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These Medicare changes may be included in the next coronavirus relief package

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Changes to Medicare that advocates have been seeking may end up in the next federal coronavirus relief legislation,  experts say.

The Republican-controlled Senate is expected to unveil its version of the next stimulus package in late July as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to slow economic recovery and unemployment remains high.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, indicated in public comments Monday that the theme of the next relief legislation would be “liability reform, kids in school, jobs and health care.”

Karen Ducey | Getty Images

While specifics of the legislation are uncertain, consumer advocates hope to see provisions that would improve access to Medicare, which provides health care coverage to about 62.4 million beneficiaries — the majority of whom are age 65 or older and more likely to suffer complications from the coronavirus. The program also covers younger individuals with disabilities and people with end-stage renal disease.

“I suspect there will be some Medicare provisions,” said Tricia Neuman, executive director of the Medicare policy program at the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit group focused on health care research and policy.

The Democrat-dominated House already passed its version of the next round of stimulus — called the Heroes Act — but the Senate is not expected to consider it. Nevertheless, lawmakers in the upper chamber could use parts of that bill for inclusion in whatever they propose.

“Even though the Heroes Act wasn’t bipartisan, some things in it may have a chance because they are logical and bipartisan asks,” said Lindsey Copeland, federal policy director for the Medicare Rights Center, an advocacy group.

Here are the Medicare provisions Copeland says could make it into the next stimulus package.

New enrollment window

Some people miss the deadline for enrolling in  basic Medicare — Part A hospital coverage and/or Part B outpatient coverage — even if they are 65, which otherwise would make them eligible.

Instead, unless they meet an exception qualifying them for a special enrollment period, they have to wait until Medicare’s annual general open enrollment, which is Jan. 1 to March 31, with coverage starting July 1. That delay could mean life-lasting late-enrollment penalties for not signing up when they should have, as well as a potential gap in health care coverage.

“We see this more often than you’d think,” said Danielle Roberts, co-founder of Boomer Benefits, a Medicare insurance agency.

It sort of adds insult to injury because you’re finally eligible for Medicare, but because you missed a deadline, you can’t enroll.

Tricia Neuman

Executive director of the Medicare policy program at the Kaiser Family Foundation

This category could include people who missed their initial enrollment period at age 65 without having acceptable health insurance (as deemed by the government) in place of Medicare but didn’t realize it. Or it could be a person who didn’t know they were eligible to enroll or were unable to sign up during the pandemic.

“It sort of adds insult to injury because you’re finally eligible for Medicare, but because you missed a deadline, you can’t enroll,” Neuman said.

Copeland said the hope is that the stimulus bill would establish a special enrollment period for people who find themselves in that position so they can access Medicare right away.

Late-enrollment penalties for Part B are 10% of the standard premium for each 12-month period you should have been enrolled. For Part D (prescription drug coverage), the late-enrollment penalty is 1% of the base premium for each full month you should have had that coverage.

Increased Medicaid funding 

Roughly 12.2 million individuals enrolled in Medicare in 2018 were also enrolled in Medicaid (which supports low-income beneficiaries), according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Now, with job losses continuing and household incomes under pressure, sign-ups in state-run Medicaid programs are likely to grow. States are hoping to get additional federal funding to prop up Medicaid in the face of declining state revenue and budget crunches.

“We expect to see increased enrollments in Medicaid, and we’d want to stave off any cuts to services,” Copeland said. “States are having a tough time with their budgets right now, and Medicaid takes up a big piece of them.”

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While expanding Medicaid is typically a Democrat-supported proposal, Copeland said that broad agreement at the state level could push the needle.

“”Support may be more bipartisan than it was in the past,” she said.

Federal legislation called the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and signed into law in March, boosted the federal contribution to Medicaid programs by by 6.2%. The Heroes Act included an additional bump to 14%.

Meanwhile, the National Governors Association has called on the federal government to renew its declaration of a national public health emergency, which is slated to end July 25. That expiration would end the 6.2% additional Medicaid funding now in effect. The group also has asked that the rate go to 12%.

