Thursday, October 10, 2013




Bronze Booby Prize


“This is the most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered,” said David E. Sanger, veteran chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times
The Obama administration has notably used social media, videos, and its own sophisticated websites to provide the public with administration-generated information about its activities, along with considerable government data useful for consumers and businesses. However, with some exceptions, such as putting the White House visitors’ logs on the website and selected declassified documents on the new U.S. Intelligence Community website, it discloses too little of the information most needed by the press and public to hold the administration accountable for its policies and actions. “Government should be transparent,” Obama stated on the White House website, as he has repeatedly in presidential directives. “Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their government is doing.”
But his administration’s actions have too often contradicted Obama’s stated intentions. “Instead,” New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote earlier this year, “it’s turning out to be the administration of unprecedented secrecy and unprecedented attacks on a free press.”



"I really called the hearing so that we could get the best possible information out to the veteran community,"  Committee Chair Jeff Miller declared at the start of today's House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing.  Appearing before the Committee was Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki.  Along with the Committee members, US House Rep Jerry McNerney (a former VA Committee member) questioned Shinseki.

Committee Chair Jeff Miller:   Veterans want to know whether they're disability checks and [G]I Bill benefits will be paid in November and there after.  They want to know if their disability claims will be decided or further delayed.  Families want to know if their loved ones will receive a timely burial at VA national cemeteries.  And many of VA employees themselves want to know whether they'll be serving veterans on the job or whether they will be furloughed.  I understand that answers to some of these questions are entirely dependent upon how long this shutdown lasts.  And although I want to be sure that most of us want this shutdown over clearly, it's our responsibility that the public especially veterans understand what the current state of play is.  First of all, Mr. Secretary, I want to say that in the last couple of weeks getting good information about your contingency plans and the effect of a lapse in appropriations and its effects on veterans has been very difficult for us to get the information out of your office.  For example, the original field guide that VA put out regarding the shut down impact at first spoke of no effect -- no effect -- on payment to veterans or any of their benefits.  But in a later version, VA stated that a prolonged shutdown would effect both but didn't provide any details of how it would be impacted.  Second, the Veterans Health Administration is not shut down at all because it has received a full year's appropriation for 2014 back in March.  So hospitals, clinics and Vet Centers should all be open for business.  Yet the President made a statement the day before the shutdown saying that veterans will find their support centers unstaffed and implied that counseling services for veterans with PTS would be effected.  Third, this Committee has been consistently told by VBA's Overtime Mandatory Effort towards the backlog would actually end on September 30th.  Yet, days into the shutdown, we're now informed that a shutdown prevented VBA's planned continued payment of overtime. Fourth, although a shutdown should have a relatively uniform effect across all regional offices, as suggested by your own field guide, my staff met with several representatives from VSOs last week who relayed that their members are hearing mixed messages out of different regional offices.

There's a lot to unpack in that series of statements.  First of all, it doesn't help anyone when the President of the United States lies to the American people in order to scare them.  The VBA has the money to run the hospitals and centers and has since March -- the money for Fiscal Year 2014.

September 30th, in the James Brady press room, President Barack Obama declared:

Vital services that seniors and veterans, women and children, businesses and our economy depend on would be hamstrung.  Business owners would see delays in raising capital, seeking infrastructure permits, or rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy.  Veterans who’ve sacrificed for their country will find their support centers unstaffed.

Barack lied.  Outlets carried his lies without a single question to them.  Even after the House Veterans Affairs Committee issued a fact sheet, Barack's lies have still not been called out by the press.  From the fact sheet:

As President Obama stated in his Sept. 30 government shutdown statement, will veterans find their support centers unstaffed in the event of a shutdown?
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, VA’s Military Sexual Trauma counseling services, Readjustment Counseling Services and Veterans Crisis Line will not be affected by a shutdown. Additionally, the following VA support phone lines will remain open for business: VA National Call Center, Coaching into Care Call Center, Debt Management Center, Homeless Prevention Line, Mammography Helpline, National Caregiver Support Line, Women Veterans Call Center, Vet Center Combat Call Center, Children of Women Vietnam Veterans; Foreign Medical Program; Spina Bifida Health Care Program. Additionally, all VA medical facilities and clinics will remain fully operational in the event of a shutdown.
As President Obama stated in his Sept. 30 government shutdown statement, will a government shutdown keep veterans suffering from PTSD from getting counseling services?
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, VA’s Military Sexual Trauma counseling services, Readjustment Counseling Services and Veterans Crisis Line will not be affected by a shutdown. All of those services are equipped to offer veterans suffering from PTSD with support. Additionally, all VA medical facilities and clinics will remain fully operational in the event of a shutdown and will be available for veterans with PTSD in need of counseling services.

