Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

A video game called ‘School Shooting,’ backing the video gaming industry, and a qualified lawyer on hold

Steven Brill
Dec 3, 2013 12:30 UTC

1. Is there really a game called “School Shooting”?

Last week, the Connecticut State’s Attorney issued his official report  about the shooting a year ago at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. On page 26 the State’s Attorney noted that among other video games found in the home of murderer Adam Lanza was: “The computer game titled ‘School Shooting’ where the player controls a character who enters a school and shoots at students.”

Is there really such a game? The CBS-owned website Gamespot, which covers news related to video-gaming, reported two days later that, “The ‘School Shooting’ game is somewhat of a mystery. In the 44-page Sandy Hook report released this week, no details are provided regarding who made the game or where it can be purchased or downloaded.”

I hope someone is working on that mystery.

2. “Advocating” for video games?

While trying to learn more about the School Shooting game I came across the website of a trade group called the Entertainment Consumers Association, which represents the video gaming industry. Its “Advocacy” page led last week with the good news that the State’s Attorney’s report did not directly link video games to the Sandy Hook massacre (though the report did spend a lot of space listing all the violent games found in Lanza’s home).

“From both a political and a cultural perspective, these are challenging times for gamers. New issues that concern consumer rights broadly, but effect gamers specifically, have made our work that much more important,” the Advocacy page declares.

Trade associations are usually a good window on the arguments, money and politics associated with controversial issues. So the group that defends the gaming industry, whose revenues are increasingly dependent on products that simulate violence, would seem to be fertile ground for a good story on how the industry seems to have staved off fallout from Sandy Hook and similar tragedies.

Picking government contractors, high-flying Dubai, and a dubious drug on the market

Steven Brill
Nov 26, 2013 10:34 UTC

1. Who picks the contractors?

In the wake of the failed launch of Healthcare.gov there has been some spectacular insider coverage, particularly by the Washington Post and New York Times, of the failure of the private contractors to deliver what they promised when they won the assignments to build the federal insurance exchange. But while there has been some mention of problems with the contract procurement process itself (focusing on the notion that in Washington the IT providers who win the contracts are better at winning IT contracts than at doing cutting-edge IT), one piece of the story has so far been missing: Who actually decided to award the Healthcare.gov contract to CGI and the others who shared the work? And on exactly what basis?

We know the winners had invested heavily over the years to get on a list of pre-qualified companies who could bid on contracts like this one, a tortuous process that the best and brightest technology companies outside the Beltway typically don’t bother with because they have too much more rewarding work to do in the private sector, where the bidding process is more straightforward. But we still haven’t gotten a good picture of who in the government runs these processes.

I know from some reporting I’ve done recently that in Kentucky, to take one example, the contractor that won the job to build that state’s Obamacare website was chosen by a committee that did not include the person who was actually in charge of building the Kentucky exchange. In other words, the person who would supervise the outside vendor, and whose career depended on whether the contractor did a good job, had nothing to do with picking the contractor. In fact, I’m told that the official in charge of the website didn’t meet the leader of the contracting team until after the choice was made.

Timing the capitol bloviators, the French as the tough guys, and Wal-Mart’s reputation

Steven Brill
Nov 19, 2013 12:21 UTC

1. Timing the capitol bloviators:

Watching the spate of committee hearings on Capitol Hill related to the Obamacare launch debacle reminds me of a story — or, rather, an ongoing type of coverage — that I wish the Washington Post, Politico or even C-Span would do: Keep count of the percentage of time each senator or congressman talks versus the amount of time the witnesses, whose appearances are ostensibly the purpose of the hearings, get to talk.

A sub-tally might also be done of how much of the committee member’s time is spent even asking a question, as opposed to giving a speech.

At most hearings each committee member is usually allotted five minutes to question the witness. My informal count of what I’ve watched over the past few weeks had the members hogging three to four minutes each, sometimes more.

