Thursday, July 23, 2009










This morning the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs held a hearing entitled Examining the Ancillary Benefits and Veterans Quality of Life Issues.

"This Subcommittee has actively tackled many complex and complicated issues that have been encumbering the Veterans Benefits Administration and and it's ability to properly compensate veterans who file disability claims," explained US House Rep John Hall who is the Chair of the Subcommittee. "These issues have majorly centered on VA business processes and operations. Today's hearing will focus on the actual appropriateness of available benefits in meeting the needs of disabled veterans and their families."

US House Rep Doug Lamborn is the Ranking Member and, due to other demands, made his opening remarks before Hall did and then Lamborn had to leave the hearing. The hearing was grouped around three panels. The first was composed of Paralyzed Veterans of America's Carl Blake, National Veterans Legal Service Program's Ronald Abrams and Blinded Veterans Association's Thomas Zampieri. The second panel was composed of National Academies' Lonnie Bristow, Economic Systems Inc.'s George Kettner, Quality of Life Foundation's Kimberly Munoz and National Organization on Disability's Carol Glazer. The third panel was the VA's Bradley Mayes and Thomas Pamperin.

Chair John Hall: Mr. Zampieri, as you noted in your testimony, eye and ear injuries have been associated with TBI, with explosions of roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan among other battlefields and theaters of combat. Do you feel that VA has done a sufficient job evaluating all the face and head trauma completely and accurately to compensate veterans and provide them with all necessary ancillary-ancillary benefits?

Thomas Zampieri: Thank you for the question. I think it's actually a concern of ours and probably safe to say many of the other VSOs that individuals with Traumatic Brain Injuries that have sensory associated symptoms have a very difficult time in getting their ratings because so many of those are subjective kind of complaints. You know we frequently hear a a lot about the problems with tinnitus, for example. Frequently TBI patients complain of photophobia which is extreme sensitivity to light. And those are very difficult to rate. But those things can have quite an impact on the individual's ability to function and also their relationship socially, employment wise. And so we're concerned about the way TBI assessments are done in regards to sensory losses. I know that the VA has put a lot of effort towards looking at new assessment methods and congratulate them for-for recognizing this is a serious problem.

Chair Hall then asked him whether there were any devices currently are in the works that hoped to address sight issues and he pointed to the Brainport Vision Device which was a topic of the May 13th House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing. From that day's snapshot:

Robert Beckman [Brainport Technologies] spoke of a portable device, the Brainport Vision Device, where a small camera ("with zoom capability") is hooked to other neurochannels ("such as the tongue"). Beckman stated, "One blind user with two glass eyes was able to successfully shoot a basketball and another used the Brainport Vision Device at an indoor rock climbing gym to see the next rock holds and at home with his daughter to play Tic-Tac-Toe."

"The Brainport Vision Device will not replace the cane or the sight dog," he continued. "But it will become an important, additional tool to improve the safety, mobility and quality of life for blind users. Some examples. Finding the open seat on a crowded bus or train. Identifying the direction to the target building in a confusing parking lot. Finding the handle in order to remove a hot pot from the stove. Wicab recently sponsored clinical testing of the Brainport Vision Device at the Atlanta VA. Dr. Michael Williams, the PI concluded, 'Bottom line, the device performs remarkably well for the tasks that we looked at in phase one'. To optimize the device we need feedback from a much larger pool of users who are blind. We would welcome the opportunity to further test the Brainport Vision Device at VA sites. Perhaps those willing soldiers who are blind as a result of a blast injury should be first in line to test this new technology?"

Zampieri noted the device was still in the early stages of research and stated those who have tested it would declare "it holds some hope, but it's not going to replace natural vision." Under questioning from Hall, Abrams explained that he had a relative in residential care "and it cost over $90,000 to $100,000 to put somebody in a home and homecare, if you need twenty-four hour care, is hugely expensive."

