Sunday, May 25, 2014

Congress and veterans


Dona: We’re back with another roundtable on Congress and Veterans.  Participating are Ruth, Wally, Kat, Ava and C.I.  And their most recent reports on Congressional VA hearings were C.I.'s Thursday, May 15th snapshot and Friday, May 16th snapshot, Ruth covered it in "Senator Richard Blumenthal says call in the F.B.I.," Kat covered it in "Shinseki needs to be fired," Ava covered it in "Shineski (Ava)" and Wally covered it in "More talk, no action (Wally)."    We’re touching base now not because of a new hearing but due to the week that was.  Wally, can you give us the back story on the latest VA scandal?

Wally: Sure.  The VA has a problem with some medical centers around the country – how many is not known but at least 26 are known to be under investigation currently – keeping cooked books.  To make it appear that they are serving veterans in a timely fashion, a fake set of records is kept which gives the impression that veterans are getting medical appointments within 14 days of requesting them.  The real records are kept out of the computer system and show veterans waiting weeks and months for needed medical appointments.

Dona: Clearly, this is a problem for veterans' health.  40 veterans are said to have died due to the cooked books in Phoenix.  But the criminal issue is something C.I.’s hit upon and it’s beginning to get traction.  Ruth, could you speak of that?

Ruth: Surely.  Mid-level officials, for example, have received bonuses.  The woman over the Phoenix center, for example, received nearly $9,000 last month as a bonus for the great work she has been doing.  Last week, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki rescinded that bonus.  But that woman is not alone.  Many have used the cooked books to get bonuses.  As C.I. has pointed out, these cooked books do not just influence bonuses.  These false figures also are influencing salaries because they are being used in performance appraisals.  This would be fraud.  The two sets of list qualify as fraudulent but when those lists result in bonuses and higher pay, there is another level of corruption and criminality, they are defrauding the government and the taxpayer.

Dona: Ruth, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has spoken of the criminal aspect last week and two weeks ago your own senator, Richard Blumenthal, was stating that the issue needed to be turned over to the Justice Department.

Ruth: Correct.  Senator Blumenthal is a former prosecutor.  Sitting in that hearing, I was proud of him for making that point.  However, the response from Mr. Shinseki was that maybe, after the Inspector General’s report was issued, he, Eric Shinseki, might think about doing that.

Kat: He really is inept.

Dona: In C.I.’s first report on Shinseki testifying before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, she included a lengthy exchange between Shinseki and Senator Richard Burr.

Kat: Right.  And that exchange grew more popular last week with many columnists, Dana Milbank with The Washington Post being only one, citing it.  Shinseki did not appear to grasp the seriousness of the hearing and showed up thinking ‘I don’t know’ was an acceptable answer.

Dona: The hearing wasn’t a pop quiz.  One of you made that point in your report on the hearing.

Kat: That was C.I. and the point was that Shinseki knew the scope of the hearing before he attended and yet he showed up unprepared, unable to answer the most basic questions.  He did not exhibit any confidence as a leader and he did nothing to convey he felt any urgency about the problem, about the scandal.

Dona: And that has become the press narrative.  Ava, you've been present for numerous hearings where Shinseki’s testified.  A reader, an Afghanistan War veteran, wondered how much of this might be Shinseki’s usual dynamics as opposed to the way it’s portrayed by the press.

Ava: I think that’s a fair question.  Shinseki can have a flat affect when speaking.  I’ve certainly seen that, yes.  But, let’s take the October 2009 hearing as an example.  He wasn’t offering testimony in a louder volume or with firmer vocal sounds.  But he was aware of the facts and did convey them.  When he didn't in that hearing, or any others, he still conveyed concern.  That was absent in the hearing two weeks ago.  This wasn’t an issue of how he spoke or his basic nature, it was an issue of not caring enough to do the prep required for a topic.  It was not a pop quiz.  He knew the topic ahead of time and he couldn’t get through the most basic questions.  Let me note Richard Burr.  He’s the Ranking Member.  That means Chair Bernie Sanders gets to ask the first series of questions, then Ranking Member Richard Burr goes.  This is important because this wasn’t Shinseki fading as the hearing went on or fading because the questions got deep into the weeds.  This was the second series of questions, they were basic questions.  You wouldn’t even call them compound questions.  Yet repeatedly Shinseki did not know the answer and didn’t seem too concerned about not knowing the answer.  He was not engaged.

Dona: Now we move to the topic of Senator Bernie Sanders who is the Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.  We heard from a number of veterans that Sanders needs to step down.  We also heard from one veteran who stated C.I., in last week’s roundtable, was attempting to “rescue Sanders.”  Jim’s note to the readers dealt with the session -- our writing session -- but it did not go up until Monday because we were so tired.  The veteran e-mailing about C.I. felt “she was much stronger in her snapshot reports and I know she thinks she’s doing a big favor to everyone by speaking little in roundtables but I just felt she kind of tied a pretty bow around it.”  That roundtable was an iffy one.  C.I. called it the worst one we’d done ever.  In terms of Ava and C.I., it needs to be noted that they had pink eye.  Their eyes were running and hurting -- Jim had put this in his note but apparently some people didn’t see it.  C.I. also got greeted, during the writing edition, with the news that one friend had died, then two friends had died and then a third call came in about a third death.  That all was before we did the roundtable.  So I want to say all that before I toss to C.I.

