New emails show Trump’s unqualified Mar-a-Lago buddies are influencing VA policies

A new batch of emails obtained by Pro Publica show that three members of President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort are influencing contract and budget decisions at the Department of Veterans Affairs — despite being completely unqualified to do so.

The emails show that the three Mar-a-Lago members — Marvel Entertainment chairman Ike Perlmutter, West Palm Beach physician Bruce Moskowitz and lawyer Marc Sherman — were involved in “some of the agency’s most consequential matters, most notably a multibillion-dollar effort to overhaul electronic health records for millions of veterans,” Pro Publica writes.

According to Pro Publica, the trio reviewed a draft of a $10 billion contract to overhaul the VA’s electronic medical records system, and they were listed among 40 different outside “experts” consulted for the contract despite lacking “any relevant expertise.”

Additionally, the emails show that Moskowitz used his position as an adviser to get the VA to adopt his mobile medical app, even though IT officials at the VA said that the app had serious functionality problems. In fact, one email shows that a VA IT official believed that “some of the code needs to be refactored and even rebuilt” for the app to work properly.

Moskowitz even recruited his son, Aaron Moskowitz, to pitch the benefits of the app during a conference between the VA and Apple CEO Tim Cook. Apple experts similarly pushed back on Moskowitz’s mobile app and said that “the national databases needed to make the app accurate didn’t exist,” Pro Publica writes.

[Raw Story]

OSHA to reduce Obama-era injury report requirements for large companies

The Trump administration has proposed rolling back an Obama-era Labor Department rule requiring companies with 250 or more workers to submit detailed forms to the agency on workplace injuries, a move labor advocates say will allow companies to cover up the extent of injuries.

The department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a notice on Friday stating that it is seeking to roll back the rule passed under the Obama administration that greatly increased the amount of detail supervisors are supposed to provide to the federal government on workplace injuries.

Some of that information was then posted publicly by the Labor Department under the rule, and included summaries of incidents that occurred in larger-scale companies.

A spokesperson for the Labor Department told NBC News that the rule change would not alter the agency’s ability to collect information from companies on workplace injuries and safety violations.

“This proposal maintains safety and health protections for workers while protecting sensitive worker information from public disclosure,” communications director Megan Sweeney told NBC. “The data OSHA continues to collect is robust and enables the agency to most effectively protect workers on the job.”

The Labor Department argued that the original rule violated workers’ privacy by exposing incidents that they were involved in to Freedom of Information Act requests.

Public safety advocates argued that the rule’s rollback would only hurt workers.

“The existing rule is in place to protect workers,” said Sean Sherman, an attorney at the Public Citizen Litigation Group which is involved in a lawsuit over the rule. “The idea that you can protect workers by rolling back a strong worker protection is absurd.”

http://thehill.com/regulation/labor/399323-osha-reduces-obama-era-injury-report-requirements-for-large-companies

Trump’s EPA rolls back Obama-era coal ash regulations

The Trump administration announced Wednesday that it is relaxing rules for the disposal of spent coal used to fuel hundreds of power plants nationwide.

But environmental groups say the rollback of coal ash storage regulations established by the Obama administration in 2015 could affect drinking water near dozens of sites.

Dalal Aboulhosn, Sierra Club’s deputy legislative director for land and water, said legal action was being considered. “We are pouring through the rule change see what our next steps might be,” she said

The coal industry petitioned the Trump administration for the roll back, announced by Environmental Protection Agency Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler — a former lobbyist for the coal industry.

It’s not like EPA has granted us free pass here,” said James Roewer, executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Advisory Group, an industry organization that had pushed for the changes. “It just gives us additional time to operate those facilities and better synch them up” with the upcoming wastewater guidelines.

The EPA states that the relaxed rules will save affected utility companies $28 to $31 million a year in regulatory costs.

These amendments provide states and utilities much-needed flexibility in the management of coal ash, while ensuring human health and the environment are protected,” Wheeler said in a statement. “Our actions mark a significant departure from the one-size-fits-all policies of the past and save tens of millions of dollars in regulatory costs.”

