Sunday, September 29, 2013

White House Graphic Leaves a Page Out of New "Simple" 3-Page Obamacare Application

    A Sunday blog post at Whitehouse.gov declares that "the new [Obamacare] application is so simple, it's 17 pages shorter than the current application you'd fill out to enroll in coverage in the individual market."  While the final version of the application has not yet been publicly released (several draft versions have appeared in the past), the White House blog features an animated GIF graphic to contrast the average 20-page application with the new 3-page Obamacare application:

The only problem is that close observation of the graphic shows that only two pages of the Obamacare application appear in the animation.  The slide labeled "Page 1" at the bottom appears as follows, with "Step 1" visible at the top:

However, when the slide changes to Page 2, the Obamacare application page doesn't change: "Step 1" is still at the top:

But when the slide changes again to "Page 3", the Obamacare application page suddenly changes to "Step 4" at the top:

Since October 1 is Tuesday, there won't be long to wait to see the real page 2 with the missing Steps 2 and 3.  But while the public might forgive the 33% error rate on this first attempt by the administration to unveil the new "simple" application, the actual launch of Obamacare on Tuesday will doubtless be subject to stricter scrutiny, and the ultimate success or failure of the program may ride on how well, or how poorly, the launch goes.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Audit Finds Maryland Overcharged Federal Government in 95% of Cases in Waiver Program

    A Social Security program administered by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) allows states to apply for waivers for longterm care of individuals with developmental disabilities in home and community settings instead of institutions.  For the three years ending June 2012, the State of Maryland claimed $648.6 million from the federal government under its Community Pathways waiver program.
    An audit by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) found that errors in paperwork filed by the state resulted in overcharges to the federal government in excess of $20 million.  But even more startling than the dollar amount is the 95% error rate uncovered by the audit.  The OIG explains in the Findings section of the report [emphasis added]:
The State agency did not comply with Federal and State requirements when it claimed costs for residential habilitation services under the waiver.  Of the 100 claim lines that we sampled, 5 complied with Federal and State requirements; however, 95 did not.  The 95 claim lines had 135 errors:  
  • For 81 claim lines, the State agency included unallowable costs for room and board.    
  • For 54 claim lines, the State agency reduced provider payments to reflect amounts in excess of room and board that providers had collected from beneficiaries but did not reduce claims for Federal reimbursement accordingly.   
Forty claim lines included both errors.We estimate that, as a result of these errors, the State agency claimed at least $20,627,705 (Federal share) in unallowable costs.
The State agency claimed these unallowable costs because it lacked internal controls to ensure that unallowable costs were not included in claims for provider per diem payments.  
    In response, the State of Maryland agreed with the finding of the audit, including the recommendation to reimburse the federal government for the $20 million overcharge.  The state agency responsible also noted steps being taken to prevent a reoccurrence of the errors.
    As the Affordable Care Act begins to take full effect in 2014, Maryland is one of the states participating in the Medicaid expansion that is part of the law.  State agencies will have an expanding workload as the Medicaid expansion kicks in, increasing the need for safeguards to be sure that the states are in compliance with reimbursement guidelines.

President Obama Sends OFA Email Attacking Republicans

    The President of the United States sent an email today via his former campaign organization attacking Republicans in Congress for the showdown over Obamacare and the continued funding of the government.  Organizing for Action (OFA) (formerly Obama for America) now bills itself as "a 'social welfare' organization within the meaning of section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code."  The group has publicly stated that it is non-partisan, but the president writes that a "group of far-right Republicans in Congress is obsessed with making an ideological point", and that "Republicans are not focused on what's best for you." The email is signed "Barack."  The full text reads as follows:
Right now, the hard work we've put in to get our economy back on track is at risk. And there's only one reason for it: A group of far-right Republicans in Congress is obsessed with making an ideological point. 
They refuse to pass a budget unless I let them sabotage Obamacare, something they know is not going to happen. Now, we're left with only four days before a government shutdown. 
This is reckless and irresponsible. Republicans are not focused on what's best for you. They're playing political games. 
I called House Speaker John Boehner the other night to tell him that Americans like you have worked too long and too hard to dig our nation out of the financial crisis, and the last thing we need is for Washington to manufacture another.  
I want to make sure that message gets through. Add your voice -- remind Speaker Boehner that Congress has a job to do.  
Passing a budget is the most basic duty the Constitution gives to Congress. 
Congress needs to hear from the people who sent them to Washington.  
As we get closer to the September 30th deadline, that might mean picking up the phone, getting the facts out to friends on social media, or showing up at your local congressional office. OFA will be asking a lot of you, and I hope you'll get involved. 
Start today by telling Speaker Boehner that Congress must come together to pass a budget: 
Thank you,
     As is typical of OFA emails, the links in the email first take users to a page to enter an email address and indicate support for the cause.  After that comes the ubiquitous donation solicitation page.

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

John Kerry Shakes Hands With Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif

    Speculation ran high at the United Nations this week about whether or not President Obama and Iranian President Rouhani would shake hands.  Ultimately, the two leaders did not as the gesture was deemed “too complicated” for Iran at this time, “given their own dynamic back home.”
    However, those complications did not prevent a handshake between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif at a ministerial meeting on Thursday.  The following exchange took place at a press briefing between a reporter and an unnamed Senior State Department official:
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So Minister Zarif – we were in a U-shaped table. When Zarif came in, Helga Schmid got up so that he could sit next to Lady Ashton, and cornered with Zarif was the Secretary of State. So they were sitting next to each other on the corner, and at the end of the meeting, the Secretary leaned over and said, “Shall we talk for a few moments?” Now, informally, there had been a little bit of chatting that that might happen, and so neither one of them were surprised. And we -- 
QUESTION: It’s like being asked to a dance -- 
MODERATOR: There was no dancing. 
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, no dancing. (Laughter.) 
QUESTION: And they did shake hands? 
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Trust me, no dancing. They did. 
QUESTION: Shake hands? 
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: They did shake hands... They shook hands when they met.
    The Senior State Department official, though unnamed, went on to identify herself as a woman with the following comment on diplomatic protocol with the Iranians:
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: ... I did not shake hands for all the reasons you know, because I try to be respectful of the tradition that they would not shake hands with a woman...

