With just a few weeks left before a deadline to get health coverage, lingering bugs lurk in the part of HealthCare.gov that you can't see. And time is running out to get things right.
Consumers have to sign up for a health insurance exchange — and pay their first month's premium — by the end of December if they want coverage in January.
"The short time period presents a number of challenges," says Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America's Health Plans, an insurance industry trade group.
The 834 forms — electronic files sent from HealthCare.gov's back end to insurance companies — must have accurate and complete data in order for a consumer to be considered fully enrolled.
The White House is projecting confidence: "We have a team of experts working both through technological fixes but also through some elbow grease going through and confirming that that information is conveyed accurately and completely, to confirm that they'll be signed up for health care and eligible to get covered on January 1st," White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday.
But the Obama administration estimates one in 10 forms are still problematic, an improvement from one in four bad forms in October and November.
And challenges go beyond processing. Since health plans won't start coverage until they're paid, anyone mailing in a check will have to get it in quickly.
"If an enrollee does not pay their first month's premium by December 31, their enrollment will be void. So far, the health plans I have spoken to have seen only about 20% percent of their enrollees pay their premium," health industry consultant Bob Laszewski wrote in his blog Thursday.
"The situation everyone wants to avoid is a situation in which consumers think they're enrolled when they're not. Or the situation where they find out that they're not enrolled when they try to schedule an appointment to see a doctor," Zirkelbach says.
Then, there's the work of reconciling the government enrollment records with the data received by insurance companies.
"I don't think you can be confident that everyone who is enrolled will have a plan until we can do a reconciliation between the government records and the insurance company records," Laszewski told NPR.
The work of reconciling files just got started Wednesday, when health officials sent spreadsheets of their latest enrollment data to insurers to cross-check records. Zirkelbach says it's a significant step.
"It will for the first time give us the size and scope of the technical challenges that exist," he says. For all the focus on technology in recent weeks, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius says that reconciliation work is getting done manually.
"We are in the process of actually hand-matching individuals with insurance companies," she told lawmakers in a Wednesday hearing.
With the deadlines getting closer and December enrollments surging ahead of the deadline, whatever remaining challenges exist will need to be resolved in a hurry.
"You should probably call your insurance plan, the one you've believe you've enrolled in. Just verify that you've in fact enrolled," Laszewski says.
The leader of massive anti-government protests in Thailand says the chiefs of the country's military branches and police force have agreed to meet and hear him out on "political reforms," — a move likely to spark concern over a possible coup similar to the one that overthrew the prime minister in 2006.
The Bangkok Post reports that Suthep Thaugsuban, who has already declared a self-styled parallel administration and called for Thailand's elected government to be replaced with an appointed council, told a crowd of supporters that the supreme commanders of the army, navy, air force and police would meet him on Saturday. He said they had agreed to hear his ideas for political reform in the country of 65 million.
The report comes on the same day that "yellow-shirt" supporters of Suthep's People's Democratic Reform Committee stormed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's office in the capital, Bangkok, and shut off the electricity to the building. Yingluck, who has said she will not use force against the protesters, was outside the capital when the takeover occurred.
"I thank the supreme commander and the armed force leaders for allowing [yellow shirt] leaders to represent the people and to directly clarify the will of the masses and to explain why they have risen up to fight for changes in the country, instead of communicating with them through the press," Suthep said.
The latest round of unrest in Thailand heated up last month when the lower house of parliament passed an amnesty bill that would have paved the way for the return of Yingluck's self-exiled billionaire brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in the 2006 coup and still faces corruption charges.
Yingluck's government quickly withdrew the amnesty bill and later reversed herself and called for early elections to be held on Feb. 2 in what has so far been an unsuccessful attempt to quell the mass demonstrations. She has also issued a call for talks with the protesters.
On Thursday, Suthep told a business group in the capital that he would "do everything to stop the next election," according to the Post.
