Friday, March 28, 2014

Feds Spend Another $20M on Healthcare.gov

    The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released details of the latest contract with Terremark Federal Group covering "open market items" required for the ongoing operation of Healthcare.gov.  The documents include an itemized list of computing and network services, fees, licenses and computing capacity.  The total comes to $19,755.465.98 and covers four months:

    The expenditures appear to relate to the increased capacity that CMS has said was being added in anticipation of increased interest in obtaining Marketplace insurance as the March 31 deadline nears. The government had previously announced that Terremark, a subsidiary of Verizon, was being replaced by Hewlett-Packard.  However, since the switch-over was scheduled for the end of March just as open enrollment is ending, CMS awarded Terremark a $58,000,000, seven-month extension back in January.
    The two contracts mentioned above are just the latest in a string of contracts awards, solicitations, and sources-sought notices by CMS since Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced the creation of a new Chief Risk Officer (CRO) position at CMS on December 11, 2013.  Sebelius described the new CRO's initial task as follows:
The Chief Risk Officer’s first assignment will be to review risk management practices when it comes to IT [information technology] 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 acquisition projects.
    Three and a half months have passed since Sebelius instructed CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner to create the position, but both HHS and CMS have been silent about it during that time.  No announcements or press releases have discussed the position, and as we first reported back on February 7, the organizational chart for CMS lists no Chief Risk Officer.  Nevertheless, CMS has continued to contract for tens of millions of dollars in IT goods and services, the very expenditures for which the new CRO was to submit "recommendations for strategies to mitigate risks" within 60 days of being appointed.
    Numerous emails to HHS and CMS inquiring about the position have gone unanswered.

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

HHS Invokes 'In Sickness and in Health' to Push Obamacare

    For the latest installment in Department of Health and Human Services Obamacare "My #GetCovered Story" series, HHS has borrowed a line from the traditional wedding vows: "In sickness and in health."  In a blog post of that title, a "theater artist" from Chicago, Illinois tells the story of how her own experiences have put a "new light on the phrase 'in sickness and in health'" for her and her fiancé, a writer and adjunct professor:
As a theater artist working part-time jobs to support myself, I couldn’t afford to buy health insurance. And that didn’t worry me – I’m 32 and never had any health problems. I’ve always taken good care of myself: I do yoga, I ride a bike, and I eat well. 
Honestly, I decided to sign up for insurance through the Health Insurance Marketplace because I support the goal of expanding health coverage in this country, not because I thought I’d need it. I also convinced my fiancé, Diego Báez, who is a writer and adjunct professor, to enroll. 
My insurance started on January 1, and it’s a good thing, too. Soon after, I started feeling ill but didn’t think too much of it. Then on January 29, I was admitted to the hospital with a ruptured appendix and ended up having to stay in the hospital for 12 days. 
Without my new Marketplace plan, I don’t know how I would have been able to pay the cost of my care... 
My ruptured appendix was a wakeup call – for me and Diego. 
We’re getting married in September. This experience for us puts a new light on the phrase “in sickness and in health.”
    Hecht was able to find an HMO plan for only $56/month.  She assures others that signing up is "really easy to do," and urges them not to delay since the deadline is coming on March 31.  Healthcare.gov has had difficultly attracting healthy young people to enroll in Obamacare to widen the risk pool and keep premiums down.
    Ironically, it may be enrollees like Hecht that may lead to vastly increased Obamacare premiums in 2015 and beyond since her $56/month premium will cover only a tiny fraction of her 12 day hospital stay.  If Obamacare is going to have any chance of living up to its promise, the government will need to sign up a lot more young people in Hecht's under-35 demographic who spend a lot more time in health than in sickness.

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

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

IRS: Obamacare Raised Taxes for Some Children

    When the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010, one provision was a new 3.8% Net Investment Tax effective in 2013.  Although the tax will generally hit high-end taxpayers (threshold is $250,000 for married and $200,000 for single,) because of the way many parents choose to report their children's investment income, the tax will hit those children as well.
    While the basic application of this tax has been known since passage, the specific effects have become more apparent recently as the IRS issued its final rules, forms, and instructions.  Last Friday, the IRS published a tip on its website entitled "Tax Rules for Children with Investment Income." Included is this note regarding the Net Investment Tax [emphasis added]:
Starting in 2013, a child whose tax is figured on Form 8615 may be subject to the Net Investment Income Tax. NIIT is a 3.8% tax on the lesser of either net investment income or the excess of the child's modified adjusted gross income that is over a threshold amount...
    The new tax paid on children's income will be part of a so-called "kiddie tax" that stems from 1980s tax reform when Congress sought to recover taxes that were being lost on income from assets transferred from parents to children ("child" is defined as under age 19, or under age 24 if a full-time student.)  Investment income over $2,000 is taxed at the parents' highest rate instead of the rate used for regular income for the child.  And if the parents' income exceeds the NIIT threshold, the child's investment income is also subject to the additional 3.8% tax.
    The above scenario represents the simplest application of the regulations; individual situations can be more complex and will vary from person to person.  But according to a tax accountant interviewed by THE WEEKLY STANDARD for this story, "The bottom line: you will get a lot of upper-middle-class taxpayers paying an additional NIIT if they have shifted enough income-producing assets to their children via gift."  So while the tax was aimed at high-income taxpayers, it turns out Obamacare will hit some low age taxpayers as well.