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

Obamacare Marketplaces Will Function as Payment Clearinghouses for Insurers

    As full implementation of the Affordable Care Act draws nearer, some aspects of its operation have received relatively little attention.  The October 1 launch of the marketplaces, or exchanges, is less than a week away, but outside of offering a Price Line-like shopping experience for health insurance, not much has been released about their function once a plan is chosen.  Although, the marketplaces have been primarily promoted as a place to shop for, compare, and choose coverage, they will actually function as payment clearinghouses as well.
    According to Betsy Charlow, the Communications Manager for the Maryland Health Connection, Maryland's marketplace, businesses that purchase coverage for employees through the Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) will have an ongoing relationship with the marketplace, unlike individuals who will be passed on to private insurers soon after chosen policies are in place.
     "All employer bills get handled by Maryland Health Connection (federal requirement) regardless of whether it's employee choice or employer choice," said Ms. Charlow via email.  "Individuals who purchase can make their first premium payment on Maryland Health Connection or they can elect to pay the carrier directly. For all subsequent bills, the carriers would send these to individuals directly."
    One of the apparent reasons for the ongoing relationship of businesses with the Marketplace is the opportunity businesses will have to offer a variety of plans from different insurers to employees, yet have the convenience of a single bill. (This option will not be available on the federal government's Marketplace until 2015.) Again by email, Ms. Charlow said, "According to Tequila Terry, director of plan and partner management, the employer would not get multiple bills. The SHOP would aggregate all carrier bills so the employer can make one payment. The Maryland Health Benefit Exchange would then distribute payment to the appropriate carriers on behalf of the employer."
    Given that the security of the marketplaces and the data they will be collecting has been called into question in recent months, the revelation that not only will the exchanges be collecting personal and health information on individuals but financial information as well to facilitate payments could give rise to further concerns.  An email inquiry to Ms. Charlow regarding methods of payment to be available on the Maryland Health Connection (credit card, debit, check) has not yet been answered.
    Although the operation of the Maryland marketplace likely mirrors the operation of other state-run exchanges, not all states are operating their own marketplaces.  The federal government will be operating marketplaces for the non-participating states through the Healthcare.gov website.  Earlier in the month, THE WEEKLY STANDARD reported on a no-bid, emergency contract awarded in August to a Pennsylvania firm to provide a "financial management services system" for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid's (CMS) operation of the marketplace.  The award noted:
With the impending and mandated October 1, 2013, Marketplace enrollment and January 1, 2014 go-live deadlines nearing, CMS' need for contractor-provided financial management services has reached an unusual and compelling level of urgency. The prospect of a delay in implementing the Marketplace by the operational date of January 1, 2014, even for a few days, would result in severe consequences, financial and other. 
    The contract description of the services required included accounting, printing and mailing, tracking of accounts receivable and accounts payable, documenting funds collected by CMS, data validation, debt management functions, and referral of debt to the Department of the Treasury, among others.  When inquiry was made to CMS about how these services related to the function of the federal Marketplace, particularly relative to transactions between consumers and the Marketplace, Richard Olague of the Media Relations Group for CMS replied via email on Tuesday, September 24, "We’re working on getting you more information."  No additional reply has been received as of this time.
    A single-payer national health system has been discussed for decades, but has never gained much popular support.  The structure of the state-run marketplaces, and possibly the federal marketplace, would go a long way in smoothing the path to such a system.  Businesses who use the exchanges will soon be remitting payments to the government for health insurance coverage, and even individuals will apparently have that option for the initial payment on their new policies.  The government already runs huge health insurance programs (Medicare and Medicaid), and the number of persons insured by Medicaid is expected to expand dramatically under the Affordable Care Act.  With more and more persons insured through the government and a growing number remitting payment for insurance through the government, the United States will certainly find itself closer than ever to national healthcare than at any time in its history.

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

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Nancy Pelosi Confuses Constitution With Declaration of Independence

    Speaking last Wednesday at the Center for American Progress (CAP), Democratic Leader of the House Nancy Pelosi became a little confused at one point, stumbling over her words and flipping through her notes while referencing one of the founding documents of the United States.  Rep. Pelosi was recalling the early women's rights convention held in Seneca Falls, NY 165 years ago.  The full video is posted on CAP's website, but here is a clip of her remarks:

"And so, it was 165 years ago, 165 years ago.  Imagine the courage it took for those women to go to Seneca Falls and do what they did there, to even leave home without their husband’s permission, or father’s, or whoever  it was.  To go to Seneca Falls, and to paraphrase what our founders said in the Constitution of the United States: they said the truths that are self-evident, that every man and woman, that men and women were created equal and that we must go forward in recognition of that."
    It is of course the Declaration of Independence and not the Constitution that contains the reference to self-evident truths:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
    The website of Rep. Pelosi includes a transcript of the speech that was edited to correct Pelosi's error:
To go to Seneca Falls, and to paraphrase what our founders said in the [Declaration of Independence] of the United States: they said the truths that are self-evident...
    Pelosi went on to name three priorities that she and those in her audience at CAP want Congress and the president to address: paycheck fairness, including raising the minimum wage; paid leave to care for sick family members via the Healthy Families Act; and universal child care.

UPDATE: As I discovered a few hours after this article ran at The Weekly Standard, Nancy Pelosi is not the only Minority Leader of the House to experience confusion over the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.  None of than Republican House (then Minority, now) Majority Leader John Boehner made the same error back in 2009.

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

President Obama: Obamacare Offers Health Insurance "For Less Than Your Cell Phone Bill"

    President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle attended the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Phoenix Awards Dinner at the Washington Convention Center Saturday night.  While extolling the benefits of Obamacare less than 10 days from the opening of the new health insurance marketplaces, the president said that "you can offer your family the security of health care ... for less than your cell phone bill."
    The president was referring to a tweeted claim made earlier this week by Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius that said, "Nearly 6 in 10 uninsured Americans will #GetCovered for less than $100/month starting Jan 1."  As noted at the time by THE WEEKLY STANDARD, Sebelius's claim was based on a press release from HHS that said that six in ten uninsured "may be able to get coverage" for less than $100 per month, a claim that looked even more dubious under closer examination.
    The president repeated Sebelius's "will" formulation with a comment that "6 in 10 will be able to get coverage for less than 100 bucks a month;" his full remarks on the subject are as follows [emphasis added]:
We can’t rest until every American knows the security of quality, affordable health care. (Applause.) In just over a week, thanks to the Affordable Care Act and the leadership shown by the CBC and others in Congress -- so many of you fought to pass this law -- thanks to your efforts, 6 in 10 uninsured Americans will finally be able to get covered for less than $100 a month. Everybody is going to be able to get coverage; 6 in 10 will be able to get coverage for less than 100 bucks a month. (Applause.) And by the way, the only reason it's 6 in 10 is because we've got some governors who -- (laughter) -- haven't seen the light yet. If every governor chose to join this project rather than to fight it just to score some political points, that number would be nearly eight in 10. (Applause.)
So just think about that. Knowing you can offer your family the security of health care –- that’s priceless. And now you can do it for less than your cell phone bill. That’s what change looks like. (Applause.)
    Remarkably, this is not the first time the president has made the claim.  At the end of August, President Obama was interviewed by Tom Joyner and Sybil Wilkes of the Tom Joyner Morning Show and said:
Anybody who doesn’t have health insurance in this country is going to be able to get it at an affordable rate, and we were just talking with some folks earlier about the fact that for a lot of people it’ll be cheaper than your cellphone bill.
    According to a JD Power report in 2012, the average individual's cellphone bill is $71 per month.

