Friday, February 28, 2014

Obamacare Website Encourages the Incarcerated to Enroll in Medicaid

    Nearly five months after the launch of Healthcare.gov, the federal government's flagship Obamacare exchange added a new informational page without fanfare over the weekend aimed at a captive audience: the incarcerated.  The new page is designed to tell those currently serving sentences in prison or jail all they need to know about the Obamacare Marketplace.  Although private insurance may not be purchased through the insurance exchanges by such individuals, the website may be used to apply for Medicaid.  While Medicaid will not pay the cost of care while incarcerated, those seeking coverage are told that signing up now "may help you get needed care more quickly after you’re released."
    The page is entitled "What do incarcerated people need to know about the Marketplace?"  Only those serving sentences upon conviction are considered incarcerated for purposes of the Marketplace, not those locked up pending disposition of charges.  Those on probation, on parole, or in home confinement are not included either.  The medical care of incarcerated individuals is provided by the government institution in whose custody those individuals are held, so Medicaid and private insurance are unnecessary. But those seeking information about Medicaid at Healthcare.gov are encouraged to get a step ahead in preparation for eventual release, as the following partial screenshot shows:

    Incarcerated individuals interested in preemptive enrollment are cautioned that state rules regarding Medicaid may impact their situations:

    Additional information is provided as well:
  • Although the incarcerated may not use the Marketplace to buy private insurance, they have 60 days upon release to purchase a plan, even if the time falls outside the normal open enrollment period.
  • Those held on charges but not yet convicted may use the Marketplace for private insurance.
  • The incarcerated are not subject to the individual mandate and will not have to pay the penalty that "some others without insurance must pay beginning in 2014."
    According to the latest survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics on Correctional Populations in the United States, there were 2,228,400 persons in the custody of state or federal prisons during 2012.  Many jurisdictions now allow limited, supervised internet access by those in jail or prison.

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

Kerry on Syria: "I Don’t Want To Get Into the Definitions" of Genocide

    In a Wednesday interview with Andrea Mitchell, Secretary of State John Kerry resisted Mitchell's assertion that "genocide" was taking place in Syria:
QUESTION: I want to ask you about Syria. For three years, we have watched horrific pictures. You spoke of this when you were a senator. Obviously, now you’ve got the lead role on it. Horrible pictures. I looked at video of a child weeping over his mother’s body after a barrel bomb was dropped on her and other civilians by the regime. Just today, this picture on the wires from Yarmouk, from the refugee camp in southern Damascus. Why isn’t this genocide? 
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, Andrea, that gets into all kinds of definitions. What it is is wholesale killing of your own people. And -- 
QUESTION: But it’s killing of one or another ethnic group by a minority leadership. 
SECRETARY KERRY: Again, I don’t want to get into the definitions. What he is doing is outrageous, unconscionable, unacceptable, disgraceful, craven. It’s horrendous. And we all know that; everybody knows that. And President Obama has been deeply committed to trying to make a difference in ways that we have chosen within the law that we believe are appropriate and permissible...
    In 2004, then-presidential candidate Kerry was not as reticent about defining the situation in Darfur as genocide in an address to the NAACP (via Bloomberg):
Senator Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumptive Democratic Party nominee for president, said the Bush administration should stop ``equivocating'' and formally label as genocide the attacks in Darfur, which have killed up to 80,000 people and displaced more than 1 million. 
``These government sponsored atrocities should be called by their rightful name -- genocide,'' Kerry said in an address to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People convention in Philadelphia. ``The government of Sudan and the people of Darfur must understand that America stands prepared to act, in concert with our allies and the UN, to prevent the further loss of innocent lives.''
    Recent estimates of the conflict in Syria place the death toll around 140,000, with another half-million injured, and millions displaced.

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

Kerry: Glass Ceiling Makes Dealing With 'Sex and Sexual Violence' Difficult

    Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry was joined in the Benjamin Franklin Room at the State Department in Washington, DC by Catherine M. Russell, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues, and British Foreign Secretary William Hague for a "Discussion on Ending and Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Situations."  Kerry himself framed the discussion as an exploration of "the depths of depravity and the extraordinary violence of rape as a tool of war, as violence against women as a tool of intimidation, coercion, submission, and power."  
    Though Bosnia, Colombia, Guatemala, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Liberia were cited as examples where this type of violence was intentionally used as a weapon of war, Kerry was asked near the end of the discussion if having women in the military now helping to create policy makes a difference.  In his answer, Kerry cited the equal pay "glass ceiling" as one of the reasons that it is difficult to "get people to deal with ... sex and sexual violence" [emphasis added]:
SECRETARY KERRY: Oh, sure. I mean, absolutely, of course it does. When I came to the United States Senate, there was one woman. And I watched this transition. I think we got up to 20-something, whatever the number was. Extraordinary, extraordinary difference to the quality of our caucuses, to the quality of debate, to the points of view that were brought forward. I mean, it’s hard for me to imagine how it was the way it was for as long as it was, but it’s hard for a lot of people to imagine it the way it is today, too. 
We’ve got a long way to go. We still have a glass ceiling in the United States. And if we still have a glass ceiling on something as straightforward as employment and equal jobs, equal pay for that job, imagine the sort of push it’s going to take to get people to deal with something they’re as uneasy with as sex and sexual violence. A lot of people don’t understand that rape is used as a tool in war. Many people say, well, no, it’s just – it happens or people dismiss it. You can’t. We can’t allow people to do that.