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

Monday, March 24, 2014

Cost of First Lady's Beijing Hotel Was Deemed 'Prohibitive' for Biden

    The White House has been tight-lipped about the cost of First Lady Michelle Obama's trip to China, but based on the choice for lodging, it could be considerable.  Mrs. Obama and her entourage, which numbers seventy according to the Washington Times (including her two daughters and her mother), booked the Westin Chaoyang Hotel close to the US Embassy in Beijing for their first stop.  According to USA Today, the presidential suite at the hotel is listed as $8,400 per night.
    But when Vice President Joe Biden visited China in December 2013, he and his team stayed at the St. Regis Hotel after the contracting officer responsible for booking rooms determined that the Westin Chaoyang hotel "price was prohibitive when compared with St. Regis."  This is according to the Justification and Approval documents just released this week on a government contracting website:
The following other hotels were reviewed but were not adequate because of the following: 
Grand Hyatt Beijing—cannot meet security requirements for travel into and out of the building.
Westin Chaoyang—price was prohibitive when compared with St. Regis—otherwise met requirements.
    According to the documents, the estimated cost for the vice president's visit was $384,479.19.  A total of 1,345 room nights were estimated for advance preparation for the visit as well as the vice president's actual stay:
An estimated 1345 room nights  are required to support this visit.  Starting on November 19 with 4 rooms and hitting a peak of 213 rooms on the days of the visit, the hotel will provide lodging rooms as well as office space for security, communications and staff as necessary.
    The State Department, the department that arranges such trips, has said in the past that hotel contracts  and the like are supposed to be posted within 30 days if the cost exceeds $150,000.  Occasionally this has included trips made by the first lady, such as her 2009 trip to Copenhagen to boost Chicago's efforts to bring the Olympics to that city.  It is unclear if this current trip to China will meet the requirements for contract disclosure.

UPDATE:  After this was posted at The Weekly Standard, I realized it was almost exactly a year since my Joe Biden $575K Paris hotel story that blew up all over.  That was a fun week.

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

Friday, March 21, 2014

WH Now Partnering With Amateur 'iReporters' on First Lady's China Trip

    While the professional press corps has been frozen out of Michelle Obama's swing through China, one news organization is not entirely out of the loop.  CNN has partnered with the White House through the network's iReport program.  Katie Hawkins-Gaar, a CNN editor, coordinated the effort to solicit and accumulate submissions from "iReporters" interested in asking questions about the "importance of students learning from one another's cultures", Mrs. Obama's stated emphasis for this trip.
    The White House's webpage dedicated to the first lady's trip describes the "assignment" as follows:
CNN iReport Assignment: iReporters in the U.S. and around the world have submitted questions for the First Lady about study abroad. Stay tuned to watch Mrs. Obama answer questions from Beijing.
The link takes visitors to CNN's website where 19 iReporters signed up to participate with 349 iReports filed:

    All of the questions have been recorded and submitted to CNN in advance of the trip, and the public is invited to "[s]tay tuned to watch Mrs. Obama answer questions from Beijing."
    The White House also links to a PBS website which invites people to "Take a Virtual Trip to China with the First Lady," and in turn, links back to the White House website.
    Additionally, Discovery Education has joined forces with the White House as well, and "Jeff Wood, an American student from D.C. who is currently studying abroad in China, will pose questions to the First Lady on behalf of Discovery Education's online audience" while Mrs. Obama is in Beijing. Discovery links back to the White House website as well.
    Finally, the U.S. Embassy in China has arranged for two Chinese microblogging websites to solicit questions for the first lady to answer on her trip as well:
Q&A with Youth in China: The U.S. Embassy has invited their social media followers on Chinese microblogging websites Sina and QQ Weibo to post questions for the First Lady. While in China, Mrs. Obama will answer questions about her visit. The First Lady's responses will be posted in Mandarin on the Embassy’s social media platforms.
    The Obama administration has gone to great lengths to centralize available information about Mrs. Obama's trip to China.  Together with updates on Twitter and Instagram, the White House will be keeping a blog tracking the first lady's progress.  Since there will be few alternatives, these outlets, along with iCNN, PBS, and Discovery Education, will likely garner significant attention throughout the week-long visit.

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

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Healthcare.gov Quietly Drops Online Chat Customer Service [Updated]

    As consumers race to beat the March 31 Obamacare open enrollment deadline, they will have one less option to get help with the website that has experienced so much trouble over the past five and a half months.  Though it runs counter to the Obama administration's emphasis on   Though it runs counter to the Obama administration's emphasis on technology, typified by the White House's We the Geeks Google+ Hangout Series, Healthcare.gov has eliminated the web chat customer service option.  Sometime around the beginning of March, the online chat feature that has been present since Healthcare.gov was launched disappeared.  Although previous posts on the Healthcare.gov blog still refer to the "live chat" feature, the ubiquitous blue box in the lower right corner of most pages on the site is gone.
    Here is an example of how the "Live Chat" button previously appeared:

    There is even a cached page at Archive.org show the now obsolete chat window.  But the address for the chat window, https://www.healthcare.gov/chat, is now automatically redirected to the Contact Us page.
    That same Contact Us page provides the most obvious evidence of the removal of the chat feature.  A cached version of the page from February 28 appears this way.  The lower left box says that "Online Chat" is a "great way to get quick questions answered. Available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week."  Note the "live chat" button in the lower right corner as well:

    On the next available cached version of the page, March 5, four boxes have become three.  Online Chat is gone:

    While the dropping of the live chat feature passed without mention, Julie Bataille, Director of Communications for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) alluded to a change in a February 27 post at the Health and Human Services (HHS) Digital Strategy blog, saying that "we will transition 1500 service representatives from web chat to direct telephone assistance where they can help consumers with enrollment 24/7."  Bataille did not indicate that web chat was being abandoned altogether.
    HHS further noted in a blog post on March 11 that with 20 days to go in open enrollment, the agency was making "consumer improvements" and "staffing up."  The improvements included streamlining the account creation process, adding new "help text" for common questions, and adding system capacity to handle the expected increase in volume as the deadline nears.  "Staffing up" consisted of adding 2,000 phone representatives to answer calls at the 24/7 customer service number, and increased training for all representatives.  It is unclear if that 2,000 includes the 1,500 transfers from the now defunct live chat service.
    The removal of live chat is not the first time Healthcare.gov has made undocumented changes to the site:
  • In January 2014, after THE WEEKLY STANDARD identified a security vulnerability on the site, HHS quickly and without notice disabled public access to the "open data" user profiles responsible for the opening.
  • In October 2013, we reported that Healthcare.gov was using copyrighted software code without attribution.  Shortly thereafter, the attribution was added to the code despite HHS's failure to respond to repeated email inquiries about the missing lines.
  • Also in October 2013, we reported the existence of the phrase "no reasonable expectation of privacy" in the source code of the Terms and Conditions of the site, although the words did not appear visible on the screen to users.  Not until Kathleen Sebelius herself was confronted in a Congressional hearing with the issue was the phrase removed two weeks later.
  • In late September 2013, we reported that a reference to "free or low-cost healthcare" was abruptly changed to simply "low-cost."  HHS later described the deletion of "free" as a "routine change."
    HHS has not responded to an email inquiry about the removal of the live chat feature from Healthcare.gov.