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

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Worst Background Briefing Ever?

    Occasionally the White House conducts "background briefings" for reporters, often in the form of a conference call in which "senior administration officials" participate.  The officials, though known to the reporters, are not to be named by the reporters in their stories; hence the term "background."
    However, in the official White House transcript of just such a call on Thursday, things did not go exactly as planned.  Officials and reporters were discussing Vice President Biden's upcoming trip to Mexico, and late in the call, the following exchange took place:
Q  [reporter]:  I understand this call on background, but I wanted to know if they had -- maybe I missed it already, but the names of the officials talking... 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thanks very much, caller.  So on the issue of who is participating on this call.  Senior official one would be Jeff Prescott, who is the deputy national security advisor to the Vice President. 
I’m Christopher Smart, senior director for international economics.  
I’m Ricardo Zuniga.  I’m the senior director for the Western Hemisphere in the national security staff.

    UPDATE: Senior administration officials could not be reached for comment...

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

Federal Government Sinks Another $527K Into Recovery.gov Website Redesign

    In 2009, the Obama administration made news with an $18 million, five year contract to redesign Recovery.gov, the website the government set up to allow taxpayers to track the stimulus spending enacted by the president and Congress soon after President Obama took office.  On Wednesday, notice of a contract awarded to Smartronix, a Hollywood, MD company was posted for "Modification to exercise the Option to Extend Clause" for a total of $527,216.00:

    The stimulus is now into its fifth year.  The contract notice does not indicate what modifications are needed to the website to keep the public informed of the ongoing operation of the legislation.
    According to the Recovery.gov website, $803.1 billion of the $840 billion authorized by the stimulus has been disbursed.

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

Friday, September 20, 2013

Nancy Pelosi Invokes a Priest's Sermon to Say GOP is "Preying on People"

    Wednesday Nancy Pelosi spoke at the Center for American Progress to help mark the launch the organization's new initiative called “Fair Shot: A Plan for Women and Families to Get Ahead.”  In her remarks, Pelosi referenced the Republicans' plan to scale back the food stamp program, the cost of which has more than doubled in the past four years.  She recalled a sermon she recently heard in Houston where she attended mass:
“I’ve been trying to listen as we – this has been a morning that you can’t even believe.  On the floor of the House the Republicans are trying to cut $40 billion, that’s 50 percent of the nutrition program – largely children, seniors, returning veterans, [and] women.  It’s a most incredible thing.  I said yesterday at a press conference on this subject, I said: unless we – it was in Houston, I go to mass wherever I go, and at the pulpit, the priest said, in Houston, Texas – not one of your liberal bastions – he said: ‘I think it’s important for people, not just to come to mass on Sunday and pray, but when they leave here not to prey on people.’  And it isn’t exactly what they are doing: preying on people.  
    The former Speaker of the House went on to reference "all the lack of values that [the GOP] budget presents," and that "basically what [Democrats are] about ... is restoring confidence to the American people."

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

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Organizing for Action Fundraising Off Navy Yard Massacre

    Organizing for Action (OFA), President Obama's old campaign organization-turned lobbying group, sent out an email tonight from the Executive Director, Jon Carson, with the subject "Navy Yard."  It begins, "If you're like me, you heard the news about the 12 Americans who died in D.C.'s Navy Yard shooting -- and you had those familiar feelings of grief and frustration."  Included in the email are two links to the Barackobama.com website where visitors are invited to "Add your name to tell Congress to take action and, if you'd like, tell us why you're fighting," and enter an email address:

    Upon entering an email addresses, visitors are then taken to the now familiar donations page, where a donation of up to $1,000 is solicited:

    OFA has a history of fundraising off tragedies, such as the Sandy Hook shooting last December.

    Here is the Navy Yard email in it's entirety:

Note: The Lonely Conservative picked up on this as well, having received the same email.

Sebelius Goes from 'Will Get Covered' to 'Can' to 'May'

    Tuesday morning, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Kathleen Sebelius announced on Twitter:
    However, while Sebelius's claim sounds like a sure thing ("will" get covered,) the accompanying graphic is somewhat less unequivocal, employing the phrase "can"get covered.  But the truth is even one additional step removed.  The HHS press release, which Sebelius refers to but does not link to, reads as follows [emphasis added]:
A new report released today by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) shows that 56 percent, or nearly six in ten of the people who don’t have health insurance today may be able to get coverage through the Health Insurance Marketplace for less than $100 per month.
    Sebelius's words recall President Obama's confident pledge that Americans will be able to keep their doctors under Obamacare, a pledge that infamously changed to "may" on the HealthCare.gov website just this summer as first reported by THE WEEKLY STANDARD.
    The authors of the new report released today are careful to point out that they are not making any claims about rates, but are only drawing conclusions about what the uninsured are likely to pay out of pocket towards new insurance premiums after taxpayer subsidies.

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

White House Grants Partial Waiver to Syria Relative to Trafficking Victims Protection Act

