Category Archives: Veterans

Amodei, Vets, and the unanswered questions

On Monday, May 2, 2016 Representative Mark Amodei (R-NV2) will host a Veterans Town Hall in Fallon, NV for two hours – from 10 am until noon.  That’s nice. Retired vets can make that time frame, working ones perhaps not so much.  [News4] Courting the veterans vote is a long time strategy for the Republican Party, and this bloc constitutes a substantial chunk of the state’s electorate.

Amodei 3 Someone might want to ask Representative Amodei how he felt about the House Appropriations Committee slashing more than $1.4 billion from President Obama’s request for veterans.  The 2016 House proposal reduces VA medical care by $690 million from the President’s request.  And, there was another $582 million cut from construction costs for outpatient services  and priority construction projects.  Additionally, the House proposal cuts funding for military cemeteries, including delaying expansion of cemetery operations in Portland OR, Riverside CA, Bayamon PR, St. Louis MO, and Pensacola FL. [VA.gov]

Another question could be raised about the fate of H.R. 2275 (Jobs for Veterans Act of 2015) introduced by Republican Jeff Miller (R-FL1).  It was referred to committee in the House on May 12, 2015 and hasn’t been heard of since.  [GovTrack]

Should someone ask what happened to the Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014?  Probably, because this legislation got caught in the brambles of Senate posturing about economic sanctions on Iran, and after passing at least one procedural vote went into oblivion from which it, too, hasn’t returned.

Perhaps we should go back to a particularly egregious moment in 2010 when the Republicans blocked a bill to approve a $3.4 billion program to help homeless women veterans, and homeless veterans with children.  Senator Tom Coburn brought out the “Deficit Dragon” saying, “If we don’t start paying for new programs and continue on our path to bankruptcy we’ll have a homelessness problem beyond imagination.” [HuffPo]  Interesting, by Republican lights we always seem to have enough money to start wars, and to finance them, but when we talk about spending money on the people who actually did the fighting — “OMG, we can’t add to the deficit?”

If the Veterans town hall is really about veterans, then a person might hope that there would be ample attention paid to the issues like homelessness among the veteran population? About what services we should be providing for homeless veterans with children? About how many VA facilities we need to be constructing or leasing for veterans’ care – either in medical or employment terms?

What would not be helpful is to have such sessions devolve into the collection of negative interactions between veterans and the Veterans’ Administration.  Yes, the VA is a bureaucracy, one which has trouble meshing with its counterpart agencies in the Department of Defense (Have we thought about funding computer and IT services in the DoD and VA?)  But, no, it isn’t necessary to create a whipping boy in order to “prove” that government doesn’t work, and other GOP canards, and to “solve” the problems by privatizing services for veterans.

We, as a nation, send people into wars. We promise we will support them. We promise them education, health care, and benefits when they return. We promise their families some burial benefits if they do not. They went voluntarily, under our flag and under our imprimatur.  Therefore, the least we can do as a nation is to keep those promises, and not entangle the funding for older programs and initiatives for new ones in a labyrinth of ideological rhetoric, excuses for inaction, and poison-pill amendments.  We can do better.

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To Heck With Your Service? Again?

Heck photo

The issue of protecting military families from egregious practices by predatory payday lenders gets a bit mired in Congressional legislative processes.  However, it’s not hard at all to figure out what the Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee wanted to do.

“House lawmakers narrowly voted to remove controversial language delaying new rules on payday lenders from their annual defense authorization bill early Thursday morning, calming concerns from advocates who saw the move as potentially undoing financial protections for military families.

By a 32 to 30 vote, members of the House Armed Services Committee stripped provisions from the legislation that would have delayed Defense Department plans to expand the scope of the 2006 Military Lending Act by requiring a new report due next spring on DoD’s rule-making procedures in that regard.” [MilTimes]

Congressman Joe Heck (R-NV3) has a seat on that committee.  Further, Representative Heck is the chair of the subcommittee on Military Personnel. The blurb from the subcommittee’s web page reads:

“The Military Personnel Subcommittee is responsible for military personnel policy, reserve component integration and employment issues, military health care, military education, and POW/MIA issues. This subcommittee makes sure that our troops and their loved ones are receiving the first class benefits that they deserve.”

Remember this for future reference.  For the moment ask how the statement squares with the effort to “delay new rules on payday lenders…?”  And, how does this align with comments made by subcommittee chairman Joe Heck:

“The 2006 lending law was passed by Congress after reports of payday lenders charging unusually high interest rates to troops — 400 percent or more, in some cases — and misleading borrowers about the long-term debt they could incur.

Implementation of the law initially was confined to payday loans, vehicle title loans and tax refund anticipation loans. But last September, defense officials proposed new rules that would expand the types of credit covered by the maximum 36-percent interest rate that can be charged to service members and their dependents.

Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., chairman of the armed services committee’s military personnel panel, said those moves have raised concerns that defense officials are applying rules too broadly.”  [MilTimes]

It’s the Pentagon’s belief that service members need protection from predatory forms of credit cards, deposit advance loans, installment loans, and unsecured open ended lines of credit.  The bottom line is simple – members of our armed forces can be charged no more than the quite nearly usurious 36% interest rate. Too broadly?  How does applying rules saying no member of the military can be charged no more than 36% cut off credit options? If a lender can’t profit with a 36% margin perhaps they ought not be in business?

Representative Heck’s idea was to have the Pentagon conduct ANOTHER study of the effects of the Military Lending Act, in spite of the completion of the original study. Translation: Congressional studies can be used to delay the implementation of regulations interminably. Meanwhile, member of the military remain threatened by the terms of predatory lenders. [More at TP]  And, was Representative Heck proud of his delaying maneuver?

