What’s In The News

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Week in Review

International

The Syrian opposition coalition presented its vision of a political transition to end Syria’s conflict, in a 24-point plan that made no mention of President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster, while outlining strong requirements for human rights and justice in a future Syria.

The proposal marked a shift in tone for the opposition group, which has long insisted on Mr. Assad’s departure as the starting point for a political resolution to the conflict.

The shift came as the opposition delegation managed for the first time to persuade several representatives of armed rebel groups to attend the Geneva talks. It carried the risk that the fighters would feel betrayed by the omission of a demand for Mr. Assad’s ouster.

Yet the opposition delegates displayed little ambivalence about the move, sharing the document widely with journalists and Syrian organizations. The proposal calls for strong human rights guarantees and a transitional justice process to “hold accountable” those who have harmed Syrians, while explicitly rejecting wide purges of government employees and calling for the preservation of state institutions, including the army and security services.

Opposition members said they hoped the proposal would help ease the fears of Syrian fence-sitters – by signaling that Mr. Assad’s opponents want to avoid a state collapse and warm relations with Russia, the Assad government’s strongest backer.

Russia has long said it is not committed to Mr. Assad personally but rejects making his ouster a precondition for political transition.

“We would really like to open new channels with the Russians, and it is very important for us to meet with them,” said Abdulahad Astepho, a member of the opposition delegation, adding that the group hoped to meet with the Russian deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov, after talks with the American undersecretary of state for political affairs, Wendy Sherman.

Syrian government and opposition delegations continued to talk past one another, raising the stakes of meetings that the two sides are scheduled to hold with senior Russian and American officials, in the hope that pressure from their sponsors can break the deadlock.

The Russians and Americans are set to hold trilateral talks with the United Nations mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, who has said he wants “lots of outside help” to inject momentum into the talks.

Members of the opposition delegation said that the omission of Mr. Assad’s name was deliberate. That document does not call for Mr. Assad to step down, but requires the establishment of a transitional governing body “by mutual consent.”

The government delegation did not respond to the opposition proposal, which also called for an end to all violence, the eviction of foreign fighters from Syria regardless of which side they support, and the dismantling of fighting groups and the integration of members into civilian life or the security services. It also proposed the election of a constituent assembly through a United Nations-supervised ballot, the approval of a constitution via a referendum, and then presidential elections.

The Syrian deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, said that the opposition had “misused” the meeting by diverting attention from the need to combat terrorism, which the government insists should be addressed first.

The opposition has said it was willing to discuss ending violence and terrorism alongside the topic of forming a transitional governing body. But Mr. Mekdad said parallel-track talks were “a delusional proposal” and “a recipe to kill the Geneva talks.”

President Barack Obama said that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had already delivered “a very strong message” to Russia to drop its opposition to a draft United Nations Security Council resolution that calls for more so-called humanitarian pauses and an end to sieges and that threatens nonmilitary sanctions against any party obstructing aid deliveries. 

That resolution criticized by the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, as one-sided and “detached from reality.” Security Council diplomats said Russia suggested that it could consider a differently worded resolution on humanitarian aid.

National

More than 1.1 million people signed up for health insurance through federal and state marketplaces in January, according to the government, and the number of young people enrolling increased faster than that of any other group.

The Obama Administration officials expressed increased optimism that they had overcome their initial stumbles and erased many doubts about the viability of the health care law. Most promising, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, is that 25 percent of those signing up for insurance from October through January were ages 18 to 34, the young and presumably healthy people whom insurance companies need as customers in order to keep premiums reasonable for everyone.

“These encouraging trends show that more Americans are enrolling every day, and finding quality, affordable coverage in the marketplace,” said Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services.

The steady march of sign-ups for insurance coverage is doing little to eliminate a political fight over the Affordable Care Act that is expected to come to a head as lawmakers in the House and Senate seek re-election.

