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The Teamsters union today rejected what United Parcel Service of America Inc. had described as its final offer, but the union sought further talks ahead of a midnight strike deadline.

Ken Hall, co-chairman of the Teamsters' National Negotiating Committee, said the UPS offer failed to address key issues, including an end to sub-contracting, more full-time jobs and health and safety issues.

Hall said the union was ready to go back to the table and hold further negotiations. Asked if a strike could still be avoided, he expressed confidence: "Absolutely, if the company comes to the table and negotiates seriously we can reach agreement before midnight."

UPS, the nation's largest package distribution company, said its "last, best and final" contract offer would increase pay for both full- and part-time workers by $1.50 to $2.50 per hour over five years. It said it would also guarantee that no UPS driver is replaced or eliminated through subcontracting.

The company said it would agree to provide 10,000 opportunities for part-time employees to move into full-time jobs over the life of the agreement. It would also create 1,000 new full-time jobs from part-time jobs.

It also said the offer includes improved pension benefits.

3 Columbia/HCA execs indicted

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Washington Post) -- The federal investigation of Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp., the nation's largest hospital chain, produced its first criminal charges Wednesday as three executives were indicted for conspiring to defraud government health insurance programs.

"We consider this indictment to be phase one of (an) ongoing investigation into the activities of Columbia," Charles R. Wilson, U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida, said in an interview.

A grand jury in Fort Myers, Fla., alleged that the three executives and unidentified "others" submitted false reports to the government resulting in overpayments of $1.77 million by Medicare, the federal health insurance program for the elderly and disabled, and CHAMPUS, the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Uniformed Services, which provides medical care for military families.

Federal investigators are examining whether Columbia billed the government "for more expensive services than they actually provided," whether it sought reimbursement for inappropriate costs under complex Medicare payment procedures, and possible kickbacks for illegal patient referrals, said Michael Mangano of the Department of Health and Human Services, which administers Medicare.

New jobless claims drop again

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The number of American workers filing first-time claims for jobless benefits continued to tumble last week, plunging by 22,000 to the lowest level in 23 1/2 years.

The Labor Department said today that new applications for unemployment insurance totaled a seasonally adjusted 277,000, down from 299,000 during the week ended July 19.

Many analysts had expected a 15,000 increase after three consecutive weekly drops. Claims had fallen by 109,000 after reaching 386,000 during the week ended July 5, highest since March 1996.

MasterCard puts cap on liability

NEW YORK (AP) -- MasterCard International said Wednesday it wouldn't hold consumers liable for more than $50 when a thief steals a debit card, which makes immediate payments from checking accounts. Prior to the change, consumers were potentially liable to pay for anything bought with a stolen debit card. The legal limit for fraud loss on credit cards is $50.

In other business news . . .

Bad feelings between Northwest Airlines and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines were put aside Wednesday as KLM agreed to sell back its ownership stake in the U.S. carrier for more than $1 billion, more than doubling its initial investment.

Saint-Gobain SA, one of France's largest industrial companies and the owner of the Carborundum Co. in Niagara Falls, said its abrasives unit completed the purchase of Britain's Unicorn International Plc. for $139 million in cash in a bid to increase its presence in the United Kingdom.

J.P. Morgan & Co. agreed to buy 45 percent of American Century Cos. for $900 million to boost its share of the fast-growing mutual fund and individual retirement plan businesses.

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