Saturday, October 17, 2009

Old love






Yesterday the House Committee on Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity met to address the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Chair Stephanie Herseth Sandlin called the hearing to order and noted that US House Reps Vic Snyder and Harry Mitchell were joining the committee (she asked for the Subcommittee's consent, which was given) and then explained, "Today we seek to administer our oversight jurisdiction on the VA's implementation efforts of the Post-9/11 GI Bill. I expect that this hearing will provide the VA the opportunity to update us on recent actions taken to address delays in distribution of education benefits and its plan moving forward to ensure the same mistakes do not occur in the future."

In his opening remarks, the VA's Keith M. Wilson stated that the VA was unable to find an outside contractor due to a low number of bids so the computer issues were handled in-house by VA's IT. He declared, "Post-911 GI Bill claims currently require manual processing using four separate IT systems that do not interface to each other. When an application or enrollment certification is received, the documents are captured into The Image Management System (TIMS). The documents are routed electronically to a claims examiner for processing. The claims examiner reviews the documents in TIMS and determines the student's eligibility, entitlement and benefit rate using the Front End Tool [FET]. The FET is used to calculate and store student information to support the Post-9/11 GI Bill claims adjudication process. However, the FET has limited capability for processing the multiple scenarios encountered in determining eligibility and entitlement under the new program." If that was an attempt at an explanation for the delay or even just a whine, the Pity Party's already seated and he needs to join others at the VA table -- the VA designed the system and if it doesn't work (so far it hasn't worked well) that falls back on the VA.

Chair Stephanie Herseth Sandlin The issue of outreach prior to the fall semester starting starting, we have repeatedly heard from veterans believing that their housing allowance would be issued to them at the beginning of the month or that this would be paid "upfront." What is creating this disconnect?

Keith M. Wilson: We've heard that as well. First let me clarify in terms of how it is paid. The monthly housing benefit is paid in the same manner as VA education benefits are paid under the same existing program -programs in that it is paid in arrays at the end of the month following the month of attendance. There -- and quite honestly this is speculation -- the tuition payment is paid to the school at the beginning of the year, the housing allowance -- I'm sorry the book and stipend allowance is paid to the student at the beginning of the semester. I think it would be logical for some individuals to make a connection between the manner in which those payments were made and the manner in which they would presume that the housing allowance would be paid.

Chair Stephanie Herseth Sandlin Before recognizing other members and we'll have another round of questions for everybody, yesterday at our full committee meeting when Secretary [Eric] Shinseki was testifying, we heard from several members that were proposing legislative fixes to make your job easier in the future because as you described it in your written testimony, your oral testimony today, I know you're laying the groundwork for your long-term IT solution but you're dealing with legacy systems and we had the recession effecting states and their decisions, and so some factors and some variables which, in a perfect world, we would have liked to have anticipated all of them and had you prepare for every possible scenario. But we do know that, uh, many members are interested in streamlining the administration of all the education benefits. I don't know if you're prepared to say which legislative fixes you'd endorse today or if you're starting to give those thoughts but any suggestions?

Keith M. Wilson: We are giving that a lot of thought. Clearly there are issues that have been discussed that conceptually are very appealing. Paying housing allowances in advance has been talked about as a possibility. Delinking the tuition payment with the schools with the need to get the housing payment out as quickly as possible to students, etc. The -- and I would -- I would agree that those are appealing from a conceptual perspective. The challenge I believe will be making sure that any legislative fixes are immediately implementable, taking into account the-the issues that you rightly brought up considering the legacy systems that we have in place, the limitations in our short term initiative that we are currently essentially locked into process claims. One thing we absolutely don't want to do is make the situation worse.

No, Wilson did not take accountability. Setting aside Wednesday's testimony to Congress when Shinseki revealed that the VA always knew the system wasn't ready -- which Wilson apparently thought he could ignore, if there are problems with schools or veterans for this new program, who does that fall back on? It's a new program. VA has a million and one excuses for their 'computer' problems. What's the excuse for any misunderstandings? The VA has a budget they are supposed to be spending to get the word out.

And what about when the VA gave out the wrong information? That was pursued at one point in the hearing.

US House Rep Harry Teague: You know we've had a problem with some contradictory information coming out. You know when the checks didn't go out the first of the month, well then we issued the letter that they would be cut on Friday the second. And then there was also some letters sent out that if, like in places like New Mexico, it's 320 miles to the only hospital and the only facility in the state that they would be going to some of the larger universities around and handing the checks out. That didn't happen. At the same time, they got a website up where they could go to but we didn't get that information to people. So I was just wondering if we're streamlining our communications within our office there so that we don't continually jerk the veterans around and have some of them misinformed.

Keith Wilson: I understand your concerns, Congressman. And we-we have, I believe, we have a better process in place to make sure that we are communicating more effectively on that. The issues that we are dealing with was trying to get -- make sure we had something out the gate and-and informed our student population prior to 10-1 [October 1st] -- around the 10-1 time frame. The 10-1 was important because most folks were at that point where they were due their first housing allowance payments. .We thought it was important to get something up as soon as possible. We were dealing -- and continued to deal -- at the time of that press release, with some technical issues concerning how we get to the other locations beyond our 57 regional offices. We very early on wanted a desire to spread this out as much as possible. We felt that the most effective way of doing this was leveraging technology. Taking into account that we've got technology students at thousands of locations across the country. We felt the most effective way of uh getting those folk that weren't within distance of a regional office was to allow technology and so that was the driver for our decision on the follow up --

US House Rep Harry Teague: Yes and I agree with that and I think that the webpage is working good. It's just that during that week prior to that, when I was at New Mexico State University, they were expecting someone to be there with the checks and then, on Friday when there's not, that's when we find out about the webpage.

Keith Wilson: I understand.

US House Rep Harry Teague: Another thing I don't know, I guess it's a misunderstanding on their part and I guess I was wondering where the information came from that so many of the veterans thought that they were going to be paid in advance both for tuition and housing?

