Saturday, December 28, 2013

$50M Obamacare-Fix: 'Literally a Life-or-Death Situation'

    As the full breadth of the Healthcare.gov debacle became apparent, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) turned to the architect of the Federal Data Hub to lead the team of contractors to fix the woefully inadequate website that had disastrously launched just weeks before. As announced on October 25, Quality Software Services Inc. (QSSI), whose Data Hub turned out to be one of the better functioning systems of the Obamacare Marketplace, was named as the general contractor for the rescue effort.  According to the Washington Post at the time, "details on the size of the contract were still being worked out."
    Recently, more details on that contract (treated as an extension to a 2007 Enterprise System Development contract) have become available and shed more light on HHS's own assessment of the situation less than one month after the website launch.  The documents paint a devastating picture of stunning incompetence three and a half weeks into the most ambitious domestic policy program in recent memory: 
During Healthcare.gov's first weeks of open enrollment, many Americans attempted to access the Marketplace and enroll in health insurance.  Due to numerous technical issues, such as hundreds of software bugs, inadequate hardware and infrastructure, and a general lack of system monitoring and incident response capabilities, the Marketplace could only support a fraction of all those who tried to register, apply, and enroll in a health plan.
    The estimated value to QSSI of the one-year contract extension is $50 million:

     Since the situation was deemed to be an emergency by HHS, the contract was awarded without the usual competition, as explained by the Justification and Approval document which cited the likelihood of "unacceptable delays."  A process that normally takes three months was accomplished in less than a day. QSSI's previous work with HHS on Healthcare.gov, as well as experience with "problematic program start-ups" such as the Medicare Part-D Prescription Drug program seven years ago.  HHS foresaw dire consequences if Healthcare.gov was not repaired in a timely manner, warning of "literally a life-or-death situation":
Timely availability of the Marketplace is critical for [uninsured] individuals to be able to obtain coverage by January 1st, 2014, as was specified within the [Affordable Care Act] legislation. For many of them, access to affordable healthcare is literally a life-or-death situation. 
    The contract specifies ten tasks to be performed by QSSI, including "Baseline Current Architecture and Code for all FFM [Federal Facilitated Marketplaces] Systems", "Establish Flexible Testing and Performance Testing Environments", and designing, establishing and maintaining a Healthcare.gov "dashboard" as a real-time tool to track the performance of Marketplace systems and subsystems.
    The Justification and Approval document was signed by nine different HHS officials up the chain of command, including the Chief Operating Officer of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, A. Michelle Snyder.  Snyder was the last to add her signature on December 20, which likely explains why the document was not posted online until December 23.

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

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Once Again, HHS Extends Obamacare Signup Deadline For January Coverage

    Even now that the December 23 deadline has passed, and even the informal one-day extension through Christmas Eve has also passed, the Healthcare.gov website is holding out hope that some may still sign up for coverage effective January 1, 2014.  A page entitled "Tips to help you enroll in Marketplace coverage" asks, "Couldn’t enroll by December 23?"  The answer reveals that calling the Marketplace Call Center and speaking to a representative could yield options that "include starting a new application over the phone to get coverage effective on January 1."

    Although the site indicates that enrollment by January 1 may still be possible "because of problems you had using HealthCare.gov," no further details are provided online about the specific qualifications for the exception.  Problems with Healthcare.gov have ranged from simply logging on to problems with subsidy calculations to enrollments not reaching insurance companies, but it unclear which problems merit special treatment and how consumers must prove they have experienced problems with the site.
    The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has not issued any additional guidance, so it is not apparent how Marketplace Call Center representatives determine if someone is eligible for an exception, or how insurance companies will be compelled to grant the January 1 effective coverage date.  An email to HHS requesting clarification has not been returned.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Hay is For Horses... $90K Worth of Hay, Dept. of Interior

    In April 2013, I wrote a post for The Weekly Standard about a Department of The Interior $6 million contract for helicopter services related to the Wild Horse and Burro program run by the agency.  Part of that program involves capturing and corralling some of those animals for the Adopt-a-Horse program.  And based on another recently posted contract, those horses are hungry.
    There's an old expression that begins "Hay is for horses," and boy, is it ever.  The contract is for almost $90,000, which is apparently the going rate for 200 tons of alfalfa hay:

