BULLY BOY PRESS & CEDRIC'S BIG MIX -- THE KOOL-AID TABLE
CELEBRITY IN CHIEF BARRY O, DESPERATE TO REVIVE HIS FADING POPULARITY, DECLARES ON AMERICAN IDOL TONIGHT, "YOU'RE ALL MY DAWGS."
HE APPEARS ON THE SHOW WITH SHE-HULK AT HIS SIDE AND ASKED WHY, BARRY O EXPLAINED, "WHEN MADONNA NEEDED A ROLL DAWG, SHE WENT WITH SANDRA BERNHARD. YOU ALWAYS WANT TO BE THE PRETTIEST ONE AND NOT LET YOUR ROLL DAWG STEAL FOCUS."
FROM THE TCI WIRE:
Bi-partisan support doesn't mean a great deal to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee as senators on both sides of the aisle can attest. It is a dysfunctional committee that appears repeatedly unable to address new business. Murray's legislation may fly through, however, because what does get accomplished tends to happen as a result of her. She's pretty much the acting chair and the Committee would do much better if the current chair would acknowledge the reality that, at 85-years-old, he is not up to the job of chairing a committee, certainly not one with such pressing responsibilities. The Democratic Party has shown no leadership in confronting him on this matter.
Today the Committee held one of those oh so rare blink and you miss it hearings. So rare, in fact, that Senator Jon Tester felt the need to declare to Akaka, "I want to thank you for the hearing." Chair Akaka was doing stand up -- and about as funny as Dane Cook (translation, not at all -- though Tester might disagree, he noted after Akaka's stand up was completed, "I can't top that by any means."). The hearing was on the GI Bill and Akaka declared (straight face/dead pan) that, "Since the programs began, the Committee has been actively monitoring the implementation of the new benefits." Really?
I didn't realize Stephanie Herseth Sandlin served on this committee.
Oh, wait, she doesn't. She serves on the House Veterans Affairs Committee and I know I've attended at least three hearings she's held in the last seven months which have addressed the payments in the GI Bill program and other details of the program. And Danny Akaka has chaired how many hearings on this? Help me out here? The answer comes back, until today: ZERO.
Akaka's got time for jokes because he's not chairing a functioning committee. Veterans were waiting for their fall semester checks, having to take out loans, risking losing their housing and Akaka couldn't hold a hearing? This was a national scanald last fall and Akaka's response was to ignore it. This is unacceptable and the fact that Democratic leadership refuses to address it (they had no problem removing Robert Byrd as the Chair of a Committee) is beginning to translate into: We don't give a damn about veterans. The veterans of America do not have time to waste because Akaka's 85-years-old and won't admit that he's barely keeping it together and that he needs to resign as chair. The veterans of American and their loved ones do not have time to waste because the Senate Democratic leadership will not impose discpline and explain to Akaka that seniority and senility share a lot of common syllables.
The hearing was composed of two panels. The first panel was the VA's Keith Wilson and Dan Osendorf as well as DoD's Robert Clark. The second panel was Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America's Marco Reininger and Faith DesLauriers, Robert Madden (American Legion) and William Stephens (National Association of State Approving Agencies).
The eye rolling never stops with the ineffective Committee and its government witnesses. All on the first panel were proud of themselves and full of themselves. Keith Wilson's song and dance is old -- but of course, unlike the House Veterans Affairs Committee, the Senate version was finally hearing him for the first time.
Let's drop in to Dan Osendorf's remarks. Those paying attention should be offended.
Dan Osendorf: In October 2009, VA began issuing advance payment to veterans and service members who had not received their benefits for the fall enrollment period This was done so they could focus on their academic studies and not be burdened with their financial concerns. VA notified advance payment recipients in late January and February of the reimbursment process for the advance payments. Notification explained that $750 dollars would be deducted from their monthly education payments beginning April 1st and they could make arrangements with the debt management center for a reduced withholding if $750 was causing a financial hardship. Individuals not currently enrolled in school received notification on how payment arrangements could be made to satisfy the debt. Anticipating a large number of requests for lower withholdings for the April 1 check. VMC added six telephone lines and eight operators and extended telephone service hours an additional hour to handle the increased volume. In addition, we created a form that allowed them to request a reduced withholding and could be e-mailed to DMC. This was also furnished to the VVA education websites so that they could take calls and forward the forms to us. We created special mailboxes where they could send the forms to, we could process them to. In addition, VVA added it to its website [. . .]
