Friday, April 12, 2013

Another stinky from Barry







This morning the House Veterans Affairs Committee heard testimony on the buget request for Fiscal Year 2014. If you're wondering about the timing, Chair Jeff Miller pointed out at the start, "As everyone knows, this budget is a couple of months late."  Not only did the administration falter in coming up with a timely budget proposal, they also failed to give the Committee more than 24 hours to review the proposal.

Appearing before the Committee were two panels.  The first was led by VA Secretary Eric Shinseki who brought with him the 'madcap screwup' Dr. Robert Petzel, the always incompetent Allison Hickey, Steve Muro, W. Todd Grams and Stephen Warren.

Chair Miller thanked Shinseki for his attendance and stated "I look for your cooperation in getting timely answers to the Committee."  This is a problem, this a regular problem.  Miller pointed out that discretionary spending was increasing in the VA budget at a time when other departments were decreasing their discretionary spending and he said this could be seen as a sign that, even in tough economic times, there is committment to VA spending.

Chair Jeff Miller:  On the other hand, I'm concerned that we're not really seeing the results for the money that Congress has provided to VA over the last years.  For example, the budget proposes a 7.2% increase for expanding mental health services.  I'm still waiting, Mr. Secretary,  for information from VA showing that veterans with mental illnesses are in fact getting healthier with the resources that we've provided.  After all, I know that's an outcome that you and this entire Committee are both after.  Dr. Petzel,  I asked that question of you at our mental health hearing two months ago and we are still awaiting a response.

Which is why Congress should stop allowing witnesses to take questions for the record.  Government officials use that as a way to avoid providing embarrassing answers while reporters are present at the hearing.  They say they will follow up "for the record" and provide that information.  They may or may not follow up -- clearly, Robert Petzel didn't and this is a repeated probelm with him that's gone on for a number of years now/  This is the modern age.  You don't know the answer?  As you sit at the panel table, you have behind you staff.  Any one of them can text your Dept for an immediate answer or step outside and use the cell phone to call your Dept for an immediate answer.  Congressional hearings are a lot like court hearings only in a court a judge wouldn't let you say, "I'll take the question for the record, your Honor, and provide you with a written answer in a week or two."

Chair Jeff Miller:  Then we get into the funding request for the Veterans Benefits Administration -- a staggering 13.4 precent increase over the current year -- and I'm really at a loss because the claims processing performance just isn't there.  Despite already record high budgets, numerous investments in technology, record numbers of employees available to process claims, the situation is worse today than it ever has been before.  Mr. Secretary, when last year's budget was released, VA issued a press release saying that with the funding provided, "By 2013 . . . no more than 40 percent of compensation and pension claims will be more than 125 days old."  Here we are today, and we have 70% of claims out there that are older than 125 days.  And the same is true for prior budget requests --  what many of us would say are lofty promises, excitment about new initiatives and technologies, but lackluster, at best,  results.  And we don't have what this Committee would contend  was a positive trend.  VA has missed its own performance goals every single year. And I think most Committee members are very tired of the excuses we keep hearing from those who come before us testifying.

Chair Jeff Miller:  VA submitted a strategic plan to eliminate the compensation claims backlog.  That plan was submitted in January of this year --  in which it forecast expected number of claims it will decided in years '13, '14 and '15.  And now, three months later, the budget assumes a lower number of claims will be decided.  For example, the strategic plan assumed 1.6 million claims would be completed in 2014 but now the budget that's been submitted assumes only 1.32 million will be completed. So I think this is consistent with my opening statement where I said we talk about bold predictions about performance year and after year but the results aren't backing up.  And -- and my question is, it happens all the time.  The goal posts keep shifting and I'd like, just as brief an answer as possible because we will go to a second round of questioning and we'll talk about the backlog further but why does the goal post keep moving on one of the most important issues that are out there with the veteran community today and that's the backlog?

Secretary Eric Shinseki: Fair enough.  Mr. Chairman, I'm going to call on, uh, uh, Secretary Hickey to provide some detail.  But, uh, I would say, any time you write a longterm, large plan that describes solving a complex problem, they are assumptions based.  And we rely on those assumptions being fulfilled.  One of which is there are no additional complicators which get edited -- added to the work load.  Uh -- And another, uh, assumption is that we're going to be funded for the things we say we need.  If either of those things change, it's going to change the, uh, the work flow.  I believe the plan that, uh, uh, you're referring to, the, uh-uh, Common Operating, uh, Plan, uh, delivered in, uh, in January, uh, did not include VOW- VEI as-as-as part of that, uh, discussion.  Uh, the current estimate does.  And so there is an additional requirement that we've accomodated. Uh, I think, uh, we can explain the difference between those two numbers but we have a resource uh, uh plan now with submission of this budget and I believe our latest, uh, estimates are-are accurate.  Uh, let me just see if Secretary Hickey has anything to add.

