Grand Theft Health Insurance

Recently, the national Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association has been aggressively lobbying Congress to ignore the Obama administration’s illegal diversion of tax dollars into the pockets of—you guessed it—health insurers.

At issue is funding for the “transitional reinsurance” program in section 1341 of the Affordable Care Act. In that section, Congress instructed the Department of Health and Human Services to collect $20 billion in “contributions” over three years from private health insurance plans, apportioned by enrollment, and then use those funds to defray the cost to insurers of their most expensive enrollees with Affordable Care Act compliant individual market coverage.

In the same section, Congress also instructed the department to collect “additional contributions” of $5 billion over three years, but specified that those additional contributions “shall be deposited into the general fund of the Treasury of the United States and may not be used for the program established under this section.”

While that latter clause sounds odd, the intent behind it was to improve the legislation’s “score” from the Congressional Budget Office by reimbursing the Treasury for the $5 billion spent in 2010 under another provision of the bill (Section 1102) providing separate reinsurance payments for early retirees in large employer plans.

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However, in implementing these provisions, the Obama administration miscalculated and failed to collect the full amounts specified in the law. Furthermore, the administration combined the collections from the two assessments, instead of keeping them separate as Congress had instructed.


As the table shows, in 2014 the administration was supposed to collect $10 billion to fund the individual market reinsurance program and an additional $2 billion to reimburse the Treasury, but only collected a total of $9.7 billion.

Yet, rather than scale back payments to insurers, the administration actually made the payouts more generous—by about 40 to 50 percent, according to the findings of two recent analyses. Yet even after doing that, the administration still had $1.7 billion left over. Rather than pay even that amount back to the Treasury, the administration carried it forward to use to pay insurers in 2015.

Thus, the administration effectively adopted a policy of putting corporate bailouts of Obamacare insurers ahead of repaying taxpayers—to the tune of about $4.5 billion.

To be sure, it is the Obama administration, and not the insurers, who perpetrated this heist. But for the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association to now lobby Congress to keep getting the money puts them in the unseemly (to say the least) position of the guy caught with stolen merchandise demanding that he be allowed to keep his ill-gotten goods because he wasn’t the one who originally stole them.

At this point, members of Congress need to do two things to reassert their institutional authority.

First, they need to tell insurers that Congress is not going to continue to bail them out for their Obamacare losses, nor countenance the executive branch playing accounting games to achieve the same end.

Insurers lobbying for bailouts should be told to instead come back when they are ready to offer Congress constructive assistance in writing workable replacement provisions that don’t need to be propped up with repeated infusions of tax dollars. In the end, that will produce better solutions for the country, their customers, and their bottom lines.

Second, Congress needs to use the appropriations process to force the Department of Health and Human Services to pay back to the Treasury the amounts specified in law.

There is simply no ambiguity in the statutory language stating that those monies “shall be deposited into the general fund of the Treasury of the United States and may not be used for the program established under this section.” If Congress writes into law such an explicit directive, but then lacks the will to enforce it, Congress might as well just hand the president a single blank check to spend tax dollars as he, or she, sees fit and adjourn.

Put bluntly, if Congress fails to aggressively defend its constitutional functions and prerogatives, it will become an institutional doormat for this, and future, presidents.

U.S. wire payments to Iran undercut Obama

The Treasury Department is shown. | AP Photo
A Treasury Department spokesman acknowledged on Saturday that on at least two occasions, the U.S. did make payments to the Iranian government via wire transfer.
U.S. wire payments to Iran undercut Obama
By LOUIS NELSON 09/18/16 07:29 AM EDT Updated 09/18/16 08:23 AM EDT
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The United States made at least two separate payments to the Iranian government via wire transfer within the last 14 months, a Treasury Department spokesman confirmed Saturday, contradicting explanations from President Barack Obama that such payments were impossible.