“The one-year delay of new financial protections for the military appears to come from Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV), who chairs the subcommittee that produced the provision without discussion. Heck’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the provision.”  [TP]  (emphasis added)

Members of the Armed Forces should welcome the amendment by Representative Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) which stripped Heck’s language from the appropriations bill, and was adopted by the committee on a 32-30 vote.

But wait, there’s more.

“The House voted 213-210 Thursday against an amendment that would have allowed Veterans Administration doctors to discuss medical marijuana with soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions. Opponents of the amendment underscored marijuana’s federally illegal status and said veterans shouldn’t be prescribed pot for psychological problems.” [IBT]

Representative Heck voted in favor of the amendment, but Nevada Representatives Hardy and Amodei voted against it.  Perhaps Hardy and Amodei are clinging to the old War on Drugs theme, a stale leftover from those days when it seemed like every candidate for every office was running for county sheriff?

The amendment certainly wouldn’t have required the VA to prescribe marijuana or related products to veterans, but it would have aligned the services of the VA more closely with NRS 435A on the medical usage for marijuana.  The state of Illinois is currently hearing a report on studies related to the use of marijuana to assist in the treatment of PTSD.  The American Glaucoma Society isn’t thrilled with the side effects of marijuana, but acknowledges that it does reduce intraocular pressure (IOP) in glaucoma patients.

Contrary to the drum beating of the Old Drug Warriors, marijuana has been used successfully to treat moderate to severe “refractory spasticity” in multiple sclerosis patients, to alleviate loss of appetite associated with HIV/AIDS cachexia, and to inhibit chemotherapy induced nausea and vomiting among cancer patients.

In short, given Representative Heck’s attempt to give a handout to the predatory lenders, and Old Drug Warriors Hardy and Amodei’s conviction that medical and marijuana don’t fit together – it wasn’t a complete loss of members of the Armed Forces and Veterans in the House, but it was a near thing.

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Filed under Amodei, Defense Department, Heck, Veterans

Support The Troops Is Just A Sound Bite?

Coburn 

“Veterans groups and military associations are blasting a move by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, intended to scuttle a veterans’ suicide prevention bill that has already passed in the House with strong bipartisan support.

The GOP lawmaker put a hold on the $22 million bill, which he opposes on grounds it has no offsets in spending elsewhere and would duplicate programs already offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs, he said.” [MilitaryNews]

H.R. 5059 would have allocated $22 million to assist veterans with PTSD or traumatic brain injuries… it was supposed to help reduce the suicide rate, a rate that the military admitted was underestimated in the past:

Beginning in 2005, suicide within the military — particularly for the Army — steadily began increasing to record levels every year, and may have peaked in 2012. Among full-time soldiers, the suicide rate soared to 29.7 deaths per 100,000 in 2012, well above a 25.1-per-100,000 rate for civilians of a similar age group during 2010, the latest year available, according to a Pentagon report. Among male soldiers, the rate was 31.8-per-100,000. There were a record 164 soldier-suicides that year.

The overall national civilian suicide rate was 12.1-per-100,000 in 2010 and 19.9-per-100,000 for men in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control.The Army National Guard rate for 2012 reached 30.8 deaths per 100,000 with 110 suicides. The suicide rate for men in the Army National Guard was 34.2-per-100,000,Pentagon data shows.

For full-time troops across the U.S. military, the suicide rate peaked at 22.7-per-100,000 in 2012 and fell to 19.1-per-100,000 last year, according to the Pentagon. [USAT]

Might we remind members of the Senate that the U.S. supported the expenditures to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, and seemed perfectly pleased to put these costs on the national credit card – with no “offset” required? However, when it comes to assisting veterans who fought in those wars “we don’t have the money,” and “we have to see an offset?”

Here’s a news flash… the only casualties of war aren’t the destroyed munitions!  There’s something very very wrong about a country which will spend gazillions – few questions asked – on munitions and weapons systems, but when the needs of the military personnel are obvious the politicians can’t see their way clear to address them.

Those who aren’t supporting H.R. 5059 are cordially invited to take those yellow ribbon magnets off their bumpers!

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Filed under Defense Department, Defense spending, Veterans

VA Health Care: “Postponed Proceedings”

The bills to improve the performance of Veterans Administration operations have passed the House and the Senate, in fact they’ve been waiting for a conference committee to iron out the differences between the two bills since mid June. That’s why it’s disappointing to find the following update on the progress of the final bill posted as follows:

“7/17/2014 POSTPONED PROCEEDINGS – At the conclusion of debate on the Barber motion to instruct conferees on H.R. 3230, the Chair put the question on adoption of the motion to instruct conferees and by voice vote, announced the noes had prevailed. Mr. Barber demanded the yeas and nays and the Chair postponed further proceedings until a time to be announced.”

No instructions from the House, no conference, no conference no conclusion.  What are the differences between the House and Senate versions?

# The House bill specifically bans the use of bonuses for VA employees, while the Senate version does not. The VA has already suspended performance awards of this nature.

# The Senate bill would allow the VA to lease 26 new facilities for veterans’ health care and would allocate $500 million for hiring new staff.  The House version doesn’t contain these provisions.

# The Senate bill provides for guaranteed in-state tuition for veterans at public colleges and universities; the House version of the bill does not.