    The White House released a Presidential Memorandum today entitled "Presidential Determination on Traficking [sic] in Persons."  The memo relates to funding provided or denied to foreign governments in accordance with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000.  According to the memo, the U.S. is required:
not to provide certain funding for those countries' governments ... until such governments comply with the minimum standards or make significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance [with standards in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000.]
    However, the details of the president's memo reveal certain waivers or other adjustments that are granted by the discretion of the president if he determines continued funding is in the best interests of the United States.  Syria is such one country that is granted a partial waiver to some of the funding restrictions for fiscal 2014, including those for "educational and cultural exchange programs":
Determine, consistent with section 110(d)(4) of the Act, with respect to Syria and Eritrea, that a partial waiver to allow funding for educational and cultural exchange programs described in section 110(d)(1)(A)(ii) of the Act would promote the purposes of the Act or is otherwise in the national interest of the United States... 
Determine, consistent with section 110(d)(4) of the Act, with respect to Syria and Equatorial Guinea, that assistance described in section 110(d)(1)(B) of the Act would promote the purposes of the Act or is otherwise in the national interest of the United States;
Section 110(d)(4) reads:
INTEREST.—Notwithstanding the failure of the government of the country to comply with minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and to make significant efforts to bring itself into compliance, the President has determined that the provision to the country of nonhumanitarian, nontrade-related foreign assistance, or the multilateral assistance described in paragraph (1)(B), or both, would promote the purposes of this division or is otherwise in the national interest of the United States.
Section 110(d)(1)(A)(ii) reads:
(ii) in the case of a country whose government received no nonhumanitarian, nontrade-related foreign assistance from the United States during the previous fiscal year, the United States will not provide funding for participation by officials or employees of such governments in educational and cultural exchange programs for the subsequent fiscal year until such government complies with the minimum standards or makes significant efforts to bring itself into compliance[.]
Section 110 (d)(1)(b) reads:
(B) the President will instruct the United States Executive Director of each multilateral development bank and of the International Monetary Fund to vote against, and to use the Executive Director’s best efforts to deny, any loan or other utilization of the funds of the respective institution to that country (other than for humanitarian assistance, for trade-related assistance, or for development assistance which directly addresses basic human needs, is not administered by the government of the sanctioned country, and confers no benefit to that government) for the subsequent fiscal year until such government complies with the minimum standards or makes significant efforts to bring itself into compliance.

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

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

State Department Continues to Ignore Benghazi, 9/11 Anniversaries

    At 8:46 AM on September 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 11 was piloted into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City by terrorists.  Eleven years later on September 11, 2012, events unfolded in Benghazi, Libya, that would ultimately leave a US diplomatic facility gutted and four Americans dead.  As of 8:46 AM today, the US State Department had not acknowledged either anniversary.
    Up until yesterday, as noted by THE WEEKLY STANDARD, neither the White House or the State Department had mentioned the upcoming anniversary of the Benghazi attack.  Then last night around 8 PM, the White House issued a statement by the press secretary noting a preparedness meeting the president held on Tuesday in anticipation of the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  The notice referenced the Benghazi attack as well:
September 11th has been a day of remembrance for 12 years for Americans and others around the world. The events of last year, losing four brave Americans – Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods – brought home the reality of the challenges we face in the world.  As we near this day of remembrance, we continue to mourn the death of our cherished colleagues and honor their dedication to public service.  We remain committed to bringing the perpetrators of the Benghazi attacks to justice and to ensuring the safety of our brave personnel serving overseas. 
    The silence from the State Department, however, continues.  There is nothing on Wednesday's public schedule of the State Department regarding any observance, memorial, or remembrance of either 9/11 or Benghazi.  There are no mentions of 9/11, Benghazi, or Ambassador Christopher Stevens any time recently on the State Department website, the Facebook page, or the Twitter account.

    However, in the last three months, the State Department has noted the following anniversaries:
    This morning, the White House tweeted the following:
    As of 8:47, the message had been retweeted 262 times.  The State Department was not one of them.

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

To Avoid 'Severe Consequences' From Delays, HHS Awards No-Bid Contract for Marketplace

    In August, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (HHS/CMS) quietly awarded a $11.6 million contract (maximum) to Novitas Solutions of Camp Hill, PA, already a CMS contractor, for financial management services related to the agency's implementation of the new Health Insurance Marketplace, due to open on October 1.
    The contract was awarded without competition to the firm as "an interim, transitory solution to meet the Agency's immediate and urgent need" because development and testing of the financial management services system "is already minimally two months overdue."  The documents accompanying the contract award notice state the reasons for the no-bid contract in rather dire terms [emphasis added]:
With the impending and mandated October 1, 2013, Marketplace enrollment and January 1, 2014 go-live deadlines nearing, CMS' need for contractor-provided financial management services has reached an unusual and compelling level of urgency. The prospect of a delay in implementing the Marketplace by the operational date of January 1, 2014, even for a few days, would result in severe consequences, financial and other. The effect of those consequences would most importantly be measured by the impact to the estimated millions of Americans and small businesses that have no health care today or access to affordable health care. Furthermore, if payments are not made and debts are not collected, with critical consideration given to timeliness, accuracy and integrity, the Agency's implementation and operation of the Marketplace and the Affordable Care Act will certainly be jeopardized.
    HHS explains in the Justification and Approval document that CMS recently realized that "specialized financial management services and expertise are needed beyond what was initially anticipated and beyond CMS' currently available resources."  The description of the services required include:
  • accounting
  • printing and mailing
  • tracking of accounts receivable and accounts payable
  • documenting funds collected by CMS
  • data validation
  • activity reporting
  • debt management functions
  • application of receipts to appropriate transactions
  • referral of debt to the Department of the Treasury
  • specified batch payment functions in HIGLAS [Healthcare Integrated General Ledger Accounting System]
  • systems interface testing and support for HIGLAS functionality.
    The agency said the awarding of this contract is a temporary measure and stated its intention for "full and open competition and to award a resulting contract no later than July 2014."  The paperwork approving the awarding of the emergency interim contract was signed by several HHS employees in the chain of command, up to and including CMS Chief Operating Officer A. Michelle Snyder.
    With more than three years having passed since the Affordable Care Act was signed into law, it is unclear why HHS did not recognize this need until less than two months before the launch of the Marketplace.

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

Friday, September 13, 2013

Part of Obamacare's Health Insurance Marketplace Taken Offline

    With the launch of the Obamacare Health Insurance Marketplace less than three weeks ago, one of the only functions consumers were already able to access, creating an account, has been taken "offline" for "upgrading."
    In 2010, after Obamacare was signed into law, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) created Healthcare.gov, a website designated to answer questions about the new law and eventually serve as the portal for the new health insurance "marketplace" or "exchange" that are a fundamental part of Obamacare.  This summer, the website was relaunched in anticipation of the October 1 opening of the marketplace.  One of the feature added was the ability to create an account to prepare for the open enrollment period that begins at that date:

    However, the link provided now merely takes users back to the main page for individuals.  The reason for this is that on Wednesday, September 11, HHS took the "create an account" feature offline, as the website explains:

Creating an account and logging in: Temporarily off-line 
To get everything ready for Open Enrollment, we’re upgrading the Marketplace account service. You won’t be able to create an account or log in to one you’ve created until Tuesday, October 1.
If you’ve already created a Marketplace account, great! You’ll be able to log in again starting October 1 and start your application for coverage.
If you haven’t created a Marketplace account yet, that’s okay. You’ll be able to do that starting October 1 and get going on your application too.
     There have been reports of technical glitches, delays, and security concerns with the new Marketplaces.  It is unclear of this latest move by HHS is a reflection of those issues.