Responding to questions at an Aug. 4 press conference about a $400 million payment delivered in cash to the Iranian government, Obama said, “[T]he reason that we had to give them cash is precisely because we are so strict in maintaining sanctions and we do not have a banking relationship with Iran that we couldn’t send them a check and we could not wire the money.”
But a Treasury Department spokesman acknowledged on Saturday that on at least two occasions, the U.S. did make payments to the Iranian government via wire transfer.

In July 2015, the same month in which the U.S., Iran and other countries announced a landmark nuclear agreement, the U.S. government paid the Islamic republic approximately $848,000. That payment settled a claim over architectural drawings and fossils that are now housed in the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art and Iran’s Ministry of Environment, respectively. Then, in April 2016, the U.S. wired Iran approximately $9 million to remove 32 metric tons of its heavy water, which is used to produce plutonium and can aid in the making of nuclear weapons.

Sen. Orrin Hatch is pictured. | AP Photo
Hatch wants more answers from Treasury on Iran payment
While some sanctions relating to Iran’s nuclear program were lifted with the implementation of the nuclear agreement, others imposed over the Islamic Republic’s human rights policies and support for terrorist organizations remain in effect. The July 2015 wire transfer was made while the full weight of sanctions against Iran were intact, while the April 2016 payment for heavy water was made after the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions.

The Treasury Department spokesman explained that the lifting of those sanctions allowed Iran “to gain incremental access to the international financial system, which opened up more options for executing transactions, such as the heavy water transaction” that occurred in April 2016. The spokesman declined to offer an explanation as to why the July 2015 payment was possible despite the full array of sanctions in place at the time.

That $400 million cash payment that Obama said could not have been delivered any other way was part of a larger $1.7 billion settlement with Iran, the remainder of which was also delivered in cash. The $400 million, paid in January to settle a decades-old dispute over military equipment order by the late shah of Iran, was sent through intermediary central banks in Europe, who then delivered pallets of euros, Swiss francs and other currencies to Tehran.

The Treasury Department spokesman said that the January settlement specified that payment be made in cash because Iran had previously had difficulty accessing wire-transferred funds and was “very aware of the difficulties it would face in accessing and using the funds from the January 2016 settlement payment if they were in any other form than cash.”

A senior Obama administration official contested that the Treasury Department’s confirmation of the twin wire transfers contradicted what the president said at his press conference early last month. The official repeated what the president said at the time, that “we do not have a direct banking relationship with Iran, which means that we cannot wire money directly to Iran,” but did not directly address either the July 2015 or April 2016 wire transfers.

“Sanctions had effectively cut off Iran from the international financial system and after several years of trying to gain limited access to its own money held in accounts outside of Iran, Iran was very aware of the difficulties it would face in accessing and using these funds if they were in any form other than cash,” the official said of negotiations surrounding the $1.7 billion settlement. “Therefore, effectuating the payment in foreign currency banknotes was the most reliable way to ensure that they would receive the funds in a timely manner.”

Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail have alleged that Iran requested a cash payment specifically because it would make the money difficult to trace. GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump made an issue of the cash payment over the summer, suggesting that the cash delivery likely wound up funding terrorism or found its way into “some of the mullahs’ bank accounts.”

Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif, is pictured. | AP Photo
House panel to take up bill barring Iran payments
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who discovered the two wire transfer payments in briefings with Obama administration officials, echoed those concerns in an interview with POLITICO on Thursday.

“Oh, I don’t have any question that Iran wants the money in cash because they wanted it faster than what a wire transfer would be and it’s fungible,” Lankford said. “They announced pretty quickly afterward that they were expanding their defense and their military budget by $1.7 billion dollars, an exact amount that we had just sent over to them. So I don’t think that was accidental.”

“But when you give cash, we can’t track,” he continued. “Did that go to Hezbollah? Did that go to the Russians? Did that go to the coup in Yemen? There’s no way to be able to track that.”

Republicans, including Lankford, have also suggested that the $1.7 billion delivery constituted a “ransom” payment because it was delivered on the same day that U.S. prisoners were released by Iran. The president dismissed such claims during his Aug. 4 press conference as “the manufacturing of outrage” and said unequivocally, “we don’t pay ransom for hostages.”