    A document accompanying the notice gives some background on the program:
 As resource conditions and other factors warrant, excess wild horses and burro [free roaming on public lands] are removed from the public lands and placed in facilities for preparation to be placed in private maintenance through the Adopt-A-Horse program... The Wild Horse and Burro program Southeastern States Office conducts approximately 12 satellite adoptions throughout the southeastern United States. The SSFO is also responsible for running the BLM Eastern States/Piney Woods Wild Horse and Burro Holding Facility. The facility is responsible for maintaining (feeding, veterinary care, etc.) approximately 150 animals.
    The award was granted only seven days after the initial solicitation appeared, so it's not clear how many bids the government received, and the "interested vendors" list requires a login. And how long does it take 150 wild horses and burros to chew their way through 200 tons of hay?  Since the last contract ($43,775 for 100 tons) was just awarded on July 31, 2013, late summer 2014 may be the last straw.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Obamacare 'Back End' Contractor Also Runs Troubled Medicare Website

    As the October 1 launch of Healthcare.gov drew closer, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) realized it was in trouble.  The agency, which is the primary Health and Human Services (HHS) department in charge of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, decided in early August that the "specialized financial management services and expertise [needed were] beyond what was initially anticipated and beyond CMS' currently available resources," and that development and testing were "already minimally two months overdue."  By that time, the need for these so-called "back end" services had "reached an unusual and compelling level of urgency," and CMS awarded an emergency, no-bid contract for the work, as first reported by THE WEEKLY STANDARD in September.  After HHS initially responded with a promise of more information, the agency has ignored repeated requests for further details.  Reuters was stonewalled by the agency as well in a November story about the contract.
    To avoid the "severe consequences" that CMS feared would result from further delay, the agency turned to a current HHS contractor, Novitas Solutions, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Diversified Service Options, which is in turn a wholly-owned subsidiary of Florida Blue (Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Florida.)  Novitas already administers three different Medicare-related healthcare programs for HHS, including the Medicare Administrative Contract for Jurisdiction H, which covers seven south-central states.
    Coincidentally, Novitas launched a new website for Jurisdiction H on September 29, just two days before the launch of the main Obamacare site.  The new Jurisdiction H website has experienced problems reminiscent of those experienced by Healthcare.gov, and some of the "fixes" will not be in place until well into 2014.  In fact, the latest update from Novitas informed users that the Jurisdiction H website would be taken offline completely at 7 PM on Wednesday, December 18, for up to five hours for maintenance.
    A report on the website of the Oklahoma Hospital Association (OHA) on December 4 gave some details of the issues facing users of the troubled Novitas Medicare site:
Hospitals continue to experience problems stemming from system changes at Novitas Solutions, the Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC) for Oklahoma and other south central states. 
Novitas launched a new website on Sep. 29. This was the most visible change stemming from the transfer of Novitas’ business operations platform from the data center of its former owner, Highmark, to that of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida. 
As an example of the website problems, Novitas intended to display content for Part A and Part B separately. This is not working as planned. A manual process of splitting all website content is underway, with a completion goal of February 2014. 
While some of the website problems are apparent to users, more serious problems remain to be resolved behind the scenes in the MAC’s workflow management. David Vaughan, Jurisdiction H project manager for Novitas, told OHA that the system changeover caused a delay of a week or so during which Novitas was unable to use its imaging system. This created backlogs in processing documentation related to medical reviews and appeals. Although the backlog has been reduced, the problems have not been fully resolved.
    Unlike the government has done with Healthcare.gov, however, Novitas maintains a detailed  webpage listing the ongoing issues with the Jurisdiction H site.  The page asks users to "[p]lease pardon our dust as we continue to squash bugs and implement improvements on our new internet site." More than a dozen problems are listed as unresolved as late as Thursday, December 11, the last time the page was updated.  The issues range from web pages not loading properly to duplicate enrollment determination letters to long wait times for customer service.  Another item noted is the planned Interactive Fee Schedule Calculator which is still unavailable.  The status of that issue indicates that "[r]esolution of issues encountered since 9/30/13 is expected by mid-January" 2014.
    When asked for comment on the December 4 Oklahoma Hospital Association report, a spokesperson for Diversified Service Options, Novitas's parent company, wrote:
It is not a news story but an association update, so I have no comment on the Novitas website operation facts as they are stated. As mentioned by OHA, Novitas has been very transparent and proactive with providers, and listed the status of the operational problems.
    Inquiries to HHS/CMS about the Jurisdiction H website, as well as the original emergency, no-bid contract with Novitas for Obamacare-related financial services, continue to go unanswered.

