Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Make it a clean sweep







Today Veterans Affaris Secretary Eric Shinseki appeared before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs for a hearing entitled "Update of the State of the VA." Shinseki was the only witness appearing before the committee.

Ranking Member Steve Buyer made an idiot out of himself repeatedly. Kat will be grabbing most of that at her site tonight (and I agree with her 100%) but to claim, as Buyer did, that Congress is responsible or equally responsible for the VA backlog on the Post-9/11 GI Bill is beyond uninformed. It goes to Buyer not paying attention to what Congress did do. We'll address that tomorrow when the Committee hears about the VA backlog on education benefits but the fault lies with the VA and that was clear to anyone attending hearings over the summer. Buyer apparently has no long term memory. He can take comfort in the fact that the press was snoozing as well. But the VA was offered additional help and the VA turned it down.

June 25th, US House Rep Harry Teague chaired the US House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity (filling in for US House Rep Stephanie Herseth Sandlin). He and Ranking Member Boozman noted the VA needed to step forward immediately if there were any problems with the Post-9/11 GI Bill with Boozman especially stressing that if problems came up, let the committee know immediately so they can assist. July 29th Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs hearing found Senator Jon Tester suggesting that -- due to the VA's huge backlog on claims -- the VA might need to add some employees. The VA's Patrick Dunne insisted more employees weren't needed and that they would mean more administrative duties which would cause even more delays. This was echoed by the GAO's Danile Bertoni who 'said', "We have reported that an infusion of a large number of staff has the potential to improve VA's capacity. However, quickly absorbing these staff will likely pose human capital challenges for VA, such as how to train and deploy them. The additional staff has helped VA process more claims and appeals overall, but as VA has acknowledged, it has also reduced individual staff productivity. . . . According to VA, this decline in productivity is attributable primarily to new staff who have not yet become fully proficient at processing claims and to the loss of experienced staff due to retirements. VA expects its productivity to decline further before it improves, in part because of the challenges of training and integrating new staff."

"Said"? It's part of his prepared statement but his time ran out before he completed reading it. It is part of the record.

And Buyer and the press should be familiar with and Shinseki should have been asked about this. Did the VA refuse to ask for the help they needed? Maybe the question will come up tomorrow when a hearing on the Post-9/11 GI Bill is held?

Reading a statement today at the start of the hearing, different from the prepared one, Shinseki did note, briefly, the problems with the education bill.

Eric Shinseki: Complications in implementing the Post-9/11 GI Bill required VA to make advance payments to effected veterans to cover their expenses and to relieve their uncertainty and stress. There are many reasons for those complications but the delays were unacceptable. Advance payments remain in effect -- that's the emergency procedure we put in place two weeks ago. Advance payments remain in effect as we mature our IT tools to assure timely delivery of checks in the future. And I'm hopeful that early November, we'll have the Phase III automated tool for our use.

IT? The VA's had a lot of IT problems. Equally true is that the VA attempted to blame colleges for the delay. Or are we all supposed to forget that? Now Congress is told that it was an IT problem?

Buyer wasn't the only one looking foolish, US House Rep Corrine Brown, informing that she was "watching television" yesterday morning, insisted that the media had it wrong and the delays in veterans receiving their checks wasn't the VA's fault it was the institutions who weren't verifying adds and drops for their colleges. Brown doesn't know what she's talking about. She then wanted a response from Shinseki. Chair Bob Filner attempted to move on and she stopped him asking if she could get a response?

Shinseki avoided it. Brown couldn't take a hint so she brought it up again, "Can you discuss the VA's wonderful program that we're having some challenges with? But it's a win-win for the veterans, you know the community, especially with these hard times, the opportunity to go back to school and retrain is a win-win." Does she grasp how uninformed and/or insulting she sounds? You have veterans across the country who have still not received payment. Some of them are single-parents. Several are single mothers with small children and the press has covered this and covered how they are taking out loans as they wait for the VA to get it together, how they fear they may end up homeless. Is Corrine Brown that out of touch?

She waited for Shinseki to back her up. He didn't.

Eric Shinseki: I've-I've-I've been very clear about how important this is. Not just to the VA but to me personally. Uh, it is, uh, a you know an aspect of myself coming back although not in a program like this. Coming back from Vietnam and having the opportunity to go back and do graduate schooling, I understand the importance of this program. But it's even more important to the country. The potential that will come out of this -- we go back and look at what came after WWII, what that country provided to our country in terms of leadership for the second half of the 20th century, that's what we're about to realize here. And the VA has an important role to make sure this happens.

As he continued to speak, he said a number of things that should have been red flags.