UPDATE:  While HHS has not responded to an email inquiry, I found a tweet on the official Twitter account of the Marketplace confirming chat has been dropped.  A customer having trouble getting through on the phone was asking about other options and said, "Calling didn't work last night got disconnected several times. Is there no longer live chat?"  The reply said, "Correct, we transitioned 1,500 chat reps to direct phone assistance where they can help consumers with enrollment 24/7".  Here's the tweet in question:
Unfortunately, no reason is given for the change.

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

Monday, March 17, 2014

Study Cited By Michelle Obama Showing Drastic Drop in Childhood Obesity Questioned by Researchers

    As Michelle Obama celebrated the fourth anniversary of Let's Move, her White House initiative on fitness and healthy eating, she cited a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) showing a remarkable 43 percent drop in obesity rates among children ages 2-5.  Mrs. Obama brought up the study again on Friday at a Partnership for a Healthier America’s Building a Healthier Future Summit.  But a report by Reuters Health & Science Correspondent Sharon Begley casts doubt on the validity of the results of the study.  While Begley concludes that "no one can say for certain that the claim is wrong," the results are so uncertain that "based on the researchers' own data, the obesity rate may have even risen rather than declined."
    The problem lies in large measure with the small sample size of the CDC study and its relatively large margin of error.  Begley explains:
The 13.9 percent obesity rate among preschoolers reported for 2003-2004 had a large enough margin of error that the actual rate could range between 10.8 percent and 17.6 percent, the CDC authors acknowledged. The 8.4 percent rate in 2011-2012 reported could range from 5.9 percent and 11.6 percent.  
Since the range for 2003-2004 overlaps with that of 2011-2012, [epidemiologist Geoffrey Kabat of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City] said, "that's another way of saying there might have been no change" in preschoolers' obesity rate. Even an increase is a statistical possibility.
     The study size is not the only problem.  Other studies, some with considerably larger sample sizes, have shown significantly smaller decreases; others have shown little change; still others have actually shown obesity increasing.  For instance, a study of 200,000 children in the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program "found virtually no change in obesity rates":
Rather than reducing the prevalence of obesity among 3-and-4-year olds in the WIC program in California's Los Angeles County, researchers found that the problem worsened from 2003 to 2011. Obesity rose to 20.4 percent from about 17 percent, the researchers reported in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report in 2013. 
In New York, the WIC study found that obesity rates fell to 15.5 percent in 2011 from about 19.5 percent in 2003, a much less dramatic drop than the 40 percent decline. 
"We agree there is a slight downward trend in obesity among 2-to-5-year olds," said Shannon Whaley, a co-author of the WIC study. "But a 43 percent drop is absolutely not what we're seeing."
     This is not the first time Mrs. Obama has cited statistics in support of Let's Move that turned out to be less than meets the eye.  Just last year, on the third anniversary of Let's Move, the first lady's office sent out a press release that appeared to take credit for the recent developments that "national childhood obesity rate has leveled off, and even declined in some cities and states." In particular, the White House highlighted a 13% decline in childhood obesity in Mississippi.  But as we reported at the time,
[t]he 13 percent decrease that Mrs. Obama touted is measured from Spring 2005 through Spring 2011. “Let's Move” was launched in February 2010, so the first five years of the time period in question were prior to Let's Move's existence.
     This week's Reuters report questioning the 43% decline suggests one more reason to question the results showing a decline in pre-schooler obesity rates:
[F]ew anti-obesity efforts target preschoolers... 
"The programs that have been implemented, from changing what's in vending machines to the Let's Move program, target school-age children more than preschoolers," he said, referring to an exercise initiative championed by Michelle Obama.
    Rather than wait for results to come in over the long term, the White House seems too eager to show that Mrs. Obama's Let's Move program is having an impact while President Obama is still in office. However, continuing to cite studies that do not support the assertions being made may do more harm than good, not only to Mrs. Obama's reputation, but to the very causes her program seeks to advance.

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

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sebelius on Obamacare: We've Made 'Changes in the Way the Law Was Written'

    The Obama administration has been under heavy criticism from foes and even some friends for selective enforcement of laws.  Executive orders and executive actions have contradicted, delayed or otherwise modified laws regarding same-sex marriage, immigration, and most controversial in the last several months, the Affordable Care Act.
    The White House has often asserted that the president and his cabinet have flexibility to depart from the letter of the law if the modification or delay is consistent with the spirit of the legislation.  The words used to describe these actions are often vague or general in nature, but in testimony Wednesday before the House Ways and Means Committee, Kathleen Sebelius used remarkably candid language to refer to her agency's rewrites of Obamacare.  In an exchange with Rep. Tom Reed (R-NY) over why the administration had not sent legislation to Congress to alter problematic portions of the law, Sebelius said [emphasis added]:
“We have implemented a number of changes in the way the law was written to ease the transition into the marketplace” for consumers, insurers and employers.

    The secretary seemed to be suggesting that legislative fixes were not necessary because the executive branch already had the power to change "the way the law was written."  The president has affirmed this position in the statement released on Wednesday opposing H.R. 4138 ,which calls on the president to "Faithfully Observe and Respect Congressional Enactments of the Law" or face a possible lawsuit by Congress, arguing that Congress's complaints over his administration's rewrites are essentially "political disputes."
    The president shows no signs of backing down from his executive actions, and Congress does not seem inclined to acquiesce, so whether or not H.R.4138 is passed into law, this issue seems destined to wind up in court, one way or another.