# The Senate version of the legislation provides for expanding access to care for military sexual assault victims. The House version does not include this provision.  [WaPo]

# The House version assumes a maximum wait time of 14 days, the Senate version could allow up to 30 days. [CBO]

# The CBO analyzed the costs of implementation for securing private health care services when VA service could not be provided

“The Senate bill would require that all privately provided care be implemented through contracts. CBO expects the costs of contracted care to be closer to commercial rates, which are generally higher than Medicare rates. Although such contracts would probably be used under the House bill to cover some care, CBO estimates that the average payment rate under the House bill, including both contractual and non-contractual payments, would be lower than that under the Senate bill.” [CBO]

# The House version would allow direct reimbursement to private facilities, while under the terms of the Senate version as analyzed by the CBO the VA would negotiate contracts with providing facilities.  Thus, the access might be faster under the House version, but with less expense predictability than if the terms of the Senate version were applied.

Unfortunately, the situation is reduced to a battle over money.  The CBO released its appraisal of the costs on June 17, 2014:

House Version: “Based on that preliminary assessment, CBO estimates that implementing sections 2 and 3 of the House bill for that two-year period would have a net cost of about $44 billion over the 2014-2019 period, assuming appropriation of the necessary amounts. That net amount comprises increased costs of about $51 billion for VA, less a reduction of $7 billion in federal spending for Medicare and Medicaid.” […] All told, CBO expects that if the bill was fully implemented, some veterans would ultimately seek additional care that would cost the federal government about $54 billion a year, after accounting for savings to other federal programs.”

New “scoring” from the CBO reduced the figure from the original $54 billion to approximately $30 billion, but the negotiations were still stalled. [Hill]

Conferees from the House have been looking to cover the costs by using discretionary funding, those from the Senate are supporting a mandatory funding formula.  The House sponsor, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), argued: “The Senate wants to throw money at a situation that is not defined, in an amount of money that is not defined. We’re re trying to define the issue and figure out how to pay for it,” Miller said.” [MilTimes]

Miller’s assessment may be overlooking the differences in the cost predictability between the provisions for paying private entities for health care services for veterans.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) expressed his impatience with the protracted timeline of the conferencing, “We’re having a little trouble getting the House to help us complete the conference,” Reid said.. “You know … just because we want something done when we’re in conference doesn’t mean it gets done.” [The Hill]

In the mean time — proceedings are postponed.

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The Veterans and their Administration

Veterans PopulationThe Numbers Game: Issues pertaining to the management of Veterans Administration services have special meaning to 225,933 people in Nevada, 169,255 of whom served this country during war time, and 56,678 who served during peace time.  [VA actuary]  69,190 Nevadans served during the Gulf War era, 79,281 served in Vietnam, 20,462 served in Korea, and we have about 9,444 remaining veterans from World War II. [VA actuary]  Meanwhile, 13 years of operations in Afghanistan and in Iraq are adding to these numbers.

The United States deployed 2,333,972 people to Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001 and 2011, of whom 1,353,627 have since left the forces, and 711,896 used VA health care services between FY 2002 and FY 2011. [ABC] Veterans during the period 2008 to 2011 saw deployment time increased by 28%. [Rand pdf] The Iraq operations, we were told, could last “six days, six weeks, I doubt six years.”

“We don’t talk about deployments in the specific, but we have brought a good many Guard and Reserve on active duty. Fortunately, a great many of them were volunteers. We have been able to have relatively few stop losses. There are some currently, particularly in the Army, but relatively few in the Navy and the Air Force. And it is not knowable if force will be used, but if it is to be used, it is not knowable how long that conflict would last. It could last, you know, six days, six weeks. I doubt six months.” [Rumsfeld, Aviano Air Base February 7. 2003] 

We may not want to talk of deployments, but warfare creates veterans and the longer the warfare lasts the more veterans there will be.

Estimates during the debate over initiating operations in Iraq which projected totals over $3 trillion (Stiglitz) were dismissed out of hand. Instead Lawrence Lindsay, Chair of President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers estimated the war might cost $200 billion at the most, but during the 2002 campaign season this projection was determined to be “shockingly high,” Lindsay was fired and replaced by Mitch Daniels who argued the Iraq war would cost no more than $50 to $60 billion.  [EconMonitor]

The $60 billion figure is dwarfed by the estimated $135 billion estimated as minimally necessary to provide services to veterans.

Making the situation even more tenuous for veterans, the Sequester budget deal cut  services from other agencies (HUD, Defense, Labor) for veterans while ostensibly leaving the VA untouched — except that “administrative costs” might be cut by 2%, and what constituted an “administrative cost” remained ambiguous. [WaPo]

The Management Game:  The VA Inspector General’s office has expanded its investigation to 26 VA facilities regarding allegations of falsified records and delayed care.  One former administrator in Phoenix, AZ offered his opinion that 40 veteran may have died while waiting for care.  To date no link has been established between the delays and those deaths. [ABC]  The lack of direct linkage notwithstanding, it is certainly possible that care delayed can all to easily become care denied.  Instead of listening to carping, finger pointing, and generally distasteful politicizing of the situation at the Veterans’ Administration, here’s what I’d rather hear from our pontificating pundits and politicians:

Reducing delays and other problems within the VA system, which have long be evident, may well require a significant shift in the way in which services are perceived and administered.

#1. Future Congressional calls for war or large military operations should be accompanied by calculations projecting a reasonable TOTAL cost of the actionsincluding services and benefits for veterans. As there should be an accounting for individuals who falsified records to artificially reduce wait times, there should be an accounting for those whose minimalist estimations for the cost of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan made those actions appear “affordable.”

