Tuesday, February 28, 2012

No follow up






This afternoon the House Veterans Subcommittee on Health held a hearing that covered the issue of bridges between the VA and Community Organizations. Near the end of the hearing, Subcomittee Chair Ann Marie Buerkle declared, "I must say I'm a bit chagrinned and, more than that, concerned. I think we have a real big disconnect here in knowing what's avaialbe and what's out there."
More than anything, that summed up the hearing. Listening to panel two offer testimony was highly distressing. Chaplain John Morris, Reverend E. Terri LaVelle and Chaplain Michael McCoy Sr. were the primary witnesses on that panel and you really had to wonder about not just where the money goes but also who's watching it?
US House Rep Michael Michaud had a very basic question for Rev LaVelle and she explained that she'd have to speak to someone else about that, she was primarily focused on what went on in DC (she's with the VA Director Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships) but she would speak to the filed about this.
The obvious question would be: Why didn't you before you showed up for this hearing?
The obvious question wasn't asked. Instead, she noted she'd only spoken to the district once in her time in her current position. Michaud asked her how long she'd been on the board and she responded "two and a half years." That should have been a red flag.
There were many red flags throughout the hearing.
Michaud wanted to know if veterans were being charged by faith-based organizations for services? He never got a clear answer on that. LaVelle, for example, was happy to talk at length in response to what should have been a "yes" or a "no" question. Going on and on, at a fast clip, about how you're "more than willing to say that so many days a week, so many hours, we'll use our current transportation" might have seemed like a response to her but I'm not sure many others would feel the same.
Her comments also raised serious issues about qualifications. For example, I think many of us (I know I feel this way, you don't have to) feel that if a veteran seeks out a faith-based organization, he or she will be speaking about issues to do with religion and spirituality. And that doesn't bother me (I'm not happy that it's funded with tax payer dollars because I believe it chips away at the wall that's supposed to exist between church and state). But when you're selling your program to Congress on something other than that, we may have a problem.
So, for example, when LaValle wants the Subcomittee to know that they employ Phds and licensensed clinical social workers, it does matter to me if these people are trained in assisting veterans. LaVelle's people she brags about, these people with so much education and training, have never been trained in helping veterans. But, she insists, they will learn on the job.
Will learn. Haven't yet. What do they do all day? We're not talking about fresh recruits, we're not talking about a new program that just received start-up funding.
Sitting through that hearing was a non-stop exercise in frustration and, after awhile, it really appeared that most members of the Subcommittee just gave up. (Two appeared to walk out in frustration. And those two were Republicans and Republicans who support the idea of faith-based programs being funded by the government.)
US House Rep Silvestre Reyes is a very laid back and calm person. He doesn't lose his cool in hearings and generally has a smile and some comforting exchange at the start to set the witnesses at ease. Though he did not lose his good manners, even he seemed puzzled by what was taking place before the Subcomittee.
He noted what so many noted which was, why aren't veterans hearing anything about these programs? (I will add, why aren't veterans hearing anything about these programs that US taxpayers are forking over a small fortune for?) This was picking up directly on US House Rep Michael Michaud's questioning but also on just about every Subcommittee member's line of questioning.
And the song and dance was always, 'We try. We're contacting someone.'
Reyes noted that in his area (El Paso), Joan Ricard would be the best one to contact. She's the Director of the El Paso VA Health Care System. He wondered, "Why can't your programs be part of the services?" No real answer.
They're putting on events. They're spending money. But it doesn't seem like veterans are going to these events and that seems to be because they aren't getting the word out on these events.
In addition, rural veterans are being completey disregarded by these programs. They aren't doing any in, for example, West Texas. As Reyes pointed out, except for El Paso pretty much all of West Texas is rural. The witnesses rushed to tell him that his veterans could go to Waco, Texas where they're putting on programs and he explained to them that Albuquerque was closer to El Paso than Waco (El Paso to Waco, he said, was 386 miles -- still a huge journey, especially for a disabled veteran and especially for a veteran in need of services; while El Paso to Waco is over 670 miles). Chaplain McCoy wanted to insist, "We are cooperating with the Office of Rural Health and we are cooperating with the Office of Mental Health and others." The programs they represented to the Subcomittee did not appear to be serving rural veterans, regardless of whom they were "cooperating with."
In Texas, Reyes was told, the closest chaplain to his city of El Paso is Waco. (Again, that's over 670 miles -- at 60 mph the whole way, someone's going to have drive over 11 hours for an event that's for 'rural' veterans. That's ridiculous.)
