Thursday, June 21, 2012

Truth isn't on his side



Fewer Americans believe the economy is getting better and a majority disapproves of how President Barack Obama is handling it, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll.


And I'm Melissa Block at NPR West in Culver City, California. Today from Federal Reserve, another downbeat assessment of the economy. After two days of meetings, Fed policymakers cut their forecasts for growth over the next three years, and they said unemployment would be higher than they previously thought. But as NPR's John Ydstie reports, the sputtering economy only prompted a modest response from the Fed, the extension of a program known as Operation Twist.

JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: Fed officials cut their forecasts for economic growth for this year from around 2.5 percent back to about 2 percent. They said unemployment is likely to remain just above 8 percent.




House Veterans Affairs Committee Ranking Member Bob Filner: Now, by the way, Mr. [US House Rep Timothy] Walz -- now, Mr. Walz, she [VA Under Secretary Allison Hickey] doesn't need your defense here for her past accomplishments. And I don't need a lecture from you of her past.  We're talking about what she's going to do for the VA now. I'll stipulate any accomplishments that she's had. I respect her service.  But if she can't do this job, I don't care what she has done in the past.  Okay? So don't lecture me about how I don't have respect for someone's past.  She's talking about the future -- the present and the future.  And she didn't give one answer or one recognition that there was any problem -- in all her testimony, in every answer.  This Chairman [Marlin Stutzman] asked her a number of things. She talked for three-and-a-half minutes and didn't give the answer and still doesn't know the answer.  So let's talk about what she's doing right here and right now.  And I said if one of your veterans -- And she didn't answer your question, your very good questions, Mr. Walz, about the time period of what's going on in Minneapolis?  She just said, 'Oh, from time to time we have surges.'  You asked are we heading toward a lowest common denominator and she never answered that.  So don't -- I mean be a little more critical of the kind of answers we're getting.  We don't have a plan. This whole hearing was about a plan.  If I were her, I would have given out the plan.  But we still don't have one.  Again, Ms. Hickey, if I were you, leadership comes from the top. The top is saying, "There is no problem."  You ask any veteran in my district, in Mr. Walz' district, in Mr. [Mike] Michaud's district, in Mr. Stutzman's district: Is there a problem?  Every one will say, "Yes."  Now you can say, 'They don't understand fully.  Their perception is wrong, we've had a surge of this.  We did this.  We had the Vietnam era.'  I don't care what -- you have not either acknowledged the problem or say how we're going to get out of it.  You gave us an assurance of a date.  And Mr. Walz asked --  I know it's not a very bright question -- 'Are you committed? Is it going to happen?'  What is she going to say?  "No"?  We've had these questions, we've had these committments for years and years and years and years.  And Mr. Walz asked you another softball question: 'Has anything been tried as this big before?  We have tried every single thing that you have as your initiatives -- has been tried.   Every one of them at some point.  In fact, we've had far more comprehensive plans than your forty initiatives lumped together.  Nothing has worked.  It's gotten worse.  And you refuse to admit it.  You refuse to acknowledge it.  And you don't give us a plan to fix it.  What am I to think? 'Well, she was an Air Force General that did great things.'  If it doesn't happen by 2015, are you going to say I resign or what's going to happen if you're at the top?  And it's always two or three years out.  It's never, "I'm going to do this tomorrow."  You've been working on this.  Your predecessor's been working on this.  I don't have any assurance.  You can't even correct a date on the computer for a year-and-a-half and you call it a "glitch."  What confidence do I have that you can do anything if it took a year-and-a-half to fix a "glitch?"  The simplest thing.  Put a date in.  You could have done it by hand in a few months.  It took you a year-and-a-half.  You still haven't done it.  I'm sure we'll get a memo from you -- I just bet, you want to make a bet right now -- that you'll ask for another extension.  I just bet.  When's that going to be done?  Why should we have any confidence in 2015 that a system of a million backlog is going to be fixed when we can't even get a "glitch" fixed in a year-and-a-half?  What gives me the confidence?  That you were an Air Force General?  Sorry, it doesn't work. Give me some confidence.  What has worked so far?  Everything has been a problem.
Yesterday US House Rep Gus Bilirakis and other Republicans chaired a VBA hearing.  Chair Jeff Miller wasn't present for the hearing.  "Well here we are again," observed Ranking Member Bob Filner, "I think one of the first meetings I went to twenty years ago as a member of the Veterans Committee was on the backlog. We've hired what?  In the last few years, maybe 10,000, 15,000 employees."
 I spent last night on the phone to friends in federal, state and municipal government because Bilirakis brought up an issue that I didn't feel comfortable speaking to without some research.  Bilirakis noted the claims progress, or rather the lack of progess.
Acting Chair Gus Bilirakis: VBMS I know that I and my fellow Committee members and our Ranking Member have many questions to ask as to when this system will be ready for national roll out rolled out and how issues relating to the scanning of paper documents will be handled in the future.  As a matter of fact, VA's contract with the US National Archives and Records Administration, the agency currently handling VA's scanning needs, expires on June 26th, just one week from today.   I'll ask what goes after, what's going to happen on June 27th?
