Insurers constantly caution seniors that their Medicare Advantage perks such as hearing aids, dental payments and even gym memberships will fizzle if Democrats get their way and cut government subsidies for them.
But tens of billions of Medicare dollars funneled through insurers also pay for extras that never reach beneficiaries: multimillion-dollar salaries, executive retreats in Hawaii, Scotland and Cancun, and massive expenditures on marketing to lure more customers to the privately administered Advantage plans that serve as an alternative to government-provided Medicare.
The government-subsidized benefits that seniors on Advantage plans receive — often at premiums lower than Medicare premiums — are real, and are legitimately in danger in some cases if Democrats succeed in their health care overhaul.
The U.S. government tightened airline security as it searches for answers to how a 23-year-old Nigerian man eluded extensive systems intended to prevent attacks like his botched Christmas Day effort to blow up a Northwest flight from overseas.
The suspect who claimed ties to al-Qaida was charged Saturday with trying to destroy a Detroit-bound airliner, just a month after his father warned U.S. officials of concerns about his son's religious beliefs.
U.S. government officials tell The Associated Press that the Nigerian man charged with trying to destroy a jetliner came to the attention of U.S. intelligence in November when his father went to the U.S. embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, to express his concerns about his son.
A congressional official said Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian, popped up in U.S. intelligence reports about four weeks ago as having a connection to both al-Qaida and Yemen.
Another government official said Abdulmutallab's father went to the embassy in Abuja with his concerns, but did not have any specific information that would put him on the "no-fly list" or on the list for additional security checks at the airport.
An attempted terrorist attack on a Christmas Day flight began with a pop and a puff of smoke — sending passengers scrambling to subdue a Nigerian man who claimed to be acting on orders from al-Qaida to blow up the airliner, officials and travelers said.
The commotion began as Northwest Airlines Flight 253, carrying 278 passengers and 11 crew members from Amsterdam, prepared to land in Detroit just before noon Friday. Travelers said they smelled smoke, saw a glow, and heard what sounded like firecrackers. At least one person climbed over others and jumped on the man, who officials say was trying to ignite an explosive device.
"It sounded like a firecracker in a pillowcase," said Peter Smith, a passenger from the Netherlands. "First there was a pop, and then (there) was smoke."
Health insurers get some big presents in the Senate's health overhaul bill — about 20 million new customers and no competition from a new government plan.
Taking advantage of those boons might take some time, though.
The bill imposes hefty new taxes and coverage rules that will pinch insurers by forcing them to cover more sick people without gaining enough healthy, lower-cost customers, industry insiders say. The industry is also worried the bill doesn't do enough to control health care costs.
It's a matter of figuring out how to make those new customers profitable, analysts say.
The inconsistency — or hypocrisy, as some call it — has irked Democrats, who claim that their plan will pay for itself with higher taxes and spending cuts and cite the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office for support.
By contrast, when Republicans controlled the House, Senate and White House in 2003, they overcame Democratic opposition to add a deficit-financed prescription drug benefit to Medicare. The program will cost a half-trillion dollars over 10 years, or more by some estimates.
With no new taxes or spending offsets accompanying the Medicare drug program, the cost has been added to the federal debt.
President Barack Obama's commitment to close the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by next month may be delayed until 2011 because it will take months for the government to buy an Illinois prison and upgrade it to hold suspected terrorists.
The drawn-out construction timetable shows the political risk of Obama's pledge, a delay that could even be extended by congressional opposition to funding the purchase and upgrades for the Thomson Correctional Center, an underused state facility about 150 miles west of Chicago.
The costs of health care reform being pushed through Congress by Democrats will be felt long before the benefits.
Proposed taxes and fees on upper-income earners, insurers, even tanning parlors, take effect quickly. So would Medicare cuts.
Benefits, such as subsidies for lower middle-income households, consumer protections for all, and eliminating the prescription coverage gap for seniors, come gradually.
"There's going to be an expectations gap, no question about that," said Drew Altman, president of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. "People are going to see their premiums and out-of-pocket costs go up before the tangible benefits kick in."
Universities and colleges are still waiting for tuition payments for thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who attended school last fall under the new GI Bill, leaving the veterans panicked that they'll be unable to return to class in January.
Veterans Affairs Department officials promise to get them back into the classroom. The VA says the number of veterans with claims unprocessed is now fewer than 5,000 — down from tens of thousands — and the goal is to have them all processed by the end of the year.
The public's views on health care have stayed largely steady this year, despite dramatic swings in the political battle over President Barack Obama's drive to revamp the nation's medical system, a survey says.
Overall, 82 percent say an overhaul of the nation's health care system is important for recharging the economy, according to an average of monthly polls conducted since April by the nonpartisan Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The most recent survey, covering November, found that 77 percent agree with that connection.