Pressure on Obamacare Agency to Ready HealthCare.gov for More Enrollees

Melissa Quinn /

With three months to go before HealthCare.gov opens again for business to Americans seeking insurance through Obamacare, congressional investigators and government accountants are sounding the alarm that consumers could “encounter challenges.”

“The agency needs to make an assessment of … whether they are, in fact, on schedule and whether there are risks to the open enrollment period in 2015,” Government Accountability Office official William Woods told a House panel yesterday.

Lawmakers on the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations had gathered to discuss the findings of GAO’s new report on implementation of the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare.

Published Wednesday, the report examines the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ management of Obamacare contracts. The agency, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, oversees Obamacare and the associated website HealthCare.gov.

One of the main questions the GAO and lawmakers had for CMS was whether HealthCare.gov would be ready for consumers for the second open enrollment period, which begins in November and ends in February. During that time, consumers will be able to purchase health insurance through the federal exchange for coverage beginning next year.

The GAO report calls on CMS to analyze potential risks before new signups begin:

CMS needs a mitigation plan to address these issues. Unless CMS improves contract management and adheres to a structured governance process, significant risks remain that upcoming open enrollment periods could encounter challenges.

Woods is GAO’s director of acquisition and sourcing management. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., questioned him on HealthCare.gov’s readiness, asking whether consumers were going to experience problems like those that occurred last October:  site crashes, long wait times, bugs in the system.

Although Woods told lawmakers that in his view risks remain, he noted that CMS said it intended to analyze and mitigate any issues.

Subcommittee members also expressed concern about the ballooning costs of a contract awarded to Accenture, the technology firm tapped to fix HealthCare.gov.

After the online insurance exchange rolled out to system failures and malfunctions last fall, CMS fired CGI Federal, the Canadian company that built it. In January, the agency awarded a one-year, no-bid contract to Accenture to repair the website and improve its functionality.

So far, the Washington, D.C.-based firm has received $175 million from the federal government for its work on HealthCare.gov — nearly double the $91 million price tag on the original contract.

And Woods said the bill likely will continue to rise, based on GAO’s review of  taxpayers’ dollars paid to Accenture several months ago.

“The costs on that contract are almost certainly higher than before,” the GAO official said.

CMS rebutted by arguing that the rising charges resulted from reassessed tasks. The total cost of HealthCare.gov and related systems currently is close to $1 billion.

Following the hearing, Republican oversight leaders — Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, and Tom Coburn of  Oklahoma, and Reps. Dave Camp and Fred Upton, both of Michigan — sent a letter to CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner asking questions about HealthCare.gov contracts. They wrote:

Americans deserve a government that is held accountable, and that accountability should extend to the companies that work for the federal government.

The lawmakers also asked why the Accenture contract increased in cost and what the agency’s estimate is for the final bill.

The Energy and Commerce Committee has held roughly a dozen hearings on implementation of the Affordable Care Act and the effects of the health care law. The GAO report lays out specific CMS management issues that could spell trouble for the next open enrollment period.

Americans generally were in favor of the law when Congress passed it in 2010. However, tracking polls by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that support fell to new lows after HealthCare.gov’s rocky launch last year.

More of those surveyed say they favor Obamacare — 37 percent — now than in October. Still, 53 percent — the highest since Congress passed the law — have an unfavorable opinion.

Obama Totally Flip-Flopped On This Issue - Daily Signal

Obama Totally Flip-Flopped On This Issue

Melissa Quinn / Daily Signal Commentary Video /

President Obama today on his support for reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank: “We will lose business. And we will lose jobs if we don’t pass it.”

Obama in 2008: “There are some programs that have been duplicated by other programs that we need to just cut back, like waste in the Economic Development Agency and the Export-Import Bank that’s become little more than a fund for corporate welfare.”

