Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

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?

How could all of that have happened so fast? Did the president use some kind of special emergency authority? If so, why couldn’t he have used it to bolster the effort to build the website in June or July when, by what is now almost everyone’s account, it became obvious that hitting the October 1 start date with the current talent and resources in place was going to be a problem?

How did Quality Software’s contract get negotiated in what must have been 24 or 48 hours? Is it a new contract, or an urgent extension of its existing contract to build some of the website’s features? How much is the firm getting paid, and on what basis, using what funds? Or is the contract not negotiated yet? And what about all the other (as yet un-named) members of what the administration calls a “tech surge” team, who are reportedly taking leaves from private sector jobs to help fix the website? Do they have contracts? What about Zients?

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.

The cost of attacking Syria, and tell me what to think about fracking

Steven Brill
Sep 10, 2013 10:52 UTC

1. Scoping out the budget for attacking Syria:

This article in Defense News estimates that if President Obama attacks Syria the cost would likely be “hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons,” including $1.4 million for each Raytheon Tomahawk missile that is launched. All last week I saw estimates that were equally vague and varied from the tens of millions up to and over a billion dollars.

Of course, that’s hardly the press’s fault; no one can know the cost of the proposed attack without knowing the details of the war plan, and even then, the ultimate cost would depend on how the plan pans out — including how many weapons are used and how long it all takes.

Still, I would like to see two stories this week related to the Syria war debate and money.

MTV’s Miley Cyrus mess, Donald Trump and the law, and who benefits from federal fines

Steven Brill
Sep 3, 2013 17:06 UTC

1. Ask about the Miley Cyrus sleaze:

In the wake of MTV’s universally-panned decision to feature 20-year-old Miley Cyrus in a cringe-producing sex pantomime with 36-year-old Robin Thicke during the telecast of the MTV Video Music Awards, reporters ought to be sticking microphones in front of producers and executives at MTV and its parent Viacom.

Using what the New York Daily News called “a foam hand as a sexual prop,” Cyrus’s act was characterized this way by Mika Brzezinski on MSNBC’s Morning Joe: “That was not funny. That was really, really bad for anybody who is younger and impressionable. And she’s really messed up, so I don’t think they should have put her on stage. They should be ashamed of themselves….”

MTV’s target demographics are teens and pre-teens. So reporters should start with a simple question: Would the producers and executives responsible for Cyrus’s performance have wanted their own teen or pre-teen children (or grandchildren or maybe great-grandchildren in the case of Viacom’s 90-year-old founder and chief executive Sumner Redstone) to have watched the show?

Bezos’ silence, lobbyists and Egypt, and the inner workings of State-owned TV

Steven Brill
Aug 27, 2013 11:48 UTC

1. Wash Post reporters: Get a Bezos comment

These sentences in last week’s Times profile of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos beg for a follow-up from the house the Grahams built:

 “Every story you ever see about Amazon, it has that sentence: ‘An Amazon spokesman declined to comment,’”  Mr. Marcus said. 

Drew Herdener, an Amazon spokesman, declined to comment.

Over the years, in reading stories about Amazon I’ve noticed the same pattern of Amazon simply refusing to comment no matter what the story was about. And, although Amazon’s website lists a phone number for a public relations office, it lists no names of anyone specific to call, nor do its press releases list names for reporters to call for follow-up. Amazon’s resolute refusal to answer press questions and the paradox of Bezos now owning a business whose employees are paid to ask them is captured nicely in this column by Jack Shafer.

Football’s costs, SEC v. Cohen and the Whale’s tale

Steven Brill
Aug 20, 2013 00:25 UTC

The NFL’s looming court tests

As the 2013 National Football League season begins, it’s time for an update on the liability suits the league is facing from what the website Deadspin reported last April were “more than 4,000 former players” who claim to have suffered on-the-job brain damage. The same Deadspin report noted that helmet-maker Riddell is also a defendant in the suits and that in April a Colorado high school student won a $3.1 million judgment against Ridell after he was brain damaged and partially paralyzed following a concussion suffered in a 2008 practice drill.

In June of 2012, Forbes ran a story headlined, “NFL Faces Tobacco-Like Damages Reaching Billions Of Dollars In Concussion Litigation,” and in December, the New York Times reported another wrinkle — that the NFL and its teams are fighting in court with 32 different insurance companies over whether their policies cover the league’s and the teams’ liability and legal costs.

“The N.F.L., which generates about $9 billion a year, may be equipped to handle these legal challenges,” the Times wrote. “But colleges, high schools and club teams may be forced to consider severe measures in the face of liability issues, like raising fees to offset higher premiums; capping potential damages; and requiring players to sign away their right to sue coaches and schools. Some schools and leagues may even shut down teams because the expense and legal risk are too high.”

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