'Twas The Week Before Christmas' Health Care Headache

By MICHAEL FALCONE ( @michaelpfalcone )


  • EXCLUSIVE - MORE SECURITY RISKS SEEN AT HEALTHCARE.GOV: Nearly three months after its launch and as millions of Americans log on to shop for health plans, HealthCare.gov still has serious security vulnerabilities, according to documents and testimony obtained exclusively by ABC's DEVIN DWYER. There have been "two high findings" of risk - the most serious level of concern - in testing over the past few weeks, the top Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) cybersecurity official told the House Oversight Committee on Tuesday in a private transcribed interview. It's a "vulnerability in the system," CMS chief information security officer Teresa Fryer told the committee of one of the issues. "They shut the module down, so this functionality is currently shut down." The exact description of the issue was redacted from the transcript so as not to further compromise security, a committee official told ABC News. http://abcn.ws/1c6G1Gz
  • WHY IT MATTERS: The revelation comes as the federal online insurance marketplace faces a surge in traffic ahead of the Dec. 23 sign-up deadline for coverage to take effect on Jan. 1. CMS says there have been more than 39 million unique visitors to the site since Oct. 1, with more than a million this week alone.
  • WHITE HOUSE LOOSENS UP ON CANCELED PLANS: Facing continued fallout over the cancellation of millions of health plans under the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration is easing the terms of the individual mandate and providing frustrated consumers new options to maintain coverage, ABC's DEVIN DWYER notes. Americans whose individual insurance policies were canceled - at least 4 million people - are now eligible for a "hardship exemption" from the requirement to have insurance, which starts in 2014. Those qualifying for the exemption will also be eligible to enroll in cheap, bare bones catastrophic plans that had been restricted to people under 30 years old. Close to 500,000 Americans whose plans did not comply with Obamacare and were cancelled for 2014 still have not found suitable coverage, the administration estimated yesterday. http://abcn.ws/1froJng
  • INDUSTRY RESPONSE: Health insurers criticized the development, which could mean fewer enrollees than they projected when rates were set for 2014. "This latest rule change could cause significant instability in the marketplace and lead to further confusion and disruption for consumers," said Karen Ignani, president and CEO of America's Health Insurance Plans, in a statement.
  • ADMINISTRATION RESPONSE: CMS statement: "The HealthCare.gov components that are operational have been determined to be compliant with the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA), based on standards promulgated by the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST). There have been no successful security attacks on Healthcare.gov and no person or group has maliciously accessed personally identifiable information. An independent security control assessor tested each piece of the Healthcare.gov system that went live October 1 prior to that date with no open high findings. All high, moderate and low security risk findings listed on the SCAs for the portions of the website that launched October 1 were either fixed, or have strategies and plans in place to fix the findings that meet industry standards."

THIS WEEK ON 'THIS WEEK': As the NSA's surveillance programs face new scrutiny, ABC's GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS goes one-on-one with House Intelligence Committee Chair Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., and Senate Intelligence Committee member Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., only on "This Week" Sunday. And our powerhouse roundtable tackles all the week's politics, and looks ahead to the debates that will shape 2014, with Democratic strategist and ABC News contributor Donna Brazile, ABC News political analyst Matthew Dowd, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, Willett Advisors chair and former Counselor to the Treasury Secretary Steven Rattner, and Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren. Be sure to use #ThisWeek when you tweet about the program. TUNE IN SUNDAY: http://abcnews.go.com/thisweek "This Week" Quiz - Steven Rattner: http://abcn.ws/1ekLysM


ABC's RICK KLEIN: Before you get all comfy for the holidays in those flannel pajamas, know that the coming week has the potential to be absolutely make-or-break for the foundations of the Obama health care law. Monday's deadline to sign up for a plan if you want coverage by Jan. 1 will bring an expected flood of last-minute applications on a famously troubled Website - one with new security concerns, as ABC's Devin Dwyer reports. The fact that some 500,000 people were suddenly exempted from the individual mandate - less than two weeks before that mandate is the law of the land - speaks to the concern about implementation inside the administration even now. Insurance companies are getting anxious, and nervous about garbled data that could flow in with little time for quick fixes. Don't let the budget peace fool you: There's nothing quiet about this holiday season in Washington.

