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WASHINGTON — Average premiums for individual insurance plans on the national exchange created by the Affordable Care Act will be down next year after major spikes in 2017 and 2018.

According to a new report by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), the price for a benchmark “silver” plan through the federal HealthCare.gov site will be an average of 1.5 percent lower in 2019 after rising 37 percent in 2018.

There’s wide variation from state to state. In Tennessee, premiums are down 26 percent after a 56 percent increase the previous year. In North Dakota, they’re up 20 percent after an 8 percent increase in 2018. Open enrollment for plans begins Nov. 1 and runs through Dec. 15.

“President Trump’s administration took action to address the skyrocketing price of health insurance, and now we are starting to see the results,” CMS administrator Seema Verma said in a press release.

But much of the drop-off is due to companies raising premiums too much in 2018, experts say, amid a chaotic period when Republicans came close to repealing Obamacare and President Donald Trump announced plans to “let Obamacare implode” in order to pressure Democrats politically.

During this time, a number of insurers pulled out of markets entirely, briefly leaving some areas with no plans before state officials managed to attract replacements, in some cases by approving large premium hikes. This year, more insurers are expanding their presence instead. Thirty-nine percent of counties have only one insurer, versus 56 percent in 2018.

Democrats countered that the premiums would be even lower absent moves by the administration that experts say likely increased them.

“Here’s the simple truth: People buying health insurance in America today are paying more for it than they should because of the relentless sabotage campaign by the Trump administration and its Republican allies in Congress and the states,” Leslie Dach, chair of the progressive group Protect Our Care, said in a statement,

Trump has recently claimed credit for stabilizing markets, but independent analysts say a number of White House actions increased premiums, including ending the individual mandate to buy insurance, cutting off payments to insurers for lower deductibles and promoting alternative short-term plans that do not have to cover pre-existing conditions.

“Premiums are going down because insurers overshot with premium increases this year that were too high,” Larry Levitt, senior vice president for health reform at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said on Twitter. “Premiums would be even lower if not for repeal of the individual mandate penalty and expansion of short-term plans.”

Other administration moves most likely contributed to the premium decrease, however, including approving state plans to stabilize their markets.



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Politics

IRS agent admits giving Michael Cohen’s financial records to Stormy lawyer

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By Andrew Blankstein and Tom Winter

Federal prosecutors say an IRS investigator in California has admitted leaking confidential details of financial transactions by former Trump attorney Michael Cohen to Michael Avenatti, lawyer for Stormy Daniels.

John C. Fry has been charged in federal court with searching for and disseminating Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs), reports filed by banks when they note potentially suspicious transactions.

Federal officials say they found telephone records that indicate Fry placed a phone call from his personal cell phone to that of Stormy Daniels’ attorney Michael Avenatti the day before Avenatti released details of Cohen’s financial transactions, and the day after.

Via Twitter, Avenatti disseminated information about Cohen’s receipt in 2017 of $500,000 from Columbus Nova, a company founded by a Russian billionaire, as well as payments to a Cohen company called Essential Consultants from other firms who do business with the federal government, including AT&T and aircraft manufacturer. The

The Treasury Department’s Inspector General’s Office announced after Avenatti’s disclosure that it would be investigating the source of his information.

Fry, 54, is an investigative analyst with the law enforcement arm of the IRS, the Criminal Investigative Division. He has worked for the IRS since 2008.

According to the complaint, he conducted numerous searches related to Cohen, and downloaded five SARs, including one related to a bank account for Essential Consultants.

The federal complaint says Fry verbally admitted providing the information to Avenatti when he was confronted by federal agents.

In a statement, Avenatti told NBC News, “I have done nothing wrong and did not violate any law whatsoever, just like reporters don’t violate the law when they do their jobs.”

Sarah Fitzpatrick contributed.



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Republican candidate Mark Harris calls for new election in disputed North Carolina House race

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 / Updated 

By Leigh Ann Caldwell and Dartunorro Clark

RALEIGH, North Carolina — Republican candidate Mark Harris on Thursday called for a new election in the disputed North Carolina House race.

“Neither I nor any of the leadership of my campaign were aware of or condoned the improper activities that have been testified to in this hearing. Through the testimony I listened to over the past three days, I believe a new election should be called,” Harris said. “It’s become clear to me that the public’s confidence in the ninth district seat general election has been undermined to an extent that a new election is warranted.”

Harris’ request for a new election came after several days of a state Board of Elections hearing that is seeking to determine whether there was misconduct with mail-in ballots in the state’s 9th congressional district. Harris testified Thursday morning that he had no knowledge of the alleged illegal activities of a political operative hired by his campaign.

State investigators described the matter as a “coordinated, unlawful” mail-in ballot “scheme” in Bladen County run by political operative McCrea Dowless that included the collection of absentee ballots, which is illegal in North Carolina.

Harris testified Thursday that Dowless had repeatedly assured him that he would not be doing anything against the law in his absentee ballot operation. Harris said that after consideration and talking with others he trusted, he decided to move forward with the hire.

“I was comfortable enough with the recommendations of the individuals from Judge Marion Warren who at first told me about McCrae Dowless and what he did and all the way through in meeting with those individuals, I was comfortable enough at that point,” Harris said.

However, Harris’ son, John Harris, testified before the North Carolina State Board of Elections on Wednesday, saying that he warned his father about the illegal tactics of Dowless, casting doubt on Harris’ insistence that he had no knowledge of fraudulent election activity in last year’s election.

John Harris, an assistant U.S. attorney in North Carolina, testified that he told his father he had become concerned about the practices of the operative, McCrae Dowless, after studying the 2016 congressional primary in the same 9th District. He said that his father decided to hire Dowless despite his concerns.



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‘NOT SIMPLER!’ Philip Hammond LASHES OUT at Williamson over China trade talks GAFFE

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CHANCELLOR Philip Hammond has accused Gavin William of choosing his career over a trade deal with China which was thwarted after the Defence Secretary sent a Royal Navy ship to the South China Sea.

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