Saturday, November 30, 2013

Report: Security Concerns at U.S. Embassy in Belarus

    The terrorist attack against the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012, awakened renewed interest in the security of overseas consulates and embassy facilities.  A recent report by the State Department's Office of the Inspector General spotlights some major concerns regarding the safety of American diplomats and staff in Minsk, Belarus, as well as the security of communications.  The report notes that some progress has been made during the last year, but more remains to be done.
    The report lays out the difficult conditions for the diplomatic mission in Belarus, noting that to visit the "Embassy Minsk is to step back in time to an era when American diplomats in Eastern Europe operated in inhospitable environments."  The government of Belarus is often hostile and imposes severe restrictions, including a five-person limit on American staff.  This has produced a ratio of five Americans to 119 locals staff members, too high by normal standards, and has also resulted in the five Americans (down from 35 in 2008) serving long hours and often double duty.  The limit remains despite assurance from the Belarus government that it was only temporary, and is largely responsible for the staff's inability "to comply with numerous security, consular, information technology, reporting, and management requirements..."
    The American staff is generally praised by the Inspector General for excellent work and ingenuity under difficult conditions.  For instance, the report relates an incident where consul foiled "the kidnapping of an American citizen by repeatedly calling his cell phone until the kidnappers, alarmed by the U.S. Government label appearing on his phone’s screen, released him unharmed." Additionally, the chargé d’affaires is credited with improving security since arriving in 2012:
The chargé has also reinforced embassy security measures. When he arrived at post in 2012, access control was haphazard. Badges were not issued to visitors, and the local guard force used familiarity as a criterion for granting personnel access to the compound. The chargé and management officer/post security officer moved quickly to implement the required access control policy and procedures. The chargé has also worked with the Kyiv-based RSO to enhance mission security.
   Security concerns, however, remain as noted elsewhere in the report:
The 2012 chief of mission controls statement of assurance noted that a physical security survey has not been performed within the past 3 years. As discussed earlier in the report, there are serious facilities, [portion redacted] deficiencies that did not appear in the 2012 statement. The OIG team stressed that, in preparation for the 2013 statement, it is important that the mission review, document, and establish an improvement plan to resolve current deficiencies. 
    Because the main facility (the "chancery") is in a state of disrepair and a $34 million planned renovation is on hold, all embassy business must be conducted from an annex.  This as well as the intrusiveness of the government of Belarus makes conducting private communication virtually impossible.  The report notes that communications security is non-existent:
Embassy Minsk staff members, both American and local, are subject to regular harassment by the Belarusian security services. American staff residences have been entered surreptitiously. The embassy and all U.S. and Belarusian staff are under constant physical surveillance...
The embassy does not have classified communications. Staff members operate on the assumption that everything sent on unclassified systems or spoken on the telephone is monitored by Belarusian security services and other local security agencies.
    Restrictions and sanctions against Belarus by the U.S. and other countries make it important for diplomatic staff to keep a close eye on visas granted by the embassy:
The United States has also imposed sanctions on Belarus under several additional laws and executive orders, These sanctions include travel and financial sanctions and asset freezes against officials who have undermined democratic processes and against state-owned and other companies that have supported proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or money laundering. The European Union also maintains a broad range of sanctions against individuals and firms. 
    However, the same five-person staff limitation imposed by the host country has caused concerns about visa referrals issued by the embassy:
Senior embassy officials have made inappropriate visa referrals. Host government limitations on American staff numbers in Minsk have forced most Belarusians to apply for visas outside Belarus. With referrals affording the only access to a Minsk interview for many visa applicants, the referral program is unusually vulnerable to misuse.
    Other concerns are raised in the report as well, including one redacted in its entirety, as shown here:

    The State Department, first under Hillary Clinton and now John Kerry, instituted worldwide security reviews of diplomatic facilities after the Benghazi attack and in response to the subsequent report from the Accountability Review Board.  Although some advances have apparently taken place, this report on the Minsk embassy shows that security at foreign facilities is far from ideal.

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

Obama: 'Sometimes People Forget I'm Not Running for Office Again'

    At a stop in San Francisco on a three-day fund raising swing along the West Coast, President Obama said during a speech that "...sometimes people forget I'm not running for office again."  The president was talking about Republicans in Congress and the immigration reform that he is trying to get through the House:
And some of them even forget that I'm -- sometimes people forget I'm not running for office again.  Michelle doesn’t forget.   (Laughter and applause.)  So you don’t have to worry about this somehow being good for me.  This is good for the country.   It's the right thing to do for the American people. 
    A remark the president made at his first stop on the tour, the Seattle home of Jon Shirley, may give some insight into why some forget the president isn't running again:
Well, first of all, let me just thank Jon for the second time for his incredible hospitality.  And I think it’s fair to say that between Nancy and me and Steve Israel, we do a lot of events.  I will say that this particular space is one of the more spectacular venues for an event.
    The president's schedule lists several Democrat party events for Monday alone:

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

For Thanksgiving, Federal Government Targets ... Pumpkin Pie?

    Remember the old song, There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays?  The federal government has a rewrite in mind for this Thanksgiving: "I met a man who lived in Tennessee and he was heading for Pennsylvania and some homemade pumpkin pie a big bowl of fresh fruit." At least that's the implication from the Department of Agriculture's (USDA) new infographic:

    Among other suggestions are replacing butter with bananas or applesauce for baked goods and cutting back on the gravy.

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

Obamacare Website Scrubs References to Online Functions of SHOP

    Though news of a one year delay in the online Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) marketplace just broke early Wednesday afternoon (via Politico), Healthcare.gov wasted no time in updating the page on the website dealing with online functions of SHOP, though there is no notation that the page was revised.  The page, formerly titled "How do I apply for coverage in the SHOP Marketplace?" has been revised to "How do I enroll in coverage through the SHOP Marketplace?" and has been scrubbed of all references to online enrollment and even online account creation.  Here is a portion of the page as it currently appears:

    As early as this morning, the page appeared this way:

    Notably, archived versions of the page in question are not available, because "webcrawlers" used by search engines such as Google have been blocked by what is known as a "robot.txt" page on the site.  (THE WEEKLY STANDARD had a screenshot of the SHOP coverage page on file prior to Wednesday's revision.) As shown here, the SHOP apply-for-coverage page and several others have been blocked from archiving by Healthcare.gov:

    The same thing was done in mid-September to the "creating an account" page when the Account Creation feature was taken offline weeks before the October 1 launch.
    A related question, "How do my employees sign up for SHOP?" has been removed entirely and is met with a "Sorry, we can't find that page" message.  That page has appeared as follows:

    An archived version of that page is still available.