The failure of the VA to provide timely services is a function of staffing and facilities, infrastructure which should be considered before we launch wars in which we have an option to defer, delay, or avoid action altogether.

#2. Administration of VA services should be predicated on veterans’ needs and not dubious or inappropriate management theories.  The VA is not a commercial or manufacturing entity. Its sole function is to provide customer/client services.  In this wise, the VA perspective ought to be one in which client service is acknowledged to be labor intensive, and hiring should be adjusted accordingly.

For example, while demand for VA care services has increased by 38%, the VA has hired only 9% more medical professionals.  Public-private partnerships with local medical service providers has been applied, and more such partnerships may be one part of a larger strategy to appropriately staff the facilities.   Actions by Senate Republicans who blocked a $24 billion veterans’ health bill in February  2014 which included funding for 27 new medical facilities are unhelpful. [Reuters] [Roll Call 46 – all 41 votes blocking  S. 1982 were cast by Republican Senators]

The treatment of and for veterans should reverse the perspective that all claims are “costs” and “cost containment” is an ultimately desirable institutional goal.  If one is manufacturing widgets for WalMart this might be an acceptable perspective, but we are not talking about a price driven retail commodity — we’re speaking of veterans who have been promised a level of support services (educational, medical, and employment) which have not been delivered on a timely basis.

The much maligned Internal Revenue Service is a far more trusting agency than the VA appears to be.  When I file my return electronically the IRS assumes I am being honest. I may be audited at some point in the future, but for the latest fiscal year the assumption is that I meant what I affirmed at the end of the document — that the return is the most honest and accurate it is within my power to provide.   The VA claims process might be improved by adopting the same attitude.

Unfortunately, the VA is giving the appearance of an institution for which a claim is as much an opportunity for fraud or misuse as it might be a legitimate request for service.  This attitude could quickly spawn a multi-layered bureaucracy  devoted to weeding out any untoward claims. It’s essentially the pre-ACA attitude of health insurance corporations which sought to deny as many claims as possible in order to manipulate its medical loss ratio.  This situation might have been predicted since politicians of every imaginable stripe have loudly proclaimed their affinity for rooting out “Waste, Fraud, and Abuse.”  In the instance of the VA all this cat-calling from the bleacher seats simply serves to reinforce the “cost containment” proclivities and diminish the “service to the client” perspective.

#3 The core of the manipulation problems in the Phoenix office is said to emanate from a bonus system for “meeting the numbers.”  I’ll have to admit to a jaundiced view of bonuses.  Bonuses are what you pay employees when you don’t want to pay them up front what they are really worth. It’s close to an analogy in which the cafe owner justifies sub-minimal wages because the wait staff receives tips.

No one should be particularly surprised when people emphasize on the job what the institution/company/corporation rewards.  If the company rewards speed in delivery, speed we will get — even if a NOAA drone is delivered by FedEx to the wrong address.  If the company/agency rewards fast service, then the service will be fast, and if that can’t be done in the real world then the numbers are fudged to gain the reward and make the boss happy in the bargain.  If the disturbing consequences of the testing furor in education has taught us nothing else, it should have told us that we will get what we measure, not necessarily what we want.

How much less traumatic might the problems with the VA be if we could admit to ourselves that there are immeasurable things which are nonetheless important to the delivery of competent and complete care for veterans and their families?

#4. Technology moves faster than our fingers.  Granted that the inability of computer data systems to share information quickly and accurately is a problem, especially it seems between Department of Defense and VA systems.  At some point we need to acknowledge the hard horrible fact that older stand-alone data systems were never designed to function in a file-sharing world.  No amount of patching or plugging is going to make them compatible.

Until we accept that if we want compatible systems we have to buy them.  They are expensive, they are complicated, and they are unintelligible to most voters — however, the old retail saw holds true — we will get what we are willing to pay for.

Meanwhile there are 225,933 veterans in Nevada who deserve to receive the educational, employment, and medical services they were promised when they signed on to serve us, and who deserve more than a political outrage du jour, and a brief turn in the media limelight.

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Where the Heck on H.R. 975?

VeteransOn March 5, 2013 Representative Timothy Walz (D-MN) introduced H.R. 975 in the 113th Congress of the United States.  The full ‘title’ of the bill is as follows:

“To amend title 10, United States Code, to extend the duration of the Physical Disability Board of Review and to the expand the authority of such Board to review of the separation of members of the Armed Forces on the basis of a mental condition not amounting to disability, including separation on the basis of a personality or adjustment disorder.”

The Fleet Reserve Association explains why this act would be beneficial for our veterans:

“FRA recommends support the for “Servicemembers Mental Health Review Act” (S. 628), sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.) and its House companion bill (H.R. 975) sponsored by Rep. Tim Walz (Minn.) The bills would authorize the Physical Disability Board of Review (PDBR) to review and, when necessary, correct service records for veterans diagnosed by DoD with a Personality Disorder (PD) or Adjustment Disorder (AD) and discharged after active duty deployment. Many of these brave veterans have seen combat and may actually be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS). Because PD and AD are considered pre-existing conditions, the DoD is not obligated to award the benefits they earned that may help them properly reintegrate into their communities.”  (emphasis added)

Now why would the Fleet Reserve Association, and others, be calling for a bill to review the application of Personality Disorders and Adjustment Disorders diagnoses?  Part of the answer is revealed in a Viet Nam Veterans study (pdf) from the Yale Law School legal services department published in February 2014.

