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Nation in brief

New drug plan: limited coverage for Medicare users

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 1, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Stunned by sharp criticism of its original plan, the Bush administration has crafted a new Medicare prescription drug proposal that would offer limited coverage to seniors enrolled in traditional Medicare.

Administration officials briefed Republican members of the Senate Finance Committee Thursday, a Senate GOP aide said Friday.

Under the plan, seniors enrolled in the traditional fee-for-service Medicare program would get a discount drug card that would offer some savings when buying prescriptions, the GOP aide said. Those seniors also would get catastrophic coverage, which means substantial government help would kick in when seniors reach very high drug costs.

Seniors who enrolled in private health plans or HMOs would get more extensive drug coverage under the proposal.

The administration has been scrambling to recover from criticism of an early draft of its proposal that would have limited the drug benefit to those who would leave traditional Medicare to join health plans administered by insurance companies.

That plan drew a sharp rebuke, even from Republican allies in Congress, who noted 87 percent of senior citizens are enrolled in traditional Medicare. The rest participate in Medicare HMO plans that have been widely criticized for abandoning patients. Since the HMO portion of Medicare began in 1999, scores of plans have left areas complaining that they were not getting enough money to cover rising health care costs.

President Bush has said he wants to spend $400-billion over the next 10 years to overhaul the 38-year-old Medicare program and add a prescription drug benefit.

It was unclear if the new plan, expected to be unveiled in the next two weeks, would satisfy Republicans. But Democrats quickly criticized it.

"This is not a compromise," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the leading Democrat on the Senate's health committee. "It's a hoax. It still forces seniors to abandon their family doctors to join HMOs to get the drug benefit they deserve."

Nightclub owners bought cheap, flammable insulation, dealer says

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- The dealer who sold soundproofing to the nightclub where an inferno killed 97 people said Friday the owners bought cheap and highly flammable packing foam, not real acoustic insulation.

Experts said the packing foam burns like gasoline and emits a dense, toxic smoke.

Store records show the Station club bought "the lowest grade, the cheapest stuff," said the dealer, Aram DerManouelian, president of American Foam Corp. "They had choices and that's what they bought."

An attorney for co-owner Jeffrey Derderian wouldn't comment and an attorney for his brother and co-owner Michael Derderian didn't return calls.

Soundproofing has emerged as a central focus of the investigation into the Feb. 20 fire, one of the deadliest nightclub blazes in U.S. history. Authorities believe sparks from the pyrotechnics of the band Great White ignited soundproofing behind the stage, sending flames racing through the one-story wooden building in West Warwick.

Rhode Island law bans flammable acoustic material on the walls of gathering spaces like bars.

Great White lead singer Jack Russell was subpoenaed to appear Friday before a grand jury. His lawyer, Neil Philbin, said Russell was seeking immunity from prosecution before testifying.

The death toll from the blaze rose to 97 after the death Friday of Linda Suffoletto, who had been in a Boston hospital since the fire. Her husband, Benjamin Suffoletto, 43, also was killed.

About 50 people remained hospitalized, 34 in critical condition.

Elsewhere . . .

SAN FRANCISCO POLICE CHIEF INDICTED: San Francisco police Chief Earl Sanders and other department leaders have been indicted for allegedly covering up a brawl between off-duty officers and a bartender over a bag of fajitas.

Ten officers were indicted on felony charges late Thursday, including three charged with beating two men in front of a bar just after closing time.

KLAN MEMBER CONVICTED: Ernest Avant, a 72-year-old reputed Klan member, was convicted Friday in the 1966 slaying of a black sharecropper, a crime prosecutors say was staged to lure Martin Luther King Jr. to southern Mississippi to be assassinated.

Federal prosecutors said they won't seek the death penalty, meaning Avant faces up to life in prison at sentencing May 9.

MINN. STUDENT'S BODY FOUND: A University of Minnesota student who vanished on Halloween night after leaving a bar was found dead in the Mississippi River.

The medical examiner's office said Friday it was too soon to tell how 21-year-old Christopher Jenkins died. Jenkins was one of four college-age people -- three men and a woman -- who disappeared last fall within 170 miles of one another. Relatives had speculated the cases might be linked, but authorities said they do not think so.

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