Wow, you worked real hard and you're such a big sweetheart to do all that. If we forget that you had to do all of that because the VA wasn't doing their damn job. No "advance" payments would have been needed had the VA distributed the fall checks in a timely manner -- and, yes, there are still some who have not received their fall checks, their fall 2009 checks. This is akin to an arsonist bragging about how s/he saved the building after setting it on fire. If the building had never been set on fire, no efforts to put out the fire would have been needed. The idea that "advance" checks were a favor? That's laughable.
So was having to sit through another slide show by Keith Wilson -- though, again, this was a first for the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee since they chose to do nothing when Kimberly Hefling and AP broke the story. They chose to do nothing while parents were in danger of losing their housing. They chose to do nothing while veterans -- as late as December -- were having to take out short term loans at high interest rates to pay for Christmas for their children because they'd used every spare bit of their own money to cover the tuition that the VA was supposed to have already covered. I love how it's "advanced" checks today -- in real time, they were calling them "emergency" checks. But let's downplay that as well.
Wilson lied to through his teeth at one point and if anyone on the panel had been to college (or paid attention to their child's college) in the last two decades, they would have confronted him on it (instead Akaka quickly moved on -- well maybe one of his great grandchildren will go to college soon). Universities do not set their tuition rate as the fall semester begins. They would lose a huge number of students that way because students (and parents if parents are paying) need to know in advance what the cost is. But Wilson pinned the blame for the delays in checks on the fact that it was "crunch time" and just as the VA wants to be paying the full fall semester at the start, well at the start of the fall semester is when the universities are setting their tuition. And anyone in college in the last two decades or with children in college would have said, "Uh, explain to me then early enrollment?" This week alone, KOMU has reported that tuition for grad school will increase this fall (2.7%) for the University of Missouri System, the Jackson Citizen Patriot editorial board just praised Michigan University's board of regents for announcing that there will be no increase in tuition (or the cost of room and board) for the fall 2010 semester (or the spring 2011). And we could go on and on. But this is set well ahead of time. We'll note the exchange in full. Please note Wilson -- as he always does -- refers to the start of the year when in fact he means the fall semester. He does that in every hearing. I have no idea why. But read the remarks in full and you'll grasp how he's claiming that the schools are submitting fall enrollment funds to the VA at the same time that the tuition rates are still up in the air. That is incorrect. There are about seven lies/errors in his testimony and, were I not so disgusted, we'd go through each one.
Chair Daniel Akaka: What one change do you believe would be most important to streamline and simplify the implement a new program?
Keith Wilson: I have to limit that to one? [Laughs at what he thinks was his own humorous remark.] The program itself is a fabulous program. Uh, and anything I would say, I wouldn't want to detract from - from the significance of this program. From-from the user perspective, from the students -- the veterans perspective what I hear a lot about is the confusion of having -- thank you [volume on his microphone had been turned up] -- more than one GI Bill program. As you're aware, the programs that we had prior to the post-9/11 GI Bill are still in existance and individuals need to make those decisions on what the best program is for them based on their unique situations. It's not always the Post-9/11 GI Bill, it's not always the Montgomery GI Bill. But that decision process causes a lot of confusion for our students and it makes it that much more cumbersome for us to administer as well. There are a lot of other issues with the payment structure uh and timing. For example, uh, paying the tuition and fees and setting the tuition and fees are at the beginning of the year. That causes us a lot of problems because the time that the states are setting the tuition rates is the same time that schools are submitting enrollment information to us and we're wanting to pay benefits. Just that crunch time that occurs in the fall with the establishments of the rates -- uh -- is very challenging.
Chair Daniel Akaka: Uh, Mr. Warren . . .
I'm not in the damn mood and the fact that the Committee was goes to their lack of leadership and, honestly, their lack of awareness. Do we have to buy them building blocks and Play Dough to explain what's what to them? This is ridiculous. US House Rep Harry Teague was calling out the problems with choosing one of the two bills -- Montgomery or Post-9/11 -- in a hearing on October 15th and he was calling it out to whom? Keith Wilson. Yeah. And now Keefers want to act like it's a big problem.
Before the problem, when answering Teague, was "statutory requirement" -- confronted with the issue, he pushed it off as a problem Congress had created. Now, he brings it up on his own and still doesn't take responsibility. I'm going to repeat what we noted when we covered that before: The VFW -- FOR FREE -- helped veterans figure out which program was best suited for their needs. They stepped up and did that for free. That's great and many were helped by the VFW doing that; however, that's the role of the VA. The VA -- paid to do this -- didn't do their damn job and the VFW -- not an arm of the government -- came in and picked up the slack as best they could.