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

Pentagon's Counter-IED Force to Shrink by Two-Thirds This Year

    News broke this week that under a plan released by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the United States Army will be reduced to its smallest force since before World War II.  Though not directly related to that plan, another announcement this week by the Defense Department gives a foretaste of what those cuts may look like.  Plans are underway for massive cuts to the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), the organization that has led military's efforts to combat the weapon of choice among insurgents and terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the world. JIEDDO's current staff of 3,000 will be reduced to 1,000 by the end of this fiscal year, and further plans could see the number fall as low as 400 down the road.
    Army Lt. Gen. John D. Johnson, the director of JIEDDO, said guidance from then-Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter called on him to "scale JIEDDO down" and draw up plans for what "an 'enduring' JIEDDO might look like in the future."  The Army News Service reports:
"There is a full appreciation that JIEDDO functions should endure. The key is that it be scaled to what the nation can afford," Johnson said. "And we have to be smart as to how we structure it so it can be rapidly expanded as necessary based on the nature of the threat and the challenges we are going to face in the future."... 
Johnson said he will spell out to the deputy secretary what could be done with 400 personnel, and what risks are associated with it. 
"There are certain parts of an organization like this that if you reduce it beyond a point, it could take six months, a year, even longer to re-establish it," he said. "And in that time period, our soldiers and Marines in the field are suffering from the effects of IEDs, and it ends up costing us more to try to fix the problem without necessarily having the sophistication of understanding the entire system of systems."
    Lt. Gen. Johnson was positive about the coming changes, but expressed some concerns as well.
Some parts of JIEDDO can't be easily scaled. One of the areas he's looking to protect, Johnson said, is the intelligence integration functions of JIEDDO. 
"My concern is, right now, we have a fairly persistent look at the organizations that most commonly use IEDs," he said. "If we were to take our eyes off, what are the chances that there would be an adaptation or permutation in the way they use IEDs that we didn't anticipate, and how long for us to catch up?" 
    JIEDDO has worked with other countries, such as Pakistan and Colombia, to help then deal with their own threats from IEDs, and was even involved in discussions after the Boston Marathon bombing to see what lessons could be learned from that domestic attack.
    News of the reductions first surfaced in October 2013.  At the time, Johnson was also positive about adjusting the size and scope of the organization, but was adamant about its continuing mission:
The future is important because the IED fight is far from over, he said.  
“In the last 12 months, there were more than 14,000 IED-related events outside of Afghanistan causing more than 32,000 casualties,” he said. “These weapons have been used by threat networks and criminal entities around the world and even here at home as we saw recently in the Boston Marathon bombings.”  
“The inevitable next fight is somewhere in our future,” he said. “We must be able to rapidly posture for that fight. We must continue to lean forward and stay abreast of how our enemies are using IEDs and what new tactics and technologies they are employing. This will allow us to develop the capabilities to defeat the IED, the tactics to attack enemy networks and train our forces so they are prepared for the IED environments we will face in the future.” 

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

Website of U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Hacked, Malware Found [Updated Again]

UPDATE: As of Friday morning, access to the site was no longer blocked.  But the diagnostic page with the detail of the intrusions remains.
UPDATE 2: I received an email back from the USCIRF explaining the problem:

Thanks for your inquiry we have been migrating the site to a new design and there was a problem with a redirect that triggered the Google alert. The redirect has been corrected and alert is removed.

    From Obamacare's contraception mandate to Arizona Governor Jan Brewer's recent veto of her state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act, many feel that religious freedoms are increasingly under attack.  The attacks took on a cyber-twist this week with a hacking attack on the website of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.   The attack was deemed serious enough that Google has blocked access to the site from its Chrome browser; instead, the following screen appears:

    Google provides a detail of the attacks that the company has detected which prompted the warning. Google testing revealed that visiting "27 page(s) resulted in malicious software being downloaded and installed without user consent."  Google found malicious software on the site, including a "trojan" of which it is reported that "Successful infection resulted in an average of 3 new process(es) on the target machine."

    There is some ambiguity in Google's warning as the statement "this site has not hosted malicious software over the past 90 days" also appears.  This may be a reference to third-parties being responsible, as well as hackers using the site to "function as an intermediary" to infect other sites.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

State Department Insures Artwork for $200M

    The Art in Embassies program of the U.S. State Department just turned 50 last year, but its growth in the last decade has been particularly dramatic if the insured value of the artwork is any indication. Although Art in Embassies purchases original works, such as the $1 million sculpture for the new U.S. Embassy in London, much of the artwork on display at various State Department installations throughout the world is in fact borrowed.  In 2002, the State Department maintained a $20 million policy for artwork.  By 2010, it had grown to $65 million.  This year, the agency is looking to renew its current level of coverage, informing interested providers that "[i]nsurance must cover all items in any location in a Department of State facility abroad up to a value of $200,000,000."  Last year, the $200 million policy cost the government $86,932.
    While the policy covers up to $200 million, the latest itemized list of values by location (updated December 2013) totals only a little over $41 million, but the State Department notes the list is not comprehensive.  Dozens of countries are listed, but more than $23 million alone is for artwork in Beijing, China.  The State Department established a permanent collection in 2008 at the US Embassy in Beijing entitled Landscapes of the Mind, which consists of "48 paintings, photographs, sculptures and mixed-media works by 28 prominent American and Chinese artists."
    Additionally, although Italy is not included on the values by location list, the solicitation also seeks "War and Terrorism Coverage for $15 million for Rome, Italy."  That coverage may be intended to cover a permanent display of a significant body of artwork at Villa Taverna in Rome, although an inquiry to the State Department to confirm this has not yet been answered.  The display in Rome includes this untitled 1970 work by artist Cy Twombly:

    While the State Department does not provide a comprehensive list of all covered items, the 2010 solicitation (when the total insured value was $65 million) included a long list of items, artwork and antiques, owned by the State Department.  The items range from $5 million for a "slant-front desk," $470,000 for a "coffee/tea service," and $500,000 for a commemorative painting of the Declaration of Independence, all the way down to $15 for "documents."  The exact locations of the items are not identified, though a considerable number list "storeroom" as where they currently reside.
    Based on the loss history for artwork for the last several years, the State Department is an ideal customer.  Claims range from a high of only $9,089 in 2008 to a low of $0 in 2013 when no claims were made.  Most losses seem to stem from damage during transit to or from State Department facilities, though sometimes improper handling of the artwork while on display has been to blame.
    When asked in December for a response to the latest round of purchases for Art in Embassies, the State Department released the following statement about the program:
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.

