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Congress Approves $16.3 Billion VA Health Care Bill

by Steve Mullis
Jul 31, 2014

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With a 91-3 vote in the Senate Thursday, Congress has passed a massive $16.3 billion bill to address problems with health care for veterans and other problems with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The bill now moves forward to the White House for President Obama's signature. The House voted overwhelmingly to approve the bill on Wednesday.

As we reported, the deal, unveiled on Monday, provides $10 billion for veterans to see private doctors if they live far away from VA facilities or have to wait more than two weeks to get an appointment.

The package would also provide $5 billion to hire additional medical staff to address crowding problems at VA facilities themselves, with $2 billion more devoted to opening new offices and expanding existing programs.

Voting against the bill Thursday were Republican Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Sessions of Alabama, saying they were concerned the legislation will increase future budget deficits.

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Ebola Patient Will Be Treated In Atlanta Hospital

Jul 31, 2014

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An isolation unit at Emory University's hospital in Atlanta will be used in the coming days to house and treat a patient infected with Ebola, the virus that has killed more than 700 people in a recent outbreak in West Africa.

Announcing the pending transfer of the patient Thursday, Emory, which like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is based in Atlanta, issued a statement saying it will use "a specially built isolation unit set up in collaboration with the CDC to treat patients who are exposed to certain serious infectious diseases."

The unit is one of four such facilities in America, Emory said, describing it as being "physically separate from other patient areas."

Officials at Emory University Hospital say they don't know when the patient will arrive.

They also didn't give any details about the patient — but the person being treated could be an American who was infected with Ebola while working in Africa, according to a report by CNN that cites an anonymous source as saying a charter plane has been sent from Georgia to retrieve two patients.

As NPR reported this week, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol are among three Americans who contracted the disease while working with the charity Samaritan's Purse. CNN says at least one of the two (the third patient has died) could be taken to the Emory facility.

Health experts are calling this Ebola outbreak large, complex, and difficult — and it still hasn't slowed down.

"In only four days, the total number of cases has risen by 122, or about 10 percent," NPR's global development blog Goats and Soda said of the Ebola outbreak today.

On Thursday, the CDC issued an advisory against non-essential travel to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, urging Americans to avoid potential exposure to the disease in West Africa.

And CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden says he's sending 50 more health experts to help fight the outbreak.

"The bottom line is that Ebola is worsening in West Africa," he said. "CDC, along with others, are surging to begin to turn the tide. It's not going to be quick, it's not going to be easy. But we know what to do."

U.S. officials are also hoping to develop a vaccine to fight Ebola. CNN reports that the National Institutes of Health's infectious disease unit is working to test a vaccine on humans in coming months that has shown signs of successfully treating primates.

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A dried-out lawn is seen in the city of Glendora, east of Los Angeles, this week. About 58 percent of California is now under the most extreme drought conditions, a new report says. (AFP/Getty Images)

Most Of California Reported To Be In 'Extreme Drought'

Jul 31, 2014

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The latest Drought Monitor report from U.S. agriculture and weather experts finds 58 percent of California in the worst of its four drought levels, in conditions normally seen only once every 50-100 years.

For our Newscast unit, Nathan Rott reports:

"The U.S. Drought Monitor measures drought in five levels. The most benign is called Abnormally Dry. The worst is labeled Exceptional Drought. As of this week, roughly 58 percent of California is considered to be afflicted by that last category. Three months ago, only a quarter of the state was.

"The report also says that the state is short more than a year's worth of water in its reservoirs and that the state's topsoil reserves are nearly depleted.

"State officials are asking for residents to reduce their water usage by 20 percent. New regulations are going into effect this week that allow authorities to fine people up to $500 a day for wasting water."

In central and northern parts of California, conditions have worsened to the most extreme level, driven by hot weather and wildfires, according to the report.

Because of its persistent drought, California's governor declared the state to be under a state of emergency in January; the situation has only grown worse since then.

The dire conditions are making drought experts consider creating a new category — a "D5" that would surpass its current most-extreme level, D4. But as member station KPCC, they're hampered by having only 120 years' worth of records.