Republican critics of the law said the overall numbers; 3.3 million people who have signed up since the “HealthCare.gov” website went live on Oct. 1, is below the administration’s goal of having 4.4 million people enrolled by now is evidence of the law’s certain failure.

Industry experts and insurance officials say that the reality is murkier than either party wants to admit, and that the numbers at the heart of the national political debate are largely meaningless outside Washington.

The determination about whether the law works from an economic standpoint will not be clear for years, when individual insurance companies are finally able to tell whether their expectations about the health of their customers; and the premiums they set for coverage, were accurate.

Provisions in the health care law are designed to buffer any economic shocks for insurance companies until 2016 and beyond. And the economic fate of the biggest health care overhaul in decades will be decided state by state, in hundreds of individual markets across the country, not in a theoretical national insurance marketplace that does not really exist.

“There’s going to be tremendous variation in the country,” said Drew Altman, the president and chief executive of the Kaiser Family Foundation. He said the focus on national numbers, like reaching the target of enrolling seven million people in the first year, “never had anything to do with the real success or failure of the law.”

Brian Lobley, an executive with Independence Blue Cross, a Philadelphia insurance company, said it would take time to see how the market evolved. “From our standpoint, we have always looked at this as a multiyear journey,” he said. Officials said that the fastest growth in enrollment during January occurred among young adults. And they said that most young people were choosing “silver,” “gold” or “platinum” coverage plans, not the low-cost, bare-bones “bronze” options that are also available.

“The covered population is getting younger,” Ms. Sebelius said. In January, 318,000 people ages 18 to 34 selected health plans, bringing the total in this age group to 807,500, officials said.

Politics

C. Ray Nagin, a former corporate executive who became mayor in 2002 pledging to modernize city government and instead became an emblem of government dysfunction in the months and years after Hurricane Katrina, was found guilty in federal court on 20 counts of bribery and fraud.

The verdict marks a dubious milestone in a city long associated with an ethically loose style of politics: It makes Mr. Nagin the first New Orleans mayor to be charged, tried and convicted of corruption. He was found guilty of all but one of 21 counts, including bribery; wire fraud and filing false tax returns.

Sentencing has been set for June 11, Mr. Nagin’s 58th birthday. Mr. Nagin could face 20 years in prison by federal sentencing guidelines, said Tania Tetlow, a Tulane University law professor and a former federal prosecutor. Mr. Nagin, who will be confined to his home near Dallas for now, told reporters he maintained his innocence, and his lawyer, Robert Jenkins, said Mr. Nagin intended to appeal.

Federal prosecutors and more than two dozen government witnesses had described Mr. Nagin’s involvement in a series of similar schemes: city projects would be awarded to; or municipal problems fixed for, businessmen who in turn would give Mr. Nagin large payments, private trips to Jamaica and New York, free cellphone service, lawn care, do-nothing consulting jobs or free shipments of granite for the countertop company he ran with his two sons.

Mr. Nagin, who testified over two days, had claimed that he had little control over the contracting process, and described some of the payoffs as legitimate investments in his sons’ business. In one case involving a contractor’s $10,000 payment to Mr. Nagin’s sons, the jury agreed with Mr. Nagin.

But they sided with the government on the rest; a total of illicit proceeds that the government put at half a million dollars. “Our public servants pledge to provide honest services to the people of Southeast Louisiana,” said Kenneth Allen Polite Jr., the United States attorney for Louisiana’s Eastern District, in a statement after the verdict. “We are committed to bringing any politician who violates that obligation to justice.”

Mr. Nagin was elected in 2002 as an outsider dismissive of the old political machines. A cable TV executive with no prior governing experience, Mr. Nagin, a Democrat, was impatient with the stubborn rhythm of the city’s bureaucracy, a quality that endeared him to the media, reform advocates and upscale voters.

He was more adept at proposing big ideas than following through with them which he acknowledged, and it became one of the qualities that most infuriated New Orleanians in the years following Katrina.