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

IRS Program Allows Employees to Access IRS Data on Personal Smartphones

    The Internal Revenue Service is conducting a pilot program allowing IRS employees to use personal smart phones to access government email accounts and other work related information.  The program is known as Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), and the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) has raised concerns about the security and cost-effectiveness of the program in a recent report:
TIGTA expressed concern that the IRS allows BYOD devices access to resources on the IRS network in addition to e-mail access. This increases the risk that privacy and taxpayer data could be compromised. TIGTA also raised concerns about allowing devices based on the Android operating system to participate in the BYOD pilot, because these devices are more subject to malware than the Apple devices tested in earlier phases. 
“A Bring Your Own Device program could provide significant benefits and even potential cost savings,” said J. Russell George, Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. “However, the IRS must conduct a thorough, realistic cost-benefit analysis before such a program’s benefit can be appropriately ascertained.”
Among the recommendations made by TIGTA are restricting the program to email access only, and delaying Android-device access completely until a risk assessment addressing security concerns is conducted.  The IRS agreed with all of TIGTA's recommendations except the Android device delay.  TIGTA remains unsatisfied with the IRS's response to the findings in the report:
TIGTA believes that some of the corrective actions proposed by the IRS are inadequate because they are contingent on BYOD expansion or additional funding. The relevant controls should be put in place for the existing BYOD effort, which does not have a clear end date and which is being used by hundreds of employees and devices within the production environment.

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

Monday, November 25, 2013

National Intelligence 'R' Us

    I performed a public service today for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.  This tweet appeared this morning:

    Unfortunately, "KRNS"stands for "KNOWLEDGE REPRESENTATION IN NEURAL SYSTEMS", not "reputation," as seen at the link.  I helpfully pointed this out via a tweet of my own:

    A few minutes later:

    Hopefully this incident will not inflict lasting damage on the agency's representation, er, reputation.

HHS Plans to Spend Up to $7B to Find Ways to Reduce Costs Under Obamacare

    The Department of Health and Human Services revealed on Wednesday a plan to spend up to $7 billion to find ways to reduce spending under the Affordable Care Act while maintaining or improving the quality of health care.  The solicitation for bids for this wide-ranging project appeared today on the Federal Business Opportunities website:
The purpose is to develop a Research, Measurement, Assessment, Design, and Analysis (RMADA) IDIQ [Indefinite Delivery, Indefinite Quantity] to respond to expanded needs of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care ACT (ACA) and Health Care reform ACT (HCERA). The work awarded under the RMADA will involve the design, implementation and evaluation of a broad range of research and/or payment and service delivery models to test their potential for reducing expenditures for Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, and uninsured beneficiaries while maintaining or improving quality of care.
     While the contract is to be an IDIQ contract, meaning that the quantity of work is variable and therefore the price to be paid is not fixed, documents accompanying the contract indicate the maximum is set at $7 billion over the life of the contract:

    While HHS has contracted out such research and modeling work before, the documents suggest that the implementation of the Affordable Care Act has added a new element to this type of project:
The need for analyses based on real time claims and utilization data is a unique factor that distinguishes today’s evaluation of models as opposed to prior demonstrations... Furthermore, because Innovation Center models often include collaboration among multiple payers and other entities, the current evaluation approaches will need to account for the need to gather, coordinate, and analyze private payer and other private data sources. In addition, evaluations involving other entities, such as payers, should plan to examine the role of CMS as a convener and how the model is received by both participating and non-participating affected parties.
    Interested parties have until January 14, 2014 to respond.

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

White House Responds to Criticism of Restrictions on Press... With A White House Photo of Photographers

    On Thursday, a scathing article by Ron Fournier entitled "Obama’s Image Machine: Monopolistic Propaganda Funded by You" ran at National Journal taking the White House to task for shutting out press photographers from presidential events in favor of official White House photos taken by White House photographer Pete Souza.  The article, which received wide play on Thursday, included numerous examples of the superior access Souza has over the press photographers, such as this:

    The frustration is exemplified in the opening anecdote in Fournier's piece:
New York Times photographer Doug Mills strode into Jay Carney's office Oct. 29 with a pile of pictures taken exclusively by President Obama's official photographer at events the White House press corps was forbidden to cover. "This one," Mills said, sliding one picture after another off his stack and onto the press secretary's desk. "This one, too – and this one and this one and … ." 
The red-faced photographer, joined by colleagues on the White House Correspondents' Association board, finished his 10-minute presentation with a flourish that made Carney, a former Moscow correspondent for Time, wince. 
"You guys," Mills said, "are just like Tass."
    Late on Thursday, the White House, as if in response to the criticism, released a photo by Pete Souza -- a photo of photojournalists covering the signing of two bills, the Streamlining Claims for Federal Contractor Employees Act, and the Veterans' Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustments Act of 2013, neither exactly marquee legislative achievements for the president:

    Perhaps the next time Doug Mills enters Jay Carney's office, he'll find a framed print of this photo on Carney's desk.

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

Playing Chess With Iran

    To hear Obama administration officials tell it, Iran got snookered at the bargaining table in Geneva.  The description of the deal worked out between the P5+1 and the world's largest supporter of terrorism is so one-sided, it's a wonder the foreign minister of Iran will be allowed back into his home country.  Two unnamed senior administration officials held a background conference call with reporters early Sunday morning after Secretary of State Kerry addressed the press about the deal.  Here are a few of their remarks:
  • So these are very important concessions and the most significant progress that has been made in halting the progress of the uranium program in a decade...
  • Along with those agreements come an unprecedented transparency and intrusive monitoring of the Iranian program...
  • This is much more extensive monitoring than we have today, and it is a significant portion of this agreement...
  • So, taken together, again, a halt of activities across the Iranian program, a rollback in certain important elements, and extensive and intrusive monitoring...
  • First and most importantly, [Iranian sanctions] relief is limited, temporary, targeted, and reversible. It is designed so that the core of our sanctions, the sanctions that have had a tremendous bite -- the oil, banking and financial sanctions -- all remain in place. So in that very important respect, this deal is limited...
  • Second, the relief that Iran gets under this agreement is insignificant economically...
  • Iran is not back in business and anyone who makes the mistake of thinking so I think will be met with some serious consequences...
  • The deal that was struck is very limited in terms of the additional business that Iran can engage in...
  • So just looking at oil revenue alone, Iran will actually be worse off at the end of this six-month deal than it is today...
    And all of this while still explicitly acknowledging "Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism, its destabilizing role in the Syrian conflict, and its abysmal human rights record[.]"  What is in this deal for Iran?  What motive does the regime that still publicly calls for Israel's destruction have?
The purpose of sanctions were not to just have sanctions in place. They were to change the calculus of the Iranian government. We began to see that with the election of a new President who ran on a mandate to achieve sanctions relief through a more moderate foreign policy towards the West. And we had an opportunity, the best opportunity we've had in five years, to test whether we could get an agreement through diplomacy.
    The situation calls to mind an amateur chess player who has just taken an important piece in a game with a grandmaster. "Did you see that?  I took his rook! He's in trouble now!" Meanwhile, the grandmaster is saying, "Wow... never saw that coming!" but a smile is visible behind his eyes as he envisions the endgame twelve moves in the future.  If Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Egypt are any indication, the Obama administration will once again be shaking its head and saying, "But things were going so well..." This time, however, the endgame could be the worst outcome yet: a nuclear Iran.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Three Month Grace Period Mandated for Delinquent Consumers Who Receive Obamacare Subsidies

