Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Season 8 Episode 17
Aired on June 27, 2021
Main segment: Health Care Sharing Ministries
Other segments: For the People Act, Italygate conspiracy theory
Guest: Rachel Dratch
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John: Hi there! Welcome to the show! Still coming to you from this blank void. Think of it like Disney World — a bright wonderland where, for some reason, people get excited to see a large, pantsless bird. It’s been a busy week. Rudy Giuliani’s law license was suspended, the supreme court released a series of rulings, one of which involved justice breyer having to explain what Snapchat was, and then there was this:
Senate republicans tonight blocking a democratic voting bill that would have overhauled the country’s election system. Republicans tonight slamming the bill as a partisan power grab by democrats that would federalize elections, including preventing states from requiring voter I.D.
S1 would take away the rights of people in each of the 50 states to determine which election rules work best for their citizens.
John: Well…. Yeah, it would. Because history shows certain people in certain states have determined which election rules work best for certain citizens. Problem, that’s the whole fucking problem, Collins. Your party might know that if it wasn’t so busy fighting to cover up that history. Although I do get it, if I had the power to cover up past mistakes, I’d probably erase the whole drumpf thing from the internet, along with about two decades of haircuts. But, like my barber/therapist tells me, “we can’t change history, we can only prevent it from happening again.” And the defeat of this bill comes as republicans in state legislatures have pushed nearly 400 new bills and laws restricting voting rights, which, in many cases, are fueled by lies about voter fraud in the last election, despite those lies continually falling apart. Just this week, a Michigan republican-led senate investigation published a report finding “no evidence of widespread or systematic fraud in the state’s handling of the election.” And there’s actually another, even wilder claim that’s unraveling in truly spectacular fashion. It’s something called “Italygate,” which isn’t actually referring to the many times the Cuomo brothers did “news incest,” but it is a spicy meat-a-ball of a conspiracy. And there were some developments earlier this month, when emails surfaced between mark meadows, trump’s chief of staff, and the acting attorney general that were sent last December.
Among meadows’ requests: that Rosen look into Italygate, a conspiracy theory that people in Italy used military technology and satellites to switch Trump votes to Biden votes in U.S. voting machines.
John: Right. The theory is, military satellites apparently stole the election. And I know that sounds stupid, and that’s because it is. And it got early traction thanks to this journalist, who’s been called “the Sean Hannity of Italy.” Which already might be the meanest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. But the key question still is, how did that theory get to the white house? Well, last weekend, “The Washington Post” filled in a key connection, and I’m going to tell you about it not because it’s important, but because it is incredible. And it concerns this woman, Michele Roosevelt Edwards, a businesswoman and sole surviving consumer of the “bump it.” The email meadows sent concerning italygate included this letter, which outlined the conspiracy, and was printed on the letterhead of a company Edwards runs. And it doesn’t stop there — because another of her firms was pushing the Italygate claims around the same time. And while Edwards claims she was unaware of that letter, the more you learn about her, the harder it is to take anything she says at face value. Because this woman has lived many amazing lives. After unsuccessfully running for congress in the ’80s, she had a stint designing children’s clothing, saying she was “known as the Coco Chanel in the children’s industry,” a claim supported by no one. She later reinvented herself as a peace broker for the Somali people, telling interviewers, “they call me the mother of Somalia, I have nine million children.” And who, exactly, are “they” there? Because unless the Somali people unanimously voted to refer to what you’d get if Callista Gingrich stuck a fork into an outlet as “their national mommy,” I’m really going to have to stop you right there. And as Edwards eagerly inserted herself into Somali affairs, a naval intelligence officer who once worked with her was quoted no as saying, “the problem with Michele is separating fact from fiction. What is real, and what is made up?” To which I’d say, “for a start, maybe the nine million children thing.” But wait, it doesn’t stop there. Because earlier this year, Edwards was featured on this tv show in Iceland, after taking over an airline there — it’s called “wow” air — it’s terrible; that’s not the point; no we don’t have time. And during the interview, she took the reporter on a tour of her vast, $30 million Virginia estate. Although it was clear straight away something was off.
It’s nearly 1,500 acres. It takes 11 people full-time to manage the outside of the property on a full-time basis. 38,000 Feet, 22 bedrooms, three kitchens. No
How many of them do you use?