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

CBO: Federal Government's Net Interest Cost to Quadruple Over 10 Years

    A Congressional Budget Office report released in early February projects that net interest paid on the national debt will increase at nearly 14% per year for the next 10 years, "almost quadrupling in dollar terms" during that time.  The CBO makes the assumption that interest rates will return to more typical levels after being held down by Federal Reserve policy to near zero percent in recent years.  This observation is highlighted in a Monday blog post on the website of the CBO:
The government’s net interest costs are projected to increase rapidly, by an average of roughly 14 percent per year, almost quadrupling in dollar terms between 2014 and 2024, as interest rates return to more typical levels and federal debt continues to mount. As a share of GDP, they are projected to rise from 1.3 percent in 2014 to 3.3 percent in 2024.
    The CBO provides the following graph to illustrate the projections:

    Also notable is the continued increase in health care expenditures, which are projected to increase from 4.8% of the federal budget to 6.1% in 2024, a ten-year increase of 27%.  Social Security's share of the federal budget is projected to rise as well, while discretionary expenses, both defense and non-defense will continue to fall.  Other mandatory spending is projected to spike in 2015, but then continue to fall as a percentage of the total budget.
    The CBO also notes that, assuming "current laws generally remain the same -- total annual outlays rise by $2.5 trillion from 2014 to 2024, reaching $6.0 trillion, or 22.4 percent of GDP, by the end of that period."

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Quick Take: About That Donald Sutherland-Jean-Claude Van Damme Film...

    Frankly, I find that most movies are a scam in one way or another, but this one is the real thing. Er... the real fake thing:
Washington D.C., Feb. 20, 2014 — The Securities and Exchange Commission today charged three California residents with defrauding investors in a purported multi-million dollar movie project that would supposedly star well-known actors and generate exorbitant investment returns. 
The SEC alleges that Los Angeles-based attorney Samuel Braslau was the architect of the fraudulent scheme that raised money through a boiler room operation spearheaded by Rand Chortkoff of Encino, Calif.  High-pressure salespeople including Stuart Rawitt persuaded more than 60 investors nationwide to invest a total of $1.8 million in the movie first titled Marcel and later changed to The Smuggler.  Investors were falsely told that actors ranging from Donald Sutherland to Jean-Claude Van Damme would appear in the movie when in fact they were never even approached.  Instead of using investor funds for movie production expenses as promised, Braslau, Chortkoff, and Rawitt have spent most of the money among themselves.  The investor funds that remain aren’t enough to produce a public service announcement let alone a full-length motion picture capable of securing the theatrical release promised to investors.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Quick Take: $108K for... Clock Repair

    This had better involve an awful lot of clocks...

Widespread Vulnerability Found in Dozens of Government 'Open Data' Websites [Updated]

    At first glance, a page on the Health and Human Services (HHS) website seems to be giving that agency's official advice on the "The Health Benefits of Nootropics," a classification of purportedly memory-enhancing drugs.  The page is found on the website's subdomain of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) as part of the Health System Measurement Project.  The page contains the official logo of HHS, the domain in the URL ends with the legitimate HHS address containing "hhs.gov", and the "https://" indicates the connection is even a secure one.  Further down the page, there is even a link to a website selling related products.  A partial screenshot of the profile page at HHS.gov appears as follows:

    Similar pages on the site offer information and counsel on shampoo, surgery, and health issues suffered by computer users.  However, in spite of all the apparently reassuring elements and features of these pages, Health and Human Services had nothing to do with their creation or content, and does not recommend or endorse either the information or the linked products.
    Nevertheless, while the pages are not official HHS information, neither are they technically cases of hacking.  Rather, the creators have exploited a weakness in the "open data" system used by dozens of government websites.  The platform was developed by a company called Socrata.  The system allows users to create profiles and then manipulate data tables that various governments (federal, state, local) host on their websites.  The results can be shared with others for statistical analysis, research, and other purposes, as some users have done. However, in cases like the ones above, a profile page itself can be used to promote a product or information in a way that gives viewers the impression that the host government entity approves or even endorses.  A legitimate looking link could even be included in an email to direct recipients to what they may easily perceive as government-provided information.
    THE WEEKLY STANDARD first reported this opening in January when some internet marketers had created profiles at data.healthcare.gov, the federal government's Obamacare website.  Within a day  after the story ran, Healthcare.gov disabled public access to profiles created for its data site.  At the time, David Kennedy, the CEO of TrustedSec, an information security firm, remarked that the opening could allow scammers to fool users with a "website that’s legitimate to make them believe its something else," and that "an attacker can basically create a functioning website and host any content they want there and under the umbrella of healthcare.gov."
    Use of the profiles can be especially effective since the profiles contain no disclaimers that the government entity does not endorse the content, and there are no warnings when clicking on links that "you are now leaving the website for an external site", a common warning on government sites.
    Health and Human Services is not the only government agency at risk.  The White House announced "Project Open Data" in May 2013 with dozens of federal agencies and sub-agencies taking part.  As recently as January 14, the White House released a Fact Sheet on the White House Safety Datapalooza,  an initiative to safeguard government data that is "part of the Administration’s larger commitment to unleash the power of open data."
    Other examples of profiles such as the one above are numerous, including other federal agencies, plus state, county and local governments.  The products and information being pushed range from private loans to debt consolidation to even "artificial turf":

