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CHICAGO (AP) -- For uninsured people, the nation's new health care law may offer an escape from worry about unexpected, astronomical medical bills. But for Stephanie Payne of St. Louis, who already had good insurance, the law could offer another kind of escape: the chance to quit her job.

At 62, Payne has worked for three decades as a nurse, most recently traveling house to house caring for 30 elderly and disabled patients. But she's ready to leave that behind, including the job-based health benefits, to move to Oregon and promote her self-published book. She envisions herself blogging, doing radio interviews and speaking to seniors groups.

"I want the freedom to fit that into my day without squeezing it into my day," she said.

One of the selling points of the new health care plan, which has a March 31 enrollment deadline, is that it breaks the link between affordable health insurance and having a job with benefits. Payne believes she'll be able to replace her current coverage with a $400- to $500-a-month plan on Oregon's version of the new insurance exchange system set up under the law.

Federal experts believe the new insurance option will be a powerful temptation for a lot of job-weary workers ready to bail out. Last month, congressional budget analysts estimated that within 10 years, the equivalent of 2.5 million full-time workers could be working less because of the expanded coverage.

But is the new option a gamble? That's a matter of debate, not only among the politicians who are still arguing furiously over the law's merits, but among economists and industry experts.

"We don't know what the future of exchange insurance will be," said economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum, a center-right public policy institute. Premiums should remain stable if enrollment picks up and broadens to include younger, healthier people. But if older, sicker people are the vast majority of customers, prices eventually could spike.

For Mike Morucci, 50, the idea of leaving his information technology job and its health benefits is "terrifying," he said.

But he decided to take the plunge after reviewing the range of coverage available at different price points. Tax credits will help those with moderate incomes pay their insurance premiums. And coverage is guaranteed even for those with pre-existing conditions. Twenty-five states also agreed to expand their Medicaid programs, providing health care for more low-income people.

"It definitely freed up my thinking when I thought, `Do I want to give this a go?'" Morucci, of Ellicott City, Md.

Morucci has been writing scripts at night and on weekends for four years and is on a team of writers for a web-based comedy series titled "Click!" launching this spring. Before giving notice at the job he had held for 18 years, he made a spreadsheet of health plans available on the Maryland exchange and found one for $650 a month to cover him and his 23-year-old daughter.

"I turned 50, so for me it's time to focus on my passion instead of my paycheck," he said.

The United States has been unique among industrialized nations in tying insurance and employment closely, said labor economist Craig Garthwaite of Northwestern University, who co-authored a frequently cited study on how the health law may break what's known as "job lock." Even in Germany and Japan, where insurance remains private, people who can't afford it get public assistance and coverage is guaranteed.

Job lock "forces people to work at jobs that are not suited to their talents just to get benefits," Garthwaite said. "Economists tend to think that's a bad thing."

In congressional testimony this month, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said that "people will have some choices that they don't have today" including farm families who "will have the choice of not having to have an off-farm job to get health insurance for the family."

However, one rub may be the cost. The insurance on the new marketplace is often more expensive than what a worker has now because employers often make large contributions to premiums.

The average annual premium paid by an employee is $999, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey. In the new markets, the average annual premium is $5,558 for a 50-year-old and $8,435 for a 60-year-old, according to an analysis run for The Associated Press by HealthPocket.

But some employers are cutting back on their contributions, narrowing the gap.

At this point, Americans over age 50 are most likely to take advantage of the new freedom, Garthwaite said. They're ready for a career change and may have enough savings to take a risk.

Pamela Mahoney, 50, of Los Gatos, Calif., decided to leave a job in corporate communications when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the health care law.

"I about did cartwheels down the hall," she said of hearing the court's decision. In January, she joined her husband full time in the communications company, BlueChair Group Inc., they co-founded. They recently chose an insurance plan for $1,100 a month on the California marketplace.

She was able to get coverage despite having asthma, a pre-existing condition that might have made her uninsurable before the new law guaranteed coverage.

"Prior to the Affordable Care Act, I felt bound to be an employee rather than a small business owner," she said. "There's something to be said for having your own business and being in control of your own destiny."

---

Associated Press Medical Writer Carla K. Johnson can be reached atHTTPS://TWITTER.COM/CARLAKJOHNSON

© 2014 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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MOSCOW (AP) — President Vladimir Putin completed the annexation of Crimea on Friday, signing the peninsula into Russia at nearly the same time his Ukrainian counterpart sealed a deal pulling his country closer into Europe's orbit.

Putin said he saw no need to further retaliate against U.S. sanctions, a newly conciliatory tone reflecting an apparent attempt to contain one of the worst crises in Russia's relations with the West since the Cold War.