All three. That’s why the chef’s here.
The kitchens were actually pretty empty, hardly any signs of activity. And the master chef was not on hand either to brew coffee: that came in a box from a doughnut chain.
John: Okay, so just to make sure I have this straight — she employs 11 people to take care of her 1500 acre estate that contains three kitchens, no personal effects, and one man whose job seems to be to pour takeout dunkin’ into a styrofoam no cup while dressed like the first result you get when you google “silly cartoon chef.” And if it seemed like the reporter is hinting at something there, it’s because he very much was.
Before we wrap up — because we started with a tour of your home, when I was just looking of where I should go on — in a search engine, the stuff that came up was all real estate listings, and that this place was for sale.
Is it for sale?
No. It’s not now.
And how long have you been here?
This is a recent acquisition for us.
It’s very sort of — it’s very formal. It’s almost like walking into a — a rented property.
No. It’s not rented property, I can assure you.
So this is where you live, this is your home.
Yes, this is —
This is your property.
John: No, it isn’t. Because of course it isn’t! In fact, the actual owner of that property was shown that video and said, “she’s in my house. How is she in my house?” Which is just spectacular. And the answer may be that Edwards — in addition to being the Coco Chanel for children and the Somali mommy — has also been a licensed realtor in the area, which I’m guessing is helpful when she needs a new place to not-live. And the thing is, this story is funny because it’s a cartoonishly desperate attempt to steal an election, which somehow involves a squatter dressed as Orville Reddenbacher’s first wife who got written out of the will. And I’m glad I got to tell you about it. But it’s also important to remember, there are far more effective methods undermining democracy as we speak — like allowing states to pass laws restricting ballot access. The bullshit artists to really watch out for are the ones urging civility while arguing it’s none of our business people from voting, not the ones no wearing gold bow ties in homes they don’t own, they’re the ones urging civility while arguing that it’s none of our business no if some states want to bar people from voting, because that is the kind of behavior that should make us all stand up and say, she is in our government, how is she in our government? And now this.
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Announcer: and now… On the occasion of his departure from C-Span, one last salute to the most patient man on television.
Next up is louis. Good morning, welcome to the conversation.
Go ahead, please.
Yes, you are on the air, go ahead.
Oh, on air where? C-span?
Yes, go ahead, good morning.
When a pro-trumper comes on there, you interrupt them, ask them questions, trying to back them down from being a pro-trumper. But yet an anti-trumper, you have a nasty habit of letting them rant and rave.
What we need is another Edward R. Murrow, who went to war. Walter cronkite, who went to war. But instead, we got you, Steve.
My comments are okay.
You are sounding loud and clear.
Very good. What topic are we speaking about, because I am —
I am against the word “goddamn” being used on the airwaves.
And you just used it.
You guys are nothing but hacks. Please don’t cut me off. I know I see your hand going there, getting ready to cut me off, because you can’t deal with the truth.
And that shouldn’t be too much — oh, don’t reach for the button. I am making good points.
No, I am reaching for “The New York Times.” I want to make sure we can show the three headlines here. Please continue.
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John: Moving on. Our main story tonight concerns health care, the field responsible for repairing organs, treating cancer, and removing foreign objects from rectums, which have recently included a “plastic turtle,” a “fork,” “six magic markers,” and a “cat toy bell” which, credit where its due, is the most promising advancement in cat hiding places since “under the dresser.” Access to health care is a big problem in America, and one of the key reasons is that health insurance is often linked to employment. Why is that the case? Well, because we do it wrong. There’s a right way to do it, but we don’t do it that way. We do it the wrong way. And this is a particular problem at the moment, because employment is still down 7.6 million jobs from its pre-pandemic level. All of which means many are struggling to find health care coverage right now. So they might be intrigued if they stumble on an ad like this.
My health care costs were gonna double this year.
It was down to health care or my student loans.
I found a better way.
It’s neighbors helping neighbors.
It’s freedom from insurance.
At liberty healthshare, we support each other and keep health costs down.
We’re changing the way you’re paying for health care.
This is the way it should be.
We’re all in this together.
