Tuesday, March 6, 2012

CHICAGO (AP) -- Mike and Laura Park thought their credit record was spotless. The Texas couple wanted to take advantage of low interest rates, so they put their house on the market and talked to a lender about a mortgage on a bigger home in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs.

Their credit report contained a shocker: A $200 medical bill had been sent to a collection agency. Although since paid, it still lowered their credit scores by about 100 points, and it means they'll have to pay a discount point to get the best interest rate. Cost to them: $2,500.

A growing number of Americans could encounter similar landmines when they refinance or take out a loan. The Commonwealth Fund, a private foundation that sponsors health care research, estimates that 22 million Americans were contacted by collection agencies for unpaid medical bills in 2005. That increased to 30 million Americans in 2010.

Surprisingly, even after the bills have been paid off, the record of the collection action can stay on a credit report for up to seven years, dragging down credit scores and driving up the cost of financing a home. An estimated 3.4 million Americans have paid-off medical debt lingering on their credit reports, according to the Access Project, a research group funded by health care foundations and advocates of tougher laws on medical debt collectors.

CHICAGO (AP) -- Morphine and similar powerful painkillers are sometimes prescribed to recent war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress along with physical pain, and the consequences can be tragic, a government study suggests.

These vets are at high risk for drug and alcohol abuse, but they're two times more likely to get prescriptions for addictive painkillers than vets with only physical pain, according to the study, billed as the first national examination of the problem. Iraq and Afghanistan vets with PTSD who already had substance abuse problems were four times more likely to get these drugs than vets without mental health problems, according to the study.

Subsequent suicides, other self-inflicted injuries, and drug and alcohol overdoses were all more common in vets with PTSD who got these drugs. These consequences were rare but still troubling, the study authors said.

The results underscore the challenge of treating veterans with devastating physical injuries and haunting memories of the horrors of war. But the findings also suggest that physicians treating these veterans should offer less risky treatment, including therapies other than drugs, the study authors and other experts say.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Garth Brooks' induction to the Country Music Hall of Fame caps one of the most astounding and important music careers in American history. At 50, though, Brooks isn't done yet.

He's one of the hall's youngest living inductees and might be a few short years from launching the second phase of a career that forced country music into the national consciousness and sold more albums than Michael Jackson.

He joins singer Connie Smith and keyboard player Hargus "Pig" Robbins as this year's inductees. A formal ceremony is planned later this year.

Brooks has been in semi-retirement, raising his children in his home state of Oklahoma with his wife, Trisha Yearwood. He started a string of shows in Las Vegas a few years ago, and talked openly Tuesday about what will happen after his nest empties.

BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) -- Ralph McQuarrie, the artist who developed the look of the first "Star Wars" trilogy's signature characters, sets and spaceships, has died. He was 82.

McQuarrie's death Saturday at his Berkeley home was announced on his official website and Facebook page. John Scoleri, co-author of a book on McQuarrie's art, told the Los Angeles Times (http://lat.ms/Af82v3 ) that McQuarrie had suffered from Parkinson's disease.

In a statement on the official "Star Wars" website, George Lucas said McQuarrie was the first person he hired to help him envision what would become some of the top-grossing movies of all time.

"His genial contribution, in the form of unequaled production paintings, propelled and inspired all of the cast and crew of the original Star Wars trilogy," Lucas said. "When words could not convey my ideas, I could always point to one of Ralph's fabulous illustrations."

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- "Shoulder to shoulder" is the mantra of the NATO-Afghan military partnership. Now, after Afghan soldiers and police turned their guns on their foreign partners during outrage over the Quran burnings, even Western advisers - not just combat troops - are looking over their shoulders.

The deepening distrust is jeopardizing the U.S.-led coalition's strategy of training Afghan security forces and helping government workers so that international troops can go home.

The advisers do a variety of jobs. While some focus on the battlefield, others pore over geological surveys, lure outside investors or make sure that key mountain passes are clear of snow. They work closely with their Afghan counterparts to build a government strong enough to fend off threats and attacks from the Taliban and other militants trying to destabilize their country.

There has been lingering distrust for years. Afghan soldiers and police, or militants dressed in their uniforms, have shot and killed more than 75 U.S. and other coalition forces in Afghanistan since 2007.

