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News Briefs, part 2

Gingrich Takes Up Social Security, Medicare Solvency Issue

Los Angeles Times

Acknowledging the need to curb the growth of entitlement programs, incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Thursday that wealthy retirees should buy their own health insurance and that Congress eventually must "look at" long-term and perhaps painful ways to keep Social Security solvent.

Denying Medicare to retirees with annual incomes of more than $100,000 would save the government about $6 billions in five years, Gingrich said.

During a breakfast interview with reporters, he also expressed regret at having suggested that as many as one in four White House staffers had used drugs before joining the Clinton administration and at calling President and Mrs. Clinton one-time members of the "counterculture."

The outspoken Georgia Republican said he stands by his remarks, but added that he should have kept them to himself. "If I had to say it over again, I probably wouldn't say it," Gingrich said.

"I don't delight in controversy. I like achievement," he said, saying his remarks were routine bumps that one faces during any job change. "I'm trying to learn a new job," Gingrich said.

Had he not made those remarks, Gingrich acknowledged, "the country might well have been better off for it."

His comments about Social Security and Medicare, the tax-financed health insurance program for the elderly and the disabled, are significant because Republican leaders in recent years have flatly declared Social Security untouchable, and past efforts to restrain Medicare spending have proved politically lethal.

Plans Canceled For Atomic-Bomb Stamp

The Washington Post

The Postal Service acceded to President Clinton's wishes Thursday and canceled plans for the atomic-bomb stamp that had offended Japan.

Postmaster General Marvin T. Runyon announced that the mushroom cloud commemorative marking the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaka would be replaced by one featuring President Harry S. Truman announcing the end of World War II.

Runyon, who ran the first Japanese automobile plant in the United States, made the decision to scrap the design after conferring a second time with White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta. A senior postal official said Runyon wanted to be certain that Clinton wanted another design.

When Panetta gave him that assurance, Runyon decided to put Truman on a sheet of 10 World War II commemoratives in place of the mushroom-cloud stamp, the official said. The official, who asked not to be named, said the decision was expected to be controversial and that the Postal Service was bracing for criticism from veterans and other groups.

The White House had suggested Truman as a replacement, an idea postal officials had raised separately, the official said. Runyon, a World War II veteran, sought to dampen criticism by noting that the Postal Service in the nation's largest employer of veterans and was mindful of "the sacrifices they made in World War II and other military conflicts."

"We are changing the design of the stamp because of the importance of U.S.-Japanese relations at this critical time in U.S. foreign policy and because President Clinton conveyed his views that it was appropriate for us to do so," the postmaster general said in a statement.

Disclosure of the stamp's design Nov. 17 set off protests in Japan that quickly reached Washington. Former President Bush, visiting in Japan Thursday, became the latest dignitary to call for removing the stamp from a set of 10 World War II commemoratives planned for release in August, a postal official said.

Panel Throws Out Bed Rest To Cure Acute Low-Back Pain

Special to The Washington Post

Toppling medical tradition, a panel of medical experts Thursday threw out bed rest and endorsed exercise and spinal manipulation as treatments with proven effectiveness for episodes of acute low-back pain.

The recommendations are part of new government guidelines for treating the commonest cause of disability in Americans under the age of 45. To determine which measures have been shown to work for low-back pain, the government-appointed panel evaluated more than 3,900 studies on treatments ranging from spinal-fusion surgery to acupuncture. It found that there was no solid scientific evidence to support the use of many popular remedies.

The guidelines, produced by the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research - part of the Department of Health and Human Services - deal only with the treatment of low back pain episodes - those that resolve within a month, although they may recur over and over again.

The guidelines did not consider chronic back pain, which is diagnosed when episodes last three months or longer.

The panel concluded that bed rest probably did more harm than good, and that there was no data to support the use of biofeedback or acupuncture for back pain. On the other hand, it found that spinal manipulation - a treatment often performed by chiropractors and osteopaths - was safe and effective for patients within the first month of symptoms from an episode of uncomplicated low-back pain. Many doctors have long discouraged their patients from trying such treatments.

Because nine out of 10 episodes of acute back pain improve on their own within a few weeks, no painkillers stronger than acetaminophen, aspirin or other mostly non-prescription analgesics are generally necessary, the panel concluded.