Tuesday, December 31, 2013

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More glitches loom as coverage begins Wednesday, along with consumer protections and a mandate

WASHINGTON (AP) -- All things good, bad and unpredictable converge with the new year for President Barack Obama's health care overhaul as the law's major benefits take effect, along with an unpopular insurance mandate and a risk of more nerve-wracking disruptions to coverage.

The changes bring big improvements for some, including Howard Kraft of Lincolnton, N.C. A painful spinal problem left him unable to work as a hotel bellman. But he's got coverage because federal law now forbids insurers from turning away people with health problems.

"I am not one of these people getting a policy because I'm being made to," Kraft said. "I need one to stay alive."

What's good for millions like Kraft is secured through what others see as an imposition: requiring virtually every American to get covered, either through an employer, a government program, or by buying a plan directly.

But the health care headlines early this year could come from continued unpredictable consequences of the insurance program's messy rollout.

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For New Year's revelers, Times Square gathering part celebration, part endurance contest

NEW YORK (AP) -- Crowds jammed Times Square on Tuesday to ring in 2014, braving bone-chilling cold and ultra-tight security for the chance to see Miley Cyrus, a final countdown from a U.S. Supreme Court justice and the drop of the shimmering crystal ball.

The sea of horn-tooting, hat-wearing humanity that filled the Crossroads of the World was part celebration, part endurance sport because post-Sept. 11 security measures force spectators into pens at least 12 hours in advance, with no food, no warmth and no place to go to the bathroom.

"We've got adult diapers. We're wearing them right now," said teenager Amber Woods, who came with friends from the New York City's suburbs to experience the event for the first time. They entered their corral at 10 a.m. For nourishment, they brought lollipops and popcorn. For the cold, they did a lot of jumping in place.

"Every time I say, it's the last. But then I come back," said Yasmina Merrir, a Washington, D.C., resident attending her fourth Times Square ball drop. In 2009, the cold was so bad, she got hypothermia. Her legs swelled up like balloons.

She was also fasting and not drinking anything to deal with the lack of restrooms. As for the cold, she recommends vigorous dancing for as long as you can stand on your feet.

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AP PHOTOS: Revelers around the world ring in 2014 with fireworks, parties and prayers

From huge street parties and fireworks displays in Sydney and Jakarta, to quiet moments of prayer in a Buddhist temple in Tokyo, people are welcoming in 2014.

Here's a gallery of images from New Year's Eve celebrations around the world.

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Follow AP photographers and photo editors on Twitter: http://apne.ws/15Oo6jo

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Police: Woman crushed to death while walking across Boston drawbridge as it started to go up

BOSTON (AP) -- A woman walking across a Boston drawbridge was crushed to death Tuesday after an operator raising the bridge for a boat to pass heard her screams and lowered it, accidentally trapping her between the two plates, investigators said.

The woman was crossing the bridge around noon when a bridge operator, not aware that she was on the bridge, began raising it for the boat in the Chelsea River. The woman grabbed hold of one of the sides of the bridge and the operator immediately lowered it when he heard her scream, but she became trapped in between the plates and suffered massive trauma, police said.

"I couldn't see her, but I could hear her," witness Waldina Garcia, 47, told the Boston Globe. "She was screaming and screaming and screaming."

The woman, who wasn't identified, was pronounced dead at the scene. Investigators called her death on the Meridian Street Bridge, which connects Chelsea and East Boston, an accident.

The distraught bridge operator was taken to the hospital for evaluation, officials said.

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AGING AMERICA: For some blue-collar Americans, retirement is nothing more than elusive dream

Tom Edwards grew up in a family that's been cutting trees and hauling timber in the Pacific Northwest for more than a century. The Spanaway, Wash., resident says he has worked as a logger since he was a kid -- it's just what an able-bodied youngster was expected to do.

Now, at 53, with business in a slump and little money in savings, he's pessimistic about his chances of retiring.

"It's never going to happen. By the time I reach retirement age, there won't be Social Security. There's not going to be any money," Edwards said. "I'll do like my father did: I'll work 'til I die."

Across the U.S., such concerns are common among blue-collar baby boomers -- the 78 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964. Many have jobs that provide paltry pensions or none at all, as many companies have been moving toward less generous retirement packages in the past decade.

Many boomers expect to work the rest of their lives because they have little cash put away for their old age and they worry Social Security won't cover their bills. Some hope to move to jobs that are less physically demanding.

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South Sudan rebels take most of strategic city of Bor; warring sides agree to peace talks

JUBA, South Sudan (AP) -- Anti-government rebels in South Sudan took control of nearly all of a strategic city on Tuesday, even as officials announced that representatives from the government and the rebels agreed to hold talks for the first time.

The announcement that talks would soon take place in neighboring Ethiopia was the first political breakthrough since ethnically-based violence began coursing through South Sudan late on Dec. 15. The violence has killed more than 1,000 people -- a number that is believed to be a low estimate -- and has seen the country's two most powerful ethnic groups fight each other.