"First observation," declared Glazer on the second panel noting an ongoing program -- Army Wounded Warrior Career Demonstration Project -- the National Organization on Disability is conducting with the army, "a fundamental mismatch many of the supports for veterans are constrained to an active service model placing the burden on veterans and their families to find and approach agencies But we find that the most seriously injured soldiers, especially with cognitive injuries are not really able to effectively access these services. [. . .] Second observation, the need to deal with both a veteran and the family member. As others have stated, the process of recovering from injury and coming home and coming to terms with disability is a very complex process that impacts the entire family. Ancillary benefits in our belief must be available to veterans and family members."

Glazer would go on to note issues such as criminal charges for veterans suffering from PTSD or TBI, training in the management of personal finances. Glazer, and her organization, are a little too Republican for me (Tom Ridge chairs the organization) and it's a little too "smile and pull up those bootstraps." But Glazer was one of the few who knew how to speak. Globbidy-gook? No one gives a damn. Don't reference a model, for example, in another country, without explaining it. If that's the root of your response to Hall's question, you're wasting everyone's time including your own. I don't usually note "I like this organization, I don't like that one" but on this panel, Glazer's being noted because she knows how to speak and because two others will be ignored, I want to be really clear that no one reads this as I'm endorsing Glazer's organization. And let's also note that when all you do is toss out a bunch of numbers, no one's really impressed. In fact, it's assumed you actually don't know what you're talking about -- including your numbers -- or you'd be offering testimony that people could actually follow. I've never seen as many blank stares in a hearing before (true of the first panel to a lessor degree). Those not doing blank stares? A man to the right of us repeatedly put his hand over his face during the second panel, at a loss as to what was being said. At the end of the hearing, he stated he felt as if it had been conducted in a foreign language. Glazer knew how to speak and so did Kimberly Munoz.

Munoz was asked to estimate the amount spent by veterans and their families for assistance and stated she didn't know that answer but that it varies due to the fact "that some families have the assistance they need to get the benefits they need from VA and they have to use less out of pocket to get the services their veteran needs. Other families who may have not had the guidance from perhaps a VSO or who don't have the education in our country -- maybe they've moved here from another country -- and they don't speak our language, it's hard for them to run through all the rules and regulations and applications
and so they have a difficult time accessing the benefits that they need. There was a study that was released by the Center for Naval Analysis that estimated 19 months of lost income of around $2,000 some odd dollars for a total of $36,000 average loss per family of a catastrophically injured service member. That's their income loss which isn't necessarily answering your question of how much do they spend out of pocket to get the services but it is -- it is a figure that's been widely reported."

Chair John Hall: Thank you and what additional factors do you think VA should specifically consider when it adjudicates aid and attendance or housebound rates?

Kimberly Munoz: I think they need to consider the -- one of the key questions is: Can the veteran keep themselves safe from the hazards of daily living? There's many other questions related to a body part function or a loss of a body part but buried deep in there is can the veteran keep himself safe from the hazards of daily living? For those who have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and stand-alone TBI I believe that that is a key to determining whether or not that veteran needs aid and attendance. The aid and attendance can also vary in terms of do you need physical aid and attendance or do you need oversight? So one package of aid and attendance does not meet the needs of every single veteran.

Chair John Hall: That seems to me that that judgment about the safety of the veteran living independently is similar to a judgment that one would have to make about an Alzheimer-Alzheimer's patient, for instance. In many families they go through that difficult time when they realize that a stove or an electric socket is no longer a safe thing for this adult family member to be handling alone.

Kimberly Munoz: Some of the family members have suggested specially adapted equipment be included in the grants available for home modifications -- like stoves that automatically turn off after a certain amount of time. Or other appliances that consider short term memory loss for some of the Traumatic Brain Injury patients.

Chair John Hall: And what else do you think Ms. -- Ms. Munoz what else could the VA do to improve the quality of life of disabled veterans and their families.