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

VIP Hotel and Vehicles for Mandela Funeral Trip More Than $11M

    State Department contract awards were posted this week for "Transportation services in support of Mandela Funeral" and "Accommodation in support of the Nelson Mandela funeral in South Africa."  The accompanying Justification and Approval documents estimated the cost of transportation at a maximum of $8,286,194.74.  The transportation contract covers only ground transportation in South Africa.  Costs for Air Force One and other air travel are not included.  Two contracts were listed for the cost of lodging: one for $2,042,850 for an estimated "3,240 lodging room nights" and another for $1,190,573 for an estimated "2,490 lodging room nights" stretching from December 6, 2013 to January 20, 2014.
    It is unclear from the documents if the lodging and transportation contracts covered just the president and his support staff, or if it included President Bush, Hillary Clinton, and other current and former government officials.  The transportation contract included passenger vehicles, SUVs, vans, buses, pickup trucks, box trucks, and "larger capacity vehicles":

    One lodging contract was for the Radisson Gautrain:

    The second hotel contract was for the Michelangelo Hotel:

    As is typical of such contracts, they were not open to competition due to security concerns.  Obviously, the short notice of the funeral arrangements complicated efforts even further.  Perhaps as a result of the urgency, a third hotel contract with an estimated cost of $1,110,980 was also posted on the same site for the same trip for the Da Vinci hotel:

    However, within two hours of the posting of that contract, the notice was updated with "cancellation notice - posted in error".
    According to The New York Daily News, the president was on the ground in South Africa for less than 13 hours, arriving and departing the same day, Tuesday, December 10.
    When asked about the contract, a State Dept. spokesperson referred questions regarding the President’s travel/arrangements to the White House press office. The White House press office has not yet responded to an inquiry about the contract and related travel arrangements.

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

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Obamacare Test Website is Publicly Accessible [Updated]

UPDATE: Shortly after a version of this post went up at The Weekly Standard, http://spa.healthcare.gov/ disappeared, apparently taken down by the website administrators.  However, a Google search still turns up hundreds of results, some with cached versions of pages from the "spa." site.

    The Healthcare.gov website has been plagued with bugs and other problems since the October 1 launch.  As web programmers often do, the designers of the federal government's flagship healthcare website have a test version of the site, test.healthcare.gov, to help work out the kinks before implementation on the public site.  Attempts to access this site are met with "Access Denied. You don't have permission to access 'http://test.healthcare.gov/' on this server."  However, another test version of the site, possibly set up in October after the launch, is readily accessible to the public: spa.healthcare.gov.
   When a user first attempts to access the "spa" site, a warning from the user's browser may be encountered. For example, the following warning appears to Chrome users:

    The "security certificate" for the site is registered to Akamai Technologies, which bills itself as the "leading cloud platform for helping enterprises provide secure, high-performing user experiences on any device, anywhere."  Akamai does not list Healthcare.gov or the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as a client, though Akamai has been identified as handling server and web traffic duties for the site.
    Some pages on the site simply mirror the main www.healthcare.gov site, such as the home page.  However, some pages on the main site (https://www.healthcare.gov/find-premium-estimates/) are met with a "Sorry, we can't find that page" message on the "spa" site (https://spa.healthcare.gov/find-premium-estimates/).  The login page on the "spa" site does not even open, but rather returns "An error occurred while processing your request" message.
    It is unclear why this "spa" site would be publicly accessible.  A web designer, who requested not to be named, asked about security concerns of the "spa" site wrote:
Well it does have the https (ssl) option, however the certificate that is installed is for the wrong domain so you will get a warning/have to accept etc. Certificate details below. It is common practive to create a "duplicate" site for testing and development. I do it all the time, however, common practice is to restrict access to the development/testing site. I always password protect etc the [non-production] site. To me it just seems like more sloppy work.
    Congressional testimony given on November 19 by internet security firm TrustedSec mentioned a security concern with the "spa" site:

    It is unclear if the security concern indicated by TrustedSec is still present currently on the site.

