A bailout full of waste?

The bailout bill now has added porkFollowing the passage of a revised $700 billion bailout package by Congress, some people may be wondering what made certain representatives change their vote.

The answer is the addition of various political "sweeteners," which are also labeled "pork" by critics. Jim Popkin, NBC News senior investigative producer, explained that the small print of the bailout proposal contains billions of dollars of tax breaks that are unlikely to benefit the average taxpayer.

These provisions range from tax breaks for businesses that encourage bicycle use among staff to write-offs for facilities that produce cellulosic biofuel.

Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense, told MSNBC.com that "this is unfortunately how Washington works."

"Lawmakers piled billions of dollars of pork into the bailout bill and dared detractors to vote against it," he explained, adding that several provisions "benefit narrow interests."

Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh worried on a recent radio show that the added pork in the bailout bill would raise its cost in real terms.

"So a $700 billion bailout bill becomes $850 billion in the Senate. This is going to end up being a trillion dollars before it’s all said and done," he said.

Bill aims to protect travelers’ privacy

Law is focused on protecting laptop privacyLegislation introduced by three lawmakers this week aims to create stronger measures to protect the privacy of those who are traveling across borders.

The Travelers’ Privacy Protection Act states would require agents to be able to prove they have reasonable suspicion of illegal activity before they search people’s laptops, smartphones and documents.

Recently, the Department of Homeland Security published its guidance on the matter, raising concerns among many who support civil liberties. Currently, border inspectors do not need to have a reason to inspect and copy a traveler’s electronic and paper documents.

Representative Russ Feingold, who co-wrote the new bill, said that "most Americans would be shocked" if they knew what powers the government had to search and copy their personal emails, documents and photographs.

"Focusing our limited law enforcement resources on law-abiding Americans who present no basis for suspicion does not make us any safer and is a gross violation of privacy," he commented.

The bill would also place limits on the length of time that an electronic device can be separated from its owner.

Should you be investing in money market funds?

Money market funds may present an opportunityInvestors are continuing to withdraw their cash from money market funds, despite a promise by the Treasury Department that these funds would be temporarily insured.

More than $209 billion has been moved out of these accounts since September 9th, according to iMoneynet.com managing editor Connie Bugbee.

Investors began fearing for the safety of their wealth in the middle of September, when the Reserve Funds Primary Fund announced that it would not be returning people’s full deposits. It had been stung by its involvement with failed investment bank Lehman Brothers.

Money market accounts do not typically have FDIC insurance, but the Treasury offered temporary security to funds – for a fee – in order to help encourage the market.

Fortune magazine writer Eugenia Levinson has suggested that current conditions provide "a unique opportunity" for investors to purchase tax-exempt money market funds.

Due to a "flood of inventory" caused when fund managers began to sell, firms have raised yields on these funds to appeal to buyers, Levinson writes.

She says that tax-exempt money market funds now offer the highest average seven-day annualized yield since 1985, at 5 percent.

Doctors call for FDA recall of kids’ cold medicines

Cold medicines may be risky for kids' healthOver-the-counter cold medicines for children have come under fire from some doctors and health experts, who claim they are not safe for youngsters.

The Food and Drug Administration is holding a public hearing on the topic, which could lead to tougher regulations. Last year, makers of OTC cold products agreed they would stop marketing medicines at kids who are two or younger.

Around 190 million cold and cough medicines for children are sold each year in the U.S., resulting in a multi-million dollar industry. However, the FDA has admitted that its 30-year-old cold medicine standards did not involve separate studies to assess their safety for kids.

"Parents should know that there is less evidence than ever to support the use of over-the-counter cough and cold medicines for young children," Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, Baltimore’s health commissioner, told the Associated Press.

Dr. Neil Schachter, author of The Good Doctor’s Guide to Colds and Flu, suggests that old-fashioned, natural health remedies may help relieve kids’ cold symptoms.

For example, parents can use shower steam to combat congestion and feed their children chicken soup to fight the inflammatory compounds that may arise from cold and flu, he says.

Detoxify your life

Toxins may exist in common household productsRecent news about toxins in plastic bottles, the water supply and common household cleaning products may cause people to feel a bit helpless about how to protect themselves against dangerous chemicals.

Nena Baker – author of The Body Toxic – gave Newsweek some suggestions for easy ways to limit your contact with toxins.

Filtering your water can help remove the small quantities of pollutants such as lead, arsenic and pesticides that make it into some communities’ water supplies, she says.

In the home, people should avoid paint that is made with volatile organic compounds that are linked with breathing problems, as well as steering clear of electronics that include flame retardants known as PBDEs, Baker advises.