ABC's MICHAEL FALCONE: This evening, President Obama and his family embark on a two-week vacation to the president's home state: Hawaii. And, as usual, critics are up in arms about the cost and optics of the trip to the exotic island paradise. A headline this week in the conservative-leaning Hawaii Reporter blared: "Sunny Christmas: First Family and Dog Bo to Leave Cold DC for $4 Million Hawaiian Vacation." The newspaper cited National Taxpayers Union Foundation figures for their estimate of what it costs to ferry the First Family from Washington, DC to Oahu for their annual holiday jaunt. (The Obamas pay for the cost of their vacation rental home, but like any other presidential vacation, transportation and security are taxpayer funded). But beyond the perennial controversy, this is the president's yearly escape to the place where he was born and spent a large part of his formative years. Hawaii, a cultural crossroads, left an indelible mark on the current occupant of the White House, including his temperament and world view - a fact worth keeping in mind as the president takes a breather after the first full year of his second term.


OBAMA COMMUTES EIGHT 'UNDULY HARSH' CRACK COCAINE SENTENCES. President Obama yesterday commuted the sentences of eight men and women convicted of crack cocaine offenses, each of whom has served more than 15 years in prison, ABC's MARY BRUCE reports. "Commuting the sentences of these eight Americans is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness," the president said in a written statement. The Obama administration has long pushed to change what it considers to be unduly harsh sentences issued under an outdated sentencing regime. In 2010, the president signed the bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act, which narrowed the disparity between penalties for crack and powder cocaine offenses. "This law began to right a decades-old injustice, but for thousands of inmates, it came too late. If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society," Obama said. http://abcn.ws/19BZfmE

CHRIS CHRISTIE CALLS PRESS 'OBSESSED' WITH NEW JERSEY BRIDGE CONTROVERSY. After being buffeted for weeks over a controversy over lane closures on the George Washington Bridge and questions of political retribution, Gov. Chris Christie attempted to change the subject - to that of immigrants and education. ABC's SHUSHANNAH WALSHE notes that yesterday he announced he will support the "Dream Act" which will allow undocumented immigrants who graduated high school in New Jersey to be eligible for in-state tuition rates. The decision is a compromise between Christie and the Democratic-controlled state legislature. The two sides have been feuding over the legislation, with Democrats alleging Christie supported "tuition equality" only before his landslide victory in November. He had stated his support in October at a Latino Leadership Alliance gala, but last month he said he would not support the current legislation. Christie was also asked about the lanes closure controversy and said he has "no doubt" that when it comes to state Democrats they are playing politics with the growing controversy. "I know you guys are obsessed with this. I'm not," Christie said. "I'm really not. It's not that big of deal…just because the press runs around and writes about it both here and nationally, I know why that is and so do you, let's not pretend that it's because of the gravity of the issue. It's because I am a national figure and anything like this will be written a lot about now." http://abcn.ws/1cDM7L6

LONG-AWAITED REPORT LARGELY CLEARS SECRET SERVICE OF 'CULTURE' PROBLEM. A long-awaited report on the Secret Service, which was rocked by a prostitution scandal last year, concluded that the agency does not breed a culture of such behavior, ABC's MIKE LEVINE writes. "Although individual employees have engaged in misconduct or inappropriate behavior, we did not find evidence that misconduct is widespread" or that "employees frequently engage in behaviors … that could cause a security concern," according to the report, obtained by ABC News. "Furthermore, we did not find any evidence that [Secret Service] leadership has fostered an environment that tolerates inappropriate behavior," it adds. The report is the culmination of an extensive, 18-month investigation by the inspector general's office of the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Secret Service. The internal watchdog's investigators reviewed records, surveyed more than 2,500 employees and interviewed more than 200 supervisors, managers and senior officials. Their investigation was launched in the spring of last year, after several Secret Service agents solicited prostitutes in Cartagena, Colombia, while preparing for a presidential visit in April 2012. According to the new report, those agents consumed as many as 13 alcoholic drinks "before engaging in questionable behavior." http://abcn.ws/1bV5EFU

2014 LOOK-AHEAD: WHAT'S ON HARRY REID'S AGENDA? Announcing Democrats' priorities for 2014, Majority Leader Harry Reid placed the extension of unemployment benefits at the top of the Senate's to-do list for next year, reports ABC's ARLETTE SAENZ. "It's a good bill, and it deserves a vote," Reid said in a news conference yesterday. An extension of the benefits for the unemployed was among the items left undone on Congress' agenda in 2013, and the benefits are set to expire for 1.3 million people Dec 28. Reid said he would bring up a vote on the bill, which would extend unemployment benefits for three months, no later than Jan. 7. House Speaker John Boehner has previously expressed a willingness to extend the benefits, but he wants the costs to be offset with spending reductions.