Finding Obamacare’s authors; assessing J&J’s CEO culpability; and grading Chris Christie

Steven Brill
Nov 12, 2013 11:48 UTC

1. Finding the folks who wrote Obamacare:

As I report a story I am writing about Obamacare, it’s become clear to me that — as we are already seeing with the controversy over people getting their insurance plans dropped — there are all kinds of issues related to provisions in the massive law that are bound to get lots more attention once the website is working. A few weeks ago in this column, for example, I mentioned the as-yet-little-noticed high penalties that smokers will have to pay.

As with the smoking penalty, many of these issues are related to narrow provisions that are hard to spot in a 906-page law. But as someone who has now read those 906 pages I can also report that, in addition to the substantive issues likely to become bigger deals as the law is implemented, there are also potholes soon to come because the law is filled with inconsistencies, gaps, and just plain wording errors. More generally, even for legal writing, it’s badly constructed and seems written to torment even someone who is used to reading legislation.

With that in mind, I recently asked a senior Senate staff person who was heavily involved in designing the law who the person or persons who actually wrote it are, and how I might track them down for an interview. His answer: “Senate Legislative Counsel. They don’t talk to anyone.”

Breaking procurement rules to fix Healthcare.gov, the Red Cross and Sandy, and Westerners choking in China

Steven Brill
Oct 29, 2013 13:27 UTC

1. Breaking procurement rules to fix Healthcare.gov?

In the weeks immediately following the failure of the federal government’s Obamacare exchange website, policy wonks who were inclined to attach larger meaning to the fiasco than the simple incompetence of those in charge pointed to how difficult and time-consuming government procurement is.

That’s why, according to this rationale, the same folks who were so inventive and effective in building campaign websites and mounting digital donation and get-out-the-vote campaigns couldn’t do the same when it came to launching their president’s highest-priority governing initiative.

Well, if the government’s rules are so constricting that nothing can be done leanly or quickly, how is it that the president was able to hire a new Healthcare.gov czar, Jeffrey Zients, last Tuesday, and have him on the job that afternoon — whereupon within 48 hours he had in turn hired Quality Software Services, Inc. to be the general contractor overseeing all the fixes?

A refund for Healthcare.gov, European lobbyists, and A-Rod’s curious supporters

Steven Brill
Oct 22, 2013 13:47 UTC

1. Can we get our money back for the failure of Healthcare.gov?

Over the weekend the Wall Street Journal scored a scoop of sorts, getting the first interview with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius since her ill-fated appearance on “The Daily Show.” She addressed the failure of her Healthcare.gov website to function as the enrollment marketplace for the 36 states that are having the federal government operate their Obamacare insurance exchanges, instead of doing exchanges on their own.

The Journal quoted Sebelius as saying “she would see if the government was entitled to any refunds, once the work is done.” With $400 million having been spent on outside contractors for the collapsed website, reporters ought to follow up on that aggressively.

Government contractors usually escape responsibility for cost overruns, lapsed schedules or downright failure to produce a product that works by claiming, rightly or wrongly, that the instructions they were given destined the project for failure, were not explicit enough, or were changed midway through the work. In the case of Healthcare.gov, the Statement of Work instructing the lead contractor, CGI Federal, was 60 pages, single-spaced. So lack of detail may not be a great defense. But were the instructions poorly conceived — or changed in a way that caused the current fiasco? Or are other factors responsible for the failure, making it unlikely that we taxpayers can get some of our money back?

How Boehner can save his speakership, JPMorgan’s lawyers, and the TV economics of the World Series

Steven Brill
Oct 15, 2013 11:05 UTC

1. How Boehner can save his speakership:

Conventional wisdom is that House Speaker John Boehner has been afraid to defy the Ted Cruz-inspired House members who have insisted on closing the government and holding the debt ceiling hostage unless President Obama agrees to delay or defund Obamacare. The assumption is that Boehner fears that the most zealous Republicans in his caucus would turn on him and remove him as speaker. With that in mind, there’s one story I’ve been waiting for and still haven’t seen: Why haven’t the Democrats offered to protect Boehner if he runs into trouble by allowing the full House to vote to reopen the government and extend the debt ceiling?

