More employers starting wellness programs to reduce health costs, pushed in part by overhaul

That little voice nagging you to put down the cake and lace up the running shoes is increasingly coming from your employer and is likely to grow louder with a looming change under the federal health care overhaul.

More companies are starting or expanding wellness programs that aim to reduce their medical costs by improving their employees’ health. They’re asking workers to take physical exams, complete detailed health assessments and focus on controlling conditions such as diabetes. Along with that, many companies also are dangling the threat of higher monthly insurance premiums to prod workers into action.

The Affordable Care Act is one reason the programs are spreading. The federal law calls for a 40 percent tax on expensive benefit plans starting in 2018, and many companies that offer employer-based coverage already have begun looking for ways to lower costs and avoid that tax.

"It is a very powerful ... visible wake-up call to all employers," said Helen Darling, chief executive of the National Business Group on Health, a nonprofit organization that represents large employers on health care issues.

Businesses see wellness programs as a win for themselves and their workers. But studies have shown that the programs have a limited ability to reduce costs. They also raise concerns about privacy and discrimination against older workers or those who are more likely to have chronic conditions.


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Clemency for some federal prisoners: Nonviolent
10-year inmates encouraged to ask for release

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Obama administration is encouraging many nonviolent federal prisoners to apply for early release -- and expecting thousands to take up the offer. It’s an effort to deal with high costs and overcrowding in prisons, and also a matter of fairness, the government says.

On Wednesday, the Justice Department unveiled a revamped clemency process directed primarily at low-level felons imprisoned for at least 10 years who have clean records while in custody. The effort is part of a broader administration push to scale back harsh penalties in some drug-related prosecutions and to address sentencing disparities arising from the 1980s crack cocaine epidemic that yielded disproportionately tough punishment for black drug offenders.

"These older, stringent punishments that are out of line with sentences imposed under today’s laws erode people’s confidence in our criminal justice system," said Deputy Attorney General James Cole in laying out new criteria that will be used in evaluating clemency petitions for possible recommendation for the president’s approval.

The White House, sometimes criticized as too stingy with its clemency power, says it’s seeking more candidates for leniency in an overcrowded federal prison system whose costs comprise a sizable percentage of the Justice Department’s budget.

Scientists find ‘probable cause’ of killer disease

WASHINGTON (AP) -- EDITOR’S NOTE: In 1981, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the first cases of a rare pneumonia that had sickened five Los Angeles gay men. The AIDS epidemic had begun.

Over the next three years, the CDC formally named the condition and announced that sexual contact and infected blood were the major ways the disease spread.

On April 23, 1984, the Department of Health and Human Services held a press conference to announce that the probable cause of the disease had been found -- a virus that was eventually called the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. At the meeting, government scientists said the discovery could spur work on a preventive vaccine, which could be ready for testing within two or three years.

There is still no cure or vaccine. But drugs emerged in the mid-1990s that have turned HIV from a death sentence into a manageable chronic disease for people who stick with them.

An estimated 36 million people have died of AIDS since 1981, according to the World Health Organization.

Syrian activists, medics accuse Assad government of chlorine gas attacks; Syria denies it

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian government forces have attacked rebel-held areas with poisonous chlorine gas in recent weeks and months, leaving men, women and children coughing, choking and gasping for breath, according to Associated Press interviews with more than a dozen activists, medics and residents on the opposition side.

Syria flatly denied the allegations, and they have yet to be confirmed by any foreign country or international organization. But if true, they highlight the limitations of the global effort to rid President Bashar Assad’s government of its chemical weapons.

Witnesses near Damascus and in a central rebel-held village told the AP of dozens of cases of choking, fainting and other afflictions from inhaling fumes that some said were yellowish and smelled like chlorine cleanser. Some of those interviewed said they believe the gas was responsible for at least two deaths.

They said the fumes came from hand grenades and helicopter-dropped "barrel bombs," which are crude containers packed with explosives and shrapnel.

Activists have posted videos similar, though on a far smaller scale, to those from last August’s chemical weapons attack near Damascus that killed hundreds of people and nearly triggered U.S. airstrikes against Syria. The new footage depicts pale-faced men, women and children coughing and gasping at field hospitals.