GOP POLITICIANS DEFEND 'DUCK DYNASTY' STAR'S RIGHT TO ANTI-GAY COMMENTS. The A&E network's suspension of "Duck Dynasty" star Phil Robertson prompted an outcry from Republican politicians, including Sarah Palin and Sen. Ted Cruz, ABC's ARLETTE SAENZ reports. "Free speech is an endangered species. Those 'intolerants' hatin' and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us," former Alaskan governor Palin wrote on Facebook Wednesday night in a post featuring a photo of her with the cast of "Duck Dynasty." Not to be outdone, Cruz, R-Texas, wrote on his Facebook page, "The reason that so many Americans love Duck Dynasty is because it represents the America usually ignored or mocked by liberal elites: a family that loves and cares for each other, believes in God, and speaks openly about their faith. Robertson's home-state GOP governor, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, weighed in on the decision, expressing his dismay that a TV network would suspend Robertson while Miley Cyrus was not reprimanded for her twerking antics on MTV. "Phil Robertson and his family are great citizens of the State of Louisiana," Jindal said in a statement. "The politically correct crowd is tolerant of all viewpoints, except those they disagree with. I don't agree with quite a bit of stuff I read in magazine interviews or see on TV." http://abcn.ws/JM6TBt

-BACKSTORY: A&E suspended Robertson Wednesday after he said he believes homosexuality is sinful and compared it to bestiality in an interview with GQ. "Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there," Robertson said. "Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men." He also paraphrased a passage from the biblical book of Corinthians, saying: "Don't be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers - they won't inherit the kingdom of God. Don't deceive yourself. It's not right."


DOES HARRY REID GENUINELY LIKE RAND PAUL? Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., can be a thorn in the side of Democrats at times, but his persistence and desire to get something done in Congress has gained some praise from the Senate's top Democrat: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, according to ABC's ARLETTE SAENZ. "I met in the last few days with Rand Paul. I spent a lot of time with him, and I've grown to really like him," Reid of Nevada said in a news conference yesterday. "Even though he has some set political views, he wants to get things done here." He later added: "I hope I don't ruin him with the Republicans." In his conversations with Paul, Reid said he has discussed the Federal Reserve and ways to bring money that is overseas back to the United States. "He's a man, has a lot of very fixed ideas, and I enjoyed my conversation with him," Reid said. (Perhaps Reid, 74, has forgotten Paul's comments from last month, when he called the Senate majority leader a "big bully" and a "dictator" for using the so-called nuclear option" to weaken the Senate's filibuster rules on most of the president's nominees). http://abcn.ws/1kYLHmT


" STEP AWAY FROM THE 2016 POLLS ," by the Cook Political Report's Amy Walter. "I don't hate polls. I am not all that bothered by talk of a 2016 presidential campaign that is almost three years away. What does make me apoplectic, however, is watching political commentators seriously analyze a poll taken in 2013 about potential 2016 presidential candidates. I'm talking specifically about the most recent survey from the well-respected Des Moines Register that tested the favorable ratings of some of the most talked about potential 2016 candidates. With their insatiable need to feed the 24-hour news beast, these types of polls are irresistible fodder for harried cable TV producers and anxious and overworked web editors. Polls like these spur artificial discussions and analysis on the internet and TV and should be ignored by serious political observers. First, let me say that I think the Des Moines Register and its eponymous poll are top rate. They understand the Iowa Caucuses and have an impressive track record of success in polling them. That said, a poll taken in December of 2013 about the popularity of potential 2016 candidates has no predictive value at all. It is simply a measure of name recognition 25 months before Iowa voters brave the cold of a January night to cast their ballots." http://cookpolitical.com/story/6553


@jm_bos: NASHUA, N.H. - A Granite State welcome wagon, it wasn't. New NH resident @SenScottBrown greeted by protests here: http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2013/12/19/scott-brown-speaking-gop-event-nashua-set-greeted-protests-from-left-and-right/fGk5HoSDM7DsWRIXlBKrfJ/story.html …

@tackettdc: What might John Podesta have in mind? @mikedorning http://bloom.bg/1gKjGCc

@brianjameswalsh: If you have any question why the Cook Political Report moved the MI Senate race to "toss up" this is worth a read. http://www.mlive.com/politics/index.ssf/2013/12/terri_lynn_land_michigan_senat.html …

@nycjim: North Korea sends fax to South Korea threatening to "strike mercilessly without notice". A fax. http://cnn.it/191P766

@LettersOfNote: John Steinbeck died on this day in 1968. Here's a letter he wrote in 1959 on morality, greed, and Christmas: http://bit.ly/ZlDjst

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