Keith Wilson: I-I-I uh -- The advance payment issue has been troubling. We have had, in our outreach material, going back to the winter period -- early spring, winter period, information providing the student experience. In other words, what would the student experience. We have worked very hard to make individuals understand when they will be paid. The example that we used was for the individual who would be having their first day of class toward the end of August, come September 1st, they were only eligible for a partial housing allowance for those couple of days of attendance in September followed by the first full housing allowance paid October 1st. For whatever reason, and again, I would be speculating that didn't seem to be fully understood. Largely it did because most of our current participants are transferees from the Montgomery GI Bill and this past benefit is paid in the same manner but we didn't get that word out to everybody and there were pockets of communication and we need to continue to work hard on that issue.

US House Rep Harry Teague: You know, and you brought up another thing there with the transferring from the Montgomery GI Bill to the Post-9/11 GI Bill and sometimes before they understand the full benefits of both programs, people have committed the Post-9/11 GI Bill and then found out that it really didn't have as many benefits for them individually as the Montgomery GI Bill but they can't switch back. Is there anything that we can do there where they can reconsider if -- through oversight on their part or misinformation -- they want to go back to the Montgomery Bill?

Keith Wilson: The structure of the Post-9/11 GI Bill calls for an irrevocable decision so currently that's a statutory requirement -- is an individual has to revoke, there's no mechanism in the statute allow -- that would allow a person to unrevoke the irrevocable election. Our-our mechanism by which we have been educating people on that is making sure that they can understand the an -- the questions that need to be answered. The answers to the questions themselves are going to be unique to each individual person. You're absolutely right for raising this concern. Individuals do have to be well armed, they have to know what questions to ask and our efforts have been designed towards ensuring they can answer those questions.

A friend who is an Iraq War veteran and a veterans' advocate was at yesterday's hearing and wanted it pointed out how the VA is taking no accountability for all of this. He points out what a huge, huge amount of information is required for all of this -- for deciding to go with the Montgomery GI Bill or the Post-9/11 GI Bill just for starters. At this site, we repeatedly referred to the VFW which offered advocates by phone who would explain what was going on and that's because the VFW is going to know what's going on, is going to have explored every facet. And people who called the VFW got information they could use -- the VFW provided that service at no charge -- in determining which plan would be best for them and details of each. But why does the VFW have to do that? It's great that they did. Praise to them for it. They did a wonderful job. But this is the VA's program. This is a government program run by a government department. It shouldn't require a veterans service organization -- which is what the VFW is -- to help veterans sort through the maze.

That was the VA's responsibility, not the VFW's. (And to be clear, the friend I'm speaking is a member of the VFW but his advocacy is not with/for the VFW. It would be fine if it were and if it it were, I would identify him as such.) The VA did not live up to its obligations. A new program is run by the VA. Guess whose job it is to explain that program? The VA's. No one else has that obligation. Many veterans service organizations took it upon themselves to assist their members and that's wonderful. But that's the bonus, that's the added detail. The VA is not supposed to count on or rely on veterans service organizations to do their job.

The VA did not do their job and this is why there is confusion now. The VA has put the blame off on colleges, it's pushed the blame off on individuals. It is a VA program. The VA is responsible for administering it and administering it properly. Now anyone can put a program in place and have it fall apart. That's, in fact, what the VA did. But their role also includes "administering it properly" and that is what they did not do and what they have not taken accountability for. Once Congress made the program law, it was in the VA's court and they were responsible. Having made it a law, the Congress repeatedly asked the VA what they could do to help? Did they need more employees? Did they need more money? What did they need? And the VA led the Congress to believe -- as they led the veterans and as they led the American people to believe -- that there was no problem. But Wednesday, truth emerged when Eric Shinseki informed Congress that the VA always knew there would be a problem, that he had hired an outside consultant who had backed up internal opinions that it wasn't manageable. And until Wednesday, the VA never informed Congress of this problem.

Last night, Rebecca noted a press release from US House Rep Glen Nye's office about additional questions Nye has submitted to Shinseki since the hearing:

If internal estimates showed that there would be delays in processing tuition payments, why did the Department of Veterans Affairs not seek additional resources or support prior to the start of the academic year?

Nye has additional points and other strong statements but that question above is the main one and it needs to be answered.

US House Rep Harry Mitchell grasps that. Let's jump into his exchange from yesterday. He began by noting that the VA had not yet given out Fiscal Year 2009 bonuses and he strongly suggested that before any "plush bonuses" were handed out, the VA think long and hard about the veterans struggling to receive the benefits that they have earned.

US House Rep Harry Mitchell: Mr. Wilson, this is not your first appearance before this subcommittee. You have appeared before it several times since the GI Bill was signed into law to keep the committee members apprised of the VA's efforts to implement the GI Bill. And you offered assurances that the VA would be ready by August 1st. You even brought in a detailed timeline to show us how the VA would be ready by August 1st. In February, [John] Adler of this Committee asked if the VA needed more tools to accomplish the goal of program implementation and you responded by stating, "This legislation itself came with funding. This funding at this point has adequately provided us with what we need for implementing payments on August 1, 2009." If this legislation provided you with what you needed then why did you go to the VA -- or then where did you and the VA go wrong in meeting the implementation goal? So I'd like to ask two questions. How are we supposed to believe the assurances you're offering today? And, two, knowing how interested Congress is in implementing the GI Bill, once you knew you were running into problems, why didn't you let us know? Why did we have to first hear about it from veterans and read about it in the Army Times?

Keith Wilson: You rightly call us out in terms of not providing timely service to all veterans. We acknowledge that and uh are working as hard as humanly possible uh to make sure that we are meeting those goals. Uh the timeline that we provided to the subcommittee uh I believe was largely met uh in terms of our ability to generate payments on the date that we were required to deliver the first checks -- first payments did go out August 3rd. Uh there were a couple of significant challenges uh that we had not anticipated. One was uh the volume of work created by the increase in applications for eligibility determinations that did not translate into student population dropping off other programs. But we had significantly more work in our existing programs than we would have expected to have to maintain going into the fall enrollment. One of the other primary challenges that we have responded to is uh when we began our ability to use the tools that were developed uh to implement the program in the short term. Uh May 1st is when we began using those tools and it was very clear to us from the get-go that even accounting for our understanding that they weren't perfect, we underestimated the complexity and the labor-intensive nature of what needed to be done. We responded by hiring 230 additional people to account for that.

