Monday, December 23, 2013

Published:

Last-minute health insurance shoppers are given 1-day extension in case of technical problems

CHICAGO (AP) -- Anticipating heavy traffic on the government's health care website, the Obama administration extended Monday's deadline for signing up for insurance by a day, giving Americans in 36 states more time to select a plan.

It was the latest in a series of pushed-back deadlines and delays that have marked the rollout of the health care law.

But federal officials urged buyers not to procrastinate.

"You should not wait until tomorrow. If you are aiming to get coverage Jan. 1, you should try to sign up today," said Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the federal agency in charge of the overhaul.

Bataille said the grace period -- which runs through Tuesday -- was being offered to accommodate people from different time zones and to allow for any technical problems that might result from a last-minute rush of applicants.

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Obama enrolls for health coverage, but didn't sign up for it himself and won't use it

HONOLULU (AP) -- He won't use it, and he didn't actually sign up for it himself, but President Barack Obama has enrolled for health coverage through the new insurance exchanges.

Announcing his enrollment Monday, the White House called it a symbolic show of Obama's support for the fledgling exchanges where millions of Americans must buy insurance or face a penalty. Ironically, it also served as a reminder of just how complex and sometimes daunting the process can be.

Obama, like so many other Americans, couldn't use the website.

"The complicated nature of the president's case required an in-person sign-up," the White House said.

White House officials noted that for security reasons, the president's personal information is not readily available in government databases that the exchanges use to verify identities and check eligibility for tax subsidies.

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10 Things to Know for Tuesday

Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Tuesday:

1. AMERICANS GET EXTRA DAY TO SIGN UP FOR HEALTH CARE

The extension is offered as a cushion against any technical problems that could result in a last-minute rush to enroll.

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Hundreds of gay couples flock to wed in Utah after judge's ruling; state vows to keep up fight

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A federal judge on Monday allowed gay marriage to continue in Utah, rejecting a request to put same-sex weddings on hold as the state appeals a decision that has sent couples flocking to county clerk offices for marriage licenses.

Judge Robert J. Shelby overturned Utah's ban on same-sex marriage Friday, ruling the voter-approved measure is a violation of gay couples' constitutional rights. The state then asked him to put a stop to the weddings, but he rejected the request.

Shelby's ruling is far from the end of the legal wrangling on the topic. The state quickly filed a request with the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to put gay marriage on hold, and that court could rule as soon as Monday evening or Tuesday. The same court, in Denver, likely will hear the full appeal of the case several months from now.

In the meantime, the rush on marriage licenses continues for gay couples around Utah.

Nearly 700 gay couples have obtained marriage licenses since Friday, with most coming in the state's most populous county.

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Pussy Riot members released from prison following amnesty they describe as Kremlin PR stunt

KRASNOYARSK, Russia (AP) -- The last two imprisoned members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot walked free Monday, criticizing the amnesty measure that released them as a publicity stunt, with one calling for a boycott of the Winter Olympics to protest Russia's human rights record.

Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were granted amnesty last week in a move largely viewed as the Kremlin's attempt to soothe criticism of Russia's human rights record before the Sochi Games in February.

"I'm calling for a boycott of the Olympic Games," Tolokonnikova said. "What is happening today -- releasing people just a few months before their term expires -- is a cosmetic measure."

The amnesty -- part of a wide measure passed last week by the parliament -- and President Vladimir Putin's pardoning last week of onetime oil tycoon and political rival Mikhail Khodorkovsky freed some of the most prominent convicts who were sentenced in politically-tainted cases.

But it also gives them new freedom to launch criticism of Putin's Russia amid intense attention from international news media.

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Freezing rain, ice taper, but cold temps will challenge utilities, travel plans for some in US

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) -- Parts of the country socked by a wild weekend storm will be covered with ice and without power through Christmas and beyond thanks to a steady diet of freezing rain and cold temperatures.

The first full day of winter, Sunday, brought a mix including snow in the Midwest and balmy temperatures along the Mid-Atlantic. Rain and melting snow led to swelling creeks and streams, closed roads and flooded underpasses in Indiana, Ohio and other Great Lakes states.

More than 390,000 homes and businesses were without power Monday in Michigan, upstate New York and northern New England, down from Sunday's peak of more than half a million. Most were in Michigan, whose largest utilities said it'll be days before power is restored because of the difficulty of working around broken lines.

In Maine, the number of customers without power spiked to more than 78,000, and the cold persisted.