The EPA extended the time by 18 months that the industry can use unlined coal ash ponds and groundwater-adjacent sites for dumping. The Obama administration sought to phase out those sites by April 2019.

The unlined ponds are considered by environmentalists to be the worst offenders for polluting groundwater that sometimes is tapped for drinking.

“The Trump administration is turing a blind eye to damage done to our drinking water,” said Lisa Evans, senior counsel for environmental group Earthjustice. “This is aimed at saving industry money instead of protecting the public.”

[NBC News]

Trump attacks NYT over breastfeeding story

President Donald Trump on Monday attacked a New York Times story that reported how his administration attempted to weaken a World Health Assembly resolution to promote breastfeeding, saying women shouldn’t be denied access to formula.

The president’s tweet was spillover from a feud over a proposed breastfeeding resolution earlier this year at the WHA, the decision-making body of the World Health Organization. The U.S. opposed the resolution so strongly it threatened trade measures against the country that introduced it, according to the Times.

“The failing NY Times Fake News story today about breast feeding must be called out. The U.S. strongly supports breast feeding but we don’t believe women should be denied access to formula. Many women need this option because of malnutrition and poverty,” Trump said in a tweet.

According to the Times, the resolution was written to encourage breastfeeding and to limit “inaccurate or misleading” marketing for breast milk substitutes. The resolution, introduced by Ecuador, did not bar the use of formula.

When attempts to soften language in the resolution were unsuccessful, the U.S. stunned the global community by threatening retaliatory trade measures against Ecuador and the withdrawal of military aid, according to the Times report.

Ecuador backed off, as did a number of countries that said they feared the same retaliation. The resolution was later introduced by Russia. At that point, the U.S. did not fight back, the Times noted.

The lead agency involved in the resolution negotiations, the Department of Health and Human Services, denies the U.S. made any trade sanction-related threats. HHS spokesperson Caitlin Oakley touted the country’s “long history” of support for breastfeeding in a statement Monday afternoon.

“Recent reporting attempts to portray the U.S. position at the recent World Health Assembly as ‘anti-breastfeeding’ are patently false,” Oakley said. “The United States was fighting to protect women’s abilities to make the best choices for the nutrition of their babies. Many women are not able to breastfeed for a variety of reasons, these women should not be stigmatized; they should be equally supported with information and access to alternatives for the health of themselves and their babies.”

The Times defended its reporting in a tweet to the president, and provided a link to the story in question.

“Our report is accurate. You can read it here,” the Times said.

[Politico]

U.S. Opposition to Breast-Feeding Resolution Stuns World Health Officials

A resolution to encourage breast-feeding was expected to be approved quickly and easily by the hundreds of government delegates who gathered this spring in Geneva for the United Nations-affiliated World Health Assembly.

Based on decades of research, the resolution says that mother’s milk is healthiest for children and countries should strive to limit the inaccurate or misleading marketing of breast milk substitutes.

Then the United States delegation, embracing the interests of infant formula manufacturers, upended the deliberations.

American officials sought to water down the resolution by removing language that called on governments to “protect, promote and support breast-feeding” and another passage that called on policymakers to restrict the promotion of food products that many experts say can have deleterious effects on young children.

When that failed, they turned to threats, according to diplomats and government officials who took part in the discussions. Ecuador, which had planned to introduce the measure, was the first to find itself in the cross hairs.

The Americans were blunt: If Ecuador refused to drop the resolution, Washington would unleash punishing trade measures and withdraw crucial military aid. The Ecuadorean government quickly acquiesced.

The showdown over the issue was recounted by more than a dozen participants from several countries, many of whom requested anonymity because they feared retaliation from the United States.

Health advocates scrambled to find another sponsor for the resolution, but at least a dozen countries, most of them poor nations in Africa and Latin America, backed off, citing fears of retaliation, according to officials from Uruguay, Mexico and the United States.

“We were astonished, appalled and also saddened,” said Patti Rundall, the policy director of the British advocacy group Baby Milk Action, who has attended meetings of the assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organization, since the late 1980s.

