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News Briefs

Senators Say War Could Come Within Days


The United States is headed for war within days against Iraq short of an unexpected breakthrough, congressional leaders said Thursday.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said war is likely “any day” barring a major change in Iraq’s posture toward disarmament. “I assume that unless something happens in the next several days, it will be any day,” Frist said. “But it’s likely to be war.”

Frist was among a group of five congressional leaders whom President Bush invited to the White House on Wednesday morning for a classified briefing on war plans from Gen. Tommy Franks, who would command U.S. forces in the event of a war.

Amid increasing signals that war is imminent, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers held another classified briefing Thursday for key Senate appropriators and informed them that U.S. forces are in position and ready, a source said.

Smallpox Vaccination Campaign Bolstered


Several hundred federal health workers will be added to the national smallpox vaccination campaign as part of an effort to reinvigorate a key component of the Bush administration’s bioterrorism preparations, officials announced Thursday.

The administration will also give states permission to speed up vaccinations for emergency responders “to make sure we have enough people prepared” for a smallpox attack, said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson. Authorities had planned to vaccinate as many as 10 million emergency medical technicians, firefighters and police officers after inoculating 500,000 health care workers, but now will allow states to begin the second phase of the program immediately, Thompson said.

The administration’s December call for volunteers has resulted in vaccinations for just 12,404 medical professionals so far, forcing changes in the program. Most notably, the White House has agreed to support a proposed compensation fund for people who suffer serious complications from the live-virus vaccine.

Under the proposal outlined Thursday, immunized health workers and emergency responders who become seriously ill or die would be eligible for lost wages, medical treatment and a one-time $262,100 payment. People suffering minor injuries from the vaccine could receive partial reimbursement for lost wages after missing at least five days of work. The same benefits would be provided to people accidentally exposed to the live-virus vaccine who suffer similar serious reactions.

Report Cites Wider Cost To Help Uninsured


The growing problem of the nation’s 41 million uninsured is not only hurting those without health coverage, but also is having devastating effects on local communities, from straining hospital resources to reducing access to specialty doctors, according to a report released Thursday.

“It is misguided and even dangerous to assume that lack of health insurance harms only those who are uninsured,” said Dr. Arthur Kellermann, a co-author of the report by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. “The rest of the community pays for uncompensated medical care ... and high rates of uninsurance can strain community health systems to the point that important services have to be cut or eliminated.”

While lawmakers and President Bush have talked about the issue, there are few measures before Congress to address it. Instead, much of the focus has been on how to add a prescription drug benefit under Medicare.

Earlier this week, Families USA, a liberal health consumer group, released a report that showed 75 million people, mostly younger workers, were without health insurance at some point in 2001 and 2002.

Next week, an unusual coalition of national health groups including Families USA and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is launching “Cover The Uninsured Week” to draw attention to the issue.

Health experts say the problem will only get worse without congressional action, as more people lose jobs and as health care costs continue to rise.

Supreme Court Rulings Shaped By Fates of Two Young Victims


In upholding state laws that require sex offenders to register with the authorities and that send three-time criminals to jail for at least 25 years, the Supreme Court on Wednesday reflected not only its own tough-on-crime leanings, but also the powerful legacy of two young girls and their terrible fates.

It has been about a decade since Megan Kanka and Polly Klaas were snatched from suburban families and murdered, to the horror of millions who followed the stories on television. Megan was sexually assaulted and killed by a neighbor who, unknown to her parents, was a convicted sex offender. Polly was abducted from a pajama party and killed by a man who had been paroled halfway through a 16-year sentence for kidnapping, assault and burglary.

The cases’ impact on the law was both sudden and enduring. Voters and politicians swore that never again would children be vulnerable to lurking pedophiles or criminals freshly spun through the prison revolving door. Within just two years of the Megan Kanka case, all 50 states had adopted “Megan’s Law“s establishing sex-offender registries. In the same period, California’s voters and legislators approved the tough “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” law the court upheld Wednesday, followed by parallel laws in 24 other states.