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Kathleen Sebelius details ‘tech surge’ to save Obamacare website

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Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius highlighted the administration’s “tech surge” to repair the Obamacare insurance exchange website. In a blog post on the HHS website, Sebelius shared details on the “key steps” the department is taking to “improve the consumer experience on Healthcare.gov.”

The website, launched on Oct. 1 to enroll consumers in new insurance exchanges, has faced a number of technical problems. President Obama said he was frustrated by the glitch-filled rollout and vowed to fix the issues quickly.

Sebelius said HHS had tapped former Office of Management and Budget Director Jeff Zients to “provide management advice and counsel” to the process.

She also said that her department had “brought in additional experts and specialists drawn from within government, our contractors, and industry, including veterans of top Silicon Valley companies.” She said those recruited had “extensive experience scaling major IT systems” and would be part of a team “working aggressively to diagnose parts of Healthcare.gov that are experiencing problems, learn from successful states, prioritize issues, and fix them.”

Sebelius added that HHS had secured additional support personnel and assistance from the contractors already working on the website.

Some Republican lawmakers have called for Sebelius to be fired amid the troubled rollout, but the White House has resisted those calls.

The administration has fought to portray the health care law as a success despite the online problems and has encouraged consumers to register for the exchanges by phone or mail.

“Millions of Americans are already benefiting from the law, through increased benefits like preventative care at no additional costs and drug discounts for seniors,” Sebelius said. “We believe the product of the law – affordable health insurance – is good, but we won’t stop until every American who wants it gains access to these new options for care.”

— Meghashyam Mali, Assistant Managing Editor

 

SELF-PROCLAIMED 9/11 MASTERMIND USES CUMIN, TUMERIC TO DYE BEARD

GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA — Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, is using a bizarre concoction of spices and juice to dye his beard a bright color. Mohammed, who faces a military tribunal on war crime charges, has started using “common kitchen items” like cumin, turmeric and other spices to change the color of his long beard, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale told the Washington Examiner.

Mohammed appeared for the start of the week’s war crimes proceedings in Guantanamo Bay with a dyed reddish beard. His beard is constantly changing shades because of the witch’s brew of spices and juices he uses. Each time he appears before the commission — which meets, broadly speaking, about one week each month — the beard has a slightly different look.

It is not clear how this smells, as the courtroom gallery is sequestered from the courtroom for security reasons, and reporters are not allowed any contact with detainees. The standard operating procedures for military detention facilities prohibit detainees from obtaining items that are “weaponized, combustible or otherwise harmful to security,” which includes hair dye, Breasseale said.

It is not known why Mohammed dyes his hair, although Reuters previously speculated that it could be an issue of vanity or religion. The Prophet Muhammad is said to have dyed his beard with henna ink. Janet Hamlin, an Associated Press sketch artist who has drawn an extensive number of scenes from the Guantanamo Bay courtroom, said that Mohammed objected to her sketch of him.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed said “that the nose was all wrong,” she recounted to NPR. “He said, ‘Tell her to go get my FBI photo off the Internet, use that as a reference, and touch it up.’”

— Tim Mak, Congressional Correspondent

 

IRS HANDED OUT $132 BILLION IN WRONGFUL PAYMENTS

The Internal Revenue Service has made “no significant improvements” in curbing massive improper payments under the Earned Income Tax Credit program, according to an audit that found the agency issued more than $132 billion in wrongful tax credits in the past decade.

According to the audit, the IRS is “unlikely” to significantly reduce improper payments in the future, partly because it does not want to discourage low-income earners who qualify from applying for the credit. According to the office of the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, the IRS has not implemented required safeguards against improper tax credits, and as of 2012, was annually handing out at least $11 billion to those who did not qualify.

“And that is disturbing,” Treasury Inspector General J. Russell George said.

The Earned Income Tax Credit offsets income tax owed by low-income earners, but according to a large pie chart featured in the audit, about 21 percent of all refunds are “improper,” meaning they “should not have been made or were made in an incorrect amount.”

The report concluded that overall, the IRS has not established annual targets aimed at reducing improper payments.

— Susan Ferrechio, Chief Congressional Correspondent

 

DELAYED SEPTEMBER EMPLOYMENT REPORT DISAPPOINTS WITH 148,000 JOBS CREATED

The U.S. labor market remained stuck in a rut in September, as the number of new jobs created fell to 148,000 and the unemployment rate edged down to 7.2 percent, the Labor Department announced in the release of a report that had been delayed by the 16-day government shutdown.

The number of nonfarm payroll jobs fell short of analysts’ expectations and fell from August’s revised number of 193,000. July’s number was revised further downward, from 104,000 to just 89,000.