    Each of the pages above (and dozens of others discovered in the preparation of this story) contains a link to an external website that is obviously not an officially sanctioned site by the government host, but neither are there any disclaimers to warn potential viewers.  The pages appear to violate the Terms of Service of the Socrata platform since "[u]nsolicited promotions, political campaigning, advertising or solicitations" are prohibited.
    More malicious sites could be used for data harvesting or even identity theft since scammers are able to trade on the credibility conferred by the official government websites that host these profile pages.  THE WEEKLY STANDARD has no direct evidence that such activity has yet taken place via an "open data" website, but at this point, clearly the door is wide open to such abuse.  
   An email to an official at Data.gov seeking comment was referred to another official who has not yet responded.  An emailed request to Socrata for comment was initially returned Tuesday evening with a promise of a response, but so far, no additional response has been received.

UPDATE: By the end of the day on Thursday, public access to Socrata profiles had been disabled.  Clicking on links to the profiles now redirect users to a login page.  Neither the government nor Socrata ever acknowledged the vulnerability nor issued any statement regarding the issue despite earlier promises to respond.  Tim Cashman, a Senior Content Strategist at Socrata, initially responded to an email Tuesday night with a promise to "be in touch with a response shortly", and Steven Gottlieb, a Socrata PR contact, and Bill Glenn, VP of Marketing, were both cc'd on his reply.  Several followup emails to all three Socrata representatives, however, were ignored.

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

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Defense Dept. Anti-Tobacco Video Competition: "Fight the Enemy"

    The Department of Defense (DOD) has just announced that the public will be invited to vote in a video competition called "Fight the Enemy."  In this case, the enemy is tobacco.  The innovation office of the military's assistant secretary of defense for health affairs is sponsoring the competition among U.S. service members around the world who were invited to film and submit "tobacco countermarketing" videos.
    The videos in the competition are hosted on the Fight the Enemy website, and visitors are invited to click the "like" button to vote.  The following is one of the videos found on the site:

    Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, says that improving the health of service members is a "national imperative":
“Improving the health and well-being of service members is a national imperative,” Woodson said. “We ask the defense community to help us make tobacco-free living a cultural norm by harnessing the power of social media and sharing the videos with their social networks.”
    Voting will be held for the next month before the winners are announced:
The video with the most “likes” will be declared winner of the People’s Choice Award. A panel of DOD judges will select winners for first, second and third place in the competition. Winners will be announced on March 19 in conjunction with National Kick Butts Day, officials said.

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

Biden to Hold ‘Off the Record’ Obamacare Conference Call

    As the clock ticks down toward the end of Obamacare's first open enrollment period on March 31, the White House continues to invest considerable resources in publicizing the president's signature domestic program.  On Thursday, Vice President Biden will host a 30-minute "off the record" conference call targeted at young people to follow up on last weekend's National Youth Enrollment Day.  
    Wednesday, Kyle Lierman, Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, sent out email invitations to select recipients who are requested to RSVP, and are asked to "note that this call is off the record and not for press purposes":

    The text of the letter reads in part:
Young Americans Update: Conference Call with Vice President Biden  
Dear Friends:  
As many of you know, last Saturday was National Youth Enrollment Day and young leaders hosted more than 100 events across the country to get the word out about health care enrollment. Volunteers – including many of you – worked that day to make sure that young people across the country know their health care options to get covered by March 31st.  
But we all know that more work needs to be done. That’s why we would like for you to join us on a conference call with Vice President Joe Biden at 4:00 PM EST on Thursday, February 20th. Please note that this call is off the record and not for press purposes.  
In order to receive more information about the call, please submit your RSVP by clicking here.  
Talk to you soon,
Kyle Lierman
Associate Director
White House Office of Public Engagement
P.S. For those of you I haven’t met yet, I recently took over as the liaison to Young Americans for the Office of Public Engagement. I look forward to working with all of you. 

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

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

White House on President's Day: "President Barack Obama 101"

    The White House is recognizing President's Day 2014 with a blog post entitled "Dive into the Presidency for President's Day."  The post features a biography of Thomas Jefferson, a high-definition photo of a painting of George Washington, a special interactive gallery that includes "pages from George Washington's first inaugural address and other inaugural moments from 13 Presidential Libraries," and two videos of the White House curator exploring the history of the Presidential Seal and also President Theodore Roosevelt's official presidential portrait.
    The post ends, however, inviting visitors to "learn about President Obama and keep up with his administration by following @WhiteHouse on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Google+, and Tumblr":

    In addition to linking to the White House's social media sites, the post also links to the White House's own page on President Obama.

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

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Young and Healthy: The Obamacare Paradox

    One of the selling points of the Affordable Care Act was that the requirement that everyone would have to purchase health coverage, even those who were young and healthy.  The dollars brought into the system by those least likely to need medical care were going to help pay for others, including those with pre-existing conditions, who need more care.  But beyond the mandate with its relatively low penalty, how could the young and healthy be convinced to sign up?  Low premiums, of course.  But herein lies the contradiction.  How can young people, even healthy young people, paying very low premiums possibly contribute enough to the system to sustain it for the less healthy?

