Current Events in February 2019

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    Congressional negotiators reach compromise on border wall

    But will it be enough to head off another government shutdown?

    Congressional negotiators trying to reach a compromise on a spending bill to avert another government shutdown are expressing new hope.

    Top lawmakers from both parties have been trying to craft an appropriations bill to fund the government that enough Democrats will support and that President Trump will sign. The stumbling block is Trump's insistence that the bill contain money for a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico and Democrats’ refusal to grant it.

    A similar stand-off in late December resulted in the longest government shutdown in history, which ended after Trump agreed to a three-week authorization bill without border wall funding. As late as Monday, it appeared the two sides were still locked in a stalemate after talks broke down over the weekend.

    Shutdown still on the table

    Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney went on Fox News Sunday to deliver a message to the negotiators, saying his boss was not ruling out allowing another government shutdown if Congress didn’t approve funding for a barrier to slow illegal immigration across America’s southern border.

    “The president has to sign a piece of legislation in order to keep the government open,” Mulvaney told the network. “He cannot sign everything they put in front of him. There will be some things that simply we couldn’t agree to.”

    Mulvaney said no one wants to disrupt government operations again and force federal workers to go without pay, but he said the shutdown is “technically” still an option.

    “We do not want it to come to that, but that option is still open to the president and will remain so,” he said.

    Late Monday night, four Congressional negotiators -- two Republicans and two Democrats -- ended their discussion by saying they had reached “an agreement in principle” on legislation that they believed could pass Congress and would be acceptable to the White House. They declined to provide details of the agreement.

    Clock is ticking

    The White House has not commented on the deal, but that could come at any time. Meanwhile, all parties involved in the negotiations are racing against a ticking clock. Funding for about a quarter of the U.S. government runs out Friday. Unless the president signs a new appropriations bill, those agencies will have to close.

    The last government shutdown was costly to both Republicans and Democrats, as angry federal workers went through two pay cycles without receiving paychecks. It also caused economic losses by airlines, which saw dips in revenue because of the loss of normal travel by federal employees and contractors.

    Congressional negotiators trying to reach a compromise on a spending bill to avert another government shutdown are expressing new hope.Top lawmakers fr...

    CDC calls out Juul and others for driving increase in teen tobacco use

    Rising teen vaping rates have caused a spike in tobacco use among teens, health officials say

    Federal health officials say the sharp increase in the use of vaping devices among teens has caused a significant spike in the number of teens using traditional products.

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Monday released its annual National Youth Tobacco Survey. The survey found that the number of high school students using tobacco products, which include e-cigarettes, rose by about 38 percent.

    The survey revealed that more than 1 in 4 high school students and about 1 in 14 middle school students used a tobacco product in 2018.

    Threatens to undo past progress

    The CDC said the ongoing rise in vaping among teens threatens to undo past progress in reducing rates of tobacco use among minors.

    "The skyrocketing growth of young people's e-cigarette use over the past year threatens to erase progress made in reducing youth tobacco use. It's putting a new generation at risk for nicotine addiction," CDC Director Robert Redfield said in a statement.

    Products manufactured by Juul have been shown to be especially attractive to minors because they come in fruity flavors such as mango, mint, and fruit and creme. Kids and teens who use e-cigarettes could be more likely to start smoking tobacco, the CDC said, citing previous research on the subject.

    In a statement, Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said the survey results were “deeply troubling.”

    “They add to mounting concerns that the rise in youth use of e-cigarettes, especially Juul, is vastly expanding the number of kids addicted to nicotine, could be leading kids to and not away from cigarettes, and directly threatens the decades-long progress our nation has made in reducing youth smoking and other tobacco use,” Myers said.

    Trends that require ‘unprecedented action’

    The FDA shares the CDC’s concerns about the alarming surge in e-cigarette use among teens. Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has described the issue as an “epidemic” and repeatedly called for e-cigarette manufacturers like Juul to step up their efforts to combat youth use of their products.

    On Monday, Gottlieb expressed concern that e-cigarette manufacturers may be reneging on vows they made last year to counter teen use. In January, the FDA warned that e-cigarettes could be pulled from the market entirely if youth use continues to rise.

    "These trends require forceful and sometimes unprecedented action among regulators, public health officials, manufacturers, retailers and others to address this troubling problem," Gottlieb said in a statement.

    Juul’s Senior Director of Communications Victoria Davis has maintained that the company is “committed to preventing youth access of JUUL products.”

    Federal health officials say the sharp increase in the use of vaping devices among teens has caused a significant spike in the number of teens using tradit...

    Free college programs are quickly becoming a reality

    The nature of work is changing, and community colleges are putting people in jobs where traditional schools aren’t

    Going to college for free has never been easier.