    Though the Obama administration has been promoting the benefits of Obamacare for several years now, one perk of coverage through the exchanges that has gone largely unnoticed is a mandated three-month grace period for unpaid premiums.  The rule, however, only applies to those receiving subsidies via tax credits advanced to the insurers by the government (§155.430 and §156.270 of the Code of Federal Regulations.)
    Perhaps most notable about the rule is that, as long as a consumer has paid at least one full month's premium during the year, the insurer must continue to pay claims for services rendered during the first month of the grace period after a premium goes unpaid.  Further, even if coverage is eventually terminated, the effective date must be the last day of the first month of the grace period. The consumer thus receives a free month of coverage for which no direct premium was paid.  The insurer is compensated only to the extent of the advance payment of the tax credit for that month.  The tax credits for the second and third months of the grace period, which the insurer is mandated to continue to collect from the government, must be returned to the government if coverage is ultimately cut off.
    Other burdens relative to delinquencies are placed on the insurers as well.  The insurer must notify not only the consumer of past due status, but HHS as well.  Also, while any claims submitted during the second and third month of the aforementioned grace period may be held by the insurer pending payment from the consumer, the insurer is required to notify providers that claims may be ultimately denied if the grace period expires.
    The regulations do not specify a minimum subsidy required for this regulation to take effect, so even a consumer whose subsidy represents only a small portion of the monthly premium may benefit from the extended grace period.  Also not spelled out in the rules is whether the insurer has any legal recourse for the unpaid premium for the month during which coverage was extended.  Nor is it clear if HHS has recourse against the consumer for the tax credit paid to the insurer for that same month.
    The implementation of the advance payments of tax credits to insurers on behalf of consumers is one of the tasks of Obamacare's financial management system, which is still under development as Deputy Chief Information Officer Henry Chao for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) told Congress on Tuesday.  Chao testified the system was approximately 60% complete.  However, as we reported on Thursday, the contract for the financial management system was just awarded this past August on a no-bid, emergency basis.  At the time of the award, CMS admitted that its acquisition of "contractor financial services to assist CMS in developing and testing its Marketplace financial activity implementation solution is already minimally two months overdue[.]"  It is not clear if the 60% figure Chao used on Tuesday includes the testing of the system or simply the development phase.
    Less than six weeks remain before the system will need to go live and, among a multitude of other financial tasks, begin remitting funds to insurers on behalf of consumer who purchase coverage through the exchanges.  CMS does not appear to have an alternative if the system is not ready.  In CMS's own words from the August contract award notification, the consequences, "financial and other," of such a failure would be "severe."

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

UPDATE:  After I wrote my article for The Weekly Standard, I found that Reason had already covered this topic earlier in November.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Government Remains Silent on Emergency, No-Bid Obamacare Financial Management Contract

    Even before the October 1 launch, concerns were mounting over the ability of the government to handle the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), or Obamacare.  Though many expressed those concerns publicly, insiders at the White House, Health and Human Services (HHS), and the contractors hired to design and run the site and its programs were largely silent about potential pitfalls, or at least downplayed them.  However, some internal memos and reports have since come to light as the "glitches" mounted.  But at least one red flag is hiding in plain sight, and the impacts of the serious concerns expressed in an HHS document first reported on by THE WEEKLY STANDARD on September 16 are still looming against a fast-approaching January 1 deadline.
    In testimony before Congress on Tuesday,  Deputy Chief Information Officer Henry Chao for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) addressed a heretofore largely overlooked element of the federal government's role in Obamacare's ongoing functions: what happens beginning in 2014.  The website roll out problems have obscured the larger issue of the ongoing responsibilities of CMS.  But, as Politco reports, Chao spoke to some of those issues on Tuesday:
Financial management tools remain unfinished, he said, particularly the process that will deliver payments to insurers... 
The functions need to operate correctly so insurers can enroll the right people in the right plans. That process, called reconciliation, has to work so people can get the care they seek starting as early as Jan. 1. 
...“back office” functions, including accounting and payment systems, were not yet complete.
    Last Thursday, President Obama said that the problems of Healthcare.gov stem from the fact that it is "very complicated.  The website itself is doing a lot of stuff."  While there may be room for debate about whether Healthcare.gov rivals Amazon or Travelocity in complexity, arguably the real work of the ACA still lies ahead: this financial management of ACA functions over the long haul to which Chao referred.  While the current functions of the website may be complex, the financial management functions that CMS needs to have in place by January 1 are far more involved.  Details of these functions and the concerns CMS expressed about its readiness and ability to carry them out are contained in a Justification and Approval that accompanied the awarding of a no-bid, emergency contract to Novitas Solutions, Inc. in early August of this year.
    THE WEEKLY STANDARD in September reported the $11.6 million contract award, noting that in early August CMS had recognized that the "specialized financial management services and expertise are needed beyond what was initially anticipated and beyond CMS' currently available resources," and that development and testing, at that point less than two months from the October 1 launch and less than five months from the January 1 effective date of new coverage, were "already minimally two months overdue."
    The document is remarkable both for its dire warnings and its candor. CMS disclosed that the need had "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..." and "...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."  These statements are part of a rather lengthy narrative describing the tenuous position in which CMS found itself, but it is worth an extended look to appreciate the magnitude of the task with which CMS believed it was faced and the level of CMS's concerns regarding the dire circumstances that would likely result from any further delay [emphasis added]:
Since enactment of the Affordable Care Act and establishment of the new Marketplace, CMS has been actively developing and refining new and existing procedures and requirements to ensure the successful implementation and operation of the new, complex Marketplace. Throughout every phase of implementing such a large and dynamic program of a kind that has never been done before and as requirements and procedures are being developed and are emerging, CMS continues to learn, evolve and gain insight. As the deadline for implementing the new Marketplace nears, the Agency has been assessing and testing its plan and solution for implementing the new Marketplace. With every unknown and variable encountered, CMS has been leveraging resources and changing, refining and retesting its solution, to not only ensure that the Marketplace is operational on January 1, 20l4, but to ensure that this vital part of the Affordable Care Act is operating effectively and efficiently with as little complication as possible. CMS has recently learned that specialized financial management services and expertise are needed beyond what was initially anticipated and beyond CMS' currently available resources... 
With the impending and mandated October 1, 20l3 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.
In addition to the urgent and compelling nature of this requirement and the potential for financial and other harm to the Government if the Marketplace is delayed, regrettably CMS does not have enough time to conduct a full and open or limited competition. Acquiring contractor financial services to assist CMS in developing and testing its Marketplace financial activity implementation solution is already minimally two months overdue; therefore, the contractor will be working under an accelerated and fast-tracked schedule...
    The document goes on to describe how CMS arrived at the decision to award the no-bid contract to Novitas, a contractor that already does a considerable amount of work for CMS.  The approval was signed by no fewer than nine CMS officials, up to and including  Chief Operating Officer A. Michelle Snyder.
    The type of work to be done by Novitas is quite extensive and is itemized in the project description:
The contractor shall provide financial management, accounting and reporting services in support of CMS' administration and oversight of the Marketplace financial activities and functions using CMS' accounting system, the Healthcare Integrated General Ledger Accounting System (HIGLAS) to 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 (Treasury), specified batch payment functions in HIGLAS, and systems interface testing and support for HIGLAS functionality.
     The contract announcement and accompanying documents are not completely clear how these activities translate into functions to carry out the ACA and support Healthcare.gov. For example, regulations governing the marketplaces say that an "Exchange may establish a process to facilitate through electronic means the collection and payment of premiums to QHP issuers."  It remains unclear if Healthcare.gov offers such a facilitation process yet, or if that feature will be activated later. (Maryland recently announced that its state-run exchange was indefinitely suspending the bill-pay feature.)
    In any case, as another example, CMS will be responsible for facilitating the payment of the advance tax credits for consumers receiving government subsidies for their plans.  The regulations describing that one function alone reveal a complex formula to determine how, when, and to whom the funds should be remitted, and notifications and other requirements regarding the disposition of the credits.
    However, since the exact nature of the contractor's work remains unclear, we contacted CMS on September 26 to ask for clarification on the contract, and how the work related to the ACA and its functions.  The following email was received in reply:

