Smoke gets in your eyes

And lungs, and on your rugs, and on your walls….

My mother accused me of making things up when I told her she wouldn’t have to paint every year if she just stopped smoking. When she finally did stop, she said, “You know, I’ve noticed I don’t have to paint the walls now unless I want a new color!”

Yes, Mom.

Loophole lets health insurers jack up rates

With so many people still out of work or just scraping by, this isn’t good news — especially since there’s so little chance the Republican House will do anything to close this loophole:

Health insurance companies across the country are seeking and winning double-digit increases in premiums for some customers, even though one of the biggest objectives of the Obama administration’s health care law was to stem the rapid rise in insurance costs for consumers.

Particularly vulnerable to the high rates are small businesses and people who do not have employer-provided insurance and must buy it on their own.

In California, Aetna is proposing rate increases of as much as 22 percent, Anthem Blue Cross 26 percent and Blue Shield of California 20 percent for some of those policy holders, according to the insurers’ filings with the state for 2013. These rate requests are all the more striking after a 39 percent rise sought by Anthem Blue Cross in 2010 helped give impetus to the law, known as the Affordable Care Act, which was passed the same year and will not be fully in effect until 2014.

In other states, like Florida and Ohio, insurers have been able to raise rates by at least 20 percent for some policy holders. The rate increases can amount to several hundred dollars a month.

The proposed increases compare with about 4 percent for families with employer-based policies.

Under the health care law, regulators are now required to review any request for a rate increase of 10 percent or more; the requests are posted on a federal Web site,, along with regulators’ evaluations.

The review process not only reveals the sharp disparity in the rates themselves, it also demonstrates the striking difference between places like New York, one of the 37 states where legislatures have given regulators some authority to deny or roll back rates deemed excessive, and California, which is among the states that do not have that ability.

New York, for example, recently used its sweeping powers to hold rate increases for 2013 in the individual and small group markets to under 10 percent. California can review rate requests for technical errors but cannot deny rate increases.

Critics, like Dave Jones, the California insurance commissioner and one of two health plan regulators in that state, said that without a federal provision giving all regulators the ability to deny excessive rate increases, some insurance companies can raise rates as much as they did before the law was enacted.

“This is business as usual,” Mr. Jones said. “It’s a huge loophole in the Affordable Care Act,” he said.

Education in Finland

This is a very informative (and very long) article on Finland’s world-class education system, and you really should read the entire thing to effectively contrast it with the for-profit train wreck to which our public schools are being transformed. But I especially wanted to point out this one piece:

It was the end of term at Kirkkojarvi Comprehensive School in Espoo, a sprawling suburb west of Helsinki, when Kari Louhivuori, a veteran teacher and the school’s principal, decided to try something extreme—by Finnish standards. One of his sixth-grade students, a Kosovo-Albanian boy, had drifted far off the learning grid, resisting his teacher’s best efforts. The school’s team of special educators -including a social worker, a nurse and a psychologist— convinced Louhivuori that laziness was not to blame. So he decided to hold the boy back a year, a measure so rare in Finland it’s practically obsolete.

Finland has vastly improved in reading, math and science literacy over the past decade in large part because its teachers are trusted to do whatever it takes to turn young lives around. This 13-year-old, Besart Kabashi, received something akin to royal tutoring.

“I took Besart on that year as my private student,” Louhivuori told me in his office, which boasted a Beatles “Yellow Submarine” poster on the wall and an electric guitar in the closet. When Besart was not studying science, geography and math, he was parked next to Louhivuori’s desk at the front of his class of 9- and 10-year- olds, cracking open books from a tall stack, slowly reading one, then another, then devouring them by the dozens. By the end of the year, the son of Kosovo war refugees had conquered his adopted country’s vowel-rich language and arrived at the realization that he could, in fact, learn.

Years later, a 20-year-old Besart showed up at Kirkkojarvi’s Christmas party with a bottle of Cognac and a big grin. “You helped me,” he told his former teacher. Besart had opened his own car repair firm and a cleaning company. “No big fuss,” Louhivuori told me. “This is what we do every day, prepare kids for life.”

This tale of a single rescued child hints at some of the reasons for the tiny Nordic nation’s staggering record of education success, a phenomenon that has inspired, baffled and even irked many of America’s parents and educators. Finnish schooling became an unlikely hot topic after the 2010 documentary film Waiting for “Superman” contrasted it with America’s troubled public schools.

“Whatever it takes” is an attitude that drives not just Kirkkojarvi’s 30 teachers, but most of Finland’s 62,000 educators in 3,500 schools from Lapland to Turku—professionals selected from the top 10 percent of the nation’s graduates to earn a required master’s degree in education. Many schools are small enough so that teachers know every student. If one method fails, teachers consult with colleagues to try something else. They seem to relish the challenges. Nearly 30 percent of Finland’s children receive some kind of special help during their first nine years of school. The school where Louhivuori teaches served 240 first through ninth graders last year; and in contrast with Finland’s reputation for ethnic homogeneity, more than half of its 150 elementary-level students are immigrants—from Somalia, Iraq, Russia, Bangladesh, Estonia and Ethiopia, among other nations. “Children from wealthy families with lots of education can be taught by stupid teachers,” Louhivuori said, smiling. “We try to catch the weak students. It’s deep in our thinking.”

Whenever you point to another country’s track record where they’re outperforming the U.S., the response is always, “They don’t deal with the urban minorities that we do.” It’s just not true — and it’s also not an acceptable excuse. If we’re going to blame our poor performance on poverty, perhaps it’s time to stop starving the government programs that have helped eradicate poverty in the past.

How plastics compound causes infertility

This has been known for a while, but no one will begin to address it on a large scale:

Israeli and American scientists have for the first time uncovered the mechanism by which the chemical compound Bisphenol A, commonly used in the plastics industry, damages human eggs and can harm female fertility.

Studies in recent years have shown a decline in human fertility in both males and females. The new research, which was carried out at Harvard University, and headed by Dr. Ronit Machtinger, a gynecologist at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, tried to examine whether human eggs could be damaged by increased exposure to Bisphenol A. The research premise was based on information from previous research on animals that the substances harms various tissues.

Awareness has grown in recent years of the presence of Bisphenol A, especially in the baby bottle industry, in light of concerns that small concentrations of the material could affect babies’ brains and hormonal systems. In December 2010, the Health Ministry instructed hospitals to stop using baby bottles containing Bisphenol A, and in July 2012, the Federal Drug Administration banned further marketing of baby bottles containing the compound in the United States.

However, Bisphenol A is found in many other products, including food storage boxes ‏(marked with the number 7‏), preservative cans, cold drink cans, CD cases, white dental fillings, plastic eyeglass frames and receipts from cash registers. Urine tests in both the United States and Israel show the presence of the material in 90 percent of those checked; concentrations can also be found in blood, breast milk, amniotic fluid and in the fluid that surrounds the eggs in the fallopian tubes.

The present research collected 242 eggs that had been harvested from 121 women undergoing in-vitro fertilization, who had approved use of the eggs for research purposes. Two eggs from each woman were used, one of which was exposed under laboratory conditions to a maturation culture into which varying amounts of Bisphenol A were inserted. The second egg was used as a control, placed in the same culture but without the Bisphenol A. The results showed that after 30 hours of exposure to Bisphenol A, a greater number of eggs did not mature or began to degenerate. Examination of the chromosomes in the egg showed damage that made proper maturation impossible.

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