Kimberly Munoz: It sounds simple but I know it's very difficult and that is: Make it easier for families to get what they need. Anytime you look at the Title 38 and try to determine, "Well what am I -- what is this veteran eligible -- or how do I go about it?" It's so hard to know who is eligible for what. One family care giver told me the story of, you know, "We thought we were eligible for respite care and then when we called my son's rating wasn't, wasn't high enough." Or the SMC [Special Monthly Compensation] code wasn't the right code. So they work very hard then to find out, "Well how to I get that code?" And that's a backwards way to work a system. You need to find out what does that veteran need, much like you [George Kettner] suggested, what is the need of that veteran and what is the need of that family so that they can live safely and live independently -- not how do we get you pigeon holed into the right code so that you get the services that that code offers.

Can you follow that? Yes, you can. And an organization that sends a speaker like that. or Glazer, into a hearing is way ahead of others. You need to know the topic of the hearing -- a problem for one person on the first panel who repeatedly answered questions with a variation of "I don't know" -- and you need to be able to speak clearly on the topic. Glazer advocated for less benefits -- I'm not joking -- and whether anyone agreed with her or not, everyone could follow what she was saying. (She was saying that benefits can prevent work. And that's as much as I'm doing to circulate her nonsense argument.)

Yesterday's snapshot noted the House Veterans Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. Kat covered it last night at her site (and plans to cover today's hearing at her site tonight). Despite the fact that the New York Times and one of their reporters were repeatedly trashed in that hearing, the paper of some record ignored the hearing, as did most of the press. Walter F. Roche Jr. (Pittsurgh Tribune-Review) covers the VA's Kent Wallner's testimony. I didn't find him believable, Roche obviously did and use the link to read about that aspect of yesterday's hearing. Rachel Baye and Naomi Jagoda (The Daily Pennsylvanian) cover the hearing and zoom in on Dr. Gay Kao and his attempt to play victim.

Also in yesterday's snapshot was Nouri al-Maliki, puppet of the occupation, and US President Barack Obama's performace at the Rose Garden. Apparently journalists also wanted to play a role -- something other than reporter -- judging from the articles filed on the nonsense. For perspective, we drop back to Whit Stillman's Barcelona. Specifically, a party where American Fred (Chris Eigeman) is discussing his home country.

Female Party Goer: You can't say Americans are not more violent than other people?
Fred: No.

Female Party Goer: All those people killed in shootings in America?

Fred: Oh. Shootings, yes. But that doesn't mean Americans are more violent than other people. We're just better shots.

America's not more violent, insists Fred, they're just better shots. Apparently some similar defense was on the minds of Karen DeYoung (Washington Post), Jeff Zeleny (New York Times) and Mark Silva (Los Angeles Times and other Tribune properties). None of the three challenges Barack's laughable assertion that "Violence continues to be down". No, it doesn't. As we explained yesterday, the trend in lower violence ended with the month of January. Starting with February, you see an uptick in violence. That trend has held each passing month. We also cited Al Jazeera which was explaining, "An estimated 437 Iraqis were killed in June, the highest death toll in 11 months, and the near daily attacks have continued in July." June, the most recent month with data, saw "the highest death toll in 11 months," but Barack wants to claim violence is down? Apparently Iraq isn't more violent currently, it's just seen better shots and better bomb builders? DeYoung has the strongest article, then Zeleny and then Silva. One compliment to all three is they covered it. Strongly or badly, they covered it. Nouri al-Maliki met with Barack Obama yesterday. The Iraq War is six years old and counting. Where was the coverage? Amy Goodman's pathetic two sentences in headlines? That's something to be proud of? How pathetic. What do you get instead? You get the crap Bob Somerby's calling out today (the mind readers who 'just know' something but don't know a thing -- which didn't stop Amy Goodman from doing yet another segment on it today). You really need to ask how the media -- Big and Small -- is serving you because in this round of Liar's Poker, seems to be a lot of Liz Smiths sitting down at the table wanting to be dealt in.