>>> Why We Must Get Rid of the Export-Import Bank

Wisconsin Supreme Court Upholds Scott Walker’s Labor Reforms - Daily Signal

Wisconsin Supreme Court Upholds Scott Walker’s Labor Reforms

Melissa Quinn / Daily Signal Commentary Video / M.D. Kittle /

MADISON, Wis.—After three years of legal battles, the war for Gov. Scott Walker’s cornerstone public-sector collective bargaining reforms ended Thursday with the state Supreme Court upholding Act 10 in its entirety.

The Supreme Court, in a 5-2 decision, with even liberal Judge Patrick Crooks agreeing Act 10 is constitutional, gave its approval to the public employee labor law that sent thousands of protesters to the state capitol and 14 Democratic senators fleeing across the state line in a bid to stop it.

All but one liberal Dane County judge had concluded Act 10 meets constitutional muster. The law holds wage negotiations to the rate of inflation, ends automatic union dues deductions and requires annual union recertification votes.

>>> Scott Walker Defends Reforms; ‘Our Most Powerful Tool Is the Truth’

The lawsuit was originally brought by Madison Teachers Inc. and Public Employees Local 61, AFL-CIO.

The labor unions argued Act 10 limited their ability to organize and right to speak under the First Amendment of the Constitution.

That position was upheld in 2012 by Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas, who argued that portions of Act 10 violated the constitution. But the Supreme Court disagreed.

Justice Michael Gableman, who wrote the majority opinion, asserted the unions’ “associational rights are in no way implicated by Act 10’s modifications to Wisconsin’s collective bargaining framework.” The labor unions, Gableman said, “remain free to advance any position, on any topic, either individually or in concert, through any channels that are open to the public.”

Read more on Watchdog.org.

Federal Agents Storm Couple’s Property, Seize $60,000 Car for Violating Emissions Standards - Daily Signal

Federal Agents Storm Couple’s Property, Seize $60,000 Car for Violating Emissions Standards

Melissa Quinn / Daily Signal Commentary Video / M.D. Kittle / Natalie Johnson /

Homeland Security agents raided a North Carolina couple’s property and seized their $60,000 Land Rover Defender, claiming it violated EPA emissions standards. Jennifer Brinkley said the agents didn’t give her a chance to defend her rights to keep the car before hauling it away. She and her husband have 35 days to appeal the alleged violation, but the government won’t reveal the car’s location.

Voter ID Wins Another Round in Wisconsin - Daily Signal

Voter ID Wins Another Round in Wisconsin

Melissa Quinn / Daily Signal Commentary Video / M.D. Kittle / Natalie Johnson / Hans von Spakovsky /

In a victory for election integrity, the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the state’s voter ID law against separate challenges by the NAACP and the League of Women Voters. The justices joined the state supreme courts of Georgia, Indiana and Tennessee—as well as the U.S. Supreme Court—in finding laws requiring photo IDs to vote constitutional.

The judges in Wisconsin concluded the plaintiffs in the Wisconsin cases “failed to prove” the law was discriminatory or would keep anyone from voting.

Justice Patience Roggensack, who wrote the majority opinion in both cases, said in the NAACP case that “the burdens of time and inconvenience associated” with obtaining an ID “are not undue burdens on the right to vote and do not render the law invalid.”

This is particularly true, she wrote, because needing a photo ID “is a condition of our times where more and more personal interactions are being modernized to require proof of identify with a specified type of photo identification.” Requiring a photo ID, she added, is a “familiar” burden to voters because it accompanies “many of our everyday tasks.”

Although the Wisconsin law does provide that a free photo ID can be obtained for voting, the court also held that the state could not charge a fee for any supporting documentation needed to obtain the ID, such as the cost of a birth certificate. Because Wisconsin has a tradition of “jealously guarding and protecting” the right to vote, payment of any fee cannot be “an electoral standard.” Thus, the court interpreted the new photo ID law to require the state Division of Motor Vehicles, which issues driver’s licenses and photo IDs, to issue IDs for voting “without requiring documents for which an elector must pay a fee to a government agency.”

With that proviso, the court found the photo ID law constitutional and “reasonably related to the State’s significant interests” in “protecting the integrity and reliability of the electoral process, maintain public confidence in election results and preventing voter fraud.”