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

Sebelius Testimony on Paid Obamacare Enrollment Contradicts HHS Guidance [Updated]

    Testifying Wednesday before the House Ways and Means hearing on the Health and Human Services (HHS) budget, Kathleen Sebelius was bombarded with questions about implementation of the Affordable Care Act and was asked to provide details on the administration's claims about current enrollment levels.  Rep. Tom Price asked Sebelius how many of the 4.2 million individuals that HHS has reported as signing up via the Marketplaces have actually made a premium payment (via Politico):
“I can’t tell you because I don’t know that,” Sebelius told Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.)... 
...Sebelius said the agency only receives “aggregate data” from insurers about those who have paid premiums and are eligible for tax credits — HHS pays those subsidies to insurers — but not the detailed individual information needed to answer Price’s question.
    While Sebelius claims that HHS only receives information about "those who have paid premiums and are eligible for tax credits", guidance issued for insurers by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) shortly after the launch of Healthcare.gov contradicts that assertion.  According to the guidance, part of the confirmation that issuers are required to report back to HHS (via Healthcare.gov) must include premium payments, and indeed is necessary to validate an "effectuated enrollment."
    The document is entitled Federally Facilitated Marketplace Enrollment Operational Policy & Guidance was issued on October 3, 2013.  In Section 2.4 - Relationship between Premium Payments and the Confirmation/Effectuation 834 Transaction, the guidance states [emphasis added]:
In the FFMs [Federally Facilitated Marketplaces], once an issuer receives either full payment or payment within the premium payment threshold (if the issuer utilizes a premium payment threshold) for any applicable initial premium due from the QI [Qualified Individual], and the issuer has received the initial 834 enrollment transaction, the issuer will send the FFM a full ASC X12 834 effectuation/confirmation transaction... The confirmation transaction provides the FFM assurance that the issuer has effectuated enrollment.
    The document includes a number of examples throughout the text regarding confirmations, and nowhere does the required confirmation hinge on eligibility for tax credits.
    Further, in Section 2.3 - Premium Payments, the guidance indicates that users at Healthcare.gov who have selected a plan with an insurer will be shown a "payment redirect" link to their insurers to make a payment online, or in the absence of online payment capability by the insurer, the user will be shown "standard language... that the issuer will bill them for premium payment."  The link, however, will only be shown to the user as long as the premium remains unpaid or a cancellation is received by the FFM (Healthcare.gov):
The FFM will provide the QI with the payment redirect link until the FFM has received either an 834 enrollment confirmation transaction from the issuer indicating the initial month’s premium has been paid, or has received an 834 cancellation transaction from the issuer.
    This requirement is further documented in another CMS document, the Standard Companion Guide Transaction Information.  This document includes very detailed instructions on the type of information that must be communicated in both directions between the Qualified Health Plan (QHP) issuers (the insurance companies) and the Federal Facilitated Exchange (FFE, or Healthcare.gov.) Under Section 10.2 - Enrollment Confirmation/Effectuation Instructions – QHP Issuer to FFE, the document states [emphasis added]:
The actual enrollment begin date must be transmitted. Enrollment into the QHP is not effectuated until the initial premium has been paid.
     The above documents make clear that the intention of HHS from the start was that insurers would confirm enrollment only when premiums were actually received.  As to the timing of such confirmations, Section 2.4 of the guidance document issued on October 3 states that "the FFM expects QHP and QDP issuers to send all confirmation transactions by the fifth calendar day of the effective month of coverage."  While HHS has implemented various exceptions, delays and clarifications, there is no indication  that insurers have been relieved of the responsibility to confirm premium payments, although the timing has been stretched, as an Interim Final Rule published in the Federal Register on December 17, 2013 spells out:
The Draft Enrollment Guidance outlines a procedural timeline that specifies that QHP issuers must send enrollment confirmation transactions to the FFE by the fifth calendar day of the effective month of coverage. Instead, the FFEs will accept enrollment confirmation transactions from QHP issuers for coverage beginning on January 1, 2014 throughout the month of January.
    HHS has granted flexibility about due dates, effective dates, and the timing of confirmation of enrollments, but not the substance of those confirmations.  If insurers are following the guidance issued by HHS, then the agency has accumulated data on paid enrollments at least relative to the Federal Marketplace.   Some states running their own Marketplaces, such as Maryland, report weekly on the number of paid enrollments.  But as Kathleen Sebelius's testimony demonstrates, HHS is not yet ready to make the federal data on paid enrollments available to the public or even acknowledge its existence.

Update:  This Politico story which ran before my post went up at The Weekly Standard but after I had submitted it seems to confirm the basic facts:
...Insurance industry officials at four of the big national health plans tell POLITICO that about 15 to 20 percent people who have signed up have not yet paid their first monthly premium — the final step to get coverage. 
And they’ve told the White House the same, insurance industry officials say. 
“They have a lot more information than they’re letting on,” one industry source said of the Obama administration. “They have real hard data about the percent that have paid … If they have not processed those yet and compiled the data, that is a choice they are making. But they have that data now.”

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

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Customs & Border Protection Shifted $7M From Border Fence to Salaries

    As sequestration bore down in February 2013, the threat of furloughs for thousands of government workers was a common refrain from those warning of the dire effects of the across the board budget cuts.  Janet Napolitano, then-director of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) told Rep. Bennie Thompson in a letter that sequestration could force her department to idle law enforcement personnel for up to 14 days.  As it turned out, DHS did not furlough any personnel, but rather relied on cuts to other areas and shifting funds from other budgets to cover salaries.  For instance, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) shifted $7 million from its Border Security Fencing account to Salaries and Expenses.
    The details are spelled out in a new wide-ranging report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on how 23 different agencies and their various departments handled sequestration.  The CBP's actions were explained as follows:
DHS reported that 7 of its 15 components planned up to 22 furlough days for employees in 2013. For example, in February 2013, DHS's Customs and Border Protection (CBP) notified employees of the possibility of 14 furlough days, but ultimately required no furlough days. According to agency officials, CBP was able to avert furloughs in part because the agency transferred $7 million from its Border Security Fencing Infrastructure and Technology accounts to its Salaries and Expenses account and reprogrammed at least $69 million between various PPAs within the Salaries and Expenses account.
    DHS was not alone in avoiding furloughs.  Of the 23 agencies reviewed in the GAO report, only seven ended up utilizing furloughs to achieve the needed cuts, affecting about 770,000 employees from 1 to 7 days.  The Department of Defense (DOD) reported the lion's share of the furloughs, accounting for 88%, or $1.2 billion, of the dollars saved by the federal government via furloughs.  Of the 774,366 workers impacted by furloughs, 82% worked for the DOD.
    Overall, furloughing employees was one of the least utilized means of achieving the cuts required by sequestration.  The report detailed the more common methods: "19 agencies reported curtailing hiring; 16 reported rescoping or delaying contracts or grants for core mission activities; 19 reported reducing employee training; and 20 reported reducing employee travel."
    The GAO produced an infographic as part of its report, which includes this summary of the primary methods that agencies used to cut the $80.5 billion that was ultimately required:

    The GAO recommended that agencies publish the criteria used to determine how sequestration was implemented and how exemptions were determined, and also how the principles used to make decisions in 2013 could be applied to future sequestrations should the occasion arise.