    However, despite repeated followup email requests, no further information has been received from Mr. Olague or anyone else at CMS in the seven intervening weeks.  A similar email to the contractor, Novitas, was answered promptly, but the company declined to provide further details and referred questions back to CMS.
    The lack of proper operational and security testing of Healthcare.gov that was revealed in the last month and a half give rise to serious questions about the readiness of other areas under CMS's purview related to Obamacare.  Though the agency acknowledged back in August that development and testing were "already minimally two months overdue," there has been no  publicly available update on the status of the Obamacare financial management system until Chao's rather vague testimony on Tuesday that the system may be 60% or so complete.  Without some level of transparency from CMS, the public has no way of knowing if CMS's warnings of "severe consequences, financial and other" will materialize, or whether concerns that the "Agency's implementation and operation of the Marketplace and the Affordable Care Act will certainly be jeopardized" have been adequately addressed.

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

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Happy Family Health History Day!

    Thanksgiving is coming, and the Department of Health and Human Services wants citizens to mark the day by discussing history.  No, not Pilgrims, Native Americans, and how they came together as the Pilgrims thanked God for His blessings -- rather, your family health history:
Acting Surgeon General Boris Lushniak Declares Thanksgiving “Family Health History Day" 
As we celebrate the Nation’s 10th annual Family Health History Day this Thanksgiving, I encourage everyone to spend time talking with their family members about their health.  National Family Health History Day is a great opportunity to draw attention to the importance of sharing family health history. 
Both rare diseases and common ones, like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, can run in families. Understanding your family health history can help you and your health care provider predict your risk for health problems and keep you and your family healthy. 
    As mentioned above, this is the 10th annual observance, so it cannot be chalked up to an Obamacare plot to hijack a religious holiday, as tempting as that is.  George Bush was president in 2004 when Obamacare was just a gleam in Senator Max Baucus's eye. (Think of it more like changing the smoke alarm batteries on your birthday.)  That being said, it didn't stop Acting Surgeon General Lushniak from sneaking in an Obamacare reference:
If someone in your immediate family—mother, father, sister or brother—has heart disease, you have twice the risk of developing heart disease as someone without that family history. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, many preventive screenings are now covered under health insurance with no cost share for Americans.
    On second thought, perhaps the mention of Obamacare is entirely appropriate.  After all, what  Thanksgiving is complete without the turkey?

Obamacare Deadlines Shortened By Lack of Payment Options

    When the Obama administration launched the Healthcare.gov website on October 1, the president and his officials focused on the coverage that would now be available to the uninsured as of January 1, 2014.  However, with the recent flood of cancellations of those who were told they could "keep their plan," millions more will need new insurance in place by the beginning of the new year.  The well publicized "glitches" have slowed enrollment considerably, and now there is new evidence that consumers will find themselves with even less time to secure coverage than originally thought.
    An editorial in Wednesday's USA Today repeats the common belief about the deadline: "The deadline for signing up for insurance that begins Jan. 1 is Dec. 15."  However, "signing up" for insurance is not enough.  As the Healthcare.gov website states [emphasis added]:
If you enroll in a private health insurance plan any time between October 1, 2013 and December 15, 2013 and make your first premium payment, your new health coverage starts January 1, 2014.
    Kathleen Sebelius echoed this requirement in a Wednesday conference call:
 Payment is not due until Dec. 15 for January coverage, Sebelius said
"By the 15th of December, we'll be able to tell you how many people have actually paid for the first month of coverage," she said.  
    However, paying the premium is not necessarily a simple matter.  An online chat with a Healthcare.gov representative revealed that the site is not recommending using the exchange to make the initial premium payment. The representative was not even completely sure the option was being offered.  Here is an excerpt from the chat [emphasis added]:
Healthcare.gov Representative:  To have coverage effective January 1, 2014, you must make your first premium payment by December 15, 2013. Your health insurance company can tell you how to make your premium payment. If you do not make a payment on December 21, 2013, you may have to fill our another application.  
The Weekly Standard:  I can't make a payment through healthcare.gov?  
Rep:  It may give you that option when you complete your enrollment.  
TWS:  If I don't pick a plan until 12/15, won't it be too late for my info to go to the insurance company, them to bill me, and me to make a payment by 12/21?  Seems pretty tight.  
Rep:  You must make your first premium payment by 12/15/13 for your coverage to begin January 1, 2014. If you make your payment by the 21st, your coverage will begin in February 1, 2014.  
TWS:  You said above "It may give you that option" to pay on healthcare.gov.  Does that mean it's not available yet?  
Rep:  We are still experiencing some technical difficulties with the website, which is why it would be best to possibly go through the insurance company to make your first premium payment.
    The federal government run exchange is not the only one to experience problems with premium payments.  The Maryland Health Connection, that state's version of the Obamacare exchange, announced a week ago Friday that it was suspending the bill-pay feature indefinitely:
Accepting payment is not required of a state-based marketplace, and the Board approved deferring this option until after the core items are addressed. The ACA requires insurance carriers to be ready to accept the first payment from consumers, and our carriers are prepared to bill and receive the first payment from our enrollees.
    In addition, just last Friday, Maryland announced that individuals should enroll early to allow time for billing and payment:
For coverage effective by January 1, 2014, individuals are encouraged to enroll before December 10 to allow time for premium invoicing and payment processing with their insurance carrier. 
    Since information regarding plans, premiums, and possibly subsidies must pass from the exchanges to the insurance companies before the consumer can be billed, someone who waits until December 15 to enroll seems unlikely to secure coverage by January 1.  The mid-December deadline therefore would appear to be optimistic, and in reality probably falls earlier in the month, very close to the November 30 target date for the Healthcare.gov website to be fixed.  The window of opportunity for consumers needing coverage for 2014 for all practical purposes may be about a week.