"I'm confident that I can do it," he reportedly said.
The legacy of Thaksin, a telecom tycoon who served as premier for five years beginning in 2001, roughly splits the country roughly between middle- and upper-class urban Thais who opposed his populist policies and poorer, rural Thais, from the country's north and northeast rice-growing regions. The yellow shirts accuse him of corruption in both his government and business dealings and oppose rice subsidies and a low-cost health scheme for the poor enacted during his tenure.
Protest leader Suthep, who as deputy prime minister oversaw the police and army in a 2010 crackdown on pro-Thaksin "red shirt" protesters that left about 90 dead and more than 2,000 wounded, pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to murder charges related to the crackdown. The prime minister at the time of the crackdown, Abhisit Vejjajiva, also faces murder charges.
The news that a 16-year-old boy from Texas was sentenced this week to 10 years of probation for driving drunk and causing a crash that killed four people has led to many headlines such as this, from Time:
"The Affluenza Defense: Judge Rules Rich Kid's Rich Kid-ness Makes Him Not Liable for Deadly Drunk Driving Accident."
The sentence handed down in a Fort Worth juvenile court led Dallas Morning News editorial writer Mike Hashimoto to say that the only lesson the teen learned is that "it's far better to come from that wealthy place where actions seldom have those nasty old consequences. That's for other folks."
Most of the reports we're seeing focus on the argument from the boy's attorneys that he suffered from "affluennza" — a coddled upbringing during which his wealthy parents have never held him accountable for his actions. The reports have relatively little mention of State District Judge Jean Boyd's reasoning or go into much detail about the conditions of the sentence.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, though, includes these points:
"Boyd ordered the 16-year-old to receive therapy at a long-term, in-patient facility. He will stay in Tarrant County juvenile detention until the juvenile probation department prepares a report about possible treatment programs.
"If the teen violates the terms of his probation, he could be sent to prison for 10 years. ...
"In delivering the sentence, Boyd told the victims' families in the packed courtroom that there was nothing she could do that would lessen their pain. And she told the teen that he, not his parents, is responsible for his actions.
"Boyd said that she is familiar with programs available in the Texas juvenile justice system and is aware that he might not get the kind of intensive therapy in a state-run program that he could receive at the California facility suggested by his attorneys. Boyd said she had sentenced other teens to state programs but they never actually got into those programs."
The Star-Telegram adds that "Scott Brown, an attorney who represented the teen with Reagan Wynn, said the teen could have been freed in two years if Boyd had sentenced him to 20 years. 'She fashioned a sentence that could have him under the thumb of the justice system for the next 10 years,' Brown said."
The boy's parents will pay the $450,000-a-year cost for his treatment, which could last several years.
Family members of the victims aren't pleased with the judge's decision. The Associated Press reports that:
"Eric Boyles, who lost his wife and daughter, said the family's wealth helped the teen avoid incarceration.
" 'Money always seems to keep you out of trouble,' Boyles said. 'Ultimately today, I felt that money did prevail. If you had been any other youth, I feel like the circumstances would have been different.'
"Shaunna Jennings, the minister's widow, said her family had forgiven the teen but believed a sterner punishment was needed.
" 'You lived a life of privilege and entitlement, and my prayer is that it does not get you out of this," she said. "My fear is that it will get you out of this.' "
After seeing some of the judge's thinking, we're interested in hearing what everyone thinks.
Note: We are aware we didn't name the teen. In general, NPR avoids identifying minors who are prosecuted as juveniles or are victims of crimes. We are also aware that other news outlets have named him and that it will be easy to find out who he is if you wish.
Bangladesh has hanged an Islamist leader convicted of committing atrocities in the country's war of independence from Pakistan more than 40 year ago.
Abdul Quader Mollah, a top leader in the Jammat-e-Islami party, was originally scheduled to be hanged Tuesday, but he gained a temporary reprieve pending appeal. The country's Supreme Court denied the appeal on Thursday. Mollah, 65, was hanged at 10:01 p.m. Thursday.