    We’re not talking about free rides handed out to students who’ve racked up 10,000 Instagram followers. We’re talking about the proliferation of free college programs -- more than 300 in 44 states -- that reward students for their work ethic.

    Many of those students have the College Promise Campaign to thank for that.

    College Promise is a country-wide non-partisan initiative that takes care of the cost of the first two years of higher education for hard-working students. Using community colleges as the fulcrum, students can set out on a program toward a community college degree or occupational certificate.

    “Our Campaign encourages visionary leaders throughout our nation to use their ingenuity and persistence to put the College Promise in place, enabling students to complete their college degrees and certificates without the burden of unmanageable debt,” the organization lays out as its mission.

    More bang for your buck

    As any parent who’s sent their child off to college knows, it’s anything but cheap. In its most recent check-up on college pricing, the College Board found that a moderate college budget for an in-state public college averages $25,890. And if a student wants a private college sheepskin, you can just about double that amount.

    Multiply that amount times four years, factor in the repayment cost if you have to take out loans, and take a very deep breath.

    From textbooks to student loans, more and more students say it's just not worth it. Last year, ConsumerAffairs reported that well over a third of recent college graduates said their degree didn’t produce a good return on their investment.

    And it’s that very point where the shift toward community colleges begins.

    A fighting chance

    At minimum, community colleges give students a fighting chance at advancement in a world where there’s as much money for skill-based careers like plumbers, health care workers, and electricians as there is for the more refined degrees like psychology or political science.

    These days, college-bound students seem more receptive to getting an education that pays off two years quicker rather than being able to brag about being enrolled at a four-year nameplated school.

    “The nature of work is changing,” says College Promise. “AI (artificial intelligence) is disrupting industries making many of the jobs of today obsolete in the future. By 2020, 65 percent of jobs will require education beyond high school. As of 2017, only 46 percent of Americans between the age of 25-29 completed an associates degree, technical certificate, or further levels of higher education. With student loan debt exceeding $1.5 trillion, making college affordable is urgent.”

    Two-year programs are picking up steam

    In 2015, President Obama proposed providing free community college for all students, but his Republican counterbalance refused to give it a chance.

    However, Obama’s former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel -- now the mayor of Chicago -- has seen the positive impact of community colleges firsthand. He credits the College Promise Campaign for helping elevate his city’s high school graduation rate from 54 percent to 76 percent in seven years.

    “We’ve made the associates degree the new minimum that the high-school degree used to be,” Emanuel told the Wall Street Journal, qualifying the program as a more realistic way to prepare students for today’s workforce.

    Each of Chicago’s seven community colleges is a magnet school representing each of the city’s workforce sector, like health care, logistics, and manufacturing. “We’ve created the German apprenticeship model right here,” Mr. Emanuel said.

    Other programs have caught the eye of state and government leaders from around the country.

    “Many were inspired by a program introduced in Kalamazoo, Mich., in 2005 that was started by a small group of anonymous donors,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

    “The Kalamazoo Promise has awarded over $117 million so far to 5,700 high-school graduates,” said Robert Jorth, executive director of the program. “The number of high-school graduates in Kalamazoo who went on to complete a two- or four-year college degree increased by about 30 percent between 2005 and 2016.”

    Going to college for free has never been easier.We’re not talking about free rides handed out to students who’ve racked up 10,000 Instagram followers....

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      Average tax refunds are down 8 percent so far this year

      The IRS has processed fewer returns than at this point last year

      Taxpayers were supposed to pay less in taxes in 2018 under the latest overhaul of the tax system. But so far, federal income tax refunds don’t reflect that.

      New data from the IRS show that returns are lagging the pace of last year’s filing -- not surprising given the government shutdown. But the refunds that have been sent out so far are about 8 percent less than at a similar point last year.

      Refunds to date have averaged $1,865 compared to $2,035 for 2017 returns. On the surface it would seem to suggest that the tax cuts passed by Congress in late 2017 aren’t helping the average consumer. But there could be another explanation. Many taxpayers may have adjusted their withholding and didn’t pay into the system as much as they did in previous years.

      We’re also early in the tax-filing season because of the government shutdown. At this point in 2018 the IRS had processed nearly 18 million tax returns. To date, the agency has processed just over 13 million.

      Significant changes

      There were significant changes to the tax law for 2018, many of them affecting middle-income earners. First, the new tax law lowered most tax rates. More importantly, it nearly doubled the standard deduction, shielding more income from taxation.

      Many workers saw an increase in their paychecks after their employers made adjustments, but it is possible many employers slightly under-withheld, resulting in smaller refunds.

      According to the IRS data there have been 4.6 million refunds so far this year, but that is running well behind the 6.1 million refunds that had been sent out at this time last year. The IRS has distributed $8.7 billion in refunds so far compared to $12.5 billion in refunds at this time last year.