COBRA coverage

When someone loses their job, they typically can keep their employer-sponsored health coverage for 18 months (or up to three years in certain situations) under a federal law known as COBRA. However, the ex-employee generally is responsible for the full premium, and loses out on any company subsidy.

At the same time, COBRA coverage is not considered acceptable insurance in place of Medicare for those who are Medicare-eligible. This can cause issues in terms of potential late fees if the person misses deadlines for signing up for Medicare after losing their job. And, for complicated reasons, it can lead to services not being covered and, instead, big out-of-pocket costs for the patient.

The Heroes Act called for the federal government to subsidize COBRA payments so ex-workers could afford the coverage. In the Great Recession, Congress authorized a 65% subsidy for people in that situation.

If the Senate does “move forward with subsidizing COBRA premiums, it could push people into that coverage when it might not be the best fit for them,” Copeland said. “We’d want beneficiaries to have the information they need to make an informed decision.”

She said her group wants to be sure that outreach and education would be part of any congressional mandate, so that Medicare beneficiaries avoid ending up in a bad situation.

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Source: https://www.cnbc.com/2020/07/11/these-medicare-changes-may-be-included-in-next-stimulus-bill.html

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Google Assistant’s driving mode for Android is nearly ready, one year later

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Google Assistant driving mode on Android
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Google promised an Assistant driving mode for phones would arrive in mid-2019, but that clearly didn’t happen — over a year passed without any sign of it. It appears to be ready, though. XDA-Developers has discovered (via Android Police) that Google Assistant’s driving mode is at least partially enabled for Android users. The interface has changed considerably from the I/O 2019 demo you see above, but the concept remains the same with large buttons and text that let you chat, message and play music while keeping your driving distractions to a minimum.

The rollout appears to be server-side, and might be part of a test. It’s not attached to any particular versions of Google’s Maps or search apps, and also works on a variety of devices. Your access might depend on your account.

We’ve asked Google for comment.

It’s rare for Google to have Android feature delays this long, and it’s not certain what prompted the extended wait. However, the redesign suggests that Google wasn’t completely satisfied with the Assistant driving mode it showed at I/O. Whatever the reasoning, this gives you one more way to handle common tasks during your trips.

All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

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Source: https://www.engadget.com/google-assistant-driving-mode-215249421.html

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Cloud leak exposed sensitive data from over 200,000 voicemails

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Close-up of two IT technician talking and looking at their digital tablets while examining servers.
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Some data leaks contain more sensitive info than most. Security researcher Bob Diachenko and Comparitech discovered (via Threatpost) that Broadvoice, a cloud VoIP provider for businesses, left over 350 million records exposed online in an unprotected cluster, including 2 million voicemail records with 200,000 transcripts. Many of those transcripts included sensitive data, and not just common elements like names and phone numbers — medical conditions, mortgages and insurance policies were all left open.

The largest general data collection, 275 million records, typically included full names, phone numbers, and cities.

The company told Comparitech that the data had been stored on September 28th and was locked down October 2nd, a day after Diachenko notified Broadvoice. There hasn’t been evidence of “misuse” so far, the company said. Marketing VP Rebecca Rosen told Threatpost that it believed “less than 10,000” businesses were impacted, although that doesn’t say how many of those companies’ customers were at risk.

The practical damage appears to have been limited as a result. Even so, this illustrates the dangers of insecure data. The wrong decision can expose vast amounts of info, and it can only take a subset of that data to create serious problems.

All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

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Source: https://www.engadget.com/broadvoice-voicemail-data-leak-211913573.html

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Meet the dairy firm hoping to power its delivery trucks using cow manure

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Like many large businesses, dairy company Arla Foods has grand plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and the firm aims to be carbon net zero by 2050.

Around 85% of Arla’s total emissions come from the co-operative of 10,000 farms it has across Europe, a combination of the methane and nitrous oxide from the cows themselves, as well as from the fuel needed for milking and other operations.