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

Monday, November 18, 2013

Contractor Supporting Insurgents in Afghanistan Granted Access to Coalition Facilities

    In a November 8 letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) warned that a contractor that had been identified with the insurgency had been granted access to a Coalition facility last November, and that the threat of further access by such contractors remains.  SIGAR uncovered the information while conducting an investigation of the structural defects at the Parwan Justice Center, a new courthouse being jointly constructed by the State and Defense Departments.  The letter reads in part:
Evidence obtained by SIGAR indicates that a contractor identified by the CENTCOM Commander as supporting the insurgency in Afghanistan gained access to a Coalition-controlled facility. This security lapse seems to have been caused by gaps in how contractor information is shared by U.S. government agencies supporting the reconstruction effort. Unless immediate action is taken to correct this matter, this contractor and other supporters of the insurgency could continue to gain access to U.S.- and Coalition-controlled facilities in Afghanistan...
Evidence obtained by SIGAR indicates that for two days in November 2012, employees of ZMTL were given access to the Parwan Justice Center complex.2 However, these individuals should not have had access to a Coalition-controlled facility, because the U.S. government determined as early as April 2012, that the Zurmat Group poses a threat to U.S. and Coalition forces.  
Specifically, on April 27, 2012, the Department of Commerce added the Zurmat Group and ZMTL to its Entity List3 because of their involvement in “networks that provide components used to make improvised explosive devices (IEDs) used against U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan.”
     To date, the U.S. Army has rejected all 43 of SIGAR's requests that insurgent-supporting contractors, including Zurmat, be subjected to debarment from future work on coalition projects.  The Army has rejected these requests on concerns that debarment would "violate their due process rights under the U.S. Constitution."  SIGAR believes this is a "flawed approach", and that "until action is taken on all 43 insurgency-related cases SIGAR has referred to the Army for debarment, the safety of our troops could still be at risk and U.S. government funds could be diverted to supporters of the insurgency."

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

Friday, November 15, 2013

After One Month, 1,284 Individuals Enrolled in Private Health Plans Through Maryland Obamacare Site

    The latest weekly report for the Maryland Health Connection reveals that the Obamacare marketplace for the state is continuing to under-perform versus expectations.  Two weeks ago, the state reported that through November 1, enrollment had reached 4,651 for the first month of open enrollment, and an additional 84,273 Marylanders would be automatically signed up for Medicaid as of January 1, 2014.  The following week, as I reported, the state withheld enrollment figures because the "Maryland Health Connection is revising its approach to providing numbers of enrolled Marylanders."  The current report reflects the revised approach and the result is rather stunning.  Only 1,274 individuals were enrolled in plans they had chosen during the first month of enrollment.
    A footnote in the weekly report explains the reason for the revised numbers:
In previous reports, we included Marylanders who chose managed care plans among “enrollments.” Because Medicaid coverage does not require plan selection (unlike coverage through qualified health plans), the eligibility determination is a better representation of insurance status than plan selection for this population. 
    Here is the official breakdown:
On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that from October 1 through November 2:  
  • 10,917 applications were submitted in Maryland for coverage;
  • Among Marylanders included on submitted applications, 5,923 were determined eligible for Medicaid and 3,498 were determined eligible to purchase private health insurance; and 
  • 1,284 Marylanders had selected a health plan for enrollment.
    A chart accompanies the breakdown that shows enrollment by age bracket.  Included in the breakdown of the 1,284 Marylanders that have selected a plan are 108 listed as "< 18." This signifies that minors are included in the 1,284, meaning that the 1,284 literally represents totals persons covered by selected plans; the number of households coverage then would be somewhat less.
    Also revealed in the numbers in that in addition to the 84,273 automatically being added to Medicaid rolls, another 5,923 were determined eligible for the program as well, bringing the Medicaid total to over 90,000.  So for every one person enrolled in an individually selected private health plan, 70 have been added to Medicaid.
    Another worrisome aspect of the report is the rate of creation of verified accounts, the first step toward obtaining coverage through the exchanges.  Before the first two weeks were finished, 30,000 verified accounts were created.  But by November 9, that total had only grown to 53,000, an increase of 23,000 in twice the time.  After an average of 15,000 a week for the first two weeks, the increase slipped to about 6,000 a week since then.
    In spite of the problems, the report remained optimistic:
Through November 9, 1,743 Marylanders have chosen to enroll in private health plans through Maryland Health Connection. This is a 36% increase over the total through November 2.
     While 36% sounds substantial, it represents only 459 individuals.  Even if the exchange added 1,000 individuals per week for the remaining 20 weeks of open enrollment, the total as of March 31 would be about 22,000, far short of the 150,000 Maryland hoped to sign up during the first year of Obamacare.

