Lower costs, fewer benefits in new health insurance option

The Trump administration’s new health insurance option offers lower premiums for small businesses and self-employed people, but the policies are likely to cover fewer benefits.

Another caveat: if healthy people flock to the new plans as expected, premiums will rise for those who need comprehensive coverage.

President Donald Trump and Labor Secretary Alex Acosta rolled out their final blueprint for “association health plans” on Tuesday, with Trump promising a small-business group that “you’re going to save massive amounts of money and have much better health care.”

Democrats decried it as “junk insurance,” and some patient groups warned it could undermine coverage for people in poor health. Republicans and some small-business groups said the administration is providing needed flexibility in the face of rising premiums.

Independent experts said the administration is setting up a parallel insurance market — with different rules — alongside the Affordable Care Act, the Obama-era law Trump has been unable to repeal.

Initial estimates by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office forecast modest changes, not a seismic shift.

The new plans created under the administration’s regulation incorporate the same protections for employees with pre-existing conditions that large-company plans now have, Acosta said.

The Labor Department said association plans could be offered to employers in a city, county, state or a metro area that includes several states. Plans within a particular industry — real estate, for example — can be marketed nationwide. Sole proprietors and their families could join an association plan.

Trump has long asserted that promoting the sale of health insurance across state lines can bring down premiums without sacrificing quality. But many experts aren’t convinced because medical costs vary greatly according to geography.

Currently, plans for small businesses are required to cover the ACA’s 10 categories of “essential” benefits, from prescription drugs to maternity and mental health. Under the new approach, small employers could get coverage that comes with fewer required benefits, said Gary Claxton of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation.

Ultimately, the idea’s success depends on buy-in from plan sponsors, consumers, insurers and state regulators. No major consequences are expected for people covered by large employers.

Acosta cited CBO estimates that predict a modest impact: about 4 million people covered by the plans within five years but only some 400,000 who would have been uninsured. Compare that to the total number of about 160 million covered by job-based insurance.

After Republicans hit a dead end trying to repeal the Obama health law, the Trump administration has pushed regulatory actions to loosen requirements and try to lower premiums for individuals and small businesses.

“They are providing insurance options that have fewer benefits and fewer requirements than ACA-compliant plans,” Claxton said. “That will have a tendency to pull healthier people away because they are more attracted to plans with fewer benefits.”

Another major initiative is expected later this summer when the administration eases rules for short-term health plans lasting less than a full year that could be purchased by individuals. Those plans wouldn’t have to cover people with pre-existing conditions but would offer healthy people much lower premiums.

Critics say the administration’s approach will draw healthy people away from the health law’s insurance markets, raising the cost of coverage, which is subsidized by taxpayers.

About 11 million people are covered by HealthCare.gov and state markets, but the administration’s priority is to try to lower premiums for an additional 7 million or so who buy their coverage directly and don’t get any help from the government.

State insurance regulators have been concerned about association health plans because similar plans in the past had problems with financial solvency and fraud. Administration officials said Tuesday that states and the federal government would share regulatory oversight of the plans, with states retaining their current authority.

The new plans will be phased in, starting in September.

A small business group called Job Creators Network welcomed the Trump administration’s move. President Alfredo Ortiz said it “will create more options, more competition, and lower costs for Main Street small businesses.”

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ABC News: Health

UK households see fastest income growth in at least nine years – IHS Markit

LONDON (Reuters) – British households enjoyed the fastest growth in employment income in at least nine years in June, according to a survey that may give the Bank of England concern that underlying inflation pressures are rising.

Shoppers queue at Selfridges in London, Britain December 26, 2017. REUTERS/Mary Turner

The Household Finance Index (HFI) from data company IHS Markit, a survey watched by the central bank, showed household incomes increased this month at the sharpest rate since its survey began in 2009, during the depths of the financial crisis.

A separate survey from payment card company Visa on Monday showed overall inflation-adjusted consumer spending increased 0.9 percent in annual terms during May after a 2.0 percent fall in April — the first rise in nine months and chiming with strong retail sales data last week.

Despite the upturn, rising living costs prompted a sharper squeeze on household budgets overall this month. IHS Markit said households remained “relatively downbeat” about their financial outlook as a result.

“June data suggests that stubbornly high inflation is set to hold back consumer confidence this summer, with rising fuel costs a prominent reason that increased wages are having a limited impact on spending power,” Tim Moore, associate director at IHS Markit, said.

The BoE expects consumers to feel the benefit of a fall in inflation and rising wages after suffering a squeeze on their spending power last year when the impact of the 2016 Brexit vote pushed up prices sharply.

However, it held off from raising rates at its May meeting as it waited to be sure that Britain’s economy was recovering from its early 2018 slowdown.

The HFI survey showed weakening expectations that the Bank of England will raise interest rates before the end of this year.

Forty-five percent of respondents expected a rate hike by the end of 2018, down from 55 percent in May.

The BoE is expected to leave interest rates on hold when it announces its June policy decision on Thursday.

