Archive for September, 2013

September 30, 2013

What Does New Health Law Mean for Me? (Americans only)

What Does New Health Law Mean for Me?

Everything you need to know about how the law affects you

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  • U.S. NEWS
  • September 29, 2013, 7:32 p.m. ET

Carlos Chavez fills out an information card during an Affordable Care Act outreach event.

The rollout of the Affordable Care Act—also known as “Obamacare”—is approaching, and starting in October people will be able to sign up for new insurance policies that begin Jan. 1, when the law’s major provisions are set to go into effect.

Here’s what you need to know about whether and how the law affects you.

Q. I have coverage through my job. What happens to me?

If you’re one of the 171 million Americans with coverage through your job or your spouse’s job, the big changes in health insurance this fall might not affect you much. You may have recently received a letter from your employer telling you about your existing insurance plan, and how much the company pays toward the cost of your premium. Most likely, the company also told you that you have the opportunity to visit new health insurance exchanges to look at plans you could buy on your own, but that you wouldn’t be eligible for a federal subsidy for one of them because you’re already covered.

Q. Will anything be different about that coverage?

Some changes to employer-sponsored coverage have already kicked in. You may have noticed that you’ve been allowed to keep children on your plan up to their 26th birthdays, and that you no longer have to pay out-of-pocket costs for some preventive-care services including contraception. Some union-sponsored plans are about to undergo bigger changes, and so are skimpy benefit plans popular in the retail, restaurant and agricultural sectors, sometimes called “minimeds.” And as companies become even more conscious about their health costs, and face a tax starting in 2018, they’re expected to scale back some of their offerings. Some are excluding coverage for spouses who have access to insurance through their own employers. Some are changing the way they offer coverage by giving workers a fixed sum of money and letting them choose their own plan from a private exchange—which is different from the health law’s exchange.

Q. I have Medicare. What about me?

If you’re one of the 49 million Americans in the Medicare federal insurance program for the elderly, with or without a supplemental insurance plan, you’ll continue to enroll in coverage the same way you always have. You do not need to go to the new insurance exchanges to sign up for anything. If you’re already in Medicaid, the federal-state insurance program for low-income people, you may find you have to enroll in a slightly different way this year. Your state will tell you more about that.

Q. Are my benefits changing?

The law doesn’t directly affect Medicare benefits, but here has been a lot of discussion—especially in last year’s presidential elections—about the law’s impact on the program. That includes hundreds of billions of dollars in spending cuts, largely from reducing payments to hospitals and doctors and increasing incentives for more efficient care. Supporters of the law say this will strengthen the Medicare program in the long term. Opponents say that seniors in Medicare will find it harder to access their benefits if health-care providers are squeezed.

Q. I buy insurance on my own. What do I do?

Your insurer may be pushing you to renew your existing policy early, saying you can lock in a similar premium to the one you pay now. On Oct. 1, you’ll have the option of seeing new insurance plans available through the insurance exchanges in most parts of the country. You could also buy a plan directly from a carrier selling off of the exchanges, which would still be subject to new regulations. If you’re single making less than $46,000 a year, a couple making less than $62,000 or a family with slightly higher income levels, you may be eligible for a subsidy toward the cost of coverage, although the value of your subsidy will vary. You will only be able to use the subsidy toward coverage bought through the new insurance exchanges.

Q. What will change about my insurance?

The law includes many changes to the way the individual insurance market is regulated: Starting next year, your premium won’t be based on your medical history. That means that if you were previously denied coverage for certain conditions, or charged a higher rate because you were considered to be a bad risk, you might be getting a lower premium. If you were being offered a low rate because you were considered to be perfectly healthy, you could find yourself paying more. If you had a relatively skimpy plan that excluded certain coverage or had extremely high deductibles, you could also see bigger changes to your plan, including richer benefits, which will affect its price tag.

Q. I don’t have coverage. Now what?

If you’re one of the 46 million uninsured Americans, you’re the focus of the biggest effort in U.S. history to expand coverage. You may be subject to a penalty starting at $95 next year and rising in subsequent years if you don’t have coverage starting Jan. 1. You can go to the new insurance exchange in your state to shop for a plan, and depending on your income, possibly qualify for a federal subsidy to help pay for it. If you work more than 30 hours a week for a big company, your employer may have to offer you coverage starting in 2015. If your income is below 138% of the federal poverty level, you may qualify for Medicaid, depending on your state.