Mollah was the first person convicted by Bangladesh's International Crimes Tribunal to be executed. The tribunal was established in 2010 by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to look into abuses committed during the conflict in which some 3 million peoples died. Most of those charged are members of the opposition, who are accused of aiding Pakistani soldiers in committing the violence.
Here's how Bangladesh's Daily Star newspaper reported it:
"He didn't wince once, neither did his heart skip a beat when he led his men to thrash a two-year-old child to death and slit the throats of a pregnant woman and two minor girls.
"Around 42 years later, Jamaat leader Abdul Quader Mollah finally had to pay for these acts of cold-blooded savagery, as he walked the gallows at 10:01pm in the first-ever execution in a war crimes case.
"The hanging of Mollah, 65, who earned the nickname Mirpurer Koshai (butcher of Mirpur) for his sinister role during the Liberation War, represents a watershed in the nation's pursuit of a closure on the wounds inflicted in 1971."
The newspaper said he'd be buried at his ancestral village.
Hundreds gathered in the capital, Dhaka, to celebrate the execution, The Associated Press reported, but there were also protests against it that turned violent.
Americans will soon have a chance to comment on the Federal Communications Commission's proposal to allow in-flight cellphone use on commercial airliners. The agency is holding an open meeting Thursday at 2:30 p.m. ET to discuss rules that would allow voice calls while jetliners are in the air — something that's been forbidden on U.S. flights.
You can watch the session live online — and we'll update this post with highlights.
The meeting is an initial step toward approving phone use during flights, a process that would most likely take more than a year. The FCC's five commissioners will vote on the proposal today; if it's approved, it would then be posted online for public comment, likely for three months or more.
If the proposed rules gain final approval, airlines would then decide if they want to allow passengers to use phones during flights. (Some have already said they won't offer the service.)
Airlines that want to allow phone use would need to license bandwidth for equipment called a pico cell, essentially a base station that handles wireless data and calls. Then they would need safety approval from the Federal Aviation Administration as well.
Reaction to the FCC's plan has been mixed, at best.
A recent AP poll found that only 19 percent of Americans support the idea of talking on phones during flights. A large group was neutral, and 48 percent were against it. But the opposition was greater among people who have flown in the past year, with 59 percent saying calls shouldn't be allowed.
Our post on the story last month generated this top-rated comment:
"Zombies in their cars, zombies on the street, now zombies in the air. There is no escape," wrote a reader named harry guss.
And in response to another comment's hypothetical phone call from an airline passenger named "Alice," a reader named Lencho wrote, "This is when I reach over and yank the cell phone out Alice's hand and run to the rest room and flush the dang thing down the toilet."
In an editorial for USA Today that was timed to coincide with today's session, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler sought to ease consumers' concerns. He noted that the proposed change is still in the early stages.
And he said he doesn't want to sit next to anyone who's on the phone during a flight, either.
"I certainly empathize with those who don't want to be stuck listening to loud phone conversations in-flight," Wheeler wrote. "Because the airline can block or otherwise control voice calls, there is a technical solution to this concern."
That echoes a recent post on the FCC's blog by Julius Knapp, head of the Office of Engineering, and Roger Sherman, acting chief of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau.
The pair stressed that even if the proposal is approved, there are several levels of cellphone acceptance between a relatively silent cabin and endless chatter from passengers telling their families about their trip or checking in with the office.
Those incremental levels are reflected in the policies of European carriers that already allow passengers to use mobile phones during flights.
Some have instituted data-only restrictions. Others, such as Virgin Atlantic, place limits on voice calls and charge a steep premium — more than a dollar a minute — for using the service.
As we noted in November, Wheeler is a former cellphone industry lobbyist whose move to allow more use of phones in plane cabins was welcomed by the Telecommunications Industry Association.