According to the study of Coast Guard applications of PD and AD labels the study found, “The vast majority of AD and PD discharges failed to comply with Coast Guard regulations 255 of a random sample of 265 discharges analyzed violated regulations in some way. ”  More disturbingly, the study found that 100% of the combined AD and PD discharges between FY 2001 and FY 2005 (and FY 2008, FY 2012) were not in compliance with Coast Guard regulations.  And the problem continues — since 2009 the number of AD and PD discharges has risen.

It’s not just the Coast Guard, and it’s not just a few veterans, and it’s not that the problem has not been noticed before.    The problem has been, more or less, in the public domain since 2007.   Dr. Debra Draper, GAO testified to the House Committee on Veteran Affairs, “DoD data show that from November 1, 2001, through June 30, 2007, about 26,000 enlisted servicemembers were separated from the military because of a personality disorder. Of these 26,000 servicemembers, about 2,800 had deployed at least once in support of OEF/OIF.”   As of 2009 there were questions about the response to GAO recommendations from the Pentagon.   The GAO observed that the services had saved some $12.5 billion in health care and compensation via the AD/PD discharge route. [DP]

So, there has been a problem, there is a problem, and so far 49 members of the House have signed on as co-sponsors of this legislation.  None from Nevada, a state with approximately 246,000 veterans. [VA pdf] There are five sponsors for Senator Jon Tester’s version (S. 628), none from Nevada.

H.R. 975 was assigned to the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Military Personnel on March 26, 2013, one of the members of this subcommittee is Representative Joe Heck (R-NV).

There were some tangential references  to the discharge label issues in the last Defense Appropriations Bill “(Sec. 593) Establishes the Commission on Military Behavioral Health and Disciplinary Issues to study the adequacy of DOD mechanisms for disciplinary military personnel action in addressing the behavioral impact of service-connected mental disorders and traumatic brain injury.”   However,  in today’s  insurance parlance  AD and PD are “pre-existing conditions,” which may not fall under the “service connected” classifications.  In short, not enough has been done, and it appears that not enough is being done.   It’s a topic Representative Heck might want to bring up at the next meeting of his Subcommittee on Military Personnel.

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Filed under Economy, Politics, Veterans

Thank You For Your Service, Not Really.

Senate Against Vets

41 Republican members of the U.S. Senate voted to sustain their filibuster of S. 1982 — the Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014.  [rc 46] They voted against S. 1982 which would have included:

Restoring the full cost-of-living adjustment for all military retirees; Reforming the system for processing veteran’s disability claims to reduce the existing backlog; Providing in-State tuition assistance for post 9/11 veterans pursuing a college degree; Expanding programs designed to help veterans find a job; Requiring new services for survivors of sexual assault: and Improving health care services related to mental health, traumatic brain injury and other conditions. [CR1209]

Got that? Restore those COLA adjustments. Work on that unconscionable backlog of disability claims. Provide in-state tuition assistance for veterans. Help veterans find jobs. Provide services for survivors of sexual assaults and improve veteran’s services for mental health, TBI, and other conditions.  The objections from the GOP side of the aisle? Those were addressed by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD):

Now, other Republicans have come to the floor and they have objected to this bill because they argue that by expanding VA health care to veterans currently not eligible for it–veterans who in some cases are trying to get by on $28,000, $30,000 a year in this tough economy; and it is true, we do expand VA health care to those veterans who do not have a whole lot of money–the Republicans who object say, well, that would open the floodgates for millions or tens of millions–I think somebody said 22 million veterans–every veteran in America would be eligible for VA health care, that the health care system would be swamped and health care, especially for those most in need, would deteriorate because so many people came into the system.

“As I mentioned yesterday, this is absolutely untrue. No new veteran would be added into VA health care until the VA had the infrastructure to accommodate those new veterans. So we are not opening the door for millions of new veterans–not true–and, as currently is the case, those with service-connected disabilities would continue to get the highest priority service, as they currently do and which, in my view, should always be the case. Those who were injured in war are the top priority, and those folks must always be the top priority, and that is certainly the case in this legislation.”

What were the Republicans afraid of?  That the bill would cost money, that more veterans might be served by the government that assigned them combat and support roles where they were expected to literally give their all in our service.   So, it’s perfectly acceptable to send approximately 1,431,403 [DoD] into Iraq, Afghanistan… Libya? Syria? Crimea? Korea?  BUT when they come home we can’t “afford” to have “millions of veterans” soaking up those VA benefits?

Syria: “For America to sit on the sidelines and do nothing is a huge mistake,” Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss told CBS’ “Face the Nation.” (April 28, 2013 Fox News)

Libya: “We cannot just stand by with Libya, America. We cannot just say to the Brits, the French, or even the U.N., ‘You go; we’ll watch from the shore.’ Imposing a no fly zone isn’t enough because it doesn’t protect the people on the ground from being killed at ground level; just from the air.”  [USNWR]

Crimea: “Ukraine may not be the trigger event, but it sure as heck provides an insight into the mindset of the leaders vying for power. We can be fairly certain that Vladimir Putin is willing to go all the way to protect Mother Russia’s interests. How far is our Nobel Peace Prize winning President willing to go to do the same for the Homeland?” [OathKeepers]

The Republicans can’t have it both ways.  Advocating the of the use of military options for each and every foreign crisis — and then refuse to pay for benefits when the troops come home.

Update: See this post from the Nevada Rural Democratic Caucus!

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Filed under Health Care, Politics, Veterans

No Thanks For Your Lip Service

Veterans DayAnother Veterans Day, another lesson in the difference between “Thank You for your service,” and “Thank You” for your service.  Bunting and bands are lovely.  Donated meals are a nice gesture, as are donations to the various organizations which assist veterans and their families.   However, as far as I’m concerned those who proudly plaster their windows and bumpers with “Support The Troops” displays while voting for members of the U.S. Congress who do not support appropriate improvements in services for veterans are merely giving lip service to those who’ve done us a real service.

