Monday AM June 18h, 2007

Houston employers paying more for healthcare again this year…TXU files preliminary documents for vote on proposed $32 billion buyout…Houston Business Journal hosts 2007 Best Places to Work awards… Healthcare costs for Houston employers increased again this year, according to Employee Benefit Solutions. But EBS President Jim Watt says the increase is less than the 12.2 […]

Houston employers paying more for healthcare again this year…TXU files preliminary documents for vote on proposed $32 billion buyout…Houston Business Journal hosts 2007 Best Places to Work awards…

Healthcare costs for Houston employers increased again this year, according to Employee Benefit Solutions. But EBS President Jim Watt says the increase is less than the 12.2 percent increase of 2005.

“The costs this year in aggregate are growing by about 5.6 percent on a year-over-year basis, and that is greater than general inflation, so medical CPI still is exceeding that of other goods and services in the market.”

The escalation of medical costs over the last decade ranged from a low of 5.4 percent in 1999 and a high of 17.8 percent in 2002. Watt says there is historically an inverse relationship between a robust economy and healthcare cost growth.

“Health care costs tend to run countercyclical to an economy as it grows or shrinks, and so the results are not all that surprising. Dips, or companies begin to get in trouble, lay off workers and so forth. You tend to seen an acceleration of health care costs.”

The 12th annual Healthcare Cost and Benefit Trends Survey, produced in partnership with the Houston Business Group on Health, polled 167 employers from a broad base of industries.

“The Houston Business Group on Health is an organization that was founded by a number of local employers that wanted to study–among other things—healthcare as a local phenomenon. By forming themselves together, what they have essentially done is gotten a very, very insightful view into the costs of healthcare, the dynamics of healthcare, and the benefit designs that are prevalent in this part of the world.”

Watt says the survey provides a benchmark for employers to measure their cost and plan designs.

TXU has filed preliminary documents for a meeting at which shareholders will vote on a proposed $32 billion buyout of the electric utility. Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and Texas Pacific Group are leading an investor group that hopes to complete the deal–the largest private buyout ever–in the fourth quarter. Dallas-based TXU is seeking approval for the sale from federal regulator. No date has been set for the shareholder vote. Shareholders will also consider measures to adopt goals for emissions from TXU power plants and to report political spending. TXU filed a preliminary proxy statement with the Securities and Exchange Commission, spelling out its case for the sale. The plan got a boost this week when state regulators approved permits for TXU to build two coal-fired units at a new plant in central Texas.

Enterprise Products Partners has completed a $60 million expansion of its import/export terminal in the Houston Ship Channel, doubling its offloading capability. The partnership handles natural gas liquids and liquified petroleum gases. The expansion allows simultaneous unloading from two vessels or two separate products from the same vessel.

California-based NNN Healthcare/Office REIT has acquired Triumph Hospital Northwest near George bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston and Triumph Hospital Southwest in Sugar Land in separate deals, according to the Houston Business Journal. Houston-based Triumph Healthcare will continue operating the facilities.

Houston-based ASAP Security Services has been awarded a $2.3 million contract by the New Orleans School District to install a new fire alarm system, intercom and IT infrastructure. ASAP will begin work this summer on 11 schools as part of the district’s Recovery School District program.

Waco-based UltraLife Batteries is closing its unprofitable factory by the end of September, shedding around 100 jobs, or about ten percent of its nationwide workforce. The plant is a base for subsidiary McDowell Research, which will move to Newark, New Jersey. UltraLife serves military and consumer markets.

Knight has closed on the $760 million sale of its Corridor Pipeline systems in Canada to Inter Pipeline Fund in Canada. The pipeline is used to transport diluted bitumen from fields in Alberta to an upgrader near For Saskatchewan, Alberta. Knight was formerly Kinder Morgan, and owns or operates 38,000 miles of pipeline and 155 terminals.