Back to this morning's articles: Where are Americans? The leader of a country the US remains at war with visits and where are the voices of Americans? We do grasp that the Iraq War continues, right? Check yesterday's snapshot and then read the articles again. A poll was released yesterday. It addressed Iraq. Where's any citation of the results? From yesterday's snapshot:A new AP-GfK Roper poll finds a decrease in the number of respondents who believe Barack will remove troops from Iraq -- 15% lower than the last poll. [PDF format warning, click here for the data breakdown.] 62% of respondents ranked "The Situation in Iraq" as either "Extremely important" or "Very important." The poll found an increase of five percent on the number of respondents who disapprove of Barack's handling of the Iraq War. Is this increase a result of angry right-wingers upset over Barack's so-called plan? Maybe. But the respondents were asked if they believed Barack would "remove most troops from Iraq?" In January, 83% of respondents said it was likely and 15% said it was unlikely. The 83% who thought it was coming has fallen to 68%. The number who believe it is not happening has risen to 26%.
Nouri and Barack meet up at the White House yesterday as a poll is released which finds the number of people who believe Barack will "remove most troops from Iraq" has fallen from 83% in January to 68% presently -- a 15% drop. Where's that in any of the articles?The articles repeatedly (and falsely) claim the US will be out of Iraq in 2011. That's not what's happening. It's not even claimed to be happening. Does no one listen to Adm Mike Mullen, Gen Ray Odierno or even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates? Reading the articles today, it doesn't appear that anyone does. Uh-oh. Reality slaps them in the face. Aljazeera reports, "The Iraqi prime minister has admitted US troops could stay in the country beyond 2011." Yeah, he did it today and it's only a surprise if you've never grasped what the Status Of Forces Agrement does and does not do. The Washington Post, for example, has one person on staff who understands the SOFA completely. That's one more than the New York Times has. Drop back to real time coverage (Thanksgiving 2008) and you'll see the Washington Post could explain what it did and didn't do and get it right. No other US outlet can make that claim. (The Los Angeles Times hedged their bets but did appear to grasp it in an article co-written by Tina Susman.) McClatchy Newspapers? Oh goodness, Leila Fadel made an idiot of herself over the SOFA. Even more so than the New York Times (Elisabeth Bumiller -- in December and January -- offered some realities but they were lost on the other reporters at the paper). The Times just got it wrong. Fadel got it wrong and sang praises of it. It wasn't reporting, it was column writing passed off as such. Today, Nouri declared, "Nevertheless, if the Iraqis require further training and support we shall examine this at the time, based on the needs of Iraq." Sound familiar? It should. This month you should have heard Adm Mike Mullen make the same statement, you should have heard General Ray Odierno make it over and over beginning in May and US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has made it many times -- generally he's asked when he's visiting a foreign country because US reporters don't really seem to care. One exception would certainly be Dahr Jamail who was on KPFA's Flashpoints yesterday and explained, "We still have over 130,000 troops in Iraq. Troops are not being withdrawn from Iraq. They are being relocated to different bases, some of the bases still within cities, but they are not being withdrawn thus far." Dahr's latest book The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan has just been released this month. IPA provides this context from Global Policy Forum's James Paul: "For all the talk of 'U.S. withdrawal' from Iraq, the reality on the ground is starkly different. U.S. troops still patrol the cities, in flagrant violation of the U.S.-Iraqi security agreement, while Washington remains hugely influential in the politics of the country. The gigantic U.S. embassy looms large in Baghdad, U.S. forces still hold thousands of Iraqi prisoners in the vast U.S. prison camp in the southern desert, dozens of U.S. military bases remain in place including the sprawling 'Camp Victory' complex in Baghdad and Washington continues to press towards its ultimate goal -- the de facto privatization of Iraq's vast oil resources."

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