If you think the speaker of the House is chosen only by the majority Republicans, you’re wrong. Under the Constitution, the speaker is elected by a majority of all the members of the House. Traditionally, the majority party will caucus and choose one of their own as the speaker, for whom all, or most, of the majority party will then vote, assuring that he or she gets a majority of the full House and becomes speaker. (The minority party all votes for their favorite, who of course loses, but becomes the Minority Leader, a post chosen by the party, not the full House.)

But it doesn’t have to be that way. So here’s a scenario Politico, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Roll Call or other news organizations that swarm Capitol Hill ought to explore: To get Boehner to take a more moderate stance, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, with President Obama’s encouragement, could offer Boehner enough Democratic votes to keep him in power through the 2014 Congressional elections, even if members of his own caucus rebel and introduce a motion that he be removed.

How Obamacare burns smokers, the Economist’s anonymous staff, and New York City’s bike-sharing program

Steven Brill
Oct 8, 2013 13:33 UTC

1. How Obamacare burns smokers:

Amid all the publicity around the glitch-filled launch of the Obamacare health insurance exchanges and the accompanying debate over whether the premiums being offered will be low enough to attract enough buyers, one aspect of the story hasn’t gotten nearly the attention it deserves.

Almost anyone who has followed the story knows that Obamacare doesn’t allow people with pre-existing conditions to be denied coverage or to be charged extra; that it limits the price differentials that can be charged to older people versus younger customers; and that it provides government subsidies to those living below 400 percent of the poverty level to help them pay their premiums. But what’s not well-known is how Obamacare lowers the boom on the 19 percent of American adults who smoke, substantially negating all three of those consumer-friendly features.

Being a smoker is the one pre-existing condition that insurance companies can discriminate against under the Affordable Care Act. In fact, insurers participating in the exchanges can charge a premium of up to 50 percent for smokers.

Default scenarios, Yankees’ doctors, and why Internet companies backpedaled on privacy

Steven Brill
Sep 24, 2013 11:11 UTC

1. Default scenarios:

With a deadlock over raising the debt ceiling looking more likely than a stalemate over funding the government to avert a shutdown, I’ve been looking for a definitive story on what exactly will happen if the ceiling isn’t raised.

Yes, we’ve read that the government is likely to continue to pay its debts to bondholders in order to avoid a default. That means that other checks for basic expenses, like payrolls, will have to be delayed until revenues roll in to cover them. But how exactly will that work?

Indeed, is there really any way that the government — which must have thousands of agencies and offices issuing checks every day — can control its outlays the way you or I might control our checkbooks when we’re in a pinch? Or is everything already programmed on systems that can maybe be turned on or off but can’t be tweaked to cover one check but not another? Who in the government is staying up at night working on that?

Arms inspection stalling, runaway healthcare costs, and why Snowden revealed himself

Steven Brill
Sep 17, 2013 12:11 UTC

1.  Reality check on arms inspection stalling:

This New York Times article published last Sunday provides good detail on the challenges associated with implementing an arms inspection deal with Syria. However, someone this week ought to do a comprehensive recap of the years of stalling done by North Korea, Iraq and Iran to stave off and otherwise jerk around U.N. arms inspectors. President Obama may have found a convenient excuse for calling off the attack on Syria, but despite the promises of the rogue countries when they agreed to inspections, has any such mission ever gone according to schedule? And this one is supposed to proceed apace in the middle of a civil war.

2. Runaway healthcare costs, 50 cents at a time:

The test strips that diabetics use to measure blood sugar levels can be bought for about 50 cents each in boxes of 50 at the local Walgreens. That doesn’t seem like much, but it can add up when the world’s biggest healthcare customer is doing the buying.

Medicare spends over a billion dollars a year to provide the test strips to about 4.6 million beneficiaries, according to a recently released report from the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General.

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