Despite years of rising medical costs and pressure from the health care overhaul, employers consider employee health insurance a priority. But new surveys suggest coverage may grow skimpier in the coming years.
A poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that companies that offer health insurance see it as a key tool to attract workers and keep them on the job. But they're also sweating the expense, with 86 percent citing the cost of coverage as a main factor in picking a plan.
Five key findings from the poll:
WHEN OFFERING BENEFITS, COST IS TOP OF MIND
Nearly 9 in 10 employers who offer health insurance benefits call the cost to their organization an important factor in choosing a plan. Asked to name the top factor, more cited cost than any other option.
But costs to the company aren't the only monetary factors on employers' minds. The burden on employees matters, too. About 8 in 10 weigh the cost of premiums, and 7 in 10 say deductibles and out-of-pocket costs are a consideration.
Offering insurance also can make good business sense. Companies get a tax break for offering benefits. They lose that if they drop coverage. And, depending on a company's size, it also may have to pay an overhaul-mandated fine for not providing coverage.
About a quarter say a major reason they offer insurance is the tax deduction they get in return, and 18 percent say the tax benefits for employees are a major factor.
BENEFITS OF BENEFITS
Still, money isn't everything. Eight in 10 companies that offer insurance said they do so mainly because it's the right thing to do, according to the AP-NORC Center poll, while about 6 in 10 say it helps recruit and keep workers.
Fewer weigh employee preferences, however. Just 37 percent call those an important consideration, and 45 percent say employee feedback is important in choosing a plan.
The connection between health and productivity matters too. Four in 10 say they offer it to help keep employees healthy and productive, and a third to reduce absenteeism.
But many employers face challenges in trying to figure out if a health insurance plan is of high enough quality to actually help keep their employees healthy. Few businesses surveyed use any type of objective quality data in evaluating which plans to offer, and just 1 in 10 say they would be willing to pay more for a plan that carried higher quality ratings.
Among employers who offer insurance, 27 percent had changed their insurance offerings in the past year and another 34 percent shopped around for a new plan, according to the AP-NORC Center survey.
A separate survey from the benefits consultant Mercer found that only 4 percent of all large employers say they will likely drop their employee health plans within the next five years, a figure that has trended down over the past few years.
"We've been hearing lots of people blowing alarms about employers dropping plans and getting out of the business, but that's never what our data showed," said Beth Umland, Mercer's director of health and benefits research.
All told, just 11 percent of all employers in the AP-NORC Center survey said they had dropped insurance at some point in the past.
RESPONDING TO THE 2010 HEALTH OVERHAUL
Six in 10 employers surveyed say the 2010 health insurance overhaul could impact the way businesses offer benefits, but they are divided on exactly how. About a third think it will make it harder for businesses to scale back their benefits offerings, while a quarter say it will actually make that easier to do. The remaining 35 percent say it won't matter much.
Yet only 3 percent of organizations that currently offer health insurance and would be required to offer coverage as the overhaul is implemented say they plan to change employee schedules to reduce their burden under the law.
The overhaul also created public insurance exchanges on which people can buy coverage, which could offer a safety net for companies that had offered benefits only because their employees had no other way to get them. One in 5 employers surveyed say they are examining the design of the exchange plans as they consider changes to their own benefit offerings.
NEW MODELS GAINING A FOOTHOLD
While many companies remain resolute about offering coverage, the expense may become too much for smaller businesses that generally have less control over rate increases and what they offer their employees. The Mercer study found that 16 percent of companies with 50 to 199 employees say they are likely or very likely to drop medical plans in the next five years.
Many companies have pared their coverage by making their workers pay a bigger share of the doctor bill. In some cases, they've also cut coverage for spouses of workers who can find insurance elsewhere.
The AP-NORC survey reveals employers are using a range of strategies as the market changes. About a quarter of those offering their employees any plan give them a choice from multiple plans, and 6 in 10 who offer any type of plan say at least one of them is a high-deductible plan. One in 7 offers a plan that includes a high performance or tiered provider network. And half of all employers surveyed, regardless of whether they offer insurance, offers some type of wellness benefit.
The AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey of employers on the health insurance market included interviews by telephone or online with a representative sample of 1,061 private sector companies with at least three employees. It was conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago from Aug. 19 through Oct. 8, with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. For results among the full sample of employers, the margin of sampling error is plus or minus 5.6 percentage points.
SAN DIEGO (AP) — Capt. Derek Herrera wanted to remain on active duty after a sniper's bullet in Afghanistan left him paralyzed two years ago.
Now he plans to retire from the Marine Corps, but not before walking across a stage with robotic leg braces to receive a Bronze Star.
Herrera will be honored Friday at Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego, in a ceremony that will also mark his medical retirement after 8½ years in the military.