John: Well, hold on, because I’m not sure how “together” you all are. What I saw there was a bunch of people together with warm lens flares, and then one weird older man very much on his own in black and white. He’s in a slightly different thing, and we’re not going to say why, but on some level, I think we all know. That ad is for something called a health care sharing ministry. And if you haven’t heard of them before, you may have come across one and not even realized it, because they have been growing fast in the U.S. and the key phrase in that ad is “freedom from insurance.” Because the most important thing to know about health care sharing ministries — or HCSMS — isn’t just that they can be cheaper than health insurance, which they can, it’s that they’re also not health insurance. Generally, they’re nonprofits where people who share religious beliefs — usually Christianity — agree to help cover each others’ medical bills. Here is a heartwarming story about what one of them looks like in practice.
We’re praying for a young lady named Kimberly.
Bob Steadman and his family are praying for someone they’ve never met.
She had a shunt installed in her brain.
They’ve also prepared a card with a check for $561.
To bear her burden by sending them some money.
A scene like this plays out here once a month.
It does take a measure of faith to do it. We are sharing. This is so different than what we’re used to in our society.
John: He’s right. People actually looking out for each other does sound better than our current system, which is: get sick, have insurance decline coverage, and then hope Debra messing retweets your GoFundMe. That’s great, Debra, but did you donate? Did you? Did you, Debra? And it does feel more personal, sending $500 a month to a stranger in need than to a company that sounds like someone made up a word after getting a shitty scrabble hand. Perhaps that’s why the local-news team who covered that story seemed so moved after it ended.
I mean, can you imagine being that person and getting the check in the mail? You know, not knowing that someone was gonna help you and then suddenly you have all this help?
Right. It’s all about faith, isn’t it? Faith that it’s gonna get paid. Faith in god. And it’s just amazing.
John: Yeah, of course they’re into this shit. Faith? Strangers? Coming together? Throw in a runaway dog who found his owner in the hospital even though he’d never been to the hospital and you’ve got yourself a schedule one local news thirst trap. And HCSMS are definitely an alternative. But as you’ve probably guessed because you’re learning about them on this show, and not “what if John Oliver was somehow less angry, less English, and had Jack Ryan money?” There are also some significant drawbacks, which, depending on the company in question, can range from the disquieting to the disqualifying. So tonight, let’s talk about health care sharing ministries. What they are, what they do, and more importantly, what they don’t do, and the first thing to know is, HCSMS have actually existed in the united states for decades, traditionally serving small, insular communities like Mennonites and the Amish. However, the 2010 affordable care act included a loophole that exempted uninsured people from paying the tax penalty if they were a member of an HCSMS. And that was clearly immediately appealing to anyone who wanted to opt o of Obamacare. In fact, some HCSMS, like liberty healthshare, one of the biggest ministries, have specifically targeted a conservative audience. Liberty has run ads on the blaze, and also sponsored cpac — in fact, remember that famous moment when trump molested the flag? The liberty logo was an eyewitness. And liberty even made its sales pitch directly to the cpac audience during panels like this one.
If you want the government to take care of you and you think they do a great job doing it, health sharing is not for you. If you wanna stick it to ’em, sign up for liberty healthshare. [Laughter] [applause]
John: On a list of the worst sounds known to man, “self-satisfied cpac laughter” has to be right near the top, beat only by “weeping kitten” and “mother’s orgasm.” Now, that affordable care act loophole did try to put some limits in place, to keep things from getting out of hand. It stated that your ministry — or, crucially, a predecessor of it, had to have been in continuous existence since 1999. But that predecessor detail left room for exploitation. Because new ministries simply started affiliating themselves with previously-existing churches. Take one called trinity healthshare. It was founded in 2018, which is — and this is true — after 1999, but it argued that it still qualified, because it “derived its existence from the Baptist church, which has been in existence and continually sharing since the 1600s.” Which is obvious bullshit. It’s like me claiming this show has been around for 13 billion years because the big bang was also a bright expanse containing extremely dense material. That’s just not how anything works. So a loophole that was intended to be small got pretty big — and even bigger once Obamacare’s individual mandate stopped being enforced during the trump years. And the result of all this was that the popularity of these ministries exploded, from an estimated 200,000 members a decade ago, to more than a million