"It's certainly not going away," Margaret Curtis, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gray, Maine, said Monday. "In fact, we don't have very many areas where we're expecting temperatures to rise above freezing."

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Data firm says holiday sales fell for 3rd in a row, but stands by forecast for season

NEW YORK (AP) -- After a strong start to the holiday shopping season, sales at stores have fallen for the third consecutive week as Americans continue to hold back on spending during what is traditionally the busiest buying period of the year.

Sales at U.S. stores dropped 3.1 percent to $42.7 billion for the week that ended on Sunday compared with the same week last year, according to ShopperTrak, which tracks data at 40,000 locations. That follows a decline of 2.9 percent and 0.8 percent during the first and second weeks of the month, respectively.

The numbers, which don't include online sales, are another challenge in what has largely been a disappointing holiday shopping season for stores. The two-month period that begins on Nov. 1 is important for retailers because they can make up to 40 percent of their annual sales during that time.

Retailers started the season cautiously optimistic. But after a strong start through most of November -- ShopperTrak said sales were up 3.4 percent for the month -- retailers have found it increasingly hard to attract shoppers into stores despite big discounts and expanded hours during the final days.

"It's been a mediocre December," said Bill Martin, co-founder of ShopperTrak.

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Canadians, Brits, Australians among 3,000 foreigners in violent South Sudan city US evacuated

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) -- British, Canadian and Kenyan citizens are among 3,000 foreigners trapped in a South Sudan city experiencing bouts of heavy machine gun fire, one of the most violent areas of a weeklong conflict that has likely killed more than 1,000 people, a top U.N. official said Monday.

Australians, Ugandans and Ethiopians are also among 17,000 people seeking protection at a U.N. base in Bor, a city that could see increased violence in coming days, said Toby Lanzer, the U.N.'s humanitarian coordinator.

The death toll from a week of violence in South Sudan has likely surpassed 1,000 people, though there are no firm numbers available, he said. The number of internal refugees is probably more than 100,000, said Lanzer, who is seeking urgent financial assistance from the U.S., Britain and other European countries.

"I know there are many thousands of people seeking protection in churches," Lanzer said. "I know that we have our own staff that have literally walked into the bush and are communicating from there. That's where they say they are safest."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the Security Council late Monday to add 5,500 troops and police to the 7,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, citing growing violence in many parts of the country, human rights abuses, "and killings fueled by ethnic tensions."

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Mikhail Kalashnikov dead at 94; designed AK-47 rifle of which 100 million have been sold

MOSCOW (AP) -- Mikhail Kalashnikov started out wanting to make farm equipment, but the harvest he reaped was one of blood as the designer of the AK-47 assault rifle, the world's most popular firearm.

It was the carnage of World War II, when Nazi Germany overran much of the Soviet Union, which altered his course and made his name as well-known for bloodshed as Smith, Wesson and Colt. The distinctive shape of the gun, often called "a Kalashnikov," appeared on revolutionary flags and adorns memorabilia.

Kalashnikov died Monday at age 94 in a hospital in Izhevsk, the capital of the Udmurtia republic where he lived, said Viktor Chulkov, a spokesman for the republic's president. He did not give a cause of death. Kalashnikov had been hospitalized for the past month with unspecified health problems.

Kaslashnikov often said he felt personally untroubled by his contribution to bloodshed.

"I sleep well. It's the politicians who are to blame for failing to come to an agreement and resorting to violence," he told The Associated Press in 2007.

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AP poll: Glitch-plagued rollout of Obama's health care overhaul voted top story of 2013

NEW YORK (AP) -- The glitch-plagued rollout of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul was the top news story of 2013, followed by the Boston Marathon bombing and the dramatic papal changeover at the Vatican, according to The Associated Press' annual poll of U.S. editors and news directors.

The saga of "Obamacare" -- as the Affordable Care Act is widely known -- received 45 first-place votes out of the 144 ballots cast for the top 10 stories. The marathon bombing received 29 first-place votes and the papal transition 21.

Other strong contenders were the bitter partisan conflict in Congress and the leaks about National Security Agency surveillance by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden.

Last year, the top story was the massacre of 26 children and staff at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. That result came after a rare decision by the AP to re-conduct the voting; the initial round of balloting had ended Dec. 13, a day before the Newtown shooting, with the 2012 election at the top.

The first AP top-stories poll was conducted in 1936, when editors chose the abdication of Britain's King Edward VIII.