C.I.: It wasn’t my intent to rescue Bernie Sanders.  I do try to be fair.  If the reader feels I went beyond fair and tried to rescue him, my apologies for that.  As Dona noted, it was not an easy or fun writing edition.  That doesn’t excuse my rescuing Sanders if I did rescue him.  I just wanted to get done with it, sorry.

Dona:  Okay, so Bernie Sanders.  In the second of the two reports you did two weeks ago, C.I., you noted that you spoke with five veterans who attended the hearing and were critical of and gravely disappointed in Bernie Sanders.  Last week, some veterans went public with remarks similar to the ones you’d reported on the week prior.  What’s going on with Sanders?

C.I.: I’m going to piss people off with what I’m about to say, I’m sure.  I’m trying to provide an overview.  This is not necessarily how I feel about, for example, alternative medicine.  I’m referring to Sanders’ image.   Senator Daniel Akaka was Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee when Kat, Ava, Wally and I first began attending hearings.  Akaka had many issues he pressed on but one of the main ones would probably be the issue of families who’d lived on bases and suffered pollution-related illnesses and diseases.  That’s a strong issue.  That’s one veterans across the country can relate to.  It doesn’t necessarily effect a large number but a large number will have lived on bases and can relate to how awful it would be to have your health or your family’s health destroyed because of the conditions on a military base.  Senator Patty Murray became Chair next.  She also had many issues.  Her three most prominent issues were the VA’s failure to treat Post-Traumatic Stress, the issue of assault and rape within the ranks and veterans employment.  Like Shinseki’s key issues, Murray’s issues had wide support in the veterans’ community.  Now comes Senator Bernie Sanders as Chair.  Bernie is a Socialist.  That’s not a bad thing.  But it does make some veterans wary.  There are veterans of every political stripe including Socialists – many of them, for example, are in Iraq Veterans Against the War.  But for the broader community, that did put a question mark on Sanders.  Not a mark against him but a raised eye brow, an attitude of, ‘Okay, let’s see where this ride goes.’    I’m going to toss to Ava for Bernie’s issue in part because I’m bored with my own voice. 

Ava: Senator Bernie Sanders has made his key issue:  Alternative medicine.  He’s for acupuncture and yoga and other forms of treatment that go beyond just medicating.  He is not opposed to medicating when needed, he’s not trying to deny veterans medicine – we speak to veterans groups and there are some who wrongly feel that he is.  He sees alternative medicine as part of total approach to health care.  It is not the only aspect, but it is one aspect and hopefully its use – the VA’s studies are incomplete at this point – will prevent overmedication.  That is a serious issue and it can turn a veteran into a drug addict, it can allow real issues and symptoms to be masked and go untreated.  C.I.?

C.I.: Thank you.  Sanders was greeted with a raised eyebrow and then, at a time when veterans need jobs and veterans suicide rates are still a very serious issue, he’s doing – he’s championing an issue that a number of veterans see as a ‘soft’ issue at best.  With all of this going on, a new scandal breaks and the veteran community looks to see how Sanders will respond.  April 30th, they held a hearing.  Sanders made a brief remark about the scandal and then stuck to alternative medicine.  This pissed a lot of people off.  40 people were said to have died in this latest scandal and the reaction from veterans we spoke to – veterans groups, veterans who are friends – was that Sanders made a big mistake there and failed to show leadership.  Then came the hearing this month on the issue and Sanders faded during the hearing and after, the same day, goes on CNN and is rescuing the VA to such a point that Chris Cuomo pointed it out to him on air.  In March, Senator Bernie Sanders had a better image among veterans.  This scandal has hurt him because he’s failed to seriously address it.  There’s a hearing coming up and maybe he can get serious in that but I doubt it due to its scope.  If he doesn’t get serious about this issue, veterans are going to be calling for someone else to be the Chair.

Dona: Or possibly the Republicans might take control of the Senate in the November elections in which case, they’ll have the post of Chair.  I really can’t believe how poorly the Democrats are handling this scandal because it is going to cost them votes in the mid-terms.  They need to be calling this out and calling out Shinseki.  The hearing C.I.’s referring to is on proposed legislation, by the way, and that’s why C.I. said what she did about the scope of the hearing.  A Gulf War veteran wrote to say, “The reality is that veterans need help from everyone and Sanders is too busy serving the Democratic administration to serve veterans.  I found it very interesting that C.I. wrote a piece defending Senator John McCain’s right to speak out for veterans and then a day later IAVA meets with McCain.  I’m not a huge fan of McCain’s but he has been there on the Shinseki issue and I applaud IAVA for not playing partisan nonsense.”  C.I.?

C.I.: I am against the Iraq War.  John McCain is for it.  Because he was and is for it, he was being attacked on Twitter with the argument that he could not speak out on behalf of veterans.  I can speak out – I can be against the war and speak out for veterans.  McCain can be for the war and speak out for veterans.  These are not contradictions.  McCain believing in a war, believing it is just and needed, does not preclude him from defending veterans.  I was really offended by the Twitter nonsense.  As the Gulf War veteran pointed out in their e-mail, it can’t be one side fighting for veterans issues.  Everyone has to work together or it’s just not going to happen.  I have many problems with John McCain but his defending veterans is not one of them.  I applaud him for defending veterans.  Ruth?

Ruth: I would agree with that.  And like the Gulf War veteran who e-mailed, I have a lot more respect for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America for their willingness to talk to both sides. 

Dona: Okay then.  This has been a rush transcript.  Our e-mail address is

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