“What happened was tantamount to blackmail, with the U.S. holding the world hostage and trying to overturn nearly 40 years of consensus on best way to protect infant and young child health,” she said.

In the end, the Americans’ efforts were mostly unsuccessful. It was the Russians who ultimately stepped in to introduce the measure — and the Americans did not threaten them.

The State Department declined to respond to questions, saying it could not discuss private diplomatic conversations. The Department of Health and Human Services, the lead agency in the effort to modify the resolution, explained the decision to contest the resolution’s wording but said H.H.S. was not involved in threatening Ecuador.

“The resolution as originally drafted placed unnecessary hurdles for mothers seeking to provide nutrition to their children,” an H.H.S. spokesman said in an email. “We recognize not all women are able to breast-feed for a variety of reasons. These women should have the choice and access to alternatives for the health of their babies, and not be stigmatized for the ways in which they are able to do so.” The spokesman asked to remain anonymous in order to speak more freely.

Although lobbyists from the baby food industry attended the meetings in Geneva, health advocates said they saw no direct evidence that they played a role in Washington’s strong-arm tactics. The $70 billion industry, which is dominated by a handful of American and European companies, has seen sales flatten in wealthy countries in recent years, as more women embrace breast-feeding. Overall, global sales are expected to rise by 4 percent in 2018, according to Euromonitor, with most of that growth occurring in developing nations.

The intensity of the administration’s opposition to the breast-feeding resolution stunned public health officials and foreign diplomats, who described it as a marked contrast to the Obama administration, which largely supported W.H.O.’s longstanding policy of encouraging breast-feeding.

During the deliberations, some American delegates even suggested the United States might cut its contribution the W.H.O., several negotiators said.

Washington is the single largest contributor to the health organization, providing $845 million, or roughly 15 percent of its budget, last year.

The confrontation was the latest example of the Trump administration siding with corporate interests on numerous public health and environmental issues.

In talks to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Americans have been pushing for language that would limit the ability of Canada, Mexico and the United States to put warning labels on junk food and sugary beverages, according to a draft of the proposal reviewed by The New York Times.

During the same Geneva meeting where the breast-feeding resolution was debated, the United States succeeded in removing statements supporting soda taxes from a document that advises countries grappling with soaring rates of obesity.

The Americans also sought, unsuccessfully, to thwart a W.H.O. effort aimed at helping poor countries obtain access to lifesaving medicines. Washington, supporting the pharmaceutical industry, has long resisted calls to modify patent laws as a way of increasing drug availability in the developing world, but health advocates say the Trump administration has ratcheted up its opposition to such efforts.

[The New York Times]

Utah oil drillers won pollution break from Pruitt

Utah oil and gas producers tried for years to get the EPA to exempt them from smog rules meant to prevent ailments like asthma.

They finally got their relief after Scott Pruitt took charge of the agency, newly released emails show.

To groups opposed to President Donald Trump’s policies, the records are yet another sign that Pruitt has transformed an agency created to protect the environment into a tool for granting favors to industry. They say that’s troubling even if it falls short of the overt collusion his critics have accused him of amid revelations about his ties to lobbyists who helped him arrange housing and travel.

“The public is being shut out of the decisions that affect the air we all breathe while polluters have Pruitt at their beck and call whenever they ask to throw out a life-saving protection,” said Matt Gravatt, the associate legislative director at the Sierra Club, which obtained the emails in a lawsuit over a public records request.

EPA’s aid for the oil and gas companies in Utah came after an industry lobbyist, Marc Himmelstein, a former American Petroleum Institute executive with longstandingconnectionsto top GOP fundraisers, enlisted help from another like-minded Republican, House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who has pushed legislation to promote oil and gas development and ease permitting requirements.

Himmelstein coordinated a July 2017 phone call between the Utah lawmakers and Pruitt, offering specific talking points for Bishop to use, according to the records obtained in a lawsuit by the Sierra Club.

EPA was set to declare that the tribal land in the Uinta Basin in Utah was not meeting standards for smog, or ozone pollution. Once that happened, oil and gas producers wouldn’t be able to use a streamlined permitting process and would instead have to seek approval for each of the thousands of wells they aim to drill there.