Reporting by Andy Bruce, editing by David Milliken

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Reuters: Money

Bank of England to keep rates steady as winter chill slow to lift

LONDON (Reuters) – The Bank of England will be looking to see if Britain’s economy has recovered from a severe winter chill as it weighs the prospects for a future interest rate rise this week.

Governor of Bank of England Mark Carney sits for the official photo of delegates during the the G7 Finance ministers summit in Whistler, British Columbia, Canada, June 1, 2018. REUTERS/Ben Nelms

No economists polled by Reuters expect the BoE to raise rates on Thursday, and some are getting cold feet about their forecasts for a rate rise in August, which would be only the central bank’s second increase since the 2008 financial crisis.

Patchy growth as the economy prepares to leave the European Union in March next year places BoE policy in sharp contrast to the United States, where the Federal Reserve plans to raise rates four times in 2018, and three times in 2019.

“The Monetary Policy Committee will be wary of providing any firm guidance over the likely timing of the next hike as it won’t want to tie its hands,” BNP Paribas economist Luigi Speranza said on Monday.

Goldman Sachs currency strategists said sterling – which is already near a 2018 low – continued to price in too high a chance of an August move.

BoE Governor Mark Carney has said first-quarter weakness looks temporary and expects to rates to rise gradually over the next couple of years, to prevent overheating at a time of above-target inflation and the lowest unemployment since 1975.

But he has been much vaguer about precise timing. A putative May rate rise was thrown off course by an unusually harsh winter – and a possible underlying slowdown – that led to the economy almost stagnating from January to March.

A record proportion of the public in a BoE survey last month had no idea what would happen to rates over the coming year – perhaps reflecting Brexit uncertainty as well as BoE indecision.

Trade concerns exist outside Britain too. The Bundesbank sharply cut its growth forecast for Germany on Friday, partly due to worries that U.S. President Donald Trump may spark a trade war with his tariffs on European and Japanese steel.

FILE PHOTO: The Bank of England is seen in London, Britain, April 9, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay/File Photo


If it wishes, the BoE will have ample chance to bring clarity on Thursday, when the MPC will publish a statement at 1100 GMT and Carney is due to give a major speech at 2015 GMT.

But many economists expect the central bank to keep hedging its bets. Since its last meeting, inflation has fallen to a one-year low of 2.4 percent and April industrial output and construction data were strikingly weak.

However, business surveys for May have perked up, pointing to second-quarter growth of 0.3-0.4 percent, according to IHS Markit, a financial data company. This is just about in line with the maximum rate the BoE thinks the economy can sustain without causing too much inflation.

Wage growth has been solid if unspectacular, and May retail sales were strong, reflecting sunny weather, a royal wedding and a partial easing of the inflation pressure that has squeezed British consumer demand since June 2016’s Brexit vote.

Two BoE policymakers – Ian McCafferty, whose term ends in August, and Michael Saunders – are expected to stick with their view, held since March, that rates need to go up now.

The rest of the MPC are likely to conclude that there is little cost in waiting until at least August before deciding whether to raise rates, economists say.

Even then, it could find further reason to delay. A change to the Office for National Statistics’ publication schedule means second-quarter GDP data will not be released until after the BoE’s August rate meeting.

“August would be too much of a gamble and (we) see November as the next best opportunity for a hike, assuming data strengthens more than we expect and that Brexit remains free of major disruption,” Barclays economists Fabrice Montagne and Sreekala Kochugovindan said.

Reporting by David Milliken; Editing by Alison Williams

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Reuters: Money

Researchers locate world's first known manta ray nursery

June 19 (UPI) — Researchers have discovered the world’s first known manta ray nursery. Scientists found the nursery in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary located off the coast of Texas in the Gulf of Mexico.

The nursery of juvenile mantra rays was first observed by Joshua Stewart, a marine biology PhD student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.

“The juvenile life stage for oceanic mantas has been a bit of a black box for us, since we’re so rarely able to observe them,” Stewart said in a news release. “Identifying this area as a nursery highlights its importance for conservation and management, but it also gives us the opportunity to focus on the juveniles and learn about them.”

Stewart is the executive director of Manta Trust, a conservation program dedicated to protecting manta rays around the globe.

“This discovery is a major advancement in our understanding of the species and the importance of different habitats throughout their lives,” he said.

Stewart worked with researchers at Scripps and NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries to document the nursery.

Oceanic manta rays, or giant oceanic manta rays, Mobula birostris, are found in tropical and subtropical waters. They typically congregate in areas far from the coast, making them difficult to find and study. The plankton-eating rays live in the open ocean. Adults can grow wingspans of up to 23 feet.

Most of scientific literature on manta rays concerns adults. Until now, little was known about juveniles.

After initially spotting the juveniles, scientists regularly monitored the marine reserve, documenting the rays behavior. They found 95 percent of the rays visiting the Flower Garden Banks were juveniles. The young rays had an average wingspan of just over seven feet.

Because each ray has a unique pattern of spots on their underside, divers were able to keep track of the different rays visiting the reserve’s banks.

Scientists described their observation of the manta nursery in the journal Marine Biology.