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

Monday, December 16, 2013

Defense Dept. to Spend Up to $4B for R&D on Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction

    A Request For Information by the defense department's Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) in July 2011 culminated this month in contract awards to seven different companies worth up to $4 billion over the next ten years.  The contract awards, posted in a notice entitled Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction Research and Technology Development, went to some well known defense contractors including Raytheon and Northrop Grumman.  Despite the $4 billion ceiling, the contracts come with a guaranteed minimum of only $100,000 for each of the seven companies as the work will be parceled out on an Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) basis, which is typical in these types of projects.
    The documents with the original Request For Information give the background on the project:
The mission of the DTRA Research and Development (RD) Enterprise is to reduce national defense and homeland security WMD threats by conducting innovative research and development supporting the nation's WMD-related counterforce, consequence assessment, defeat and arms control objectives. Potential WMD threats include Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and High Explosive (CBRNE) materials. In support of this mission, the RD Enterprise is seeking a multiple-source capability for performing research, technology development; technical, scientific and program analyses; and systems integration efforts that will provide scientific and technological solutions to meet the Department of Defense’s nonproliferation, counterproliferation, consequence management and warfighter mission objectives.
    The process stretched over more than two years and included various briefing, an Industry Day for potential contract recipients, and dozen of revisions and amendments.  And the Defense Department is not through.  Just a day after the awards were released, the DTRA announced another Industry Day as part of its "market research" entitled "Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Situational Awareness,Intelligence, Operations, and Data Visualization Support" to be held December 17 in Arlington, VA.

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

HHS Contractors Conference: "The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly"

    Two days before Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced on December 11 that she was ordering a comprehensive investigation into the reasons behind the Obamacare launch debacle, HHS announced an upcoming Contracting with CMS Conference with topics such as "The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly of Contract Proposals."  Based on Sebelius's testimony before a Congressional committee, her agency's experience with contracts in recent years have included less of the former and more of the latter.  CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) is the division of HHS that was largely responsible for hiring contractors to develop and run the federal government's Obamacare Marketplace.
    The investigation ordered by Sebelius will center around the agency's work with contractors, because, the secretary wrote, "HHS is the third largest federal contracting agency, and CMS alone spent $5.3 billion in 2013 on contracting engagements."  Three actions were ordered by Sebelius, each involving the contracting process:
  • Inspector General, Dan Levinson, is to "review the acquisition process, overall program management, and contractor performance and payment issues related to the development and management of the HealthCare.gov website."
  • A new position will be established, Chief Risk Officer, whose "first assignment will be to review risk management practices when it comes to IT acquisition and contracting," and report back within sixty days.
  • The agency will "update and expand CMS employee training on best practices for contractor and procurement management, rules and procedures."
    The timing of Sebelius's announcement is interesting since the Contracting with CMS Conference is to be held on January 31, 2014, which falls within the 60 day window set by Sebelius for the new Chief Risk Officer to report back to the secretary.  A flyer advertising the conference promotes not only "The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly of Contract Proposals," but "Good News Stories by Contractors" and "Why Past Performance is Important", as well:

    As reported by THE WEEKLY STANDARD in October, the conference was originally scheduled for November 4, 2013, but was abruptly cancelled less than two weeks prior to that date with no explanation.  A "save the date" notice was posted on November 21 for the January 31, 2014 date.  Since the investigation ordered by Sebelius will overlap the conference, it seems likely a second postponement may be in the offing since the very contracting process that is the subject of the conference will still be under review by HHS.
     Also, given that Sebelius's actions were likely under consideration for some time prior to the December 11 announcement, it is curious that the agency still went ahead with the conference announcement.  That in itself may be a question for the investigators to consider as they, in Sebelius's words, seek a "better understanding the structural and managerial policies" that led to the "flawed and simply unacceptable" launch of Healthcare.gov.

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

Sunday, December 15, 2013

HHS Awards Another $58M for Obamacare Navigators

    The same day Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was testifying before Congress about the troubled Obamacare website Healthcare.gov and the improvements being made to it, her agency announced grants of $58 million to 1,157 community health centers to allow them to "expand their enrollment assistance efforts as more Americans enroll in affordable health insurance coverage."  These grants come on top of $150 million previously given to such health centers to "support outreach and enrollment activities" for Obamacare.  From the press release:
“Today’s awards build upon the efforts of health centers across the country as uninsured Americans gain health insurance coverage,” Secretary Sebelius said.  “This investment means that health centers can provide expanded assistance for people in communities nationwide looking for resources to help them understand their insurance options and enroll in affordable coverage.” 
With these awards, health centers will be able to meet immediate needs, including expanding the hours of existing outreach and enrollment assistance workers, and hiring new or temporary outreach and enrollment assistance workers.  Today, health centers operate more than 9,000 service delivery sites nationwide and serve more than 21 million patients annually. 
“Having more opportunities for face-to-face enrollment assistance from trusted resources at local health centers means that more people will get the help they need to sign up by the end of the open enrollment period on March 31, 2014,” said Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) Administrator Mary Wakefield, Ph.D, R.N.