Maryland Obamacare Exchange Suspends Bill Pay Option

    The insurance marketplaces established by the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, have been billed as a one-stop shopping experience.  However, in Maryland, two stops will be needed, at least for the time being.  Originally, individuals had been told that they would be able to make their first payment through the Maryland Health Connection, but this option has been suspended indefinitely, per a press release last Friday:
Bill payment. Accepting payment is not required of a state-based marketplace, and the Board approved deferring this option until after the core items are addressed. The ACA requires insurance carriers to be ready to accept the first payment from consumers, and our carriers are prepared to bill and receive the first payment from our enrollees.
    Although bill payment is optional for individuals per the Affordable Care Act, we reported back in September that, according to Betsy Charlow (communications manager for the Maryland Health Connection,) "employer bills get handled by Maryland Health Connection (federal requirement)," and not just the initial paymen, either.  Ms. Charlow went on to say that "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."
    If the exchange has delayed even the relatively simple feature of accepting initial payments from individuals to be remitted to insurance carriers, the more complex aggregation of premium billings from multiple carriers and the collection and distribution of those dollars on an ongoing basis will certainly require far more resources and planning.  As I reported at The Weekly Standard, the launch of SHOP in Maryland has been postponed until April 1, 2014.  The Maryland board is counting on the additional three months to make sure that the opening of the SHOP Marketplace does not mirror the debacle that accompanied the debut of the individual insurance exchange.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Maryland Delays Obamacare Small Business Exchange, Jeopardizes Tax Credits

    In mid-October, the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange quietly postponed all of the forums it had scheduled to inform small businesses about the Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP), as reported by THE WEEKLY STANDARD.  Now, in a Friday press release, the Maryland board overseeing the state's Obamacare website announced it had postponed the opening of the SHOP exchange itself from January 1 until April 1, 2014, which could impact businesses who are counting on the tax credits heavily promoted by the Obama administration to help small businesses provide coverage to their employees:
Maryland has a well- functioning small group market which offers the same prices as those that will be offered through the small group exchange, known as the SHOP. The Board approved a plan to open the SHOP on April 1, 2014, which will allow more time for testing and coordination over the next several months.
     Although the press release says that Maryland's small group market offers the same prices as SHOP plans, it does not mention that beginning in 2014, the health insurance tax credits available to businesses are only available to plans purchased via the SHOP exchanges, as noted at Healthcare.gov, and as we reported back in July.  Coverage for small businesses through Maryland's SHOP was previously able to start as early as March 1, 2014, but now that the opening of the marketplace has been delayed until April 1, the earliest date coverage can begin is unclear.  A business that desires to take advantage of the tax credits would either have to delay coverage until SHOP plans are available, or buy a plan through the conventional insurance system, and then reapply through SHOP once the exchange opens.  In either case, the tax credit would only be available for the portion of the year that SHOP coverage is in effect.
    The Maryland Health Connection website itself is also still promoting the tax credits.   It does not indicate what effect the delay will have on the ability of businesses to qualify, though it also notes that "[t]he health care tax credits and deductions are available only if you get coverage through the SHOP."
Since only premiums paid on coverage obtained through SHOP qualify for the tax credit, the calculator provided on the site to come up with a business's estimated annual tax credit is not accurate for coverage obtained during 2014 because it does not take the partial year into account.
    Although the Maryland Health Connection website does not address the effects of the delay, a presentation prepared for a Maryland Health Benefit Exchange Board Meeting on Friday, November 8, asserts that "Tax credits will not be lost – available for 2 years from first receipt."  This is an apparent reference to the fact that the tax credit is limited to two consecutive years, beginning the year coverage starts.  However, according to proposed rules by the IRS published in the federal register, the two-year limit is being interpreted as two tax years, not a 24-month period that may overlap into three different years [emphasis added]:
[T]his credit is available to any eligible small employer only twice (because the credit can be claimed by a small employer only for two consecutive taxable years beginning after December 31, 2013, beginning with the taxable year for which the small employer first claims the credit). Accordingly, no small employer will calculate the credit amount or complete the process for claiming the credit under this regulation more than two times.
    This means that an employer who obtains SHOP coverage sometime in 2014 after the exchange opens could either file for a partial-year credit for 2014 and a full-year credit in 2015, or skip filing for any credit in 2014 and then file for full-year credits in 2015 and 2016.  Since the only apparent advantage of purchasing coverage via SHOP versus the conventional insurance market is the availability of the credits, the delay in the opening of SHOP seems to amount to a de facto delay to January 1, 2015, at least for businesses intent on obtaining the maximum benefit from the tax credits.
    Unless the Maryland Health Connection can reconcile the SHOP delay with the proposed IRS rules, small businesses will be getting something less than is being promised.  An email to the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange requesting clarification on the effect of the delay on tax credits has not yet been returned.

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

White House Goes on the Offensive on Obamacare

    Evan as millions of taxpayers are receiving cancellation notices for their health insurance that President Obama assured them they could keep, the White House has gone on a Twitter campaign to excoriate Republicans for not expanding Medicaid to another 4.5 million people.  In a series of tweets on Wednesday, the GOP in Texas, Florida and North Carolina were characterized as putting politics over people by refusing to expand Medicaid roles under the Affordable Care Act:

    Given the news recently, it does not take much imagination to tweak the White House graphic to tell the real story:

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

IRS Not Following Law in Penalizing Excessive Refunds and Tax Credits

    The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) reported last week that in 2011, the IRS paid out $3.6 billion in fraudulent refunds on tax returns filed by identity thieves.  Even that amount was an improvement over the previous year when the total fraud was $5.2 billion.  However, on Tuesday, TIGTA released a new report that found that though the IRS is making some progress against fraud, it is not using all available tools to prevent erroneous refunds and improper tax credits.
    In 2007, the Small Business and Work Opportunity Tax Act amended the IRS code to increase the agency's ability to penalize taxpayers who claim excessive tax credits or refunds.  A recent audit, however, found that the IRS has not properly implemented the law, and is following up in only a fraction of the cases where action may be warranted [emphasis added]:
TIGTA found that the IRS incorrectly interpreted the erroneous refund penalty law, which significantly limited the types of erroneous tax refund or credit claims to which the penalty would apply. The IRS assessed only 84 erroneous refund penalties totaling $1.9 million between May 2007 and May 2012... 
[I]n the year after the IRS revised its interpretation of the law (June 3, 2012, through May 25, 2013), there were 709,123 individual tax credits disallowed by Campus Operations for which the IRS could have potentially assessed erroneous refund penalties totaling more than $1.5 billion.
    The inspector general found no legitimate reason for the IRS's neglect of the law:
“I am troubled that even though the IRS has revised its interpretation of this law, it has still failed to establish processes to assess penalties on the majority of disallowed tax credit claims,” said J. Russell George, Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. “Taxpayers who seek refunds or credit claims that have no reasonable basis in law must be penalized, for they create unnecessary burden on both the IRS and the American people by straining resources and impeding tax administration.”
    In response to the findings, IRS management "raised concerns about the costs and benefits of establishing processes and procedures... to assess erroneous refund penalties", but did not support these concerns with documentation or analysis.