      Taxpayers were supposed to pay less in taxes in 2018 under the latest overhaul of the tax system. But so far, federal income tax refunds don’t reflect that...

      Apple to launch Health Records feature for veterans

      The feature will allow veterans to see their medical information in the Health App

      Apple has partnered with the Department of Veterans Affairs to enable veterans to see their medical records -- including allergies, known conditions, medications, procedures, and more -- on the iPhone Health Records app.

      “We have great admiration for veterans, and we’re proud to bring a solution like Health Records on iPhone to the veteran community,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a statement. “It’s truly an honor to contribute to the improved healthcare of America’s heroes.”

      The tech giant said the new feature for veterans is coming “soon,” but it didn’t say if the access would come by way of an iOS update.

      Betting on healthcare

      Last March, Apple announced that iPhone users at more than 100 hospitals and clinics across the country would be able to access parts of their medical records through the Health app. In November, the Wall Street Journal reported that Apple may be aiming to allow patients to share their health information with other health apps.

      Earlier this year, Apple CEO Tim Cook said health will likely be the company’s greatest contribution to mankind.

      “If you zoom out into the future, and you look back, and you ask the question, ‘What was Apple’s greatest contribution to mankind?’ It will be about health,” Cook said in an interview with CNBC’s Jim Cramer.

      Apple said the goal of its forthcoming feature for veterans is to “empower people to better understand and improve their health, enabling them to view their medical information from multiple providers in one place easily and securely.”

      “We’re excited to bring this feature to veterans across the US,” said Kevin Lynch, Apple’s vice president of Technology.

      Apple has partnered with the Department of Veterans Affairs to enable veterans to see their medical records -- including allergies, known conditions, medic...

      Trump signs ‘American AI Initiative’ in executive order

      The program aims to bolster U.S. leadership in artificial intelligence

      President Trump has signed an executive order which encourages the federal government, academia, and the private sector to prioritize research pertaining to artificial intelligence.

      In a memo announcing the “American AI Initiative,” the White House outlined the key principles that the order would be based on. The first principle emphasizes that the U.S. should “drive technological breakthroughs in AI across the Federal Government, industry, and academia in order to promote scientific discovery, economic competitiveness, and national security.”

      The initiative will feature a "multi-pronged approach" that emphasizes "research and development, AI infrastructure, AI governance, workforce and international engagement,” according to CNN.

      The five primary areas of emphasis include:

      • AI research and development

      • Opening data and AI resources

      • Setting AI governance standards

      • Building the AI workforce

      • Working on international engagement and protecting the US AI advantage

      “Americans have profited tremendously from being the early developers and international leaders in AI,” the White House said in a press release. “However, as the pace of AI innovation increases around the world, we cannot sit idly by and presume that our leadership is guaranteed. We must ensure that advances in AI remain fueled by American ingenuity, reflect American values, and are applied for the benefit of the American people.”

      The administration said the initiative will redirect existing federal funding and resources towards AI research. However, unlike other countries that have launched AI strategies, the U.S. initiative includes no new funding for AI development.

      The White House didn’t detail many specific policy proposals, but it promised to release a more detailed plan in the coming six months.

      President Trump has signed an executive order which encourages the federal government, academia, and the private sector to prioritize research pertaining t...

      Pipeline company behind infamous Standing Rock protest accused of blowing up a house in Pennsylvania

      Energy Transfer Partners enjoyed support from Pennsylvania's state government until recently

      The Pennsylvania state government says that a major oil and gas pipeline company, currently building a network of pipelines in the state to transport fracked gas and chemical byproducts from the fracking, has failed to take responsibility for an explosion that destroyed a house and other property last year.

      Energy Transfer Partners is the Texas-based pipeline magnate that built its crude oil pipeline through the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota. The Standing Rock Sioux and other tribes who descended on the reservation in late 2016 famously convinced the Corps of Engineers to halt a key construction permit, though the move was only temporary. The Dakota Access Pipeline went back online under Trump and has been in operation for two years.

      Energy Transfer Partners has also kept busy building new pipelines in Louisiana, Texas, and Pennsylvania over the past few years. Lawmakers in Pennsylvania and elsewhere had been welcoming of the projects, granting permits even over the objections of local activists who cited environmental concerns similar to those that the Standing Rock Sioux raised.

      But things went downhill in Pennsylvania on September 11 last year. The Revolution Pipeline, a project run by Energy Transfer Partners subsidiary Sunoco, had only been in operation for a week when a fire erupted in Beaver County, destroying a home 500 feet away from the blast.

      “An initial site assessment reveals evidence of a landslide in the vicinity of the pipeline,” a Sunoco spokesman told a local newspaper.

