Nation & World Briefs 05-16-14 Employer health costs to rise nearly 9 percent this year, survey finds

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LOS ANGELES -- Employer health care costs are expected to rise nearly 9 percent in 2014, a slight improvement over recent years, according to a new survey.

However, that modest decline doesn't offer much relief to companies and their employees, who are seeing health insurance costs take a bigger bite out of their paychecks.

"Even though the decline is good news, most (health) plan sponsors still find 8 percent to 9 percent cost increases unsustainable," said Harvey Sobel, a principal at Buck Consultants, a benefits consulting company that surveyed 126 insurers and health plan administrators nationwide.

Those companies surveyed provide health benefits to 119 million people.

The report released Thursday found that costs for preferred-provider organization, or PPO, plans are expected to rise 8.7 percent this year. That's down from 9 percent last year.

HMO plans should increase 8.6 percent, down just slightly from the previous year, according to Buck Consultants.

Some insurers surveyed cited patients' lower use of medical care as the primary reason for the decreases.

Pentagon punished nearly 500: The U.S. military fired or disciplined nearly 500 workers for sexual harassment in a 12-month period, and nearly 13 percent of the complaints filed involved repeat offenders, according to new data. The Pentagon on Thursday released its first formal report on sexual harassment amid months of criticism from Congress over how the department handles sexual assaults and related crimes. According to the report, there were 1,366 reports of sexual harassment filed in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, involving 496 offenders across the services and National Guard.

Republicans block bill: Senate Republicans blocked a bill Thursday that would renew more than 50 expired tax breaks affecting millions of businesses and individuals. The bill has widespread bipartisan support, but Republicans were unhappy because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., wouldn't agree to vote on GOP amendments. A similar dispute derailed an energy bill earlier this week. Almost every year, Congress routinely renews the tax breaks. This year, though, they were allowed to expire at the start of the year. The package has strong backing from the business community but would add about $85 billion to the budget deficit.

Won't apologize for calling Obama N-word: Wolfeboro Police Commissioner Robert Copeland in the predominantly white New Hampshire town says he won't apologize for calling President Barack Obama the N-word, and he sat with his arms crossed while angry residents at a meeting called for his resignation on Thursday. Copeland, who's 82 and white, has acknowledged in an email to his fellow police commissioners he used the racial slur in describing Obama. Town resident Jane O'Toole, who moved to Wolfeboro four months ago, said she overheard Copeland say the slur at a restaurant in March and wrote to the town manager about it. Copeland, in an email to her, acknowledged using the slur in referring to the president and said he will not apologize.

Wrong-way driver was drunk: A wrong-way driver who killed an off-duty police officer in a head-on collision on a Phoenix-area freeway had a blood-alcohol level nearly three times the legal limit, authorities said Thursday. Officer Carrick Cook, an Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman, said Raul Silva Corona's blood-alcohol content was 0.238 percent. A driver is presumed to be intoxicated in Arizona at 0.08 percent. Corona, 42, collided with Mesa Police Officer Brandon Mendoza after driving 35 miles in the wrong direction on three freeways early Monday morning. At one point, a police officer had slowed traffic and tried to ram the SUV Corona was driving, but Corona swerved and continued on.

Lessons from 2003 fires help: The weekend before nine wildfires erupted in the San Diego area, scores of state firefighters were sent along with engines and aircraft to the region -- knowing that the forecast of a heat wave and gusty winds was setting the stage for a tinderbox. The positioning of crews was among several steps fire officials say they have been fine-tuning since 2003 when the San Diego area experienced one of the worst infernos in California's history. Communications between firefighting agencies has improved, residents are notified more quickly when to evacuate, and more aircraft are available to dump water on fast-moving flames.

Yellen cites small businesses: Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen is spotlighting the fact that U.S. small businesses have accounted for more than half the job gains during the nearly 5-year-old economic recovery. The economy has regained 8.6 million jobs since early 2010, leaving it about 100,000 jobs short of the 138.4 million that existed in January 2008 near the start of the recession. More than half those jobs came from companies with fewer than 250 employees, Yellen tells small business owners in a speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Russia's rocket launch fails: Russia's Proton-M booster rocket has failed and broken apart during a test launch, just months after a shake-up in the country's space agency that was meant to boost its dented image. The rocket, carrying a communications satellite, was launched early today but stopped functioning 100 miles above the earth, Roskosmos said in a statement. The agency said it is investigating the cause of the failure and that the rocket totally disintegrated in space, meaning no fragments will fall to earth.

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