As of the Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract 2010 (pdf) there were 2,076,987 veterans in the United States, of whom 189,662 were disabled.  There are 27,386 veterans in Nevada, of whom 1,882 are disabled.   As we might obviously expect, most of our veterans were enlisted personnel.  {see table 510 CBSA pdf}

Putting Some Legislation Where Our Mouths Are?

So, who is supporting those veterans with legislation to improve the quality of their lives?  Let’s look at the dismal history of H.R. 466, initially introduced in the 111th Congress.   Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX35) put the Wounded Veteran Job Security Act in the hopper on January 13, 2009.  It passed the House on June 8, 2009.  The bill was sent to the Senate, where it went to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.   Nothing further was seen of the bill.

The bill, the Congressional summary of which is:

“Wounded Veteran Job Security Act – Expands the definition of “service in the uniformed services” for the purposes of uniformed servicemembers’ employment and reemployment rights to include a period for which a person is absent from a position of employment to obtain medical treatment for an injury or illness recognized as service connected by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA), or for which a line-of-duty document has been granted by the Secretary of Defense (DOD). Directs such a person intending to return to a position of employment to notify the employer within a specified time period. Requires a person submitting an application for reemployment due to such an absence for medical treatment to provide the employer, upon request, with documentation to establish eligibility for reemployment, including a link between the injury or illness and the medical treatment obtained.”

seemed like a common sense piece of legislation. So, Rep. Doggett re-introduced it as H.R. 2875 in the 112th Congress.  This time it was referred to the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, chaired by Rep. Jefferson Miller (R-FL) from which it never emerged.   Rep. Doggett kept trying.

In the 113th Congress the Wounded Veteran Job Security Act was numbered H.R. 1774, and was introduced in September 2013.  It was promptly sent to the Economic Opportunity subcommittee of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, chaired by Texas Republican Bill Flores (R-TX17).  No further action has been taken on H.R. 1774.

In short, a bill which would protect the job security of a veteran seeking  treatment for a service connected medical issue, can’t seem to get through the Republican controlled House of Representatives in the past two sessions.  Even GOP sponsored bills can’t seem to make it through the Congress — witness the sad tale of H.R. 1293 the Disabled Veterans Home Improvement and Structural Alteration Grant Increase Act of 2009.  The bill would increase the home modification funds for disabled veterans from $4,100 to $6,800.  [GovTrack] The bill passed the House 426-0 on July 28, 2009 — a person might have thought it had a chance in the divided, filibuster riddled,  Senate?  No, nothing happened.  See: [Veterans Guidebook to Opportunities and Benefits: How to Navigate the Funding Process and Services U.S. Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand New York 2013, download]

Unfortunately, these aren’t the only examples of our flag pin bedecked Congress members speaking one way and acting another.  On September 19, 2012 the IAVA was moved to outrage over the failure of a Jobs for Veterans bill blocked by a Republican filibuster in the Senate:

“Today, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the nation’s first and largest nonprofit, nonpartisan organization for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, expressed outrage at the Senate’s failure to pass the Veterans Job Corps Act (VJC) – which would help put thousands of young veterans back to work. With Congress shutting down to campaign, no employment legislation will pass until after the election. And with the unemployment rate officially at 10.9%, veterans across the country are left treading water while Congress blocks legislation with procedural tricks.”

Words which might apply just as well in November 2013 as in 2012.  Words are fine…some action would be preferable.

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Filed under Defense spending, Politics, Veterans

Senatorial Arithmetic GOP Style and the Veterans Job Bill

Veterans DayThe list of Republicans who voted against the Veterans Job Corps Act of 2012 is instructive in itself.  Of course, not all Senators are up for re-election this round and in this vote it may be showing.  [vote 193]

Republican Senators not up for re-election until 2016 who voted against the Veterans Job Corp Act:  (1) Ayotte (R-NH), (2) Blunt (R-Mo), (3) Boozman (R-AR), (4) Burr (R-NC), (5) Chambliss (R-GA), (6) Coats (R-IN), (7) Coburn (R-OK), (8) DeMint (R-SC), (9) Grassley (R-IA), (10) Hoeven (R-ND), (11) Isakson (R-GA), (12) Johnson (R-WI), (13) Lee (R-UT), (14) McCain (R-AZ), (15) Moran (R-KS), (16) Paul (R-KY), (17) Portman (R-OH), (18) Rubio (R-FL), (19) Shelby (R-AL), (20) Thune (R-SD), (21) Toomey (R-PA), and (22) Vitter (R-LA) (23) Crapo (R-ID)  23

Republican Senators not up for re-election until 2014 who voted against the Veterans Job Corp Act:  (1) Alexander (R-TN), (2) Cochran (R-MS), (3) Cornyn (R-TX), (4) Enzi (R-WY), (5) Graham (R-SC), (6) Johanns (R-NE), (7) McConnell (R-KY), (8) Risch (R-ID) (9) Roberts (R-KS), (10) Sessions (R-AL) 10

Republican Senators up for re-election in 2012 who voted against the Veterans Job Corp Act:  (1) Barrasso (R-WY), (2) Corker (R-TN), (3) Hatch (R-UT), (4) Hutchison (R-TX) (5) Kyl (R-AZ), (6) Lugar (R-IN), (7) Wicker (R-MS)  7

Barrasso is in an essentially safe seat, the Democrats haven’t sent a Senator to Washington, D.C. since 1970.