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

Monday, November 11, 2013

Maryland Obamacare Website Offline for a Day and a Half

    Just a few days after announcing a number of delays in various aspects of the Maryland Health Connection (MHC) website, the state's Obamacare website, a belated press release issued late Monday [update: apparently posted around 10 AM Monday morning] noted that the site would be offline for almost a day and a half, from Sunday night to Tuesday morning of this week.  The advisory reads in part:

    Attempts to set up an account are currently met with the following message:

    Although the advisory says this was a "planned update" and the current greeting calls it "scheduled maintenance," the most recent press release on Friday, November 8, made no mention of the current shutdown.  That press release, however, did mention the delay of the site's bill pay feature, as well as a three month delay in the opening of the SHOP (small business) exchange.  Also, as Speak With Authority reported on Saturday, the MHC also withheld updated enrollment numbers because the state is "revising its approach to providing numbers of enrolled Marylanders."

Veterans Day

    Since my father ("Dad" mentioned above in the banner) is a veteran, having served overseas in World War II, today seems a good day to honor him, and well as all others who have served and are currently serving defending our country and our freedom.  Thank you all.

   Bill Kristol has an interesting piece at The Weekly Standard about why Veterans Day is one of the holidays still observed on its original date instead of the nearest Monday or Friday.

Saturday, November 9, 2013


    Hopefully I am not violating my agreement with Google ads in saying this, but I apologize for the video game ad that appeared on my site earlier today, and who knows how many times before.  This is the first I notice it, and I "muted" it, which means it should not appear again and my ad preferences should be updated to prevent such ads in the future.  We shall see, and I will be on the lookout more conscientiously.  Please feel free to email me or make a comment on a post if you see any potentially objectionable ads in the future.  As with my policy on bad language, what is objectionable?  I can't precisely define it, but I know it when I see it.

Maryland Obamacare Site Withholds Updated Enrollment Numbers

    Last week I noted on Twitter that the Maryland Health Connection had only managed to enroll 4,651 in the first four weeks of open enrollment.  That figure remains the latest available total because this week's report contained no update as the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange Board revises its approach to providing enrollment numbers.  Maryland's goal for the six-month enrollment period is 150,000, but at the current rate, only about 28,000 would be enrolled by the end of March 2014.  This graph from the Maryland Health Connection's November 1 report shows that the rate of signup had been relatively consistent for the first four weeks:

    This week, however, it is impossible to know if the trend improved or not because the Maryland Health Connection did not release any new figures on enrollment.  Totals were provided for unique visitors to the website, calls to our call centers, accounts created with verified identity, and those who have learned whether or not they are eligible for financial assistance.  However, revisions to the way enrollment data will be presented in the future precluded the release of an update this week:
Maryland Health Connection is revising its approach to providing numbers of enrolled Marylanders. Future reports will separate individuals versus households, qualified health plans versus Medicaid, and other information. For this reason, there is no updated enrollment data this week.
     One figure that has remained consistent throughout the reports is the 83,991 Marylanders who will be signed up automatically for Medicaid coverage beginning January 1, 2014.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Half of Tax Returns Prepared by IRS Volunteers in Audit Test Completed Incorrectly

    A report issued in September and released this week by the IRS's Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) found continuing problems with the agency's Volunteer Program, which provides free tax preparation and electronic filing for "low- and moderate-income, elderly, disabled, and limited-English-proficient taxpayers."  The report, with the unwieldily title "Inconsistent Adherence to Quality Requirements Continues to Affect the Accuracy of Some Tax Returns Prepared at Volunteer Sites," found errors in 19 of 39 returns prepared by volunteers.  In each case, a TIGTA staffer anonymous approached a member of the Volunteer Program for assistance with one of three test scenarios developed by TIGTA for the review.  The errors were the result of "incorrect application of the tax law, insufficient requests for information during the intake/interview process, or lack of adherence to quality review requirements."
    The Inspector General has been tracking the performance of the IRS Volunteer Program since at least 2004.  The accuracy rate steadily improved over the years, peaking at 90% in 2010, but then plummeted in 2011 and has not yet recovered, as indicated by an accuracy chart included in the report:

    The TIGTA report noted that due to the small size of the test (39 returns,) the 51% accuracy rating could not be statistically applied to the entire Volunteer Program, a fact also cited by an IRS spokesperson in response to an inquiry from Accounting Today:
“The IRS greatly appreciates the community service that volunteers provide to underserved segments of the taxpaying public and appreciates TIGTA’s acknowledgement of these contributions,” said the IRS statement. “Results from TIGTA’s audit visits were based on three pre-determined scenarios and only 39 returns prepared during these reviews, which is not statistically valid. While we are concerned with any level of error and will address the issues raised in the report, any attempt to extrapolate the findings from 39 visits of this type to the typical tax return prepared by VITA / TCE volunteers would unfairly characterize the tax assistance provided by our volunteers. By comparison, our quality review showed a 91 percent accuracy rate on the more than 3.3 million federal and state returns prepared by our nearly 91,000 volunteers. The IRS remains committed to continually improving the volunteer program, and have agreed with TIGTA’s suggestions.”
    The IRS began granting matching funds to volunteer organizations in 2009.  In 2013, a total of 206 organizations received $12.1 million dollars for electronic filing and for training.  There were a total of 13,081 Volunteer  Program sites in 2013 helping to prepare almost three million tax returns.

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

White House Cites Domestic Violence in Push for Immigration Reform

    The White House is ramping up a new push for the president's version of comprehensive immigration reform.  In an opening salvo, White House advisor on Violence Against Women Lynn Rosenthal wrote a blog entry entitled, "Comprehensive Immigration Reform: Survivors Can’t Afford to Wait", saying that "it’s up to Republicans in the House to decide whether to move forward with immigration reform."  Ms. Rosenthal framed the argument in the context of the just-ended Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October:
Domestic Violence Awareness Month has ended, but our work to end abuse continues. Today, in this country, women and children continue to suffer from unspeakable violence because they are afraid to seek help without legal status. When immigrant survivors of abuse without legal status are, according to one study, half as likely to call the police to seek the help they need, we must act.
Rosenthal goes on to say the federal law (Violence Against Women Act) already contains provisions to help immigrant victims of abuse, more needs to be done.
Since it was first signed into law in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act or VAWA has recognized the need for special protections for immigrant survivors of abuse, including self-petitions and categories of visas for victims of violent crimes and human trafficking. But while VAWA includes key provisions to help immigrant survivors, it is not enough. 
Rosenthal cites fear of deportation, potential homelessness, and economic dependence as reasons many immigrant women - documented or undocumented - do not seek help.  She noted that the Senate had passed legislation already, and asserted that "[u]nlike many other issues in Washington, immigration reform is one that both parties can agree on."