Congress has refused, REFUSED, to call out the VA for this. People are confused, Keith Wilson wants to say today. Well, yeah, they are and it's the VA job to clarify. I know Wilson's job would be so much easier if it weren't for those 'pesky veterans' but those veterans are why he has a job, why VA exists and its past time that they started doing that job. And veterans are aware of this. It was a friend who's an Iraq War veteran that asked me to note, last fall, that the VFW was doing this and doing it for free. And he noted he was on hold or couldn't get through with the VA over and over but there was little to no wait time with the VFW. Why is that the VA isn't held to any standards at all?
And why is it that on the House Committee you have so many who are informed and who work so very hard and will ask the tough questions but on the Senate Committee it's all grins and giggles. Let's drop back to that October 15th hearing to again note US House Rep Harry Mitchell refusing to be spun by Keith Wilson:
US House Rep Harry Mitchell: Mr. Wilson, this is not your first appearance before this subcommittee. You have appeared before it several times since the GI Bill was signed into law to keep the committee members apprised of the VA's efforts to implement the GI Bill. And you offered assurances that the VA would be ready by August 1st. You even brought in a detailed timeline to show us how the VA would be ready by August 1st. In February, [John] Adler of this Committee asked if the VA needed more tools to accomplish the goal of program implementation and you responded by stating, "This legislation itself came with funding. This funding at this point has adequately provided us with what we need for implementing payments on August 1, 2009." If this legislation provided you with what you needed then why did you go to the VA -- or then where did you and the VA go wrong in meeting the implementation goal? So I'd like to ask two questions. How are we supposed to believe the assurances you're offering today? And, two, knowing how interested Congress is in implementing the GI Bill, once you knew you were running into problems, why didn't you let us know? Why did we have to first hear about it from veterans and read about it in the Army Times?
Keith Wilson: You rightly call us out in terms of not providing timely service to all veterans. We acknowledge that and uh are working as hard as humanly possible uh to make sure that we are meeting those goals. Uh the timeline that we provided to the subcommittee uh I believe was largely met uh in terms of our ability to generate payments on the date that we were required to deliver the first checks -- first payments did go out August 3rd. Uh there were a couple of significant challenges uh that we had not anticipated. One was uh the volume of work created by the increase in applications for eligibility determinations that did not translate into student population dropping off other programs. But we had significantly more work in our existing programs than we would have expected to have to maintain going into the fall enrollment. One of the other primary challenges that we have responded to is uh when we began our ability to use the tools that were developed uh to implement the program in the short term. Uh May 1st is when we began using those tools and it was very clear to us from the get-go that even accounting for our understanding that they weren't perfect, we underestimated the complexity and the labor-intensive nature of what needed to be done. We responded by hiring 230 additional people to account for that.
US House Rep Harry Mitchell: And I read all of that in your testimony. My point is, once you knew you were running into problems, why didn't you come back to us? We heard it first by veterans and through the Army Times that you were having problems.
Remember that this morning's hearing was the first time that the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing. They had other things to do . . . like rest. And rest some more. Nap. Naps are good. Find some soft foods that don't require a great deal of chewing. Nap. Nap some more. And when they finally hold a hearing, they are uninformed and they are unwilling to probe.
Oh, excuse me. Akaka did ask about checks. He asked about checks that were over the amount needed and how the VA was going to ensure that this didn't happen again. That he was worried about. (As was Ranking Member Richard Burr.) A small number (about 6,000) of veterans were overpaid and the VA now has to go back and figure out who those were (that was the VA's error, by the way, not the veterans) and that was a deep concern to Akaka. All the ones whose life were turned upside down while they waited, the ones who are now being pressured to pay back the "advance" payments, those aren't a real big concern for the Committee.
Jon Tester tried to ask questions and if I were in the mood to spoon feed him, I'd go over all the lies he was told. But the automated program -- and he can check with the House committee on this -- was supposed to be no problem except for new arrivals. That means when Tester was told that there would be about a 10% reduction in the future of processing, he was lied to. The VA is again changing their timelines and their figures. That was obvious throughout the hearing. Tester had some good questions (including about rural areas) but if anyone on his staff had bothered to contact the staff of the House members of the Veterans Affairs Committee, they could have prepped him and he would have realized that agreed to targets and that happy spin that was provided over the last months just got pushed back dates. There's no excuse for this.