    A recent example from Organizing for America shows the challenge faced by the law's supporters.  The item is entitled I found my golden ticket (well, platinum) and tells the story of self-professed "young and healthy" Eva Juni:
I'm young and healthy—something I'm grateful for every day. But it was a long road to get here: I've struggled with clinical depression since I was 12 years old, and have been on anti-depressants ever since.  
Look: I'm a healthy person, and I make healthy decisions. That includes taking care of myself—and it should include taking care of my mental health. Staying healthy isn't just about your body—it's about your brain, too. It's easy to discount the importance of mental health when talking about overall health care, but it shouldn't be.  
I've worked hard to get to where I am today, and I'm proud to say that I'm stable and have been for a long time. But affording that stability—at least for the past few years—has not been easy. I, like many young Americans, was lucky to be covered under my parent's plan until age 26. While I was extremely relieved to be able to receive medical coverage, the plan didn't cover all that I needed it to: My mental health medication still cost nearly $250 a month.
    Even on her parent's plan, Eva was paying $3,000/year for her depression medication, and that does not even include the cost of the premium.  Then, Eva turned 27, and her stress really began:
So, when I aged off my parent's plan, I had to make a tough decision: Buy a health care plan that didn't cover my medication and pay hundreds more on top of it, or go without coverage and put the money toward paying for my treatment? Most plans I could afford only covered catastrophic events anyway, so I went without coverage for eight long months—eight stress-filled months, where even the smallest mole was terrifying because of what it could be.
    Even though there were some plans, granted most of them for "catastrophic" coverage, that Eva admitted she "could afford", she chose to forego coverage for eight months until the Obamacare exchanges opened up.  Against the odds, Eva managed to use the exchange to obtain coverage, and not just any coverage:
Luckily, when the health care marketplace opened up, I found my golden ticket—well, platinum, really. My new platinum plan is just $45 a month, thanks in part to the fact that I qualify for financial assistance—and my medications are just $28. It blows my mind that this is available to me, especially after struggling with coverage even in the best of circumstances for the last few years.
    Now, instead of $3,000/year for medication (plus thousands more for a premium,) Eva is paying $73/month, or $876/year for top-of-the-line platinum coverage, which includes her medication.  And who is paying the $2,124 difference?  "Financial assistance," a euphemism for the US taxpayer.  Obviously, Eva is not the kind of "young and healthy" person that Obamacare's supporters have been talking about.
    Eva concludes her story with the following observation:
I was amazed by what I found on the marketplace—and you could be too. Check it out. You could be pleasantly surprised (or, in my case, just plain blown away).
    I imagine Eva is not the only one who will be "just plain blown away" by her story.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Cooking Grease: The Latest Target for Organized Grime

    The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) has highlighted a recent Reuters article on what has been characterized as a "major crime" on the rise in California.  Stealing used cooking grease.  The state is apparently so saturated with fat crooks (that's fat crooks, not fat crooks) that a state assemblyman has introduced legislation to help trap these slippery thieves.
    The law would allow the CA highway patrol to pull over the typically unmarked pumper trucks often used to transport the illicit lipids to check paperwork for proof of ownership for any Inedible Kitchen Grease (IKG - yes, it's a real acronym) found on board.  Not only could the undocumented oil be confiscated, but the transport trucks as well.
    So what is behind this allure of lard, these grease-grabbing gangsters?  Turns out it all comes back to the environment.  The castoff cooking contraband is a prime raw material for biofuels.  One man's grease is another man's gas.  According to the CDFA's website, this has been a problem since the early 1990s, but the recent increased interest in biofuels has solidified IKG theft as a major crime in the state:
Like copper, the state says, the grease has value as a commodity, and is often sold by restaurateurs to make extra money. Legitimate haulers also try to turn a profit by agreeing to remove the waste from restaurant sites and sell it to rendering companies, which turn it into usable fuel such as bio-diesel.
    The real mystery is why this story has not captured more attention.  It has crime, politics (CA state assembly), environmentalism (biofuels), nutrition (if restaurants sold healthier food, they wouldn't have all that grease), even civil liberties (pulling over vehicles without probable cause to "check paperwork"? in America?!) I am hoping to draw attention to this story and help grease the skids to bring it the national prominence it deserves.
    I know... fat chance.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

IRS Commissioner Warns of 'Extensive Wait Times' for Phone Assistance

    New IRS Commissioner John Koskinen is beginning his tenure with some blunt words: If you need IRS help on the telephone, be prepared to wait - a long time.  The IRS posted a Youtube video of the commissioner's message to taxpayers as the pace of the 2014 filing season picks up.  The commissioner says the long wait times are due to the "very limited resources" available to the IRS.  "I want to be up front with you, and call it like it is," he says before warning of "extensive wait times":
“We want to provide you with the assistance you need to get your taxes filed accurately and on time,” Koskinen added. “And we will work hard to issue refunds quickly while increasing our efforts to stop tax fraud and identity thieves.” 
Koskinen also cautioned taxpayers that phone lines will be busy this year. “Given our very limited resources, our phone lines are going to be extremely busy this year – and there will frequently be extensive wait times,” Koskinen said. “We are working to limit these waiting times as much as possible, and I apologize that we can’t do more in that regard this year.”
     Koskinen suggests eFile, the IRS website, IRS phone apps, YouTube videos, as well as several IRS social media platforms as sources for quicker alternatives to telephone support.

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

Feds' Climate Change Website Hacked By Online Drug Seller

    The website of the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) was repeatedly hacked on Monday and Tuesday this week by an online drug retailer.  A Tuesday Google search of the site, www.globalchange.gov, revealed dozens of pages hawking everything from Xanax to Levitra to Ambien. A partial list is shown in the screen grab below:

    Clicking on the links immediately redirected users to a website called "HealthLife", which bills itself as "the leader in delivering medications throughout the world".  The site appears to be registered in the United States:

    While the links were redirects, a cached page (no longer available) revealed that the Global Change site itself contained unauthorized pages as well, such as this one:

    By Tuesday afternoon, the hacking had apparently been discovered and the unauthorized pages were deleted.
    The U.S. Global Change Research Program identifies itself as dealing not only with climate change, but "land productivity, oceans or other water resources, atmospheric chemistry, [and] ecological systems":
The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) is a Federal program that coordinates and integrates global change research across 13 government agencies to ensure that it most effectively and efficiently serves the Nation and the world. USGCRP was mandated by Congress in the Global Change Research Act of 1990, and has since made the world’s largest scientific investment in the areas of climate science and global change research.
    An email to the USGCRP requesting comment has not yet been returned.