She explains that shampoos and make-up products may also contain some toxic ingredients, while canned foods and some plastic containers could have been made with BPA – which has been linked with heart disease.

In some cases, it is simply a matter of going back to the basics. When seeking to control the amount of toxic substances that are present in your house, the article recommends that "it’s best to keep your house clean through regular dusting and vacuuming."

Schwarzenegger says hospitals can be fined for privacy breaches

Patient records should remain private, governor saysCalifornia governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed legislation that gives a state office the right to fine hospitals that do not adequately protect patient privacy.

One bill approved by the governor creates an office to oversee the privacy of patient records, while the other specifies the potential for issuing fines up to $250,000.

"Repeated violations of patient confidentiality are potentially harmful to Californians, which is why financial penalties are needed to ensure employees and facilities do not breach confidential medical information," Schwarzenegger said, according to the LA Times.

Dave Jones, who authored one of the bills, said that "private medical information shouldn’t be flapping in the breeze like an open hospital gown."

The legislation also increases the amount that hospitals may be fined for medical mistakes that imply other patients may also be harmed.

Earlier this year, an employee at UCLA Medical Center was discovered to have breached security rules by accessing dozens of patient records without permission, including those of Schwarzenegger’s wife, Maria Shriver.

Dan Fuss to investors: Buy bonds

Investment expert recommends bondsDan Fuss of Boston-based Loomis Sayles has advised investors that U.S. investment-grade corporate bonds currently offer an outstanding opportunity that should not be missed by those looking to grow their wealth, Reuters reports.

He told the news provider in an interview that these bonds provide "the best buying opportunity" he has noted in 34 years. In September 1974, equities and bonds were both in bear markets, Fuss said.

The vice president of Loomis Sayles explained that he has been paying an average price that ranges in the low 70 cents on the dollar to purchase long-maturing "AA"-rated corporate bonds.

Merrill Lynch data cited by Reuters indicates that corporate bonds with this rating currently average a yield of around 7 percent.

The current uncertainty in the U.S. economy has had a tumultuous effect on the stock market, which has seen record falls in recent days. Many people have been moving their money away from what they perceive to be risky investments.

Fuss has 50 years of investing experience and was named to the Fixed Income Analysts Society’s Hall of Fame in 2000.

Report: Nursing homes may not be adequately protecting health

Most nursing homes violated federal standards in 2007More than 90 percent of nursing homes were cited for at least one violation of federal standards last year, according to a Health and Human Services Department report.

And a typical facility received an average of seven citations for health and safety deficiencies in 2007, federal investigators said.

Quality of care was the subject of many of the problems, a category that includes issues such as treatment for common health conditions.

Problems with the storage and distribution of food were also commonly mentioned, as were maintenance problems such as accident hazards.

It is the third year in a row in which more than 90 percent of nursing homes were judged to have deficiencies.

"The addition of stronger inspections and enforcement of quality-of-care requirements means that more of the serious deficiencies are being identified, even though many nursing homes also made improvements in their care," Jeff Nelligan, spokesperson for the HHS, told Bloomberg.

There are approximately 18,000 nursing homes in the U.S., offering some 1.9 million beds, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Maryland police involved in civil liberties issue

Maryland police are accused of unwarranted surveillanceA probe has begun to investigate the full extent of surveillance practiced by Maryland state police, who have already admitted to tracking certain activist groups.

David Rocah, attorney for the Maryland American Civil Liberties Union, said that the state’s reasons for spying on the groups were "baseless," the Associated Press reports.

He said he has filed public information requests covering 32 groups that are involved in a variety of causes, including death penalty, animal rights and abortion issues.

The initial ACLU complaint began when it was discovered that the police had begun monitoring two activist groups, prompted by a pending execution. The surveillance ended in 2006, when the execution was delayed.

Responding to previous allegations of unwarranted surveillance made by the ACLU, state police superintendent Colonel Terrence B. Sheridan said that the state police’s homeland security division was responsible for the decision.

The news comes after the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a lawsuit against the National Security Agency and members of the Bush administration, claiming that their surveillance practices were illegal.

House prices continue to fall

Falling house prices can affect wealthThose who were counting on the equity in their homes to provide them with wealth in their later years may be watching the housing market with a careful eye.

New figures from Standard & Poor/Case-Shiller reveal that house prices in 20 major American cities increased their pace of decline in July, falling by 16.3 percent compared with the same period in 2007.