The slight improvement in the unemployment rate appears to have been driven by Americans finding new jobs, rather than by people dropping out of the work force, with the labor force increasing by 73,000 in September. The labor participation rate, however, remained unchanged at 63.2 percent. A broader measure of unemployment that includes underemployment ticked down from 13.7 to 13.6 percent.

Long-term unemployment remains steeply elevated, with 4.1 million Americans looking for a job for 27 weeks or longer, down from 4.3 million in September. While the long-term unemployed remain about 37 percent of all those looking for work, the number has fallen by 725,000 over the past year.

The September jobs report did little
to change the picture of the labor market leading into the three-week government shutdown. Since the labor market recovery began in 2010, the average monthly
jobs growth has been just under 180,000, with relatively few months recording growth significantly larger or smaller than that number.

— Joseph Lawler, Economics Writer

 

JON STEWART MOCKS OBAMA'S FAULED SALES PITCH FOR OBAMACARE

Jon Stewart mocked President Obama following the chief executive’s White House Rose Garden Obamacare sales pitch.

After playing clips of the Obama event, Stewart turned to his audience and asked, “When did the president of the United States turn into Gill from ‘The Simpsons’?” he asked.

Stewart panned the White House after a woman nearly fainted as she stood behind Obama during the speech.

“As it turns out, even the photo op to address the poorly planned rollout of Obamacare suffered from a clear lack of planning, as evidenced by the decision, perhaps unwise in hindsight, to place the pregnant woman with diabetes in the sun next to the president,” he said.

He went on to ridicule Obama for promising a technology “surge” to fix problems with the website.

“Your website is so [bleeped] we have to use the same strategy we used to salvage the Iraq war?”
Stewart asked  with disbelief.

— Charlie Spiering, Commentary Writer

 

RAND PAUL: AMEND CONSTITUTION TO STOP EXEMPTIONS FOR FEDS

One of the central fights over Obamacare during this month’s government funding battle focused on whether Congress should be excluded from parts of the new health care law.

Sen. Rand Paul introduced an amendment that would end the debate.

The Kentucky Republican wants to amend the U.S. Constitution so that members of Congress, and the executive and judicial branches, are subject to the laws in the same way as the rest of America.

In other words, they could not give themselves fine-print exclusions from legislation.

Congress and congressional employees must join the health care exchanges that opened Oct. 1, but thanks to an exception carved out by President Obama, they will continue to receive federal government subsidies amounting to about 72 percent of the cost to purchase health insurance. The law does not allow the rest of the public to continue to receive employer subsidies once they join the health insurance exchanges.

In forging a deal to reopen the federal government and raise the nation’s borrowing limit, Congress rejected a measure authored by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., that would have eliminated the special congressional subsidies after Democrats refused to agree to the proposal, fearing a “brain drain” on Capitol Hill.

Paul’s measure, which would apply to the White House and the Supreme Court, would be the 28th Amendment, if it passes. Constitutional amendments must pass with a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate and must be ratified by 38 of the 50 states.

The Constitution has not been successfully amended since 1992, when the United States approved a measure prohibiting any change to the pay of an elected House or Senate lawmaker from taking effect until an intervening election. That amendment took nearly 103 years to pass, according to the National Archives.

— Susan Ferrechio, Chief Congressional Correspondent

 

BIG LABOR THREATENS DEMOCRATS WHO SUPPORT ENTITLEMENT REFORM

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka threatened to use Big Labor’s resources to unseat any Democrat who supports entitlement reform.

Trumka made the comments in a speech at the annual meeting International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans in Las Vegas.

He was reacting to reports that lawmakers may try to restrain the ever-rising costs of programs like Social Security and Medicare.

“Let me just say this one for the record. No politician — I don’t care the political party — will get away with cutting Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid benefits. Don’t try it. And this warning goes double for Democrats. We will never forget. We will never forgive. And we will never stop working to end your career,” Trumka said.

He denied that there was any real economic problem related to entitlement growth: “We live in a time of self-imposed scarcity. Our American economy produces far more than enough wealth to go around, but, as working people, we see less and less of the wealth we produce.”

His comments indicate the AFL-CIO will invest heavily in primary challenges against Democrats who back a deal. That’s a tactic today usually associated with the Tea Party and the Republican officeholders it opposes, but Big Labor has often used the strategy, too.

— Sean Higgins, Senior Writer

 

DICK CHENEY DEFENDS TED CRUZ AND THE TEA PARTY

Former Vice President Dick Cheney defended Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and the Tea Party on NBC’s “Today” show.

“I think they’ve raised issues Americans care about,” Cheney said, when asked about the Tea Party. “We have terrible track records with respect to federal spending. Nobody seems to be able to solve the problem.”

Dick Cheney described the movement as an “uprising” within the
Republican Party.

“I don’t see it as a negative,” Cheney said. “It’s better to have that turmoil and change in the Republican Party than it would be to have it outside.”

