December 20, 2013

Obama signals he may curb NSA phone surveillance

‘Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we necessarily should,’ the president says during his end-of-year news conference.

By Philip Rucker And Greg Miller
The Washington Post

(Continued from page 1)

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President Barack Obama speaks during an end-of-the year news conference at the White House Friday. At the end of his fifth year in office, Obama’s job approval and personal favorability ratings have fallen to around the lowest point of his presidency. Obama will depart later for his home state of Hawaii for his annual Christmas vacation trip. It’s the first time in his presidency that his departure plans have not been delayed by legislative action in Washington.

The Associated Press

Health plans pressed to offer flexibility on deadlines

President Obama expressed confidence Friday that “a couple million” Americans will have new health coverage as of New Year’s Day. But behind the scenes, federal health officials have been pressing the insurance industry to give people more time to sign up.

According to insurance industry executives, federal officials have been asking health plans to provide insurance starting Jan. 1 even for customers who sign up after the deadline on Monday.

While some plans have agreed, many are rebuffing the request because they cannot logistically accommodate it or out of frustration with a series of late-breaking rule changes from the Obama administration.

The appeals to insurers follow an announcement this month by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Seblius, who urged health plans to be flexible as the long-awaited start of new insurance under the 2010 Affordable Care Act is about to arrive.

The prodding and the industry’s ambivalence underscore the multifaceted efforts by the Obama administration to improve lagging enrollment under the law as it enters a pivotal phase. As of Jan. 1, the law requires most Americans to have insurance or risk a fine.

In public, the president and his aides contend that the new federal insurance marketplace has turned a corner after rocky beginnings with a defective website,, that frustrated many Americans trying to choose health plans. But some administration maneuvering also suggests that not everyone who may want health insurance will be able to enroll in time.

The appeals to insurers, underway for about a week, are part of the administration’s on-going tinkering with the policies and the computer technology that form the backbone of the government’s most ambitious undertaking in decades to extend health coverage to millions of uninsured Americans.

In one abrupt change, the Obama administration announced Thursday night that it was relaxing the rules for people who bought insurance policies on their own that are being canceled because they fall short of new federal benefits standards. HHS officials announced that those customers will be allowed to claim a hardship exemption, freeing them to buy bare-bones “catastrophic” insurance or no insurance at all.

The decision prompted immediate protests from insurance industry leaders, who predicted that the change would confuse consumers and destabilize a new insurance market that hinges on the sick and healthy being in the same “risk pools.”

By Friday, congressional Republicans had joined in the criticism, shifting their argument from earlier in the fall when they argued that people should not be forced to buy insurance and should be allowed to keep bare-bones health plans.

– The Washington Post


Currently, phone companies keep call records for periods ranging from six months to 10 years.

“Requiring by law that companies retain call records longer than they do for business reasons subjects those records to risk of theft by hackers and subpoena by state and local law enforcement and by civil litigants,” said Gregory Nojeim, senior counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology. “Because many entities other than the NSA would gain access, it is a step backwards for privacy.”

During the news conference, Obama sought to grapple with a year of partisan turmoil in Washington and his inability to advance an ambitious second-term domestic policy agenda through Congress.

Initiatives on gun violence and immigration failed or stalled in the face of Republican opposition, and the president was unable to prevent broad spending cuts known as the sequester or a partial shutdown of the federal government.

When asked whether 2013 had been the worst year of his presidency, Obama laughed off the suggestion.

“We have had ups and we have had downs,” Obama said. He added, jokingly, “I think this room has recorded at least 15 near-death experiences.”

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