US House Rep Harry Mitchell: And I read all of that in your testimony. My point is, once you knew you were running into problems, why didn't you come back to us? We heard it first by veterans and through the Army Times that you were having problems.

Keith Wilson: [Heavy, audible sigh] It has been our desire from the get-go to make sure that the subcommittee has been informed all along. If we did not meet those expectations, then we need to be held accountable for that. We provided information that we had at each of the hearings and we have had a long standing mechanism by which we have provided updates to staff on a regular basis. Uh we did notify the Subcommittee at the time of the hiring of the 230 additional people.

Mitchell was obviously not impressed with the response. They had to break to take votes. But everyone should grasp how offensive Wilson's answer is: "If we did not meet those expectations, then we need to be held accountable for that." If? Veterans were in danger of losing their homes, some of those veterans were parents, some were single-parents. They were not getting their checks will into October (and some still haven't gotten their checks). Did Congress hear that and say, "Sure, fine, you do whatever you want." No. Congress would not have taken that attitude and Congress was not informed. There is no "if." Congress was not informed of the problems and Democrat or Republican, every member of the Veterans Affairs Committee -- in Committee meetings and Subcommittee meetings throughout 2008 -- has asked the VA (a) do they need any other resources and (b) please come to us immediately if you have any problems.

There is no "if." The VA did not meet expectations. I'll go further. They lied -- and that includes Wilson -- to the Congress. Repeatedly. Shinseki testified on Wednesday that when he stepped into his role as VA Secretary at the start of this year, he knew. He was told that the VA could not meet the expectations. He then went and hired an outside consultant to determine whether or not that was true. The consultant determined the same thing. Shinseki: "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 consultant, 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." When did the VA share the problem with the Congress? Never.

That's what US Rep Mitchell was getting at in his testimony -- how the Congress had to learn about the problems from veterans and the Army Times. That's ridiculous. As he pointed out, they had multiple hearings, they made requests and the VA never indicated any problems in testimony or in one-on-one discussions.

The VA's failure is an issue. It's an issue that many veterans are still living with as they wait for education benefit checks to arrive. But the issue Congress needs to resolve is why they were misled. If that's not resolved, what is the point?

US House Rep Harry Mitchell: Mr. Wilson, I believe that no veteran, and I'm talking as a former school teacher who values education very, very much, I don't believe any veteran should fall behind even a semester because of the VA's inability to meet the goals that we've set out for them. And I'd like to know what the VA's doing to ensure that future payments will not be delayed? As well as, what assurances can you offer that these measures will work?

Keith Wilson: Everything that we're putting into place right now is designed to ensure that we go into the spring semester fully loaded with what we need to have on board. We will take every step that we need to to make sure that veterans have access to payment. If that means that we have to keep an advance payment mechanism some -- some sort in process, we will do that. But our goal is to make sure that those mechanisms are not needed, that we have this issue resolved prior to the spring semester and we move forward. The Secretary has been very clear that any delay in payment is unacceptable. Everybody in VA agrees wholeheartedly with that. On a personal level, I can say first hand, I know exactly what these students are going through.

Liar. He went to college. On a GI Bill. That doesn't mean he knows what the veteran students are going through today. A program was in place for him and it administered the checks in a timely manner. For him to try to use his 'personal experience' should have resulted in someone on the Subcommittee coming back with, "Well if you know what it's like, why did you and others mislead the Veterans Affairs Committee instead of coming to us and asking for help as we repeatedly requested you to do?"

Stephanie Herseth asked if he needed additional staff at the call center for educational benefits. She also underscored that "we need to be made aware of the problems immediately if there's any complications that arise" and "if you start anticipating problems or start experiencing problems" then let the Committee know. US House Rep John Adler also touched on this repeatedly such as asking Wilson "are there any other tools you need from Congress" and reminding him that "we would like to hear from you as needs arise, before the crisis arise" and "tell us what you need from us."

But here's the thing, these statements? Made throughout 2008. And we know how that didn't work out. There needs to be accountability. There was none. And it was really cheap and dishonest for this man who has worked at the VA since 1989 to pretend he understood what it was like for the veterans who worried (and some still do) that they will be homeless because their education checks have not arrived. Translation: The hearing accomplished nothing. The friend I spoke of earlier stated he felt the Subcommittee made Wilson squirm but he didn't feel that anything else was accomplished: "There was no effort to track down where the accountability was or where the breakdown came in. Even the most basic question was not asked: 'Were you ordered not to tell the Congress that there were problems coming up, problems that the department knew were coming?'"

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"Celebrity Whine"

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Celebrity Whine








Today's hearing will focus on the inappropriate billing practices of the VA where veterans receive a bill for the wrong amount or get a bill that they should not have received in the first place," explained US House Rep Glen Nye bringing the House Veterans Affairs Committee's Subcommittee On Health hearing to order. "Unfortunately inappropriate billing effects both service-connected veterans and non-service connected veterans. For example, a veteran with a service-related spinal cord injury may be billed for the treatment of a urinary tract infection. Now the urinary tract infection may clearly be linked to and the result of the service-connected injury; however, veterans are still receiving bills for the treatment of such secondary conditions. As a result, these veterans may be forced to seek a time consuming and burdensome re-adjudication of their claim indicating the original service-connected ratings. It is my understanding that one of the reasons for inappropriate billing of secondary conditions is that the VA cannot store more than six service-connected conditions in their IT system. It is also my understanding that the VA is taking steps to correct the deficiency but the problem has not been fully resolved and our veterans continue to receive inaccurate bills. Non-service-connected veterans also encounter over-billing and inappropriate charges for co-payments. One issue that I've been made aware of repeatedly is that some non-service connected veterans receive multiple bills for a single medical treatment or health care visit."

Nye was bringing the hearing to order in place of Subcommittee Chair Michael Michaud. The hearing was divided into three panels. The first panel was composed of Adrian Atizado (Disabled American Veterans), Fred Cowell (Paralyzed Veterans of America) and Denise A. Williams (American Legion). The second panel was the GAO's Kay L. Daly. Panel three was composed of the VA's Dr. Gary M. Baker with the VA's Stephanie Mardon and Kristin Cunningham.