Herrera has vowed to retire while standing, like he did when he joined the Marine Corps.
"I could easily go and roll up in my wheelchair, but for me it's a mental and emotional goal that I set for myself: to stand up and walk out of the Marine Corps," said Herrera, who was the first American to purchase the ReWalk system recently approved by the Federal Drug Administration.
The special operations officer is being honored with the Bronze Star for his actions on June 14, 2012, when the patrol he was leading came under heavy fire in Afghanistan. Herrera continued coordinating efforts while receiving treatment for his own spinal injury and collapsed left lung.
"The bravery and fortitude he displayed inspired his men to heroic feats as they valiantly fought to save the lives of their wounded team members and repel the enemy assault," wrote Maj. Gen. M.A. Clark in recommending Herrera be recognized with a Bronze Star.
Left paralyzed from the chest down, the 30-year-old Marine sought to be allowed to remain on active duty and also has pushed himself to get back to walking. His last day on active-duty is Nov. 30.
The ReWalk system functions like an exoskeleton for people paralyzed from the waist down, allowing them to stand and walk with assistance from a caretaker.
The device consists of leg braces with motion sensors and motorized joints that respond to subtle changes in upper-body movement and shifts in balance. A harness around the patient's waist and shoulders keeps the suit in place, and a backpack holds the computer and rechargeable battery. Crutches are used for stability, and the FDA requires an assistant be nearby. Herrera's wife assists him.
The MARSOC Foundation, a charitable fund for members of the Marine Corps Special Operations Command, raised the money for Herrera to buy the $69,500 device.
Herrera is working on a master's degree in business administration at the University of California Los Angeles and plans to start his own business.
"Every day is a choice to live, love, inspire, honor the fallen, make the world a better place and walk in the footsteps of giants," Herrera wrote in a Thanksgiving holiday column published by UT San Diego in 2013.
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Your local fun zone, amusement center and theme park is facing an existential challenge these days.
They need to lure you, the American guest, off your sofa with your high resolution, interactive video games and into their world of fun — real life fun.
A decade or two ago, folks went to theme parks big and small to experience the latest in entertainment and technology. Now, attractions need to come up with something better than the amazing quality of entertainment you can get on your computer or TV.
"There's clutter and noise everywhere nowadays from all of these different channels about things you can do with your time. You have to have an exciting product and you've got to be able to do things as a family together," said Jim Pattison Jr., president of Ripley Entertainment.
Pattison's company owns the Guinness World Records Attractions, Louis Tussaud's Wax Museums and the cataloge raisonne of bizarre, the Ripley's Believe it or Not! Museums.
This week, he and about 27,000 other theme park professionals descended on the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida, to seek out the newest in cool, fun stuff that will lure you out of your home.
Walking around the nine miles of show floor aisles at the annual International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions Expo is like riding a mechanical bull through a slot machine: wild and noisy and tiring. There's everything from Hawaiian-themed hot dogs to working carnival rides to the latest in roller-coaster track technology. One company even offers a turnkey theme park solution — they can plan, outfit and open an entire theme park. They've done nearly a dozen in China.
But the real buzzword at the show is "interactivity." It seems that every vendor and park owner is hoping to meet the challenge of luring you away from your Xbox by merging traditional thrill rides with those very video games.
"Immersion" is another buzzword used constantly by park owners and ride developers. It's not enough to just passively ride an attraction. Thrill seekers want to go fast and watch a 3D movie and shoot zombies at the same time.
There's "Justice League: Battle For Metropolis," which will feature the DC Comic all-star team at Six Flags St. Louis and Six Flags Over Texas. The ride will involve laser blasters, animatronics, and a 3-D fog screen.
There's "Voyage to the Iron Reef," where riders will climb into "submarine-inspired vehicles" and blast away at scavenging creatures, fish, and other 3-D creatures as they attempt to save Knott's Berry Farm in California from a watery doom. This attraction might be the first-ever to involve a steampunk puffer fish.
Holovis, a U.K.-based company, was selling a customizable "interactive dark ride", (an indoor ride where cars or vehicles travel through illuminated scenes, often with special effects, music and animation), where riders in a roller coaster car blasted away at pirates in a tropical setting.
"It's always challenging for us to find new and better and thrilling," said Stuart Hetherington, the CEO of Holovis. "A 10-year-old doesn't want to experience the same quality from an immersion experience than from his Xbox in his bedroom."
Theme parks are trying to find ways to incorporate apps and social media into the games and rides so people will continue the immersive experience even after they've left the park. Some rides and theme park experiences allow guests to play game versions of the rides on their phones or compare their in-game scores to other guests via an app.
"Everybody wants to be interactive today. It's not just a matter of going for the experience, now you have to have a digital platform," Pattinson said.