Barack Obama lied to the American people (yet again) and the press ignores it (yet again).  It was fear mongering at its worst and, at least when they were out of power, Democrats in Congress objected to fear mongering, saw as the last resort of liars and manipulators.  But nine days ago, Barack did it and no elected Democrat has called him out.  Apparently, when you're out of power, it's very easy to have ethics -- or at least give lectures on ethics, but when you have power, you lose interest in ethics and ethical concerns.  Well that certainly explains the Democratic Party's war votes.

For more on what the shutdown will and won't mean to veterans, check this post by Tom Tarantion (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America) which is updated regularly -- including updated today.

Let's move to another issue raised.  Here's Eric Shinseki:

We have about 13,000 regional -- uh, benefits employees who are doing what they always do and that's process claims as quickly and as accurately as they can.  With the end of mandatory overtime, we are doing that at 1400 claims each day less than we were doing, uh, before 30 September.

But what Miller said, and Shinseki never contradicted, was that it was always the understanding that overtime would be phased out at the end of September.  That was regardless of whether or not there was a shutdown.  The overtime program has been one scandal after another of stealing taxpayer money.  To quell Congressional outrage, the program had a quick end date. For example, Mary Shinn, Daniel Moore and Steven Rich (Center for Public Integrity) reported in August:

While veterans waited longer than ever in recent years for their wartime disability compensation, the Department of Veterans Affairs gave its workers millions of dollars in bonuses for “excellent” performances that effectively encouraged them to avoid claims that needed extra work to document veterans’ injuries, a News21 investigation has found.
In 2011, a year in which the claims backlog ballooned by 155 percent, more than two-thirds of claims processors shared $5.5 million in bonuses, according to salary data from the Office of Personnel Management.
The more complex claims were often set aside by workers so they could keep their jobs, meet performance standards, or, in some cases, collect extra pay, said VA claims processors and union representatives. Those claims now make up much of VA’s widely scrutinized disability claims backlog, defined by the agency as claims pending more than 125 days.

And let me point out again that there is no great reduction in backlog.  It's a con game.  In many states across the country there are rental storage facilities run by Public Storage.  In New York, there is Manhattan Mini Storage.   Pretend you have a huge collection of books.  You've been tasked with going through the collection, currently stored at Public Storage, and deciding which books to keep and which to get rid of.  Instead of doing that, making that determination, you decided to move them to Manhattan Mini Storage.  You can now claim that all the books in Public Storage are gone.  And, indeed, they are.  But you didn't do the job, you didn't make the determination.  You played kick-the-can -- a game Barack used to deride when he was a US senator but now embraces from the White House. The 'reduction' is by giving claims a temporary classification and sending them to another group to be evaluated.  In other words, a single-step evaluation is now a two-step process (three if you count the temporary status). 

"Since the shutdown began on One  October, the backlog has stalled. and in fact, has increased by about 2,000 claims,"  Shinseki insisted.  "The shutdown directly threatens VA's ability to eliminate the backlog.  We've lost ground we fought hard to take.  Roughly 4,000 veterans a day are not now receiving decisions on their disability compensation claims due to the end of overtime."  But overtime was ending September 30th regardless.  Shinseki is so dishonest. 

Equally true, in the entertainment industry, we often have strikes.  A writers strike, for example, means producers not with the Writers Guild end up doing writing (in addition to scabs and picket line crossers).  The VA has many employees on salary including Shinseki.  If producers can roll up their sleeves and write dialogue, I think in this situation, Eric can roll up his sleeves and do some backlog work to earn that huge salary.  In fact, it would be a good idea to ask everyone in administration with backlog cases.  They might better understand the hold ups and how to improve the process.

This is something that should have been implemented years ago.  There's a backlog.  Every worker at the VA in management should know how to rate a claim -- how else can they judge the progress.  And knowing how to rate a claim requires that management regularly do so.  With just each member of management and administration required to do one claim evaluation a day, they'd be getting more than 4,000 done before you included any work done by those hired to rate claims.

You'd also determine quickly whether or not the claims workers have been working slowly for 'job protection' as many have alleged (including some claims workers) over the last years.