US House Rep Henry E. Brown is the Ranking Member on the Subcommittee. We'll note this from his opening remarks:

It is the solemn mission -- mission of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the federal government to care for the men and women in uniform who sustain injuries and illnesses as a result of their service to our nation; therefore, I find it deeply troubling to hear about veterans being inappropriately billed for co-payments for medical care and the medication to treat service-connected conditions. A similar issue arose earlier this year when the Obama administration was considering a plan to bill veterans private insurance for service-connected care. Fortunately, this ill-conceived proposal never saw the light of day given the fierce opposition of members from both sides of the aisle and the veterans' service organizations. As I said then, "This flies in the face of our moral obligation as a grateful nation to care for those wounded heroes."

On the first panel, Cowell noted the maze veterans go through when attempting to use the phone to address a billing issue. He noted the differing problems facing service-connected veterans and non-service connected veterans with billing errors, "Service-connected veterans are faced with a scenario where they, or their insurance company, may be billed for treatment of a service-connected condition. Meanwhile non-service connected disabled veterans are usually billed multiple times for the same treatment episode or have difficulty getting their insurance companies to pay for treatment provided by the VA." Paralyzed Veterans of America surveyed 4,000 of their members and 449 responded. Of that 449, 30% told of being "either billed directly by the VA for care that they receive or have tehir insurance companies billed for their care." From there, 22% reported their insurance companies were wrongly billed for the care or "treatment of a service-connected condtion," 17% stated they themselves were "billed directly for treatment of a service-connected condition" and 9% stated they were billed multiple times "for the same treatment episode."

Along with citing PVA's survey, Cowell shared that he himself faces these problems, "But almost every billing statement I receive has several charges that are incorrect. For several years, I simply paid these charges because I did not realize they were eroneus. For at least the past three years, I now work with my visiting nurse to review my bills for incorrect charges. She then corrects the social worker on my team and they work with the DC business office to remove incorrect charges. This is a monthly process because somehow the problem cannot be fixed on a local level and these errors continue to happen. This means that important, front-line health care workers are spending their valuable time on correcting billing issues rather than caring for veterans."
Like PVA, DVA conducted their own survey. Atizado explained that 402 members responded. 62% of respondents stated their insurance companies were "billed for their care at the VA," 43% stated they "receive bills for their care from the VA, 55% stated "that their insurance companies are being billed for treatment from VA of a service-connected condtion," and 43% stated that they were "billed for treatment at the VA for a service-connected condtion." He observed, "What is most troubling is the perception these veterans carry about the VA being indiscriminating in their billing and collections and VA being unresponsive when veterans bring their concerns to the local facility for corrective action."

Denise Williams noted the American Legion's long committment to veterans:

Denise Williams: A very notable instance where this was evident was in March 2009 when past national commander David Rehbein met with President Obama and learned that the administration planned to move forward on a proposal to charge veterans with private insurance for the treatment of service-connected injuries and illnesses at VA facilities. Under the proposed change, VA would bill the veterans' private insurance company for treatment of their service-connected disabilities. After fierce opposition from the American Legion and other veterans' service organizations, the administration dropped their plan to bill private insurance companies for treatment of service-connected medical conditions.

US House Rep Glen Nye observed, "First of all I'd just like to I want to say I appreciate Mr. Brown, the Rankig Member's comments, when he mentioned something that a number of our panelists also mentioned about the notion that the administration was kicking around earlier in the year about potentially charging veterans' private-insurance for service-connected injuries. And I want to say I was also proud to be part of that bi-partisan effort to raise the issue quickly -- along with our VSOs -- to the White House and fortunately we were able to resolve that and get that taken off the table early."

In her written opening remarks (but not in the opening remarks she delivered), Williams also noted the American Legion haa recently documented ten cases "where VA erroneaously billed service-connected veterans' private insurances for their service-connected medical care. In one case, a veteran passed away in the Tampa VA Medical Center, November 27, 2009. He was 100% service-conected for several conditions, and was also a military retiree enrolled in TRICARE for Life."

Nye asked the panel the typical amount of time their members state it takes to resolve the billing issues.

Fred Cowell: In my personal experience, I generally receive a VA billing statement three or four months from the actual date of treatment. At that point, I have to go through the bill match it -- I have learned over time to match it to a home calendar that I keep so I can track actual visit dates from my home calendars. If I notice more than one billing in that particular month, generally I get a single visit in a month from my home care nurse. Sometimes I'm bill as often as three or four times in that month for that single service. I then have to wait for the following visit which is the following month to talk with her about the issue. She checks her calendar, verifies that there is erroneous billing going on and then she goes back to the DC hospital and contacts the social worker on that team who then reviews the chart and they go up to the business office. So sometimes it can take six to eight months to get a correction for a billing error. And most months, there's more than one billing error on my -- on my statement. And we're hearing the same thing from veterans across the country, PVA members, that it takes six to eight months if they even know that there's a billing error to get it corrected.

US House Rep Glen Nye: Did you say that most months there's a billing error on your statements?

Fred Cowell: That's correct.

US House Rep Glen Nye: Alright, thank you. Mr. Atizado?

Adrian Atizado: Thank you for that question. The veterans that I ended up calling from our survey who said -- who said it was -- that it was okay for us to contact them, the reasons -- or the time runs the gamut from having it corrected within a few weeks to not being corrected at all -- to being corrected for one bill and having a recurring bill, I should say recurring inappropriate bill happen the following treatment episode or the following month. So I can certainly tell you that there's no consistency in the corrective actions. There just isn't. Some veterans have given up, some veterans will pay and some veterans will hold themselves in debt and end up having an offset put on either their compensation or their pension despite the fact that that's an inappropriate bill.

US House Rep Glen Nye: Okay, thank you. Ms. Williams?

Denise Williams: Mr. Chairman, I believe it varies based on the case. But those ten cases that we compiled in April, one of our assistant directors did follow up with the veterans and I believe there were some cases that were not resolved. And this was last week. I must say that our executive director did meet with our VA liason last week and I believe that they are working on resolving those cases so it does vary. We don't have an exact time for when they're resolved but there's still some cases out there that has not been rectified.

