Friday November 16, 2012

Grudging acceptance of ‘Obamacare’ spreads as GOP-led states confront implementation choices

WASHINGTON (AP) -- From the South to the heartland, cracks are appearing in the once-solid wall of Republican resistance to President Barack Obama’s health care law.

Ahead of a federal deadline Friday for states to declare their intentions, Associated Press reporters interviewed governors and state officials around the country, finding surprising openness to the changes in some cases. Opposition persists in others, and there is a widespread, urgent desire for answers on key unresolved details.

The law that Republicans have derided as "Obamacare" was devised in Washington, but it’s in the states that Americans will find out if it works, delivering promised coverage to more than 30 million uninsured people.

States have a major role to play in two of the overhaul’s main components: new online insurance markets for individuals and small businesses to shop for subsidized private coverage, and an expanded Medicaid program for low-income people.

Friday is the day states must declare if they’ll build the new insurance markets, called exchanges, or let Washington do it for them. States can also opt for a partnership with the feds to run their exchanges, and they have until February to decide on that option.


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Employers are giving employees the option of choosing their own health insurance plan

For some American workers, picking the right health insurance is becoming more like hunting for the perfect business suit: It takes some shopping around to find a good fit and avoid sticker shock.

In a major shift in employer-sponsored health insurance coverage, companies such as Sears Holdings Corp. and Darden Restaurants Inc. are giving employees a fixed amount of money and allowing them to choose their own coverage based on their individual needs.

The approach, called defined contribution health insurance, contrasts to the decades-old practice by most U.S. employers of offering workers a one-size-fits-all plan with benefits they may not want. It also means American workers who’ve grown accustomed to having their benefits chosen for them could wind up with bigger bills and inadequate coverage if they don’t choose wisely.

"It’s a big, big change in the nature of what it means to have health insurance," says David Cutler, a Harvard University economist.

Until now, defined contribution health insurance plans have been largely limited to small businesses and retirees. But more employers are considering them as a way to control their rising health care costs. After all, the average annual premium -- or cost for insurance coverage -- for an employer-sponsored family health plan has almost doubled in the past decade to nearly $16,000, according to the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation. And companies generally foot at least 70 percent of that bill.

Postal losses cap year of payment defaults, little
help from Congress;
more red ink in 2013

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The struggling U.S. Postal Service on Thursday reported an annual loss of a record $15.9 billion and forecast more red ink in 2013, capping a tumultuous year in which it was forced to default on billions in payments to avert bankruptcy.

The financial losses for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 were more than triple the $5.1 billion loss in the previous year. Having reached its borrowing limit, the mail agency is operating with little cash on hand, putting it at risk in the event of an unexpectedly large downturn in the economy.

"It’s critical that Congress do its part and pass comprehensive legislation before they adjourn this year to move the Postal Service further down the path toward financial health," said Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe, calling the situation "our own postal fiscal cliff."

Much of the red ink in 2012 was due to mounting mandatory costs for future retiree health benefits, which made up $11.1 billion of the losses. Without that and other related labor expenses, the mail agency sustained an operating loss of $2.4 billion, lower than the previous year.

Donahoe said the post office has been able to reduce costs significantly by boosting worker productivity. But he said the mail agency has been hampered by congressional inaction on a postal overhaul bill that would allow it to eliminate Saturday mail delivery and reduce its $5 billion annual payment for future health benefits.

Troops movements, call-up of reservists signal Israeli ground operation in Gaza
is imminent

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) -- Palestinian militants barraged Israel with more than 200 rockets on Thursday, killing three people as Israel pressed a punishing campaign of airstrikes on militant targets across the Gaza Strip. Three rockets targeted the densely populated Tel Aviv area, setting off air raid sirens in brazen attacks that threatened to trigger an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza.

Late in the day, Israel signaled a ground operation may be imminent as forces moved toward the border area with Gaza. At least 12 trucks were seen transporting tanks and armored personnel carriers, and a number of buses carrying soldiers arrived. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he had authorized the army to call-up additional reservists for possible action. The army said it was prepared to draft up to 30,000 additional troops.

"I ordered the military today to widen the draft of reserve soldiers in order to be able to be ready for any development," Barak said. Military officials said the moves were to prepare for the possibility of a ground invasion, but stressed no decision had been made. Israel TV stations, however, said a ground offensive was expected Friday.

The fighting, the heaviest in four years, has also killed 15 Palestinians in two days and brought life to a standstill on both sides of the border. School has been canceled and many were huddling indoors.

