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ONC awards funding for final extension centers

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The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology has awarded $9.8 million in funding to stand up the last of its regional extension center (REC) programs in California and New Hampshire.

CalOptima Foundation received $4.7 million to assist doctors and providers in Orange County adopt electronic health records, and ONC awarded Massachusetts eHealth Collaborative $5.1 million to aid providers in New Hampshire.  A total of 62 centers now span across every region in the country.

Over the next two years, $677 million will be disbursed incrementally to support the RECs as they help priority primary care providers achieve meaningful use.  

ONC also announced expanded coverage areas for existing RECs in Florida:

  • Community Health Centers Alliances will cover additional areas in Glades and Hendry counties.
  • Health Choice Network of Florida will cover additional areas in Indian River, Palm Beach, St. Lucie, Martin and Okeechobee counties


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One senator’s procedural obstacle could shut down government

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Things might get tricky over the next few days. This was part of an article in Roll Call. The idea is that the House and Senate “hot line” bills toward the end of a legislative session, and they are all voted on by unanimous consent. However, if one senator objects, the Senate must go through complicated and time consuming procedural votes requiring a 60 vote super majority.

So what’s going on exactly?

Sen. Jim DeMint warned his colleagues Monday night that he would place a hold on all legislation that has not been “hot-lined” by the chamber or has not been cleared by his office before the close of business Tuesday. [...]

Traditionally, the Senate passes noncontroversial measures by unanimous consent at the end of most workdays, a process known as hot-lining. DeMint, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and others have fought against the practice for years and have dedicated staff members to reviewing bills that are to be hot-lined.

As a result, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have generally given DeMint, Coburn and others time to review legislation before proceeding with unanimous consent agreements.

But in a terse e-mail sent to all 100 Senate chiefs of staff Monday evening, Steering Committee Chief of Staff Bret Bernhardt warned that DeMint would place a hold on any legislation that had not been hot-lined or been cleared by his office before the close of business Tuesday.

But what does this mean for the federal worker? Well, the Senate is set to consider a continuing resolution to keep the government funded past Sept. 30 and into the next year. But an objection by DeMint could halt that process, and either cause a delay in passing the CR until past the Sept. 30 deadline or allow DeMint to attach conditions that he finds more favorable.

Hang on, it could be a bumpy ride.

Contract confusion

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A little fuzzy on the distinctions between various types of federal contracts?

Don’t feel bad, because some federal contracting officers are, too, according to a Federal Register notice published today.

In a jointly filed proposed rule, the Defense Department, NASA and the General Services Administration indicate that they are trying to correct the mistaken impression among contracting officers “governmentwide” that the fixed labor rates in time-and-materials/labor-hour contracts make them “fixed-price type contracts.”

In fact, as the Government Accountability Office reported last year, time and materials contracts are considered high-risk because the contractor’s profit hinges on the number of hours worked.

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Health care reform, explained in one handy cartoon

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Confused about the health care reform bill? You’re not alone. According to a new poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health care policy research organization, 53 percent of Americans say they still don’t know what the health care bill means. And confusion is growing — that number is 8 percentage points higher than in August.

Considering the complexity of the matter, rabid politicking, and the spin thrown around over the last year or so (death panels, anyone?), it’s not surprising so many Americans are in the dark. But Kaiser has recently released a video that hopes to clear up some of the misconceptions. It’s a little cutesy, but it does a pretty good job summing up the overall structure of health care reform and how it will work in a shade over nine minutes.

(Oh, and as for the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program premiums, still no word from OPM on when they’ll be released. As soon as we hear something, our trusty FedLine readers will be the first to know.)

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What gridlock? Postal dedications on the rise

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While Congress might be having trouble scheduling, debating and passing numerous pieces of legislation, it seems one of the few bills that has not suffered are the resolutions to rename postal facilities.

These resolutions have been on the rise for more than 13 years. In the 105th Congress spanning 1997 to 1998, there were 9 resolutions. In the 108th Congress from 2003 to 2004 there were 117.

In the years 2007 to 2008 there were 169. There have been 111 in the current Congress.


1997-1998

9
1999-2000 46
2001-2002 92
2003-2004 117
2005-2006 135
2007-2008 169
2009-2010

111*

*So far this Congress.

Bike share program for feds on the way

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This is not how it's done, by the way. You should probably wear a helmet.

Feds, are you itching to go for a bike ride? The government has just what you’re looking for.

The federal government has teamed up with the District of Columbia’s Capital Bikeshare program to provide employees easy access to bicycles in Washington and Arlington, Va. The Office of Personnel Management said the deal will eventually allow feds round-the-clock access to 1,000 bikes at 114 stations.