But State Department spokesman John Kirby acknowledged two weeks later that the U.S. had refused to deliver the cash to Iran until its prisoners were wheels up from Tehran, a decision Kirby said the U.S. made to “retain maximum leverage” over the Iranians. Despite that admission, he maintained that the arrangement did not in any way constitute a ransom payment.

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Arming Syrian rebels: Where Obama went wrong


Hands clasped
Image captionRobert Ford, the former US ambassador to Syria, became upset when talking about his efforts in Washington to convince officials to provide more support for the Syrian opposition

US President Barack Obama never seemed to want a train-and-equip programme for Syrian rebels. Now, government officials admit that the programme is pretty much over. Here’s what happened behind the scenes at the White House.

After the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011, rooting for the rebels was, for many in the West, synonymous with rooting for democracy and freedom.

In the US, White House officials offered the rebels humanitarian aid and some military gear. But they argued over whether they should provide heavy weapons and help in a more serious way.

The philosophical discussion at the White House was heated and fierce, leading to stalemate, not resolution.

For years Obama and his deputies refused to say categorically: we’re not doing this. Instead a decision was postponed.

Four years later, the result is a splintered Syrian opposition, the growth of the Islamic State group and a humanitarian disaster stretching across Europe.

Last year, in a move that was more symbolic than serious, Obama asked Congress for money to fund a programme allowing US personnel to teach rebels marksmanship, navigation and other skills.

The goal was to train about 15,000 rebels in Jordan and other countries so they could return to Syria and fight. However, US defence officials admitted last month that only four or five of the recruits in the programme had actually returned to the battle.

Speaking recently at the White House, Obama looked frustrated as he described “failures” in the US train-and-equip programme.

On Friday US officials told reporters the programme was being modified.

“We’re going to take a sort of operational pause,” said Christine Wormuth, an undersecretary of defence. Rebel leaders will now receive basic equipment packages, she explained, but training for the fighters has been stopped.

The story of this disastrous programme dates back to the early days of the uprising in the Middle East. Robert Ford, the former US ambassador to Syria, had a front-row seat to the drama.

file handout picture released by the Syrian Arab News Agency and dated January 27, 2011 shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (L) meeting with new US ambassador Robert Ford after receiving his credentials in Damascus.Image copyrightAFP
Image captionAmabassador Ford with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2011

In early 2011 he met with Assad. Governments were being overthrown in Tunisia and Egypt, but things were still quiet in Syria. They discussed diplomacy in a polite manner. Then Ford asked about human rights. Assad “hit red real quick,” Ford said.

“He raised his voice, and it was very clipped, short,” Ford said, twisting his face and karate-chopping a desk.

After serving as ambassador to Algeria and working as a diplomat in the Middle East, Ford was the State Department’s go-to Syria expert for years.

He was faced with the challenges of managing the department’s portfolio for Syria, a lovely country with olive groves and rolling plains that’s “not of any particular strategic interest to anybody who doesn’t live there,” as Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said.

Even worse, Ford had taken on a seemingly hopeless task – arming the opposition in Syria with US weapons.

Because of the uprising, Syria was in the news. But despite the changes within the country, Syria still wasn’t vital to the strategic interests of the US.For that reason it remained a low priority for administration officials.

When the Assad regime started to falter in 2012, Ford believed the US should get involved in the conflict by supporting the rebels. Otherwise Syria could slide into anarchy and become “another Somalia/Yemen”, he said, using state department code for Failed State.

Virtually everyone in the US, including Obama, wanted to support the opposition in Syria. But the question was whether the US should send Stinger missiles and rocket-propelled grenades, or offer moral support and humanitarian aid and stay out of the conflict.

Ford told administration officials years ago they should arm the rebels. If the US doesn’t help, he said at the time, extremists will give them money and lure them into their organisations.

