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News Briefs

Acquisition Creates Nation’s Largest Health Insurer


In a marriage of Blue Cross giants, Anthem Inc. agreed on Monday to buy WellPoint Health Networks for $16.4 billion in stock and cash, creating a company that would be the nation’s largest health insurer, with 26 million health plan members in 13 states.

Anthem and WellPoint were pioneers in converting Blue Cross plans into for-profit companies, but lately had encountered resistance from state authorities who argued that such deals led to higher costs and thinner insurance coverage. Together, the companies account for more than 30 percent of the 84 million Blue Cross and Blue Shield members nationwide.

The combined company, to be called WellPoint Inc. and with headquarters in Indianapolis, would overtake UnitedHealth Group in size. On Monday UnitedHealth announced an expansion of its own, agreeing to buy Mid Atlantic Medical Services for $2.95 billion, also in cash and stock. That deal will add 2 million members on the East Coast to UnitedHealth’s 18.3 million total.

The Anthem-WellPoint combination will go head-to-head with United to win the business of big national employers, analysts said. The combined company will also pursue small businesses and uninsured people by offering lower-cost policies that shift a bigger share of the growing tab for health care to patients, analysts said.

Researchers Build a Case For Earthworm’s Slimy Reputation


No one would argue that earthworms are cute. But to most people, they are benign and helpful creatures -- fertilizers of the garden, aerators of the soil, indispensable fishing companions. “Earthworms are truly nature’s little farmers,” goes one common view, this one on the Web site of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, “plowing the soil and fertilizing at the same time!”

But for a growing body of researchers, the traditional view of earthworms is giving way to a much more ominous one. Most earthworms common in the United States are exotic intruders from Europe, Asia, or South America, these scientists point out.

Their research suggests that earthworms become voracious and destructive when they invade forests, often in ever-widening circles around ponds -- where for decades fishermen have been dumping unused worms in the mistaken belief that they help the ecosystem.

Now, scientists are mounting a counterattack. At the end of this week, two dozen biologists from the United States, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Russia will gather in Athens, Ga., to outline the earthworm problem and propose solutions. They expect to plan papers for presentation next summer at an international conference on soil zoology in Rouen, France, and they hope to sound a warning for soil researchers.

In Desperate Effort, Crews Fight Fire With Fire


With fires racing uncontrollably across much of Southern California, firefighters on the northwestern edge of Los Angeles staged a desperate attempt on Monday to defend the city and the coastal community of Malibu from the deadly rush of flames.

After spending much of the day in sweltering heat trying to push back the so-called Simi Valley fire into the canyons north of here, worried firefighters abruptly changed course and decided to fight fire with fire.

“If we lose, we will see you at the beach in about three days,” said Battalion Chief Anthony C. Marrone of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. “If it gets past us here, it has a clear path to Malibu.”

Marrone’s firefighters were trying to stop one of the three largest wildfires that have consumed vast parts of Southern California since Thursday, destroying more than 1,100 homes and killing at least 13 people. Although all of the major fires continued to burn out of control, cooler temperatures and lighter winds had slowed the relentless spread of the flames in some places.

But in this corner of the city the winds were too unpredictable, the hillsides too crisp and the canyons too treacherous for the scores of firefighters from as far away as Sacramento to the keep the flames from advancing within a mile of Chatsworth, Porter Ranch and West Hills, some of the city’s northernmost communities.

Commerce Secretary Set to Talk Tough on Trade to China


Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans plans to give China its toughest warning so far that the administration is growing impatient with Beijing’s refusal to fully open its markets to U.S. goods and services.

Evans will deliver that message in a speech in Beijing on Tuesday, ratcheting up pressure that has been steadily building since September by a parade of top administration visitors, according to an advance copy of the speech.

In a blunt critique, Evans will accuse China of failing to keep the promises it made when it joined the World Trade Organization. They included reforming its markets, lowering its trade barriers and ridding itself of protectionism by the government and by its industries.

“China is moving far too slowly in its transition to an open, market-based economy,” Evans will say in the speech. “We have been patient, but our patience is wearing thin.”

Frustration over the weak economy and joblessness has focused increasingly on China and has become a campaign issue for Republicans and Democrats alike.

The United States imports five times more than it exports to China, leading to a trade deficit that could reach $130 billion this year.

Evans will warn of this growing tide of resentment toward China, repeatedly saying “we are already seeing signs of rising protectionist sentiments.”