This represents the greatest drop in the eight-year history of the 20-city index. Meanwhile, the 10-city index also saw its largest fall since it was created 1988, decreasing by 17.5 percent.

David M. Blitzer, chairman of the Index Committee at Standard & Poor’s, said that the figures suggest there is "no evidence of a bottom" to house price decline.

"While some cities did show some marginal improvement over last month’s data, there is still very little evidence of any particular region experiencing an absolute turnaround," he commented.

Las Vegas, Phoenix and Miami suffered the worst drops, with house prices in the three cities declining by nearly 30 percent over the past year.

In 2004, Las Vegas was at the heart of a housing investment boom, with property values rising by 44 percent in the third quarter of that year, Bloomberg reported.

Investors turn to gold to protect wealth

As stocks drop, investors turn to goldThe current economic turmoil on Wall Street makes it more difficult than ever to know where to store your precious cash.

Now, it seems that many investors have been turning toward gold as a safe haven for their wealth.

Paul Walker, chief executive officer of research firm GFMS, told Bloomberg that investment in the metal could rise to a record high during the next six months.

"The physical market is extremely strong," he said. "Investment demand is driving prices higher. What we have seen over the past couple of weeks is a flight to quality."

Following the rejection of the government’s proposed $700 billion bailout by the House of Representatives, the demand could grow even higher.

Gold futures increased on Monday following indications that the bailout plan would fail, according to MarketWatch.

Meanwhile, the stock market dropped sharply on the same news. Bloomberg reports that Standard & Poor’s 500 Index fell by the highest amount since 1987, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average saw its steepest tumble since September 12, 2001.

The news agency estimates that U.S. equities lost nearly $1 trillion of value on Monday.

Could taxpayers benefit from the bailout?

A bailout could help rescue the housing marketThe government’s $700 billion bailout of troubled financial institutions may actually end up benefiting taxpayers in the long run, analysis by Barron’s has claimed.

According to the business newspaper’s Monday edition, the Treasury Department is likely to actually turn a profit as a result of the bailout in the coming years, which – if it comes to pass – would also be good news for taxpayers.

The article suggests that the mortgages and mortgage securities involved in the deal "aren’t as toxic or widespread as commonly assumed."

By purchasing these mortgages, the Treasury will provide a boost to credit markets and improve the prices of securities supported by home loans, Barron’s says. This could help prevent further decline in the real estate market.

Commenting on the potential effects of the government’s actions, Jeffrey Gundlach, chief investment officer of TCW, told the news source that "there’s a good chance that the bailout plan will be a win-win for both the taxpayer and the financial system."

However, not everyone is convinced that government intervention is a good idea. Reuters reported that one venture capitalist, Bill Perkins, bought a full-page advertisement in the New York Times last Tuesday to protest the action.

He told the news provider that the U.S. has become "a socialist-communist country in the form of trickle-down communism."

Cost of biotech drugs rises

The cost of biotech drugs is rising faster than inflationPeople who rely on a number of specialty biotech drugs to treat their health conditions saw prices rise by 8.7 percent last year, an AARP investigation found.

The cost of these medications, which are often used by the elderly to treat diseases such as cancer and multiple sclerosis, rose at three times the rate of inflation, the advocacy group claimed.

It looked at 144 brand-name and generic drugs that are commonly used by people enrolled in Medicare.

John Rother, AARP executive vice president of policy and strategy, said that specialty drug makers "continue to raise the costs of drugs that have already been developed and tested," which increases the amount paid by patients as well as employers who sponsor health plans.

"Even the most miraculous drug is useless if people can’t afford to take it," he added.

The report also revealed that the price of more than 100 specialty medications jumped by 42.9 percent between 2003 and 2007, while inflation increased by 14.1 percent during that period.

The news comes after a report by Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research & Education Trust discovered that U.S. health insurance premiums rose by an average of 5 percent in the past year.

ISPs say they are not invading customers’ privacy

ISPs promise to protect your privacyAmerica’s largest internet service providers have told the Senate Commerce Committee that they do not engage in behavior that infringes on customers’ privacy.

Executives for Verizon Communications, Time Warner Cable and AT&T testified before the committee, claiming that they do not track users’ online habits and sell the information to advertisers.

They also proposed that a "self-regulatory approach" should be adopted in regard to customer privacy, in which people would be asked to give permission before their surfing could be monitored for targeted advertising.

Not everyone is sure if this plan would be successful. Gigi Sohn, president of advocacy group Public Knowledge, told lawmakers that "gaps in the law have allowed the privacy of some internet users to fall between the cracks."