During his time on the witness stand, Mr. Nagin brought up Katrina several times, talking about how much work there was to be done in the recovery, how demanding his job was and how much pressure was put on the daily business of the city. But prosecutors asked Mr. Nagin how he could eat expensive meals on the city credit card, or help a businessman get rid of steep tax bills in return for a trip on a private jet, when residents were hurting so badly. They also pointed out that some of the schemes predated the storm and continued after he left office in 2010.

Business

Comcast has agreed to acquire Time Warner Cable in all-stock transaction worth roughly $159 a share. The new company created by the approximately $45 billion purchase would be by far the largest cable provider in the nation with over 33 million subscribers.

The deal is likely to face a tough antitrust review from regulators. It would need to be approved by the Federal Communications Commission and by the Justice Department.

Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts told CNBC he’s confident the deal would be approved, adding the companies wouldn't have agreed to the deal otherwise. Roberts called the deal “pro-competitive” and “pro-consumer.”

“We’re going to be able to bring better products, faster internet, more channels, on demand, TV everywhere, and a national local platform that’s really special,” Roberts said. Roberts said the deal will give the cable and media company a wider distribution of its products, adding that all of Comcast's competitors are national players and this deal puts it on a level playing field.

Comcast, already the Nation’s largest cable operator, wants to get even larger. It is the second transformative deal for Comcast in recent years, coming just months after it completed an acquisition of NBC Universal, the TV and movie studio.

And the deal, if completed, could have impacts on consumers across the country, though it is unlikely to reduce competition in many markets. Describing the deal as “a friendly, stock-for-stock transaction,” Comcast will acquire 100 percent of Time Warner Cable’s 284.9 million shares outstanding.

The deal will leave Time Warner Cable shareholders owning approximately 23 percent of Comcast’s common stock. “The financial benefits of this are attractive and will create sustainable benefits for years to come,” Comcast’s chief executive, Brian Roberts, said.

Although the deal will be scrutinized by regulators, the executives said that they expected it would get clearance. Comcast and Time Warner Cable do not compete directly in any markets. “We believe this transaction is approvable,” Mr. Roberts said. “It is pro-consumer, pro-competitive, and strongly in the public interest.”

To address any antitrust issues, Comcast said it would divest about three million subscribers. After that move, Comcast will acquire a net of about eight million subscribers, bringing its total customer base to about 30 million. Comcast noted in its news release that it would have less than 30 percent of the market share for pay television subscribers in the United States after the deal. Time Warner Cable executives also said the move would benefit its customers.

Health

Parents should use a tiny smear of fluoride toothpaste to brush baby teeth twice daily as soon as they erupt, instead of waiting until children are older, according to new guidelines by the American Dental Association. That advice overturns the A.D.A.’s decades-old recommendation to start using a pea-size amount at 24 months.

Once children are 3 to 6 years old, the amount should be increased to a pea-size dollop, the updated guidelines say.

To fight the rising number of cavities in the very young, the dental group now advises getting a jump-start on prevention. However, they emphasize only the tiniest amount of fluoride toothpaste should be used to minimize the risk of mild discoloration, white spots or streaking of the teeth, a condition called fluorosis that is caused by ingesting fluoride toothpaste at a young age.

“We want to minimize the amount of fluoride consumption to reduce the risk of fluorosis while simultaneously adding a preventive tool for kids 2 and under that we haven’t recommended previously,” said Dr. Jonathan Shenkin, a spokesman for the A.D.A. and a pediatric dentist in Augusta, Me. Only a tiny amount of toothpaste should be smeared on the brush since some youngsters are likely to ingest some of the fluoride, he said.

The change comes after a systematic review of 17 studies published in The Journal of the American Dental Association this month. It concluded that scientific evidence, though limited in children under age 6 and more robust in older children, demonstrated that fluoride toothpaste is effective in controlling tooth decay, and that “the appropriate amount” should be used “by all children regardless of age.”

 

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