No, they didn't make an accomodation.  The VA failed -- probably intentionally -- to include VOW/VEI in their projections.  I say probably intentionally because it's the excuse they're using now.  I also say that because the VOW/VEI aspect was something the VA was very familiar with long before Januarary. 

"VOW VEI" refers to the legislation Senator Patty Murry led on (Vow to Hire Heroes Act) and to Veterans Employment Initiative (VEI).  Why didn't a projection turned in in January include it?  As you can see if you [PDF format warning] click here, this is a document put out by the US Department of Veterans Affairs (bottom right hand corner of first page) and the Veterans Benefit Administration (bottom left hand corner of first page).   What's the title of this information flier?  "VOW Act and Veterans Employment Initiative" is the title.  And the date of it?  August 2012.  So if the VA is circulating information on VOW and VEI in August of 2012 to veterans, it's VA's own damn fault if a Common Operating Plan they turn in five months later fails to include projections for VOW and VEI.  And January 25, 2013, VA submitted "(VA) Strategic Plan to Eliminate the Compensation Claims Backlog."  Page 11 of that 20 page document?  "Veterans Opportunity to Work Act/ Veterans Employment Initiative (VOW/VEI)."

If indeed it was left out, that was on the VA.  Congress didn't suddenly pass something after January.  The VA was damn well aware of VOW/VEI long before January rolled around.  So it was the VA's mistake and yet Shinseki tries to blame Congress for it.   Nothing changed.  Nothing was added.  VA made the mistake and Shinseki refuses to even get honest about that.  There is no accountabilty at the VA.

Allison Hickey:  Mr. Chairman, we do create a plan.  And then we look at our actuals and if -- I know that most of you all have uh individuals that are checking our uh eekly reports that we send to you uhm, uh, through the Monday work load report or through aspire and I will tell you that we try to adjust for what we see in real life.  And if we -- And you will see right now there is a slight decrease uhm in-in applications being made for claims compensation.  Not a ton.  But there's a little bit of a decrease.  It is -- These are objectives.  These are estimates for the future in terms of past veteran behavior that we have to base, you know, what we're looking at in the future in terms of what, you know, what we are seeing and adjust for that year after year.  So we will be making those adjustments on a regular basis and as we start to see changes we will certainly keep this Committee and you up to -- up to speed on where we are.

Secretary Eric Shinseki:  Mr. Chairman, I'll just add as close out here.  I believe I'm correct that the-the-the COP you saw in January did not have VOW/VIE in it.  This latest set of estimates does and that's why you see an adjustment.

US House Rep Michael Michaud is the Ranking Member.  In his questioning about the seamless transitioning that DoD and the VA are supposed to finishing -- he said working on as did Shinseki.  No, finishing.  This has been funded for several years now.  Shinseki tried to weasel out saying there was a new Secretary of Defense (Chuck Hagel).  Well whine to Barack if that's causing you a problem.  This is nonsense that Shinseki told the Committee that he's talking with Hagel to find out what Hagel wants to do and what --

No.  This was supposed to have been planned years ago, the implementation stage was already supposed to have been rolled out.  This is nonsense.

And it's the lack of awareness of what's already taken place.  Gus Bilirakis, is not that new to the Committee, new to the Congress (he took his seat in 2007).  More importantly, he should know what happened beacuse his father served on this Committee.  And in 2006, June 30, 2006, this document was sent to him.  It outlines the efforts of seamless transition beginning in 2005.  So the nonsense that Shinseki offered about how he's getting with Hagel ("just yesterday") to discuss this matter?  No.  The discussions should have stopped long ago, the implementation should have already been started.  Where has the money gone on this each year because it's been funded each year?  Where has the money gone because if all that's taken place in the last 8 years is talking?  There shouldn't be millions being spent on it.  Again, this is nonsense.  US House Rep Gus Bilirakis would do well to speak to his father former US House Rep Michael Bilirakis.  Even better, ask the former House Rep Bilirakis to appear before the Committee to provide a refresher for members who were serving in 2006 and a summary for those who weren't.

