Friday, April 19, 2013

Rumors swirl around him






 In yesterday's snapshot, we covered Secretary Kerry's testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Camp Ashraf and on the issue of an Inspector General for the State Dept.  Other aspects of yesterday's hearing were covered by Wally with "The buget hearing that avoided the budget," by Ruth with "Kerry pressed on Benghazi," by Kat with "I'm sick of Democrats in Congress" and by Ava with "Secretary Kerry doesn't really support women's rights."  The bombs in Boston Monday afternoon meant no one was in the mood to cover a hearing on Monday.  Kat said she's going to review my notes and she'll write about Ranking Member Richard Burr in the hearing ("if nothing else because he remains one of the strongest advocates for veterans on the Committee and he refuses to put up with any crap").

We'll note a little of it today.  It was the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.  Appearing before them were VA Secretary Eric Shinseki accompanied by the usual motley crew (yes, that includes Allison Hickey).  The topic was the VA budget for Fiscal Year 2014.  If you're thinking that seems familiar, we covered the House hearing on that last week  in last Thursday's "Iraq snapshot" and "Seamless transition? Shinseki wasted the last four years," while Ava reported on it with "Shinseki tries to present 134% increase as a gift for women," Wally with  "How the VA and DoD waste your tax dollars (Wally)" and Kat with "DAV calls for Congress to reject 'chained CPI'."  In addition, Dona moderated a discussion of the hearing at Third "Congress and Veterans."

Senator Bernie Sanders:  While the VA budget presented by the administration is a strong one -- and I applaud the president for that -- I remain deeply disappointed that the White House included in their budget request, the so-called 'Chained CPI.'  Switching to a Chained CPI would mean major cuts in Social Security and the benefits that disabled veterans receive.  Veterans who started receiving VA disability benefits at age 30 would have their benefits reduced by $1425 at age 45, $2341 at age 55 and over $3000 a year at age 65.  Tens of thousands of dollars within their lifetime.  This, to my mind, is unconscionable and I will do all that I can to prevent these cuts from taking place.

Those remarks are on an issue that Sanders has been raising for some time.  When I'm at a hearing and he mentions it, we'll try to always include it until Social Security is safe again.

He is the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chair.

Most embarrassing person at the hearing?  Jay Rockefeller.  What a suck-up, what a fool.  Why is he still in Congress?  He has repeatedly told me, "Oh, I'm going to be leaving soon."  No, you never leave and you don't do anything as a member of the Senate.  You just take up space and waste time.  Monday, he wasted it by sucking up to Eric Shinseki in public.  Yes, Rockefeller the problem is veterans, the problem their unrealistic expectations ("Does that give veterans comfort?  No, but everything in life is a process.") -- which presumably include expecting health treatment when they're sick?  Jay whored yet again.  And he thought he was cute and funny.  Here's a hint, Jay, a 75-year-old man mincing in front of a room of people is never going to be cute.  (It may be funny.  Remember Annie Hall when Woody Allen watches the Bob Hope-type do his routine?)

Jay Rockefeller, when you feel the problem is that veterans unrealistic expectations -- this when the backlog reaches record numbers and there's a suicide crisis ongoing, it's probably time for you to retire.  You're not serving anyone.  And we'll back that up tomorrow when we emphasize what Rockefeller had to offer.

Jon Tester's probably thrilled Jay's on the Committee.  It lets him look like less of a suck-up.  He noted he had disagreed with Shinseki before.  Yes, he has.  He didn't say what it was so let's talk about it.  He sided with Senator Turncoat Jim Webb.  The two were opposed to Shinseki's move to grant more Agent Orange claims.  I don't think that's something to brag about.  Obviously, Tester agrees since he didn't mention Agent Orange at the hearing.  In fact, it's why Webb 'retired.'  Webb's position ensured that veterans would not vote for him.  Tester's really lucky that Webb was so annoying on that issue and became the large target.   Don't say I never say anything nice about Tester, the goatee is a nice visual improvement.

