Thursday, December 26, 2013

Published:

Furor over cancelled insurance policies quieter a month after Obama move, but coverage unclear

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- A month after President Barack Obama announced people could keep insurance policies slated for cancellation under the federal health overhaul, the reversal has gotten a mixed response from insurers, state regulators and consumers.

Many consumers complained in October and November after insurers notified them that their individual policies were being canceled because they did not cover pre-existing conditions, hospitalization, prescription drugs or seven other basic benefits required under the law. In pitching the overhaul, Obama had long promised that people who liked their policies could keep them.

Then Obama announced Nov. 14 that companies could continue existing policies that don't meet the minimum requirements if state regulators approved.

Reporting by The Associated Press shows that older policies are being allowed to continue in 36 states, either because officials allowed it after Obama's announcement, decided not to intervene in any way or had made a decision earlier in the year to extend non-compliant policies for a period of time.

Even so, insurers were given a choice of whether to continue the policies, and some declined to do so.

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Capping tough year, Obama signs bipartisan budget deal, defense bill addressing sexual assault

HONOLULU (AP) -- Rounding out a tough and frustrating year, President Barack Obama signed a bipartisan budget deal Thursday easing spending cuts and a defense bill cracking down on sexual assault in the military, as the president and Congress began pivoting to the midterm election year ahead.

Obama put his signature on both hard-fought bills while vacationing in Hawaii, where he has been regrouping with his family since Saturday. The bill signing marks one of Obama's last official acts in a year beset by a partial government shutdown, a near-default by the Treasury, a calamitous health care rollout and near-perpetual congressional gridlock.

Although the budget deal falls short of the grand bargain that Obama and congressional Republicans once aspired to, it ends the cycle of fiscal brinkmanship -- for now -- by preventing another shutdown for nearly two more years.

But the rare moment of comity may be short-lived. Hanging over the start of the year is a renewed fight over raising the nation's borrowing limit, which the Treasury says must be resolved by late February or early March to avert an unprecedented U.S. default. Both sides are positioning behind customary hard-line positions, with Republicans insisting they want concessions before raising the debt limit and Obama insisting he won't negotiate.

The last vestiges of 2013's legislative wrangling behind him, Obama's attention turns now to major challenges and potential bright spots in the year ahead. In late January, Obama will give his fifth State of the Union address, setting his agenda for the final stretch before the 2014 midterm elections, in which all of the House and one-third of the Senate are on the ballot.

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10 Things to Know for Friday

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

1. OBAMA SIGNS BUDGET, DEFENSE BILLS

One will ease spending cuts, the other cracks down on sexual assault in the military.

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After branding it terrorist group, Egypt hikes crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood

CAIRO (AP) -- Egypt's security authorities launched a sweep of arrests of Muslim Brotherhood members on Thursday and warned that holding a leadership post in the group could now be grounds for the death penalty after it was officially declared a terrorist organization, stepping up the government's confrontation with its top political nemesis.

The announcement came as a bomb exploded in a busy intersection in Cairo Thursday morning, hitting a bus and wounding five people. Though small, the blast raised fears that a campaign of violence by Islamic militants that for months has targeted police and the military could turn to civilians in retaliation for the stepped up crackdown.

The terrorist labeling of the Brotherhood -- an unprecedented step even during past decades when the group was banned -- takes to a new level the government's moves to crush the group, which rode on elections to dominate Egypt's politics the past three years until the military removed Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July after massive protests against him.

The Brotherhood vowed to "qualitatively" escalate its protests against the new military-backed interim government, whose authority it rejects. The group has struggled to bring numbers into the streets in past months under a crackdown that has already killed hundreds of its members and put thousands more in prison, including Morsi and other top leaders -- and there was little sign of any protests on Thursday.

The moves -- all playing out before the backdrop of increasing violence by al-Qaida-inspired militants --raise the potential for greater turmoil as the country nears a key Jan. 14-15 referendum on a revised constitution, a milestone in the post-Morsi political transition. The government is pushing for overwhelming passage of the new document, while the Brotherhood vows to stop it with protests.

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Poll: Americans hopeful for a better 2014 as they recall important, memorable moments of 2013

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Large number of Americans see 2013 as anything but a banner year and aren't reluctant to wave goodbye on New Year's Eve, a new AP-Times Square poll says, reflecting anxiety stretching from the corridors of power in Washington to corporate boardrooms, statehouses, and city and town halls.

Although the poll shows that people generally are looking forward to the new year with optimism and no blatant sense of foreboding, it also unmasks pent-up worries about international crises and instability, and concerns at home about the standard of living, health care and schools.

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What the public thought of 2013:

GOOD YEAR OR GOOD RIDDANCE?

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African leaders try to advance peace talks between South Sudanese president, his rivals

JUBA, South Sudan (AP) -- African leaders tried Thursday to advance peace talks between South Sudan's president and political rivals he accuses of attempting a coup to topple the government of the world's newest country.

As fighting persisted in parts of South Sudan's oil-producing region, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn had "a constructive dialogue" with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, according to Kiir's foreign minister. But the fugitive former deputy president who now leads renegade troops was not represented, and no political breakthrough emerged.