The Houston Business Journal hosted its 2007 Best Places to Work awards ceremony at the Hilton Americas on Lamar last week. The winners are, in the category of Houston companies with ten to 100 employees, Executive Staffing; with 101 to 500 employees, Houston Hospice; with 501 or more employees, Christus Health, Gulf Coast Region; and companies not based in Houston with over 250 employees, Kingwood Medical Center.

Experts say luxury goods are booming. Gone are the days when $350 stilettos were bling. These days, shoes with status carry a $1,000 price tag. And A-listers wouldn’t dream of carrying a purse costing less than $5,000. Splurging by the wealthy has risen to gaudy proportions as the super rich seek new heights in pampering and one-of-a-kind items that set them apart. Luxury sales worldwide topped $150 billion last year, of which 30 percent came from the U.S. For example, Montblanc recently sold a $700,000-plus pen just a few days after it showed up in the New York store. The pen is adorned with rubies, sapphires and diamonds.

AT&T will work with Hollywood studios and recording labels to devise technology that identifies offshore content pirates. But effort worries privacy advocates, who fear the company could become a beat cop–monitoring which Web sites customers visit and what computer files they share. Technology officers from several entertainment companies met June 5th in San Antonio, where AT&T is based, to discuss the effort. Legal questions include the privacy interests of customers and legitimate distributions for educational uses or works in the public domain. Like its telecommunications rival, AT&T has launched its own television service to compete with cable and satellite. The service has increased dependence on studios, which have been pressing Internet service providers to more aggressively stem piracy.

China pledges to cooperate in a crackdown on counterfeiters. The head of the U.S. Customs Agency says Beijing has promised to pursue product pirates identified by American authorities in a new effort to stamp out China’s thriving counterfeit industry. China accounted for about 80 percent of the shipments of counterfeit goods seized at U.S. ports last year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Ralph Basham. He says the U.S. and China signed a memorandum of cooperation this week. Basham says it calls for U.S. Customs to provide Chinese authorities with information on the source of seized goods, and for Beijing to report back on the status of efforts to catch the counterfeiters.

Even today, nearly two years later, Mary Ripka of the small southeast Texas town of Kountze is still nervous and tends to get emotional. Part of that is the still-pummeled remnants of the ranch-style home in which she and her late husband raised their children and welcomed their grandchildren. Hurricane Rita bit off a large tree and flatten her house with it back in 2005. Ripka wants everyone to know she’s grateful for the government trailer she now calls home and grateful that she’s finally getting her home replaced. She’s one of the first Rita victims in southeast Texas to finally receive long-promised government assistance. State officials say more than $500 million for 22 southeast Texas counties is now beginning to make its way to thousands of people 21 months after the hurricane. State and federal officials attribute the delay partly to their determination to avoid the waste and fraud that plagued assistance money for Louisiana residents after Hurricane Katrina. Unlike Katrina victims, Rita victims had to complete enormously detailed financial reports to show they weren’t getting substantial money from any other sources. A death in the family or a change of address can mean weeks or months spent filling out new forms and awaiting more governmental approvals. And none of the Rita assistance will be given directly to victims. Instead, it’ll be paid to approved contractors once the work is complete. Further back in the pipeline is some $220 million more for homeowner assistance–including $12 million for those in Sabine Pass, where the storm made landfall. The assistance will be disbursed after state officials identify a “third-party coordinator” to supervise the program. The coordinator would perform many of the tasks for which beleaguered local government agencies are now responsible.

A new Web site survey has determined that dads who stay at home would earn a lower salary than stay-at-home moms. The survey says the time dads spend performing ten typical job functions would work out to an annual salary of $128,755. While that’s up 2.7 percent from last year, it is more than $9,300 less than the equivalent salary for stay-at-home moms. It largely comes down to the number of hours worked. The average stay-at-home dad reported working just over 80 hours a week in his role, while stay-at-home moms said they put in an average of almost 92 hours a week.