"We would never use it, because we don't have the database to support it," KPCC quotes Department of Agriculture meteorologist Brad Rippey, an author of the drought report. "But something in the order of a 1-in-100 to 1-in-200-year drought would be the equivalent of what we would call this theoretical D5."

News of the drought's severity comes as member station KQED reports that there is an "alarming lack of information" about California's biggest water source: the state's underground reservoirs.

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This statue is located in Utah's Capitol building, beneath a mural of Brigham Young and the first Mormon pioneers traveling out west. "Utah is a place that understands the value of immigration," says Utah's speaker of the House, Becky Lockhart. (NPR)

Three Years On, Utah's Immigrant Guest Worker Law Still Stalled

Jul 31, 2014 (All Things Considered)

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Becky Lockhart, Utah's speaker of the House, helped pass the state's guest worker law in 2011. She continues to hope that the federal government will grant the waiver needed for the law to go into effect.

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At the Utah State Capitol, a mural of Brigham Young and the first Mormon pioneers brings some color to the building's spartan rotunda. Beneath it is a more modern sculpture — a woman walking forward with her son, who's holding a globe.

Underneath the statue are the words "Immigration and Settlement." The symbolism isn't lost on state House Speaker Becky Lockhart.

"Utah is a place that understands the value of immigration, the value of peoples coming to find a better life," she says, pointing up at the sculpture.

"We've always believed ... 'Come here and live the American dream,' but we want people to do it legally," Lockhart says. "And something's wrong with the legal way; it's not working as it should."

Lockhart, a Republican and LDS Church member, was among a group of Utah leaders that sought to break new ground on the immigration debate in 2011. Arizona had passed a law the previous summer requiring police to check immigration status during routine traffic stops.

In Utah, Lockhart and her colleagues watched the boycotts and court battles that followed — and decided to go a different way.

The state passed a law creating a guest worker program. But three years later, that program still hasn't gone into effect — and now an effort is brewing to repeal it.

A 'Uniquely Utah' Approach

In November 2010, business, government and religious leaders had signed the "Utah Compact," which called on federal and state leaders to pass so-called reasonable immigration reform. Lockhart and other lawmakers, inspired by the compact and the battles in Arizona, then passed a bipartisan set of immigration reform laws.

The main bill set up a guest worker law that would allow immigrants in the U.S. illegally and living in Utah to apply for a two-year work permit if they pay a fine and pass a criminal background check.

For Lockhart, "reasonable immigration reform" was pragmatic. Tens of thousands of immigrants have come to Utah illegally in recent years, lured by plentiful jobs in construction and tourism — the state has the second-lowest unemployment rate in the nation. But Utah's education and health care budgets are strained. So why not bring all the new residents "out of the shadows," she says, and tax them?

"When states get involved in this, it's because states are very frustrated, because we're dealing with the consequences of a failed federal policy," she says.

But three years on, the guest worker law has yet to be formally implemented. It was predicated on the federal government granting Utah a waiver to proceed. Lawmakers have extended the law's effective date twice as they've waited for a response from the Obama administration. (Neither the White House nor the Department of Homeland Security would discuss Utah's waiver request with NPR.)

The impasse has sparked growing calls for lawmakers to just repeal the whole thing when they reconvene next year.

"Nothing will happen with it, and we just keep extending it and it makes us feel good to say ... 'We have the solution for the entire world in the state of Utah,' " says Bob Wren, chairman of Utahns for Immigration Reform and Enforcement.

There's also cynicism among immigrant-rights activists, like Tony Yapias, the director of the group Proyecto Latino de Utah.

"I've been pessimistic from Day 1. I mean, we are just saying, 'Why are they pushing this law?' — because this is never going to get implemented," Yapias says. Of all states, he asks, why would the Obama administration let Utah, a Republican bastion, launch a pilot program on immigration?

Changing Attitudes

But whether or not the guest worker law is ever implemented, there has been a big shift in Utah. The entire atmosphere toward immigration in the state is a lot less charged than it used to be.

"It's not an issue in Utah anymore," says Sen. Luz Robles, a Democrat who co-sponsored the guest worker bill. "I think that's, like, the first thing that gives us a signal ... that we have succeeded."