In both cases, Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, who was appointed to the court in 1976 by former Democratic Gov. Patrick Lucey, wrote dissenting opinions. In the League of Women Voters case, which was decided by a 4-3 vote, she claimed, as have other opponents of voter ID laws, that Wisconsin’s law “brings the specter of Jim Crow front and center.” This is racial demagoguery of the worst kind.

This decision lifted the injunction that had been issued by a state circuit court. It does not affect another injunction issued by federal District Court Judge Lynn Adelman, a Clinton appointee and former Democratic state senator. As I have previously written, Adelman refused to follow the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, in which a majority of the Court upheld the constitutionality of an ID law in Indiana that was even stricter than Wisconsin’s law.

Wisconsin’s attorney general, J.B. Van Hollen, has appealed that decision to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. He hopes the state supreme court’s decisions will help him convince the appeals court to overturn Adelman’s decision, according to his spokeswoman, Dana Brueck.

Gov. Scott Walker (R), probably said it best. “Voter ID is a common-sense reform that protects the integrity of our elections,” he said in reaction to the decisions. “People need to have confidence in our electoral process and to know that their vote has been properly counted.”

Sudanese Mom, Once Sentenced to Die for Her Faith, Can Call America Home - Daily Signal

Sudanese Mom, Once Sentenced to Die for Her Faith, Can Call America Home

Melissa Quinn / Daily Signal Commentary Video / M.D. Kittle / Natalie Johnson / Hans von Spakovsky / Kelsey Harkness /

The Sudanese mother who was sentenced to death for refusing to renounce her Christian faith safety arrived Thursday night in the United States.

Her husband, U.S. citizen Daniel Wani, cried tears of joy, according to a report in the New Hampshire Union Leader.

“Thank you so much,” Wani, a resident of Manchester, N.H.,  told reporters. “I am so relieved.”

Meriam Ibrahim Ishag, who like her husband is a native of Sudan, had been charged with and convicted of adultery and apostasy for marrying a Christian and refusing to convert to Islam.

According to media accounts, her Muslim father abandoned his family when she was 6. Raised by her Orthodox Christian mother, she went to college, graduated from medical school, and in 2011 married Wani, also a Christian.

After her brother lodged a complaint against her on the grounds that her marriage to a non-Muslim isn’t valid, a Sudanese court sentenced her to 100 lashes and death by hanging after giving birth. Ishag’s 2-year-old son, Martin, joined her in prison, where she gave birth to daughter Maya in late May.

Ishag, a physician, did not speak to reporters immediately upon arriving in the U.S.

Sudanese officials allowed her to leave that country last week. The family flew from Rome, where Ishag was blessed by Pope Francis at the Vatican, to Philadelphia, where Mayor Michael Nutter called her a “world freedom fighter.” Then it was on to the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, where well-wishers waving American flags greeted ishag and her family.

Her brother-in-law, Gabriel Wani, told reporters that the family is ready to “relax.” He said Ishag was being offered asylum in the U.S. and was to meet soon with State Department officials.

Ishag’s final stop was Manchester, the area where her husband lives and works and they plan on making their new home together.

 

Russia: Time to Act on INF Violations - Daily Signal

Russia: Time to Act on INF Violations

Melissa Quinn / Daily Signal Commentary Video / M.D. Kittle / Natalie Johnson / Hans von Spakovsky / Kelsey Harkness / Harrison Menke /

American officials have confirmed that Russia has been violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

The INF Treaty was concluded in 1987 and prohibits all ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Pointing to official Russian media sources, defense analysts Mark Schneider and Keith Payne contend that Russia has been developing and testing both. Furthermore, Russian officials regularly threaten to unilaterally withdraw from the INF Treaty. Even Vladimir Putin hinted at this as early as 2007.

How should the U.S. respond? According to Michaela Dodge, The Heritage Foundation’s policy analyst for defense and strategic policy, the U.S. should strengthen transatlantic partnerships, particularly through sustained missile defense improvements. In particular, the land-based Aegis Ashore missile defense system, set to deploy in Romania (2015) and Poland (2018), should remain on track. The U.S. should also re-evaluate its strategic posture and embrace a “protect and defend” strategy while continuing to modernize all three legs of the nuclear triad.