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

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

HHS Document: Cyber Threat Monitoring Increased 500% in Eight Months

    Concerns have increased over the security of personal information collected by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as the volume of personal data has multiplied dramatically with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.  Security experts have testified before Congress about flaws they have uncovered at Healthcare.gov, and various press reports have related other potential problems with the website or with information flowing to the Federal Services Data Hub that could be exploited by hackers and identify thieves.  An HHS document dated December 5 describing a more than 500% increase in the monitoring of cyber threat indicators since April 2013 may only increase those concerns.
    The document states that the agency's Computer Security Incidents Response Center (CSIRC) has experienced more than a five-fold increase in the number of "indicators" monitored by the center in just the last eight months alone.  To cope with the potential threats from this vast increase in data, HHS intends to negotiate a sole-source contract to Cyber Squared, an Arlington, VA, cyber security firm after allowing less than four days (including a weekend) for responses from other interested firms, and even explicitly states that HHS is not soliciting competitive quotations.  HHS describes the apparently urgent need for upgraded threat monitoring as follows:
In the past eight months the number of indicators monitored by the CSIRC has grown well over 500 percent. With the inclusion of the federal Healthcare Threat Operations Center (HTOC) information sharing data from HHS CSO, VA-Network Security Operations Center (VA-NSOC), and the Space and Naval Warfare NSOC for Medical Health Systems (SPAWAR NSOC (MHS), the ability to analyze and correlate this much data requires the use of Threat Connect to be effective and efficient in combating cyber threats. This capability will allow for the joint collection and tracking of internally and externally derived indicators more efficiently as well as facilitate the analysis and correlation of a threat.
    Some of the terminology used in this document raises questions about the scope of the monitoring. For instance, although the document references the "Healthcare Threat Operations Center (HTOC)", the federal government's 2013 Information Sharing Services annual report to Congress makes no mention of the HTOC among the five Federal Cybersecurity Centers, nor is there any other reference to a "Healthcare Threat Operations Center" on the HHS website or any other government website.  References to each of the other potential data sources can be found on various government websites and documents.
     The notice regarding ThreatConnect was posted by HHS at 3:42 PM on Thursday, December 5, and stated that responses would be needed by 8:00 AM, Monday, December 9.  The documentation accompanying the notice does not explicitly mention the Affordable Care Act or Healthcare.gov, but emails sent Thursday to the listed contracting officer and the HHS press office requesting clarification have not been returned.

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

Sunday, December 8, 2013

It's Official: Obamacare Website Will Not Accept Online Payments

    With all the other problems experienced by consumers at Healthcare.gov, actually making payments for plans selected has gotten relatively little attention until recently.  As the end of the year draws closer, however, the importance of making a payment to secure coverage by January 1 has increased.  As recently as November 18, a Healthcare.gov chat representative told THE WEEKLY STANDARD that the site "may give you [the online payment] option when you complete your enrollment", but that "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."
    Instructions at Healthcare.gov on making premium payments are ambiguous at best.  The following appears under the question, How Do I Apply for Marketplace Coverage? [emphasis added]:
Enroll. After you choose a plan, you can enroll online and decide how you pay your premiums to your insurance company. You must pay your premium by the date the insurer provides before your coverage can begin. Coverage can begin as soon as January 1, 2014. 
Despite saying "decide how you pay your premiums," no options are actually listed.
    However, a blog post at HHS.gov on Wednesday removed any doubt.  Payments may not be made through the Healthcare.gov Marketplace.  Now HHS says "you must pay your premium to the insurance company directly – not to the Health Insurance Marketplace."

    This recent blog post suggests that the "technical difficulties" with online payments could not be overcome, and so the option will not be available.  The government has repeatedly refused to respond to questions about the status of work related to an emergency, no-bid contract for "financial management services" awarded in August that would presumably handle online payments, part of the "back end" that HHS has indicated is far from complete.
    The federal insurance marketplace is not the only one experiencing problems with accepting payments.  The State of Maryland announced back on November 8 that since "[a]ccepting payment is not required of a state-based marketplace, and the Board approved deferring this option until after the core items are addressed."