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

Thursday, September 12, 2013

More Former Guantanamo Bay Detainees Return To Terrorism

    An unclassified version of a September report from the Director of National Intelligence reveals that another five former Guantanamo Bay detainees have either been confirmed as reengaging in terrorism or are suspected of doing so.  The report comes just as a judge in Algeria has approved parole of two detainees recently transferred to Algerian custody from the Cuba-based detention facility.
    Of the 603 former detainees tracked by US intelligence services, a total of 100 have now been confirmed as reengaging in "terrorism" or "insurgent" activities, while another 74 are suspected of reengaging.  This brings the total rate of recidivism to nearly 29 percent, up from 28 percent as of the last report six months ago.  The report includes the following table of all detainee cases:

    Two of the detainees suspected of reengaging in the last six months are among those transferred since President Obama took office in 2009.   Of the seventy-four detainees transferred since January 22, 2009, seven are either confirmed or suspected of reengaging, up from five in the prior report, raising the recidivism rate of those transferred during the president's time in office from 7 percent to 10 percent.
    The two men transferred to Algerian custody on August 28 are Nabil Hadjarab and Motai Sayab, according to the Miami Herald.  Both had been cleared for release years ago and had been part of the hunger strike at Guantanamo.  There are still 90 or so detainees that have similarly been cleared for release but are still in custody pending arrangements with countries who will receive them subject to conditions.  A lawyer for one of the two detainees just paroled says that his client will be required to "check in with authorities every month."
    The report on all Guantanamo Bay detainees is required at least once every six months.  This latest version was released without comment on the website of the Director of National Intelligence on Thursday, September 5.  The release was not noted on the DNI's Twitter account, the agency's Facebook page, nor the latest social media outlet for the intelligence community, IC on the Record, the DNI's Tumblr account.

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

President Obama: On Syria, We Can Wait

    Since the 2010 elections, President Obama has often expressed impatience with Congress, and at times has said that he would not wait for Congress, did not need Congress, or has simply acted without Congress.  At one point, the White House developed an entire We Can't Wait campaign to emphasize the unilateral action President Obama would take in the face of an uncooperative legislature.

    Now, however, after building the case and presenting evidence via John Kerry that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ordered a horrific chemical weapons attack against his own people on August 21, President Obama abruptly reversed course to We Can Wait for Congress, even going so far as to say that "our capacity to execute this mission [against Syria] is not time-sensitive; it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now."
    First, President Obama put his plans to confront this murderous dictator on hold until Congress weighed in (the same Congress described by the president just a month ago as "those folks [who] think I usurp my authority by having the gall to win the presidency").  Now, he's asked Congress to wait on the use of force authorization while the plan put forth by the Russians has a chance to play out.  So it seems fair to look at what President Obama has said could not wait for Congressional action in the past three years or so:
  • February 2012: President Obama: Our Children Can’t Wait for Congress to Fix No Child Left Behind, Announces Flexibility in Exchange for Reform for Ten States
  • October 2011: President Obama says that we can’t wait for Congress to take action to grow the economy and create jobs and highlights actions he took to help families refinance their mortgages, put veterans to work, and lower the cost of student loans.
  • July 2013 - Remarks by the President on the Economy -- Warrensburg, Missouri - "So where I can act on my own, I’m going to.  I’m not going to wait for Congress."
  • November 2011 - Remarks by the President Urging Congress to Pass the Infrastructure Piece of the American Jobs Act - "We can’t wait for Congress to do its job.  If they won’t act, I will.  (Applause.)  And that’s why today, I’m announcing that we are actually going to expedite loans and competitive grants for new projects all across the country..."
  • January 2012 - We Can't Wait: The White House Announces Federal and Private Sector Commitments to Provide Employment Opportunities for Nearly 180,000 Youth - "America’s youth can’t wait for Congress to act.  This is an all-hands-on-deck moment."
  • December 2011 - We Can’t Wait: Obama Administration Announces $2 Billion in Resources to Support Job-Creating Startups - "Today’s announcement is the latest in a series of executive actions the Obama Administration is taking to strengthen the economy and move the country forward because we can’t wait for Congress to act."
  • April 2012 - We Can't Wait: President Signs Memorandum Establishing Policies for Addressing Domestic Violence in the Federal Workplace - "The Violence Against Women Act expired in 2011, and while we wait for Congress to reauthorize this critically needed legislation, the federal government is doing its part."
  • July 2012 - Fact Sheet: Creating Pathways to the Middle Class for All Americans - "In addition, recognizing that we can’t wait for Congress to act, President Obama has announced nearly 300,000 summer jobs and other employment opportunities for youth..."
  • January 2012 - Regional Roundup: Richard Cordray Will Protect American Consumers [Recess Appointment] - "Millions of Americans can’t afford to wait for Congress to act.   He’s the right man for the job."
  • June 2011 - Obama administration: Libya action does not require congressional approval
  • July 2013 - Delay of Employer Mandate for Affordable Care Act - "If Congress thinks that what I’ve done is inappropriate or wrong in some fashion, they’re free to make that case," Obama said. "But there’s not an action that I take that you don't have some folks in Congress who say that I'm usurping my authority. Some of those folks think I usurp my authority by having the gall to win the presidency. And I don't think that's a secret. But ultimately, I’m not concerned about their opinions -- very few of them, by the way, are lawyers, much less constitutional lawyers."
  • August 29, 2013 - FACT SHEET: New Executive Actions to Reduce Gun Violence - "Even as Congress fails to act... the President and Vice President remain committed to using all the tools in their power to make progress toward reducing gun violence."
    But suddenly, we can wait.  But how long?

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

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

U.S. Embassy in Iraq Warns of 'Threats' Related to Potential Syria Attack

    A few hours before midnight in Iraq as September 11 approached, the US Embassy in Baghdad posted an Emergency Message warning "U.S. citizens against all but essential travel to Iraq."  Although the notice referenced the anniversary of 9/11, the main reason for the warning is apparent threats against U.S. interests and workers in Iraq due to the potential U.S. military action against Syria:
Emergency Message for U.S. Citizens 
The U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens against all but essential travel to Iraq.  Due to heightened safety and security risks and the ongoing threat of terrorist activities throughout Iraq, the U.S. government remains highly concerned about the danger to U.S. citizens, whether visiting or residing in Iraq, and to U.S. facilities and businesses.  Threats against U.S. interests, U.S. assets, and foreign companies employing U.S. personnel in Iraq have been reported, related to a possible U.S. military strike on Syria. 
On the eve of the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. Embassy reminds U.S. citizens of the need for caution and awareness of personal security.  U.S. citizens in Iraq should avoid areas where large gatherings may occur.  Even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and escalate into violence.  You should avoid areas of demonstrations and exercise caution if in the vicinity of any large gatherings, protests, or demonstrations.
    Just a few days ago, the FBI and Homeland Security reported no credible threats related to the upcoming anniversary, according to Fox News.  Tuesday's embassy warning did not give any further detail of the threats in Iraq.  The latest travel warning on the Iraq page of the main State Department travel website is from September 5 and does not include the reference to Syria.

