous year, according to figures given in a parliamentary written answer by Lord Bassam of Brighton, a Home Office minister. The number of handgun offences was higher in 1992 and 1993, at 3,997 and 4,202 respectively, but in each year there were fewer killings than last year.

Norton's '96 speech on states' rights assailed

In a 1996 speech to a conservative group, Interior secretary-designate Gail A. Norton likened her struggle to preserve states' rights to the cause of the Confederacy, saying "we lost too much" when the South was defeated in the Civil War.

Norton, then Colorado's attorney general, described slavery as the kind of "bad facts" that can undermine an otherwise powerful legal case. She made the speech to the Independence Institute, a conservative think tank in Denver on whose board of directors she has served.

Norton did not endorse slavery but rather used the comparison to the Confederacy to make a more fundamental point endorsed by a number of conservative legal activists and scholars about the importance of states' rights against the federal government. Norton spoke of receiving from Washington what she considered to be intrusive orders as a state attorney general.

In the situation of the Confederacy, "we certainly had bad facts in that case where we were defending state sovereignty by defending slavery," she said in the speech. "But we lost too much. We lost the idea that the states were to stand against the federal government gaining too much power over our lives."

As Interior secretary, Norton would have significant power to decide how assertive the department should be in requiring states to comply with federal environmental laws and rules governing mining, drilling and grazing leases.

Norton's comments drew fire from two environmental groups that unearthed her speech. They said it indicated a lack of sensitivity to the horror of slavery and represented a troubling view of the role of the federal government in protecting the environment.

"Her deeply divisive remarks suggest she lacks a vital instinct to protect what needs protecting, whether it's wilderness or the rights of people of color," said Kenneth A. Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, an activist research organization.

Her remarks were uncovered by Cook and Doug Kendall, executive director of the Community Rights Counsel, which defends local governments in property rights cases.

Norton, through a spokesman for the transition of President-elect George W. Bush, declined comment. Norton's longtime chief deputy at the attorney general's office, Marti Allbright, said Norton was not expressing nostalgia for slavery or advocating secession.

In the speech, Norton also recalled she considered filing suit as attorney general against federal requirements under the Americans With Disabilities Act that a renovation of the Colorado statehouse include a wheelchair ramp. She called it "a really ugly addition to the state Capitol."

Norton did not act against rules imposed by the ADA, which former President Bush has described as one of his proudest achievements.

U.S. federal agents have massive power to snoop

Ever wonder how much leeway federal agents have when snooping through your e-mail or computer files?

The short answer: a lot.

The U.S. Department of Justice last week published new guidelines for police and prosecutors in cases involving computer crimes.

The 500 KB document includes a bevy of recent court cases and covers new topics such as encryption, PDAs and secret searches.

It updates a 1994 manual, which the Electronic Privacy Information Center had to file a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain. No need to take such drastic steps this time: The Justice Department has placed the report on its cybercrime.gov site

Anyone who's arrested will likely be patted down for guns, contraband and electronic devices.

So be sure to yank the batteries if you're about to be nabbed. During an arrest, cops can scroll through the information on your pager without a warrant.

What about PDAs? The latest word, oddly enough, might be a 1973 Supreme Court case, United States v. Robinson, that permitted police officers to conduct searches of an arrestee's possessions. Lower courts have extended this rule to include pagers.

But PDAs more closely resemble computers in processing speed and storage capacity.

Concludes the DOJ: "Courts have not yet addressed whether Robinson will permit warrantless searches of electronic storage devices that contain more information than pagers. If agents can examine the contents of wallets, address books and briefcases without a warrant, it could be argued that they should be able to search their electronic counterparts (such as electronic organizers, floppy disks and Palm Pilots) as well."

Speaking of portable electronics, here's some free advice: Don't let 'em search your car.

Once you do, the cops will legally have permission to search the memory or storage of whatever electronics you've got stashed away.

One federal court in the Southern District of New York, for instance, said that if the driver consents to a search, police can then look through the memory of the cell phone they found in the car.

Physicians' group calls for universal health coverage

A physicians' group representing doctors who "are the lifelines" of U.S. health care is calling for a national dialog on universal health insurance.

