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Alice Ollstein

Alice Ollstein is a reporter at Talking Points Memo, covering national politics. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010 and has been reporting in DC ever since, covering the Supreme Court, Congress and national elections for TV, radio, print, and online outlets. Her work has aired on Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered, Channel News Asia, and Telesur, and her writing has been published by The Atlantic, La Opinión, and The Hill Rag. She was elected in 2016 as an at-large board member of the DC Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Alice grew up in Santa Monica, California and began working for local newspapers in her early teens.

Articles by Alice

The reassignment of dozens of senior career Interior Department (DOI) officials last year may have violated federal law, a damning internal report released Wednesday found. But investigators with the DOI Inspector General’s office said they were unable to say definitively because the agency failed to properly document their reasons for ousting the employees.

“Absent documentation, we could not independently determine whether or not the ERB complied with the Federal legal requirements,” said the report, referring to a board of made up of Trump administration appointees at the agency.

The report did determine, however, that the board did not properly consider the officials’ qualifications, time in office, or other valid criteria when selecting them to be forced out of their jobs.

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A routine budget hearing became heated when Democrats challenged Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke about the reassignment of nearly a dozen senior Native American employees. TPM first reported last week that Native Americans made up a full third of the officials pushed out of their positions in a major reshuffling last summer.

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Congressional Republicans returned Tuesday from a two-week recess to President Trump fuming about a raid on his personal attorney’s office and new reports that he will move to terminate the Russia investigation by firing either Special Counsel Robert Mueller or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

A small handful of lawmakers are attempting to revive sidelined legislation that would protect Mueller from Trump. But just hours before reports came to light that Trump sought to fire Mueller in December, most GOP senators were shrugging the matter off entirely, insisting the President’s angry words were just words.

Democrats, though they don’t have the power to call hearings or to bring bills to floor, are attempting to create a sense of urgency on Capitol Hill and spur their GOP colleagues to action, warning that firing either Mueller or Rosenstein would be an impeachable offense.

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Throughout the last few months, we’ve watched a wave of states try to restrict or roll back their Medicaid expansion programs and flout the remaining pieces of the Affordable Care Act. Now, with health care costs rising and the midterm elections looming, a group of blue and purple states is moving in the opposite direction.

After years of partisan battles, Virginia could move as soon as this week to expand Medicaid to 400,000 low-income residents. A budget expanding Medicaid already passed the state House of Delegates, and a few key Republicans in the state Senate have broken ranks, making the bill’s final passage possible. In exchange for their votes, these Republicans are making a demand that Democrats are likely to agree to: Tax credits for lower-middle-income Virginians who don’t qualify for Medicaid, to help them deal with rising deductibles and co-pays. The legislature convenes for a special session on Wednesday.

Across the river in Maryland, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan (who just happens to be running for reelection in his Democratic-leaning state this fall) signed a bill to set up a reinsurance program for his ACA marketplace to subsidize care for the most expensive enrollees.

Meanwhile, New Jersey may soon become the first state to implement a replacement for the individual mandate following Congress’ vote to kill it via the tax bill. The state legislature is set to vote this Thursday on two health-care bills; one would set up a state individual mandate and the other would create a reinsurance program.

The state actions to shore up both Medicaid and Obamacare’s individual markets show that elected officials on both sides of the aisle are cognizant of the damage the Trump administration and Congress have done to health-care costs by tossing out the individual mandate, canceling cost-sharing reduction payments, defunding open enrollment outreach and allowing the sale of short-term “junk” plans. These actions are widely predicted to drive up premiums right before the pivotal 2018 midterms.

In fact, according to final Obamacare enrollment data released by HHS last week, while the number of people enrolling is much higher than expected given GOP actions to sabotage the law, the risk pool will be sicker, older, and more expensive for the federal government than in past years.

Some Republican-controlled states, however, are continuing to pursue policies that will drive insurances rates and the number of uninsured residents higher in years to come. Idaho, after its first plan to sell non-ACA compliant plans was rejected by HHS, is trying again, hoping this time to get federal approval to set up a shadow Obamacare market that may draw many young and healthy people away from their comprehensive, regulated plans.

And following the lead of Kentucky, Indiana and Arkansas, more GOP-led states are attempting to impose work requirements on their Medicaid populations. Louisiana is “studying the concept,” Ohio will submit its work requirements waiver to HHS within days, and Tennessee is pushing a bill to implement work requirements and charge the federal government for the hefty cost of implementation.