“We ask the Agency to develop a streamlined permitting solution for future development of the Basin,” Himmelstein’s talking points for Bishop said.

In April, EPA proposed just that.

[Politico]

Trump rescinds Obama policy protecting oceans

President Trump is repealing a controversial executive order drafted by former President Obama that was meant to protect the Great Lakes and the oceans bordering the United States.

In his own executive order signed late Tuesday, Trump put a new emphasis on industries that use the oceans, particularly oil and natural gas drilling, while also mentioning environmental stewardship.

“Ocean industries employ millions of Americans and support a strong national economy,” the new order states, mentioning energy production, the military, freight transportation and other industries.

“This order maintains and enhances these and other benefits to the Nation through improved public access to marine data and information, efficient interagency coordination on ocean-related matters, and engagement with marine industries, the science and technology community, and other ocean stakeholders,” it states.

The order encourages more drilling and other industrial uses of the oceans and Great Lakes.

The order stands in contrast to Obama’s policy, which focused heavily on conservation and climate change. His policy was written in 2010, shortly after the deadly BP Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling explosion and 87-day oil spill.

“America’s stewardship of the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes is intrinsically linked to environmental sustainability, human health and well-being, national prosperity, adaptation to climate and other environmental changes, social justice, international diplomacy, and national and homeland security,” Obama’s order stated.

[The Hill]

Why Dr. Oz’s astrology tweet was so disappointing

We’re used to Dr. Oz broadcasting outrageous, pseudoscientific ideas on his hugely popular daytime TV show, The Dr. Oz Show. The cardiac surgeon has for years devoted large amounts of airtime to peddling all sorts of suspect detoxes, diets, and other health misinformation. (He does sometimes offer good health information too.)

Now, because 2018 is weird, Oz is a member of the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition — an advisory board devoted to promoting healthy lifestyles across the nation. One might wonder if he’d clean up his act. But it’s not happening.

On Wednesday, he (or someone running the Twitter account in his name) tweeted out this doozy to 4.3 million followers. (It has since been deleted.)

First off, astrology isn’t real. Repeat after me: “Astrology isn’t real.” Sing it aloud: “Astrology isn’t real!”

It’s a pseudoscientific parlor game that tends to make a big deal out of insignificant coincidences. For example, Mercury in retrograde. Every few months, from our vantage point here on Earth, it looks like the planet Mercury is drawing loop-de-loops in the sky. It’s an illusion that this occurs because the Earth and Mercury are orbiting around the sun at different rates. But yet astrologers take it to mean there’s an increased chance of miscommunication, among other maladies.

Also, do you really believe that everyone born in the same month could possibly share the same cosmic destiny? What hooey!

Oz’s tweet has since been deleted. But the webpage it linked to is still up (as is another recent tweet about astrology and health). On Oz’s website, you can still find a slideshow of content explaining things like “when an Aries feels blocked, this pent-up energy may appear in the form of migraines, sinus issues, or even jaw tension.”

This is drawn from a 2017 episode of The Dr. Oz Show in which he invites astrologer Rebecca Gordon to explain the connection between horoscope and health. Gordon has been featured on the show several times. And it seems Gordon is returning to the show this week to discuss the same topic.

In 2017, Oz asked her to explain the link between horoscope and health, and she brought up Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, saying the “human body is actually shaped like a 5-pointed star.” (Does she mean that because our bodies have some star-like qualities, we’re influenced by stars? Who knows!)

The tweet is silly, and so is the astrology segment on the Dr. Oz show. And largely, yes, astrology is harmless.

It’s just always disappointing to see someone with such a big audience peddle such bunk — especially because a showman like Oz is exactly the type of person who could influence a showman like President Donald Trump.

Oz often touts alternative medicines and beliefs as ways to empower his viewers and give them hope.

In 2014, he testified before a Senate subcommittee about his role promoting “green coffee extract,” which he claimed aided in weight loss. “My job, I feel on the show, is to be a cheerleader for the audience,” he said. “And when they don’t think they have hope, when they don’t think they can make it happen, I want to look … for any evidence that might be supportive to them.”

