The Almanac



Late this month phones will be busier than usual at the National Runaway Switchboard, a federally funded toll-free hot line for troubled youths: twice as many calls generally come in during the several days after Christmas as during the rest of the month. The hot line, which in all of last year received nearly 110,000 calls, links the late-December volume to the eruption of family strife that is reined in before and during the holiday and to the fact that children are home from school (spring break is another peak time for calls). No one knows how many runaways and homeless children there are in the United States; the most recent nationwide study, which put the figure at more than a million, is nearly a decade old. Two thirds of the callers are female, and nearly three quarters are aged 15 to 17; however, calls from younger children are on the rise. In recent years the hot line has collaborated with Greyhound to give runaways bus tickets home; more than 200 runaways a month return to their families under this program.


The final report of the first study of emissions from street vendors' cooking devices is expected to be released to the public and to government agencies this month. The investigation is part of an ongoing joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its Mexican counterpart to improve air quality along the border. It was prompted by scientists who posited that smoke from vendors' grills and stoves, typically used to cook meats for tacos and other regional foods, was a significant source of haze. A team from the EPA has been measuring vendors' emissions by cooking meats in a laboratory in North Carolina, using charcoal from the border region. If they conclude that vendors' cooking devices are a major source of pollution, program officials will then seek to investigate low-cost emission-control technologies appropriate for carts and stalls.

Health & Safety

Healthcare claims

December 31: One of the first tests of a solution for the so-called Y2K problem will occur by today, the date by which the 60-some contractors who process and pay Medicare and Medicaid claims have been asked to ensure that their computers will be able to handle the advent of the year 2000. (As everybody knows by now, many computers and programs were designed to recognize only the last two digits of a given year, and unless modifications are made will assume that "00" refers to 1900.) The Health Care Financing Administration made the request in order to give contractors time to work out glitches, in the hope of avoiding any interruption in service a year hence. The renovations are expected to involve the revision of more than 49 million lines of computer code, along with upgrading hardware and telecommunications equipment. Most Medicare and Medicaid claims -- nearly a billion each year -- are processed electronically. If contractors fail to have their systems ready by the beginning of 2000, the HCFA could be confronted with the prospect of processing claims by hand.

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