National briefs: $100 billion paid in error, Feds say

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WASHINGTON — By its own estimate, the government made about $100 billion in payments last year to people who may not have been entitled to receive them — tax credits to families that didn’t qualify, unemployment benefits to people who had jobs and medical payments for treatments that might not have been necessary.

Congressional investigators say the figure could be even higher.

The Obama administration has reduced the amount of improper payments since they peaked in 2010. Still, estimates from federal agencies show that some are wasting big money at a time when Congress is squeezing agency budgets and looking to save more.

Birth control action

WASHINGTON — Taking up advice from Chief Justice John Roberts, congressional Democrats Wednesday introduced legislation to get around the Supreme Court’s decision last month to exempt private corporations from having to provide coverage for birth control pills and devices that violate the companies’ religious beliefs.

The companion bills — the Senate version co-authored by Patty Murray of Washington and Mark Udall of Colorado — are perhaps the sharpest pushback against judicial authority since the 2010 Citizen United ruling that paved the way for unlimited independent campaign spending by corporations and unions.

The Murray-Udall bill would address the court’s June 30 opinion that Hobby Lobby Stores and other closely-held for-profit companies can opt out of providing contraceptive coverage. Birth control coverage without copays is among mandatory preventive services that employers must provide under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Gay marriage appeal

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's attorney general will appeal directly to the Supreme Court over last month's ruling by a federal appeals court that backed gay marriage in the conservative, heavily Mormon state, his office said on Wednesday.

An appeal by Utah was widely expected after the June 25 decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver that the state could not prohibit same-sex couples from marrying. That ruling was put on hold pending Utah's appeal.

Legal pot criticized

WASHINGTON — A day after Washington state joined Colorado in selling marijuana in retail outlets, the Obama administration on Wednesday criticized drug legalization and warned that a declining perception of risk is leading more U.S. teens to smoke pot.

In a report to Congress, the White House drug czar’s office said it wants to spend $25 billion next year as part of a broad drug-fighting plan, including more on treatment for people addicted to heroin and prescription painkillers. It described the abuse of opioids as a national epidemic.

HUD pick confirmed

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Wednesday confirmed Julian Castro to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, placing the San Antonio mayor at the top of the agency in charge of housing during a sluggish recovery in the sector.

Mr. Castro, a Democrat who was nominated by President Barack Obama, was confirmed on a roll call vote of 71 to 26 in the Democratic-led Senate. The 26 senators opposed to his nomination were Republicans.

Pneumonic plague case

DENVER — A Colorado man diagnosed with pneumonic plague, a rare form of the disease that is also the most life-threatening, is the state's first confirmed human case of the illness in a decade, officials said Wednesday.

The man was found to have the disease after the family dog died, and a necropsy concluded the animal was afflicted with pneumonic plague, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said.


— Compiled from news services.


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