Reyes was also very concerned about this issue where the events aren't known, where even the faith-based organizations providing some kind of services weren't known of by the veterans.
He noted that his office holds a veterans clearing house meeting every month. He attends when he's in his district but, even when he's not there, the meeting takes place. And it's where information can be passed on. He noted Joan Ricard attends every month's meeting. But he's never once seen anyone from these groups or heard any information about their programs, He again stressed that the faith-based programs were not getting the information out, "We've never heard the information about your programs. So is there a reason you can't designate the VA Directors in our respective areas to provide information?"
LaVelle insisted that if someone could tell her the faith-based liason to Congress, they could get information to them about services in their district.
You're taking taxpayer money to provide a service for veterans. Your events are poorly attended. The reason for that is you're not getting the word out on them. And your answer to that is to wait until you're at a Congressional hearing and treat a Subcommittee as if you just dialed 411?
Winding down the hearing, Subcommittee Chair Ann Marie Buerkle said, "In closing here today, I think that Chaplain [John] Morris said it best, that we really do need a community effort to make sure that our veterans have what they need."
Tomorrow should be a big hearing -- joint-hearing by the Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committee. That's a problem for one reason, I'm not really able to go into to today's hearing. It's one of those that I would prefer to have a night's sleep between covering just because I'm so upset by it. But with tomorrow's hearing, it won't be possible to pick up this Subcommittee tomorrow. So we've done the above, a thumb nail, and that may end be it for the Subcommittee hearing. I think it was an important one, I think we've provided a bit more than overview but that's all we can do today. Short of my issuing a non-stop string of curse words, that's all we can cover. What the Subcommittee learned was that the faith-based organizations being represented by the witnesses happily take money from the taxpayer to provide services but they hire people who are unqualified to provide the services and then they somehow repeatedly forget to get the word out on the services which explains the low turnout. On top of all of that -- and the lack of oversight of the way the taxpayers' money is being spent -- rural veterans aren't benefitting from the present system. A specific issue family courts have raised to House members is where are the clergy to provide family counseling to veterans whose families and/or marriages are struggling? And the answer, like every other 'answer' to a direct question in this hearing, was a long string of words that wandered around but never arrived at a point.
Let's stay on veterans issue and Congress for a bit more. Senator Patty Murray is the Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. Her office issued the following today:
Monday, Februay 27, 2012
CONTACT: Murray Press Office
(202) 224-2834
TOMORROW: Murray to Push Deense Secretary Panetta on Pentagon Oversight in PTSD Diagnoses
Murray will also question Panetta on proposed FY 2013 cuts and their impact on DOD
(Washington, D.C.) -- Tomorrow, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), senior member of the Senate Budget Committee, will attend a hearing on President Obama's Fiscal Year 2013 Budget Request for the Department of Defense. The Committee will hear testimony from Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey. Sen. Murray will question Secretary Panetta about the Pentagon's handling of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) diagnoses, specifically as it relates to the recent controversy surrounding the Madigan Army Medical Center in Washington state.
WHO: Senator Patty Murray (D-WA)
U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey
WHAT: Examination of President's FY 2013 Budget Request for Dept. of Defense
Focus on PTSD Diagnoses Oversight, FY 2013 Cuts
WHERE: Dirksen Senate Office Building -- Room 608
When: Tomorrow -- Tuesday, February 28, 2012
9:30 AM EST/ 6:30 AM PST
Megan Roh
Deputy Press Secretary
Office of U.S. Senator Patty Murray
So what's going on? The press release refers to Madigan Healthcare System. As we've noted before, the US Army Medical Command has investigated complaints from soldiers who say that their PTSD diagnoses have been reversed and that there have been comments that these were administrative decisons made to save money. If you're late to the story, you can check out Hal Bernton's piece for the Seattle Times. That is tomorrow. As the press release noted, if you can't be present but are interested, you can stream it online. For those who are saying, "I'm on dial up" or "My platform's too out of date for streaming" or something similar -- CSPAN Radio will broadcast the hearing live (and most who can't stream video due to being dial up or an older platform, can stream audio with few problems). I was under the impression (apparently wrong) that CSPAN (1,2,3) broadcast all the Senate hearings. If so, that's not going to happen tomorrow unless CSPAN2 is carrying the hearing. (CSPAN1 and CSPAN3 are both going to be covering the House and not the joint-hearing of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.)


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