Q. How do I find these exchanges? Can you tell me more about these subsidies? What will I have to pay?

Here is our list of exchanges for all 50 states. Some 14 states are running their own exchanges. The other 36 have turned over part or all of the task to the federal government, and you can also find details about them here. Rates will still vary based on your age, whether you smoke, and where you live, with some differences within the same state, so you’ll need to go to the exchanges to get a detailed list of prices on offer. But you can see some sample rates already from the administration, for many parts of the country.

Q. Do I get to keep my doctor?

There’s nothing in the health law that directly affects whether you still see the same doctor as before. If you have coverage through your employer, little is likely to change. The same goes for Medicare, although doctors do sometimes decide to change the kinds of insurance they take. If you are seeking to buy a new policy, either for the first time or because you’re switching insurers, you may find that not every plan offered in your area has the same network of providers. If your doctor is very important to you, try to find out more about plan networks before deciding. Some of the lowest-priced policies on the exchanges are likely to have smaller networks of providers to help keep costs low.

Q. What if my situation changes?

The biggest changes in the health law directly affect only a relatively small group of people who don’t already have access to coverage through an employer or a government program. But many people who have access to insurance through an employer fear what might happen to them if they lose their job. They may benefit from changes in the individual insurance market, where insurers will no longer be allowed to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions, but the cost will depend in part on what happens to that market as the health law takes effect.

Write to Louise Radnofsky at

September 27, 2013

Laos in space




Measuring local economies

Laos in space

IN A poor country, under a regime that pursues a programme of authoritarian capitalism and keeps unreliable statistics, no one is terribly surprised when the government reports that the economy is gleaming and things are generally looking up for the people. Sifting the truth from the propaganda was never rocket science. But in the past it did require a visa. To estimate how and how much people earn, and how this has changed over time, an observer needed access to eyes and ears on the ground.

Those days may be ending, or so a pile of new research suggests. Souknilanh Keola, Magnus Andersson and Olla Hall are a trio of scientists who specialise in monitoring economic activity from space. They have devised a way to estimate changes in economic activity that does not rely on sending out an army of impartial pea-counters. Instead they feed a variety of economic models with some basic facts about land use and then add fine-grained data about night-time emissions of light, gathered from satellite images.

The scientists are remarkably ambitious about the results:

We show that it is possible to estimate agricultural and non-agriculture growth of administrative units of virtually any shapes and sizes with radius more than 1km. The implication of this is large and broad because such small administrative units, particularly in developing countries, do not have official figures of growth. Our framework can therefore potentially be used to analyse economic impact of…public or private investment [or] disasters, in extremely fine scales.

One of their first subjects of investigation has been Laos. Rapid changes in land use—in the form of deforestation, mining and dams—would appear to make the country their ideal guinea pig.

They make use of two satellites that were already in orbit around the earth, circling the planet and picking up lots of useful information. The images they beam back to earth can be used to generate data about land cover, surface temperature, vegetation and evapotranspiration. And these satellites have been filing their reports with admirable regularity, covering the world’s entire surface every day or two since 2001. The resolution of their images can be as fine as 250 metres per pixel. Until not so long ago, access to the complete picture pool cost tens of millions of dollars. Now it is free.

Based on this data the scientists are able to make their estimates of economic activity in Laos at the district level. So far their technique appears to work extremely well at spotting the impact of foreign cash from space. The districts with the fastest-growing rate of non-agricultural activity in the period between 2003 and 2010 are: Vilaboury, the location of the country’s largest gold-and-copper mine (with an annual rate of 23%); Pakkading, home to Laos’s largest hydroelectric project (at 22%); Xayboury, the conduit for trade from Vietnam on the Thai-Laotian border (21%); and Ton Pheung, which a Chinese-backed casino plans to make into a “Macau on the Mekong” (it’s no Macau yet, but paddling away at rate of 20%). Their attention to agricultural economic activity has produced results that are no less intriguing. For example, the scientists estimate that four out the seven districts in the province of Oudomxay, which borders China’s Yunnan province, have among the fastest-growing rural economies in the country.

Indeed, something dramatic is going on there, and it merits closer inspection still. From the passenger window of a plane, 700km lower than the satellites’ orbit, the naked eye reveals the extent of poor Oudomxay’s deforestation.

(Coincidentally, the garish green clearings of the landscape below now match the seats of the plane. It’s an Airbus 320 that Muammar Qaddafi once ordered; the colour of the seats was made to match the colour of Mr Qaddafi’s Green Book, published in 1975, the year Laos’ civil war ended. The late colonel ran out of time to take delivery of the A320, which subsequently fell into the hands of Laos Airlines, the state-run carrier.)