In the near future, researchers hope to begin tagging and tracking the juvenile rays as they travel to and from the banks. Biologists believe the nursery’s proximity to deep, cold water, where plankton are abundant, may explain the rays’ presence. The young mantas can seek refuge among the warm, shallow water near the banks after foraging.

Scientists say the discovery is a reminder of the importance of marine reserves for vulnerable marine species. Earlier this year, giant manta rays were declared “threatened” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

“Nowhere else in the world has a manta ray nursery area been recognized — which heightens the importance of the sanctuary for these pelagic species,” said George P. Schmahl, superintendent of Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. “The discovery of the sanctuary as a nursery area for the species raises many more questions, some of which we can hopefully start studying with Josh Stewart and other partners.”

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New NASA instrument on space station to track plant water use on Earth

June 19 (UPI) — To better track water use by Earth’s plants, NASA is preparing to install a new instrument on the International Space Station.

The instrument is called ECOSTRESS, or ECOsystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station, and it will measure the changing temperatures of plants on Earth’s surface.

To avoid overheating, plants transpire, just as humans sweat. Transpiration is the process of taking up water through the root system and released it through the plant’s pores. The process brings down the plant’s temperature.

When there is insufficient water, plants close their pores to avoid drying out. But pores are also essential for the plant’s uptake of CO2, the process of photosynthesis, which plants use to produce fuel for their cells.

If a plant is exposed to prolonged “water stress,” it will eventually starve or overheat, and die.

“When a plant is so stressed that it turns brown, it’s often too late for it to recover,” Simon Hook, ECOSTRESS principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a news release. “But measuring the temperature of the plant lets you see that a plant is stressed before it reaches that point.”

Using ECOSTRESS, scientists and agricultural agencies can spot signs of mounting water stress — the beginning of a drought — by watching for rising temperatures among crop fields. Recognizing water stress early could allow farmers and others to develop a solution and plan accordingly. Scientists have previously experimented with the use of electric leaf sensors to monitor a plant’s water intake.

“ECOSTRESS will allow us to monitor rapid changes in crop stress at the field level, enabling earlier and more accurate estimates of how yields will be impacted,” said Martha Anderson, an ECOSTRESS science team member with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Even short-term moisture stress, if it occurs during a critical stage of crop growth, can significantly impact productivity.”

The new instrument will be carried to the space station by the next resupply mission, scheduled to be launched by SpaceX from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on June 29.

The instrument will produce high-resolution images of small tracts of farmland at different times of the day. ECOSTRESS will image the same small targets every few days, monitoring changes in temperature.

“As water resources become more critical for our growing population, we need to track precisely how much water our crops need,” said Josh Fisher of JPL, lead scientist on the ECOSTRESS project. “We need to know when plants are becoming susceptible to droughts, and we need to know which parts of the ecosystem are more vulnerable because of water stress.”

When combined with data collected by NASA’s other Earth Observatory satellites, including data related to Earth’s water cycles, vegetation changes and precipitation patterns, ECOSTRESS measurements could help scientists better understand how different climate patterns affect regional water stress.

Previous satellite surveys have shown significant shifts in Earth’s vegetation over the last few decades.

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Remains, artifacts from Montana's Clovis burial site are the same age

June 19 (UPI) — New tests confirm the Anzick-1 remains and the artifacts recovered from Montana’s Clovis burial site are the same age.

The remains of a human infant were first discovered at the Anzick site by construction workers in 1968. Some archaeologists argued the infant represented the only known burial of a member of the Clovis people, thought to be the first widespread group to inhabit North America. The Clovis people established settlements across North America some 13,000 years ago.

Researchers found Clovis artifacts, including stone projectiles and antlers, near the infant remains at the Anzick site, but subsequent dating attempts revealed discrepancies between the age of the remains and the Clovis artifacts. Some tests suggested the infant was several thousand years younger than the artifacts.

Scientists with the University of Oxford and Texas A&M University recently returned to question dating at the Anzick site, applying a new radiocarbon dating technique to accurately determine the age of the human remains.

“The human remains yielded a younger age that was not in agreement with the ages from the antler artifacts, which dated older than the human remains,” Michael Waters, director of Texas A&M’s Center for the Study of the First Americans, said in a news release. “If the human remains and Clovis artifacts were contemporaneous, they should be the same age.”

Using a technique called Specific Amino Acid Radiocarbon Dating, scientists were able to treat collagen extracted from the human remains and successfully isolate an amino acid called hydroxyproline for testing.

“This amino acid could only have come from the human skeleton and could not be contaminated,” Waters said.

The new tests confirmed the infant remains, antlers and other Clovis artifacts were contemporaneous. Researchers published the results of the dating efforts in the journal PNAS.

“The human remains and Clovis artifacts can now be confidently shown to be the same age and date between 12,725 to 12,900 years ago,” Waters said. “This is right in the middle to the end of the Clovis time period which ranges from 13,000 to 12,700 years ago.”

The tests confirm the Anzick site as the only known Clovis burial site.

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Science News – UPI.com