Monday, November 17, 2014

Missing From New and Improved Healthcare.gov: Online Customer Service

    New and returning customers to Healthcare.gov this year will have one less option if they run into difficulties. In the run-up to the initial launch in 2013, the Obamacare website promoted a "live chat" feature in addition to the toll-free phone number to be available 24/7 to answer questions:

    This year, however, the "contact us" page on the site includes only a phone number, and the "blue box" mentioned in the excerpt above is nowhere to be seen.
    The online chat feature actually disappeared without fanfare back in the spring of 2014 before the first open enrollment period even ended. In February, the change was alluded to in a blog post by Julie Bataille, director of communications for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), noting that "we will transition 1500 service representatives from web chat to direct telephone assistance." There was no mention that the chat feature was being discontinued altogether, and CMS did not respond to a request for comment.
    In spite of the fact that the online help feature was dropped more than eight months ago and the site has undergone extensive revamping and reprogramming in the meantime, one artifact of the chat service remains on the site even today (archived here):

    While the notice is technically correct that the "Live Chat feature is unavailable right now", a more accurate message would inform customers that Healthcare.gov Live Chat is in fact dead.

Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

"I'm Just an Executive Order" (With Apologies to Schoolhouse Rock)

In the recent past in Washington DC:

Boy: Woof! You sure got to climb a lot of steps to get to this Capitol Building here in Washington. But I wonder who that sad little scrap of paper is?

Bill: I'm just a bill
Yes, I'm only a bill
And I'm sitting here on Capitol Hill
Well, it's a long, long journey
To the capital city
It's a long, long wait
While I'm sitting in committee
But I know I'll be a law someday
At least I hope and pray that I will
But today I am still just a bill

Boy: Gee, Bill, you certainly have a lot of patience and courage. But why bother? The president has broad discretionary authority to use his executive power to make government work when an obstructionist Republican party ties up the Congress for their own partisan advantage.

Bill: Well what do I do?

Boy: Just head back to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and tell the president John Boehner and Mitch McConnell were too busy schmoozing with the Koch Brothers to care about what is right for the country and you are ready to go to work for the American people... and even those who are not the American people but should be if the Republicans had one shred of humanity inside their cold, dead hearts.

Bill: You mean even if the whole Congress says you shouldn't be a law, the president can still say yes?

Boy: Certainly. The Founding Fathers never intended Congressional gridlock to tie the president's hands.

Bill: Thanks! It's actually pretty easy to become a law, is it?

Boy: Well, technically not a law. But on the other hand, who's gonna stop you?

Bill: Oh yes!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Army Plans 'Improvised Explosive Device Call Center' in Afghanistan

    Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) have become infamous for their use by terrorists and other enemy combatants in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the United States continues the draw down of U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan, the Army is looking to establish a call center to be run by a contractor for the government of Afghanistan to both collect information when IEDs detonate and provide information when IEDs are located. Online documents describe the background for the project:
The National Counter Improvised Explosive Device (C-IED) Call Center will be the coordination and information response center of action when an IED is encountered or in the aftermath of an IED detonation. As part of the Government of the Islamic republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA’s) National C-IED Strategy 2012 as defined by the Afghan Office of the National Security Council (ONSC), the Call Center will improve Reporting and Exploitation of IED threats. The call center will serve as the collection center for evidence and reporting for IED’s. 
    Initially, the project calls for  eight call center operators and four supervisors to receive about 7-10 days training in call center operations. The supervisors must be proficient in English, Dari and Pashto and have basic computer skills. The operators must also have basic computer skills and speak English and either Dari or Pashto. Once trained, the personnel will staff the center 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. The schedule may be adjusted depending on call volume, and additional personnel may be added later. The documents say that, following training, the twelve individuals will be assembled into "4 person teams; 1 supervisor and 3 operators," although these numbers do not seem to jive with the eight operators and four supervisors sought.
    In a nod to evolving cultural norms in Afghanistan, the document notes that "female candidates are acceptable to staff these positions." In addition, personnel are eligible for "Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan approved holidays. Afghan holidays are determined by the Islamic Calendar and depend on sighting of the moon." Holidays include: " Muharram (Ashura), Prophet’s Birthday, Nawrooz, Afghan Independence Day, First Day of Ramadan, Eid-e Qurban, Martyrdom of National Hero, Eid ul-Fitr and The Victory Day of Islamic Revolution."
    Although the documents say that the call center will function as an "information response center of action when an IED is encountered," there is no indication that the operators or supervisors are required to have any expertise or experience with such devices. An email to the contact listed on the notice requesting additional information was not immediately returned.

Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

In China, President Obama Quotes Deng Xiaoping: 'Seek Truth From Facts'

    In the "Great Hall of the People" in Beijing, China, President Obama appeared with China's current president Xi Jinping at a joint press conference Wednesday. During his remarks as he noted the 35th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the US and China, President Obama recalled a saying of one of Jinping's most well-known predecessors, Deng Xiaoping: "Seek truth from facts."
This year marks the 35th anniversary of diplomatic relations between our two nations.  I’m told that Deng Xiaoping said that we must “seek truth from facts.”  On this anniversary, it is a fact that the past three and a half decades have seen an extraordinary growth in the ties between our two countries -- more trade, more collaborations between our businesses and scientists and researchers, more connections between the Chinese and the American people, from tourists to our students.  And it is a fact that when we work together, it’s good for the United States, it's good for China, and it is good for the world.
    As the president closed his remarks, he recalled the saying again, almost reversing the order of the words before catching himself:
As Deng Xiaoping said, we must seek facts from -- “seek truth from facts.”  The truth is that we have made important progress today for the benefit of both of our nations and for the benefit of the world.  The truth is that even more progress is possible as we continue to develop this important relationship.  I am confident that we will be able to do so.  So thank you.  Xie xie.
     Although President Obama said that he and Xi Jinping had a "very healthy exchange" regarding human rights, the president focused largely on economic cooperation between the two countries and downplayed a US role in other issues. He specifically noted that "the United States had no involvement in fostering the protests that took place [in Hong Kong]," and also said that "we recognize Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China.  We are not in favor of independence."
    The president did not mention the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement or the subsequent crackdown ordered by then-president Deng Xiaoping. The Chinese government has never acknowledged the extent of the crackdown and continues to suppress information about the massacre even today.

Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Pentagon: Military Losing Technological Superiority to China

    During the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, the US military used a new generation of technological weapons that left the rest of the world far behind. But according the Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's undersecretary of defense for acquisitions, technology and logistics, that advantage is evaporating. Speaking at a breakfast at the Navy League in Arlington, Virginia Wednesday, Kendall said the deterioration has continued during his four and a half years on the job, "in large part because of our budget situation," including sequestration. Claudette Roulo of DoD News reported on the under secretary's breakfast remarks: 
When I talk to people on the Hill and I mention that I'm concerned about technological superiority, … I get a reaction that is a sort of surprise, first of all, and disbelief. … I think we have gotten so accustomed to our technological superiority militarily that it's just a given, and it's one of the things I kind of fight against when I try to have these conversations,” Kendall said.
    While the US military's budget is being cut, China's budget has been growing at about 12% annually, Kendall said, and may soon be as large as the US's. China is of particular concern according to the under secretary because "no one's studied us more -- including immediately after the first Gulf War -- than the Chinese. And they have been building systems since then designed to counteract some of the things that we have." Kendall is not concerned about war with China, but a stronger military will give that country proportionally more influence in the region. Additionally, the Chinese may sell their technology to other countries that the US might end up facing someday in an armed conflict, and this also poses a problem. Again, DoD News reports:
The United States tends to rely on a small number of very expensive, but very capable, assets, the undersecretary said, and that makes the military vulnerable once an enemy learns how to attack those assets, noting that no one has a monopoly on technology, warfighting power or doctrinal and operational concepts.
    In October, Bill Gertz of the Washington Free Beacon reported on a draft of the annual report of the congressional, bipartisan U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission that seems to confirm and even expand on Kendall's concerns:
China’s rapid military modernization is altering the military balance of power in the Asia Pacific in ways that could engender destabilizing security competition between other major nearby countries, such as Japan and India, and exacerbate regional hotspots such as Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea,” the report concludes in a section on military developments.
    Accusations of cyberespionage by the Chinese in recent years have also heightened the concerns about China's ability to keep up with US technology and design systems to counteract it. While Kendall did not address espionage by the Chinese, he said that strategic investments in technology by China are targeted at changing the balance of power in Asia:
“They're designed to present us with a very difficult problem if we want to operate in the vicinity of China,” he added. “And it's structured in a way that they can, perhaps, control escalation, so they can force us to back down.”
    Overall, as the one in charge of acquisition the US military's technological assets, Kendall does not seem optimistic: "I'm worried about whether we're keeping up or not."

Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Test Version of Healthcare.gov Inadvertently Exposes New Website Features Early [Updated]

    As 2015 open enrollment for Obamacare nears, Healthcare.gov has been telling consumers that "plans and estimated prices for 2015 coverage will be available in early November." Although signup is not possible until November 15, the website promises this "window shopping" experience will come sooner:

    However, Jayne O'Donnell of USA Today is reporting that this "window shopping" feature, which some were expecting to debut today, maybe still not be available even by Sunday, less than a week before open enrollment begins:

    However, THE WEEKLY STANDARD has discovered that a test version of Healthcare.gov is exposed online with some of the new "window shopping" pages. We reported in September that akatest.healthcare.gov has been accessible for months even though it is only a test version of the live site. Most web browsers only display the pages in html code, but the Firefox browser actually displays the content not yet ready for primetime on the live site. Here are two examples:

    Clicking on the SEE HEALTH INSURANCE PLANS & PRICES button, however, does not deliver; rather, it takes users to the "Full-time Equivalent (FTE) Employee Calculator".
    The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has not responded to multiple requests for comment about the exposed test site, despite the fact that such test sites have been an issue since at least December 2013, as we reported at the time.

UPDATE: Shortly after this article was posted, the test site, akatest.healthcare.gov, disappeared. A few archives of the site were captured on the Internet Archive here.  However, HHS has still not responded to emailed requests for comment or explanation.

Note: A version of this post (before the update) first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Kerry: If U.S. Gave Up All Fossil Fuels, It Wouldn’t Stop Climate Change

    While the nation was focused on the mid-term elections Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies regarding U.S.-China relations. As he often does, Kerry brought up the subject of climate change, which he asserted is happening "faster and [at a] greater rate than scientists predicted."
    According to Kerry, the U.S. and China are "the world’s two largest emitters of global greenhouse gases," together accounting for "about 45 percent and climbing, unfortunately." And to hear Kerry tell it, the situation almost appears hopeless:
So we need to solve this problem together. Why? Because neither one of us can possibly solve it alone. Even if every single American biked to work or carpooled to school or used only solar panels to power their homes – if we reduced our emissions to zero, if we planted each of us in America a dozen trees, if we somehow eliminated all of our domestic greenhouse gas emissions, guess what? That still wouldn’t be enough to counteract the carbon pollution coming from China and the rest of the world. And the same would be true for China if they reduced everything and we continued. We would wipe out their gains; they would wipe out our gains. 
    Kerry called the recently released United Nations climate report a "wakeup call" that demands "ambitious, decisive, and immediate action":
The UN climate report that was released over this last weekend is another wakeup call to everybody. The science could not be clearer. Our planet is warming and it is warming due to our actions, human input. And the damage is already visible, and it is visible at a faster and greater rate than scientists predicted. That’s why there’s cause for alarm, because everything that they predicted is happening, but happening faster and happening to a greater degree. The solutions are within reach, but they will require ambitious, decisive, and immediate action.
    Kerry sees climate change as "not just an environmental threat but an economic threat, a security threat, a health threat, and a security threat," but he is nonetheless optimistic about solving the problem:
The solution to climate change is as clear as the problem itself. And it’s not somewhere out there, pie in the sky, over the horizon, impossible to grab ahold of; it’s staring us in the face. The solution is energy policy. It’s as simple as that. Make the right choices in your energy policy, you solve the problem of climate change.
    Solving the problem, Kerry says, has the added bonus of creating tremendous wealth, not just for the United States and China, but for the whole world:
Guess what? You also happen to kick your economies into gear. You produce millions of jobs. You create economic opportunity unlike any that we have ever known, because the global energy market of the future is poised to be the largest market the world has ever known. Between now and 2035, investment in the sector is expected to reach nearly $17 trillion. The market that made everybody wealthy in America – everybody saw their income go up in the 1990s, and the greatest wealth in the history of our nation was created in the 1990s... [W]ith a few smart choices, together we can ensure that clean energy is the most attractive investment in the global energy sector and that entrepreneurs around the world can prosper as they help us innovate our way out of this mess and towards a healthier planet.
    Despite Kerry's enthusiasm for working together with China to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the furthest China has been willing to go so far is to say the country will seek to cap emissions "as soon as possible."

Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.