Committee Chair Bernie Sanders: If there is anything that many of us have learned in recent years, it is that the real cost of war is far, far greater than simply paying for the tanks and guns and planes and the manpower to fight those wars.  I believe that we now understand, more fully than we have in the past, that soldier who come home from war are often very different people than when they went.  We now understand that the cost of the war includes significant care not only for those who lost their legs and their arms and their eye sight, but for those who came home with what we now call the invisible wounds of war.  Most recently, this includes the tens and tens of thousands of brave soldiers who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with Traumatic Brain Injury and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. So while this $152 billion budget we discuss today is a complicated document with a whole lot of numbers, it all comes down to how the people of our country, through their government, honor their commitment to those who have sacrificed so much -- and to the spouses and children who have also sacrificed.

Sanders has just begun his term as Chair of the Committee and it's great that he has hope and energy and hopefully he'll do a great job.  He's already winning support from veterans attending hearings -- including Monday's -- for his support for various treatments and his refusal to go with one-size-fits-all when addressing issues like TBI or PTS.  And Ava just said she'll note that at Trina's so let me move on.  (Thank you, Ava.) 

I don't have that hope that Chair Bernie Sanders has.  And the reason is because I've heard it all before.  And I don't just mean in the last ten years.

When Jimmy Carter was president he gave many speeches that led to ridicule.  His energy speech was one of those and it may have been the cardigan that led to such derision.  Whatever it was, this part of the February 2, 1977 speech is largely forgotten:

The top priority in our job training programs will go to young veterans of the Vietnam war. Unemployment is much higher among veterans than among others of the same age who did not serve in the military. I hope that putting many thousands of veterans back to work will be one more step toward binding up the wounds of the war years and toward helping those who have helped our country in the past.

Maybe Chair Sanders is correct and something's been learned?  It would be great if he was and I'd love to be wrong on this.  But a lot of what I hear is a lot like what I heard then.  It's really sad or telling -- or both -- that our press doesn't explore that.  There are no pieces noting that.

Before the US government next deploys troops on the ground, possibly the Congress and the media could explore the costs of war so that everyone knows the bill that's going to be coming and the issues that will be faced.  I realize Congress and the media both shirked their responsibilities to provide oversight (and authorization in Congress' case) for the Iraq War.  They failed at examining the justifications.  I'm not talking about that.

I'm talking about everyone being aware of what a ground war means.  It means dead and wounded among US forces and among the country being attacked.  It means health care for the wounded immediately.  It means health care costs on down the line for other veterans.  It means that the VA will have a large influx of new veterans.  It means there will be increases in veterans suicides. It means increased spending to treat all the issues of war.   It means that veterans returning will have issues finding jobs.  None of this, and there's a lot more, is particular to the Iraq and Afghanistan War.  If you don't get that, watch William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives from 1946.

I'm not calling Sanders naive and I think its great that he has hope.  Without it, he probably couldn't be the Chair.

Chair Bernie Sanders: Let me begin by addressing an issue that is a serious one, that I think every member here has spoken of and that you have acknowledged and one that is of great concern to this country.  Now my understanding is that the VA is now processing more claims today than they ever have before in significant numbers. But my understanding is that also, according to the most recent Monday workload report,  there were nearly 890,000 claims for entitlements to benefits pending, almost 70% of which have been pending longer than the Department's goal of 125 days.  And this number does not even take into account other pending work including award judgments and appeals.  So here's my question, you have -- and I believe you established that goal not long after you took your position -- you brought forth a very, very ambitious goal.  And you said that you wanted to process all claims in 125 days and with 98% accuracy by 2015.  Is that correct?

Secretary Eric Shinseki: That's correct.

Chair Bernie Sanders:  Let me ask you this, what benchmarks have you set and must VA meet to make sure that VA achieves those goals?  In other words, I think all of us would agree that the task that you have undertaken, going from an unbelievable amount of paper -- a system that was virtually all paper when you took office to a paperless system is just a huge transformation.  The concern here, and others have raised it, is what reason do we have to believe that you are in fact going to be able to successfully undertake that transformation and meet the goals -- ambitious goals -- that you've established?