Hope can be helpful. But it’s often a lie.

[Vox]

New Trump Administration Rule Will Force Doctors to Stop Saying “Abortion”

The Trump administration is planning to instate a rule that will bar recipients of federal family planning funding from educating women about abortion options, making referrals to doctors that provide abortions, or providing abortion care. Conservatives have cheered the move as a way for the federal government to partially “defund” Planned Parenthood without requiring an act of Congress.

Reproductive-rights advocates are calling the policy a “domestic gag rule”—a U.S.-based version of the global gag rule that prevents U.S. aid dollars from going to any international organization that so much as acknowledges the existence of abortion. Every Republican president has instated the global gag rule since Ronald Reagan first implemented it; every Democratic president has rolled it back.

The domestic gag rule started with Reagan, too, in 1988. It affects money affiliated with Title X, the federal family planning grant program launched under Richard Nixon that provides subsidized contraception, gynecological care, and screenings for cancer and sexually transmitted infections. In 2016, the program served more than 4 million patients, about two-thirds of whom were living at or below the poverty line. Planned Parenthood is a disproportionately important player in the Title X ecosystem: Its health centers make up just 13 percent of Title X family planning providers in the U.S., but they serve 41 percent of all Title X patients.

Title X money is already barred from funding abortion care; grant recipients that provide abortions keep the money separate in their accounting. But the domestic gag rule would additionally require Planned Parenthood clinics and other abortion providers to enforce a physical separation between its Title X–funded services and its abortion work, with separate staff dedicated to each. Doctors providing family planning care to Title X patients would not be able to discuss abortion at all.

When Reagan first instituted the rule, Planned Parenthood and other reproductive-rights organizations immediately sued the federal government, claiming the rule violated caregivers’ rights to free speech and women’s rights to a constitutionally protected medical procedure. “The regulations will…censor communications between doctors and other health professionals and their patients on matters of vital medical significance,” read a complaint Planned Parenthood filed against then–Health and Human Services Secretary Otis Bowen. “The failure to provide complete information about pregnancy management at the earliest possible point in the pregnancy, and the failure to make necessary or appropriate referrals as early as possible, will often result in delays in, or failure of, a patient to obtain proper care.”

A federal court granted a preliminary injunction, but the Supreme Court allowed the rule to go into effect in 1991. In a 5–4 vote in Rust v. Sullivan, the court held that the rule did not constitute censorship. “This is not a case of the government ‘suppressing a dangerous idea,’ but of a prohibition on a project grantee or its employees from engaging in activities outside of its scope,” the opinion read. “The regulations do not violate the First Amendment free speech rights…since the government may make a value judgment favoring childbirth over abortion, and implement that judgment by the allocation of public funds. In so doing, the government has not discriminated on the basis of viewpoint; it has merely chosen to fund one activity to the exclusion of another.” The opinion also noted that “the government has no constitutional duty to subsidize an activity merely because it is constitutionally protected.”

[Slate]

Bill Gates: I had to explain to Trump the difference between HIV, HPV

Bill Gates discloses in newly revealed footage that President Trump twice asked him to clarify the difference between HIV and Human Papilloma Virus (HPV).

MSNBC’s “All in With Chris Hayes” aired footage Thursday night of the Microsoft founder speaking at a Gates Foundation event, telling the crowd about two meetings he had with Trump, one at Trump Tower during the presidential transition and another at the White House last year.

“Both times he wanted to know if there was a difference between HPV and HIV,” Gates said. “So I was able to explain that those were rarely confused with each other.”

Gates also said that at both meetings Trump had asked him about the negative effects of vaccines.

“In both of those two meetings, he asked me if vaccines weren’t a bad thing, because he was considering a commission to look into the ill effects of vaccines,” Gates said.

“And I said, ‘no, that’s a dead end. That would be a bad thing, don’t do that.’”

Gates said last month that Trump was “super interested” in the idea of a universal flu vaccine.

He added that Trump had asked him to be a science adviser, but that he told the president that he didn’t believe the role would be a good use of his time.

[The Hill]

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