On a quiet news day, the Washington Post leads with a scoop about Boeing's concealment of fuel tank problems similar to the ones that may have caused the crash of TWA Flight 800. The New York Times goes with the debate over the patient privacy rules suggested yesterday by President Clinton, while the Los Angeles Times leads with Toshiba's announcement of a $1 billion settlement in a class-action suit over its laptops, a story also fronted by the NYT.
The WP story reveals that Boeing knew about fuel tank problems--probably related to the ones that caused the explosion of TWA Flight 800 in 1996--as early as 1980 but didn't tell safety investigators about the findings until this June. Even if Boeing couldn't have prevented the tragedy, investigators said that knowing about the fuel tank flaws would have led them to realize much more quickly that the explosion resulted from mechanical failure. Lawyers for the victims' families threatened to use the report in their multimillion-dollar lawsuits against Boeing.
The Times lead explains why some doctors and insurance providers are protesting President Clinton's proposed rules on patient privacy (see yesterday's column for a rundown of the rules). Some doctors have said that the rules--which ask only for patient notification and not consent--don't grant patients enough discretion over their medical records. And insurance companies are worried that the rules would make them responsible for privacy lapses by companies working together. As an example, the Times says that an HMO that directs a patient to a pharmacy could be liable if the pharmacy abuses that patient's records.
The NYT and the LAT report that laptop owners sued Toshiba over a flaw in the machines' floppy-disk controller that may cause data in disks to be lost or corrupted. Toshiba has now agreed to incorporate new floppy disk controllers in PCs and provide the owners with coupons worth $100 to $225. The company's credit rating was immediately downgraded, and its share price slipped 9 percent. The LAT story is much sharper, naming the number of beneficiaries--5.5-million laptop owners--and more importantly, the odd fact that none of them seem to have actually suffered from the glitch. Toshiba seems to have made the offer purely for its PR value, saying that it "wants to continue to ensure its customers that the Toshiba brand name merits their trust."
The WP off-lead is a terrific exposé of the campaign that Schering-Plough, maker of the ubiquitous anti-allergy drug Claritin, has waged on Congress in hope of being allowed to extend its wildly lucrative patent on the drug. The lobbying effort has yielded a bill that, if passed, will let Schering-Plough petition a special review board to extend the patent for another three years, thus preventing cheaper generic versions of the drug from being sold. Sen. Robert Torricelli introduced the bill the day after the company gave $50,000 to his Democratic Senate campaign committee (both the senator and the company called the timing a coincidence). Sen. Orrin Hatch scheduled a hearing on the Torricelli bill just after he was granted use of the Schering-Plough Gulfstream for campaign travel. And after Schering-Plough donated $1 million to former surgeon general C. Everett Koop's foundation, Koop wrote letters to his contacts in Congress arguing on the company's behalf. Meanwhile, Schering-Plough argued that it needs its Claritin profits to pay for groundbreaking, lifesaving drug research and development. Last year, the company netted $1.8 billion in profit, even after spending a billion bucks on said research.
A NYT front-pager describes how Texas magnate Richard Rainwater served as a financial Svengali for George W. Bush, guiding him into a stunningly successful series of investments. Bush first sought Rainwater's help in buying the Texas Rangers in 1989. (Bush eventually made $14.9 million on the Rangers from a total investment of $606,000). Rainwater began feeding Bush opportunities in oil and gas, real estate, and a loan company. Bush sold his Rainwater-related investments when he began his presidential run, presumably to avoid impropriety or the appearance thereof. The piece concedes that Bush doesn't seem to have done Rainwater any special favors as governor, but anticipates "more potential for conflict" if Bush becomes president. This is because Rainwater "is involved in companies that are heavily regulated and have hundreds of millions of dollars in Government contracts." But Today's Papers would like to know how many recent presidents don't have buddies that meet that description. The paper adds that one of Rainwater's many companies, an operator of psychiatric hospitals, is being investigated for patient abuse and Medicare fraud but doesn't explain how a newly elected Bush could possibly put a damper on the already-ongoing investigations. Since Bush's history with Rainwater has already been much discussed in Texas (Ann Richards once said that Rainwater "owned" Dubya), the Times seems to simply be recycling old Texas news for a national audience.
A WP "Metro" section story reports that residents of Burkittsville, Md.--home of the Blair Witch in the eponymous film--are thoroughly spooked by the onset of Halloween. They have been profiteering off the film since its release (one resident sold the rocks from her backyard for $5 each). But now they fear that Halloween will bring violence from "copycat" Blair Witches and have enlisted protection from the Maryland State Police and the county sheriff's department. If the Burkittsville folk truly think the police will be able to protect them at a time like this, then they haven't seen nearly enough horror films.