Kay L. Daly read her lengthy prepared remarks about . . . a 2008 GAO study. I have no idea why the members were polite and sat through that. That study's been gone over before and, check the calendar, it's 2009 -- almost 2010 (and it is fiscal year 2010). When asked questions, she repeatedly stated something was beyond her scope or she did not know but would get back to the committee. Apparently dusting off a year-old GAO report already discussed at length with Congress was all the time she had for homework and preparation. Not surprisingly, the committee didn't keep her around for long and moved on to the third panel.

Subcommittee Chair Michael Michaud: I appreciate what VA is trying to do to solve this problem; however, as you heard from the first panel, there seems to be a disconnect when you're looking at billing for service-connected disability. That's a big concern I have because, at the beginning of the year, we heard through the grapevine that this adminstration was going to go after third party collections for service-connected disability. So I'm wondering whether or not there is someone in the VA who believes that is still a good policy? And, even though they're not supposed to, that they're doing it? Unfortunately what I think happens sometimes is the veterans who -- there will be veterans who fight it, then there will be veterans who will not fight it and will actually pay and that's the big concern that I have. And I know that the GAO made seven recommendations on how the VA could correct this. Has the VA adopted all seven of those seven recommendations?

Gary Baker: Yes, Mr. Chairman, VA has provided information to GAO. As we mentioned, a meeting was held earlier last week. But we had provided written response some time ago indicating our actions on all seven activities. And we have incorporated their recommendations into our policies and practices, issued new handbooks, new policy guidelines and training and follow-up. If I might address the service-connected issue, it has never been VA's authority to bill for service-connected conditions. While I understand that there was earlier this year some discussion of changing that practice, that was never communicated to our field facilities and providers as a change in policy. And our information systems, as I indicated earlier, automatically exempt service-connected veterans who are [. . .] service-connected from co-pay billing for inpatient and outpatient care and other exemptions as they relate to eligibility. And our providers received no change of instructions in exempting veterans for treatment of their service-connected conditions. In terms of the concerns that were addressed by the first panel, in terms of billing for service-connected conditions, I wouldn't sit here and say that VA is perfect in its billing practices. Certainly there are times when we make errors. And we stand ready and willing to correct those errors. And if there are instances where we're not being timely in terms of follow-up on that, we certainly want to hear about that so that we can improve not only on individual situations but if we have a systemic problem we're more than happy to address that.

Subcommittee Chair Michael Michaud: Do you view improper billing as a problem or do you feel it's just an isolated case from what you heard from the first panel?

Gary Baker: In terms of improper billing? I think VA billed almost 16 million -- or 13 million co-pay bills last year total. I think there's a possibility that VA makes errors in making co-pay bills or in the millions of third-party bills that we make. I don't believe that we have a large-scale, systemic problem in terms of identification of service-connected conditions. But it is related to the frontline provider who delivers service identifying that the care is related or not related to the veterans service-connected condition. We recognize that there can occassionally be errors made in that situation and that there are interpretation issues that can arise [. . .]

"A plan was written, very quickly put together, uh, very short timelines," declared VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to the US House Veterans Affairs Committee yesterday as to why the VA had screwed up the payments for veterans attempting to pursue higher education. "I'm looking at the certificates of eligibility 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 consultant, 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."

Shinseki admits, for the first damn time, that he knew the Post-9/11 GI Bill would not be ready and had even hired an outside consultant to weigh in. But he never got around to telling Congress until after -- AFTER -- veterans were suffering. And Congress never got around to be offended on behalf of veterans or on behalf of themselves.

US House Rep Corinne Brown was called out in yesterday's snapshot and deserved to be called out a lot worse. Last night, a veteran and veterans' advocate at yesterday hearing shared how disgusted he was with her remarks and asked that I add that Brown spoke as if the GI Bill was "for ex-cons. She spoke about us like we were uneducated felons who'd committed capital murder and should be saying, 'Thank you, VA, for taking pity on our criminal asses'." And he's exactly right. Brown's statements were appalling clueless and shamefully offensive. If you looked around while she was speaking, you could see the veterans and veterans families present just recoil as Brown spoke. She was also of the opinion that Shinseki was doing something wonderful and good and noble.

What world does she live in? Is she not a member of Congress? Senator Jim Webb championed the Post-9/11 GI Bill, as did others but he was a leader. Congress passed it, it became a law. The Secretary of any department following the law is not a gift and it's a damn shame Corrine Brown thought it was. A congressional aide pointed that out today, to give credit where it's due.

After Shinseki volunteered that the VA always, ALWAYS, knew this would happen, the Committee should have exploded with righteous indignation over the fact that (a) this was done to veterans and (b) the VA failed to inform Congress of what they knew. That never happened. The entire hearing was treated like a joke with jokes at the start of it. (See Kat's "House Committee on Veterans Affairs" from last night.)

Today Stephanie Herseth Sandlin chaired a Subcommitte hearing on the GI Bill. She and others did a strong job and we'll go over that hearing tomorrow but listening to her and and US House Rep John Adler have to remind the VA that they are supposed to keep Congress informed of any problems -- real or potential -- that may arise or do arise and watching VA's witnesses nod along as if they'd done that was just unbelievable. We'll cover the hearing tomorrow. In part because I'm not in the mood to go into it right now and in part because a friend who was at the hearing wants to share a few thoughts before I write it up.

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"Make it a clean sweep"


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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"Who hired her?"

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Who hired her?









Today on New Hampshire Public Radio's Word of Mouth, Virginia Prescott spoke with Human Rights Watch's Scott Long and Matt McAllester about the targeting of Iraq's LGBT community. McAllester was noted in the October 6th snapshot on this issue, he's written "The Hunted" (New York Magazine) and he discussed the issue with Neal Conan on NPR's Talk of the Nation (here for audio and transcript links).

Virginia Prescott: Well Matt, what's it like to be a gay Iraqi in post-Saddam Baghdad?

Matt McAllester: Well earlier this year it was fatally dangerous potentially and many of them were indeed killed. What happened in 2003 when the invasion happened is that the center of-of power and fear in Iraq in many arenas of life but especially for gay Iraqis shifted from the State which, under Saddam Hussein, was never friendly to put it mildly towards gay people in Iraq. It wasn't actually illegal to be gay in Iraq. You very much kept a low profile if you could. And shifted from the State to the mosque and to the militia -- as did so much in Iraq. And so the power bases were less controlled and more violent and more dangerous.