today. And while HCSMS will insist they make it abundantly clear that they’re not health insurance, many do seem to go out of their way to make themselves appear as insurance-like as possible. For a start, they’re sometimes sold through insurance brokers — alongside actual insurance plans — and while the Obamacare marketplace offers plans in four “metal” categories: bronze, silver, gold, and platinum. A company called Altrua offered plans in gold, silver, bronze, and copper, rebranding them last year to diamond, emerald, sapphire, and ruby. Although it’s still pretty clear what they’re trying to do there — very much blur the line, while also throwing some unfair shade at ruby, the objective goat of the cardinal gems. She’s red, known for her flaws, and responsible for the most iconic slippers in the history of cinema. Eat your fucking hearts out, sapphire and emerald, because you could literally never. But while these HCSMS may have the optics of insurance, there are some very important differences. For a start, they don’t have to abide by laws governing insurance products, meaning there’s nothing stopping them from placing restrictions on coverage for pre-existing conditions. Which is exactly what they do. And not only that — many won’t cover services considered “essential” under the aca, like treatment for substance abuse, or mental health care. In fact, Altrua excludes those, and also treatment for obesity or autism. And Samaritan’s “classic” plan has a list of non-qualified items including “routine, maintenance, stabilized, preventive, and wellness care” — that’s everything from regular checkups to vaccinations. And even for eligible expenses, the most that can be shared for a given need is $250,000. Which explains their full name, “Samaritan, not the good one, though — just a random Samaritan who might well leave you to die in the middle of an abandoned road.” And we haven’t even gotten to one of the biggest excuses HCSMS can use to deny coverage, and that’s morality. Because that means you can be denied coverage for basically anything.
This is a program of the Christian care ministry and people who smoke or same-sex couples need not apply. The program also won’t pay for illnesses related to alcohol, abortion, or other lifestyle-related choices.
I need to know that I’m not gonna be paying for someone else who’s decided to sit on the couch and eat bonbons all day.
John: Wow, that is harsh. But that judgmental tone is very much in line with how these ministries operate. Do people really deserve health care coverage if they eat junk food or don’t exercise or are gay? Just fix it! Eat a carrot, go for a run, rub your penis or vagina on somebody else’s vagina or penis, respectively. It’s really not difficult! And this is a pattern across HCSMS. Liberty’s materials say that an applicant must comply with a Christian lifestyle. And among the exclusions on Samaritan’s “classic” program, you’ll find that they might pay for treatment for an STD, but not if it was contracted by sex outside of marriage, and that the member has to explain how the disease was contracted. Presumably, the hotter the story, the more money you get for ointments. Vanilla missionary shit isn’t going to get covered, bud. You better have gotten gonorrhea from an earlobe if you want Samaritan’s attention. But sweeping moral judgment isn’t the only leeway these organizations have. Because they’re voluntary associations, you have no guarantee that your bills will get paid. Although, to hear a founder of liberty healthshare tell it, you’ve really got nothing to worry about there. Just listen to him reassure people in a video on their website titled, “will my bills be paid?”
We’ve had a successful history of sharing medical bills 100%, for every eligible need ever submitted. So it doesn’t depend upon a written contract where we can sue each other if someone doesn’t send their share amount. It’s really a contract written on our hearts.
John: Oh, right, it’s a contract written on your hearts. Figuratively, of course. Because literally, it’s not a contract. And as for his claim there that liberty successfully shared 100% of medical bills “for every eligible need” — given, as we’ve discussed, they can deem any need ineligible for any reason, that phrase is essentially as meaningless as their cardiac non-contract. And on top of all this, there’s the practical matter of how exactly you pay for your care as a member. The HCSMS process typically is, you’re told to present yourself as uninsured. Then, when you get your bill, the expectation is that you bargain down the cost of your care as much as you can, then pay the bill yourself, then submit your bills to the ministry for reimbursement. And if you’ve ever waited for your friends to Venmo you after paying for dinner, you know that the reimbursement process can go very wrong. Participants in liberty — you know, the one with the “heart contract” — have found payments can be slow to nonexistent.
In the past three years, Tiffany Schultz with the Wisconsin Better Business Bureau says the BBB has taken more than 500 complaints about liberty healthshare, many with similar stories. One claiming $90,000 in outstanding in medical bills that were pre-approved.
Either the consumer is out the money and hasn’t been reimbursed, or they’re ending up going to collections.