No one knows this better than Denise Chapman Weston, a psychologist who incorporated video games, a smartphone app, lights and music into a water slide. Called Slide Boarding, it's coming to select Wet 'n' Wild parks. Riders can control the music and lights as they whiz down an enclosed, watery chute, then compare and compete for scores with others.
"This," said Chapman Weston, pointing to her phone, "is not a way to have fun. We need to be with other people. We love to be with other people. We love to be immersed in something."
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Michael and Trudi Hardman had always talked about taking their six children to Disney World, and just a week before Thanksgiving, it seemed their "dream trip" was to be a reality.
But just a little more than three hours after they took to the road Wednesday night, their SUV veered off a highway and rolled over in Louisiana, killing them and three of the kids.
Police believe the couple's 16-year-old son apparently fell asleep behind the wheel of the SUV en route from Terrell, Texas, to Orlando, Florida.
The driver, who was not identified, was cited with careless operation, which is a misdemeanor, following the 11 p.m. crash on Interstate 20 near Calhoun, Louisiana State Police spokesman Michael Reichardt said.
Michael Hardman's brother, Timothy Hardman, said the driver and two passengers were injured, one critically.
The teen driver veered left onto the median and then tried to get back onto the highway but overcorrected, causing the 2005 Chevrolet Tahoe to roll over, police said.
Michael and Trudi Hardman were both primary-school teachers from Terrell, Texas. Also killed were sons Dakota Watson, 15, and Adam Hardman, 7; and daughter Kaci Hardman, 4, police said.
None of those killed wore seat belts but the driver did, officials said.
The distance between Terrell and Orlando is about 1,050 miles — a 16-hour drive. The family left their home in Terrell about 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. Wednesday, according to Timothy Hardman, meaning the accident occurred early in the journey.
Michael Hardman was a second-grade teacher at an elementary school in Terrell, said Terrell Independent School District Superintendent Michael French. He had worked in the district for two years, French said.
Hardman also was a little league baseball coach who coached his sons, one of whom, 12-year-old Aaron Hardman, was in critical condition at a Shreveport hospital, Timothy Hardman said.
"He never turned a kid away," Timothy Hardman said. "Michael probably had the biggest heart of anybody you ever knew. He just loved kids."
The driver and the other injured passenger were treated at the hospital and released Thursday morning, Hardman said.
French said a counselor contacted the parents of students in Michael Hardman's class to let them know about his death, and counselors also are available to support both staff and students.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with his family members, colleagues, students and friends," he said. "We must lift each other up during this difficult time," French said.
Trudi Hardman was a kindergarten teacher at Wills Point Primary school and had worked for the Wills Point Independent School District for about 10 years, Superintendent Suzanne Blasingame said in an email.
Blasingame said Michael Hardman also had formerly taught at Wills Point Primary.
"Our school and community is grieving for this family," said Blasingame, who had traveled to Louisiana to be with the family.
Timothy Hardman, 38, of Crandall, Texas, said his brother and Trudi Hardman were married about five years ago and had six children between them. Michael Hardman had three boys from a previous marriage, while Trudi Hardman had two boys from a previous marriage, Timothy Hardman said. The couple had a daughter, Kaci, together, he said.
Timothy Hardman, who traveled to Louisiana after he was notified of the accident, said his brother's family had scheduled the trip about nine months ago, and had planned to stay at Disney World for a week.
"They've always talked about it," he said. "It was their dream trip. It was an opportunity for them to take all of their kids."
Police don't believe the young driver was impaired, but a toxicology sample was taken. The stretch of I-20 where the deadly crash took place is flat and straight and the weather was clear, they said.
"Our heartfelt condolences go out to all of the people affected by this tragic crash," said Col. Mike Edmonson, the Louisiana State Police superintendent. "In an instance, this family vacation turned into an unspeakable tragedy."
Previous versions of this story erroneously reported the charge against the driver. The driver was cited with careless operation, a misdemeanor, not reckless operation of a vehicle, which is a felony.
Stengle reported from Dallas, Texas. Associated Press writer Bill Fuller in New Orleans contributed to this report.
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — One of the nation's largest publishers has withdrawn a high school government textbook up for approval in Texas amid criticism that state curriculums exaggerate Moses' influence on American democracy.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced Friday that its book and electronic materials "United States Government: Principles and Practice" is a "national program" and doesn't meet 100 percent of Texas standards.
The Texas Board of Education failed to preliminarily approve about 100 textbooks and classroom materials for use statewide Tuesday. It must approve books Friday for them to be ready for by next fall, but Houghton Mifflin's won't be considered.
Academics and activists on the right and left have long decried the proposed books. Some worry they are too sympathetic to Islam. Others say they overstate Moses' importance on early American democracy.