Virginia Prescott: We mentioned the uptick earlier this year, pretty much focused in February, attacks against gay Iraqis and police harassment of gay men reached a fevered pitch in that time. You've mentioned homosexuality is still not illegal in Iraq, so what prompted this uptick in violence?

Matt McAllester: Well strangely and sort of paradoxically, the down-tick in violence generally prompted the uptick against gay people. What I mean by that is that American soldiers are much less visible to the Iraqi insurgency and militias so there's one target that's all but disappeared. The government of Iraq is much stronger and so this civil war between Sunni and Shia militias that was raging, that's also pretty much -- I wouldn't say "over," but it's not so much a factor. In the course of that last year, one of the main militias, the Shia militia, the Mahdi Army, which is headed by Moqtada al-Sadr, a very radical cleric with-with pretty much sidelined, politically and militarily and he seems to have, although there's no paper trail leading directly to his door, but it was clearly his guys that were doing this in the early part of this year, have decided that. he needed to increase his popularity by picking on the one population group in Iraq that no one likes. And they're-they're -- gays in Iraq are pretty much detested by every ethnic group, nationality, strata of society. So -- and so he thought this would cast his guys and himself as the moral arbiters of Iraq again.

Virginia Prescott: So it was -- it was a power grab mostly.

Matt McAllester: It was. And they -- gays in Iraq were used and manipulated in this way.

Virginia Prescott: Gay men and women looking to flee Iraq don't have many options. Homosexuality is illegal in most of the surrounding countries. The non-profit Human Rights Watch created an underground railroad to help gay Iraqis escape to safety. Joining us now is Scott Long. He's director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights program at Human Rights Watch. Scott, welcome to the program.

Scott Long: Thank you for having me.

Virginia Prescott: What inspired you to create this so-called underground railroad for gay Iraqis. This kind of direct action is a bit of a change for Human Rights Watch.

Scott Long: Well it was necessity really. I mean ordinarily when Human Rights Watch tries to do research on massive humanitarian violations, there are other groups that can provide direct support to people. But in this case, we're talking about folks in Iraq who have no one to defend them. The police won't protect them. Civil society is too weak to offer any effective assistance. They're basically alone and completely vulnerable to violence.

Virginia Prescott: There are, of course, Iraqi lesbians. Also not looked upon kindly but not being persecuted in the same way as gay men. Tell us a little bit more about the process here. How do you identify gay men looking to escape from Iraq?

Scott Long: Well basically we reached out to people through every means possible. Through the internet -- the internet has become a major social tool for men who want to preserve their anonymity and think they can preserve their safety. We reached out to personal contacts. And we just tried to evaluate the level of threat people were facing. But if people were, if people had been threatened directly, if there was reason to think their names were in the hands of the militia, we did everything we could to try to get them out.

Virginia Prescott: I know that you can't disclose the city that is now serving as a safe haven for gay Iraqis, but you have spent time there. Scott, how does it differ from Baghdad in terms of safety or openness for homosexuals?

Scott Long: Well there aren't militias roaming the streets with guns. That's the primary thing. But, as you've said, in all the surrounding countries there's still social prejudice and there's also criminal laws. In the last -- in the last six years, there have probably been more than two-and-a-half-million Iraqi displaced by the violence and of those people, the United States has accepted only about 20,000 as refugees. We're definitely hoping that the US will recognize that people aren't safe even when they flee to surrounding countries and that we have a responsibility to LGBT Iraqis to accept them to safety here as well as other categories of refugees.

Virginia Prescott: And that leads to another question. Matt McAllester, you spent time in this unnamed city as part of your reporting for New York Magazine. Many of the Iraqis living there hope to one day emigrate to the United States or Canada, Australia or Sweden but isn't it unlikely that they'd be accepted by Iraqi immigrant communities in those countries leaving them in a kind of state of limbo. .

Matt McAllester: You're -- you're absolutely right. The prejudice carries from Baghdad to-to Baltimore or where ever they end up. And that doesn't disappear. So they will be embraced, one hopes, by the mainstream gay communities in the United States or Sweden or Norway or Australia or where ever they end up. Some of them don't even want to meet other gay Iraqi refugees. They've been through such traumatic times there, there trust level is almost non-existent. And so they sort of want to disappear into society but I mean that's terribly difficult if your language skills aren't up to scratch initially and perhaps you don't have the work skills and you have -- and you are -- you can't even hang out, go to the cafes and drink tea and smoke shisa with your Iraqi friends.

Virginia Prescott: Many of them have returned to somewhat less dangerous parts of Iraq unhappy with how Human Rights Watch has helped them transition into their new lives as refugees. Matt, what's their complaint?

Matt McAllester: I think that it's terribly hard to be uprooted from your home.
and even if there are militias roaming the streets trying to kill you, it's terribly difficult to one week be living with your family -- albeit living a lie and a very scared lie -- and another
week to suddenly be sort of living in another city. And I think many of these guys have found that terribly difficult and understandably so. This is not specific to gay refugees, this is a thing I've seen happen in many countries -- refugees sort of leaving and moving back, albeit towards, back towards, danger --

Virginia Prescott: Scott. I'm sorry I have to interrupt because I want Scott, we have just thirty seconds for you to respond to that. How about you and other Human Rights Watch? What do you think?

Scott Long: Well it's not easy being a refugee. Being a refugee means being uprooted from everything you ever cared about. And that's, again, why I think it's really incumbent upon the United States and other countries that bear some responsibility for the violence in Iraq to start living up to their responsibilities by helping these folk make a new home.

Virginia Prescott: Scott, Matt, just one second please if you could, anything the Iraqi government could do to protect gay Iraqis or is it even on their radar?

Matt McAllester: They don't want to talk about it, to be perfectly honest. The ambassador in Washington gave me a written statement after -- after quite a long time of asking and it was impossible to get much more than that I'm afraid.