John: That’s not great. And while liberty claims that 2019 was a particularly difficult year, and that they’re proud of improvements they’ve made since then, it’s worth noting that liberty’s members still seem pretty active on the better business bureau website, where they’ve logged 304 complaints in the last 12 months, which is a lot, especially when you consider that Cigna — a massive insurer — has just half that amount, while having 15 times the members. And imagine having more people complain about you than about Cigna, a company whose logo is a cartoon man standing in a field as his head explodes from dealing with their customer service. And unfortunately, in most states, a complaint to the better business bureau is basically all the recourse you have. And these ministries have worked very hard to keep accountability at bay, successfully lobbying for so-called “safe harbor laws” in more than 30 states, ensuring they can operate safely outside of insurance regulations. And to see just how much you can get away with, it’s worth looking at a company called Aliera, which has been heavily involved with a number of health-sharing ministries over the years — first, one called unity, then one called trinity, which now goes by sharity. Although those names sound less like health care organizations and more like characters in a religious-themed captain planet knockoff — when their powers combine, they get canceled after two episodes. Aliera presents itself as merely an administrator for HCSMS, but it’s intricately connected to the ones it works with, and very much by design. Just six weeks after trinity was incorporated, it signed a deal with Aliera stipulating that Aliera would have exclusive ownership rights to the membership roster, and was the sole party developing and marketing the plans including the HCSMS component. So Aliera’s relationship with trinity is basically this guy’s relationship to his alien costume. He can claim that he isn’t technically the costume, and that’s true. But the costume doesn’t really do anything without him. And customers in multiple states have claimed that aliera and its ministries have been ruthless in denying coverage, wielding “morality clauses” hard. When one member was attacked and knocked unconscious outside a bar and taken to the hospital with serious injuries, including a skull fracture, cervical spine fracture, and intercranial bleeding, Aliera denied her claims, stating her injuries were “self-inflicted,” and citing their guidelines, including the line, “follow spiritual teachings on the use or abuse of alcohol” which is, I’m pretty sure is the benevolent advice Jesus would have given under the circumstances. And incredibly, that’s not even the worst story of a rejected claim involving Aliera.
10-Year-old Lola Grace Segars is healthy just four months after brain surgery. On September 11th, she was rushed from the local E.R. in Greene County by ambulance to children’s health care Scottish Rite, where doctors removed a softball-sized brain tumor.
It was just amazing, the care.
But last week came the bill from their health plan, Aliera companies.
Aliera says children’s is out of network and won’t pay the $325,000 bill.
We had a life-threatening emergency. They failed us and her.
John: Holy shit. They were denied reimbursement for a child who had a softball-sized tumor removed from her brain, which is, incidentally, exactly the kind of immoral behavior I’d expect sharing ministries to classify as fucking disqualifying. Now, Aliera claims that family’s issues were ultimately resolved, but only after that story was featured on the news. And it shows just how little recourse you have, that if you don’t have a child you can get on tv to shame the company into action, you could be shit out of luck. And look, traditional insurance companies also have their share of horror stories when it comes to denial of coverage. But there are important differences here — not just in the level of protection you have when that happens, but in the degree of financial accountability. Because while the aca requires actual health insurers to spend no more than 20% of money on administrative costs, therefore leaving at least 80% for care, there’s no such requirement for HCSMS. And you can probably tell where this is going. Because investigations have found that out of every $100 a trinity member paid in premiums, only $16 went towards paying medical expenses, with the rest being kicked up to Aliera. And paying out 16% of the money you take in for coverage is a lot different than paying out 80. Because 80% makes you think, “wait, why exactly do we have insurance companies?” Whereas 16 makes you think, “is a crime happening to me right now, and if so, why does everyone seem okay with it?” And when a local news reporter caught up with the head of Aliera to ask her about its reluctance to pay out claims, her response was not particularly reassuring.
Do you have any apologies to the members who believe their claims ought to be paid and they’re not paid?
Oh, my goodness. We’re not — we’re not a health — we’re not a health care-sharing ministry, Mr. Strickland. We only administer on behalf of the — of the ministries. I can’t help you any further. I need to get out of town.