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Thanks to the GOP tax bill, the individual mandate penalty for not purchasing health insurance will be no more as of 2019. But that’s apparently not soon enough for the Trump administration. The Department of Health and Human Services released a new rule late Monday afternoon saying that people who live in counties with only one insurance company on the individual market can qualify for a “hardship exemption” and won’t be penalized on their 2018 taxes.

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EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt reassigned or demoted at least five high-ranking officials who questioned his spending and other leadership decisions — including the purchase of pricey office furniture and Pruitt’s desire to use sirens to cut through D.C. traffic — according to a New York Times report Thursday afternoon. Four of the officials were career staff and one was a political appointee.

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Dating back to his mid-1990s reign in the House of Representatives, and continuing through his failed presidential runs and unsuccessful audition to be Donald Trump’s vice president, Newt Gingrich has led a crusade for rolling back protections for federal workers and eliminating entire agencies. Today, he is pushing from the outside for that same agenda — both as a contributor to Fox News, the President’s favorite source of information, and in private communications with the administration urging officials to conduct a “cleaning” and fire career civil servants suspected of disloyalty.

Whistleblowers report that retaliation against nonpartisan federal workers is on the rise under the Trump administration, with career staffers being pushed out of many different government agencies. As investigations into these purges heat up, and as efforts on Capitol Hill to pass bills making it easier to fire career civil servants intensify, Gingrich is emerging as a key player to watch in the months to come.

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As President Trump continues to insist that the Affordable Care Act is “essentially repealed” due to the 2019 demise of the individual mandate penalty, new polling from the experts at the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 9 in 10 individual market enrollees plan to keep their health plan with or without a mandate. The poll found that the threat of paying a tax penalty is not the top deciding factor for most people on whether or not to purchase insurance, and ranks below reasons such as
protecting against high medical bills, peace of mind, or because they or a family member has an ongoing health condition.

The finding is yet another sign that the ACA is more resilient than people on both sides of the debate assumed, and may not be decimated by either the repeal of the individual mandate, the gutting of federal outreach efforts, or the termination of cost-sharing reduction payments.

But the picture is not all rosy. Monthly premiums for the minority of ACA consumers who don’t qualify for subsidies jumped about 30 percent this year, and could go up more in 2019.

Congress’ decision to throw in the towel on either stabilizing Obamacare’s individual market or fully repealing it has also pushed states to move forward aggressively with their own plans.

On Monday, Iowa’s governor signed a law allowing the Iowa Farm Bureau to team up with insurance companies to sell skimpy plans that flout Obamacare regulations (such as the ban on discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions). Under federal law, the plans cannot even be called health insurance due to how unregulated they are, and will instead be dubbed “health benefit plans.” As with the Trump administration’s move to allow the sale of bare-bones short term plans and association health plans, health care experts say Iowa’s move could drain the individual market of its younger and healthier consumers, driving up premiums for those who depend on comprehensive health plans.

Meanwhile, state efforts to slash their Medicaid rolls — potentially by hundreds of thousands of people — by imposing work requirements and other restrictions could run into both legal and political opposition. A class-action lawsuit by 15 low-income Kentuckians against the Trump administration and their Republican governor, Matt Bevin, is moving forward, and its outcome could determine what policies dozens of states pursue going forward.

And as GOP governors pitch the Medicaid restrictions as a cost-saver, evidence continues to stack up suggesting that implementing the new Medicaid rules could cost states millions instead of saving them money. Top congressional Democrats have demanded that the Government Accountability Office investigate how much the new requirements are costing both state and federal taxpayers in the three states approved so far to move forward: Kentucky, Indiana, and Arkansas.

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A full third of the senior Interior Department (DOI) career officials reassigned under Secretary Ryan Zinke in a major agency reshuffling are Native American, even though Native Americans make up less than 10 percent of the Department’s workforce, a review by TPM has found.

The finding comes days after Democratic lawmakers demanded an investigation into whether Zinke discriminated when he reassigned 33 career officials last summer, and follows on reports that Zinke has repeatedly told DOI officials he doesn’t care about diversity — which prompted one member of Congress to accuse Zinke of working to create a “lily-white department.”

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