"We live with this issue every day," Dr. Richard Roberts, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, said on January 11. "We hear this problem day in and day out."

At a briefing held at the National Press Club in Washington, Roberts and other representatives of the 93,000-member organization, presented the outline of a plan designed to provide coverage for all Americans.

"Nearly 1 in 4 Americans are without any or adequate health insurance," said Roberts, a professor of family medicine at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, pointing to 42 million uninsured and 20 million underinsured people. "It's a problem that has grown only worse with time."

The group's proposal identifies key elements necessary for true universal coverage. Among them are:

  • Providing "basic health care" to all, without financial barriers to such care.
  • A shared financial responsibility between public and private funding sources.
  • A "rational approach" to end-of-life care.
  • Protection against catastrophic health care expenditures.
  • An opportunity to purchase middle-level health services on an individual basis.

"We think this is cautious, carefully thought out and yet innovative" approach, Roberts said.

Among the details is a provision that insurance would cover the full cost of basic health care services without co-payments or deductibles. The physicians' plan also would limit out-of-pocket costs for those services not covered to $5,000 a year for individuals or $8,000 per family. An additional 20 percent co-payment would bring total out-of-pocket costs to a $10,000 limit per family.

The program is not intended to replace Medicare or similar programs for the armed services, the Indian Health Service or Veterans Affairs. Enrollees now covered by Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program would be folded into the new plan for basic services only. Still "other services that Medicaid currently covers would remain in place," according to the plan.

Administration of the program would be left to the states, with funds distributed on a per capita basis.

The academy plan is one of many being developed within the health care industry.

"We'd be happy to take a look at the proposal," said Richard Coorsh, a spokesman for the Health Insurance Association of America, a consortium of 300 private health insurers providing coverage to 123 million Americans. "We appreciate the interest in the issue."

HIAA proposals are included in the current issue of Health Affairs magazine, at http://www.healthaffairs.org.

The HIAA and Families USA has been working for months on efforts to "find common ground" on universal health care, he said, adding "We believe that the issue of help to provide coverage to the nation's nearly 43 million uninsured Americans should be the nation's most important domestic priority."

The academy is seeking public comment on its proposal until the end of February. The entire document is available on the group's Web site at http://www.aafp.org/unicov/.

"We wanted to invite America in," said the physician, who is also an attorney. "Many of us have felt hamstrung about how to fix it."

The AAFP's proposal follows a two-year process of planning and discussion. A final draft will be presented to the organization's Congress of Delegates at a national meeting in October in Atlanta, Georgia.

"The current system is fundamentally flawed," said Roberts, calling for reform "from a global perspective."

Still, physicians recognize that this issue is "very complicated," he said. "But we need to take the next step to get past the fractious political debate of the past eight or nine years."

Poll: Americans generally approve of Cabinet appointments

President-elect George W. Bush's choices for his new administration are viewed favorably by a majority of Americans, but his choice of John Ashcroft for attorney general is opposed by a narrow margin, according to a Newsweek poll released on January 13.

Among those polled, 41 per cent said Congress should reject Ashcroft's nomination, while 37 per cent said his nomination should be approved. Americans polled approved, by a 57-28 per cent margin, of Bush's choices to fill his cabinet-level positions.

The public remains split on its opinion of Bush as a leader, with 38 per cent of those polled saying they have a favorable opinion of him. Thirty-three per cent have a less favorable opinion of him since he became president-elect. Down from a high of 75 per cent, 60 per cent say Bush is intelligent and well -informed, while 56 per cent say he has strong leadership qualities.

Nearly half of those polled, 48 per cent, have a favorable opinion of the future first lady, Laura Bush. Only 11 per cent of those polled said they had an unfavorable opinion of her.

The poll is in the January 22 issue of the magazine.

Reagan facing 'long, uphill struggle'

Former President Ronald Reagan faces a "long, uphill struggle" as he tries to recover from a broken right hip and the surgery to repair it, said the doctor who operated on him on January 13.

Ronald and Nancy in 1995
Ronald and Nancy in 1995

Dr. Kevin Ehrhart, the lead orthopedic surgeon at St. John's Health Center, said the operation was helped by the fact that Reagan's "tissue and especially the muscle and the bone were that of a much younger man."

