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Obama picks top prosecutor to head SEC

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama sent his strongest signal yet Thursday that he wants the government to get tougher with Wall Street, appointing a former prosecutor to head the Securities and Exchange Commission for the first time in the agency’s 79-year history.

Mary Jo White, former U.S. attorney in Manhattan, has an extensive record of prosecuting white-collar crime, won convictions in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1998 terrorist attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa, and put crime boss John Gotti away.

If confirmed, she will have the job of enforcing complicated regulations written in response to the worst financial crisis since the Depression.

“You don’t want to mess with Mary Jo,” the president said at the White House with White at his side. “As one former SEC chairman said, Mary Jo does not intimidate easily, and that’s important because she’s got a big job ahead of her.”

White would take over at the SEC from Elisse Walter, who has been interim chairwoman since Mary Schapiro resigned in December.

Smoking penalty: Coverage could become unaffordable for many people

WASHINGTON — Millions of smokers could be priced out of health insurance because of tobacco penalties in President Barack Obama’s health care law, according to experts who are just now teasing out the potential impact of a little-noted provision in the massive legislation.

The Affordable Care Act — “Obamacare” to its detractors — allows health insurers to charge smokers buying individual policies up to 50 percent higher premiums starting next Jan. 1.

For a 55-year-old smoker, the penalty could reach nearly $4,250 a year. A 60-year-old could wind up paying nearly $5,100 on top of premiums.

Younger smokers could be charged lower penalties under rules proposed last fall by the Obama administration. But older smokers could face a heavy hit on their household budgets at a time in life when smoking-related illnesses tend to emerge.

Workers covered on the job would be able to avoid tobacco penalties by joining smoking cessation programs, because employer plans operate under different rules. But experts say that option is not guaranteed to smokers trying to purchase coverage individually.

Honduran gov’t in chaos, can’t pay its bills

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Street surveillance cameras in one of the world’s most dangerous cities were turned off last week because Honduras’ government hasn’t paid millions of dollars it owes. The operator that runs them is now threatening to suspend police radio service as well.

Teachers have been demonstrating almost every day because they haven’t been paid in six months, while doctors complain about the shortage of essential medicines, gauze, needles and latex gloves.

This Central American country has been on the brink of bankruptcy for months, as lawmakers put off passing a budget necessary to pay for basic government services. Honduras is also grappling with $5 billion in foreign debt, a figure equivalent to last year’s entire government budget.

“There are definitely patients who haven’t been able to get better because of this problem,” said Dr. Lilian Discua, a pediatrician. “An epileptic who doesn’t take his medicine will have a crisis. This is happening.”

The financial problems add to a general sense that Honduras is a country in meltdown, as homicides soar, drug trafficking overruns cities and coasts and the nation’s highest court has been embattled in a constitutional fight with the Congress.

By wire sources