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JUDGE: DETROIT ELIGIBLE FOR CHAPTER 9 BANKRUPTCY

Tuesday, 03 December 2013 10:49 Published in National News

DETROIT (AP) — Detroit is eligible to shed billions in debt in the largest public bankruptcy in U.S. history, a judge said Tuesday in a long-awaited decision that now shifts the case toward how the city will accomplish that task.

Judge Steven Rhodes turned down objections from unions, pension funds and retirees, which, like other creditors, could lose under any plan to solve $18 billion in long-term liabilities.

But that plan isn't on the judge's desk yet. The issue for Rhodes, who presided over a nine-day trial, was whether Detroit met specific conditions under federal law to stay in bankruptcy court and turn its finances around after years of mismanagement, chronic population loss and collapse of the middle class.

The city has argued that it needs bankruptcy protection for the sake of beleaguered residents suffering from poor services such as slow to nonexistent police response, darkened streetlights and erratic garbage pickup — a concern mentioned by the judge during the trial.

"This once proud and prosperous city can't pay its debts. It's insolvent. It's eligible for bankruptcy," Rhodes said in announcing his decision. "At the same time, it also has an opportunity for a fresh start."

Before the July filing, nearly 40 cents of every dollar collected by Detroit was used to pay debt, a figure that could rise to 65 cents without relief through bankruptcy, according to the city.

"The status quo is unacceptable," emergency manager Kevyn Orr testified.

Rhodes said Tuesday that Detroit has a proud history.

"The city of Detroit was once a hard-working, diverse, vital city, the home of the automobile industry, proud of its nickname the Motor City," he said. But he then recited a laundry list of Detroit's warts: double-digit unemployment, "catastrophic" debt deals, thousands of vacant homes, dilapidated public safety vehicles and waves of population loss.

Detroit no longer has the resources to provide critical services, the judge said, adding: "The city needs help."

Rhodes' decision is a critical milestone. He said pensions, like any contract, can be cut, adding that a provision in the Michigan Constitution protecting public pensions isn't a bulletproof shield in a bankruptcy.

The city says pension funds are short by $3.5 billion. Anxious retirees drawing less than $20,000 a year have appeared in court and put an anguished face on the case. Despite his finding, Rhodes cautioned everyone that he won't automatically approve pension cuts that could be part of Detroit's eventual plan to get out of bankruptcy.

There are other wrinkles. Art possibly worth billions at the Detroit Institute of Arts could be part of a solution for creditors, as well as the sale of a water department that serves much of southeastern Michigan. Orr offered just pennies on every dollar owed during meetings with creditors before bankruptcy.

Behind closed doors, mediators, led by another judge, have been meeting with Orr's team and creditors for weeks to explore possible settlements.

Much of the trial, which ended Nov. 8, focused on whether Orr's team had "good-faith" negotiations with creditors before the filing, a key step for a local government to be eligible for Chapter 9. Orr said four weeks were plenty, but unions and pension funds said there never were serious across-the-table talks.

"The governor took more time to interview the consultants to help the city with restructuring than they took to negotiate the restructuring itself. That's absurd," attorney Sharon Levine, representing AFSCME, said at trial.

An appeal of Rhodes' decision is a certainty. Opponents want to go directly to a federal appeals court in Cincinnati, bypassing the usual procedure of having a U.S. District Court judge hear the case.

Orr, a bankruptcy expert, was appointed in March under a Michigan law that allows a governor to send a manager to distressed cities, townships or school districts. A manager has extraordinary powers to reshape local finances without interference from elected officials. But by July, Orr and Gov. Rick Snyder decided bankruptcy was Detroit's best option.

Detroit, a manufacturing hub that offered good-paying, blue-collar jobs, peaked at 1.8 million residents in 1950 but has lost more than a million since then. Tax revenue in a city that is larger in square miles than Manhattan, Boston and San Francisco combined can't reliably cover pensions, retiree health insurance and buckets of debt sold to keep the budget afloat.

Donors have written checks for new police cars and ambulances. A new agency has been created to revive tens of thousands of streetlights that are dim or simply broken after years of vandalism and mismanagement.

While downtown and Midtown are experiencing a rebirth, even apartments with few vacancies, many traditional neighborhoods are scarred with blight and burned-out bungalows.