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

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Healthcare.gov Can't Report Address, Email, Phone Number Changes to Insurance Companies

    For now, the "one-stop shopping" experience at Healthcare.gov repeatedly promised by President Obama is still at least one stop short of the goal.  In early January, news reports revealed a glaring shortcoming at Healthcare.gov: no function existed to report "life events", such as the birth of a child or a divorce, which could alter coverage needs or eligibility for tax credits.  Although this feature was subsequently added, the site still lacks the ability to report changes to basic contact information to a consumer's insurance company: a new address, email, or phone number.
    A new topic at the Obamacare website is entitled "How do I report life changes to the Marketplace?" Although most life changes can now be reported online at Healthcare.gov or over the phone with a customer service representative, the final paragraph alerts consumers that any changes in contact information must be reported twice [emphasis in original]: "To change your home address, email address, or phone number, update the information on your Marketplace Profile page.  Be sure to report address, email, and phone changes to your insurance company too. Otherwise they may not know about your new contact information."  Here's a partial screenshot of the page:

    The instructions to double-report contact information to both the Marketplace and the insurance company are not just found at Healthcare.gov.  The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services also produces flyers with information about how coverage purchased through the Marketplace is maintained. While most changes are (apparently) passed on to the consumer's insurance company once the information is reported to Healthcare.gov, the contact information curiously seems to fall into a different category that must be reported directly to the provider by the consumer [highlight added]:

    Since Healthcare.gov must report changes in coverage or tax credits to insurance companies in order for coverage and billing to be accurate, it is unclear why the Marketplace is unable to communicate simple address, phone, and email changes.  The site does not indicate when this capability will be added, so it's up to consumers to do it themselves or face the risk that their insurance company won't know how to reach them.

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

Top Spy: Intelligence on Ukraine 'Not a Failure By Any Stretch'

    Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is disputing the conventional wisdom on Russian incursion into the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine.  In an interview with WTOP Radio that is also posted on the DNI's website, Clapper insisted that the intelligence communities reading of the situation prior to Russia's military intervention was "not a failure by any stretch":
"I have lived through some genuine intelligence failures in my career and this was not a failure by any stretch," Clapper said. "We tracked (the situation in Ukraine) pretty carefully and portrayed what the possibilities were and certainly portrayed the difficulties we'd have, because of the movements of Russian troops and provided anticipatory warning of their incursion into Crimea," Clapper added.  
During an expansive interview in his office, Clapper pointed out that, "We were following closely the political and economic developments in Ukraine. We spoke to it in our statement for the record at the time and as the situation unfolded with the Russians."
     On February 27, Secretary of State John Kerry was publicly expressing optimism that calm would prevail.  The following day, the day of Russia's invasion of Crimea (as the State Department would later refer to it,) State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki was asked about Russia's military intentions towards Crimea:
QUESTION: So talking about reports – sorry. Do you have any independent confirmation yourselves within the Administration that there is yet any Russian intervention in [Crimea]?... 
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything – any more details to share with you. We’re concerned about the same reports that you have seen, and obviously, we’re closely watching this internally as well. 
QUESTION: So nothing – no independent knowledge of any Russian intervention in Crimea? 
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any independent information to share with you.
     The WTOP report notes that "[d]uring a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday, McCain, a Republican, said it was a "massive failure" that the U.S. intelligence agencies did not predict Russia's activities."

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

Monday, March 10, 2014

Senate, EPA, Treasury Websites Vulnerable to Phishing Scams [Updated]

UPDATE: The exit message on the Senate website has changed since this post ran at The Weekly Standard.  It's not perfect because it just lumps potential scamming sites in with the ones that Senators actually want to link to, but it is still an improvement.


    Less than a month after the exposure of a widespread vulnerability on government "open data" websites, another perhaps even more insidious opening for abuse of government websites has come to light.  The problem is known as an "unvalidated redirect," and has been found on the websites of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Treasury Department, and even the Senate, among others. The vulnerability is not a new one and could extend back months if not years, and is not an uncommon problem on commercial websites either.
    A "redirect" is a web address that automatically opens a webpage or, in many cases, even a completely different website that the original address, or URL, indicated.  Generally when a government website directs a user to an external site, a warning or disclaimer appears alerting the user. For instance, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services website places a small "world" icon next to external links, and the site has a page explaining the disclaimer:

     Other government sites follow a different protocol where a special disclaimer page is displayed for several seconds after the external link is clicked before the users is automatically taken to the new page or site.  While this protocol is not a problem in and of itself, if the website code does not restrict the ability to redirect only to sites approved by host sites, any web address can be substituted.  This can allow unscrupulous website operators to provide a link in a website or an email that begins with a legitimate government address, such as senate.gov or epa.gov, but then quickly and automatically transport users to any website they choose.
    The website for the Senate is an especially serious example of this vulnerability because of the complete lack of a disclaimer on the "exit" page before the redirect takes place.  Senators often will direct website users to pertinent news articles, stories concerning constituent issues, or government services on other federal websites.  However, the following screen is all that users see before they are bounced to the new page or site:

