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Andrew Dowd

Andrew Dowd

PERTH, Australia (AP) — The search for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet entered a new stage Friday when navy ships deployed stingray-shaped sound locators in a remote stretch of the Indian Ocean, in an increasingly urgent hunt for the plane's data recorders before their beacons fall silent.

Officials leading the multinational search for Flight 370 said there was no specific information that led to the underwater devices being used for the first time, but that they were brought into the effort because there was nothing to lose.

An arduous weeks-long hunt has not turned up a single piece of wreckage that could have led the searchers to the plane and eventually to its black boxes, which contain key information about the flight.

Beacons in the black boxes emit "pings" so they can be more easily found. The beacons' batteries last about a month.

"No hard evidence has been found to date, so we have made the decision to search a sub-surface area on which the analysis has predicted MH370 is likely to have flown," Cmdr. Peter Leahy, the commander of military forces involved in the search, said in a statement.

Two ships with sophisticated equipment that can hear the pings made their way Friday along a 240-kilometer (150-mile) route investigators hope may be close to the spot Flight 370 entered the water after it vanished March 8 on a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing.

The head of the joint agency coordinating the search acknowledged that the search area was essentially just a best guess — and noted time is running out to find the coveted data recorders.

"The locater beacon will last about a month before it ceases its transmissions — so we're now getting pretty close to the time when it might expire," Angus Houston said.

The Australian navy ship Ocean Shield towed a pinger locator from the U.S. Navy and the British navy's HMS Echo, equipped with similar gear, looked for the black boxes in an area investigators' settled on after analyzing hourly satellite pings the aircraft gave off after it disappeared.

That information, combined with data on the estimated speed and performance of the aircraft, led them to that specific stretch of ocean, Houston said.

Because the U.S. Navy's pinger locator can pick up black box signals to a depth of 6,100 meters (20,000 feet), it should be able to hear the plane's data recorders even if they are lying in the deepest part of the search zone — about 5,800 meters (19,000 feet) below the surface. But that's only if the locator gets within range of the black boxes — a tough task, given the size of the search area and the fact that the pinger locator must be dragged slowly through the water at just 1 to 5 knots, or 1 to 6 miles per hour.

The type of locator being used is a 70-centimeter (30-inch) -long, cylindrical microphone that is towed underwater in a grid pattern behind a ship. It's attached to about 6,100 meters (20,000 feet) of cable and is guided through the ocean depths by a yellow, triangular carrier with a shark fin on top. It looks like a stingray and has a wingspan of 1 meter (3 feet).

Finding floating wreckage is key to narrowing the search area, as officials can then use data on ocean currents to try and backtrack to the spot where the Boeing 777 hit the water — and where the black boxes may be. The devices would provide crucial information about what condition the plane was flying under and any communications or sounds in the cockpit.

But with no wreckage found so far, officials can't be confident they're looking for the black boxes in the right place, said Geoff Dell, discipline leader of accident investigation at Central Queensland University in Australia.

"They might be lucky and they might start smack bang right over the top of it," Dell said. "But my guess is that's not going to be the case and they're in for a lengthy search."

The area where crews are looking for the devices lies within a larger 217,000-square-kilometer (84,000-square-mile) search zone that 14 planes and nine ships crisscrossed Friday in the hopes of spotting debris on the ocean surface. The search zone is about 1,700 kilometers (1,100 miles) northwest of the Australian west coast city of Perth.

Fourteen aircraft and 11 ships were involved in Friday's search activities in the greater search areas, the coordination agency said. Ships sighted a number of objects in the area but none were associated with the missing plane, the agency said.

The search area has shifted each day, as the investigative team continues to analyze what little radar and satellite data is available while factoring in where any debris may have drifted due to ocean currents and weather.

Australia is coordinating the ocean search, and the investigation into the plane's disappearance is ultimately Malaysia's responsibility. Australia, the U.S., Britain and China have all agreed to be "accredited representatives" of the investigation.

Four Australian investigators were in Kuala Lumpur to help with the investigation and ensure information on the aircraft's likely flight path is fed back to search crews, Houston said. The two countries are still working out who will be in charge of analyzing any wreckage and flight recorders that may be found.