The U.S. envoy to the region, Donald Booth, met with President Salva Kiir on Tuesday -- their fourth meeting in eight days -- and spoke on the phone with the former vice president, Riek Machar, who is accused by the government of having tried to carry out a coup, a charge he denies.

Booth told reporters in Juba that the commitment to meet by the two sides was a "first step but very important step" toward achieving a cessation of hostilities and substantive talks to resolve the underlying political issues that could bring a halt to the violence.

Earlier in the day, heavy fighting erupted in Bor, the contested provincial capital of Jonglei state, which is a short drive from the capital, Juba. Government troops battled renegade forces loyal to Machar including the Nuer tribal militia known as the "White Army," said military spokesman Col. Philip Aguer.

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NKorea's Kim claims strength in new year after removal of "filth" following uncle's execution

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- Kim Jong Un boasted Wednesday that North Korea enters the new year on a surge of strength because of the elimination of "factionalist filth" -- a reference to the young leader's once powerful uncle, whose execution last month has raised questions about Kim's grip on power.

Kim's comments in an annual New Year's Day message, which included a call for improved ties with Seoul, will be scrutinized by outside analysts and governments for clues about the opaque country's intentions and policy goals. There's widespread worry about the country's future since Kim publicly humiliated and then executed his uncle and mentor, one of the biggest political developments in Pyongyang in years, and certainly since Kim took power two years ago after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.

North Korea's "resolute" action to "eliminate factionalist filth" within the ruling Workers' Party has bolstered the country's unity "by 100 times," Kim said in a speech broadcast by state TV. He didn't mention by name his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, long considered the country's No. 2 power.

Kim called for an improvement in strained ties with South Korea, saying it's time for each side to stop slandering the other. He urged Seoul to listen to voices calling for unification between the countries. The language on unification, which is similar to that of past New Year's messages, is an obvious improvement on last year's threats of nuclear war, though there is still deep skepticism in Washington and Seoul about Pyongyang's intentions.

North Korea's authoritarian and secretive government is extremely difficult for outsiders to interpret, and analysts are divided about the meaning of Jang's execution on treason charges. Many, however, believe that the purge shows Kim Jong Un struggling to establish the same absolute power that his father and grandfather enjoyed. The public announcement of Jang's fall opened up a rare and unfavorable window on the country's inner workings, showing an alleged power struggle between Kim and his uncle after the 2011 death of Kim Jong Il.

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Supreme Court justice delays birth control mandate part of health care law for Catholic groups

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Only hours before the law was to take effect, a Supreme Court justice on Tuesday blocked implementation of part of President Barack Obama's health care law that would have forced some religion-affiliated organizations to provide health insurance for employees that includes birth control.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor's decision came after a different effort by Catholic-affiliated groups from around the nation. Those groups had rushed to the federal courts to stop Wednesday's start of portions of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Sotomayor acted on a request from an organization of Catholic nuns in Denver, the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged. Its request for an emergency stay had been denied earlier in the day by a federal appeals court.

The government is "temporarily enjoined from enforcing against applicants the contraceptive coverage requirements imposed by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act," Sotomayor said in the order. She gave government officials until 10 a.m. EST Friday to respond to her order.

The law requires employers to provide insurance that covers a range of preventive care, free of charge, including contraception. The Catholic Church prohibits the use of contraceptives. That was not acceptable, said their lawyer, Mark L. Rienzi.

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Former first lady Barbara Bush hospitalized in Houston with respiratory-related issue

HOUSTON (AP) -- Former first lady Barbara Bush has been hospitalized in Houston with a respiratory-related issue, her husband's office said Tuesday night.

The statement from the office of former President George H.W. Bush said Mrs. Bush was admitted to Houston Methodist Hospital on Monday.

"She is in great spirits, has already received visits from her husband and family, and is receiving fantastic care," the brief statement said.

Just last week, Mrs. Bush, 88, and her husband, the 41st president, honored a Houston businessman and philanthropist with a Points of Light Award, a volunteer service award started by the former president.

The Bushes' home is in Houston.

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Alzheimer's hope: Vitamin E may slow decline in mild, moderate dementia, veterans study finds

Researchers say vitamin E might slow the progression of mild-to-moderate Alzheimer's disease -- the first time any treatment has been shown to alter the course of dementia at that stage.

In a study of more than 600 older veterans, high doses of the vitamin delayed the decline in daily living skills, such as making meals, getting dressed and holding a conversation, by about six months over a two-year period.

The benefit was equivalent to keeping one major skill that otherwise would have been lost, such as being able to bathe without help. For some people, that could mean living independently rather than needing a nursing home.

Vitamin E did not preserve thinking abilities, though, and it did no good for patients who took it with another Alzheimer's medication. But those taking vitamin E alone required less help from caregivers -- about two fewer hours each day than some others in the study.

"It's not a miracle or, obviously, a cure," said study leader Dr. Maurice Dysken of the Minneapolis VA Health Care System. "The best we can do at this point is slow down the rate of progression."