"We were very happy with the end result," Dr. Ehrhart said. "Now, he is in his post-operative phase, and, as is typical for anyone with a broken hip, it's a long, uphill struggle. He is doing fine at this point in time."

Reagan, who turns 90 on February 6, broke the hip in a fall the day befor the surgery at his Bel Air, California, home. After surgery he was listed in stable condition.

His wife, Nancy, was with him at the time of the accident and stayed with him through the night, said family spokeswoman Joanne Drake. She and Ehrhart said the former first lady stayed with her husband virtually every moment, and waited outside surgery as his hip was repaired.

Daughter, Patti Davis, and son, Michael Reagan, visited the day of the surgery. Youngest son, Ron Reagan, telephoned and plans to visit his father in the hospital in a couple of days, Drake said.

Doctors quoted Reagan as saying after the surgery, "Well, I'm glad that that's all out."

Ehrhart said the surgery, which began at about 9 a.m. and lasted about 90 minutes, involved surgical "placement of a screw and plate, and a series of smaller screws to repair the broken bones."

Hip surgery is a routine procedure that usually lasts about two hours. About 350,000 cases of hip fractures are reported each year.

Only one-quarter of hip fracture patients make a full recovery and 20 percent die within a year, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. Half of patients need a cane or walker, and 40 percent leave the hospital yet require skilled nursing attention, as in a nursing home.

"He's doing well," Ehrhart said, but "it's a serious injury." The prognosis is guarded "because he's 90 years old."

"He was in pain, very definitely, which is typical for this type of injury," Ehrhart said. "He is very calm with Mrs. Reagan, and she feels he is back to himself."

Reagan, who served as president from 1981 to 1989, suffers from Alzheimer's disease, and Ehrhart said that "presents a challenge" for the patient.

Ehrhart said the most serious risk factors facing Reagan regard the strength of his heart and lungs. "That would have to be the biggest concern: Heart failure or pneumonia," he said.

The surgery was performed under general anesthesia, Ehrhart said, and "the president is likely to remain in the hospital for another week to 10 days."

Despite Reagan's age, Ehrhart said he has very healthy tissue and "very strong, healthy bones." He said the surgical team hopes to have Reagan up in a chair within 48 hours, and walking "within a week to two weeks" using a walker.

For Alzheimer's patients, it's especially important to begin moving as soon as possible, said Dr. Eric De Jonge, director of geriatrics at Washington Hospital Center. Without their daily routines, Alzheimer's patients can become delirious and stop eating, beginning a cycle in which they would need intravenous fluids, develop complications, and have to stay in bed longer, he said.

The drugs patients are given during and after surgery -- pain medications, anesthesia, antibiotics -- can diminish an Alzheimer's patient's mental abilities, De Jonge said.

"He may be disoriented already, since he has Alzheimer's, but what he can do is still pay attention to the world. He can look at his Nancy, he can eat lunch, he can put his spoon to his mouth," he said. "We want to get them up on their feet as soon as possible. We can get people back to the way they were two days ago as long as we don't let them spiral downwards."

Another special concern with Alzheimer's patients, De Jonge said, is that they're often unaware of their physical limitations after surgery.

"Without Alzheimer's, after surgery, you say 'my hip hurts, I feel weak, I'd better not get up and go to the bathroom,'" he explained. "But an Alzheimer's patient has diminished judgment. He may be walking and not realize he can't depend on his leg the way he used to."

Reagan's daughter, Maureen, 60, is in the John Wayne Cancer Institute at the same Santa Monica hospital with malignant melanoma. She was admitted December 11.

Maureen Reagan's mother is actress Jane Wyman.

Only a year ago Maureen Reagan revealed that her father's condition had deteriorated to the point that he could no longer speak coherently, and that he could no longer join her in working simple jigsaw puzzles.

She wrote in a published essay that "aphasia had robbed him of his ability to put his thoughts into words."

Aphasia is the loss of the ability to use or understand words.

In late 1999, Nancy Reagan said in a televised interview that the former president was no longer capable of having a conversation that made sense.

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