      Failure to meet state laws

      Because oil and gas pipelines are known to cause landslides, state officials said that it was up to Sunoco to find a way to stabilize the areas that had been disturbed during construction. Sunoco needed to prevent further erosion, per state government instructions. The state even gave Sunoco an October 29 deadline to fix the erosion problems.

      But Energy Transfer Partners failed to meet the deadline, the state says. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection announced last Friday that the company had failed to control erosion or stabilize the problematic areas.

      As a result, Energy Transfer Partners is suspended from obtaining new permits in the state, though its projects that are already permitted remain unaffected for now.

      “There has been a failure by Energy Transfer and its subsidiaries to respect our laws and our communities,” Governor Tom Wolf said in an uncharacteristically critical statement. “This is not how we strive to do business in Pennsylvania, and it will not be tolerated.”

      Energy Transfer Partners spokesman Lisa Dillinger responded with a statement to the Daily Local newspaper that the company is “committed to bringing this project into full compliance with all environmental permits and applicable regulations.”

      “This action does not affect the operation of any of our in-service pipelines or any areas of construction where permits have already been issued,” she added.

      The Pennsylvania state government says that a major oil and gas pipeline company, currently building a network of pipelines in the state to transport frack...

      Researchers challenge common protocols for tonsils and adenoids

      Tonsils and adenoids don't shrink over time, as previously believed

      For decades, healthcare professionals unanimously agreed that tonsils and adenoids grew until around age 12 and then began to shrink until about 20.

      Now, researchers from Tokyo Medical and Dental University are challenging this long-standing belief. They conducted a longitudinal study that found while the throat grows rapidly during the teenage years, the tonsils don’t get much bigger -- or smaller -- from childhood through adulthood.

      The researchers believe the findings from this study will be beneficial to doctors when trying to determine if and when tonsils or adenoids need to be removed.

      Keeping tabs on tonsils

      To analyze the growth of adenoids and tonsils, the researchers conducted a longitudinal study that followed the same 90 people from the time they were eight until they were 19. The participants had their tonsils and adenoids measured at five different points of life: ages eight, 10, 13, 16, and 19.  

      While eight-year-old tonsils and 19-year-old tonsils varied greatly in size, when the participants were in the middle age groups, their tonsils and adenoids didn’t grow or shrink in any significant manner.

      However, the researchers did note that the area of the throat near the adenoids and tonsils got bigger over time, which is why many physicians may have thought there was a growing and shrinking phenomenon occurring.

      “We found that, in actuality, the airway itself grows bigger, making the fraction taken up by the adenoids and tonsils smaller,” Ishida said.

      Treating sleep apnea

      The researchers note in their study that a number of patients get their tonsils and adenoids removed as a means of treating obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). A recent study found that snoring is often associated with OSA. The condition can go undetected in many people, and it also poses a risk for cardiovascular issues.

      Surgery and medication are sometimes required to help treat OSA, while continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines and weight loss can help combat the condition.

      The researchers, led by Dr. Adrian Curta, urge all snorers to get tested for OSA as a means of avoiding any health complications and starting a treatment plan as early as possible.

      “I would encourage people who snore to ask their partners to observe them and look for phases during sleep when they stop breathing for a short while and then gasp for air,” Dr. Curta said. “If unsure, they can spend the night at a sleep lab where breathing is constantly monitored and even slight alterations can be recorded.”

      For decades, healthcare professionals unanimously agreed that tonsils and adenoids grew until around age 12 and then began to shrink until about 20.Now...

      Grocery store nutrition information help shoppers make healthier choices

      Teaching consumers about the foods they buy was effective for helping consumers with hypertension

      Hypertension, or high blood pressure, can lead to countless other health complications, and because one in three adults suffer and just about half have the condition under control, healthcare professionals are always looking for ways to make things more manageable.

      Because diet is an integral part of maintaining a healthy blood pressure, researchers recently found that having nutrition classes in the grocery store was an effective method for helping consumers who suffer from hypertension make healthier choices.

      “Primary care providers face multiple barriers when delivering nutrition information to patients, including lack of training on how to provide lifestyle behavior counseling combined with lack of time to interact with the patient,” said Rosanna P. Watowicz, PhD.  “This study’s aim was to evaluate the effectiveness of a nutrition counseling program provided by a registered dietician in the familiar setting of a grocery store.”

      Making healthier choices

      The researchers had 30 participants involved in the study, all between 18 and 60 years old, and they all had been diagnosed with hypertension. Both before the counseling sessions and after, the participants had their blood pressure taken and they completed a survey based on their day-to-day diets.

      The participants received three counseling sessions from two dietitians at one of three local grocery stores over the course of 12 weeks. The dietitians gave participants advice based on the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet and reported back to the participants’ doctors.