Backlog needs to be farmed out.  I'm not surprised or troubled by that.  I'm bothered by backlog being created as I type this sentence.  Paper taken in today should not become part of a backlog.  The first person touching that paper in the VA should be immediately scanning it into the system.  (Then it would be put in a box for archiving, as was explained last night, according to whatever retention program they're operating under.)  The paper needs to be addressed immediately.  And how do you address it?
You don't hire one or two people in the office to scan documents and carry the documents to them.  That's how you begin creating the backlog.  The first person to handle the paper, is the one who scans it.  Every one that comes after is referring to the digital copy in the system after that.  And everyone responsible for accepting paperwork or opening mail has a light scanner (inexpensive) attached to their computer and they immediately scan what they receive.
That's the only way you're going to end the paper backlog. There is no excuse for creating new backlog.   Again, I'm not disputing the farming out of the existing backlog.  There's no way VA employees can catch up with that and also do their current job tasks.  But new backlog should not be created.  You touch a claims application, you scan it in and then it goes to a pile to be boxed up for archives.  The original is not sent somewhere else in the office to be scanned or placed with stacks of others to be farmed out for scanning.
How much of a problem is the claims request?  Do they get lost?  I was told by three people with the VA that "missing" happens more than "lost" with "lost" meaning -- in their usuage -- it's not showing back up and "missing" meaning a week or two of fumbling around for the paper.  (How often are original paper documents "missing?"  "From time to time" and "it happens" were the responses, no one with the VA wanted to give a percentage or an estimate.) 
Many governments are already moving towards that.  In your local areas, getting an application to put up a fence means turning it and paying for the permit and more and more local governments are scanning that document in right there when payment is being taken.  They're doing that to prevent the loss that can take place when the original document is routed to one or more different people before it's entered into the system.  This is not a "C.I. brainstorm."  This is what is happening in government offices around the country and what the VA should immediately begin doing.  There is no need to create new backlog and even without a numbered estimate of how many claims application are lost each year, one is too many.    The longterm goal is for VA to move away from paper altogether.  They're not their yet and they're really not prepared for that at present which is the point US House Rep Phil Roe made -- he is also medical Dr. Phil Roe -- when he discusses his own practice's transition to paperless.  Disabled American Veterans Jeffrey Hall also raised the issue of the paper backlog, the future paperless goal and more.  Hall, VFW's Gerald Manar, The American Legion's Richard Dumancas and Paralyzed Veterans of America's Sherman Gillums made up the first panel.  The National Archives Records Administration's William Bosanko was the second panel.  The third panel was the IG.  Fourth panel was the VA's Allison Hickey, Alan Bozeman and Roger Baker.
Jeffrey Hall: Mr. Chairman, even before VBMS was first conceived, it was clear that in order to have a paperless claims process there must be a comprehensive system in place to digitze paper documents.  Yet VBA has failed to finalize a long-term scanning solution, in part because it has not yet definitively answered fundamental questions about when and which legacy documents will be scanned into VBMS.  Although VBA has committed to moving forward with a paparelss system for new claims, it has dragged its feet for more than two years in determining under what conditions existing paper claims files would be converted to digital files.  Because a majority of claims processed each year are for reopened or appealed claims and because files can remain active for decades, until all legacy claims are converted to digital data files, VBA could be forced to continue paper processing for decades.  We have been told that VBA's current plans are to convert claims files that have new rating-related actions, but not those with minor actions such as dependency or address changes.  However, the uncertainty over the past couple of years about how much scanning would be required, and at what cost, is at least partly responsible for VBA's reliance on NARA and its current rush to find a new scanning vendor.  While there are very difficult technical questions to be answered, and significant financial considerations involved in transitioning to all-digital processing, particular involving legacy paper files, we believe VBA would be best served by taking the most aggressive approach feasible in order to shorten the length of time this transition takes.  While the conversion from paper processing to VBMS will require substanital upfront investment, it will pay dividends for VBA and veterans in the future.  We would urge VBA to provide -- and Congress to review -- a clear plan for eliminating legacy paper files, one that includes realistic timeliness and resource requirements.
As noted before, there were several acting chairs for the hearing.  It was a disturbing hearing as we heard the same things that we've heard over and over.  But there were some new revelations as well.  However, that might have been even more disturbing.  Excerpt.
Acting Chair Marlin Stutzman: I'd like to do a second round because I'd like to talk about the scanning issue.  Why did it take this Committee calling a hearing for the VA to meet with NARA [National Archives and Records Administration] to discuss next week's scanning contract expiration?  I mean this is, I think, the frustration that's felt around here.  It's these sorts of things that we find out about and why isn't there some sort of pro-active movement before this?  Can you -- can you give us an explanation of why the contract is set to expire next week?  There isn't a contract.  Is there some other plan that the VBA is planning on implementing? Is it going to be done in-house? I mean, I know for us, Congressional offices, we have folks that we could use to scan things in.  I'm sure that you're system is a little bit more complicated.  We're spending ten million dollars a year, if I remember the number correctly.  It seems like we could do it cheaper and it seems like we could get it done.  Is there a plan to address that?