Besides financial challenges, Detroit has an unflattering reputation as a dangerous place. In early November, five people were killed in two unrelated shootings just a few days apart. Police Chief James Craig, who arrived last summer, said he was almost carjacked in an unmarked car.

The case occurs at a time of a historic political transition. Former hospital executive Mike Duggan takes over as mayor in January, the third mayor since Kwame Kilpatrick quit in a scandal in 2008 and the first white mayor in largely black Detroit since the 1970s.

Orr, the emergency manager, is in charge at least through next fall, although he's expected to give Duggan more of a role at city hall than the current mayor, Dave Bing, who has little influence in daily operations.

___

Follow Ed White at http://twitter.com/edwhiteap

UPDATED HEALTHCARE.GOV GETS MIXED REVIEWS

Tuesday, 03 December 2013 10:43 Published in Health & Fitness

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) -- Counselors helping people use the federal government's online health exchange are giving mixed reviews to the updated site, with some zipping through the application process while others are facing the same old sputters and even crashes.

The Obama administration had promised a vastly improved shopping experience on healthcare.gov by the end of November, and Monday was the first business day since the date passed.

Brokers and online assisters in Utah say three of every four people successfully signed up for health coverage on the online within an hour of logging in. A state official overseeing North Dakota's navigators said he had noticed improvements in the site, as did organizations helping people sign up in parts of Alabama and Wisconsin.

But staffers at an organization in South Florida and a hospital group with locations in Iowa and Illinois said they have seen no major improvements from the federal website, which 36 states are relying on.

Amanda Crowell, director of revenue cycle for UnityPoint Health-Trinity, which has four hospitals in Iowa and Illinois, said the organization's 15 enrollment counselors did not see a marked improvement on the site.

"We had very high hopes for today, but those hopes were very much quashed," said Crowell. She said out of a dozen attempts online only one person was able to get to the point of plan selection, though the person decided to wait.

The site appeared to generally run smoothly early Monday morning before glitches began slowing people down. By 10 a.m., federal health officials deployed a new queue system that stalls new visitors on a waiting page so that those further along in the process can finish their application with fewer problems.

About 750,000 had visited the site by Monday night - about double the traffic for a typical Monday, according to figures from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Roberta Vann, a certified application counselor at the Hamilton Health Center, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, said the site worked well for her Monday morning but she became frustrated later when the site went down.

"You can get to a point, but it does not allow you to select any plans, you can't get eligibility (information). It stops there," she said. "The thought of it working as well as it was didn't last long."

In South Florida, John Foley and his team of navigators were only able to successfully enroll one of a handful of return applicants who came to their office before glitches started, including wonky estimates for subsidy eligibility. He worried about how they would fare with the roughly 50 other appointments scheduled later in the week.

Although frustrated, most were not deterred, he said.

"These are people that have policies going away, who have health problems. These are people that are going to be very persistent," said Foley, an attorney and certified counselor for Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County.

Despite the Obama administration's team of technicians working around the clock, it's not clear if the site will be able to handle the surge of applicants expected by the Dec. 23 deadline to enroll for coverage starting at the beginning of the year. Many navigators also say they're concerned the bad publicity plaguing the troubled website will prevent people from giving the system another try.

"There's a trust level that we feel like we broke with them. We told them we were here to help them and we can't help them," said Valerie Spencer, an enrollment counselor at Sarah Bush Lincoln Center, a small regional hospital in the central Illinois city of Mattoon.

Federal health officials acknowledged the website is still a work in progress. They've also acknowledged the importance of fixing back-end problems as insurers struggle to process applications because of incomplete or inaccurate data. Even when consumers think they've gone through the whole process, their information may not get to the insurer without problems.

"We do know that things are not perfect with the site. We will continue to make improvements and upgrades," said Julie Bataille, communications director for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

In less than an hour Monday, Starla Redmon, 58, of Paris, Ill., was able to successfully get into a health plan with help from an enrollment counselor. Redmon, who juggles two part-time jobs and has been uninsured for four years, said she was surprised the website worked so well after hearing reports about its problems.

"Everything she typed in, it went through," said Redmon, who chose a bronze plan and will pay about $75 a month after a tax credit. "It was the cheapest plan I could go with."

---

Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Carla K. Johnson in Chicago; Chris Tomlinson in Austin, Texas; Catherine Lucey in Des Moines, Iowa; Peter Jackson in Harrisburg, Pa.; Scott Bauer in Madison, Wis.; James MacPherson in Bismarck, N.D.; Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City; and Phillip Rawls in Montgomery, Ala.