    Since the script for the exit page is not restricted, anyone can establish a link by entering a [web address] after this prefix: http://www.senate.gov/cgi-bin/exitmsg?url=[web address]  For example, this link directs users to Google.com after bouncing off of Senate.gov:  <http://www.senate.gov/cgi-bin/exitmsg?url=http://www.google.com>  But replacing "www.google.com" with any website works just the same way to direct users to that site.  This opening could easily be exploited by inserting this type of link in a phishing email or a website and inviting users to simply click on what appears to be a Senate website address but in reality is a redirect to a phishing site.  At that point, personal information could be solicited with the apparent endorsement of the Senate.
    A bold scammer could even explicitly tell users, for example, that "you will see a message that you are exiting the Senate web server system and being transferred to our secure data collection site."  Without a restriction on redirect links or even a disclaimer, there is nothing to warn an unsuspecting user that the Senate is in no way connected with the linked site.
    The Senate's site is not the only government website vulnerable to this kind of exploitation.  A subdomain of the Treasury Department's website, publicdebt.treas.gov, has a similar problem.  While there is a more complete exit page provided, with a disclaimer ("You're going to a website that is not managed or controlled by the Bureau of the Public Debt. Its privacy policies may differ from ours."), the user is still bounced to the new site (again, using google.com as an example) with the apparent blessing of the Treasury:

    A Google search suggests that this vulnerability does not exist simply in theory, but has been used either innocuously or maliciously already.  Here is a screenshot of a Google search as it existed on March 9:

    Clicking on each of these links automatically transfers users, after eight seconds of the exit page, to a website not connected to or endorsed by the Bureau of the Public Debt of the Treasury Department, yet without a clear warning to indicate such.
    Other vulnerable websites include biometrics.gov, fmcsa.dot.gov, and epa.gov.  Unvalidated redirects linked from these government websites include sites for pornography, weight-loss site, and even a Bible study.  Despite the obvious opening provided for phishing, no actual examples of linked phishing sites were found during the investigation for this story, although phishing attempts are often made via unsolicited mass emails.  In any case, David Kennedy of the information security company TrustedSec,asked to comment for this story, said that these unvalidated redirects are "definitely an exposure."
    The House of Representatives is a good example of a government site that not only has a stronger disclaimer on its exit page, but disallows users from substituting a different web address in its exit URL.  For instance, Rep. Paul Ryan recently linked to a John McCormack piece at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.  The exit page informs users that they are leaving the House website, and users must manually click on the link before being redirected instead of the redirect happening automatically. Additionally, users are told that "Neither the House office whose site contains the above link, nor the U.S. House of Representatives is responsible for the content of the non-House site you are about to access."  Furthermore, an attempt to change the redirect address to a different site or page is met with a "File Not Found" error.
    The unvalidated redirect exposure is an unsophisticated yet effective tool for scammers.  No hacking is required as the referring websites do not actually host any unauthorized pages, but the simplicity actually works to the advantage of potential scammers or those simply seeking to direct additional traffic to their websites.  On the upside, the simplicity also means a relatively simple fix at the affected websites.  But until more government websites follow the example of the House or the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the unvalidated redirect will remain a prime opportunity for marketers or scammers looking to trade on the authority and sense of security conferred by a connection to the federal government.

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

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Obama to Host 'Off the Record' Obamacare Conference Call With Faith Leaders

    Close on the heels of an Obamacare-related "off the record" conference call hosted by Vice President Biden, President Obama will host one of this own on Monday, March 10 with faith leaders.  According to the announcement, the president "wants to thank all of the faith and community leaders across the country" for their help in enrolling people in Obamacare.  The exact content of the call will not be known, however, because the "call is off the record and not for press purposes."
    The call was announced on the Health and Human Services (HHS) website under the heading "Calling All Faith Leaders!":
Calling All Faith Leaders! Conference Call with President Obama on the Affordable Care Act 
March 10, 2014 | 1:00 PM EST 
The White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships invites you to join President Obama for a conference call on Monday, March 10th at 1:30pm ET. 
President Obama wants to thank all of the faith and community leaders across the country who are working hard to help millions of Americans access affordable, quality health coverage. As you know, one of the President’s top priorities is to ensure that Americans get covered by enrolling in the health insurance marketplace before the March 31st deadline, and he looks forward to discussing these issues with you 
Thank you for your work and continued support. Please feel free to share this invitation with other community contacts who would be interested in this work. We hope you will be able to join us. 
*This call is off the record and not for press purposes.
     The call will take place with exactly three weeks remaining in the open enrollment period for obtaining 2014 coverage through the insurance Marketplaces.  HHS recently acknowledged that insurance companies may still offer coverage directly to consumers outside the marketplace after March 31 as long as the policies conform to Affordable Care Act requirements and are available to anyone.  At this point it is unclear whether or not insurers will take advantage of this opening.  Those purchasing individual coverage outside the marketplace after March 31 will not be able to receive subsidies and will likely face a tax for the portion of 2014 in which they were uninsured.

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

Healthcare.gov Extends Verizon Contract: $58M for Seven Months

    Late last year the Wall Street Journal reported that Hewlett-Packard was replacing Verizon's Terremark subsidiary as the host of the federal government's Obamacare website, Healthcare.gov, when Terremark's contract expired in March 2014.  However, the Department of Health and Human Services recently awarded a $58 million, 7-month "Cloud Computing Logical Follow On" contract to Terremark to aid in the transition to Hewlett-Packard, saying that "[f]ailure to award this order will greatly jeopardize the Marketplace program anbd result in system performance issues of healthcare.gov."
    HHS documents explain the need for the extension as follows:

    The documents justifying the Limited Source contract were signed by Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services contracting officers in late January, and were ultimately approved by new Chief Operating Officer Tim Love on February 19.
    The award to Terremark is the latest in a string of contracts and contract modifications for the company related to Healthcare.gov.  The most recent was reported just weeks ago that increased the value of Terremark's original contract to $60 million.