But tensions soared Feb. 25 when two U.S. military advisers were found dead with gunshots to the back of the head inside the Afghan Ministry of Interior, one of the most heavily guarded buildings in the capital, Kabul.

The two were among six U.S. troops killed by Afghan security forces during a week of demonstrations over the burning of Islamic books and Qurans at a U.S. military base in eastern Afghanistan. President Barack Obama and U.S. military officials say the burnings were a mistake and not intentional.

NEW YORK (AP) -- Apple is holding an event Wednesday in San Francisco, and has hinted that it will reveal a new iPad model. Rumors speak of an updated tablet with a speedier processor, a sharper screen and an option for faster wireless broadband access.

If last year's launch of the iPad 2 is any guide, the new iPad model will go on sale in the U.S. next week, likely on Friday.

The upgrade from the iPad 2 to the iPad 3 will be less significant than the upgrade from the original iPad to the iPad 2, which added two cameras while cutting both the thickness and the weight of the device.

One big unknown is whether Apple will keep the iPad 2 in production and offer it at a lower price, like it kept the iPhone 3GS after the launch of the iPhone 4.

Another big question is whether Apple will reveal its rumored foray into making TV sets. Some have speculated that the invite to the Apple event, which said "We have something you really have to see," points in that direction.

Apple already sells and "Apple TV." It's not a TV, but a small box that attaches to a television set to display movies and play music from iTunes.

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) -- An Afghan official says a bomb hidden in a parked motorcycle has exploded in a market in southern Afghanistan, killing four people.

Kandahar provincial spokesman Zalmai Aybui says Wednesday's blast in Spin Boldak near the Pakistani border also wounded eight people.

He says one of the wounded is a border police officer, the rest are civilians.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Mitt Romney squeezed out a win in pivotal Ohio, captured five other states with ease and padded his delegate lead in the race for the Republican presidential nomination but was forced to share the Super Tuesday spotlight with a resurgent Rick Santorum.

"I'm going to get this nomination," Romney told cheering supporters in Massachusetts," pointing particularly to delegate support that was greater than the combined totals of his three rivals.

On the busiest night of the campaign, he scored a home-state win in Massachusetts to go with primary victories in Vermont and in Virginia - where neither Santorum nor Newt Gingrich was on the ballot. He added the Idaho and Alaska caucuses to his column.

Ohio was the big win, though, and the closest contest of all as the Republican rivals battled for the chance to face Democratic President Barack Obama in November.

Santorum countered crisply, winning primaries in Oklahoma and Tennessee and the North Dakota caucuses - raising fresh doubts about Romney's ability to corral the votes of conservatives in some of the most Republican states in the country.

NEW YORK (AP) -- Computer hackers are not expected to disappear after the first major U.S. law enforcement attack against members of a group that calls itself Anonymous.

The revelation that criminal charges were unsealed Tuesday against four people in Europe and two in the United States brought vows of retaliation. One defiant message posted to Twitter boasted: "Anonymous is a hydra, cut off one head and we grow two back."

Law enforcement authorities built their case in part with the help of a legendary hacker known as "Sabu." He was arrested last June and was revealed to be a self-taught, unemployed computer programmer with no college education. Authorities say he worked out of his lower Manhattan public housing unit. They say his work already has helped prevent more than 300 computer-based attacks.
BEIJING (AP) -- Chinese officials sought Wednesday to discredit about two dozen Tibetans who have set themselves on fire to protest China's rule over their region as outcasts, criminals and mentally ill people manipulated by the exiled Dalai Lama.

The Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader has said he does not encourage the self-immolations. However, Chinese officials have sought to portray the past year's wave of immolations - including three since Saturday - as the result of outside orchestration rather than what activists say is local unrest over the government's suppression of Tibetan religion and culture.

Many of the protesters have been linked to a Buddhist monastery in the mountainous Aba prefecture of Sichuan province.

"Some of the suicides are committed by clerics returning to lay life, and they all have criminal records or suspicious activities. They have a very bad reputation in society," said Wu Zegang, an ethnic Tibetan who is the government's top administrator in Aba.

Wu told reporters in Beijing that the self-immolations were "orchestrated and supported" by the Dalai Lama and Tibetan independence forces. He said that before setting themselves on fire, the immolators shouted "independence for Tibet and other slogans that aim to divide the nation."