On the topic of Iraqi refugees, last week Human Rights Action and the Human Rights Institute at Georgetown Law Center issued [PDF format warning] a report entitled "Refugee Crisis in America: Iraqis And Their Resettlement Experience." It documented many obstacles for the small number of Iraqis granted asylum in the US. For example:

When researchers met Farrah, a former physical education teacher with a bachelor's degree, she said that all she and her elderly mother hope for is "enough help to get on [their] own two feet." After fleeing from Iraq to Syria in 2007, Farrah arrived in Detroit in June 2008 and has been trying unsuccessfuly to find a job and enroll at a community college to improve her employment prospects. "We don't want to depend on the government for everything," Farrah said; "we want a foundation to build our own future."
Unfortunately for Farrah, and other Iraqi refugees with whom researches spoke, the USRAP [US Refugee Admissions Program] does not devote enough attention to breaking down key barriers to employment for refugees. Employment services, provided by volags and state agencies, are seriously underfunded and unable to adequately help Iraqi refugees in their job search. Lack of transporation remains a significant barrier to securing and maintaining employment. English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, generally inadequate in both equality and duration, fail to help Iraqis build marketable language skills. In addition, the opportunity to pursue education and re-certification programs, prerequisites for many jobs, is either unavailable or eclipsed by more immediate needs. Given these barriers, it is not surprising that the vast majority of Iraqi refugees interviewed were unemployed despite expressing a strong desire to work.

The report notes that despite the Refugee Act calling for thirty-six months of assistance, most Iraqi refugees are receiving only eight months. On top of that, there are delays in terms of appointments with case workers. There is a thirty-day delay of initial payment after the paper work has been completed appropriately. Along with economic issues such as not providing enough funds to the refugees, the USRAP has a problem when it comes to planning. The report notes, "When the U.S. government announced in 2007 that tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees would soon be arriving in the United States, there was little doubt that Iraqis would seek to be placed in cities with large existing Iraqi and Arab communities like Detroit and San Diego. Even those working in overseas processing predicted as much." So why, when the refugees began arriving, was this a 'surprise'? One of the report's recommendations is for the new procedures to be developed by the lead agency which "outline a common, consistent strategy for the placement of individual refugees, taking into account the needs of each refugee, state and volag resources, and recent trends prior to a refugee's arrival."
Vincent T. Davis (San Antonio Express-News) reports on Iraqi Khalid Ali who had to leave Iraq after threats were made (he worked with CBS News in Iraq). Shortly after his family arrived in the US, his wife Sundas died of breast cancer. He is now raising the children by himself (the youngest is three-years-old) and attempting to find work. Davis reports, "There are moments away from his children when he sits and stares. He misses his wife. Ali relies on the words of the Quran, saying, 'God will enlighten and show the way.' He dreams of his children prospering in their new country, but first he has to help them deal with their loss. 'They miss the tender kindness of their mother,' Ali said. He hasn't told his two youngest girls their mother has died, he can't find the words to tell them the truth; after many hospital stays, the girls think she's still there."

In England, Owen Bowcott (Guardian) reports, "The UK Border Agency is preparing to send the first, mass deporation flight returning failed asylum seekers to Baghdad and southern Iraq, according to a refugee organisation that monitors expulsions." The group is the International Federation of Iraqi Refugees. They're calling for mass action tomorrow and they quote Iraqi refugee Yousuf stating, "Iraq's not safe for me. I am Shia'a and a Sunni group is after me. The same group has killed both my brothers and now they're after me. The government here won't let me work, and then they give me just [35 pounds] a week to live on, but I've got friends here and I'm safe. Why would they send me back?" Tomorrow in London, there will be a demonstration at 5:00 pm at Communications House: "The Stop Deportation network and the International Federation of Iraqi Refugees call upon all groups, organisations and individuals opposed to this brutal action by the UK government to stand with us in calling for all deportations to Iraq to be stopped. Join us on the first public demonstration against mass deportations to Iraq this Wednesday, at 5pm, at the local immigration reporting centre, where many deportees are first arrested without prior warning whilst signing on (Communications House, Old Street, London, EC1)."

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"The come down"

Monday, October 12, 2009

The come down






So now the elections might be on hold? For those who have forgotten, these elections were supposed to take place this December and have already been pushed back a month. That was among the excuses US President Barack Obama gave for breaking his campaign promise of US troops out of Iraq in 10 months. (He dropped it from 16 months to 10 months while speaking in Houston, Texas in February 2008.) And now elections might have to be put on hold? Wait, are elections even scheduled. Testifying to the US House Armed Services Committee September 30th, the top US commander in Iraq, Gen Ray Odierno, explained the upcoming (or 'upcoming') vote.

General Ray Odierno: I'll wal -- Congressman, I'll walk you through in general terms. First, the el - by the [Iraqi] Constitution, the election is supposed to occur no later than the 31st of January. Right now, it's scheduled for the 16th of January. Again, pending the passing of the election law.

That was September 30th. Tick-tock, tick-tock. It's twelve days later, where's the election law? Gina Chon (Wall St. Journal) reports, " Iraqi legislators face a Thursday deadline to approve an election law for January's parliamentary polls, while opposition grows against plans for a so-called closed-list ballot." That's 'progress'? Jim Muir (BBC News) reports on the sticky points of any election law, "They include differences over the minimum age for candidates and their educational qualifications, and over what constituency basis should be adopted. There are also concerns over arrangements for the disputed city of Kirkuk in the north and the question of whether electoral lists should be 'open' or 'closed'." Kirkuk? That issue was supposed to have been resolved long ago. The 2005 Iraqi Constitution dictated that there be a referendum on the matter. The 2007 White House benchmarks that Nouri al-Maliki signed off mandated that he resolve the issue as dictated by the Iraqi Constitution. These election will take place (at some point) in 2010 and Kirkuk's never been "resolved." 'Progress'? US forces have been kept on the ground in Iraq with the American people repeatedly lied to that the US forces were just there currently for peace, to give space for the (installed) government (of exiles) to conduct political business. They've done no such thing. There's been no movement. And this lie that US forces need to stay for political movement is as much a lie Bush's WMD assertions.