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

Homeland Security is Seeking "Electronic Nose" Technology for Biological Threat Detection

    Dogs have been used by law enforcement for tracking and detection for generations.  The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently sought to compile all available information on the electronic equivalent of a dog's nose.  The inquiry was part of a larger effort to assess the pros and cons of actual canine use in biological detection as well as the state of the art in "electronic nose" technology.  The program is spelled out in a Sources Sought document from DHS's Office of the Chief Procurement Officer:
The Department of Homeland Security, Office of Health Affairs (OHA), has reached out to DHS S&T for assistance with technology foraging related to the use of canines for detection of biological threats. Despite countless past research efforts, there currently still does not exist an "electronic nose" that can rival a well-trained canine for detection of vapor signatures. The electronic sensoring community understands that the development of an "electronic nose", modeled after a canine olfactory system, would provide a leap-ahead sensing technology.
    DHS is only looking for information at this point and does not intend to make any purchases or award any contracts.  Respondents were encouraged to submit "white papers" or Powerpoint presentations on "past and current research and development (R&D) efforts or commercial off the shelf products in the area of 'electronic noses'; past and current efforts focused on using canines as potential detection solutions; canine training services; and canine maintenance requirements."
    This source gathering effort was, in their words, part of the DHS's "quest to make America safer."  To that end, DHS made it clear that all applicable information was welcome:
If a source does not have specific information applicable to detection of biological materials but has information regarding use of canines for detection of other materials (chemical, explosive, narcotics) and feels that the information is transferable to the detection of biomaterials, that information would also be of interest.
    In the past, other government agencies have sought to make use of not only an "electronic nose," but an "electronic tongue," as well.  These were for use in food and beverage testing and evaluation, however, not in connection with law enforcement or threat detection.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The EPA and the New Scientific Method for Kids: Just Believe Us

    The Obama administration's position on "climate change" is hardly news, but a page on the EPA's website targeted at students is a particularly egregious example of how the concept of "science" has been corrupted for political purposes.  Under the heading "A Student's Guide to Climate Change" is the promising subheading "Think Like A Scientist."  The subheading continues with the exhortation to "Uncover the cause of today's global climate change."  Then comes the following paragraph where "science" heads swiftly downhill and off a cliff:
Did you know that thousands of measurements of the Earth's air, water, and land are taken every day? These measurements come from weather stations, airplanes, ships, satellites, and many other sources all around the globe. Taken all together, these measurements and other observations tell us that the Earth's climate is warming, people are the main cause, and impacts on society and the environment are already happening.
    Isn't science grand?  Three sentences and our scientific journey has led us to the inescapable conclusions that:
  1. Earth's climate is warming
  2. people are the main cause
  3. impacts on society and the environment are already happening
Science!  We just scienced!
    If any students' minds are still open at this point, a visit to the page helpfully entitled "Ruled Out" should take care of that.  Despite the foregone-conclusion nature of the heading, students are invited to investigate.  "Can you rule out natural factors as the main cause of today's climate change?  Examine the facts by clicking on the images below [sun, Earth's orbit, volcanic eruptions], and then make your decision."  Clicking on the images provides a short paragraph of information and then a question, "Could the sun/volcanoes/Earth's orbit be responsible for today's climate change? Reveal answer." A click on "reveal answer," of course, brings up the reasons why these factors have been - you guessed it - ruled out.  Eureka! Just a few minutes and a few clicks and voilĂ ! We've just scienced again! And plenty of time left to play a few hours of X-Box before lunch!
    For those in middle school interested in delving deeper into the subject, the EPA recently announced a video contest.  Not surprisingly, the EPA is not looking for students to do experiments and present scientific conclusions - too messy.  So the conclusions are provided for them:
1) The signs of climate change are all around us. 
Here a few of the signs of climate change we’re seeing now: 
Higher Temperatures
Wilder Weather
Rising Sea Level
More Droughts
Changing Rain and Snow Patterns 
Visit our Signs of Climate Change web pages to learn more about the signs of climate change, and see the trends over the decades. 
2) The climate you will inherit as adults will be different from your parents' and grandparents' climate. 
Climate change means serious impacts on… 
Our health...Through longer allergy seasons, increased number of heat-related illnesses, and increased air pollution that can worsen asthma. 
The spread of disease... Warmer temperatures can expand the ranges and lifespans of disease-spreading mosquitoes and ticks. 
Heat waves and droughts... Climate change increases the frequency and intensity of heat waves and droughts. Heat waves increase energy costs for households, lead to blackouts and brownouts, and threaten human health and safety. Droughts can drive up food prices, limit hydroelectricity supplies, and affect manufacturing operations that rely on water to run their businesses. 
Wildfires... With climate change increasing the likelihood of hot, dry weather in many parts of the country, the risk of wildfires is expected to increase. 
Storms... In much of the country, more precipitation will fall in intense, short bursts such as blizzards and downpours, which can lead to flooding. In addition, scientists expect that hurricanes will become more intense, with higher wind speeds and heavier rains. 
Learn more about how climate change will affect people and the environment 
3) Now is the time to act on climate change. 
Reducing carbon pollution, and preparing for the changes that are already underway, is key to solving climate change and reducing the risks we face in the future. A major way carbon pollution gets into the atmosphere is when people burn coal, oil, and natural gas for energy. Everyone uses energy so everyone can be part of the solution!
It would appear that climate change "deniers" need not apply.
    The deadline for the contest is March 10, so time is running out.  So, ready kids? Grab your video camera and your EPA talking points, and let's science!

