Sunday, April 28, 2013

Congress and Veterans

Dona:  We had planned on doing this last week but time ran out.  So we've got a lot to cover in terms of Congressional hearings.  We'll be covering Eric Shinseki, VA Secretary, appearing before the Senate Budget Committee last Tuesday which C.I. covered in Tuesday's "Iraq snapshot" and Friday's  "Iraq snapshot."
The week before that, Shinseki appeared before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee April 18th snapshot, April 19th snapshot,  Ava covered it in "Sanders makes impression early in tenure as Committee Chair" and Kat covered it in "I can always count on Senator Richard Burr."  Along with Kat, Ava and C.I., we've got Wally who was at the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and we've also got Ruth.  We're going to end on a non-VA hearing that Ruth attended but, Ruth, you're welcome to jump in anywhere.  C.I., you were at all of Shinseki's hearings this month -- including the House Veterans Affairs Committee.  Explain in broad strokes what's going on.


Dona (Con't): What are the main themes?

C.I.: The claims backlog is probably the main issue.  It's really hard to sit through the hearings at time.

Dona: Like the Budget Committee hearing when Senator Tim Kaine was acting the fool?

Wally: Oh, was he ever.  Kat and Ava skipped that hearing.  Kaine was so smug and so stupid.  He fell for every lie Shinseki offered.

Dona: Which included how hard Shinseki's job is?

Wally: Absolutely.  Shinseki wanted to whine about the paper system when he came in.  Oh, poor, Eric.  What  a shame you have to deal with it, no one else ever had to.  And the reality is that the VA, under Shinseki, has not taken the issue of digitzation seriously.  This includes in 2011, when they had contracts for scanning documents expiring in a matter of days and were not then working on renewing the contract.  Over and over, the problems he whined about, that Kaine found so sad, were usually problems he either created or prolonged.  And I really thought, last week, Kaine wanting to interrupt as the hearing was closing down to offer a list of what he termed "compliments" was pathetic.  And embarrassing.

Dona: In that hearing, reading over C.I.'s reports, I see one thing I want to emphasize especially.  This is Committee Chair Patty Murray speaking, "There is a December 6, 2012 memo from the US Chief Information Officer and US Chief Technology Officer that requires DoD and VA to submit a number of documents regarding the status of the IHER program and I would ask that you provide us with a complete set of documents as well."  IHER is?

C.I.: Integrated Health Electronic Record.  It refers to DoD and VA being able to share the same record on a person, they don't need to create two sets of health records for one person.  That's been presented, since 2005, as a money saver and as a time saver.  It will reduce the backlog for claims, we've been told, by simplifying records.  Shinseki was tasked with that in 2009, creating that, by President Barack Obama.  He's never even accomplished the first step.  Chair Murray appears to want to know what the VA is telling Chief Officers and whether or not it matches up with what the Congress is being told.  That's my guess.  I could be wrong.

Dona: No, that exchange stands out.  I would agree that's the best guess.  On the claims backlog, I want to go to Kat.  Kat, in your report, you note that Ranking Member on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Senator Richard Burr, caught the VA using fuzzy math.  Explain what happened.

Kat: Sure.  Burr comes prepared and the VA must hate him for that.  He reads their submissions and catches their mistakes.  The numbers aren't adding up, the VA's own numbers.  Their strategic plan numbers for doing away with the backlog are being replaced in the 2014 Fiscal Year Budget with lower figures and that means the backlog is actually being predicted to grow. This was very basic, he outlined it very easily and the VA's excuse -- especially Hickey, always Allison Hickey -- was to pretend that the numbers that the VA had presented to the Senate for this hearing were unfamiliar to her and she'd need to check them.  Yet her office is the one that prepared the numbers.  She's such a liar.  The numbers don't add up so this nonsense about the backlog about to end within two years just doesn't add up.

Dona: Alright. Ava, you've been writing about Senator Bernie Sanders' distinguishing characteristic -- or his first one -- as Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chair.  Explain that to us.

Ava: With Senator Patty Murray becoming Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Sanders has become the VA Committee Chair.  He's marking out his own interests right now.  This includes, for Post-Traumatic Stress -- not a single, big-box cure or treatment.  He wants a variety to be recognized so that a larger number of veterans are being helped.  This includes natural or holistic treatments.  I want to toss to Wally because he was at the Budget Committee hearing, I wasn't, sick child, so, Wally?

Wally:  Ava's written about his support for yoga and equestrian therapy among others.  But last week, he also raised the issue of acupuncture and specifically about why we needed a medical doctor to do acupuncture.  This, of course, means a larger cost but he was mainly wanting to know why an acupuncturist by itself wasn't enough if that's what the treatment plan's calling for?

Dona: Thank you both.  I'm pulling this exchange from C.I.'s reporting and I want us to discuss what's being addressed.

Chair Patty Murray: Under this initiative as you just described, there's the provisional rating that will be given to them and then they can make continued claims -- so are looking at increasing the workload by requiring two ratings decisions instead of one?

Allison Hickey:  Uh, Chairman, uh, we're not.  We're actually trying to benefit the veteran who has been waiting the longest in this case.  We want to get that decision to them.  If that veteran returns after the fact saying 'I have additional information,' we will expedite that claim to the front of the line, we will re-rate it based on additional information and we will get them a final decision. 