Secretary Eric Shinseki: Thank you for that question, Mr. Chairman.  I'm going to call on Secretary Hickey to add some detail. But let me just describe what, uh, situation existed when we arrived.  Uh, we're in paper and have been in paper for decades.  We continue to get paper today.  If you're going to manage a situation, it takes a certain kind of approach and resourcing.  Uh, we thought that for the longterm the benefit to veterans was to end the backlog and so we set the goal of ending the backlog in 2015.  We did some rough calculations. Uh, and the backlog when we arrived was not defined as 125 days, 98% accuracy.  If we want to make a bold move here and help veterans, then we have to move quickly.  And so we set ambitious goals, we did our best estimates and we have laid out a plan in this budget that is resourced, that drives those numbers towards ending the backlog in 2015.  I think, uh, all of you will remember after we established that goal of ending the backlog, we also, uh, took on some unfinished business.  Uh, we had Vietnam veterans, my first year here, as I moved around who were not very happy with the fact that they had not had their issues addressed.  Uh, many cases, I was told, that we were just waiting for them to pass so that we wouldn't have to take care of it. I can't think of a more demeaning circumstance for a veteran to feel that that's what their VA who exists for them, uh, looked upon the situation.  And heard the same kind of things from Gulf War veterans, 20 years after the Gulf War, no decisions, uh, regarding their health care issues.  And then, as I think all of us can acknowledge, PTSD has been around as long as combat and had never been acknowledged as associated with combat, verifiable PTSD.  So even as we established ourselves at ending the backlog, we took on three pretty significant decisions: for the Vietnam generation, three new diseases for exposure to Agent Orange;  nine new diseases never recognized before for Gulf War veterans,  and then for all combat veterans with verifiable PTSD service connection so that they could submit their claims.   I would say that those numbers added to the paper process that we had -- in fact was going to grow the inventory and complicate the backlog and we testified to that when those decisions were made.  There were a number of hearings on this and my prediction was we're going to go up but at the same time we're going to put in place an automation system that would correct all of that and, in time, we would bring the backlog back down.  Well we're in mid-stride here.  We are now fueling that automation tool.  It took us two years to develop it.  It is called VBMS -- Veterans Benefits Management System -- it's in 30 of the 56 regional offices.  Uh, we're seeing some indications that it is having good success and, uh, we intend to, uh, fuel the remaining offices as quickly as possible.  We have, uh, some good learning that came out of automating the new 9-11 GI Bill process.  And out of that, the learning indicated to us that there is a tremendous lift that comes once you have the system fielded.  Uhm, we followed that manner of fielding implementing and IT program that's robust enough to handle our claims processing. Uh, as I say, we are scheduled to complete this year, 31 December.  We are pulling that far to the left as we can and fielding as quickly as we can and doing it prudently where we don't run the risk of overreach. 

That probably sounded really good to fresh ears.  To those of us who've been attending the hearings?

The paper issue, I'm not even talking about electronic record that would be seamless, was dealt with some time ago.  We're talking before Barack Obama became president.  The scanning of old documents and digitziation process was outsourced from VA.  So I'm not really understanding why Shinseki feels he's living under a ton of paper.  Or why he thinks paper is an excuse for him when he has less paper to deal with than any VA Secretary to date.  I remember the June 19th hearing last year when Acting Chair Gus Bilirakis asked about VBMS, specifically how their scanning contract expired in about a week and how the VBA still hadn't decided whether to renew it or not.  So if there are problems or delays because of VBMS, maybe you should have focused on it and done your damn job?  Bilirakis wasn't the only one to raise that issue (or the only Acting Chair -- voters were being taken and another committee hearing was taking place).


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?

Shinseki sure paints a rosy picture -- it's just not realistic.  Jeffrey Hall is with Disabled American Veterans  and he testified at that June 19th House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing.

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 papareless 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.

So if this has been a problem, as Hall notes, it was made worse when VBS "dragged its feet for more than two years in determining under what conditions existing paper claims files would be converted to digital files."

Then there's his issue that Agent Orange has put them behind.  Really?  Did he miss the May 11th House Veterans Affairs hearing last year?

Because I remember the Committee being told by the VA that "we've pretty much worked through the Agent Orange -- the increase in Agent Orange claims.  I think we're well down on the numbers."  And you know what else?  I remember that statement coming from Eric Shinseki.  Because he's the one who said it. 

Stephanie Herseth Sandlin was a Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee during Shinseki's first two years.  I don't remember one hearing -- whether she was a Committee member or it was her Subcommittee so she was Chair -- where she didn't ask the VA witnesses, "What do you need? Just tell us what you need?"  Congressional Democrats and Republicans did not question efforts to defeat the backlog.  They funded every logical proposal.  They never balked at any VA hires, they usually suggested them, they often argued with VA witnesses saying that more employees were needed only to have VA witnesses declare that it would slow them down due to the amount of training required.