OPM hasn’t said yet what the government’s corporate partnership is going to mean in terms of group rates, or when the program will start, but we’ll post more details when they’re available. OPM Director John Berry has made wellness initiatives and encouraging federal employees to improve their health a priority, and this bikeshare program fits right in with that part of his agenda.

DC became the first jurisdiction in North America to launch its own bikeshare program in August 2008. It was expanded to Arlington in May. Members receive a key that will let them unlock any of the bikes, which they can ride them for up to 24 hours. (The first half-hour is free; after that riders will incur trip fees.)

In honor of the new arrangement (and the rainstorm that scuttled a photo op for it this morning), enjoy this scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid:

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Royalty-in-kind program winding down

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RIK, RIP.

That’s the message from the Interior Department accompanying its next-to-last annual report about the “royalty-in-kind” program tarnished by repeated scandals.

The program, dating back to 1998, allows energy companies to pay royalties to the federal government with oil and gas instead of cash. After Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced last year that he was shutting it down, the program officially ends this Thursday, when the final contracts expire, the department said in a news release.

For fiscal 2009, the initiative generated benefits estimated at $23 million “depending on various assumptions regarding markets and administrative costs,” the newly issued report to Congress says.  But it acknowledged that, using different assumptions, the total benefits could range from a low of negative $21 million to a high of $57 million.

Beginning several years ago, the royalty-in-kind program became the target of repeated federal investigations generally revolving around allegations of improperly cozy relationships between government employees and energy industry officials. In 2008, for example, the Interior Department’s inspector general found that the program’s former director had been moonlighting for an environmental and energy consulting firm while still on the federal payroll.

The final report on the royalty-in-kind program, covering fiscal 2010, will be released next year.

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No deal yet on USPS retiree health payment

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It’s down-to-the-wire time again for the U.S. Postal Service as it seeks congressional help in dodging much of a $5.5 billion payment due next Thursday into its retiree health benefit fund.

“We’re in discussions with committee staff,” USPS spokesman Gerry McKiernan said today. While a continuing budget resolution is a likely vehicle for a partial waiver,  he said, “there’s nothing definitive yet.”

Last month, the Postal Service warned of a cash crunch if it had to make the full payment, which is required under the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act.

Under similar circumstances last year, Congress allowed the Postal Service to pay only $1.4 billion of the required $5.4 billion installment, with the balance being pushed off into the future.  In that case, lawmakers took matters down to the last minute and beyond. The payment was due Sept. 30; the waiver actually became law on Oct. 1.

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Colbert testimony turns surreal (but was that ever in doubt?)

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Stephen Colbert’s appearance before a House committee hearing on migrant workers got off to a weird start this morning. Right off the bat, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., tried to kick Colbert out of the hearing, but Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., insisted he stay.

His opening statement featured the same absurd leaps in logic and clever wordplay he employs night after night on his show, and had some very funny lines. (For example: “My great-grandfather did not travel across 4,000 miles of Atlantic ocean to see this country overrun by immigrants. He did it because he killed a man back in Ireland.”) At times he seemed to be waiting for laughter that never came, which felt slightly awkward.

But the most bizarre exchange came when an obviously unamused Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, challenged Colbert’s self-proclaimed experience as a corn packer. Colbert stood firm, but drew some nervous titters when he said, “I know that term is offensive to some people because corn packer is a derogatory term for a gay Iowan.” (And in what is — I hope — a Capitol Hill first, Colbert offered to introduce his colonoscopy as evidence after singing the praises of roughage.)

Although Colbert was witty as he sparred with the stuffy lawmakers, I still think his appearance was a mistake. His paraphrasing of the Biblical passage about doing unto the least of your brothers was heartfelt and the one serious spot in his appearance, but it’s dangerous for a court jester to dip his toes into activism. Lofgren compared Colbert to Bono, for crying out loud, and that’s never a good place for someone who’s built a career on puncturing others’ pomposity.

Colbert’s opening statement is below, and video excerpts from his questioning can be found at this link. Video of the “corn packer” exchange is after the jump.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Congress approves SEC records exemptions repeal

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Congress has given final approval to legislation shutting down controversial Freedom of Information Act exemptions for the Securities and Exchange Commission, according to its sponsor, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. The measure now goes to President Obama.

The exemptions, tucked into the financial services overhaul enacted in July, allowed the SEC to withhold some records gathered from hedge funds and other financial entities that it regulates. Without the new provisions, SEC Chairwoman Mary Schapiro argued, such entities could be reluctant to cooperate during examinations out of concern that sensitive records could become public.

But critics said existing FOIA exemptions were adequate for that  purpose and questioned whether the SEC—whose reputation has been marred by its failure early on to catch Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff and other lapses—would use the exemptions to shield itself from public scrutiny.

Schapiro denied that intent, but lawmakers were evidently not persuaded. The legislation passed the Senate and the House this week on voice votes.

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