Meanwhile, a recent poll by the Consumer Reports National Research Center revealed that online privacy is a major concern for many Americans, with 72 percent of respondents saying that they are uneasy about the potential for companies to track their internet behavior.

Also, 93 percent think that organizations should always ask permission before using their information.

Congress warned about cell phone health risks

Experts raise concerns about health risks of cell phonesHealth risks connected with cell phone use have not adequately been explored, an expert has warned a congressional subcommittee.

David Carpenter, director of the Institute of Health and Environment at the University of Albany, expressed concerns about the effects of long-term exposure to mobile phone radiation, particularly on children.

He also drew links between the current uncertainties surrounding cell phones’ link to brain cancer and those seen several decades ago in regard to cigarettes’ link to lung cancer.

Fellow scientist Ronal Herberman of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute displayed a model of a child’s brain to demonstrate how radiation may penetrate more deeply for younger users.

"Every child is using cell phones all of the time, and there are three billion cell phone users in the world," he commented.

The pair also cited various studies that have drawn connections between cell phones and cancers, including Swedish research that linked frequent use with benign tumors on the ear’s auditory nerves.

Some 89 percent of U.S. adults say they own a wireless or cell phone, according to a poll conducted by Harris Interactive earlier this year.

Is your hospital storing radioactive material?

Your hospital may have radioactive waste on the premisesHospitals in dozens of states across the country could be storing low-level radioactive material on their premises because there is no disposal alternative, according to a report in the Associated Press.

In July, a South Carolina law put an end to a practice in which nuclear waste from hospitals and research installations throughout the U.S. could ship their radioactive waste to a landfill in the state.

This was one of the main ways that hospitals disposed of this waste. It was sealed in concrete drums, placed in specially designed trenches and buried under six feet of soil.

As a result, these materials – which include capsules of radioactive cesium isotopes, cobalt-60 pellets and powdered cesium – are now often stored at the hospitals themselves until they lose their radioactivity, the AP explains.

"Instead of safely secured in one place, it’s stored in thousands of places in urban locations all over the United States," Rick Jacobi, a nuclear waste consultant, told the news source.

The government says that it is monitoring this waste and many facilities use safety precautions such as alarm-fitted doors and warning signs to keep materials contained.

However, concerns remain about the lack of a long-term alternative plan for disposing of these low-level radioactive items.

Concerns raised about RFID and privacy

RFID technology raises privacy concernsThe growth of radio frequency identification (RFID) and related technologies raises questions about how to protect people’s privacy, according to participants at a Federal Trade Commission workshop.

Government officials, industry representatives and consumer advocates met earlier this week to discuss concerns about security, CNET reports.

Some industry representatives argued that regulations relating to these concerns could interfere with the technology’s development, while consumer groups cautioned that privacy standards should be set sooner rather than later.

"Our discomfort stems from the fact that strong security is not always built into the (RFID technology) to begin with," Susan Grant, director of consumer protection for the Consumer Federation of America, was quoted as saying. "Very often, it’s an afterthought."

The U.S. Department of State already issues passports that are equipped with a 64-kilobyte RFID chip containing the traveler’s name, nationality, gender, birth date and place, and photograph.

Some states have passed legislation addressing privacy concerns connected to RFID. Washington and California both have laws that limit how RFID may be used.

Air quality regulations ‘overlook dangerous pollutants’

Particle pollutants are not being regulatedLarge quantities of fine, organic particle pollutants are not being addressed by current air quality regulations, scientists suggest.

Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder found that although a large amount of effort has focused on combating pollutants directly emitted by vehicles and industrial processes, the lesser-studied volatile organic compounds (VOC) are being overlooked.

VOCs – vapors from gasoline, paints, varnishes, cleaning supplies and automotive products – are oxidized and condense into existing air particles. These fine particles have a diameter that is equal to less than one-tenth the diameter of a human hair.

Lead author Ken Docherty of the university’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences explained that the study indicates these particles "contribute more significantly to poor air quality, even in very polluted urban regions."

The report, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, also suggests that more research is needed to explore how exposure to these particles may affect people’s health.

Previous research has demonstrated that pollution from vehicles, factories and power plants can cause asthma attacks. According to the National Resources Defense Council, around 30 percent of childhood asthma is a result of environmental factors.

Health insurance getting more expensive

Insurance costs are risingAmericans are paying more out of their own pockets for health insurance than ever before, according to new statistics.

A survey by Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research & Education Trust found that the cost of health insurance premiums in the U.S. increased by an average of 5 percent during the past year, with employees paying $3,354 of that premium, on average.