Israel and Hamas have largely observed an informal truce for the past four years. But in recent weeks, the calm unraveled in a bout of rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza and retaliatory Israeli airstrikes.

Obama on first post-storm trip vows to stick with New Yorkers ‘until the rebuilding is done’

NEW YORK (AP) -- President Barack Obama vowed Thursday to stick with New Yorkers still struggling 17 days after Superstorm Sandy "until the rebuilding is complete" after getting an up-close look at devastated neighborhoods rendered unlivable.

Obama brought the spotlight to people still without heat or electricity and hugged many of those trying to rebuild their lives. He also delivered a postelection message of unity, nine days after a closely divided America gave him a second term.

"During difficult times like this, we’re reminded that we’re bound together and we have to look out for each other," Obama said from a Staten Island street that was demolished by the storm. "And a lot of the things that seem important, the petty differences, melt away."

Obama announced that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, a former chief of New York’s Housing Authority, will be his point person to oversee long-term redevelopment in the region.

On a three-hour tour, the president encountered many still suffering in Sandy’s aftermath and waiting in lines for food, supplies and other help.

BP agrees to plead guilty and pay a record $4.5 billion over Gulf spill; 3 employees charged

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- A day of reckoning arrived for BP on Thursday as the oil giant agreed to plead guilty to a raft of criminal charges and pay a record $4.5 billion in a settlement with the government over the deadly 2010 disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Three BP employees were also charged, two of them with manslaughter.

The settlement and the indictments came 2 1/2 years after the fiery drilling-rig explosion that killed 11 workers and set off the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

The settlement includes nearly $1.3 billion in fines -- the biggest criminal penalty in the nation’s history. As part of the deal, the BP will plead guilty to charges involving the 11 deaths and lying to Congress about how much oil was spewing from the blown-out well.

"We believe this resolution is in the best interest of BP and its shareholders," said Carl-Henric Svanberg, BP chairman. "It removes two significant legal risks and allows us to vigorously defend the company against the remaining civil claims."

Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said the deaths and the oil spill "resulted from BP’s culture of privileging profit over prudence."

Top national security officials testify to Congress -- mostly in private -- on Petraeus scandal

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Top national security officials trudged to Capitol Hill on Thursday to grapple with fallout from the David Petraeus sex scandal as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta asked service chiefs to review ethics training for military officers. He said he was unaware of any other top brass who could turn out to be ensnared in the debacle.

One person missing from the tableau: Afghan war chief Gen. John Allen, whose nomination to take over in Europe is on hold because of suggestive emails turned up in the investigation.

Legislators went forward with a hearing on the nomination of Gen. Joseph Dunford to replace Allen in Afghanistan. But with Allen’s own future uncertain, they put off consideration of his promotion to U.S. European Command chief and NATO supreme allied commander. Allen had initially been scheduled to testify.

Panetta, speaking at a news conference in Bangkok, gave new words of support to Allen, voicing "tremendous confidence" in the general.

Citing a string of ethical lapses by senior military officers, however, Panetta asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff to review ethics training and look for ways to help officers stay out of trouble.

Xi Jinping assumes China’s leadership, faced with economic slowdown, public demands for reform

BEIJING (AP) -- Long-anointed successor Xi Jinping assumes the leadership of China at a time when the ruling Communist Party is confronting slower economic growth, a public clamor to end corruption and demands for change that threaten its hold on power.

The country’s political elite named Xi to the top party post on Thursday, and unexpectedly put him in charge of the military too, after a weeklong party congress and months of divisive bargaining.

The appointments give him broad authority, but not the luxury of time. After decades of juggernaut growth, China sits on the cusp of global pre-eminence as the second largest economy and newest power, but it also has urgent domestic troubles that could frustrate its rise.

Problems that have long festered -- from the sputtering economy to friction with the U.S. and territorial spats with Japan and other neighbors -- have worsened in recent months as the leadership focused on the power transfer. Impatience has grown among entrepreneurs, others in the new middle class and migrant workers -- all wired by social media and conditioned by two decades of rising living standards to expect better government, if not democracy.

All along, police have continued to harass and jail a lengthening list of political foes, dissidents, civil rights lawyers and labor activists. A 14-year-old Tibetan set himself on fire in western China on Thursday, in the latest of more than 70 self-immolations Tibetans have staged over the past 20 months in desperate protests against Chinese rule.