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

White House, State Department Silent on Benghazi Attack on Eve of Anniversary [with Update] [Updated again]

UPDATE: It occurs to me the White House and State Department have every reason to downplay the Benghazi anniversary and not just because of the fiasco it was for the Obama administration.  Since the situation in Libya has spiraled into chaos since our intervention there in 2011, President Obama's current plans to intervene in Syria could only suffer from closer look at Libya.
* * * * * * * * * *
UPDATE 2: Coincidence?  Around 8:30 Tuesday night, about six hours after this article was posted at The Weekly Standard, the White House posted this:

Statement by the Press Secretary on the President’s Meeting with Senior Administration Officials on Our Preparedness and Security Posture on the Twelfth Anniversary of September 11th 
Earlier today the President met with key national security principals on our preparedness and security posture on the eve of the twelfth anniversary of September 11th. Over the past several months, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Lisa Monaco has convened numerous meetings to review security measures in place for this anniversary, as well as other global threats, including the recent threat emanating from the Arabian Peninsula. 
The President’s National Security team is taking measures to prevent 9/11 related attacks and to ensure the protection of U.S. persons and facilities abroad. The President reiterated that protecting the American people, both at home and abroad, is the Administration’s top national security priority. 
September 11th has been a day of remembrance for 12 years for Americans and others around the world. The events of last year, losing four brave Americans – Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods – brought home the reality of the challenges we face in the world.  As we near this day of remembrance, we continue to mourn the death of our cherished colleagues and honor their dedication to public service.  We remain committed to bringing the perpetrators of the Benghazi attacks to justice and to ensuring the safety of our brave personnel serving overseas. 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Original post:

    Though the White House posted its annual President Proclamation of National Days of Prayer and Remembrance commemorating September 11th, 2001, there is no mention of the Benghazi attacks of 2012.  One day before the 12th anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks and the first anniversary of the Benghazi attacks, there are no travel alertscautions, or other warnings on the State Department website related to the anniversary.  A search of the State Department website so far in September turns up just one reference to Benghazi, and that was in a reporter's question to President Obama at the G-20 summit about the U.S. attack on Libya in 2011.
    The State Department's most recent Worldwide Travel Alert resulted in the temporary closure of almost two dozen embassies due to credible threats from al-Qaeda and its affiliates, but that alert expired on August 31, and has been removed from the website (cached here.)  The 2013 hurricane season is the top travel concern based on the current travel headline of the State Department's travel page.
    While the main State Department website is silent about the upcoming anniversary, some individual embassies around the world have posted local warnings, for instance Nigeria and Libya.  The notice from the embassy in Tripoli reads in part:
Security Message for U.S. Citizens:  Anniversary of September 11 Attacks
September 2, 2013
Embassy of the United States of America
Tripoli, Libya

As the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches, the U.S. Embassy in Libya reminds U.S. citizens of the need for caution and awareness of personal security.  During the days surrounding September 11, the embassy plans to restrict movement of embassy personnel to essential travel only.  Only emergency American Citizen Services will be offered from September 5-15.
    The Benghazi attacks from 2012 are not mentioned, and the Country Specific Information about Libya for travelers on the Travel.State.Gov website does not list this embassy warning.
    On a related note, President Obama had no Presidential Daily Briefing from Thursday, August 29, until Monday, September 9, according to the official White House schedule.  The president has of course had numerous well-publicized meetings with cabinet members, national security staff, and members of Congress over the proposed action against Syria that may have obviated the need for the regular daily briefing, but the focus of those extra meetings is likely to have largely been Syria, not the upcoming anniversary or related security matters.  The president's overseas trip to Sweden and the G-20 meeting may have interfered with the regular briefings as well.
    The president received some criticism in the wake of the Benghazi attacks in 2012 since the White House schedule reported his most recent Daily Briefing had come six days before the attacks on September 5.  Additionally, statements and notices from the State Department before those attacks seemed to downplay or discount the significance of the anniversary date relative to further terrorism.  Events in Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Middle East soon showed otherwise.

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

NASA Website Hacked: Protesting US Spying in Brazil and Action Against Syria

    NASA's website was hacked Monday night by a group calling itself "#BMPoC".  The page put up by the group was at this url (kepler.nasa.gov/news/managerupdates/) and as of just before midnight on Monday appeared as follows:

    Visitors to the page are first greeted with a pop-up window which reads "DO NOT ATTACK THE SYRIAN" followed by another reading "U.S. SPY STOP THE BRAZIL" before the image above appears.  The complete text of the page is:
We are: Cyclone - MMxM - UT0P|4
Greats: Xploiter Hacker - Invectus - DIeG0
Stop spy on us.
The Brazilian population do not support your attitude!
The Illuminati are now visibly acting!
Obama heartless!
Inhumane! you have no family? the point in the entire global population is supporting you. NOBODY!
We do not want war, we want peace!!! 
     The source code references two website with Brazilian suffixes: http://maquinas-sorvetes.com.br/ and www.valor.com.br, but apparently only to reference images used in the screen produced above.
    This is apparently not the first time this hacker has managed to hijack a portion of NASA's website.  In April, the website hackread.com reported on a similar incident.  There are other reports of NASA's site being hacked as well.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Kerry: "No Soldiers Put At Risk" in Attacking Syria