Shinseki made a statement many outlets ran with -- after dressing it up to improve it.  Here's what he said, "If the shutdown does not end in the coming weeks, VA will not be able to ensure delivery of 1 November checks to more than 5.18 million beneficiaries." 

Leo Shane III of Stars and Stripes, your job  is to report not to 'improve.'  Before you whore again, here's a little tip, when the Secretary of a Department says 5.18 million beneficiaries won't receive checks, they got that number by lying or basic math.  If they got it via basic math, they know when the shutdown would have to end -- a date.  "The coming weeks"?  Oh, no.  That's not an answer.  But wasn't it cute of you, Leo, to cover for Shinseki.

Buried in his piece, Shane notes, "Shinseki could not give a precise date when VA appropriations accounts would run out. "  No, Shinseki would not give a precise date.  When you can give a figure of 5.18 million, if it's accurate (and it may be), it's accurate because you've done a mathematic model.  Equally true, the checks can all be printed on October 30th and November 1st and sent out as they normally would (according to two friends in VA administration).  So that's 21 days.  Saying the shutdown can go on for 21 days doesn't present fear or urgency that the White House wants and that's most likely why Shineski dummied up on a date.  (I'm also told there's the equivalent of a short term loan process that the VA could use to cover those November 1st checks even if the shutdown is still in effect.) 

Shane also 'missed' the importance of this.

Chair Jeff Miller:  So my question is in statements in years past House and Senate regardless of parties and the White House have always come together and tried to find a way to prioritize how much money would be spent, who would be at the top of the list, just as we started to shut the government down and run out of money.  And today we don't have that.  Even back in the shutdown of 1995, there was a prioritization and DoD and veterans were taken off the table which they're not right now.  So my question, Mr. Secretary, is don't you think VA benefits should get the same priority or prioritization today as it has in other shutdown situations?

Secretary Eric Shinseki: I missed the last piece of your question, Mr. Chairman.  In some --

Chair Jeff Miller:  Just basically, in years passed, we have in fact  prioritized spending needs -- DoD and VA has always been basically taken off the table.  And  my question is: What's different this time?  And don't you think veterans benefits, in fact, should be prioritized at a higher level than others in our government.

Eric Uh, Mr. Chairman, I would just, uh, tell you this Department has benefitted from, uh, leadership of the president and leadership and support in the Congress.  So if you look at what has transpired over the last four years to our budgets,  I think we can all be proud of what we have done to take care of veterans and I will always tell you that that's a top priority with me.  Uh, but I do understand that there is a budget request presented to the Congress, there is a process that you referred to that requires a passage of the budget within that the departments are then provided a guidance on what their budgets will be.  I'm not sure where the Congress is in that process but I would ask the Congress, uh, to provide us a budget so that not only this Department but our partners in government on whom we rely to do our mission, uh, well, uh, can get on with business.

See, Leo Shane III, that was your story: "VA Secretary not willing to fight for veterans benefits."  Homeless veterans is a topic the House and Senate Committee regularly address.  When Kat shares her thoughts on a hearing with that topic, she often notes that there are millions of homeless people in this country who are not veterans and it's a shame that Congress shows little to no concern for them.  Kat's correct, I don't disagree with her.  But I don't bring it up here because I expect, for example, Senator Patty Murray chairing a Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs to make homeless veterans her first priority among the homeless.  Again, I understand Kat's reaction, I support it, I agree with it.  This country needs to address the homeless crisis among the general population.  But, again, I expect a Senate Agricultural Committee to put farmers first and I expect that from the Ag Secretary as well.  Today, Shinseki was given the opportunity to put veterans first and refused to.  I think that's a story, I think it's probably the most story out of the hearing (and one that will only lead to louder cries that Shinseki needs to go).

There's  much more that I would like to cover and maybe we can tomorrow.  (Though we'll be at two hearings tomorrow that I'll want to include as well.)  For the record, Leo Shane III wasn't the worst reporter on the hearing.  But he was bad and we call that out here.

RECOMMENDED: "Iraq snapshot"
"Corpses continue to be dumped in the streets"
"Shinseki, Kerry, they all lie to Congress"
"Old Acquaintance"
"Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?"
"The Letter"
"beyond the forest"
"Dark Victory"
"All About Eve"
"Dead Ringer"
"Now, Voyager"
"The Little Foxes"
"Ron Elving's posing nude for his calendar"