It hasn't hurt that police in cities like Salt Lake, for the most part, don't worry about immigration status. Utah also gives in-state tuition and driving privileges to people living in the state without papers.

Jesus Savala, a resident of Salt Lake City since the late 1980s, says laws like those are helping curb discrimination and racism.

On a recent afternoon, Savala and his wife and grandson were shopping in the Latino Mall, a collection of taquerias, clothing stores and banks on the city's heavily Latino west side.

In an interview in Spanish, Savala says he remembers the 2011 guest worker law fondly. Yet, three years on, he has a brother-in-law who's still struggling to find steady work. He's the last in the family without papers.

It's frustrating, he says: His brother-in-law just wants to be able to work here legally.

A Softer Approach, Influenced By Religion

Latinos are Utah's fastest-growing minority, but owing to the influence of the Mormon Church, this region has also seen a sharp rise in immigration from Pacific Island nations. A booming tech sector has also attracted Indian and Pakistani immigrants.

From those communities, you hear some of the same things: Attitudes toward immigrants — legal or not — have changed considerably in Utah.

"It's been gradually getting better," says Yaser "Sunny" Nisar.

Nisar opened his Curry Fried Chicken restaurant a year ago on this gentrifying block of State Street, south of the downtown Salt Lake City skyline. On a recent night, people filed in to break the Ramadan fast at sundown.

Nisar knows firsthand that things are improving. Two days after Sept. 11, his family's original Halal restaurant in Salt Lake City was set on fire. It was quickly deemed an anti-Muslim hate crime. Nisar says community leaders — and the LDS Church — rallied behind them, and that started something bigger.

"There's a lot of awareness going on, a lot of people are getting to know us better than just going off what they see on TV and what they, maybe, have a misconception in their head," he says.

Nisar doesn't pay very close attention to politics, but he says Utah's religious values are a big reason why the state embraced a softer approach to immigration.

You hear this from business owners, Republicans, Democrats, churchgoers: Utah is a pro-family state, and the tone on immigration is a lot calmer here than along the border.

Just take the views of Lockhart, the state House speaker, who says her views on immigration have "evolved" a good deal in recent years.

"Utah is a unique place and we understand the human factor," she says. "It's not a black and white issue; there are people's lives here."

Lockhart, who's not running for re-election and has been named as a possible candidate for governor next year, says she's proud of what Utah did. She's also still holding out hope that the federal government will consider granting that waiver so the guest worker pilot project can move ahead.

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Flares light up the night sky over Gaza City early Friday, Aug. 1. Leaders of Hamas and Israel have agreed to begin a cease-fire Friday at 8 a.m. local time, the U.N. says. (AP)

Israel And Hamas Agree To 3-Day Cease-Fire, U.N. Says

Jul 31, 2014

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Becky Lockhart, Utah's speaker of the House, helped pass the state's guest worker law in 2011. She continues to hope that the federal government will grant the waiver needed for the law to go into effect.

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A temporary peace will begin Friday morning in Gaza, as Israel and Hamas agree to an "unconditional humanitarian ceasefire," according to a statement by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Secretary of State John Kerry.

The truce is set to begin at 8 a.m. local time Friday and last for 72 hours. U.N. Special Coordinator Robert Serry says he's been assured by officials from both Israel and Hamas that they will abide by the truce. The envoys will also travel to Cairo to negotiate a possible longer peace deal, in talks hosted by Egypt.

As NPR's Emily Harris reported earlier today, Gaza has been hit by water and power shortages.

From the statement from Ban and Kerry:

"This ceasefire is critical to giving innocent civilians a much-needed reprieve from violence. During this period, civilians in Gaza will receive urgently needed humanitarian relief, and the opportunity to carry out vital functions, including burying the dead, taking care of the injured, and restocking food supplies. Overdue repairs on essential water and energy infrastructure could also continue during this period."

News of the truce comes after the U.S. revealed it had allowed Israel "to dip into a little-known U.S. munitions stockpile" for ammunition, using some of the emergency ammunition to conduct its offensive in Gaza.

In the 24 days of fighting, more than 1,360 people have died in Gaza, Palestinian officials say. Officials say 59 Israelis have died in the conflict.

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