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By Tony Pugh, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Roughly 700,000 of the more than 8 million people who enrolled in marketplace health insurance plans have lost their coverage, Medicare administrator Marilyn Tavenner testified Thursday before Congress.

Her surprise disclosure came during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in which Republicans blasted Tavenner about a lack of transparency and ongoing data security problems with the HealthCare.gov website created under the Affordable Care Act.

After a disastrous rollout that saw the federal insurance marketplace crash only minutes after its Oct. 1 debut, HealthCare.gov underwent a massive repair job by a team of private-sector computer experts from Silicon Valley.

By Thanksgiving 2013, the website was functioning properly and more than 8 million people signed up during an extended enrollment period that ended in May. Since then, Tavenner and other officials at the Department of Health and Human Services have been unable to say how many of the new enrollees have lost coverage because of non-payment.

After mentioning in Thursday’s testimony that 7.3 million Americans were covered by marketplace plans, committee chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) asked Tavenner what happened to the other 700,000.

“Individuals may have either gotten employer-sponsored insurance, they may have found that they were eligible for Medicaid instead of the marketplace, and some individuals may have decided not to go forward and pay,” said Tavenner, who heads HHS’ Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

When asked by Issa how many of the 700,000 were dropped because they didn’t pay their premiums, Tavenner said she didn’t know and added, “I don’t think you’ll know that until the end of the year.”

Even with the loss of nearly 10 percent of enrollees, Tavenner said she was pleased with what appears to be a 90 percent retention rate for marketplace sign-ups thus far.

“This is a brand new program. This has never been done before,” Tavenner testified. “I expect in some cases (some of the 700,000) may have moved. They may have gotten married. They may have gotten insured. They may have lost their income and gone on Medicaid or into the uninsured ranks. We will only know that as we look back. And we’re careful not to look back too early.”

Earlier this week, the Government Accountability Office released a report that criticized her department for information security and privacy weaknesses that compromise the personal information of HealthCare.gov users.

In testimony Thursday, Gregory Wilshusen, GAO’s director of information security issues, said HHS officials were slow to release documents and unnecessarily restricted GAO’s access to others, citing concerns about the security of the information.

The GAO report said the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services accepted increased security risks by allowing HealthCare.gov to launch on Oct. 1 when the system had not been fully tested. The investigative arm of Congress, the GAO also found problems in HealthCare.gov’s technical controls that protect the confidentiality, integrity and availability of data maintained in the system.

“CMS has not fully addressed security and privacy management weaknesses, including having incomplete security plans and privacy documentation, conducting incomplete security tests, and not establishing an alternate processing site to avoid major service disruptions,” the report said.

“Until these weaknesses are addressed, increased and unnecessary risks remain of unauthorized access, disclosure, or modification of the information collected and maintained by HealthCare.gov and related systems or the disruption of service provided by the systems,” the GAO report found.

The GAO report recommended 22 improvements to resolve technical weaknesses in security controls and six others to improve security and privacy controls.

Tavenner said the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has implemented 19 of the 22 GAO recommendations so far and will comply with each of its six recommendations before the 2015 open enrollment period begins on Nov. 15.

She also said “end-to-end” testing of the entire federal marketplace will occur later this month or in October.

AFP Photo/Joe Raedle

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The Arizona 2020 election "audit" under way

Screenshot from azaudit.org

As ongoing threats by Trump loyalists to subvert elections have dominated the political news, other Republicans in two key states—Florida and Arizona—are taking what could be important steps to provide voters with unprecedented evidence of who won their most close and controversial elections.

In both battleground states, in differing contexts, Republicans are lifting the curtain on the data sets and procedures that accompany key stages of vetting voters, certifying their ballots, and counting votes. Whether 2020’s election-denying partisans will pay attention to the factual baselines is another matter. But the election records and explanations of their use offer a forward-looking road map for confronting the falsehoods that undermine election results, administrators, and technologies.

In Republican-run Florida, the state is finalizing rules to recount votes by incorporating digital images of every paper ballot. The images, together with the paper ballots, create a searchable library to quickly tally votes and identify sloppily marked ballots. Questionable ballots could then be retrieved and examined in public by counting boards to resolve the voter’s intent.

“The technology is so promising that it would provide the hard evidence to individuals who want to find the truth,” said Ion Sancho, former supervisor of elections in Leon County, where Tallahassee is located, who was among those on a January 4 conference call workshop led by the Division of Elections seeking comments on the draft rule and procedures manual revisions.

Under the new recount process, a voter’s paper ballot would be immediately rescanned by an independent second counting system—separate from what each county uses to tally votes. The first digital file produced in that tabulation process, an image of every side of every ballot card, would then be analyzed by software that identifies sloppy ink marks as it counts votes. Several Florida counties pioneered this image-based analysis, a version of which is used by the state of Maryland to double-check its results before certifying its election winners.

“The fact that it has overcome opposition from the supervisors of elections is telling because the number one problem with the [elected county] supervisors is [acquiring and learning to use] new technology; it’s more work to do,” Sancho said. “The new technology doesn’t cost much in this case. Everyone has scanners in their offices already because every voter registration form by law must be scanned and sent to the Division of Elections.”