Corker had a campaign chest of approximately $6 million as of August 2012, and no challenger reported more than $19,000.  [HuffPo]

Hatch has already spent $10.5 million on his re-election, his Democratic opponent reported $120,000 on hand as of last June.  [OS]

Hutchison announced she would not seek re-election last January.  [The Fix]

Kyl announced his retirement last February.  [WaPo]

Lugar lost to a primary challenger in May. [NYT]

Wicker is facing a “low budget” challenger. [ColDisp]

So, according to the numbers, 33 Republicans who do not have to face re-election for at least two more years combined with 4 Republicans currently holding safe seats and 3 who are leaving the Senate to make just exactly the number necessary to block the Veterans Job Corp Act without needing the votes of the ladies from Maine and Alaska (Snowe, Collins, Murkowski) and 2 Senators who are facing tough re-election battles —-  Brown (R-MA) and Heller (R-NV) who could then  “safely” vote in favor of the bill?

Do the arithmetic?

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Filed under 2012 election, Politics, Republicans, Veterans

Miles to Go, Promises to Keep: The Economics of Military Pensions

Pensions matter. The type of pension determines personal financial planning, and personal finances drive our American consumer economy.  Payments from a defined benefit program are predictable, last throughout a person’s retirement, and make household budgeting easier people  — including retirees from our Armed Forces.

So, members of our military at Nellis AFB or the Fallon Naval Air Station are expecting to retire with defined benefits, our promise to members of the U.S. military and to their families.  At this point it’s advisable to step back and look at what the major political parties are offering in terms of Defense spending and how this might impact members of our Armed Forces and future retirees.

On the Republican Side

The Republican Platform is long on rhetoric, and very short on specifics.  We do know that the GOP is calling for military spending equal to 4% of our Gross Domestic Product. [CPI]  The Bureau of Economic Analysis reports  the GDP is now $15,075.7  (add three sets of zeros and we get  $15.075 trillion.) The platform specifically calls for an increase in the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal, and there are suggestions that spending be increased for a form of nuclear defense shield, although one such program was cancelled for inefficiency.

The Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) is under scrutiny for its current shortcomings:

The Pentagon decided to keep paying until the program attained a “proof of concept,” a status that falls well short of production and deployment but would in theory allow the U.S. or its foreign partners to restart the project later if they chose. DoD requested a total of $804 million over 2012 and 2013. But Congress disagreed, and agreed to fund only the first year. [CPI, May 2012]

So, while the GOP Platform is long on “strong America” talk the lack of specificity and the paucity of comments on veterans leads to the conclusion that the military spending envisioned by the Republicans is mainly for nuclear missile systems and missile defense systems.   Page 43 of the Republican Platform for 2012 (pdf) addresses veterans’ issues, and touches upon retirement:

“…we believe compensation and conditions for our Armed Forces in place at the time military service is initiated should be sufficient to attract and retain quality men and women as we honor our promises and commitments to veterans, retirees, and their families. These shall continue and not be reduced or otherwise diminished while in service, or upon separation, or retirement.”

Readers should assume that “these” refers back to the “promises and commitments” to members of military families.

On the Democratic Side

The Democratic Platform is different in focus and emphasis in terms of military spending and priorities.  The document refers to actions taken by the Obama Administration in terms of national defense and foreign policy and continues:

“These actions have enabled a broader strategic rebalancing of American foreign policy. After more than a decade at war, we can focus on nation-building here at home and concentrate our resources and attention abroad on the areas that are the greatest priority moving forward. This means directing more energy toward crucial problems, including longstanding threats like nuclear proliferation and emerging dangers such as cyber attacks, biological weapons, climate change, and transnational crime. And it means a long-overdue focus on the world’s most dynamic regions and rising centers of influence.”

The section on members of the armed forces is as follows:

“President Obama and the Democratic Party are committed to keeping the sacred trust we have with our troops, military families, and veterans. These brave men and women and their families have borne the burden of war and have always made our military the best in the world. We will not only continue to support them in the field, but we will also continue to prioritize support for wounded warriors, mental health, and the well-being of our military families and veterans. We will keep working to give our veterans the health care, benefits, education, and job opportunities that they have earned. That’s why the President and the Democratic Party supported the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill to provide opportunities for military personnel, veterans, and their families to get a better education.”

Both sides seem in general agreement that benefits and services to veterans, including retirement should not be reduced.  What is troubling is the lack of specificity from either camp on the “shape” of the benefits for retired members of the Armed Forces, the current defined benefit program or a new 401(k) type program?  The lack of specific support for the defined benefit program opens the door for consideration of defined contribution plans which have problems of their own.  Both platforms state promises should be kept, thus the question becomes — What Promises?

The 401(k) Epidemic

As institutions as varied as the National Football League (in the dispute with its officials)  and the Department of Defense look at ways to reduce costs, pension plans nearly always come into play.  The current military pension plan calls for defined benefits — a 2011 proposal by the Defense Business Board is suggesting a 401(k) style defined contribution plan for members of the military.

“The proposal comes from an influential panel of military advisors called the Defense Business Board. Their plan, laid out in a 24-page presentation “Modernizing the Military Retirement System,” would eliminate the familiar system under which anyone who serves 20 years is eligible for retirement at half their salary. Instead, they’d get a 401k-style plan with government contributions.”  [CBS]

The presentation (pdf) begins with rationales for changing to a defined contribution system, including:

“…in light of the budget challenges facing the Department of Defense, the military retirement system appears increasingly unaffordable. In FY11, the retirement plan will accrue 33 cents for each dollar of current pay, for a total of $24 billion.