___

Associated Press writers Eileen Ng and Gillian Wong in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, and Kristen Gelineau and Rohan Sullivan in Sydney contributed to this report.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Here's more fallout from the health care law: Until now, customers could walk into an insurance office or go online to buy standard health care coverage any time of year. Not anymore.
 
Many people who didn't sign up during the government's open enrollment period that ended Monday will soon find it difficult or impossible to get insured this year, even if they go directly to a private company and money is no object. For some it's already too late.
 
With limited exceptions, insurers are refusing to sell to individuals after the enrollment period for HealthCare.gov and the state marketplaces. They will lock out the young and healthy as well as the sick or injured. Those who want to switch plans also are affected. The next wide-open chance to enroll comes in November for coverage in 2015.
 
It's a little-noted consequence of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, which requires nearly all Americans to be insured or pay a fine and requires insurers to accept people with health problems.
 
"I have people that can buy insurance, but the companies shut them down. They won't take the applications," insurance broker Steve Bobiak of Frackville, Pa., said. "We're a free country. You should be able to buy anything anytime you want."
 
Those who act now may still be able to get in, depending on where they live. Following the lead of the government marketplaces, some companies are extending off-marketplace sales for a week or a month to help people who hit snags trying to enroll by this week's deadline. Rules vary from state to state.
 
After those extensions, eligibility for coverage during 2014 is guaranteed only for people who experience certain qualifying life events, such as losing a job that provided insurance, moving to a new state, getting married, having a baby or losing coverage under a parent's health plan.
 
The federal law doesn't prevent companies from selling policies to everyone all year. But insurers consider it too risky now that the law prohibits them from rejecting people in poor health.
 
"If you didn't have an open enrollment period, you would have people who would potentially enroll when they get sick and dis-enroll when they get better," said Chris Stenrud, spokesman for insurer Kaiser Permanente. "The only insured people would be sick people, which would make insurance unaffordable for everyone."
 
Bobiak, whose NICA Benefits company helps people buy insurance in New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania, said he learned only a couple of weeks ago that insurers were cutting off new policies.
 
"It's lousy communication out there," he said. "If we don't know, my God, how do they expect other people to know? It's terrible."
 
A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation in mid-March found that 6 out of 10 people without insurance weren't aware of the marketplace deadline on March 31. The Obama administration, insurance companies and nonprofit groups scrambled to spread the word, often with messages that focused on the cost savings available to many people through the government marketplaces.
 
There wasn't much public discussion about people who prefer to buy policies outside the marketplaces, sometimes finding better deals or options more to their liking.
 
Health and Human Services spokesman Aaron Albright pointed to a cryptic note on the HealthCare.gov website: It says "in some limited cases some insurance companies may sell private health plans outside the marketplace and outside open enrollment" that satisfy the law's coverage mandate. It doesn't say how to find any companies doing that. Albright had no further comment.
 
Gary Claxton, a health law expert at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said it's "highly unlikely" that companies will offer such coverage after the deadline window fully closes. Some do still offer temporary plans, lasting from a month to a year. But those plans don't cover pre-existing conditions and don't get buyers off the hook for the law's tax penalty.
 
Nate Purpura, spokesman for eHealthInsurance.com, which sells policies from 200 companies across the nation, said at this point he knows of none planning to offer major medical insurance after this month, except to people with qualifying life events.
 
For people trying to get an off-marketplace plan through an open enrollment extension, some insurers are selling them through April 15, and others through the end of the month. Purpura said eHealth will offer such plans in at least some areas of these states: Arizona, California, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Utah, Virginia and Washington state.
 
Kaiser Permanente will offer extensions that mirror the state or federal marketplace in the area where a plan is sold, Stenrud said. The federal marketplace extension for online enrollment is April 15. But Oregon, for example, is giving marketplace buyers until April 30.
 
After that, Stenrud said, without a qualifying life event, the door closes until Nov. 15.
 
---
 
Follow Connie Cass on Twitter at HTTPS://TWITTER.COM/CONNIECASS
 
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