And if you're not grasping it or you need a walk through, we'll drop back to the January 21st snapshot for this exchange that took place during a hearing of the Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity where Keith Wilson and his co-horts were again Happy Talking:
Chair Stephanie Herseth Sandlin: Let me start with a statement, Mr. Wilson, that you made. On slide four, the long-term release II scheduled for June 30, 2010 that sort of allows for the automated data feeds for the schools, DoD, that this is a game changer from the user point of view. You know, for Mr. Baker, Mr. Wilson, I assume that the goal for the long-term release II is to have that operatational for processing fall 2010 semester claims. Is that correct?
Keith Wilson: Yes, that's correct.
Chair Stephanie Herseth Sandlin: That being the case, Mr. Baker, according to your testimony, release I has been modified to reduce its functionality because of this software requirement that you recently --
Roger Baker: Yes. The increased complexity, yes.
Chair Stephanie Herseth Sandlin: So why did it take until just recently to identify the need for the new software requirement?
Roger Baker: Actually . . . uhm . .. what-what occured is as the subject matter experts and the software people were sitting down together to walk through what does an amended reward really mean? What are the intracricies, the decision trees required for an amended reward . . . uhm . . . They kept uncovering , if you will, more and more depth of what was required on software of amended awards and it went beyond the estimates they had originally had for what it was going to take to do amended awards. Uh, so as we determined that the amount of work to make that March 31st date exceeded the amount possible to accomplish, we had to determine what would come out of that release?
Chair Stephanie Herseth Sandlin: And how confident are you then that the June 30th deadline can be met --
Roger Baker: We're --
Chair Stephanie Herseth Sandlin: In light of how important that deadline is to the fall semester?
Roger Baker: We're -- we're pretty confident in that. We-we, as you can imagine, we've had some significant focus on that as well. And we've talked about what is it possible to do in the June 30th timeframe. We know that we can get everything in that was originally scheduled for release I and release I was intended to be the replacement for the current system so -- functional replacement. If we had delayed release I until about mid-May , we'd have had a fully functional release. There's about that much additional work that was added. Uh, so we know that will come in. And we will be releasing that functionality in incremental pieces along the way to mid-May and if VBA determines it's appropriate allowing the users to work with the increased functionality in that time frame. And then adding those automated feeds that are critical as we ramp up to June 30th. So we-we have a reasonably good confidence in the June 30th -- and if you don't mind, I'll elaborate on that just a little bit further. The-the thing that I have to tell you that I'm pleased with in the slip -- and I know this is going to sound a little strange -- is that in December, this project team was able to tell us that they had a problem with meeting the March 31st date. That's not a usual thing inside of VA projects. Usually, you hear about it March 30th. Uh, you know, that's going to happen on March 31st. That gave us time to make rational decisions about: Do we want to allow the slip or do we want to force the delivery date so that we see the software and what is the impact of that on subsequent releases? And so that's why we have a reasonable degree of confidence that we're going to have what we need on June 30th for a more automated system going into the fall semester. That's exactly been our focus with that June 30th release.
Chair Stephanie Herseth Sandlin: Well I would just request that as that team -- you know, you've got a lot of internal milestones you're trying to meet and you've been very helpful to our committee and our committee staff in sharing information at every step of this process but in light of the problems that we've had with the interum solution, in light of the importance of this long-term solution, we-we need to stay on top of this, day-by-day, week-by-week. And if there is any other problem that is revealed to your project team, uh, we just need to be made aware of some of that ongoing work because of the importance of these deadlines in meeting the benefits for these students and-and understanding what more you might need from us because it's a high priority not only among this committee but the colleagues we hear from who have student veterans who are experiencing problems. You know, we want to make sure that we're able to answer questions immediately.
The automated data feeds were supposed to be in place by June 30th, reducing much of the work and speeding up the fall 2010 process. Today in the hearing, we heard otherwise; however, no senator was aware that they were hearing otherwise. Maybe if the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee had a functioning Chair and actually did some real work, they'd know these things. Instead they got played and punked in public and, yes, people at the hearing were shaking their heads over the lack of knowledge on that Committee.
Senator Scott Brown did a fine job. Wally's going to highlight Brown at Rebecca's site tonight -- he's Rebecca's senator (and Mike's, and Trina's). Other than him and one other -- and I may be grading him on a curve since he's new but I don't think so, "how are you going to ensure that it doesn't happen again" is a question all senators should have been asking, I only heard Brown do it -- I don't offer excuses for any of them. We're talking about people's lives here and the committee members are entrusted, by the citizens of the United States, with oversight. But they didn't want to use it. It's past time for the Democratic leadership to explain to Akaka that he needs to step down and to make Patty Murray the Chair. (Or do they really want to go into the election cycle with a disfunctioning Committee and at the same time drawing attention to how few Chairs are women in the Senate?)