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

John Kerry Addresses Climate Change in First Policy Guidance as Secretary of State

    Even as the situation in Ukraine has some talking about the possibility of a new cold war with Russia, Secretary of State John Kerry issued his first Policy Guidance since assuming his position a little over a year ago. The subject: Climate change.  In a blog post entitled "We Need To Elevate the Environment in Everything We Do", Kerry expresses a desire to make climate change his signature issue much in the way his predecessor Hillary Clinton made women's issues a "top-tier diplomatic priority":
Leading the way toward progress on this issue [climate change] is the right role for the United States, and it’s the right role for the Department of State.  That’s why I’ve decided to make climate change the subject of my first Policy Guidance as Secretary of State.  I have been deeply impressed by the way Secretary Clinton  elevated global women’s issues as a top-tier diplomatic priority, and believe me, we’re committed to keeping them there.  When the opportunities for women grow, the possibilities for peace, prosperity, and security grow even more.  President Obama and I believe the same thing about climate change.  This isn’t just a challenge, it’s also an incredible opportunity.  And the Policy Guidance I’m issuing today is an important step in the right direction.
    Saying "there’s no time to lose", Kerry enumerated seven steps the State Department will take to carry out the "critical mission" of addressing climate change:
I.  Lead by example through strong action at home and abroad.
II.  Conclude a new international climate change agreement.
III.  Implement the Global Climate Change Initiative.
IV.  Enhance multilateral engagement.
V.  Expand bilateral engagement.
VI.  Mobilize financial resources.
VII.  Integrate climate change with other priorities.
   Kerry closed with a call to action for members of the State Department, telling them tackling this issue is part of their "mission as diplomats":
Climate change has special significance for the work we do here at State, and so do clean water, clean air, sustainability, and energy.  We’re talking about the future of our earth and of humanity.  We need to elevate the environment in everything we do.  There’s nothing I’m more proud of then when we send one of our diplomats somewhere to really get out in the field and engage, to solve a problem, and to make something happen.  I want all of you to feel empowered to think and operate that way on climate change.  That’s our mission as diplomats and that’s our call to conscience as citizens of this fragile planet we inhabit.  So let’s get to work. 

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

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Four More Former Gitmo Terrorists Returned to Battlefield

    The semi-annual report on "Re-engagement of Detainees Formerly Held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba" was released on Wednesday by the Director of National Intelligence (DNI).  Out of a total of 614 former prisoners (up from 603 six months ago), intelligence has confirmed that 104 (up from 100) have re-engaged in terrorism/insurgent activities while another 74 are suspected of doing so. The latest report nudged the recidivism rate up to an even 29% from 28.9% last September.
    The report provides a chart breaking down the statistics into a number of categories:

    If there is good news to be found in the report, it is that 3 of the 4 detainees confirmed to have reengaged are now deceased.  Only one of the newly confirmed relapsed terrorist is still at large, joining the 56 other previously confirmed and 48 other suspected of reengaging presently not in custody.
    One of President Obama's first acts in office was to sign an executive order to close the facility at Guantanamo.  In his State of the Union address this January, the president briefly expressed his desire once again to see the facility closed, laying the responsibility on Congress to act.  Jay Carney was recently asked about a news report of a former detainee arrested in Britain suspected of terror activity in Syria, but Carney said he had not seen the report:
Q    A former Guantanamo detainee has been arrested in Britain on suspicion of terror offenses in Syria.  When you see these incidences pop up does it give the White House any pause on a policy for closing Guantanamo? 
MR. CARNEY:  I haven't seen that specific report.  What I can tell you is that there is a thorough review process on every individual, every detainee who’s being considered for transfer that takes all of these issues into account.
    As was the case six months ago, the new semi-annual report simply appeared on the DNI's website on Wednesday.   The release was not noted on the DNI's Twitter account, the agency's Facebook page, nor IC on the Record, the DNI's Tumblr account.

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

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

HHS Clarifies: Open Enrollment Deadline Applies Only To Obamacare Marketplaces, Not All Private Insurance

    The March 31, 2014 deadline for Obamacare open enrollment has been widely publicized since Healthcare.gov launched in October 2013, but, until recently, information about purchasing coverage outside of the open enrollment period was ambiguous at best.  For most of February, a page on the federal Marketplace website entitled "How can I get coverage outside of open enrollment?" answered the question as follows: "Outside open enrollment, you can enroll in a private insurance plan only if you have certain life events that give you a special enrollment period."  A screenshot of the archived page appears here, emphasis added:

    The statement did not specify where coverage could be purchased outside of the open enrollment period. An email inquiry to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) on Wednesday, February 26, seeking clarification elicited the following response on Thursday, February 27, from the agency's press office (emphasis added):
Marketplace plans will not be available until the following enrollment period, unless the person has a qualifying life event. For more information, visit: https://www.healthcare.gov/how-can-i-get-coverage-outside-of-open-enrollment/.

Some insurers off the Marketplace may choose to allow individuals to enroll in a plan at any time provided they comply with new regulations such as not discriminating based a pre-existing condition or current health status. The insurer must also make sure that the plan is available for anyone who may want to purchase it.
    Following the email inquiry, the informational page at Healthcare.gov was updated on February 27, now reading (emphasis added): "Outside open enrollment, you can enroll in Marketplace insurance only if you have certain life events that give you a special enrollment period."  Here is a screenshot of the page as it presently appears:

    The original version of the page (first cached on 11/13/13) was different that either of the two versions above:

    The page stayed this way until the week of February 5, 2014, when the second version that was on the site for most of February appeared.
    The application of the open enrollment period inside and outside of the Marketplace has been a source of confusion even to experts in the field.  Kaiser Health News is part of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, which bills itself as "a leader in health policy analysis, health journalism and communication."  The White House has cited Kaiser's work dozens of times in support of Obamacare. But on November 18, 2013, Kaiser Health News answered readers' questions about the open enrollment period this way (emphasis added):
Q. I know there's an enrollment period for the health law's insurance marketplaces, but people can also buy a policy directly from a company or agent, outside the marketplaces. So will people be able to buy a regular health insurance policy from a company or agent after March? If so, won't people wait until they're sick or injured to buy insurance? 
A. The open enrollment period, when people can buy an individual plan for 2014 directly through the health insurance marketplace or outside it from an insurer or agent, began in October and runs until the end of March.
The law requires that health plans sold either through the marketplace or outside it be comparable in many ways, including the benefits that are covered and consumer cost-sharing requirements, such as the rule that plans pay at least 60 percent of medical costs. In addition, all plans sold on the individual market, whether through the exchange or outside it, must offer open enrollment during the same time period.  
So there's no easy way to game the system by waiting to buy a plan until you get sick. If you skip open enrollment, you've generally missed your chance to buy coverage for the year unless you have a significant change in circumstance, such as losing your job-based insurance. You'll also face a penalty for not having insurance: $95 or 1 percent of your income in 2014, whichever is greater.
    Since the penalty for not having insurance in 2014 is based on lacking coverage for three months or longer during the year, anyone who waits until after March 31 to buy coverage outside the Marketplace will likely incur some penalty, which according to the IRS is "1/12th of the annual payment for each month you (or your dependents) do not have coverage and are not exempt."  Additionally, such individuals will not have access to subsidies as those are available only for policies purchased through the Marketplace.  But the fact remains that even absent the "life events" that are necessary to qualify for Marketplace coverage outside of open enrollment, coverage may be purchased directly from private insurers during that time.  Such offerings, of course, will be up to the individual carriers; CMS's response says that "insurers off the Marketplace may choose to allow" consumers to purchase plans outside of open enrollment, not that they are compelled to do so.
    Obviously it would be in the government's interest for the public to assume that no coverage, either inside or outside the Marketplace, may be purchased between April 1 and November 15 unless there is a qualifying "life event."  But as the recent clarification from CMS spells out, the private insurance market (as opposed to "Marketplace") will remain an option for those who for one reason or another resist Obamacare's deadline.