      By the end of the three grocery store counseling sessions, the researchers found that the participants were making healthier food choices. The participants also reported taking their blood pressure medication regularly over the course of the study, and blood pressure readings were lower at the end of the 12 weeks. Participants were found to eat less saturated fat, sodium, discretionary fat, and empty calories, while eating more fruits, whole grains, refined grains, beans, and vegetables.

      The researchers were pleased with the results, and they think healthcare professionals should consider this method when trying to help patients with hypertension and other medical conditions.  

      “Providing education at the grocery store offers a convenient location on a schedule with more flexibility than a primary care office and reinforces dietary changes in the environment where food decisions are made,” Dr. Watowicz said. “This strategy should be researched with other health conditions.”

      Maintaining healthy blood pressure

      Recent studies have shown the importance of consumers making sure they maintain healthy blood pressures. For diabetics, this is of the utmost importance, as these consumers account for a large majority of hypertensive emergencies, which can ultimately lead to organ failure.

      Late last year, the American College of Cardiology (ACC) and American Heart Association (AHA) released new blood pressure guidelines that could help millions of people suffering with cardiovascular issues.

      The new guidelines would have many more people classified as having high blood pressure, which could lead to more patients using high blood pressure medication and doctors having more patients to monitor. The researchers predict that following the guidelines could prevent over three million cardiovascular issues.

      “Treating high blood pressure is a major public health opportunity to protect health and quality of life for tens of millions of Americans,” said lead researcher Adam Bress. “Achieving these lower goals will be challenging.”

      Hypertension, or high blood pressure, can lead to countless other health complications, and because one in three adults suffer and just about half have the...

      General Motors recalls model year 2019 Cadillac XTS vehicles

      The front seat belt buckles may be missing a rivet

      General Motors is recalling 175 model year 2019 Cadillac XTS vehicles.

      The front seat belt buckles may be missing a rivet that secures the buckle head to the cable mounting strap.

      If the securing rivet is missing, the buckle may separate from the cable mounting strap in the event of a crash, preventing the occupant from being properly restrained, thereby increasing the risk of injury.

      What to do

      GM will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the front seat buckle assemblies, replacing them if the rivets are missing, free of charge.

      The recall was expected to begin on February 8, 2019.

      Owners may contact Cadillac customer service at 1-800-458-8006. GM's number for this recall is N18-2204040.

      General Motors is recalling 175 model year 2019 Cadillac XTS vehicles.The front seat belt buckles may be missing a rivet that secures the buckle head t...

      Volkswagen recalls model year 2018 Audi A5 Sportbacks

      A front wheel may come loose, posing a crash risk

      Volkswagen Group of North America is recalling model year 2018 Audi A5 Sportbacks.

      The front suspension fasteners may not have been sufficiently tightened during production, possibly resulting in a front wheel becoming loose.

      A loose front wheel may increasing the risk of a crash.

      What to do

      Volkswagen has notified owners, and dealers will inspect the front suspension fasteners, and replace them as necessary, free of charge.

      The recall began January 23, 2019.

      Owners may contact Audi customer service at (800) 253-2834. Volkswagen's number for this recall is 40O2.

      Volkswagen Group of North America is recalling model year 2018 Audi A5 Sportbacks.The front suspension fasteners may not have been sufficiently tighten...

      Sprint sues AT&T over 5GE branding

      The suit says the marketing strategy is ‘deceptive’ to consumers

      AT&T’s decision to update its connectivity logo with a “5G E” icon has drawn criticism from its competitors. Now, Sprint is suing the carrier over the controversial marketing strategy.

      Sprint has filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking an injunction to bar AT&T from using 5GE logos on its devices or advertising, citing poll results that suggest these logos are misleading to consumers.

      According to a survey commissioned by Sprint, 54 percent of consumers believed the "5GE" networks were the same as or better than 5G; 43 percent thought that their AT&T phone would be 5G capable if they went out and bought one that day.

      Accused of misleading consumers

      AT&T updated the logo on some of its devices to indicate that they had received some speed-boosting upgrades. The “E” is intended to stand for “evolution” -- it does not signify that the device is currently capable of connecting to 5G networks.

      Sprint’s President of Business Jan Geldmacher said in an interview at CES 2019 in January that the updated “5G E” icon on some of its rival’s devices isn’t real 5G.

      “They [AT&T] call it 5G, but we believe it’s not 5G,” Geldmacher said. “We roll out the real 5G. It’s based on our 2.5 gigahertz spectrum. It’s based on our massive mine of technology, and it’s compliant with the 5G [rules], which we have agreed to.”

      In its lawsuit, Sprint argues that AT&T’s branding strategy is damaging the reputation of 5G as it works toward the deployment of legitimate 5G. Currently, there are no 5G-enabled mobile phones or tablets available for sale from any service provider in the U.S, Sprint said in the complaint.