Even farther down, at street level, anyone can observe that the jeeps roaming the deforested valley of Oudomxay bear licence plates from China and Vietnam. Chinese firms have secured concessions covering 30,000 hectares of Oudomxay. Tens of thousands of Chinese workers will one day work here, tapping the rubber trees that are to be planted at some stage. For now the endemic forest has been hauled away, biodiversity is dwindling and the soil’s nutrient levels are just beginning their long decline. Despite the fact that 85% of the agricultural investment in Laos is happening south of Vientiane, a 20-hour bus ride away, it is relatively easy to see signs of it here, by the border with Yunnan. To date most of the “investment” in Oudomxay has consisted of clearing timber and natural growth; the tricky bit about cultivating the land has yet to begin.

Laos still has more forest per square kilometre than any other country in Asia. Razing its forest to prime the land yields an immediate uptick in economic activity, and this seems to be just what the space-based analysis captures. But many of the villagers in this deforested valley look less than joyous. Poverty levels have been falling, but it is unclear to what extent foreign contract-farming has benefited the locals. Agriculture here tends to be subsistence-oriented, and many of the farmers still practise shifting cultivation.

Another scientist, who has spent about ten years living in Laos, says that in the past decade the government has granted land concessions to Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai investors that exceed the size of all the rice-growing areas in Laos. Concessions for agriculture, along with others for mining and the development of hydropower projects, have helped sustain annual GDP growth of 8%—a rate, he says, that the policymakers regard as “untouchable”. In defending that headline figure, he fears (though he does not yet have the data to validate it), they risk courting a new kind of poverty. Ultimately, this scientist fears, their policies could change the country in a way that is not visible from space: by creating a population of landless poor, deprived of their livelihood and full of resentments.

(Picture credit: NASA / Earth at night)

Source: S. Keola, M. Andersson and O. Hall: “Monitoring development from space: Using night-time light and land cover data as proxies of economic growth”. Forthcoming

September 13, 2013

Laos Has Made Its Bed and Now Has to Lie in It

Laos Has Made Its Bed and Now Has to Lie in It

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by Viengsay Luangkhot

The kidnapping of 61 year-old Sombath Somphone, a prominent activist and the winner of the 2005 Magsaysay Award, has put the Lao government in an inextricable position.

A closed-circuit police video clip shows Sombath being stopped by traffic police in front of the Lao-German Technical College on Thadeua Road in Vientiane’s Sisattanak district at around 6:00 p.m. on Dec. 15, 2012, while he was driving home. The video clip shows Sombath come out of the car and walk to the police post.

A little while later, a man wearing a black windbreaker arrives in a motorcycle, runs into the post, and re-emerges soon after to drive away in Sombath’s car, apparently indicating that the man went into the post to get Sombath’s car keys. Not long after, a silver-bronze pickup truck stops in front of the police post with emergency lights on while two men escort Sombath onto the truck and leave.

Sombath has not been seen or heard from since.

Pictures on the video clip show clearly that Sombath was kidnapped from a police post with police officers in the post witnessing the act.

The police officers are suspected to have been involved in the kidnapping, though neither they nor the men who escorted Sombath to the pickup truck can be identified. Nor can the license plate of the truck be read, as the only video now available was taken by Sombath’s coworkers with their cell phone as they viewed the original video clip in the headquarters of the Vientiane traffic police on the morning of Dec. 17, 2012.

Police officers suspected

Sombath’s family and coworkers asked for the original video clip from the police in order to document his disappearance but their request was turned down, and they were denied access to the video data center.

Earlier, the U.S. Embassy in Laos and officials of the European Union had offered technical help to analyze the video, but Lao officials turned down the offers for reasons of “national security.”

If the police were not involved and want to show their good faith, why did they refuse to hand over the original video clip to Sombath’s family? And why did they turn down the offer of assistance, since this could not have had anything to do with national security?  Cooperation would instead have promoted the role of Lao authorities, as Laos is a signatory of the International Convention  for the Protection of Victims of Enforced Disappearance.

Why was he kidnapped?

Sombath may have been targeted because of the growth of Lao social organizations that are beginning to question projects that lack transparency—especially on issues related to land concessions, dams, the illegal timber trade, and the environment.

A number of these projects had been revealed online and by word of mouth, in particular involving the illegal export of timber in southern Laos to neighboring countries reported by the Environmental Investigation Agency, land concessions encroaching on private land, and the arrest of villagers because of land disputes.

The Asia-Europe People’s Forum held in Vientiane from Oct. 16-19, 2012, was attended by delegates from more than 40 European and Asian countries who wanted to share their experiences in their respective countries and to learn about the situation in Laos. Sombath was one of the driving forces of the Forum.