---

Follow Kelli Kennedy on Twitter at twitter.com/kkennedyAP.

© 2013 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED. Learn more about our PRIVACY POLICY and TERMS OF USE.

UPDATED HEALTHCARE.GOV GETS MIXED REVIEWS

Tuesday, 03 December 2013 10:36 Published in National News

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) -- Counselors helping people use the federal government's online health exchange are giving mixed reviews to the updated site, with some zipping through the application process while others are facing the same old sputters and even crashes.

The Obama administration had promised a vastly improved shopping experience on healthcare.gov by the end of November, and Monday was the first business day since the date passed.

Brokers and online assisters in Utah say three of every four people successfully signed up for health coverage on the online within an hour of logging in. A state official overseeing North Dakota's navigators said he had noticed improvements in the site, as did organizations helping people sign up in parts of Alabama and Wisconsin.

But staffers at an organization in South Florida and a hospital group with locations in Iowa and Illinois said they have seen no major improvements from the federal website, which 36 states are relying on.

Amanda Crowell, director of revenue cycle for UnityPoint Health-Trinity, which has four hospitals in Iowa and Illinois, said the organization's 15 enrollment counselors did not see a marked improvement on the site.

"We had very high hopes for today, but those hopes were very much quashed," said Crowell. She said out of a dozen attempts online only one person was able to get to the point of plan selection, though the person decided to wait.

The site appeared to generally run smoothly early Monday morning before glitches began slowing people down. By 10 a.m., federal health officials deployed a new queue system that stalls new visitors on a waiting page so that those further along in the process can finish their application with fewer problems.

About 750,000 had visited the site by Monday night - about double the traffic for a typical Monday, according to figures from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Roberta Vann, a certified application counselor at the Hamilton Health Center, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, said the site worked well for her Monday morning but she became frustrated later when the site went down.

"You can get to a point, but it does not allow you to select any plans, you can't get eligibility (information). It stops there," she said. "The thought of it working as well as it was didn't last long."

In South Florida, John Foley and his team of navigators were only able to successfully enroll one of a handful of return applicants who came to their office before glitches started, including wonky estimates for subsidy eligibility. He worried about how they would fare with the roughly 50 other appointments scheduled later in the week.

Although frustrated, most were not deterred, he said.

"These are people that have policies going away, who have health problems. These are people that are going to be very persistent," said Foley, an attorney and certified counselor for Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County.

Despite the Obama administration's team of technicians working around the clock, it's not clear if the site will be able to handle the surge of applicants expected by the Dec. 23 deadline to enroll for coverage starting at the beginning of the year. Many navigators also say they're concerned the bad publicity plaguing the troubled website will prevent people from giving the system another try.

"There's a trust level that we feel like we broke with them. We told them we were here to help them and we can't help them," said Valerie Spencer, an enrollment counselor at Sarah Bush Lincoln Center, a small regional hospital in the central Illinois city of Mattoon.

Federal health officials acknowledged the website is still a work in progress. They've also acknowledged the importance of fixing back-end problems as insurers struggle to process applications because of incomplete or inaccurate data. Even when consumers think they've gone through the whole process, their information may not get to the insurer without problems.

"We do know that things are not perfect with the site. We will continue to make improvements and upgrades," said Julie Bataille, communications director for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

In less than an hour Monday, Starla Redmon, 58, of Paris, Ill., was able to successfully get into a health plan with help from an enrollment counselor. Redmon, who juggles two part-time jobs and has been uninsured for four years, said she was surprised the website worked so well after hearing reports about its problems.

"Everything she typed in, it went through," said Redmon, who chose a bronze plan and will pay about $75 a month after a tax credit. "It was the cheapest plan I could go with."

---

Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Carla K. Johnson in Chicago; Chris Tomlinson in Austin, Texas; Catherine Lucey in Des Moines, Iowa; Peter Jackson in Harrisburg, Pa.; Scott Bauer in Madison, Wis.; James MacPherson in Bismarck, N.D.; Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City; and Phillip Rawls in Montgomery, Ala.

---

Follow Kelli Kennedy on Twitter at twitter.com/kkennedyAP.

© 2013 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED. Learn more about our PRIVACY POLICY and TERMS OF USE.

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