      “By reason of AT&T’s unlawful acts and practices, Sprint has suffered, is suffering and will continue to suffer damage to its business, reputation and goodwill, and the loss of sales and profits Sprint would have made but for AT&T’s acts,” the complaint reads.

      AT&T responds

      AT&T has denied that it’s misleading consumers and argued that 5G Evolution is a significant step forward. In response to the lawsuit, AT&T issued the following statement:

      “We understand why our competitors don't like what we are doing, but our customers love it. We introduced 5G Evolution more than two years ago, clearly defining it as an evolutionary step to standards-based 5G. 5G Evolution and the 5GE indicator simply let customers know when their device is in an area where speeds up to twice as fast as standard LTE are available. That's what 5G Evolution is, and we are delighted to deliver it to our customers,” the carrier said.

      “We will fight this lawsuit while continuing to deploy 5G Evolution in addition to standards-based mobile 5G. Customers want and deserve to know when they are getting better speeds. Sprint will have to reconcile its arguments to the FCC that it cannot deploy a widespread 5G network without T-Mobile while simultaneously claiming in this suit to be launching ‘legitimate 5G technology imminently.”

      AT&T;’s decision to update its connectivity logo with a “5G E” icon has drawn criticism from its competitors. Now, Sprint is suing the carrier over the con...

      New Texas bill looks to prevent mobile phone throttling during disasters

      The state wants to avoid what California firefighters endured during recent wildfires

      Net neutrality found itself at another fork in the road over the weekend, with the Texas State House of Representatives considering a bill to make throttling data during emergency situations unlawful.

      Specifically, State Representative Bobby Guerra’s proposed bill lays out that, effective September 1, 2019, “mobile Internet service provider(s) may not impair or degrade lawful mobile Internet service access in an area subject to a declared state of disaster.”

      Having had its fill of recent disasters like Hurricane Harvey, Texas wants to make sure it doesn’t suffer the same money grab that California did in the midst of its 2018 firestorm. During the Golden State’s incendiary ravage, Verizon was heavily criticized when it throttled the data plans of firefighters working at the Santa Clara County fire department.

      “This throttling has had a significant impact on our ability to provide emergency services,” Santa Clara County Fire Chief Anthony Bowden said at the time. “Verizon imposed these limitations despite being informed that throttling was actively impeding County Fire’s ability to provide crisis-response and essential emergency services.”

      Money over sense?

      Reportedly, Bowden's staff approached Verizon to try to remedy the situation. While Verizon confirmed that throttling did occur, it agreed to restore the fire department to “essential” data speed if -- and only if -- the fire department upgraded to a new plan.

      “If that situation sounds slightly ridiculous to you, you certainly aren't alone,” wrote Techspot. “The fire department was frustrated by Verizon's response, to say the least, and sent Verizon account manager Silas Buss a series of hectic emails in a desperate attempt to get the restrictions lifted.”

      Reports say that Buss finally relented somewhat and offered a $99 plan that would cost the fire department an extra $8 per gigabyte once it reached its 20GB cap. Ars Technica reported the fire department decided that plan was the best fix, but only for the short-term.

      Evan Greer, deputy director of the nonprofit advocacy group Fight for the Future, points out that Texas' proposed law could be a good first step towards restoring protections that were overturned by the current Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

      "Telecommunications companies like Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T hold tremendous power. We saw during the wildfires in California that, without proper oversight, they can abuse this power in ways that not only undermine free speech but also public safety. It's great that states like Texas are pushing for legislation to hold these mega-corporations in check, but it's not a replacement for a functional FCC that is actually doing its job and protecting the public," Greer said in a statement to ConsumerAffairs. 

      "Congress should act immediately to reverse Ajit Pai's repeal of basic open internet protections, and demand that the FCC engage in proper oversight of internet providers to ensure they don't behave in ways that put people in danger." 

      Debate over an even internet playing field continues

      All of this push-and-pull goes back to net neutrality -- the assumption that internet service providers should treat all transmission of data over the internet equally and not discriminate or charge differently based on user, content, website, platform, application, type of equipment, or method of communication.

      In its power to the people stance, California has spared no effort to try to reverse the FCC's controversial decision to roll back Title II net neutrality protections.

      However, the state’s attempts might be an uphill climb. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai claims that net neutrality, as envisioned by California law, hurts consumers. Pai says that under the law, large service providers like Verizon would be prohibited from offering some free data plans that he says allow consumers to stream video and music, exempt from any data limits.

      “They have proven enormously popular in the marketplace, especially among lower-income Americans,” Pai said. “But notwithstanding the consumer benefits, this state law bans them.”

      Net neutrality found itself at another fork in the road over the weekend, with the Texas State House of Representatives considering a bill to make throttli...

      White House official won’t rule out another government shutdown

      Acting chief of staff says the president still wants funding for a border wall

      Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said the prospect of another government shutdown this year is alive and well.