It is hoping one of the ways it will get there is by harnessing one of its most readily-available resources: the manure produced by the half a million cows on its U.K. farms alone.

It is in the middle of a three-month trial looking at the viability of turning manure into fuel for its delivery trucks, working with two farms to collect the raw material that would usually be used by farmers as a fertilizer.

The manure, combined with other materials such as food waste, are put into an anaerobic digester that acts like a cow’s stomach, to produce gas, which is then cleaned and liquified into fuel that Arla then uses to power two of its milk trucks. Currently, Arla is running the trial with two of its farms in Buckinghamshire, a county northwest of London, said Graham Wilkinson, the company’s agriculture director.

“We collect it off two farms as part of the trial … but we’ve got 2,500 (U.K. farms) to go in the longer term, so there’s definitely the opportunity to scale up. We’ve got plenty of cow manure,” Wilkinson told CNBC by phone.

The U.K. pilot follows a 2019 trial in Sweden, where Arla’s farms have the potential to produce biofuel that is equivalent to 54 million liters of diesel [source]. That trial showed that running a truck on biofuel is cheaper than using diesel, but the vehicles themselves are more expensive, Wilkinson said. “The ambition would be to go down this (biofuel) route and for it to be more financially viable than diesel. We need to think differently from diesel anyway,” he added.

“For every liter of diesel that … we replace with biofuels, we actually reduce our carbon emissions by (about) two kg … So you’re actually having a sort of double positive (effect) on our emissions,” Wilkinson added.

The anaerobic production process also produces a substance called digestate, which farmers can use as a natural fertilizer for crops. Usually, they’d spread slurry and manure directly on to crops, but that is very watery, Wilkinson explained. “(There’s) a tougher consistency within the digestate, which actually (has) more nutrients. So, ultimately, what (the farmers) get back is of a higher value,” he said. Eventually, Wilkinson would like to get to a point where farmers wouldn’t have to use nitrous oxide-rich manufactured fertilizer that currently contributes to carbon emissions.

As well as benefiting the environment and farmers, another long-term aim is to save money, in an industry where the price paid for milk fluctuates. Farmers called for shoppers to boycott U.K. supermarkets over dairy prices in 2015, while Sardinian producers poured sheep’s milk into the streets during a 2019 protest.

“Throughout our whole supply chain we are relentlessly looking at how we do things, and how we can simplify it … the potential with this (biofuel trial) … is it could be another example of where we could actually take cost out and benefit our farmers at the same time,” Wilkinson stated.

Transforming manure into biofuel is not brand new: a renewable natural gas facility that uses manure from 33,000 dairy cows opened in Oregon in December, while Ugandan firm Green Heat International is turning agricultural waste into energy to help power homes in the country.

Luke Sharrett | Bloomberg Getty Images

Big energy

Creating energy from food waste is something that oil company Phillips 66 hopes to be able to do on a huge scale. It is planning to spend around $800 million to turn its San Francisco refinery in Rodeo, California into a renewable fuel plant, which it claims would be the world’s largest.

Phillips 66 announced the plan in August and if it gets approved by authorities, the “Rodeo Renewed” project would produce 680 million gallons of biofuels a year and is likely to begin production in 2024. The raw materials include used soybean and cooking oil and other fats (known as renewable “feedstocks”) and would be delivered to the plant via its existing marine and rail terminals, said Joe Gannon, senior advisor for external communications at Phillips 66, in an email to CNBC.

“Due to the facility being the largest in the world, the feedstocks will be sourced both domestically and internationally and are currently under evaluation to ensure reliable supply and minimization of impact to the environment,” Gannon stated.

Infrastructure is also something Arla is keen to have more of, and Wilkinson wants government backing in building anaerobic digestion (AD) facilities. “We’re relatively confident that from a financial perspective it is a viable option, but if we haven’t got the AD (anaerobic digester) facilities to be able to utilize, then that’s where we need support,” he told CNBC.

Source: https://www.cnbc.com/2020/10/16/arla-dairy-firm-hoping-to-power-delivery-trucks-with-cow-manure.html

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