    The New York Times reported on September 5 that the United States is widening plans for proposed strikes on Syria to punish the Assad government for its alleged chemical weapons attacks.  The plans now reportedly include the use of aircraft in addition to cruise missiles:
For the first time, the administration is talking about using American and French aircraft to conduct strikes on specific targets, in addition to ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles. There is a renewed push to get other NATO forces involved.
    However, remarks by Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday at a press conference in Paris with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius seem to contradict that assertion.  In a very long response to a question from Andrea Mitchell of NBC News about the trouble the administration is having building support for its plans, Kerry repeated his "no boots on the ground" pledge, but went further with an assertion that there would be "no soldiers put at risk" [emphasis added]:
But it’s clear to me as I talk to friends of mine in the Congress that there’s a quick and automatic reaction by people in America – and I understand it – and people here and elsewhere. They hear: Oh my gosh, the President is thinking of a military action against an Arab – a country in the Arab world; here we go again, here’s Iraq, here’s Afghanistan, here we are.
But no, there will be no boots on the ground, no soldiers put at risk, no lengthy action, no long term – this is not Iraq, it is not Afghanistan, it’s not Libya, it’s not Kosovo. It’s nothing remotely like that.
    To argue that no soldiers would be at risk with aircraft flying bombing runs over Syria would be optimistic at best and more likely outright disingenuous.  Kerry's assurance also appears to discount any possible retaliation from Syria.
    Kerry also used some colorful language to describe what underlies the resistance to President Obama's plans to respond to Syria:
And people have an automatic sense of disconnect because it is, as Laurent said, far away and all the reasons. I’m not going to rebuild that. But there is an Iraq hangover. There is just a huge doubt in people’s minds, which I completely understand, because we all got burned by that and we’re still paying the price.
    The president and Secretary Kerry will be conducting a full court press this week, with press interviews, Congressional briefings, a Google hangout, and a presidential address to the nation.

Note: A version of this article first appeared the The Weekly Standard.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

State of Maryland Enlists Students to Promote Obamacare

    On August 27, the Maryland Health Connection, the state's Obamacare Marketplace, retweeted the following from a parent with students in school in Maryland:
     The parent, according to his Twitter profile, is Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, a pediatrician and the Secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, but presumably children of non-state-health-officials were given the same flyer.  Here's a larger version:

    It's encouraging to know they are offering "unbiased" information.  According to the MD Health Connection, the state expects 180,000 Marylanders to sign up for coverage during the first year, so I guess they need all the help they can get.

Friday, September 6, 2013

NSA Expands College Recruitment Program

    Even as the National Security Agency (NSA) addresses public perceptions of overreach in its surveillance activities, the agency is broadening its recruiting efforts for future cyber experts.  An announcement on Wednesday named four new schools chosen to participate in the NSA's "Cyber Initiative."  The press release explains the program:
An outgrowth of the President's National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education, the program identifies institutions that have a deeply technical, interdisciplinary curriculum centered on fields such as computer science and electrical engineering. The agency has long worked with schools to improve education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. 
In addition, the program offers some participants opportunities to apply their learning or enhance their teaching in summer seminars at NSA...
Topics covered are routinely taught in colleges and universities, but this initiative seamlessly integrates the material to help students better understand how they could someday help to defend the nation.  
    The four schools chosen for the 2013-14 academic year are:
  • Air Force Institute of Technology in Ohio;
  • Auburn University, Alabama;
  • Carnegie Mellon University, Pennsylvania; and
  • Mississippi State University.
    Although "[s]ummer seminar participants must undergo background checks and obtain temporary, top-secret security clearances," it is noted that "students and faculty members do not engage in actual U.S. government intelligence activities."
    The four existing schools in the program are:
  • Dakota State University, South Dakota
  • Naval Postgraduate School, California
  • Northeastern University, Massachusetts
  • University of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Syriaquestration: Governing by Hobson's Choice

    On Wednesday, I posited the following on Twitter:

    Thursday, James Taranto, in his Best of the Web column, also reflected on the president's actions regarding Congress and the authorization vote:
If we take Obama and Kerry at their word, then the president did not even consider the possibility that Congress would reject his request. Given the haste in which he made the decision and the desultoriness of his own effort to make the case for the request, that is a plausible reading of what happened. 
Failing to consider this contingency would be a stunning failure of planning... 
The other possibility is that Obama did not regard approval as a sure thing but figured that he'd win either way--that if Republicans balked, he could blame them for inaction in Syria, and if they went along with intervention, they'd share the blame for anything that went wrong...
    Taranto's take, which I excerpted here, is worth reading in full (almost invariably the case,) and I believe it supports my Syriaquestration thweesis (as long as I am coining words, why not two?)  The president and his spokespersons have often said that the sequestration, which the White House has only grudgingly acknowledged the president's role in proposing, was purposely designed to be so bad that no one would allow it to kick in.  As the country learned this spring, the president miscalculated.  Congress did not blink and the sequestration took effect.  The time-release poison pill was apparently not strong enough to kill opposition to the president's taxing and spending priorities.  So far, consequences of the sequester have been mixed, better or worse depending on which party is asked.
    Now the president has thrown down the gauntlet again, apparently not considering the possibility that Congress might pass on picking it up.  Or that Congress would pick it up, depending how you read the president's challenge.  That possibility has quickly almost become a fait accompli with many observers saying the president might not only lose on the Syria authorization vote, but lose "big", according to a Thursday night Politico report.  Whatever the president's reason or reasons for passing the buck to Congress, he may come to regret it.  Even if he was initially hoping Congress would vote down his proposal to get him off the hook for his "red line" remark, he and his subordinates in the last few days have portrayed the consequences of no military response as so dire that anything short of a disaster in Syria after a no vote would seriously damage the credibility of the administration.
    While there are similarities between the sequestration and Syriaquestration, and whatever harm has come from the former, the consequences of the latter are likely to be far worse, whatever the outcome of the current debate in Congress.  The president may learn too late that Hobson's Choice politics is a dangerous game, and the people of Syria, the entire Middle East, and the United States may all end up paying a high price for his ill-advised gamble.

The Outrageous Use of "Courageous"

   Matt Lee, AP reporter and resident burr-under-the-saddle at State Department briefings, broke through the haze of Syria news with his blunt, even for him, question to State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki, "Was there some kind of group spine removal procedure at the White House over the weekend?"  Lee was responding to Psaki calling the president's decision to go to Congress for authorization of military action against Syria "courageous."  The president's supporters have often been accused of using over-the-top rhetoric to describe him, and as it happens, Psaki is far from the first to use "courageous":

  • Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) - President Obama’s Support for Gay Marriage A Courageous Stand
  • Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) - "Thanks to President Obama’s courageous action" on the budget and immigration reform
  • James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence - On Pres. Obama's decision to order the raid that killed Osama bin Laden - "[T]hanks must go to the President, our Commander-in-Chief ... for making perhaps the most courageous decision I’ve witnessed in almost 48 years in intelligence. "
  • Martin O'Malley, Dem. Gov. of Maryland - "[W]e were able to keep making progress on health care because of a courageous president named Barack Obama who also stepped up, with your help, to pass the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act."
  • Joe Biden, Vice President - "This guy's got a backbone like a ramrod," Biden said, of Mr. Obama's decision, according to a White House pool report. "He said, 'Go,' knowing his presidency was on the line. Had he failed in that audacious mission, he would've been a one-term president." [OK, he didn't literally use the word "courageous," unless you apply Biden's own standard for "literally."]