Those who supported his approach, the Arms for Rebels group, included then-CIA Director David Petraeus, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and most of the foreign-policy establishment in Washington, both Democrat and Republican.

In this handout provided by the White House, U.S. President Barack Obama (C) meets in the Situation Room with his national security advisors to discuss strategy in SyriaImage copyrightTHE WHITE HOUSE
Image captionObama and his national security team discussing Syria strategy in 2013. Many in the room were reluctant to arm rebels.

On the other side of this issue at the time were Obama, top members of the national security staff and most of America.

For years, according to a CBS News poll, Americans were opposed to the idea of sending ground troops into Syria to fight the Islamic State (IS) group.

The White House officials were wary of military involvement in overseas conflicts, and they saw the Arms for Rebels idea as a step towards a full-scale, decades-long intervention in Syria.

“Originally the argument was, ‘We don’t know them very well’,” Ford recalled. “When we got to know them better, it was: ‘They don’t have very good backgrounds’.”

Most of the rebels, he said, weren’t “ideologically pure”, not in the way US officials wanted. “In wars like that, there is no black and white,” he said.

Rather than providing weapons, US officials provided food, medical kits and non-lethal military gear.

Obama’s national-security advisors argued that Syria was at least relatively stable with Assad in power. These advisors, as US officials who supported the programme told me, were presenting a false choice: Either Assad stays or Syria will be overrun with terrorists.

In the end, said those who supported the programme, Syria got the worst of both outcomes.

They believe Obama’s advisors should shoulder the blame for the failure of the programme and also for the failure of the US to help in Syria.

Rebel forces from Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam) stand on a tank as they hold a position on August 24, 2015 near the frontline in the al-Zahra area, on the northwestern outskirts of AleppoImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionRebel forces from Jaysh al-Islam, or the Army of Islam, hold position near the frontline outside of Aleppo in August.

With more than 200,000 dead and four million refugees, the Syria crisis has unfolded over a period of several years while Ford and his colleagues watched in horror.

“It’s not a problem of information,” said Derek Chollet, who worked on Syria issues as assistant defence secretary. “It’s not, ‘Boy, if we had just known more.’ There was never that.”

Ford’s career as a diplomat is now over. I spoke with him at the Middle East Institute in Washington, where he was working in a borrowed office. The desk was empty except for a black ballpoint pen.

While serving as ambassador to Syria from 2010 to 2014, he became familiar with the opposition in a way few Americans were.

“He knew all these brigades, and he knew their strengths and weaknesses,” New America Foundation’s Barak Barfi told me, speaking on the phone from Syria.

Michael Posner, a former assistant secretary of state, said Ford made an important contribution to the White House debate about Syria.

“Usually when things get too complicated, it’s: ‘Oh, we can’t have a point of view’.” said Posner. “But he did have a point of view. He was a very principled, courageous diplomat who did a lot of good.”

People in the Syrian-American community admired Ford’s efforts and looked at Obama in disbelief. “You can’t stop barrel bombs with fruit baskets,” said the Syrian American Council’s Mohammed Ghanem.

Mohammed Ghanem
Image captionWhen the Syrian American Council’s Mohammed Ghanem gets homesick, he likes to spend time at a Georgetown café that reminds him of Damascus. Photo by Colm O’Molloy for BBC News.

People in the intelligence community said the time to arm the rebels was 2012. The opposition was turning into a military force and hadn’t yet been overrun by al-Qaeda-linked fighters and militants.

Not helping the rebels had consequences, Ford said.

Early support came in the form of “soon-to-expire MREs”, or Meals Ready to Eat, “repurposed from Afghanistan and Iraq”, says one former opposition member.

The White House officials didn’t want to provide weapons in part because they were afraid they’d end up in the wrong hands. Rebels later admitted some weapons ended up with an al-Qaeda-affiliated group.

The CIA gave some weapons and supplies to the rebels, though not many.

“Fifteen bullets a month,” said Ghanem. “That was actually mind-blowing.”