The appeal of using ballot images, apart from the administrative efficiencies of a searchable library of ballots and votes, is that the images allow non-technical people to “see” voters’ intent, which builds trust in the process and results, said Larry Moore, the founder and former CEO of the Clear Ballot Group, whose federally certified technology would be used in Florida recounts.

But Florida’s likely incorporation of ballot images into its recount procedures, while a step forward for transparency, is unfolding in a fraught context. In 2021, its GOP-majority state legislature passed election laws that are seen as winnowing voters and rolling back voting options. In other words, it may be offering more transparency at the finish line but is also limiting participation upstream.

The new recount rule is expected to be in place by this spring, months before Florida’s 2022 primaries and midterm elections. Among the issues to be worked out are when campaign and political party officials and the public would observe the new process, because the election administrators do not want partisans to intentionally disrupt the rescanning process. These concerns were raised by participants and observers on the teleconference.

The Arizona Template


In Arizona, Maricopa County issued a report on January 5, “Correcting the Record: Maricopa County’s In-Depth Analysis of the Senate Inquiry.” The report is its most substantive refutation of virtually all of the stolen election accusations put forth by Trump loyalists who spent months investigating the state's presidential election.

Beyond the references to the dozens of stolen election accusations put forth by pro-Trump contractors hired by the Arizona Senate’s Republicans, the report offered an unprecedented road map to understanding how elections are run by explaining the procedures and data sets involved at key stages.

The report explained how Maricopa County, the nation’s second biggest election jurisdiction (after Los Angeles County) with 2.6 million registered voters, verified that its voters and ballots were legal. It also explained key cybersecurity features, such as the correct—and incorrect—way to read computer logs that prove that its central vote-counting system was never compromised online, as Trump supporters had claimed in Arizona (and Michigan).

“I’ve never seen a single report putting all of this in one place,” said John Brakey, an Arizona-based election transparency activist, who has sued Maricopa County in the past and routinely files public records requests of election data. “Usually, it takes years to understand all this.”

Taken together, Florida’s expansion of recounts to include using digital ballot images, and Maricopa County’s compilation of the data and procedures to vet voters, ballots, and vote counts, reveal that there is more evidence than ever available to confirm and legitimize election participants and results.

For example, Maricopa County’s investigation found that of the 2,089,563 ballots cast in its 2020 general election, one batch of 50 ballots was counted twice, and that there were “37 instances where a voter may have unlawfully cast multiple ballots”—most likely a spouse’s ballot after the voter had died. Neither lapse affected any election result.

“We found fewer than 100 potentially questionable ballots cast out of 2.1 million,” the report said. “This is the very definition of exceptionally rare.”

When Maricopa County explained how it had accounted for all but 37 out of 2.1 million voters, it noted that the same data sets used to account for virtually every voter were also used by the political parties to get out the vote. Thus, the report’s discussion of these data sets—voter rolls and the list of people who voted—offered a template to debunk voter fraud allegations. This accusation has been a pillar of Trump’s false claims and is a longtime cliché among the far right.

It is significant that this methodology, indeed the full report, was produced under Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, a conservative Republican who has repeatedly said that he had voted for Trump, and was fully endorsed by Maricopa County’s Board of Supervisors, which has a GOP majority and held a special hearing on January 5 to review the findings.

In other words, the report is not just a rebuttal for the Arizona Senate Republican conspiracy-laced post-2020 review. It is a road map for anyone who wants to know how modern elections are run and how to debunk disinformation, including conspiracy theories involving alleged hacking in cyberspace.

“There is not a single accurate claim contained in [Arizona Senate cybersecurity subcontractor] CyFIR’s analysis of Maricopa County’s tabulation equipment and EMS [election management system],” the reportsaid, referring to accusations that counts were altered. “This includes the allegation that county staff intentionally deleted election files and logs, which is not true.”

When you add to Maricopa County’s template the introduction of a second independent scan of every paper ballot in future Florida recounts, what emerges are concrete steps for verifying results coming from Republicans who understand how elections work and can be held accountable.

Of course, these evidence trails only matter if voters or political parties want to know the truth, as opposed to following an ex-president whose political revival is based on lying about elections. However, more moderate Republicans seem to be recognizing that Trump’s stolen election rhetoric is likely to erode their base’s turnout in 2022, as Trump keeps saying that their votes don’t matter.

“You’ve got Republican buy-in,” said Florida’s Sancho, speaking of his GOP-ruled state’s embrace of more transparent and detailed recounts. “And Republicans, more than anyone else, should be concerned about whether their votes were counted as cast and as the voter intended.”

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

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Michael Carvajal

Photo by Tom Williams via Reuters

The search is on for a new director of the federal Bureau of Prisons after Michael Carvajal announced on January 5 that he’s retiring from his appointed post and will leave when the Department of Justice finds his replacement.

The Biden Administration needs to replace Carvajal with a person who knows prisons inside and out: someone who’s been incarcerated before.

When President Joe Biden announced his first round of cabinet picks just weeks after being elected in 2020, then Vice President-elect Kamala Harris said: “When Joe asked me to be his running mate, he told me about his commitment to making sure we selected a cabinet that looks like America – that reflects the very best of our nation.

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