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

Vice President Biden's $583K Shangri-la Hotel Bill in Singapore

    Vice President Joe Biden's $585,000 hotel bill for a Paris visit early in 2013 focused a lot of attention on the issue of the high cost of VIP travel.  Even as Biden is currently on a swing through the Far East, the State Department has posted a $583,000 contract with the Shangri-la Hotel in Singapore for the vice president's three-day/two-night stay this past July, his most recent Far East visit.  Though the online Justification and Approval document is somewhat poor quality, it indicates a need for a hotel "to host a VIP visit of over 250 guests at during the principal's visit," the "principal" in this case being the vice president:

    Not all such contracts for VIP travel expenses are released by the government, although when they come, the releases always lag behind the trip dates for security reasons.  Security concerns are also the reason for the lack of "full and open competition" that is often required on government contracts.  When asked for comment regarding the requirements of posting travel-related contracts, a State Department spokesperson responded via email:
Federal acquisition requirements for posting contract awards related to Presidential and Vice Presidential Travel to FedBiz Ops are that any contract for more than $150,000 should be posted within 30 days of the contract award date. 
    The above contract was awarded on July 18, 2013, but was not posted until December 4, 2013, which amounts to 139 days.  When asked to comment regarding the delay in posting this and other such contracts, the spokesperson replied:
The Department takes our obligations under the Transparency Act very seriously, and strives for complete, timely reporting from all of our missions worldwide.

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

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

State Department Buys Million Dollar Granite Sculpture from Irish-Born Artist

    At the end of September, the federal government's fiscal year was drawing to a close, the threat of a shut down was increasing, and the State Department was shopping for art.  Four contracts were awarded in the last two weeks of September, including $1,000,000 for a granite sculpture by Irish-born artist Sean Scully to be installed at the new U.S. Embassy in London.  Notice of the awards was posted Sunday afternoon of Thanksgiving weekend on the Federal Business Opportunities website.
    Although the form of the Scully sculpture is not identified in the award notification, the artist has produced granite sculptures before, including this one entitled "Wall of Light Cubed 2" in 2008:

    The remaining three awards include a bronze sculpture, "Flowers", by American artist Donald Baechler ($150,000), for the new U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan; a mosaic mural by Miotto Mosaic Art Studio in Carmel, NY ($150,000), for the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia, Brazil; and a work entitled "The Black Arch" by Saudi Arabian writer Raja Alem and artist Shadia Alem, for the new U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
    When asked for comment on the contract awards, a State Department official provided the intended destinations for the artwork, as well as the following statement:
The Department of State’s Office of Art in Embassies curates permanent and temporary exhibitions for U.S. embassy and consulate facilities. For the past five decades Art in Embassies has played a leading role in U.S. public diplomacy with a focused mission of cross-cultural dialogue and understanding through the visual arts and artist exchange.  Art in Embassies is a public-private partnership engaging over 20,000 participants globally, including artists, museums, galleries, universities, and private collectors, and encompasses over 200 venues in 189 countries.
The art pieces listed below will become part of the collections at diplomatic posts and in some cases, comply with host city planning requirements that art be incorporated within the design scheme and displayed in public spaces.  These pieces are permanent purchases, not on loan.
    The State Department's 2013 budget request included $2.5M for the Art in Embassies program.

UPDATE: A State Department official emails to say, "Sean Scully was born in Ireland, but is now an American." This post has been updated to reflect that fact.

Note: A version of this article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.http://www.weeklystandard.com/blogs/state-department-buys-million-dollar-granite-sculpture-irish-artist_769513.html

President Obama: "My Website's Not Working"

    In an interview with Barbara Walters on Friday, President Obama again acknowledged problems with the roll out of the Affordable Care Act website Healthcare.gov (via CNN).  At one point, the president referred to Healthcare.gov as "my website" [emphasis added]:
Obama has taken responsibility for the website's flaws, saying he should have been told earlier about the serious issues with HealthCare.gov's digital infrastructure. He's also apologized for his vow that people who liked their plans could keep them. 
In Friday's interview, Obama said he was looking for answers soon on why the rollout failed so spectacularly. 
"Obviously my most recent concern has been that my website's not working," Obama said. "We're evaluating why it is exactly that I didn't know soon enough that it wasn't going to work the way it needed to. But my priority now has been to just make sure that it works."
    November 30 was the original date the government had announced for website issues to be resolved, but the Wall Street Journal is reporting that the Saturday deadline is likely to be missed.

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