According to the OSD Office of the Actuary, annual military retirement payments are forecasted to increase from $52.2 billion in 2011 to $116.9 billion in 2035. As of today, the total life cycle program costs will grow from $1.3 trillion, of which only $385 billion is presently funded, to $2.8 trillion by FY34 (see Appendix D of the final presentation). Increases in inflation and life expectancy will further increase military retirement benefit costs. Moreover, as presently structured, any increase to base pay has an automatic and dramatic impact on future retirement liabilities.”

Other voices agreed, including Douglas Holtz-Eakin, recently the chief economic policy adviser to 2008 presidential candidate Senator John McCain:

“Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office says it’s very important that the military attack its retirement issues. “We’re talking about an underfunding that starts to look like hundreds of billions of dollars in the next 20 years. And if you want to maintain the core mission which is to defend the nation and have the strategic capabilities we need, we can’t have all their money tied up in retirement programs.” [CBS]

There are some positive arguments to be made concerning adjustments in the military retirement program — such as how to compensate service which does not extend to 20 years.  The question now becomes: Where DO we want money “tied up?”  Another question might be: Is the 401(k) format the only option, or the best option, by which to address the need to keep our promises to members of the military concerning their retirement income?

The first thing almost any competent investment adviser will say to a client considering a 401(k) plan is that it is market driven.

“Your money, when placed into a 401k, does not have the benefit of being insured. In fact, depending on the investments that you’ve chosen, you could actually lose money while it is tied up in a 401k. If you see that you’re starting to lose money on a particular investment, you might want to consider changing it.”  [InvestHub]   — or to put it less optimistically:

“Hopefully your money is safe in a 401k plan, although you don’t have the luxury of having your investment protected by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) which safeguards the assets of most pension plans. And ultimately your money is only as safe as the investments and funds that you invest it in – any investment plan carries some degree of risk and uncertainty.”  [Essortment]

Any financial adviser who doesn’t almost immediately mention the market based foundation of 401(k) accounts should be avoided in the interest of financial health and safety.  There’s one other point to consider, besides the intrinsic financial market related issues, there are management fees which also impinge on 401(k) account performance.

Here again we meet our old friend — market volatility — a benign face to the Wall Street trading desks, but a real question mark for retirement planning.  Consider the performance of 401(k) plans in the private sector in 2011, as Bette Davis once advised — Buckle Up:

“The average 401(k) balance tracked the year’s bumpy market returns. At midyear, it reached $72,700, the highest since Fidelity began tracking balances in 1998. The average dropped 12 percent over the next three months, amid growing worries about the global economy and the European debt crisis. Those fears eased late in the year, sparking stocks to climb and boost the average account 8 percent in the fourth quarter.

Typically, about two-thirds of annual increases in 401(k) account balances are the result of workers’ added contributions and company matches. It’s only the final third that’s the result of investment returns, said Beth McHugh, vice president of market insights at Boston-based Fidelity.”  [CSM]

Less elegantly phrased, Manic Mr.  Market, buffeted by the rumors and realities of the financial sector in 2010 and 2011, didn’t add very much to 401(k) investors’ accounts.   If the proposed military retirement 401(k) accounts aren’t augmented by much more than more enrollments or company (Defense Dept.) matching contributions, then members of the Armed Forces would do almost as well simply putting their money in a good old fashioned savings account at the local bank.   This statement might even be more unfortunately accurate if Manic Mr. Market behaves badly at just the moment the service member retires.

Yes, the Pentagon could save some $250 billion over the next 20 years, BUT what might have happened to a soldier’s 401(k) account if that individual’s retirement date was — say, March 9, 2009 when the DJIA bottomed at a measly 6507.04?    If there is inequity in the current system, how much more inequity might there be between the unfortunate soul who retired on March 9, 2009 and the person who retires today when the DJIA is at 13,266.99 and the Nasdaq is at 3130.94?

The backgrounds and affiliations of several members of the Defense Business Board make it clear that most are well aware of Manic Mr. Market’s behavior.  There are representatives of Accenture, Veritas Capital, Citigroup, Renaissance Strategy Advisers, Lovell Group Venture Capital, Fall Creek Management, the Regency Group, and Providence Equity Capital.   There’s even an “Outsourcing Superstar” from NEOGROUP.  [DBB]  What can we infer from their presentation about the efficacy of their proposal?

There’s always one clue to how enthusiastic so-called reformers are about the plans they are hawking — do they recommend immediate implementation?  If something is the End and Be All of Hot New Ideas, then why not put it into effect with alacrity?  If something may not be so good, or faces some stiff opposition, then the “phase in” language appears.  However, if some proposal has some really large question marks attached to it — then we get phrasing like this from the Defense Business Board:

This plan would apply to Reserve and Active Duty personnel. Retired and disabled personnel would be unaffected.”

If we all think we’ve heard this somewhere before — it’s because we have.  The Republican proposals for turning Medicare into a voucher/coupon program are all couched in “this doesn’t apply to current enrollees” verbiage.

If we expect a veteran’s retirement planning to be predictable, and his or her household and other expenses based on a “floor” of defined benefit payments after retirement, then we could do much better than to agree to a plan to make those retirement benefits driven by Manic Mr. Market and his contemporary penchant for volatility.  This election season would be as good a time as any to ask candidates what they think of a plan to privatize military retirement plans?  Plans that could be miles from the promises we should be keeping.

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Filed under Politics, privatization, Veterans