Thomas Karako of the Center for Strategic and International Studies agreed that the U.S. should “respond firmly through diplomatic and other means, take concrete steps to hedge against formal or informal treaty lapse, and finally take to heart the lessons learned about Russia’s troubling arms control record.” It might be prudent, Karako suggests, to remind Putin that the coming Aegis Ashore systems could be adapted to defeat INF-range cruise missiles.

But the Obama Administration’s passivity is just as much at fault for encouraging Russia’s blatant violations. Former Senators Jon Kyl (R–AZ) and Kit Bond (R–MO) write that “the Obama White House’s non-response to this violation has contributed to Putin’s perception of U.S. indecision and weakness.”

Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton stated that President Obama’s failure to confront Russia early on only made the Administration look inept and submissive in the face of Russia’s treaty violations: “It forms a pattern of Russian behavior under Putin that is very threatening to American interests.”

Clearly, Russia cares little for international norms and agreements. President Obama’s approach of simply hoping for Moscow’s compliance in arms control agreements, coupled with a lack of enforcement, makes for a poor policy. “After all,” Senators Kyl and Bond ask, “if the enforcement of nuclear weapons arms control obligations is not worth the attention of the President of the United States, what is the point of the obligations?”

Harrison Menke is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, pleaseclick here.

Letterman Mocks: ‘Congress Is Now Getting Ready To Take a Month Off. From … What?’ - Daily Signal

Letterman Mocks: ‘Congress Is Now Getting Ready To Take a Month Off. From … What?’

Melissa Quinn / Daily Signal Commentary Video / M.D. Kittle / Natalie Johnson / Hans von Spakovsky / Kelsey Harkness / Harrison Menke / Daily Signal Commentary Video /

“They need to recharge their batteries for another year of gridlock.”

 

>>> How Gridlock Is Stopping Congress From Making a Better Federal Budget

The Legacy of Milton Friedman: Educational Opportunity Continues to Expand - Daily Signal

The Legacy of Milton Friedman: Educational Opportunity Continues to Expand

Melissa Quinn / Daily Signal Commentary Video / M.D. Kittle / Natalie Johnson / Hans von Spakovsky / Kelsey Harkness / Harrison Menke / Daily Signal Commentary Video / Brittany Corona /

Thursday marked 102nd birthday of the late, great Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman. It is both fitting and proper we remember his legacy of freedom crossed many disciplines—including education.

Milton Friedman once remarked that there are “two alternative ways of organizing an economy: top-down verses bottom-up; central planning and control versus private markets; more colloquially, socialism versus capitalism.” This is no less true with education.

Yet America has seen a half-century of growing centralization of education, without meaningful results.

Friedman knew school choice—applying market forces via parents to one of society’s most essential functions—offered the alternative. Indeed, he is widely acknowledged as the father of the school choice movement.

“A stable and democratic society is impossible without widespread acceptance of some common set of values and without a minimum degree of literacy and knowledge on the part of most citizens,” Friedman once said. “Education contributes to both.”

Friedman understood that a well-educated citizenry is essential for a free society. He also knew that an educational marketplace was better equipped to educate a free people than centralized schooling. This is why Friedman developed the idea of school vouchers, which give parents the freedom to send their child to a private school using all or part of the per-pupil public funding.

Freidman’s educational philosophy promoted an environment where parents are free to choosethe best educational option to meet their child’s individual needs, whether public, private, charter, virtual or home school.

Educational choice raises all boats. It empowers families to determine the school environment that best suits the needs of their children. It puts competitive pressure on schools that fail to meet the needs of the student body, improving outcomes for both students who exercise school choice and students who remain in underperforming schools.

His goal, he said once on CNBC, was to “have a system in which every family in the U.S. will be able to choose for itself the school to which its children go.”

If Friedman were alive today, he would see America moving aggressively toward that goal.

Friedman’s legacy of school choice has grown more expansive—and more innovative.