Putin hailed the incorporation of Crimea into Russia as a "remarkable event" before he signed the parliament bills into law in the Kremlin on Friday. He ordered fireworks in Moscow and Crimea.

At nearly the same time, in a ceremony in Brussels, Ukraine's new prime minister pulled his nation closer to Europe by signing a political association agreement with the European Union — the same deal that touched off the political crisis that drove President Viktor Yanukovych from office and sent him fleeing to Russia.

Russia rushed the annexation of the strategic Black Sea peninsula after Sunday's hastily called referendum, in which its residents overwhelmingly backed breaking off from Ukraine and joining Russia. Ukraine and the West have rejected the vote, held two weeks after Russian troops had taken over Crimea.

At Ukrainian bases on the peninsula, troops hesitated, besieged by Russian forces and awaiting orders. Russia claimed some had switched sides and agreed to join the Russian military.

The U.S. and EU have responded to the crisis by slapping sanctions on Russia.

U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday ordered a second round of sanctions against nearly two dozen members of Putin's inner circle and a major bank supporting them.

Moscow retaliated on Thursday by banning nine U.S. officials and lawmakers from entering Russia, but Putin indicated that Russia would likely refrain from curtailing cooperation in areas such as Afghanistan. Moscow appears to hope to limit the damage from the latest U.S. and EU sanctions and avoid further Western blows.

The latest U.S. sanctions, which targeted Putin's chief of staff along with other senior Kremlin aides and four businessmen considered to be his lifelong friends, dealt a painful blow to Russia. Obama also warned that more sweeping penalties against Russia's economy, including its robust energy sector, could follow.

International rating agencies downgraded Russia's outlook, and Russian stocks tumbled Friday.

Putin tried to play down the sanctions' toll on Russia in televised remarks at Friday's session of the presidential Security Council, saying that "we should keep our distance from those people who compromise us," a jocular reference to the officials on the sanctions list, some of whom attended the meeting.

He added sardonically that he would open an account to keep his salary in the targeted Bank Rossiya, a private bank that is owned by Yuri Kovalchuk, who is considered to be Putin's longtime friend and banker. With about $10 billion in assets, Rossiya ranks as the 17th largest bank in Russia and maintains numerous ties to banks in the United States, Europe and elsewhere.

At the same time, Putin said that that he sees no immediate need for further Russian retaliation to the U.S. sanctions, a stance that reflected an apparent hope to limit further damage to ties with the West that have plummeted to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War.

"We must refrain from retaliatory steps for now," Putin said.

Russia is expected to play a major role in the planned withdrawal of U.S. and other NATO forces from Afghanistan later this year by providing transit corridors via its territory, and Putin seemed to indicate that the Kremlin at this stage has no intention to shut the route in response to U.S. and EU sanctions.

Moscow also appeared to be warming to the deployment of monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the top trans-Atlantic security and rights group which it has blocked so far.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia would welcome sending the OSCE observers to Russian-speaking regions in eastern Ukraine on condition that their number and locations are clearly set, but he made it clear that they wouldn't be let into Crimea.

In Crimea, heavily armed Russian forces and pro-Russia militia have blocked Ukrainian military at their bases for weeks. Following Sunday's referendum they have moved aggressively to flush the Ukrainians out, storming some ships and military facilities.

The Ukrainian government said it was drawing up plans to evacuate its outnumbered troops from Crimea, but many soldiers remained at their bases awaiting orders.

At the Ukrainian military air base in Belbek, outside Sevastopol, Col. Yuly Mamchur told reporters Friday that he was still waiting for orders from his commanders on whether to vacate.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin Friday that 72 Ukrainian military units in Crimea have decided to join the Russian military. His claim couldn't be independently confirmed.

Meanwhile in Brussels, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and EU leaders signed an association agreement that was part of the pact that former President Yanukovych backed out of in November in favor of a $15 billion bailout from Russia. That decision sparked the protests that ultimately led to his downfall and flight last month, setting off one of Europe's worst political crises since the Cold War.

"Russia decided to actually impose a new post-Cold War order and revise the results of the Second World War," Yatsenyuk said. "The best way to contain Russia is to impose real economic leverage over them."

The U.S. and the European Union have pledged to quickly offer a bailout to Ukraine, which is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, struggling to pay off billions of dollars in debts in the coming months.

It owes Russia $2 billion in overdue payments for natural gas supplies. Putin made it clear that Russia will further raise the heat on Ukraine by urging it to pay back a $3 billion bailout loan granted to Yanukovych in December.

In addition to that, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev suggested that Russia should reclaim $11 billion in gas rebates it provided to Ukraine in exchange for a deal that extended Russia's lease on its navy base in Crimea until 2042.

Medvedev argued that since Crimea is part of Russia now, the deal is void and Russia should demand the money. Putin backed the proposal.