So Eric Shineski's excuses lost currency long ago and all he's left with now is attempts to mislead the Committee.

Lie?  Yes, Allison was present.

To the question Sanders asked above, she wanted to add . . .

Another automated system.  And it's a success.  Of course, it's the failed system from the start of his term.  The GI Bill.  I don't know why she thinks that's something to be proud of considering the lies that the VA told on that previously.  I don't know why she hoped to spin like that.  She tries distraction, she tries to lie. 

Ranking Member Richard Burr: Madam Secretary, the VA backlog reduction plan shows that in order to eliminate the backlog by 2015, VA will need to decide 1.2 million claims this year, 1.6 million claims next year, 1.9 million claims in 2015.  But VA's projecting in the budget submission that it will decide 335,000 fewer claims in 2013 and 2014.  So can the VA reach 2 million claims in 2015?  That would be a 92% increase in productivity over the 2012 level.

Allison Hickey:  So Senator Burr, I'm sorry, I don't exactly know your numbers but I'm happy to take your numbers and go look at them and come back to you and sit down and visit with you.  But I can tell you --

Ranking Member Richard Burr:  -- I'm pulling them right out of the Budget Reduction Plan which was submitted in January.  I got it January 25th in my office and the math would work out to eliminate the backlog in 2015, VA would need to decide 1.2 million claims this year, 1.6 million claims next year, and 1.9 million claims in 2015.  Now in the projections from the budget submission by the President, that says that over the next two years you will decide 335,000 less claims then what the backlog reduction plan said.  I'm trying to figure out, if 2015, you're certain on that, then that means that you have to process over 2 million claims in 2015.  Is that - is that how your math looks at it.

Allison Hickey:  Uh-uh, Sen-Senator Burr, I would love to come sit down and talk to you about that.  Those numbers are a little different to me than the numbers that we sent across.  And follow up in questions with your staff, I'm happy to do that with you.

Ranking Member Richard Burr:  Well in the budget submission, you do say that you will decide 335,000 fewer claims in 2013 and 2014, right?

Allison Hickey:  Uh, uh, Senator, the uh-uh, budget submission --

[At that point the VA's Robert Petzel dropped his head and began rubbing his bald scalp in what appeared to be frustration or embarrassment.]

Allison Hickey:  -- is slightly different than the plan that you received in January that was based on some assumptions made last fall.  Uhm, and there has been some differences in terms of what we have seen in the actuals that have been submitted to us.  We've seen a significant drop -- well, not significant -- Uh, uh.  That's not a good word.  We've seen a drop in the number of claims that have been submitted to us of late so we have adjusted the budget based on those issues.

Ranking Member Richard Burr:  Okay.  Currently, nearly 70% of the claims have been backlogged meaning that they've been waiting for a decision for more than 125 days.  The strategic plan that you submitted less than three months ago predicted that the backlog plan would be reduced to 68% in 2013 and 57% in 2014.  But according to the budget submission, you now expect no more than 40% of the claims to be backlogged during either of these two years.  So in revising these projections, what metrics did you look at and what did they -- how did -- what did they show you?

Allison Hickey:  Sena-Senator, I looked at the, uh, actual submission of receipt claims that we have received from our veterans over the last five months and each month they have been lower than our expected volume.

Ranking Member Richard Burr:  So the math works out to where you would have only a 40% backlog situation in five months?

Allison Hickey:  Uh, no, Senator.  And I don't think -- You all would throw me out of here if I said that would happen.   Uh, uh, it's not where we are.  We are, uh, uh, about at 69% of, uh, our claims right now that are older than 125 days. We're working every single day to drive that number south.  We're doing it by focus on our people process technology solutions and as far as we can pushing up our productivity by our folks.  I can tell you today that my raters are 17%  more effective and a higher productivity than they were prior to us moving into this transition plan --

Ranking Member Richard Burr:  General Hickey, last year you testified, or, excuse me, the Secretary testified, that during 2013, the backlog would be reduced from 60% to 40% and that would -- and I quote -- "demonstrate that we are on the right path." At the time, did you anticipate that the backlog would stay above 65% for the first half of the Fiscal Year or that it would be 70% in April?