During the proceedings, it appeared that the Lao participants had been threatened by government officials and that statements in the Lao language issued during the Forum were not distributed.  Also, Lao participants who spoke or expressed their opinion during the Forum were photographed by Lao officials.

In  session dealing with land issues, a woman who expressed her views about how rubber plantations were impacting people’s livelihood was harassed and called a traitor. Police officers then followed her home to question her further. Officials also blocked the distribution of the “Happiness of Laos” DVD, which presented the viewpoints of Lao people from many walks of life.

In this video, Sombath says, “Schools teach us to be competitive, to be better than other people or to obtain better grades, to always be better. The happiness thus obtained is only temporary because the competition is open-ended.  Education and our notion of development lead us astray because we are always searching for superficial happiness.”

Also included in the video were interviews with people expressing their own views of happiness. The majority of the interviewees said they wanted spiritual happiness instead of materialistic happiness or development based on materialistic values.  Such opinions run against the country’s current social economic development plan and could have aroused the ire of some of the people in charge of development planning.

Prior to the People’s Forum, Sombath also wrote a paper titled “Hear the People,” his last writing posted on the Google group Laofab, in which he urged the government of Laos to listen to the people. This angered some national leaders even more. In a country ruled by a one-party system, the people must listen to their leaders, not the other way around, such leaders feel.

Sombath’s disappearance points to a new threat hanging over social organizations, which do not dare now to question large projects or to work with local communities.  Nowadays, the working atmosphere in these organizations is tinged with fear. Nobody dares mention Sombath or raise questions when talking to government or party officials.

A person close to Sombath said that if not for the video clip showing his kidnapping, other people working on development issues might have been kidnapped by now as well.

Lao government under pressure

The Lao government has now issued three separate statements denying any involvement in the kidnapping of Sombath, saying that his kidnapping was a result of a personal conflict or business conflict, which his family has vehemently denied.

But government statements carry no weight, because Lao authorities have not been able to provide clear answers to the world community, because of the evidence shown in the video clip, and because officials have refused to hand over the original video to the family. Also, Sombath is well known internationally as a social organization leader, and his wife Shui Meng, a Singapore national, has had the courage to fight for her husband’s rights.

In the latest development, a group led by Soren Bo Sondergaard, a Danish European MP, was in Laos on Aug. 25-27 to check on the progress of the investigation into Sombath’s disappearance. In spite of the work already done by two earlier delegations of European and ASEAN parliamentarians, the response they received was vague.

Another mission of European parliamentarians is scheduled to pay an official visit to Laos in October 2013 to ask about the status of the search for Sombath, among other issues.

Laos’ image in the world

Laos would have a good international image if not for the kidnapping of Sombath, even though one week prior to his disappearance, the Lao government expelled Anna-Sophie Gindroz, the director of a Swiss NGO in Laos called Helvetas, charging her with violating Lao laws.

International media are now reporting extensively on the Sombath kidnapping and are painting a very negative image of Laos. On Aug. 28, 2013, the British BBC reported “Laos accused of lying over Sombath Somphone abduction.” Other international media outlets are also reporting and commenting extensively on the issue.

Laos is now under heavy external pressure, and in turn has been cranking up its own pressure on domestic social organizations, worsening the conditions under which these groups work.

This is evidenced by the minutes of a Jan. 2013 government meeting which urged authorities to control “the actions of NGOs, social society organizations, charitable foundations, etc. … since enemy powers and groups of bad people from this day into the future are acting to sabotage and quickly change our country through peaceful means.”

This position does not augur well for the Lao government. Should another social organization worker be kidnapped in the future, Laos would be subjected to much heavier pressure and would be unable to deny responsibility, even if Lao officials were not involved. And all because, in the case of Sombath’s disappearance, the government of Laos does not know how to dig itself out of a hole.

Viengsay Luangkhot is RFA’s Lao Service Director.

September 13, 2013

Lao Villagers Displaced by Dam Await Farmland Six Months After Relocation

Lao Villagers Displaced by Dam Await Farmland Six Months After Relocation

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Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Viengsay Luangkhot. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


Villagers in Sekong province’s Kaleum district, relocated for a controversial dam, say they have yet to receive farmland compensation from authorities. RFA

More than 100 families of villagers displaced by a proposed dam in Laos have yet to receive the farmland they were promised as compensation by authorities, according to the villagers who say they now lack enough food to meet basic daily needs after government aid has run out.

The 129 families relocated to two new villages in Sekong province’s Kaleum district due to preparation for the Sekong 4 dam said that a six-month government assistance program providing them foodstuffs, mostly rice, ended on Aug. 31.