Allison Hickey:  Congressman -- I mean Chairman Stutzman, yes, there is.  I will defer the first part of it to my Assistant Secretary for Information Technology, Roger Baker. 
Roger Baker:  Thank you. I just want to talk to the NARA piece.  NARA's been our partner on this for two years so let me start with will we have an agreement with them by the end of this week to continue them for the next year? I believe the answer to that is "yes."  I know that's in process.  I checked with my staff while we were listening to this going on.  Got absolute assurances that there is really nothing in the way of that completing by the end of this week.  So it's a little bit different than a normal government contractor relationship.  Because it's a government-to-government relationship, it's much easier to do.  We've used NARA primarily from a development standpoint. 
That's more than enough from him.  I'm really tired of witnesses who eat time to avoid answering questions.  Stutzman would go on to ask about the cost.  "I really don't know," Baker told him.  The cost is a per-page scanned fee.  Well then you should know it.  And it's probably not a good idea to tell Congress and taxpayers that the deal will be closed by the end of the week but you don't know how much the VA will be paying for the scanning.  See, most people would assume that you find out the cost before you start closing on a contract.  Rushing to complete a deal when you don't know the cost doesn't look like you're being scrupulous with the taxpayer money. 
And it's not good to call something a plan when, as Acting Chair Stutzman noted, it's a presentation (slide show) of variables, not a plan.  Excerpt.
Ranking Member Bob Filner:  When you were asked: "Do you have a plan?," you said, "Yes, we supplied it to the Committee."  This is not a plan.  This is not a strategic plan.  I will ask you again, do you have a strategic plan?  And why don't you just have it with you and give it to us?  That's the title of this hearing [Reclaiming the Process: Examing the VBA Claims Transformation Plan as a Means to Effectively Serve our Veterans].  Do you have a plan to give to us this minute?
Allison Hickey: I do have a plan, Congressman Filner.
Ranking Member Bob Filner: You what?
Allison Hickey: I do have a plan.  I do not have it in this book, in these materials.  I'm happy to provide it for the Committee.
Ranking Member Bob Filner: Why are you providing it with us, a plan of execution?  You're going to provide it to us?  Why don't you have it here?  You have 18 people here working  for you.  Give us the plan.  That's all we're asking for.  You said you did it.  [Shaking head] We have some slides.  We don't have a strategic plan of how you're going to execute this so-called transformation which sounds more like a fossil-formation.  So where is the plan?
Allison Hickey:  Congressman Filner, I have the plan.  It's in Word document.
Ranking Member Bob Filner:  A secret one or what?
Allison Hickey: No, it is not a secret document.  In fact, I have shared it with Veterans Service Organizations, with our labor partners, with --
Ranking Member Bob Filner: I just said none of us have seen it.  Why don't you have it with you?
Allison Hickey: I will be happy to bring it to you, sir.
The paper backlog  and the some-day-transition-to-paperless are issues and are problems.  There are other problems. The worst backlog problems is veterans waiting and waiting for their claims to go through the process.  And, as Ranking Member Bob Filner noted, this isn't weeks or months, this is years.  He estimated that there were 100,000 Agent Orange claims -- from Vietnam era veterans -- waiting, over thirty years, he noted.
He noted that the IRS used to have a huge backlog and you waited and waited forever and ever for a refund check if you had one coming.  What changed that?  Why can you now file and get money within three weeks if you have a refund coming?  Because it's "subject to audit."
Ranking Memer Bob Filner argued that's what should be taking place with the VA today, "Grant the claim, subject to audit. Send out a check."
Ranking Member Bob Filner:  What have we done in the last few years? Doubled the backlogs. Raised the rate of inaccuracy, according to the recent report, up to 25%.  This is disgraceful.  This is an insult to our veterans. And you guys just recycle old programs, put new names on them, and here we are again.  Do you know what the definition -- one definition of insanity is?  Try the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.  I mean somebody has to take responsibility for this.  We just keep announcing new names, new pilot programs, on and on.  We're up to 1.2 million by one count on backlog. If it wasn't tragic, it would be ridiculous.
Acting Chair Bilirakis raised another issue that needs further attention.  So we'll ignore it here.  Seriously, it'll be carried over to Third on Sunday because it's one of the issues -- the first one -- that we discussed with Dona in "Congress and Veterans."  It has to do with education and I see Bilirakis' concerns (which are solid concerns) as related to Senator Richard Burr's concerns that we discussed with Dona for the piece last Sunday so it makes more sense to pick it up this coming Sunday at Third.  There's something we're carrying over for tomorrow already as it is.  I'll be one day behind on hearings all week, I bet but I didn't know a damn thing about storage of records or moving towards digitized or anything and I needed all the wonderful people who walked me through the process last night (thank you to all) so I could understand the hearing I'd sat through.  There's a press release on the hearing that we'll include in a morning entry tomorrow there's not room for it today.

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