US House Rep Phil Roe:  Another question I have is the integration between DoD and VA on the eletronic health records and the benefits. Should we have a joint meeting between VA and DoD -- and I realize that Senator -- that Defense Secretary Hagel has a lot on his plate with North Korea and the Middle East right now. 

Secretary Eric Shinseki:  Yep.

US House Rep Phil Roe:  But this is one of my concerns when we changed was the fact that this would get a backburner again.  And are we going to be sitting here -- and you and I have spoken about this and that was a private conversation and it will remain that way but are we going to be sitting here a year from now or two years or three years because it's not a resources -- putting of money -- to be able to integrate these systems.  I mean, it's really become very frustrating to me to sit here year after year and, unless the voters have a different idea, I plan to be here in 2015 and see if we complete these things we say we're going to do.  Is it there.

Secretary Eric Shinseki:  Again, Congressman, Secretary Hagel and I have discussed this on at least two and maybe three occassions.  He is, again, putting into place, his system to assure the way ahead for him to make this decision and be the partner that we need here.  Uhm, he is committed to a, uh, integrated electronic health record between the two departments.  We are -- VA has made its decision on what the core  and we're prepared to move forward.

US House Rep Phil Roe:  Somebody has to blink. Obviously, we can't integrate them, so it's going to have to be one system or the other.  And I think what I heard you say was you've decided the VA is going to stay with the system it has.  That means that he's going to have to blink.

Secretary Eric Shinseki:  Uh, I would say the VA system is government owned, government operated.  We have put VISTA into the  open architecture trade space so that anyone who wants to use it can use it. It's used in other countries.  I believe it is, uh, a powerful system and, uh, I'm just awaiting, uh, a discussion with Secretary Hagel.

Clearly, from Shinseki's remarks, it is time for US President Barack Obama to step in a Cabinet meeting and say, "The system used will be" either VA or DoD.  That decision should have been made years ago.  Again, this has been funded and covered in Congress over eight years now.  The most basic step for a seamless transition record is deciding what system will be used.

So what we learned today is that nothing's been decided.

It needs to be.  Barack needs to make a determination of which system will be used, announce it and make sure the determination sticks -- no matter if Hagel is replaced or Shinseki or both.  This should have been determined long ago.  It is the first step.  Instead, for over eight years now, this has gone on and on without even completeing the first basic step.

Could be replaced?  Hagel is Barack Obama's third Secretary of Defense (after Robert Gates and Leon Panetta).  Shinseki's tenure has not been stellar.  In fact, Chair Jeff Miller noted his support for Shinseki was waning.  This was in his opening statement.  We're going with the written here and not as it was delivered because I'm assuming greater precision was taken when writing than when speaking off the cuff.   (Miller doesn't read his opening statements, he uses the text as a format or outline and often changes it up -- we usually go with what he states in the hearing -- and did earlier above -- but because this is a major move, we're going with the written statement).

Chair Jeff Miller: I'm proud of the efforts this Committee has made to protect VA's resources.  But the point of those efforts is to ensure improved benefits and services to America's veterans.  And, right now, I'm not seeing improvement in many key areas.  I'm seeing the opposite.  Mr. Secretary, we need to see results.  We need to see the outcomes the Administration promised with the resources Congress provided.   The excuses must stop.   I have supported you and your leadership up to this point.  I believe the Committee and the Congress has provided you with everything you have asked.  It's time to deliver.  

"I have supported you and your leadership up to this point."

US House Rep  Phil Roe continues to be one of the strongest members of the Committee.  Hearing this and that excuse for the backlog and how much work it is to check the claims and the process and blah blah blah, Roe cut through the nonsense by noting, "An issue I brought to you, six weeks ago, was when a veteran dies -- and there's no discussion about that.  You have a death certificate. This veteran dies and their spouse sometimes takes months or as much as a year to get their benefit. That is absolutely unacceptable.  When you've got a veteran out there -- a spouse, a man or a woman -- and they're -- especially the older veterans that are out there, that are living on a very meager income and then to have them wait?  And they have a house -- as we talked about -- they have a house payment, they have food to buy, they shouldn't miss a check.  That should not even be questioned."

Most idiotic remark made during the hearing by a member of Congress?  No, not Corrine Brown.   Ava will cover it at Trina's site tonight (she'll note another moment as well), Wally's going to cover an aspect at Rebecca's site and Kat's going to cover some basic impressions of the second panel.  The second panel was composed of Disabled American Veterans' Jeffrey Hall, Paralyzed Veterans of America's Carl Blake, AMVETS' Diane M. Zumatto, VFW's Ray Kelley and the American Legion's Louis Celli.

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