John: Okay, it’s never a good sign when a CEO has to end an interview like that. “As I’ve said before, our company has never done anything illegal. Now have you seen a man in a blue fedora? He’s supposed to give me a new identity as I get pulled into a helicopter that’s already taking off. Tell my daughter I loved her and my husband I didn’t! I’m out!” Now I should say, other sharing ministries have tried to distance themselves from Aliera, claiming that, “this sort of deception is not part of legitimate, authentic health care sharing ministries.” And Aliera is definitely bad. But one thing insurance commissioners have repeatedly told us in researching this piece is how little transparency there is into how these ministries operate, and just how wary they think people should be of all of them. And look, broadly, we have to do more in this country to reduce the cost of health care — personally, I’d argue switching to a single-payer system would remove a lot of these problems instantly, but that clearly isn’t happening anytime soon. So in the meantime, I do get the appeal of lower-cost health insurance. The problem is, this isn’t that. It’s not insurance at all. And states need, at the very least, to pass laws to make sure people know what they’re getting into with HCSMS, and to force them to allocate funds properly. The problem is, some are going in the opposite direction. Take Florida. In 2018, after intense lobbying, it loosened its restrictions on HCSMS even further, going from requiring participants be “members of the same religion,” to merely requiring they “share a common set of ethical or religious beliefs.” And that could be basically anything. At this point, the bar to entry is so low, just about anyone can become an HCSMS. And the reason I know that is, this anyone did. You may remember, back in 2015, we founded a church, our lady of perpetual exemption, to demonstrate that tax exemptions for churches enabled some of them to do terrible things. Well, just three months ago, we officially founded a spinoff church called “our lady of perpetual health.” And we founded it — where else? — But Florida. I’m happy to tell you, that church now has its own health care sharing ministry, “Johnnycare.” And the whole thing was scarily easy to do. So, without further ado, please join me, my most blessed congregants, at church. And you know, I couldn’t run an organization as important as this ministry all by myself. So please welcome, live from Johnnycare headquarters in sunny Florida, the Felicity Huffman to my William H. Macy, my dear wife and business partner, Wanda Jo. Praise be to you, my Wanda.
Praise be to you, my john, and praise be to the blessed state where minimally regulated insurance knockoffs go to be born. And retired people go to die.
John: Amen to that.
I have heard the word of the lord, my John.
John: And what did it say, my Wanda?
It said thou must free itself from the overreaching grasp of government health care. Stick it to them!
John: Stick it to them! Now Wanda, we are running the ministry as a church even though in Florida, we actually don’t have to be.
Amen, praise Florida.
John: But we do need to fill the requirement that our ministry provide for the financial or medical needs of participants from contributions from other participants. The good news is, we have done that through our special Johnnycare first aid kit containing not one, not two, but three band-aids. It screams the cheapest option that we could find. And you know what, my Wanda?
What, my John?
John: It was.
Why three band-aids? We know that, alas, sometimes, accidents happen. But if they happen more than three times, it just stops being our problem.
John: And let me be clear, when you sign up for membership, you are not paying for your own first aid kit. You are paying for someone else’s, and they are paying for yours.
And that gives you freedom from insurance! And us freedom from responsibility.
John: And beyond that, it’s a very simple system. If you need medical care, you go to the doctor, you receive it, you request a bill, and then you pay that bill on your own.
Leave us out of it. [Laughs]
John: Oh, yeah, because if you submit that bill to us, we are going to reject it.
Vernon his lips to god’s bigger lips in the sky!
John: Testify! Either because you engage in this and of beyond the bonds of matrimony —
John: Or you spent the day sitting on the couch eating bonbons
Or mastubated ever.
John: No contracts ever, except for the ones that are in our hearts. ♪ ♪ Now you can become a member of our Johnnycare ministry for just $1.99, and we are limiting membership to 5,000 of you in Florida, not because we have to, but because that is the number of first aid kit that we bought. So go to freedom from health care.org and see if you qualify to send us money and get almost nothing in return.
Is close to nothing as we could get away with.
John: And to be clear, we should not be able to get with any of this! Thank you to Wanda jo, who, if history is any indication, will disappear for three years and ultimately re-answer in a Canadian Mohegan Sun answering to deb. I love you so much, my Wanda.
I love you so much, my John.
John: Visit freedomfromhealthcare.org to learn how you can stick it to them!
Stick it to them!
John: That is our show, thank you so much for watching, good night! Bye-bye, my Wanda.
Bye-bye, my John!
John: Stick it to them! Praise band-aids!
John: Band-aids be upon us.