      Interviewed on Fox News Sunday, the top aide to President Trump would not rule out the president rejecting a bill from Congress to fund the government if it contains provisions he finds unacceptable.

      “The president has to sign a piece of legislation in order to keep the government open,” Mulvaney told the network. “He cannot sign everything they put in front of him. There will be some things that simply we couldn’t agree to.”

      Mulvaney said no one wants to disrupt government operations again and force federal workers to go without pay, but he said the shutdown is “technically” still an option.

      “We do not want it to come to that, but that option is still open to the president and will remain so,” he said.

      The last shutdown

      Trump and House Democrats sparred over an appropriations bill at the end of December. The president sought $5 billion to begin construction of a wall along the border with Mexico to slow the flow of illegal immigrants to the U.S. Democrats balked at any funding. With no appropriation legislation, the result was the longest government shutdown in history.

      Trump eventually signed a funding measure with border wall financing but held open the option of shutting the government down again in three weeks or declaring a national emergency and appropriating military funds to begin construction.

      No one really wants that to happen, so negotiators from the House and Senate have been working for days to reach a long-term appropriations bill that the president will sign. Time is running short since the first of many government agencies run out of spending authority on Friday.

      According to a report by Fox News, talks between Congressional Republicans and Democrats over border wall funding have now completely broken down, and hope that a deal can be reached is fading fast.

      If anything, Washington remains even more divided along partisan lines, as evidenced during last week’s State of the Union speech. Democrats, who now hold the majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in nearly a decade, pointedly sat on their hands during most of the speech while GOP lawmakers applauded.

      Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said the prospect of another government shutdown this year is alive and well.Interviewed on Fox News Su...

      FDA cracks down on illegally marketed dietary supplements

      Dietary supplements ‘cannot claim to prevent, treat or cure diseases like Alzheimer’s,’ the agency warns

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has sent warning letters to 17 companies that it says illegally claim that their products treat Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and cancer. In a statement on Monday, FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb stressed that dietary supplements can’t claim to prevent, treat, or cure diseases like Alzheimer’s.

      “Such claims can harm patients by discouraging them from seeking FDA-approved medical products that have been demonstrated to be safe and effective for these medical conditions,” Gottlieb said.

      The agency noted that about three-quarters of adult consumers in the U.S. and a third of American children regularly take a dietary supplement.

      “As the popularity of supplements has grown, so have the number of entities marketing potentially dangerous products or making unproven or misleading claims about the health benefits they may deliver,” he said.

      ‘Health fraud scam’

      Companies running online ads for dietary supplements that can supposedly cure Alzheimer's disease or memory loss are participating in a health fraud scam, the agency said.

      “There is currently no cure or treatment to stop or reverse the progression of Alzheimer's,” the FDA tweeted.

      Although the FDA doesn’t review dietary supplements before they hit the market, the agency can take action when products are “deemed unsafe or carry false, misleading, or unproven claims about their health benefits,” CNN noted.

      Unproven claims

      As part of its effort to crack down on companies claiming their products can treat or cure certain serious diseases, the federal agency on Monday sent 12 warning letters and five advisory letters to companies that are illegally selling more than 58 unapproved new drugs.

      “The products bear unproven claims to prevent, treat or cure Alzheimer’s disease, as well as a number of other serious diseases and health conditions, including diabetes and cancer,” the agency said in its announcement.

      The FDA expressed concern that these products “could prevent a person from seeking an appropriate diagnosis and treatment.”

      The agency also announced on Monday that it will be updating its policies on dietary supplements. The forthcoming updates will represent "one of the most significant modernizations of dietary supplement regulation and oversight in more than 25 years.”

      “Today’s actions are part of the FDA’s larger effort to address the booming growth of the dietary supplement industry through the implementation of modern regulatory initiatives that will enable the agency to preserve the balanced vision of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), enacted by Congress 25 years ago,” Gottlieb said.

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has sent warning letters to 17 companies that it says illegally claim that their products treat Alzheimer’s, di...

      Most consumers are paying more for car insurance

      A report by an insurance search engine finds insurance rates have never been higher

      If your car insurance rates are going up, you aren't alone. The Zebra, an insurance rate search engine, reports that 83 percent of drivers paid more for insurance over the last 12 months. The company says insurance rates are the highest they've ever been, rising 23 percent since 2011.

      The researchers say the average motorist in the U.S. is paying $1,470 a year for car insurance. They arrived at that number by analyzing more than 61 million auto insurance rates in every zip code. That method breaks down the criteria insurance companies use to set rates — and how that pricing is unique to every individual.