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

Democrats Misquote President Obama on Minimum Wage: "Reagan was in Congress"

    President Obama spoke to the Democrat National Committee's Winter Meeting in Washington DC on Friday and addressed the minimum wage increase that he recently proposed, comparing it to the minimum wage in Ronald Reagan's time.  According to the White House transcript, and the C-Span video, the president said:
So it’s time to raise a minimum wage that is worth less than it was when Ronald Reagan was in office.
    In what turned out to be a less than successful attempt to quote the president, the DNC quickly tweeted the president's remark, but with one key difference:
    Reagan, of course, never served in Congress.  A day later, the DNC tweet with the erroneous quote is still posted, and no correction has been issued.

UPDATE: The tweet was deleted sometime Sunday morning after The Weekly Standard published this post.

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

Obama on Obama: "Too Many Americans Are Working More Than Ever Just To Get By"

    Here's a rather harsh assessment of the last four years under the Obama administration's economic policies:
Today, after 4 years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility remains stalled. Even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by—let alone get ahead. And too many still are not working at all.
    Though this may sound like Democratic criticism of a Republican president, in reality it is President Obama's assessment of his own record, taken from his 2015 Budget proposal just released today.  Prior to the paragraph above, the president does point out what he sees his accomplishments:
After 5 years of grit and determined effort, the United States is better positioned for the 21st Century than any other nation on Earth. We have created more than 8 million new jobs in the last 4 years and now have the lowest unemployment rate in over 5 years. Our housing market is rebounding. Our manufacturing sector is adding jobs for the first time since the 1990s. We now produce more oil at home than we buy from the rest of the world. We have cut our deficits by more than half since I took office. And for the first time in over a decade, business leaders around the world have declared that China is no longer the world’s number one place to invest; America is.
We have made great progress, but we must do more to rebuild our economy on a new foundation for growth and prosperity. I believe that what unites the people of this Nation, regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all—the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead. That belief has suffered some serious blows. Over more than three decades, even before the Great Recession hit, massive shifts in technology and global competition had eliminated good, middle class jobs and weakened the economic foundations that families depend on. 

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

Maryland Obamacare Exchange Forms Advisory Committee Reflecting 'Gender, Racial, Ethnic, and Geographic Diversity'

    The state agency in charge of Maryland's beleaguered Obamacare Marketplace, the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange (MHBE), is looking to establish a standing advisory committee to provide the board of the MHBE advice and input on a "broad range of policy issues."  The MHBE sent out a letter to "stakeholders" this week who might have an interest in serving on the committee.  While the solicitation does not include prerequisites, qualifications, or credentials required to serve, it expresses the board's desire that the committee reflect "the gender, racial, ethnic, and geographic diversity of the State, as well as one that constitutes a diverse cross–section of stakeholders in the MHBE."
    A copy of letter appears below [highlight added]:

    At the link included in the letter, the board provides a template of a "voluntary, non-binding letter of interest" that asks respondents only for name, organization (including business category), contact information, and  two short answers: how their participation would contribute to the expertise, experience, and diversity of the standing advisory committee, and a description of their knowledge and expertise regarding policy issues of importance to the MHBE.
    The problems with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act in Maryland have ranged from website crashes to lower than expected enrollment to, more recently, faulty Medicaid enrollments.  The exchange has tried extending deadlines, offering retroactive coverage, and even replacing the leadership of the team in charge of the Maryland Health Connection, but problems persist.
    In February, the MHBE even solicited proposals for "WEB-based entities", essentially substitute websites to perform the sign-up and enrollment functions that MarylandHealthConnection.gov was intended to perform.  These "WEB-based entities", however, would still be forced to take the enrollment information back to the Maryland Health Connection to actually enroll consumers in health plans.  While the MHBE confirmed this via email on February 10, the agency has failed to provide further information despite multiple follow up email requests in the intervening weeks.
    In the meantime, the MHBE posted the notice regarding the standing advisory committee.  The original deadline of February 28, 2014 for applications for the committee has been extended to March 7, 2014.  No reason was given for the extended deadline.

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

Monday, March 3, 2014

Obama White House Refers to "G-7 Leaders" For First Time in Presidency; Excludes Russia

    Perhaps as a sign of how deep the rift between Russia and the western powers has become over Ukraine, the White House put out a statement from the "G-7 Leaders" for the first time since President Obama was elected.  In the past five years, there are dozens of references on the White House website to "G-8 Leaders" and "G8 Leaders", but no comparable references to "G-7."  The G-8 includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, plus Russia since 1998.
    The statement itself makes clear that Russia is not yet being officially excluded from the group, but puts that country on notice that the original seven members, plus the President of the European Council and President of the European Commission, are suspending participation in the preparations for the next scheduled G-8 summit.  Preparations will remain suspended until the "environment" is more conducive to "meaningful discussion".  The summit happens to be planned for the Russian city put on the map by the recent Olympics, Sochi:
We note that Russia’s actions in Ukraine also contravene the principles and values on which the G-7 and the G-8 operate.  As such, we have decided for the time being to suspend our participation in activities associated with the preparation of the scheduled G-8 Summit in Sochi in June, until the environment comes back where the G-8 is able to have meaningful discussion.
    The Obama White House has often been criticized for valuing words more than actions, but the words in this case, if not yet the actions, seem to go further than the administration has seen fit to go before in rebuking the Vladimir Putin's Russia.