Friday, February 7, 2014

U.S. Delegation to Mandela Funeral: Five Hotels, Transportation Cost $19M

    Documents recently released by the government show that the value of hotels and local transportation contracts for the U.S. delegation to Nelson Mandela's funeral in December were considerably higher than previous estimates.  On December 19, THE WEEKLY STANDARD first reported the cost at about $11 million. However, rather than two hotels and one vehicle contractor, additional contracts have been disclosed bringing the total to five hotels and two vehicle contractors.
    The transportation contracts include passenger vehicles, SUVs, vans, buses, pickup trucks, box trucks, and "larger capacity vehicles," but do not include the cost of travelling from the U.S. to South Africa and back.  The combined total estimated cost of the two contracts is $12,521,851.
     The five hotel contracts estimated a total of 10,275 "lodging room nights" spanning December 6, 2013 to January 20, 2014.  The Johannesburg-area hotels include the Radison Blu Sandton, Radison Gautrain, Holiday Inn, Park Inn, and the Michaelangelo.  A sixth contract for the DaVinci hotel was subsequently canceled.  The total estimated cost of the remaining contracts is $6,489,627.  Adding the $12.5 million in transportation contracts brings the grand total for lodging and local transportation to $19,011,478.
   When asked for an explanation of the 6-week date range of December 6 to January 20 for the hotels, a State Department official replied via email:
Due to high demand during that time period, all hotels in the area had a requirement to book for a minimum of 15 nights.   The date span was written into the contract to give flexibility, but we did not pay for 45 days.
    When asked to explain why 45 days was written into the estimates when only a 15 day minimum was required, the official did not respond, nor was there any response to a follow up inquiry about how accurate the cost estimates turned out to be.

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

HHS Silent on New, Unfilled 'Chief Risk Officer' Position

    Nearly two months after Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced that her agency would create a new Chief Risk Officer (CRO) position to prevent a repeat of the Healthcare.gov debacle, the position is apparently still unfilled.  HHS, however, has continued to solicit and award the very information technology (IT) contracts that the new CRO was intended to oversee.
    On December 11, 2013, Sebelius announced a directive to Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Marilyn Tavenner to create the Chief Risk Officer position and appoint someone to fill the role. However, CMS has been silent about the position so far, and the CMS organizational chart still does not include a CRO.  Although Sebelius set no deadline for creating or filling the position, the secretary implied urgency by saying that the new CRO would be required to report back in 60 days with recommendations.
    When Sebelius announced her intent to create the CRO position, she made the following statement:
The Chief Risk Officer’s first assignment will be to review risk management practices when it comes to IT acquisition and contracting, starting with identifying the risk factors that impeded the successful launch of the HealthCare.gov website.  I will ask this individual to report back to me in 60 days with recommendations for strategies to mitigate risks in future large-scale, CMS contracting and IT [information technology] acquisition projects.
    Despite the fact the the CRO position is unfilled and possibly still undefined, CMS has continued to solicit and award IT contracts.  On December 24, CMS awarded a $3.6 million contract for "Operations, Maintenance, and Data Conversion of the Waiver Management System and Medicaid Model Data Lab."
    Earlier, just two days after Sebelius's announcement, CMS posted a notice that the agency was seeking sources for a major "Enterprise System Development" contract that is "required to support critical Medicare, Medicaid and Affordable Care Act (ACA) Federal Healthcare Marketplace business functions," and that the contract "encompasses the full range of mission support capabilities that are needed by CMS... to operate, maintain, and modernize CMS' systems with a priority on enterprise approaches."
    Additionally, in early January CMS revealed that the major Healthcare.gov contractor, CGI Federal, would be replaced by Accenture just one month before the end of the current Obamacare open enrollment period.
    Total contracting activity by CMS, information technology-related and otherwise, has actually picked up considerably since Sebelius's announcement.  In all, 22 contracts awards, solicitations, or sources-sought notices have been posted by CMS since December 11 compared to 9 in the 60 days preceding the announcement.
    In addition to the new CRO position, there were two other steps announced by Sebelius in December.  One was a request to the inspector general of HHS to conduct a thorough review of the contracting and management process that led to the Healthcare.gov debacle.  Since inspector general cases often take months to plan and execute and the IG does not comment on ongoing investigations, there is no information available yet on that review's status.
    The other step involved improving "CMS employee training on best practices for contractor and procurement management, rules and procedures."  Although it is unclear how much training, if any, has taken place since December 11, CMS went ahead with its 2014 Contracting with CMS Conference on January 31 as reported by THE WEEKLY STANDARD in December. Among the topics were "The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly of Contract Proposals" and "Why Past Performance is Important."
    Neither CMS or HHS has responded to an inquiry about the status of the CRO position.

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

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Kerry Uses Vietnam War Peace Talks as Reference for Syria Policy