      "Some people are paying $500 a year while others are paying $5,000. Why? It could be weather in your state, your driving habits, or even your gender, marital status, or credit score," said Alyssa Connolly, director of Market Insights at The Zebra. "Car insurance is a major expense for most Americans, and drivers want to know how much their rates are changing  — especially as new technology comes into play."

      Every state is different

      Car insurance rates vary widely from state to state since every jurisdiction has its own set of policies. The least expensive states in which to insure a car are Michigan, Louisiana, and Rhode Island. The most expensive cities for car insurance are Detroit, New Orleans, and Hialeah, Fla.

      In Colorado, auto insurance rates have surged 80 percent since 2011. But during that same time, they have fallen 20 percent in Oklahoma. The Zebra analysis also found that, even within a state, rates can vary as much as 265 percent depending upon the zip code.

      One reason rates can vary so much by state is that some states have different rules for insurance providers. For example, some states have barred insurance companies from using non-driving factors such as credit scores to set car insurance rates.

      Insurance companies say they use zip codes to measure a customer’s risk by looking at the number of vehicle crimes -- things like theft and vandalism -- within specific areas. Some providers also consider credit scores -- where allowed by law to do so -- because they believe the score is an accurate reflection of risk.

      Type of coverage affects cost

      The rate consumers pay also depends on the extent of coverage they select. Policies with a high deductible -- meaning the consumer pays for most minor damage and doesn’t file a claim -- cost less with low deductible policies with features like accident forgiveness.

      Rates also tend to be higher for motorists with speeding tickets and other moving violations. The Zebra report found that a crackdown on distracted driving such as texting behind the wheel has resulted in an average rate increase of 20 percent.

      Insurance companies are also making wider use of apps and plug-in devices to monitor how a driver operates their vehicle. This monitoring has resulted in some drivers seeing their rates go down while others are paying more.

      Sometimes changing insurance providers will result in a lower rate. Read what consumers have to say about car insurance companies in these ConsumerAffairs reviews.

      If your car insurance rates are going up, you aren't alone. The Zebra, an insurance rate search engine, reports that 83 percent of drivers paid more for in...

      Researchers discover new way to potentially treat and prevent alcoholism

      Early cross-species tests have had favorable results

      Treating patients for alcoholism can be difficult for healthcare professionals, as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved only a few different treatment options.

      Researchers from Oregon Health and Science University are in the process of developing another method, as they’ve discovered a new gene that, when targeted, could be effective in treating or preventing the condition.

      “The study highlights the importance of using cross-species approaches to identify and test relevant drugs for the treatment of alcohol use disorder,” said researcher Rita Cervera-Juanes, PhD.

      A viable treatment option

      In order to come to their findings, the researchers analyzed primated that had consumed higher levels of alcohol and compared them to other subjects that had not has similar exposure.

      The researchers linked a weakened expression of a gene -- GPR39 -- that had previously been associated with depression to primates that drank more. According to the researchers, alcohol abuse and mood disorders are closely related, as those who suffer with alcoholism are nearly four times more likely to also have depression.

      Knowing what gene to target, the researchers injected mice with a liquid that works the same way as the GPR39 gene to see if that would affect the way mice consumed alcohol. The mice consumed nearly 50 percent less alcohol when the researchers increased their GPR39 levels.

      Moving forward, the researchers are planning to explore how this gene affects humans with alcoholism. The team will begin by analyzing brain tissue from those who have died but suffered with alcohol abuse while alive.

      “We are finding novel targets for which there are drugs already available, and they can be repurposed to treat other ailments,” said Cervera-Juanes. “For alcoholism, this is huge because there are currently only a handful of FDA-approved drugs.”

      Health risks

      Many researchers in the last year have explored the negative health effects associated with alcohol -- even in small doses.

      Researchers found that consumers who drank four times per week -- even just one or two drinks at a time -- were 20 percent more likely to die prematurely. Similarly, a study from last summer found that no amount of alcohol was safe. Despite national guidelines which suggest that drinking in moderation is safe for adults’ health, researchers found that may not be the case.

      “Alcohol use is a leading risk factor for global disease burden and causes substantial health loss,” the researchers wrote in the report. “We found that the risk of all-cause mortality, and of cancers specifically, rises with increasing levels of consumption, and the level of consumption that minimizes health loss is zero.”

      Excessive drinking was responsible for three million deaths in 2016, and men were found to be at a greater risk than women. Over two million men died due to excessive drinking, while less than one million women died to the same cause; the researchers found that excessive drinking led to conditions like cancer, digestive disease, cardiovascular disease, infectious disease, and injury, all of which contributed to death.

      “Far too many people, their families and communities suffer the consequences of the harmful use of alcohol through violence, injuries, mental health problems, and diseases like cancer and stroke,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization. “It’s time to step up action to prevent this serious threat to the development of societies.”

      Treating patients for alcoholism can be difficult for healthcare professionals, as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved only a few different...