He recalled meeting a CIA contractor who tasked with helping the rebels who had quit, saying: “They’re asking us to perform miracles, but they’re giving us nothing.”

Doing even small things was hard since the process in Washington was “completely choked”, said a retired US Army Lt General, Michael Flynn, the former Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

“It was always a ‘mother-may-I’,” he said. “And the ‘mother-may-I’ would take a long time.”

Military officials were trying to explain to officials at the White House what they needed to help the rebels. The requests were vetted by people from the White House and federal agencies such as the state department.

While people were arguing over Syria in Washington, Ford was in Damascus, telling rebel fighters Americans were on their side. Things were promised but never arrived, though, making it hard for him to develop a relationship with them.

Robert Ford
Image captionRobert Ford fought to arm the rebels in Syria. Photo by Colm O’Molloy for BBC News

He recalled when two Americans, photographer Matthew Schrier and journalist Theo Padnos were held by a militant organisation, Nusra Front, in Aleppo. One morning in July 2013 Schrier escaped through a small window. Padnos didn’t.

Schrier told US officials about the building and its location. The officials asked one of the opposition leaders to go to the building and wondered what would happen.

“It’s not like he owed me anything,” Ford said. He never found out if the commander actually looked for Padnos.

Left alone in the cell, Padnos was tortured. Thirteen months later, with the help of Qataris and Americans such as David Bradley, chairman of Atlantic Media, Padnos was released.

He has a gentle, trusting manner, and during a visit to Washington he left his unlocked bicycle outside a café and put his mobile on a table. A crumpled, yellow Post-It with his password was stuck to the phone.

He doesn’t sound bitter about Ford, the White House officials or the Syrian commander, and he said it hardly mattered what the Americans were doing for the opposition at the time.

Syrian casualties

“It’s like saying if my grandmother had wheels then she’d be a baby carriage,” he said. “If, if, if.”

In a broader sense that’s true of US support for the Syrian opposition. No one knows what would have happened if Obama had decided to arm the rebels in a serious manner after the uprising had started.

He recently told journalists at the White House that his critics come across as naïve, saying: “‘We should have sent more rifles in early and somehow then everything would have been OK’.”

In an interview last year Obama described the rebels as former doctors, farmers and pharmacists. The president saw the rebels as brave but unpromising. So did many Syrians.

“It was a failed opposition,” said Bassam Barabandi, who used to work for the Syrian embassy and is co-founder of People Demand Change, an international development organisation.

“For me when I watched it,” he said. “I knew.”

Bassam Barabandi,
Image captionBassam Barabandi, a former diplomat, left his job at the Syrian embassy in Washington after the uprising. Photo by Colm O’Molloy for BBC News

As we sat at on outdoor cafe, a bee landed on his arm. “Come, friend,” he said. “Go away.” He lifted his arm and whistled, and the bee floated near his head and disappeared.

With bees and political leaders, Barabandi tries to see the world from their perspective. He admired Ford and others like him but said they were feckless.

“People say we don’t understand DC, which is true,” Barabandi said. “But they didn’t understand Obama, and we’ve paid a price for it.”

For years Obama has been trying to shift the nation’s attention away from the Middle East to Asia. He wants to keep America’s military role in the world to a minimum.

“The attitude is very condescending. It’s: ‘Look, Syria is your issue, and we have a lot on our plate’,” said Tyler Thompson, of the non-profit United for a Free Syria, describing his meetings with administration officials.

“You never leave the White House with a good feeling.”

Obama is impatient with moral arguments. According to people who’ve discussed policy with him, he swats those notions away and asks: Will it work?

Speaking recently about the train-and-equip programme, Obama said he’d pressed for details about its viability and heard “a bunch of mumbo jumbo”.

US President Barack Obama prepares to sign a $1 trillion stopgap spending bill in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on September 19, 2014.Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionIn 2014 Obama signed a spending bill authorising funds to train Syrian rebels

“There’s the moral imperative and all that,” said one former administration official whose views are closely aligned with the president.

