The Almanac


Government


Douglas Brinkley

November 3: Election Day. More House incumbents will be running unopposed by major-party candidates today than at any other time since 1958, in part because of decisions by both parties to focus on close races. A number of ballots will contain questions pertaining to animal rights. For example, Missouri and Arizona voters will decide whether to outlaw cockfighting. This activity is legal in only five states, although Hawaii recently considered legalizing it, as long as the roosters wore boxing leg mitts in the ring. 30: The permanent provisions of the 1993 Brady gun-control law are scheduled to take effect today, replacing interim measures in force since 1994. Buyers of all guns, not just handguns, will now undergo background checks through an FBI database. The checks will in most cases be almost instantaneous; they will replace the five-day waiting period to buy a handgun, except in states whose own laws require a waiting period. Some fear that local and state documents, such as mental-health records and restraining orders, may be overlooked, and argue that the wait may prevent some suicides and crimes of passion.

Food


Douglas Brinkley

November 5: Starting today the Food and Drug Administration will require that all unpasteurized juice products bear a label warning that they may contain harmful bacteria. Although the vast majority of juice sold in the United States is pasteurized, a process that kills most pathogens, some manufacturers, especially cider makers, have resisted pasteurization, because it can alter taste. Some cider mills are exploring flash-pasteurization, which briefly exposes juice to extremely high temperatures and has less effect on flavor. Small manufacturers, ill equipped to afford pasteurization technology, fear that the rule could put them out of business. The rule comes in response to a 1996 incident in which 66 people became ill, and one died, after drinking unpasteurized cider contaminated with E. coli.

Health & Safety


Douglas Brinkley

This month Medicare will begin mailing information to consumers, phasing in a toll-free information line, and providing other services to help beneficiaries understand the new Medicare+Choice program, mandated in the 1997 Balanced-Budget Act. The program is intended to expand the options of Medicare recipients and to encourage them to take greater responsibility for their health care. It represents the most comprehensive change to Medicare ever, allowing recipients to choose from many types of plans and instituting sweeping measures to protect their rights. Among the plans that will eventually be available are medical savings accounts. Those who choose an MSA will be enrolled in a plan that carries a high deductible, for which Medicare will pay the premium; Medicare will also make an annual deposit into the recipient's MSA. The deposit may be used to help pay for services provided before the deductible has been met and services not covered by the policy.

Demographics

This month the U.S. Postal Service will begin setting up systems in 12 metropolitan areas to monitor the progress of mail with radio-transmitter tags, in the hope of increasing efficiency. Tucked inside envelopes planted among batches of letters, the tags will give information to tag readers in local and regional post offices. When "pinged" by a reader, a tag will provide the ZIP codes of a batch of mail's origin and destination, the date the mail entered the system, and its precise travel time. Systems are expected to be fully operational in New York City, Boston, Dallas, and Tampa in time for the holiday rush, and in the eight other cities by next summer. The project, expected to cost $6 million, is a prelude to nationwide implementation -- and the technology it employs could one day render obsolete that time-honored dodge "The check is in the mail."

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