Who was the one other? Ava's covering Senator Roland Burris (at Trina's site tonight). Burris actually does work. He always has. He's been an impressive senator and it's a real shame that those who never knew his work joined with the efforts to deny him the ability to run for election (he was appointed to his seat). Senator Burris knows the basics before he shows up for the hearing. (Disclosure/Reminder: I advocated for Burris to be seated after he was appointed to the Senate. I've never met him and never spoken to him.)
The second panel was very brief, roughly 35 minutes. Apparently there wasn't a great need from the Committee to hear from the people who are actually effected. At length, we'll note the following from IVAV's Marco Reininger who served in Afghanistan as a National Guard member:
Marco Reininger: Late GI Bill checks mean no rent checks and sleepless nights. I applied for my new GI Bill benefits on May 1st, shortly after being accepted to Columbia University. I knew that living in New York City and attending a private school meant that I could not afford any delays in my benefits. When my first living allowance check was significantly late, I was incredibly worried. I did not live in university housing and had to count on the generosity of my landlord to forgive my late rent paymetns. Columbia University was also very accommodating and did not penalize student veterans for late VA checks. That wasn't the case for all student veterans. A fellow Army veteran was un-enrolled from courses shortly before his final exams because of overdue account balances. I am thankful the VA finally started issuing emergency checks in October. Without this stop-gap measure, I would have quickly gotten into severe financial distress. When I stood in line, at the local New York City VA office, for my $3,000 advance payment, many of my fellow veterans from all over the region were extremely hesitant to accept the emergency payment. They were concerned that it would come back to haunt them in the future. This engrained distrust of the VA is not unusual among my peers. I had no choice but to accept the emergency payment. I took the hand written check and a letter from the VA to my bank, so they wouldn't place a hold on the check when I deposited it. In addition to the VA checks, members of our student veterans community supported one another by lending each other cash in order to get by, avoid bad credit scores and collection agencies. I finally started receiving my GI Bill benefits in November 2010. Last fall, I was one of the lucky ones who received their GI Bill in a somewhat timely manner. Sadly, many of my friends and fellow students had to struggle to make ends meet because their GI Bill checks never arrived. A fellow Columbia veteran pal of mine just received his first check last month.
Interestingly enough the most common complaint I hear from my fellow student veterans is that they didn't know when their GI Bill checks would arrive. Student veterans can scrimp and save in a pinch, photocopying assigned readings instead of buying the textbooks or being content to eat Ramen noodles for another week instead of going out to dinner with our clasmates. We can make due, but only if we know that our GI Bill check is going to arrive on a particular day. Not knowing when it will arrive and not being able to get an answer from the VA can wreak havoc on your life. You have to plan for the worst. I know some veterans who took some drastic measures. A fellow veteran ate canned beans and sardines three meals a day for an entire semester, trying to scrape up gas money for his wife and children back home. How could he possibly thrive at school when he was consumed with the responsibility of providing for his family? The new GI Bill was meant to relieve him of that burden.
[. . .]
I recently received a letter from the VA Debt Management Center warning me that they were planning to take back the $3,000 emergency payment they loaned me in the fall. They advised me that they would be deducting $750/month from my living allowance check unless I made other arraignments. Thankfully, I was reminded by IAVA that I needed to turn in my paperwork by the April deadline, otherwise the VA would have deducted the $750 automatically from my living allowance. It wasn't the VA that told me --- it was IAVA. I emailed the VA Debt Management Center, and they set up a payment plan of $150/month, which is within my means. Other student veterans didn't have it so smoothly. Some tried to set up payment plans but still had the full $750 deducted from their living allowance check. When you are living on a tight budget, $750/month can mean the difference between focusing on studies and looking for a second job. Other veterans had their debt applied to their accounts, even though the VA owed them money.
[. . .]
Lastly, and I hope not to sound too petty, I believe the VA owes me some money. The military Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) rates went up on January 1st, but I never saw an increase in my living allowance checks. I know the rates for Columbia's ZIP code increased slightly. So what happened? I ask because I know if I owed the VA money (which I do), they would certainly be in quite a hurry to collect (which they are). But when the VA owes me money, I can't seem to get any answers. Furthermore, in some of my veteran friends' areas the difference is quite significant, particularly when one receives less money than originally budgeted.
Kat's covering the second panel at her site tonight.
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