The next round of meetings will be held in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, where regional leaders under a bloc known as IGAD are to meet Friday to discuss a report from Thursday's meeting, South Sudanese Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin said.

Kiir agreed "in principle" to stop hostilities and to negotiate with former Vice President Riek Machar, who is expected to be formally invited by IGAD to attend upcoming peace talks, said Benjamin, who offered no details.

It was not possible to reach Machar, as his known phone numbers were switched off.

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Attack on presidential palace thwarted in Central African Republic, as country tips into chaos

BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) -- Assailants armed with heavy weapons attempted late Thursday to attack the presidential palace as well as the residence of the Central African Republic's embattled leader, but were pushed back, officials said.

Reached by telephone, Guy Simplice, spokesman for President Michel Djotodia, said there had been heavy fighting near the seat of government, before the army was able to block the aggressors. Although the attackers could not immediately be identified, for weeks there have been rumors that a Christian militia, believed to be backed by the president, who was ousted by Djotodia in a coup nine months ago, would attempt to seize back power.

The heavy arms fire could be heard from the five-star Hotel Ledger, near the center of town, where international journalists are staying. A rocket came over the hotel's wall, landing on the hotel grounds. As the shooting died down, helicopters could be heard flying overhead.

The events are only the latest indicating that this deeply poor, but until recently relatively stable nation, is tipping into anarchy. Earlier Thursday, international forces were sent to pick up truckloads of decomposing bodies of slain Muslims, whose remains had been left at a local mosque by their friends and relatives, who were too frightened to be seen burying them in a city where Christian-on-Muslim and Muslim-on-Christian attacks have become a daily occurrence.

It also comes a day after the African Union lost six peacekeepers, who were attacked in the Gobongo neighborhood of the capital. Their destroyed car, with at least one calcified body still inside, had not been removed a day later, underscoring how dangerous this chaotic country has become, even for the international forces tasked with pacifying it, said African Union spokesman Eloi Yao.

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Websites deploy a host of measures to battle online vitriol, with mixed results

NEW YORK (AP) -- Mix blatant bigotry with poor spelling. Add a dash of ALL CAPS. Top it off with a violent threat. And there you have it: A recipe for the worst of online comments, scourge of the Internet.

Blame anonymity, blame politicians, blame human nature. But a growing number of websites are reining in the Wild West of online commentary. Companies including Google and the Huffington Post are trying everything from deploying moderators to forcing people to use their real names in order to restore civil discourse. Some sites, such as Popular Science, are banning comments altogether.

The efforts put sites in a delicate position. User comments add a lively, fresh feel to videos, stories and music. And, of course, the longer visitors stay to read the posts, and the more they come back, the more a site can charge for advertising.

What websites don't want is the kind of off-putting nastiness that spewed forth under a recent CNN.com article about the Affordable Care Act.

"If it were up to me, you progressive libs destroying this country would be hanging from the gallows for treason. People are awakening though. If I were you, I'd be very afraid," wrote someone using the name "JBlaze."

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Singing in the cold: Pop crooner Bruno Mars readies Super Bowl halftime show Feb. 2 in NJ

NEW YORK (AP) -- Everyone is in Bruno Mars' ear about one thing when it comes to performing the Super Bowl halftime show: How will you deal with the freezing cold?

"Everyone's putting the fear in god in me like there's going to be a blizzard," Mars said in a phone interview this month from Los Angeles, asking about the weather conditions in the New York-New Jersey area for his "research."

"I'm going to wear a beekeeper suit, I don't know," he answered about how he will keep warm when he performs Feb. 2. "I'm not going to know until I get there ... I'm not trying to hype myself up too much.

"I know it's going to be cold and I just got to face it."

The 28-year-old pop crooner will hit the stage for the Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. The singer, whose hits range from "Grenade" to "Locked Out of Heaven," typically performs with a full band where he sings, dances and strums the guitar onstage. Mars' performance follows Beyonce's electrifying set earlier this year, where she danced tightly and sang powerfully, with the help of background dancers and Destiny's Child at the big game in New Orleans.

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Crews still working but parts of US, Canada hit by ice might remain without power till Friday

GARDINER, Maine (AP) -- By Thursday, Bob and Katrina Johnson had grown weary of lugging around a portable generator to prevent a freezer-load of moose meat from spoiling and to keep her mother's home warm.

The Maine couple spent Christmas Eve at a family member's home without electricity. Christmas morning found them at their own home without power. And to complete their holiday, they traveled to a third darkened home to exchange gifts that afternoon.

"You have to go with the flow and adapt, and do the best you can," Katrina Johnson said Thursday, before their power was restored. "You learn how to deal with it. Do you like it? No, but you deal with it."

Utility officials said it could be days longer before power is restored to everyone after a weekend ice storm that turned out the lights from Michigan to Maine and into Canada.

People shivered for a seventh day as a new storm blew through the upper Midwest and Northeast, shutting down part of the Pennsylvania Turnpike after a pileup involving 35 vehicles. Ten people were hospitalized with injuries from the crash. Another pileup on Interstate 78 in eastern Pennsylvania involving 25 to 30 vehicles sent 25 people to hospitals.