Erick Shinseki: A plan was written, very quickly put together, uh, very short timelines, I'm looking at the certifcates of elegibility uh being processed on 1 May and enrollments 6 July, checks having to flow through August. A very compressed timeframe. And in order to do that, we essentially began as I arrived in January, uh, putting together the plan -- reviewing the plan that was there and trying to validate it. I'll be frank, when I arrived, uh, there were a number of people telling me this was simply not executable. It wasn't going to happen. Three August was going to be here before we could have everything in place. Uh, to the credit of the folks in uh VA, I, uh, I consulted an outside consulatant, brought in an independent view, same kind of assessment. 'Unless you do some big things here, this is not possible.' To the credit of the folks, the good folks in VBA, they took it on and they went at it hard. We hired 530 people to do this and had to train them. We had a manual system that was computer assisted. Not very helpful but that's what they inherited. And we realized in about May that the 530 were probably a little short so we went and hired 230 more people. So in excess of 700 people were trained to use the tools that were coming together even as certificates were being executed. Uhm, we were short on the assumption of how many people it would take. We based our numbers on the Montgomery GI Bill which is about a 15 minute procedure. The uh chapter thirty-three procedures about an hour on average, maybe an hour and 15 minutes. So right off the bat, we had some issues with assumptions. Uh, we are still receiving certificates of enrollment. This week alone, we received 36,000 certificates of enrollment coming from schools who are working through the process and we put them into the execute of providing those checks -- three checks.

Shinskeki wasn't honest. The 36,000 certificates this week alone? These are not 36,000 new certificates. I asked a friend at the VA and these include a large number of schools refiling in an attempt to help the veterans who are waiting. Each week, some schools are refiling certifications because their students still do not have funding. In addition, there is late enrollment and some of the forms being processed are late enrollments.

As for the employees, Shinseki made a big to do about grasping 530 wasn't enough employees (as claims examiners) so, apparently quickly, 230 more were hired and trained. Quickly? No. June 25th, VA's Director from the Office of Education Service, Keith Wilson, was stating that they expected to have those 230 "on board by August 31, 2009."

Shinseki testified he was told it wasn't possible by the VA and by some outside contractor. I'm sorry, I've attended all the Congressional committee and subcommittee hearings on the Post-9/11 GI Bill and never once did the VA express that to the Congress. Never once did they say, "We won't be able to do it." They stated they were on track repeatedly. They were asked if they were worried about a crunch as deadlines for fall enrollment approached, they never blinked an eyelash, they never raised a concern. Now, after the system falls down in front of the whole country, Shinseki wants to say, 'Oh, we knew back when I started as VA Secretary that it wasn't going to go smoothly.' At what point in the 'planning' did the VA expect to inform of Congress of that?

This add and drop crap? It's getting real old and it's amazing that the VA attempted to lie (and got away with it) when the problem emerged. They blamed the colleges. Shinseki himself blamed the colleges and said that it was an add and drop issue. Did no one ever think to ask about the first checks issued? If you issue a check before the semester even starts, you're not waiting for adds and drops. Did no one grasp that this took place? Did everyone sleep through testimony over the summer when the VA was bragging about how many they had already processed -- before any semester even began?

"But again, we adjusted to the assumptions that didn't bear out and we'll make adjustments in the future," Shinseki declared. Where in that statement do you find "It's the fault of the colleges!"? Only Corrine Brown, watching television at five in the morning, and not liking what she sees, can see that.

John Boozman also rushed to excuse the VA. He's a Republican and, as a result, I may not expect him to be reality based but even he did come off as nutty as Corrine Brown. But this idea that the VA is not responsible for the current mess goes to the Culture of No Accountability in DC. The VA didn't just issue the checks (or not issue them), it also designed the entire system. Columbia in New York, UCLA, etc did not design the VA's programs. If there were problems in the system designed by the VA then that falls back on the VA and there needs to be accountability.

There is none. Despite Shinseki's claim at the hearing that "accountability does count with me." Shinseki admits before Congress that he knew, stepping in as Secretary, that the program wouldn't work as it was being presented. He admits that today. The Congress should have been informed of that long ago. And a Committee less concerned with fawning over a former general and more concerned with serving veterans would have raised the issues noted here. In other testimony, Shinseki stated that he had heard the stories about women arriving for VA appointments and being turned away because they had brought their children: "I know there were a couple of anecdotal incidents in where -- in which women veterans reported not being able to keep their appointments because they showed up with children and I can assure the chairman that guidance has gone out, correct any of that. Uh, women veterans showing up with children will be seen. With the exceptions that uh would make sense here and the exceptions being those settings uh in ICU or mental health where uh it would not be good to have children in that environment. We would find other ways to take-take the child and care for it. But right-right now the authorities are not within the department to be able to provide child care on our own and this may be one of those things that we uh have a discussion with the chairman and the committee on how we might look for some help here."

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