Premiums have more than doubled in cost since 1999, the study reveals, while the average salary has only increased by 34 percent.

Employees have also been landed with higher deductibles, particularly those who work for smaller firms with fewer than 200 workers.

A total of 18 percent of employees at companies of all sizes faced a deductible of $1,000 or more, a rise from 12 percent in 2007.

"Health insurance is steadily becoming less comprehensive, and it’s no wonder that in today’s tough economic climate many families count health care costs as one of their top pocketbook issues," commented Kaiser CEO Drew Altman.

U.S. expenditures on healthcare totaled nearly $1.9 trillion in 2004, according to the KFF, citing the most recent statistics available.

Warning about hospital blood thinner errors

Hospitals have made thousands of errors with blood thinnersHospitals made nearly 60,000 errors involving blood thinners over a five-year period, according to a new safety alert from a regulatory group.

The figures, cited by the Joint Commission, come from a database operated by drug standard-setting group U.S. Pharmacopeia.

Responding to these findings, as well as statistics reporting 28 patient deaths between January 1997 and December 2007, the Joint Commission is urging hospitals to enforce stricter guidelines for the use of anticoagulants (blood thinners).

Patients who are given anticoagulants such as Heparin or Warfarin should be monitored for drug and food interactions, the group says.

It also raises concerns that confusion of labeling and packaging of blood thinners can result in widespread confusion among hospital staff and "devastating errors."

"The systems necessary to ensure that these drugs are used safely are not adequate," commented Dr. Mark R. Chassin, president of the Joint Commission.

In July, CBS News reported on a case in which 14 premature babies at Christus Spohn Hospital South in Corpus Christi were given overdoses of Heparin.

Ron Paul: Big government got us into this mess

Paul says the government meddles too much in the economyRepresentative Ron Paul of Texas has placed the blame for the current economic downturn squarely on missteps taken by U.S. government.

In an exclusive column for CNN, Paul describes how government intervention in the market has resulted in artificially inflated prices that do not match consumer demand.

He criticizes the government support of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, as well as the Federal Reserve’s "loose monetary policy" that allowed it to manipulate interest rates, as factors that have resulted in the housing bust and subprime mortgage crisis.

Furthermore, Paul suggests that the recent bailouts and proposed $700 billion rescue scheme will only exacerbate the situation by further distorting the market and encouraging banks’ risky behavior.

"Using trillions of dollars of taxpayer money to purchase illusory short-term security, the government is actually ensuring greater instability in the financial system in the long term," he writes.

Paul, who serves on the House Committee for Financial Services, is not the only politician who has criticized government bailouts recently. In a speech, Senator John McCain said the Federal Reserve should "get back to its core business of managing our money supply and inflation."

Govt’s copying of travelers’ information called unconstitutional

Does copying data infringe on civil liberty?Most people who travel with personal and business information stored on their laptops, cell phones and notebooks expect that data to remain private.

However, a report in the Washington Post claims that the U.S. government has been "quietly" introducing changes that affect traveler’s civil liberties, such as allowing federal agents to copy and keep this information at will.

This summer, the Department of Homeland Security said that federal agents were allowed to copy a traveler’s documents, books, and electronic data regardless of whether they had probable cause to suspect a law was being broken.

Some groups, including the Asian Law Caucus, have protested this policy, claiming that it violates First Amendment rights.

It points out that between 1986 and July 2008, the government’s policy stated that agents needed probable cause before they could copy materials.

Responding to this criticism, DHS spokesperson Amy Kudwa told the news provider that the changes reflect "the realities of the post-9/11 environment."

Her comments come after it emerged that the Electronic Frontier Foundation is suing the National Security Agency and members of the Bush administration for what it describes as illegal surveillance.

Retirees’ wealth hit by stock market turmoil

Retirees struggle to protect their wealthPlanning for retirement is one of the most important steps you can take to protect your wealth, but what if you watched your careful plans crumble due to stock market turmoil?

That is precisely the situation that is currently being faced by millions of retirees, according to a report in the New York Times.

It describes how many older people are experiencing increasing financial uncertainty, with a combination of stock market drops, high fuel costs and decreasing property values behind the pain.

"If you’re 45 and the market goes down, it bothers you, but it comes back," Alicia H. Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, told the publication. "But if you’re retired or about to retire, you might have to sell your assets before they have a chance to recover."

People with assets may be among those most affected by current economic conditions, due to the recent disintegration of the U.S. housing market.

Findings from the AARP reveal that more retirement-age Americans have been consigning themselves to working longer, as well as reducing the amount they contribute to their nest egg in order to pay bills.