“Life for the residents of Had Vee and Tra villages is difficult in regard to food because there is not enough,” one of the villagers told RFA’s Lao Service said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“They have appealed for help from the province and district—especially for rice.”

The villager said that the relocated families had been forced to clear a small amount of local land for farming while awaiting plots promised by the government as part of compensation for leaving their villages in February, but added that it was “far from adequate” for planting crops to meet daily needs.

The 129 families are among nearly 4,500 residents displaced from 18 villages in Kaleum district by the Sekong 4 and had been relocated with the promise of farming plots and six months of government food assistance.

Another villager told RFA that the families never received any of the land they were promised and that even when they were provided with food through the government assistance program, it was inconsistent at best.

The villager said that residents were given rice depending on the size of the family receiving it, but that amounts varied in how often they were provided.

Government officials told RFA that they were aware of the current food problems the villagers were facing and are “trying to find solutions,” with priority given to finding the villagers farmland.

Controversial dam

The Sekong 4, with a capacity of 300 to 600 megawatts, is one of three hydropower dams on Mekong River tributaries to be built as part of an eight-year-old U.S. $1.5 billion deal with Russian investor Regional Oil.

Land for the dam has been cleared, though construction is yet to begin on the project.

The three dam projects, which also include the Sekong 5 and Nam Kong 1, are set to be completed by 2014 and will displace a total of more than 7,000 villagers from their homes in Sekong and Attapeu provinces.

The dams have a total combined capacity of 822 megawatts, and most of the power generated will be exported to Thailand with the rest reserved for local use.

Global green group International Rivers has said the effects of the two Sekong dams will be felt as far as the mainstream Mekong in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

It also predicts the Sekong 4, the largest of the three, will cause a sharp decline in fisheries that will significantly affect local livelihoods.

Resource-starved Laos is aiming to become the “battery” of Southeast Asia by selling hydroelectric power to its neighbors.

But it has come under fire for plowing ahead on the Xayaburi dam, the first dam across the main stem of the Mekong River, without first getting regional consensus from downstream neighbors concerned about the project’s transboundary impact.

Laos has a total of over 70 dams under construction or in the planning or consideration stages, many of them on waters flowing into the Mekong, a key regional artery.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Viengsay Luangkhot. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

September 10, 2013

Lao govt. to Christians in Laos: You Believe? Then Leave.

Lao govt. to Christians in Laos: You Believe? Then Leave.

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September 5, 2013 By

Every day, I read horror stories about the deaths of Christians in the Middle East.  And of course, I’m familiar with threats to religious liberty here in the United States, such as the HHS Mandate.

Lao church at which three pastors were arrested

Until today, though, I hadn’t heard much about the very real persecution of Christians in the southeastern Asian nation of Laos.  In many regions of that small country, religious persecution continues despite Constitutional protections.   Minority Protestants, in particular, have been denied the right to worship; more than half of practicing Christians have no official church building in which to pray, but instead hold small “house services” at which neighbors come together for worship and teaching.  Two Buddhist monks have been arrested in Bolikhamsai Province for having been ordained without government authorization.  Protestants arrested for active proselytizing have sometimes been subjected to “reeducation.”

Recently, eleven Christian families have been given a harsh ultimatum:  Renounce their Christian faith, or leave.

The eleven families, all of whom reside in the village of Nongdaeng in western Laos, converted to the Christian faith last spring, in April and May 2013.    At first three of the families began praying in their homes; eight other families in the neighborhood were gradually inspired to join them.

But on August 30, representatives from each of the 11 families were summoned by civil authorities in the Province of Burikhamai and were ordered to renounce their new faith and return to the animist religion common in that region.  The government officials, who represented the Department of Religious Affairs, called on the Christian families to “abandon the religion of Western foreign power, which is disruptive to the nation of Laos.”

But the families were not persuaded.  On Sunday, September 1, they gathered for a liturgical service in one of their homes—insisting that they had the right under the Constitution of Laos to practice their faith freely.

As the case moves forward, the Christians do have an advocate:  Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom, a United Nations NGO, has urged the Lao government to permit people of Nongdaeng to worship in the Christian faith.  The NGO has also recommended that the government impose sanctions on the officials who issued the “order of renunciation and eviction from the village”, which they have called “completely illegal.”

*     *     *     *

Remember the faithful people of Laos—and all those throughout the world who live under oppressive regimes—in your prayer.

About Author

Kathy Schiffer

is the wife of a deacon and mother of three grown children,

and currently works as Director of Publicity and Special Events for Ave Maria Communications.

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