Cheney said that he wasn’t a “card-carrying member” of the Tea Party but had a great deal of respect for the movement.

“These are Americans,” he said simply. “They’re loyal, they’re patriotic and taxpayers, and they’re fed up with what they see happening in Washington. I think it’s a normal, healthy reaction and the fact that the party is having to adjust to it is positive.”

When asked about his opinion of Ted Cruz, Cheney noted that Cruz was merely representing his state.

“I think he represents the thinking of an awful lot of people obviously in Texas,” Cheney said, “But my own daughter is running for U.S. Senate in Wyoming partly under the concern that Washington is not working, the system is breaking down and it’s time for new leadership.”

When asked if he would have a role in his daughter’s campaign, Cheney explained that
he was part of the older generation that is being challenged by the Tea Party.

“Probably the best thing I can do is stay out of the way,” he said.

— Charlie Spiering, Commentary Writer

 

CHRIS CHRISTIE DROPS GAY-MARRIAGE APPEAL AS NEW JERSEY LAW TAKES EFFECT

Just hours after Senator-elect Cory Booker officiated New Jersey’s first legal same-sex wedding ceremonies at Newark City Hall, Gov. Chris Christie dropped his appeal of the court ruling that allows such unions.

Christie, a Republican who is up for re-election this year and a possible Republican presidential contender in 2016, insisted that he remained opposed to same-sex marriage but was effectively bound to honor the court decision.

“Although the governor strongly disagrees with the court substituting its judgment for the constitutional process of the elected branches or a vote of the people, the court has now spoken clearly as to their view of the New Jersey Constitution and, therefore, same-sex marriage is the law,” Christie said.

Christie’s administration had requested that gay marriages be delayed pending the appeal to a lower court, but the state Supreme Court decided that same-sex marriages would go on as planned beginning midnight Monday.

It was at that time that Booker, the departing mayor of Newark and long an advocate of equal rights for gay couples, officiated at seven same-sex marriage ceremonies in Newark, one of many New Jersey cities that stayed open late to accommodate the weddings.

“It is officially past midnight; marriage is now equal in New Jersey,” Booker said.

New Jersey voters on Oct. 16 chose Booker, a Democrat, to fill the Senate seat left open by the death of former Sen. Frank Lautenberg, also a Democrat.

— Rebecca Berg, Political Correspondent

 

OBAMA NOMINATES JEH JOHNSON AS HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY

President Obama nominated former top Pentagon lawyer Jeh Johnson to be the next Homeland Security secretary, calling him a “critical member” of his national security team.

Obama said Johnson had “demonstrated again and again ... a deep understanding of the threats facing the United States” during the Rose Garden event, where he made the announcement.

Johnson served as the Defense Department’s general counsel for much of the president’s first term before returning to private practice.

At the Pentagon, he played a role in key policy decisions, including the expansion of the administration’s overseas drone strikes, rules governing the use of military commissions at Guantanamo Bay and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Johnson authored the report calling for the administration to remove the policy preventing openly gay service members.

Obama praised Johnson’s work at the Pentagon and said he had “been in the Situation Room, at the table, at moments of decision.”

“He’s respected across our government as a team player,” the president continued, adding that Johnson had “earned a reputation as a cool and calm leader.”

Johnson can expect to face tough questions at his confirmation hearings over his role approving the use of drone strikes to target individuals abroad, including U.S. citizens.

If confirmed by the Senate, Johnson would face a number of new challenges at the Department of Homeland Security, which has faced scrutiny from lawmakers over a host of issues from border security to counter terrorism and over the Transportation Security Administration’s airport screening practices. As secretary, he would also play a key role in enforcing changes to the nation’s immigration laws.

— Meghashyam Mali, Assistant Managing Editor

 

U.S. CAN'T ACCOUNT FOR MILLIONS OF PARTS BOUGHT FOR AFGHAN MILITARY

U.S. and international forces can’t keep track of hundreds of millions of dollars in vehicle parts purchased for the Afghan National Army with American funds — because no one is keeping inventory.

That means, according to John F. Sopko, the military’s “current process for managing vehicle spare parts purchases leaves U.S.-purchased equipment and funds vulnerable to waste, fraud, and abuse.” Sopko is the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.

The Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, or CSTC-A, is the multinational organization that trains and equips the Afghan National Army.

The CSTC-A has spent $370 million on vehicle parts for the Afghan army since 2004, much of which can’t be accounted for because neither has accurate records of what’s been purchased, distributed and used, Sopko said in a new report.

Extra parts can sit in overflow lots for more than a year waiting for the army to complete its inventory, leaving the parts vulnerable to fraud and wasting U.S. dollars, the report said.

CSTC-A relies on the Afghan army to keep records of its spare parts, and to base its orders on these records. But poor record-keeping means it has no way to accurately judge how many parts are actually needed.

— Michal Conger, Staff Writer

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