___

Mike Corder and Raf Casert in Brussels, Belgium and John-Thor Dahlburg in Sevastopol, Crimea, contributed to this report.

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PERTH, Australia (AP) — Search planes scoured a remote patch of the Indian Ocean but came back empty-handed Friday after a 10-hour mission looking for any sign of the missing Malaysia Airlines jet, another disappointing day in one of the world's biggest aviation mysteries.

Australian officials pledged to continue the search for two large objects spotted by a satellite earlier this week, which had raised hopes that the two-week hunt for the Boeing 777 that disappeared March 8 with 239 people on board was nearing a breakthrough.

But Australia's acting prime minister, Warren Truss, tamped down expectations.

"Something that was floating on the sea that long ago may no longer be floating — it may have slipped to the bottom," he said. "It's also certain that any debris or other material would have moved a significant distance over that time, potentially hundreds of kilometers."

In Kuala Lumpur, where the plane took off for Beijing, the country's defense minister thanked more than two dozen countries involved in the search that is stretching from Kazakhstan in Central Asia to the southern Indian Ocean, and said the focus remains on finding the airplane.

"This going to be a long haul," Hishammuddin Hussein told a news conference.

The search area indicated by the satellite images — some 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth — is so remote it takes aircraft four hours to fly there and four hours back, leaving them with only enough fuel to search for about two hours.

On Friday, five planes, including three P-3 Orions, made the trip. While search conditions had improved from Thursday, with much better visibility, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said there were no sightings of plane debris.

Two Chinese aircraft are expected to arrive in Perth on Saturday to join the search, and two Japanese aircraft will be arriving Sunday, Truss said. A small flotilla of ships coming to Australia from China was still several days away.

"We are doing all that we can, devoting all the resources we can and we will not give up until all of the options have been exhausted," said Truss, who is acting prime minister while Tony Abbott is in Papua New Guinea.

Experts say it is impossible to tell if the grainy satellite images of the two objects — one 24 meters (almost 80 feet) long and the other measuring 5 meters (15 feet) — were debris from the plane. But officials have called this the best lead so far in the search that began March 8 after the plane vanished over the Gulf of Thailand on an overnight flight to Beijing.

For relatives of the people aboard the plane — 154 of the 227 passengers are Chinese — hope was slipping away, said Nan Jinyan, sister-in-law of passenger Yan Ling.

"I'm psychologically prepared for the worst and I know the chances of them coming back alive are extremely small," said Nan, one of dozens of relatives gathered at a Beijing hotel awaiting any word about their loved ones.

Abbott spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he described as "devastated."

"It's about the most inaccessible spot that you could imagine on the face of the Earth, but if there is anything down there we will find it. We owe it to the families of those people to do no less," Abbott said.

The Norwegian cargo vessel Hoegh St. Petersburg is also in the area helping with the search. The ship, which transports cars, was on its way from South Africa to Australia.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said another commercial ship was also in the area and an Australian navy vessel was en route, and AMSA officials also were checking to see if there was any new satellite imagery that could provide searchers with more information.

Pieces of an aircraft have been found floating for days after a crash into the ocean. Peter Marosszeky, an aviation expert at the University of New South Wales, said the plane's wing could remain buoyant for weeks if the fuel tanks inside were empty and had not filled up with water.

Other experts said that if the aircraft breaks into pieces, normally only items such as seats and luggage would remain floating.

"We seldom see big metal (pieces) floating. You need a lot of (buoyant) material underneath the metal to keep it up," said Lau Kin-tak, an expert in aircraft maintenance and accidents at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

The anguished relatives of passengers met Friday with Malaysian officials at the Beijing hotel. Attendees said they had a two-hour briefing about the search but that nothing new was said.

Wang Zhen, son of missing artist Wang Linshi, said there were questions about why Malaysian authorities had provided so much seemingly contradictory information.

Wang said he still has hopes his father can be found alive and is praying that the satellite sightings turn out to be false. He said he and other relatives are suspicious about what they are being told by the Malaysian side, but are at a loss as to what to do next.

"We feel they're hiding something from us," said Wang, who is filling his days attending briefings and watching the news for updates.

Malaysian authorities have not ruled out any possible explanation for what happened to the jet, but have said the evidence so far suggests it was deliberately turned back across Malaysia to the Strait of Malacca, with its communications systems disabled. They are unsure what happened next.

Police are considering the possibilities of hijacking, sabotage, terrorism or issues related to the mental health of the pilots or anyone else on board.

___

Gelineau reported from Sydney, Australia. Associated Press writers Todd Pitman and Scott McDonald in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand; Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong; and Christopher Bodeen and Isolda Morillo in Beijing contributed to this report.

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