Dona: Kat, tell me what just got said.

Kat: How about I give you background.  The VA has a huge backlog on claims, as we all know.  To hide this backlog, the VA wants to create a new program that I'm going to call provisional.  They're going to start sliding claims over there and give them a rating.  This will reduce the backlog proper.  But in 'provisional' you're going to see the numbers go up like crazy.  In Provisional, they'll be given a claim immediately but then the VA will work and see if that's correct or not.  Who knows how long this will take.  And then after the veteran's assigned a claim, he or she will have the right to appeal it.  So what Murray's talking about, yes, she's right that there will be multiple ratings and not just one.

Dona: Okay.  Thank you.  And let's say I'm one of those veterans.  Let's say the VA gives me a provisional claim of 79% disabled and then, after they do their investigation, they downgrade me to 38% disabled.  Do I have to refund money to the VA?

Wally: That's one of the most important questions for veterans and that's a question that Eric Shinseki couldn't or wouldn't answer at the hearing when he was asked that directly.  Instead, he gave a lah-de-dah about how everyone knows the importance of being fiscally responsible.

Dona: I wish we had more time for this but we need to move over to the House Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing that Secretary of State John Kerry appeared at.  C.I. covered this in the April 17th snapshot,  Wally covered it with  "The buget hearing that avoided the budget,"  Ruth with "Kerry pressed on Benghazi," Kat  with "I'm sick of Democrats in Congress" and Ava's with "Secretary Kerry doesn't really support women's rights."  This is actually a hearing I wish we'd covered last Sunday if only to end the e-mails.  Let me make a statement to readers: If Ava writes it, C.I.'s not going to disagree.  Not just because they're friends but because they're pretty much always of the same mind.  If they aren't immediately, they are after they talk something through.  A huge amount of e-mails have coming in asking if Ava was "wrong" to write what she wrote or if C.I. feels the same and some have thought there must be some friction between the two over what Ava wrote.  No.  Ava?

Ava: No.  There's no problem between C.I. and myself.  John Kerry appeared before the House committee.  The week prior, the State Dept. that he runs had issued statements about how great it was that the G8 conference had set these guidelines for women's rights.  In the hearing, Kerry was asked by US House Rep. William Keating about violence against women and about tying aid to the women's rights.  Kerry rejected that idea with some weasel words about how it could hamper goals.  A week before he gave that weak and weasely response, the State Dept. issued a press release which included:

Foreign Ministers endorsed the Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict. They called for urgent action to address comprehensively the culture of impunity and to hold perpetrators to account for acts of sexual violence committed in armed conflict. Ministers emphasised the need to promote justice and accountability for sexual violence in armed conflict by strengthening the existing framework for prosecution, and to provide more long-term support to prevent and respond to sexual violence in armed conflict, as part of broader development and humanitarian efforts. They confirmed that rape and other forms of serious sexual violence in armed conflict are war crimes and also constitute grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions affecting large numbers of women and girls as well as men and boys. In addition to the physical and psychological trauma, sexual violence when used to deliberately target civilians or as a part of a widespread or systematic attack against civilian populations is a violation of international law, which can significantly exacerbate situations of armed conflict and may impede the restoration of peace and security. The G8 has an important role in advancing the implementation of the relevant UN Security Council Resolutions on Women, Peace and Security and Children and Armed Conflict, including by tackling conflict-related sexual violence and advancing the participation of women in peace building and transition processes, as Ministers acknowledged in Washington in April 2012.

Ava (Con't): "Foreign Ministers" includes Kerry.  So, while the world watches, this matters.  But when it comes time to talking to Congress, he rejects conditioning any form of aid on the basis of how women are treated by a government.

Dona: I agree that's offensive and thank you,  Ava, for reporting on that.  I'm sorry again to rush due to time issues.  But I'm going to go to Ruth.  September 11, 2012, there was an attack on a US compound -- compounds -- in Benghazi, Libya.  The attack left four Americans dead:  Glen Doherty, Tyrone Woods, Sean Smith and Chris Stevens.  Ruth's covered the issue from the start.  This was a very big issue at the hearing.  I read the coverage in the mainstream press and was surprised to learn that it was ridiculed and laughed at.  That was the impression the press gave about the hearing.  That's not what Ruth saw and reported.  Ruth?

Ruth: I was wondering what I was going to be discussing.  Now I see.  Yes, the press reports of the hearing were that Secretary Kerry was upset or short or said that this was not an issue.  And he did do some of that.  Especially before it was conveyed to him that there was, for example, non-classified material that the members of Congress had to go to a room to review and could not remove or copy.  Secretary Kerry was visibly surprised to learn of this.  He stated he was unaware of it and he would address it.  This was not the only issue about Benghazi that was new to him.  He stated he would assign someone in the State Department to work with the Committee on obtaining what they need.  What I am talking about right now did not make it into the reporting.  That is a shame because it showed a side of Secretary Kerry that was cooperative and helpful.  But the media, with few exceptions, seems to have long ago determined that Benghazi is a story they will not cover; therefore, they tend to alter reality when reporting on hearings.

Dona: Thank you, Ruth, so much.  This is a rush transcript.  We'll continue to try to roundtable on Congressional hearings.  Our e-mail address is

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Poll1 { display:none; }