As of 2014, there are 41 private school choice programs in 24 states and the District of Columbia. More than 300,000 students are currently participate in a private school choice option

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Heritage fellow Virginia Walden Ford says when all school choice policy options are considered—for example, deductions for homeschooling expenses—more than 1 million children now benefit from choice in education.

And, in 2011, Arizona enacted the nation’s first education savings account option, which could be considered a refinement of Friedman’s original voucher idea.

ESAs allow parents of eligible students to fully customize their child’s education with 90 percent of the per-pupil state funding that would have followed their child to a public school. With an ESA, parents can purchase a variety of education-related services, such as tuition, curricula, tutoring, therapies, and can even roll over unused funds into a college savings account.

Last month, Florida passed the nation’s second education savings account program.

Public support also continues to grow for universal school choice. According to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice’s annual Schooling in America Survey, the public supports universal access over means-tested school choice programs by 65 percent.

Milton Friedman understood school choice as 21st century education reform that would open the door for every child to receive the best education possible. As school choice proliferates around the country, Friedman’s labor is bearing fruit— breaking down monopolies and promoting freedom in education.

In honor of Friedman’s birthday, we must rededicate ourselves to that unfinished task which remains before us, the true end of his philosophy of educational choice: educational freedom in America.

Jobs Report: The Status Quo Remains the Same - Daily Signal

Jobs Report: The Status Quo Remains the Same

Melissa Quinn / Daily Signal Commentary Video / M.D. Kittle / Natalie Johnson / Hans von Spakovsky / Kelsey Harkness / Harrison Menke / Daily Signal Commentary Video / Brittany Corona / James Sherk /

On the jobs front, it’s a story of not much better and not much worse.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ July employment report shows middling growth in the labor market. It shows no hint of economic backsliding, but it also shows few signs of the robust growth many economists hoped for—and expected.

The report stated employers added a net 209,000 jobs in July—matching the average growth over the past 12 months. This represents decent job growth, but it throws cold water on hopes that the almost 300,000 net jobs added in June reflected an accelerating labor market. Furthermore, wages tend to rise and workweeks lengthen when the job market heats up; neither happened in July. Average workweeks remained flat (34.5 hours) and average hourly earnings rose one cent to $24.45. June’s encouraging numbers now look like statistical noise around a trend of more modest growth

If the economy already stood at full employment, economists would welcome adding 200,000 jobs a month. But the economy needs to add approximately 120,000 jobs a month just to keep pace with population growth. Job growth in the 150,000-200,000-per-month range means unemployment will come down slowly.

Indeed the household survey showed the unemployment rate rising a statistically insignificant 0.1 percentage points to 6.2 percent as the number of unemployed rose over the month (+197,000 workers). Fortunately this increase occurred because of slightly higher labor force participation (+329,000 workers) and not because of net job losses. Both changes occurred well within the household survey’s statistical margin of error. The labor market appears to be neither accelerating nor decelerating.

Further evidence of this comes from one of the most accurate unemployment forecasting models—the Barnichon-Nekarda model based on labor force inflows and outflows. The model, which accurately predicted July’s unemployment rate, projects unemployment will hover around 6 percent for the rest of the year.

On the other hand, the economy does not appear headed for a recession. Economists feared this possibility after the economy unexpectedly contracted in the first quarter. Fortunately growth recovered in the second quarter, and today’s job growth further dispels those fears. A contracting economy does not add 200,000 jobs.

One discouraging trend: Part-time employment did not drop as hoped. The Bureau of Labor Statistics uses two measures of part-time employment. It asks workers how many hours they worked in the previous week and how many hours they usually work. In June both measures jumped by more than 800,000 workers—accounting for all the month’s net job growth. Some economists warned this surge in part-time employment reflected the weakness of the economy, but others took a wait-and-see approach since these numbers tend to jump around a lot because of the household survey’s large margin of error. But the figures for part-time employment changed little in July, dropping somewhat in one measure and rising slightly in the other. Both remain well above where they stood in the spring, which means the labor market remains weaker than the headline figures suggest.