Allison Hickey:  So-so, Senator, we do have, uh, uhm, uh, some APG guidance in our annual guidance planning that we communicate with to our federal government partners and, uh, the -- they are usually aspirational in nature. When we see a change or a difference, as the Secretary has pointed out in terms of the workload increase that we saw due to Agent Orange, the increased claims associated with PTSD and the like, we did note that we would probably not be able to meet that 40% APG guidance but the thought was you leave your stretch goal out there so that you keep working hard to get to it.

Ranking Member Richard Burr:  Well, here would be a simple question.  Is the strategic plan that you sent to Congress aspirational?

Allison Hickey:  So, uh, Senator Burr, I grew up as a strategic planner for, uh, in the military for quite a while and I know that every strategic plan I've built over the years for the United States Air Force a plan.  And plans are always, you know, in-in contact.  You know, they change and, uh, adjust for reality and actuals.  So we have and we will continue to improve upon that plan as it continues.

Ranking Member Richard Burr:  But when you developed that plan was it developed to be aspirational or was it developed to give us an accurate blue print of how VA perceived the timeline would move on disability backlogs.

Allison Hickey:  Uh, well, uh --

Secretary Eric Shinseki:  Senator, I think in all planning there is an aspect of aspiration at the beginning and then it is with assumptions and the availability of resources, then it's adjusted for what we think is achievable.  Uhm, a longterm plan like this one with as much, uh, dynamics, uh, involved, uh, we make an assumption that, for example, that the flow of veterans out of uniform to the VA is going to follow a pattern that we've been provided by the Department of Defense.  If that changes, that, uh, adjustment, we'll have to look and see whether we can accommodate that change and if not we'll have to say that, uh, we have a requirement for resourcing.

If US House Rep Jason Chaffetz caught that exchange?  If so, he probably had a good laugh because Hickey's tried that with him too.  Don't confront her with the number she supplies, she will try to weasel out of it, she will try to eat up time and she will never, not in front of the press, admit that the numbers don't add up. 

We'll close with this from The Headstrong Project:

The Headstrong Project is proud to be hosting the first ever “Words of War” event on May 8th at IAC HQ in New York City.
This cocktail fundraiser is designed to further support the mission of the Headstrong Project, to help veterans recover from the hidden wounds of war in order to lead full and meaningful lives. Specifically, “Words of War” will support comprehensive mental healthcare for military veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The evening will include a war poetry reading by Jake Gyllenhaal. Additionally, Adam Driver (from HBO’s Girls and major motion picture Lincoln) and Joanne Tucker of “Theater of War” will perform a scene from Sophocles’ Ajax. This short presentation of wartime poetry, literature, theater and letters articulate the exuberance and ideals that drive men and women to war, the thrill and horror of combat, the difficulties of returning home, and the experience of family members worried about their loved one at war. Iconic wartime images, by photographers Ashley Gilbertson, Lucian Read and Jonathan Alpeyrie will be projected during the presentation.
“Even for those who have fought and served in combat, PTSD can be a tough term to understand,” said Zach Iscol, Executive Director, Chairman of Headstrong Project. “It isn’t accessible and there is a stigma attached to it. This event will speak to how normal and timeless the reactions and emotions felt in and returning home from war can be. Of course you’re going to feel grief over losing a close friend. Of course you’re going to feel shame and guilt about life and death decisions made in the fog of war…any good person would.”
The Headstrong Project began treating military veterans in August 2012, and will be using funds raised from this event to expand care to veterans and their families. In partnership with their media partners Google, Newsweek/Daily Beast, and Pixel Corps, Words of War will also benefit Team Rubicon, Team RWB, and Student Veterans of America. These organizations have been incredibly effective at building communities of veterans- a strong antidote to the effects of PTSD and moral injuries.
Over 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans report symptoms of PTSD. The VA estimates we lose 22 veterans a day to suicide and the Department of Defense reports 30-50 active duty troops take their lives every month. Veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are at particular risk. It has been estimated that for every troop we have lost in combat this year, 25-30 take their own lives. These numbers also do not reflect increases in dangerous and destructive behavior – such as astonishing increases in domestic abuse, substance abuse, and even motorcycle accidents.
The evening will benefit the Headstrong Project, Team RWB, Team Rubicon and Student Veterans of America. For more information of the Headstrong Project or to purchase tickets to the “Words of War” please visit

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