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

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Despite Urging 'Redskins' to Change Name, Pres. Obama Celebrates 'Blackhawks' [Updated]

    Stepping into the controversy over the team name for the Washington Redskins in early October, President Obama said in an interview with the AP:
"If I were the owner of the team and I knew that the name of my team, even if they've had a storied history, that was offending a sizable group of people, I'd think about changing it,” Obama said.
    But on Monday, the president hosted the NHL Stanley Cup champions, his own hometown Chicago Blackhawks, at the White House, and there was no indication the president felt any reticence about using that team's Native American-derived handle.  The White House tweeted the president's words:
According to the pool report, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn (D), Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) attended the White House event.

There was no word on whether or not team mascot Tommy Hawk was able to attend the ceremony.

UPDATE: After this post went up at The Weekly Standard, I received a fair amount of feedback, mostly negative, asserting that "Blackhawks" was not comparable to "Redskins" for a variety of reasons:

  • Blackhawk's are named after the 333rd Machine Gun Battalion of the 86th Infantry Division from World War I.
  • "Redskins" is a deragatory term used to describe the color of a Native American person's skin color. The term "Blackhawk" is the actual name of a Native American tribe and is used as a term of honor and respect."Redskins" is a deragatory term used to describe the color of a Native American person's skin color. The term "Blackhawk" is the actual name of a Native American tribe and is used as a term of honor and respect.
  • Chief Black Hawk was an actual person who played an important part in Illinois history. Its not a general term that denigrates a segment of our great country.

While I acknowledge that the responders have a point about the team names themselves, it is difficult to believe that someone who is offended by "Redskins" would not be equally offended by a mascot named "Tommy Hawk" as illustrated above.  I am not as concerned with keeping/changing team names as I am about selective outrage.

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

FCC: Lifeline Program Fraud and Abuse Surpasses Two Million Subscribers

    In a continuing crackdown on the federal government's Lifeline program, commonly known as "Obama phones", the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has revealed that fraud and abuse in the program exceeded two million subscribers.  New rules were established after it became clear that subscribers and providers were taking advantage of the system:
The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau has worked aggressively to enforce these new rules since their adoption, taking actions worth over $15 million, in addition to today’s $32.6 million in proposed forfeitures. Numerous additional investigations are ongoing. Moreover, over 2 million duplicate subscriptions have been eliminated, and the FCC’s reforms are on track to save the Fund more $2 billion over three years.
    The two million is up from a figure of 1.1 million in an FCC press release just a month ago.
    The Lifeline program was started in 1985 to allow low income household to have basic and emergency phone service, but has grown dramatically since its inception.  The Wall Street Journal reported in February that payments ballooned from $819 million in 2008 to more than $2.2 billion in 2012.  The Journal investigation also found that the kind of fraud uncovered by the FCC in its current action was rampant:
A review of five top recipients of Lifeline support conducted by the FCC for the Journal showed that 41% [almost 2.5 million] of their more than six million subscribers either couldn't demonstrate their eligibility or didn't respond to requests for certification.
    The purpose of the November 1 press release was to announce that the FCC has proposed fines of $32.6 million against three providers for rules violations.  The FCC is accusing Conexions Wireless, i-wireless, and True Wireless of knowingly allowing multiple Lifeline subscriptions from the same household when the limit is one per household.  Service providers may request reimbursement from the government under the program on the condition that they have verified eligibility of their subscribers under Lifeline rules.  One of the companies, Conexions Wireless, also faces a $300,000 fine for "apparent willful and repeated failure to provide timely and complete responses to the FCC’s requests for information."
     The total proposed forfeitures against providers to date amount to a relatively small $47.6 million versus the apparent billions in fraud.  An email to the FCC requesting clarification regarding further actions possibly pending against providers has not yet been returned.

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

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Obama Decries 'Winner-Take-All' Economy to Rich Folks 'Who Are Doing Very Well'

    President Obama attended a Democratic fund raising event in Weston, Massachusetts Wednesday night at the home of Alan and Susan Solomont.  Among the 60 attendees were a number of high-profile Democrats, according to the Boston Globe:
Among those expected to attend are House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi; Governor Deval Patrick; Ken Burns, the director of acclaimed documentaries; Representative Steve Israel, who is chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; Swanee Hunt, former US ambassador to Austria; and retired US Navy admiral James Stavridis. 
Also expected are several members of congress, including John Tierney, of Salem; Niki Tsongas, of Lowell; and David Cicilline, of Rhode Island. Former congressman Barney Frank is also planning to attend, according to a DCCC aide.
    In his speech, the president blasted Republicans for further lowering Washington's image among voters by continuing obstructionism despite the Newtown shootings and Boston Marathon bombing that should have produced a "new spirit in Congress of people pulling together."  He also made some interesting remarks about the economy the United States finds itself a part of in the world today [emphasis added]:
We know that we are entering into an extraordinarily promising but also challenging time in this country.  International competition is fierce.  We have an economy that's never been more productive or more innovative.  But what we've also seen is an economy that produces a winner-take-all situation and folks like those in this room who are doing very well, there are a whole bunch of folks out there who are struggling.  You’ve got a middle class that is anxious about whether their children will be able to replicate their success.  There are questions as to whether, if you work hard in this country, you can still make it. 
     The Globe also noted that the fund raiser "ticket prices ranged from $16,200 per person to $64,800 per couple. The DCCC would not say how much Obama expected to raise in total."

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

Energy Dept. Seeks Company to Turn Sunshine Into Gasoline

    Although CO2 has a bad reputation as a "greenhouse gas" that contributes to climate change, if the Energy Department (DOE) finds partners to capitalize on the research of one of its laboratories, someday cars might run on sunshine.  Technically, cars would run on the product of sunlight, CO2 and water using a "two-step solar thermochemical cycle" developed by the Albuquerque, New Mexico government lab.  The DOE posted the special notice seeking interested companies on the Federal Business Opportunities website on Tuesday:
Sandia National Laboratories (Sandia) is conducting ongoing research and development into solar fuels, the conversion of sunlight, CO2, and H2O into high energy density, gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel pre-cursors...
Sandia is seeking a company or companies interested in this unique opportunity which will lead to the demonstration and deployment of this technology. 
    Researchers have been working on this idea for some time according to a 2007 press release from the Sandia lab.  At that time, one of the researchers speculated that although a prototype of a device to carry out the chemical process was already under development, it was "a good 15 to 20 years away from being on the market."  The special notice released this week did not contain a timetable, but did note that companies interested in the project "must have a significant interest in developing this technology to the demonstration and deployment stage."

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