“I just didn’t think this train-and-equip programme was going to be able to accomplish anything,” he said. He also thought it could pull the US into a long struggle in Syria.

As he talked, I looked at my notebook. I’d written down things people had told me about why the US should send weapons to the Syrian opposition. When I brought these points up, he looked at me as if to say: How can you be so dumb?

The objective of the train-and-equip programme, a “fool’s errand”, he described it, was to make people feel better about themselves while they watch Syria disintegrate.

He said he was unhappy when Obama acquiesced last year and asked Congress for money to fund the programme. He still couldn’t believe he’d lost the argument since, as he said: “The big boss agreed with me.”

But after IS beheaded US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, Americans started to re-think what the US military should do.

Within months the majority of Americans supported the notion of providing support and even sending US troops to Syria to fight the militant group.

American journalist Steven Sotloff (Center with black helmet) talks to Libyan rebels on the Al Dafniya front line,Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionThe execution of US journalist Stephen Sotloff (in black helmet) changed American opinion about involvement in Syria

Steven Simon, the former senior director for the Middle East on the US National Security Council, said: “People had this conviction, ‘Surely there’s something we can do.’ There was just one thing on the list that seemed more than just symbolic.”

“They put it this way: ‘Let’s just try it and see what happens’,” he said, describing the train-and-equip programme. “It was just kind of thrown out there.

“All you could say with certainty was it would put weapons in the hand of some Syrians.”

The train-and-equip programme, which costs $500m (£326m), was designed to help the opposition fight the Islamic State, not Assad.

Last month Capt Chris Connolly, a spokesman for the coalition task force training the rebels, said some may “feel the training may take too long.” Still he said morale among trainers and recruits was high.

It’s possible to sympathise with people on all sides of the debate at the White House – those who wanted to help the rebels, those who didn’t, those in between – and still say Obama made the wrong choice.

At the institute Ford sat in a chair for photographs. He’d taken off his glasses. The lights were bright, and the room was hot. He talked about Syria and the disastrous results of inaction.

“What they saw is a messy civil war, and their basic thrust is, ‘We can’t steer this’,” he said. “But if you don’t the situation might actually get worse, and it might bite you in the butt.”

He said he didn’t want more pictures – then agreed to stay for a moment.

He looked angry and defeated, a man caught in circumstances beyond his control.

Follow @Tara_Mckelvey.

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CIA Director Affirms Obama’s ISIS Strategy Is Not Working


CIA Director Affirms Obama’s ISIS Strategy Is Not Working

The Obama administration needs to abandon its position that we are winning this war. (Photo: Balkis Press / Sipa USA/Newscom)

No, President Barack Obama—we aren’t winning the war against the Islamic State.

The head of the CIA, John Brennan, testified on Thursday that, “Despite all our progress against [the Islamic State] on the battlefield and in the financial realm, our efforts have not reduced the group’s terrorism capacity and global reach.”

In fact, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, is actively recruiting, training, and deploying operatives for future attacks in the west.

According to his remarks, “[ISIS] has a large cadre of western fighters who could potentially serve as operatives for attacks in the west … the group is probably exploring a variety of means for infiltrating operatives into the west, including refugee flows, smuggling routes, and legitimate methods of travel.”

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So, ISIS has not been contained—or even deterred. This revelation really shouldn’t surprise us.

The Obama administration has stubbornly maintained its position that we are actively containing and defeating ISIS despite all contrary evidence. Reality and hard facts appear irrelevant. Plus, the Obama administration knows how to spin a narrative.

In the wake of Orlando, the U.S. needs to double down against ISIS both at home and abroad. Overseas, the U.S. should proactively double down and lead a multipronged global effort to deny ISIS territory, disrupt recruitment efforts, and uproot its destructive ideology.

At home, the U.S. should reform the counterterrorism enterprise by refocusing the Department of Homeland Security on intelligence capabilities and improving coordination between the DHS and other agencies.

For the sake of our safety and security, the Obama administration needs to abandon its position that we are winning this war and take a good look at the hard facts.