FM Lavrov says Russia
will respond if its citizens or interests are attacked
in Ukraine

DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) -- Ukraine’s highly publicized goal to recapture police stations and government buildings seized by pro-Russia forces in the east produced little action on the ground Wednesday but ignited foreboding words from Moscow.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned that Russia would mount a firm response if its citizens or interests come under attack in Ukraine. Although he did not specifically say Russia would launch a military attack, his comments bolstered wide concern that Russia could use any violence in eastern Ukraine as a pretext for sending in troops.

Separately, the Russian foreign ministry issued a statement demanding that Ukraine pull its armed forces out of the crisis-ridden region. Russia, meanwhile, has tens of thousands of troops stationed in areas near the Ukrainian border.

Ukraine’s interim government has accused Russia of orchestrating the unrest in eastern Ukraine.

The Interior Ministry said police forced a group of armed insurgents out of the eastern village of Svyatogorsk on Wednesday, but did not give details of the action other than to say there were no injuries.

Facebook’s 1st-quarter soar to surpass expectations, CFO to step down

NEW YORK (AP) -- Facebook’s earnings nearly tripled and revenue grew sharply in the first quarter, surpassing Wall Street’s expectations thanks to an 82 percent increase in advertising revenue.

The world’s biggest online social network said Wednesday that it earned $642 million, or 25 cents per share, in the January-March quarter, up from $219 million, or 9 cents per share, in the same period a year ago.

Adjusted earnings, which exclude stock compensation expenses and other costs, were $885 million, or 34 cents per share, in the latest quarter.

Facebook’s revenue was $2.5 billion, up 71 percent from $1.46 billion in the same period a year ago.

Analysts, on average, were expecting adjusted earnings of 24 cents per share on revenue of $2.36 billion, according to a poll by FactSet.

Founder of Russia’s leading social media network quits company, flees country

MOSCOW (AP) -- The founder of Russia’s leading social media network -- a wunderkind often described as Russia’s Mark Zuckerberg -- has left his post as CEO and fled the country as cronies of President Vladimir Putin have made steady inroads into the company’s ownership.

The slow-motion ouster of Pavel Durov from the network known as VKontakte, or "In Contact," is the latest sign that independent media outlets in Russia have become increasingly imperiled.

Although months in the making, the loss of Durov’s leadership in VKontakte means that the space for free speech on the Russian web could shrink even further.

Users on VKontakte were even spreading jokes this week that the new nickname for the "In Contact" website should be "In Censorship."

As one of his final acts of defiance, Durov posted online last week what he said were documents from the security services, demanding personal details from 39 Ukraine-linked groups on VKontakte, also known as VK.

SKorea ferry toll hits 156 as search gets tougher; divers break cabin walls to reach victims

JINDO, South Korea (AP) -- As the 156th body was pulled from waters where the ferry Sewol sank a week ago, relatives of the nearly 150 still missing pressed the government Wednesday to finish the grim task of recovery soon. But the work was reaching a new, more complicated phase, with an official saying divers must now rip through cabin walls to retrieve more victims.

Looming in the background is a sensitive issue: When to bring in the cranes and begin the salvage effort by cutting up and raising the submerged vessel. The government has warned that the work might eliminate air pockets that could be sustaining survivors, but for some relatives that is a long-lost hope.

"Now we think we have to deal with this realistically," said Pyun Yong-gi, whose 17-year-old daughter is among the missing.

"We don’t want the bodies to decay further, so we want them to pull out the bodies as quickly as they can," Pyun said on Jindo island, where recovered bodies are taken for families to identify.

That view is not shared among all relatives of the missing, however. One of them, Jang Jong-ryul, was sensitive about the mere mention of the word "salvage" and said most families don’t want to think about it.

Soldier who gave classified documents to WikiLeaks granted name change from Bradley to Chelsea

LEAVENWORTH, Kan. (AP) -- An Army private convicted of providing classified documents to WikiLeaks won an initial victory Wednesday toward living as a woman when a Kansas judge granted a petition to change her name to Chelsea Elizabeth Manning.

The decision clears the way for official changes to Manning’s military records, but does not compel the military to treat the soldier previously known as Bradley Edward Manning as a woman.

That includes not being moved from the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, where Manning is serving a 35-year prison sentence, to a prison with a women’s unit, or receiving the counseling and hormone treatment she seeks.

Manning wasn’t present at the hearing before Leavenworth County District Judge David King, which lasted just about a minute, but issued a statement after the ruling calling it "an exciting day."

"Hopefully today’s name change, while so meaningful to me personally, can also raise awareness of the fact that we (transgender) people exist everywhere in America today, and that we must jump through hurdles every day just for being who we are," Manning said.