    In an interview on Wednesday, CNN's Jake Tapper questioned Secretary of State John Kerry about some of the thorny issues the nation's top diplomat is facing, among them Iran, the security of the Sochi Olympics, and Syria.  On that latter issue, Tapper asked the secretary point blank if the Obama administration's Syria policy had failed:
TAPPER:  The director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, said that Bashar al-Assad in Syria has been strengthened since the chemical weapons deal.  The United Nations says that Assad's regime is torturing children.  He seems to be - Assad seems to be slow-walking the chemical weapons process and those are only the weapons that he's acknowledged he has, not other ones that he might be stockpiling, according to other reports. 
Hasn't the policy in Syria failed?
    While Kerry acknowledged that "it's fair to say that Assad has improved his position a little bit," he asserted that despite the fact that "diplomacy is tough, slogging, slow work and hard work," progress was being made. In making his point about the nature of diplomacy, however, the secretary may wish in retrospect that he'd picked a different example:
[The parties in the Syrian conflict] will come back in a few days to Geneva, resume the conversation, not just, you know, I - I don't want to make any excuse whatsoever.  We want this to move faster.  We want it to do better.
But I remember talks around Vietnam, where it took Henry Kissinger a year to get the size and shape of the table decided.  It took another several years before they even came to some kind of an agreement.
    Efforts to establish peace talks to end the Vietnam war began in 1968 and after many delays, as Kerry said, eventually culminated in the Paris Peace Accords in 1973.  But despite the Nobel Peace Prizes awarded in connection with the accords, the terms were widely ignored, and the North Vietnamese overran the south and captured Saigon in 1975.  Kerry, who served in the Vietnam War, was an outspoken critic of U.S. involvement in the conflict.
    Wednesday was not the first time Kerry has drawn on the history of Vietnam diplomacy in conjunction with a Mideast conflict.  In early January this year, Kerry referenced his recent trip to Vietnam as a lesson of how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may someday be resolved:
On a personal level, last month I traveled to Vietnam on my first visit there as Secretary of State.  And the transformation in our relationship -- I was a young soldier who fought there -- the transformation in our relationship is proof that as painful as the past can be, through hard work of diplomacy history's adversaries can actually become partners for a new day and history's challenges can become opportunities for a new age.
    Despite Kerry's January assertion that "history's adversaries can actually become partners," the Acting U.S. Representative to the United Nations Human Rights Council Peter Mulrean had some rather harsh words for Vietnam, ironically on Wednesday, the same day that John Kerry was interviewed by Jake Tapper. Reuters reported Mulrean's statements:
"Vietnam still harasses and detains those who exercise universal rights and freedoms, such as freedoms of expression and association," acting U.S. Ambassador Peter Mulrean said in a debate that was part of the 47-member forum's scrutiny of the record of all U.N. member states every four years. 
The United States was also concerned at restrictions placed on religious freedoms and on forming independent trade unions, the use of child labor and the government's use of compulsory labor, he said. 
Vietnam should "revise vague national security laws that are used to suppress universal rights and unconditionally release all political prisoners", he said. 

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

Saturday, February 1, 2014

State Dept. Webcast Features Guest Who Called Clarence Thomas, Condi Rice 'Uncle Toms'

    The State Department is presenting a global webcast on February 4 entitled "From the Street to Mainstream: The Evolution of Rap/Hip Hop Music."  The host of the webcast, rapper and State Department Music Ambassador Toni Blackman, will be joined by Pras Michel, a founding member of the hip hop group the Fugees, to discuss "how rap and hip hop have increased social awareness of the African-American experience — and raised even broader issues in contemporary society."  Rappers are notorious for being controversial and provocative, but some of Michel's more inflammatory comments in the past raise questions about the appropriateness of his appearance with the U.S.'s Music Ambassador on a government-sponsored webcast representing America to the world.
    In 2008, Michel was interviewed by Katie Halper about Michel's documentary Skid Row, which chronicles the rapper/filmmaker's experiences "undercover for 9 days and nights as a homeless person in downtown LA's notorious Skid Row."  Michel lamented in the interview that the "African-American generation is lost.  They're not being represented correctly."  He found fault with Bill Cosby and Oprah for just "point[ing] fingers." He called Michael Jordan a "sell-out." But he saved his harshest words for some well-known black conservatives as he contrasted them with then-presidential candidate Barack Obama:
Somebody said to me you only like Obama because he's black. Well I can think of a couple black people I wouldn't vote for. I'm not into black power. And on the other end of the spectrum, you got the Uncle Toms, the Clarence Thomas, Condoleezza Rice ... I'm not into that either. Obama is a uniter. He's perfectly comfortable with the skin he's in. He's not gonna sell out. That's a man of great principle.
    Michel added, "By the way, I don't formally support Obama. I just want people to know I really like him."  However, according to the Washington Free Beacon, Michel did go on become an Obama supporter, was a White House guest, and even became a founding member of Organizing for Action with a $20,000 donation.
    Besides Barack Obama, Michel noted in the interview some other African-Americans he admires:
I love Cornel West. I respect him. But a black kid on the street don't have a clue who he is. Look, When Muhammed Ali came out ... the reason he's "the people's champ" ... is because he was defiant, he went against the U.S. government when they wanted to ship him to Vietnam. And he stood by it and people stood by him.
    The Washington Free Beacon also noted some of Michel's remarks about his experiences in Somali in 2009 when he was filming a yet-unfinished documentary about Somali pirates and his ship was hijacked by those very pirates.  Michel seemed to blame the U.S. Navy Seal rescuers for fueling anti-American sentiment:
Pirates invaded the ship he was on, the Maersk Alabama, during filming and took the ship’s captain hostage. 
The captain was rescued by Navy SEAL snipers, who shot three pirates in the process. 
Pras explained in an interview with CNN, that the Navy SEAL rescue actually foiled his plans to meet with the pirates, because it created anti-American sentiment amongst the pirates. 
“We were supposed to actually meet with a couple of the pirates, but the capture happened so we had to retreat,” Pras said.  “It has gotten worse because, you know, they rescued the captain, but then they shot three pirates, so now it’s a whole anti-American sentiment going on right now.”... 
“They feel compelled to protect what they feel like is their waters,” Pras said. “They feel like the ships that are coming through are polluting the water and affecting their fishing industry. They feel like this has been going on for centuries, and they feel like they are taking matters into their own hands.” 
“They have a compelling argument,” he concluded.
    The State Department webcast is scheduled for February 4 at 8 PM.  The description of the live video webchat says in part that Michel will discuss "how rap and hip hop have... bridged the socio-economic gaps among races," and is billed as part of the State Department's observance of Black History Month.

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