Barack and other War Hawks like to talk "safe withdrawal" and "responsible withdrawal." Bulls**t. Like there's anything "safe" or "responsible" in dropping bombs on people? In using drones? In using counter-insurgency? We expect that from the War Hawks. Expect it from I Need Attention Benjamin as well. Jodie Evans' personal maid already walked away from Iraq, long gone is the cry of "Out Of Iraq" now. Apparently Afghanistan isn't offering I Need Attention and CODESTINK enough opportunities for press. Scott Horton (Antiwar Radio) interviewed Medea Benjamin and was confused going into the interview due to a report quoting Medea in the Christian Sciene Monitor. Medea insists she was misquoted but goes on to repeat the same crap she claims was a misquote. Scott Horton's radio program and a transcript of it can be found here. In the excerpt below, you may have to repeatedly remind yourself that it is Medea Benjamin speaking and not George W. Bush.

Horton: What did they ever do to the United States?

Benjamin: Well see, if your perspective is just from the United States. My perspective is also from what they did to the women of Afghanistan. But if your perspective is truly from the United States, what people say is that if we allow the Taliban to take over Afghanistan then that will be a safe haven for Al Qaeda.

Horton: Yeah, but that's no different is it than the National Review saying, you know, Saddam Hussein was really bad to the people in Iraq. I think this is why all over Facebook today they're saying, "Ha, ha, and again, for those tuning in late, she did say, it's Medea Benjamin from Code Pink. She did say the Christian Science Monitor's reporting was not altogether accurate here. But all over Facebook they're saying, "Ha, ha, I guess she'll have to apologize to Condoleezza Rice now. And "Ha, ha, I guess this proves that obviously that McChrystal is right. If Code Pink and McChrystal both agree that the occupation has got to be better in order to quell the violence, then by golly we know it's right." Like when Bill Clinton and George Bush agree about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.

Benjamin: Well I think it's just full of distortions, because what we say is we want a responsible pulling out of U.S. troops and we certainly are against what McChrystal is calling for. We're against sending in more troops, we're against troops being visibly present in the villages because we think their presence is more of a threat to people there and puts them at risk. And we want our troops to pull out. We just want to do it in a way that is not going to lead to a Taliban takeover that will put women back inside the home.

Let me be clear, concern for Afghan women? You should have raised the issue much earlier this year the way some of us with guts did, Medea. But you're a coward and you're a publicity whore. You're tired and you need to sit your ass down. US forces need to leave Iraq and to leave Afghanistan NOW. Not tomorrow, not a year from now, not three years from now. The US cannot fix either 'problem' and that's even if it wanted to; however, nothing in Afghanistan over the last eight year or in Iraq over the last six has indicated the US wants to fix one damn thing. (And regardless of 'desire,' it's not any foreign country's place to 'fix' another country.) The US put thugs in charge of both countries because thugs could intimidate the people and bring some form of 'stability' to the country. US policies in Iraq and Afghanistan have never, NEVER, concerned themselves with the people of either country. Stop the lying, stop the bulls**t. I'm not in the mood for liars. Thank you to Medea for not just being such a craven little whore but for being so publicly. We started calling out her and CODESTINK some time ago and of course those who check in on Iraq once every three months couldn't understand that. Listen to the Horton interview or read the transcript. Medea Benjamin and CODESTICK are officially trash now. They're not about ending any war, they are about providing cover for Barack Obama. They have made themselves clear. What was obvious to many of us some time ago is now transparent.

The woman who ensured the Green Party would not have a viable candidate in 2004 and would not have a real shot at being a third party is now doing her part to wreck the peace movement. Greens may have put up with her s**t but the peace movement won't. You take trash to the curb, you don't let it (mis)lead a movement. Medea and her ilk were allowed to turn the peace movement into an Elect Barack campaign and then, after Barack was elected, they went around lying that Iraq War was ending. The Iraq War has ended. Friday Elaine noted that AP's Jennifer Loven reported, "He said he would end the Iraq war. But he has been slow to bring the troops home and the real end of the U.S. military presence there won't come until at least 2012, and that's only if both the U.S. and Iraq stick to their current agreement about American troop withdrawals." Only if. And there's no indication that they will -- either side. But we do know that last week, Matthew D. LaPlante (Salt Lake Tribune) was reporting, "And some Utah units have been told to anticipate deployments to Iraq as far off as 2012." And we do know that the Iraq War continues to drag on.

In an attempt by a foreign government to bribe a US sitting president (one million dollars is a bribe -- whether Barack donates it to charity or keeps it), Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Debra Sweet (World Can't Wait) is calling for signatures and letters on the topic though she probably would have positioned herself better by remembering the Iraq War. Kenneth J. Theisen (also World Can't Wait) offers, "I've been around awhile so I am not easily shocked, but this did shock me at first. I have been writing about Obama for a few years and have followed his career in politics and could not imagine why he had been chosen. But as I was more fully awake it made perfect sense to me, given some of the past winners of the Prize. Past U.S. winners have included Teddy Roosevelt (1906), Woodrow Wilson (1919) and Henry Kissinger (1973) and Jimmy Carter (2002). These winners did much to advance U.S. imperialism, as Obama is trying so hard to do as President and Commander-in-Chief." Also at WCW, Cindy Sheehan declares, "The US Peace Movement was put on life support with the election of Democrats. I hope now that we have a president who is just a tool of the war machine AND a Nobel Peace Laureate that it hasn't put the final nail in the coffin of the Peace Movement." At her own site, Peace Mom Cindy Sheehan adds:

It's true, Obama did not begin the wars, but he is sending more troops to all theaters. That doesn't sound too peaceful to me. Torture, indefinite detention, "crippling sanctions," threats towards Venezuela and Iran; silent support of a military coup that overthrew a democratically elected President in Honduras and so on, ad nauseum, are all the "accomplishments" of this Nobel Laureate.
I was tear-gassed and chased down by US stormtroopers in Pittsburgh for wanting to express my opinion when the leaders of the G20 were assembled a couple of weeks ago. I saw those same imperial stormtroopers shoot children with rubber bullets or bean-bags filled with steel in the Empire's new game of, not protest suppression, but protester attack. Are these the actions of a country that is "led" by a Nobel Laureate?
It also comes to me that I chained myself to the White House fence last Monday and was arrested, along with 61 others, protesting the Laureate's war polices, as he met with his "War Council." Five hundred more of us were there. We were and still all are adamantly opposed to the war policies of The Laureate.
What does that make us candidates for?
The Bizzarro World Peace Prize?
The only "vision" that has come true today, is George Orwell's 1984: War is Peace; Ignorance is Strength and Freedom is Slavery.

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