    To his credit, President Obama's own use of the word "courageous" is often absolutely appropriate: a man who saved Jews from the Holocaust; those who mounted the Berlin Wall in the ultimately successful effort to bring it down; members of the military; and civil rights leaders in the 50s and 60s.  In this case, the president's supporters would do well to follow the example of the man on whom they too often bestow their hyperbolic adjectives.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Where is the White House Atrocities Prevention Board?

    As the debate rages about chemical weapons use in Syria and the 1,400 victims the August 21 attack alone apparently claimed, where is President Obama's Atrocities Prevention Board (APB)?  A Study Directive issued by the president on August 4, 2011, said that an interagency review should be carried out so that "the Atrocities Prevention Board can commence its work within 120 days," which would have been early December 2011.
    In reality, the president announced the first meeting of the board on April 23, 2012, after more than double the 120 days had passed.  President Obama spoke at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and even devoted three paragraphs of the speech specifically to the situation in Syria.  In part, he said:
Now we’re doing something more.  We’re making sure that the United States government has the structures, the mechanisms to better prevent and respond to mass atrocities.  So I created the first-ever White House position dedicated to this task.  It’s why I created a new Atrocities Prevention Board, to bring together senior officials from across our government to focus on this critical mission.  This is not an afterthought.  This is not a sideline in our foreign policy.  The board will convene for the first time today, at the White House.  And I’m pleased that one of its first acts will be to meet with some of your organizations -- citizens and activists who are partners in this work, who have been carrying this torch... 
I’ve signed an executive order that authorizes new sanctions against the Syrian government and Iran and those that abet them for using technologies to monitor and track and target citizens for violence.  These technologies should not empower -- these technologies should be in place to empower citizens, not to repress them.  And it’s one more step that we can take toward the day that we know will come -- the end of the Assad regime that has brutalized the Syrian people -- and allow the Syrian people to chart their own destiny.
    The meeting the president referenced in his speech was held the same day at the White House and largely consisted of three panel discussions with various government officials and human rights organization figures.  Prior to those discussions, the following appears on the agenda for the meeting:
Discussion with the Atrocities Prevention Board 
Moderator: Samantha Power, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights at the National Security Council
    However, it is unclear who is actually on the board.  The APB does not appear to have its own website, office, or contact information, either on the White House website or elsewhere.  Very little has been heard from the board since its creation, and barely a month after its launch, the following exchange took place at a White House press briefing:

Q    Jay, thanks.  Two questions.  Starting with Syria, has the President’s new Atrocities Prevention Board met to consider a response to the Syrian crisis, particularly since the Houla massacre?

MR. CARNEY:  I’m sorry, has the --

Q    The President’s new Atrocities Prevention Board, which he actually announced at the Holocaust visit, has it met?

MR. CARNEY:  I’ll have to take the question.  I don’t know the answer to that.

    The White House press secretary did not even seem to have been aware of the initially meeting, and certainly not about any subsequent meeting.   The last reference to the APB by the White House came nearly a year after the April 2012 launch in a May 1, 2013, blog post on the White House website with an accompanying Fact Sheet.  The blog entry said:
At the President’s direction, we have stood up an interagency Atrocities Prevention Board, which monitors emerging threats, focuses U.S. Government efforts, and develops new tools and capabilities.
    The Fact Sheet provided some more details about the APB, but mostly in broad terms.  Individual board members are not named, and the times and places of its meetings are not revealed:
o The Board includes senior representatives of the Departments of State, Defense, Treasury, Justice (DOJ), and Homeland Security (DHS), the Joint Staff, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Office of the Vice President and the National Security Staff.
o The Board identifies and addresses emerging atrocity threats, by scanning the horizon for critical developments, assessing the risk of mass atrocities in particular situations, and supplementing existing efforts, or catalyzing new efforts, to ensure that atrocity threats receive adequate and timely attention.
o The Board also coordinates the development of new policies and tools, including many listed below, to enhance the capacity of the United States to effectively prevent and respond to atrocities. 
    The only individual whose name has been linked directly with the board is Samantha Power, who served on the National Security Council until President Obama nominated her to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.  Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) noted during her confirmation hearings Ms. Power's "role as the head of President Obama’s Atrocities Prevention Board."
    Now that Ms. Power has moved to her new position, it is unclear who chairs the APB if indeed the board still meets.  The ongoing crisis in Syria would seem to be an ideal time for the public to hear from the board or for the president to announce new leadership to deal with the crisis.  Perhaps, given the current state of affairs, he's more than willing to simply allow the board's existence to fade into the background.

Monday, September 2, 2013

White House Spins Article About 34% Increase in Ohio Healthcare Premiums As Good News

David Simas, Deputy Senior Advisor for Communications & Strategytweets (and White House retweets) a link to an article with “More good ACA [Obamacare] news. 21% savings on premiums for Ohioans who buy their own health insurance because of the ACA.”

Indeed, the article begins: “Ohioans who buy their own health insurance should see an average out-of-pocket savings on premiums of 21 percent because of taxpayer subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, according to a new study by the Rand Corp., a widely respected think tank.”

But the 21% is not a savings over current premium levels, but projected increased premiums [emphasis added]:

Christine Eibner, a senior Rand economist and lead author of the study, told us in a telephone interview this afternoon that she considers this is a realistic way of comparing premiums. It compares premiums for coverage people will get on the exchange with coverage they have or would have had without Obamacare.

Based on that calculation, the average premium for individual policies in Ohio would rise by $900, or 22.65 percent...

The price hike would be offset for many Ohioans by the taxpayer subsidy.
So the 21% “savings” doesn’t actually even quite make up for the 22.65 percent increase in average premiums.  And the savings are only for those getting subsidies.  Those paying the full premium themselves will get hit with the full 22.65 percent increase.

It should be noted also that the increase in the raw comparison of premiums, before Rand adjusted for what it considered pertinent factors, was even higher:

Without factoring in subsidy offsets and the policies that people are likely to buy, premiums for individual policies in Ohio will average $5,312 in 2016, according to figures from Rand. That’s 34 percent higher than the average for individual premiums without Obamacare, Rand’s figures show.  But that, too, is a high estimate that does not factor what kind of coverage people will actually buy on the exchange...
And this is the kind of article the Obama administration considers good news worth promoting.

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