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Amid Border Crisis Debate, Many New Immigrants Land In D.C. Area

By Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times

FALLS CHURCH, Va. — Virginia is more than 1,500 miles from the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas, epicenter of the border crisis.

And it is the home state of Rep. Eric Cantor, who was defeated by a Tea Party novice who attacked the former House majority leader for being open to “amnesty” for at least some immigrants in the country illegally.

But Yesenia, 16, and her brother, Herson, 12, are here.

Junior, 14, is in Virginia too. So is Claudia, 13.

The Washington, D.C., region is drawing a number of the children caught illegally crossing the border because it is home to an estimated 165,000 Salvadoran immigrants, the nation’s second-largest population after the Los Angeles area’s 275,000, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The capital region had 42,000 immigrants from Guatemala and 30,000 from Honduras.

The Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families reports that 2,234 unaccompanied minors were released to sponsors in Virginia between Jan. 1 and July 7, ranking the state fifth after Texas, New York, Florida and California.

As a measure of the influx of young immigrants into Virginia, when the legal aid organization Ayuda began taking new appointments at its Falls Church office, it received more than 300 calls within an hour, said attorney Rebecca J. Walters.

Central American populations took root in the Washington area when political turmoil racked their homelands in the 1980s. Fear of violence, this time from gangs, often drives the current migration.

“This is something that no parent wants their kid to go through,” Arminda said of her children’s journey to the United States. But in El Salvador, she said, “it’s just a matter of time before they’re going to die.”

Arminda, like a number of others interviewed, spoke through an interpreter and on the condition that only first names be used. She entered the United States illegally about nine years ago, leaving behind her three children.

Arminda, who cleans offices for a living, paid a coyote $7,000 to bring Yesenia and Herson to the United States. Their father had abandoned the children. They were being cared for by their grandmother, who became ill.

Her youngest son, nine-year-old Milton, followed his siblings six months later; she needed time to save the additional $5,000 to pay a coyote for him.

Yesenia and Herson brought only what they could carry in backpacks and traveled by bus and car, and sometimes by foot. They say they were often hungry.

Yesenia said that when she grew tired of walking, one member of her group warned her that unless she continued, she would be killed. They crossed the Rio Grande on a raft and were immediately apprehended by the Border Patrol.

Arminda said she received a call from immigration authorities about 1 a.m. alerting her that her children were safe and in custody. They were flown — in their first airplane ride — to Washington and reunited with their mother.

The children are attending school while they seek to remain in the country. No hearing date has been set, but the hearing is expected to be in Los Angeles as immigration authorities try to find available courtrooms and judges. Milton, apprehended later, is in a detention facility in New York.

Her children had to leave El Salvador, she said, to “get away from a place where gangs kill people and chop them up.”

“One day a boy — they robbed him, took his things and chopped him up,” she said. “I don’t want this to happen — I don’t want these children to grow up in this crime-ridden place. Because the gang members, when the girls are older, they force them to join their gang and they force them to be their women.”

Junior’s journey began in Honduras. “I felt alone,” said Junior, the last of his family to come to the United States. “I wanted to be with my mom.”

His mother, three brothers and two sisters were already in the United States. His father had left the family. And his grandfather, who was caring for him, was sick.

Junior was caught within minutes of crossing the Rio Grande and assumed he would be deported right away. But he ended up spending about two weeks in custody in Texas, Arizona and Los Angeles, before he was flown to reunite with his family in Virginia.

Now he is back with the mother he hadn’t seen since he was six. And he is embracing his new home, wearing a T-shirt in the University of Virginia’s orange and navy blue.

Claudia’s journey, which lasted about a month, began in Guatemala. Her mother, Margot, had entered the country illegally eight years ago, leaving a son and two daughters. She has two U.S.-born sons, ages five and seven.

Margot wanted Claudia, 13, to come to the United States because she feared she would be forced into marriage like her 14-year-old sister, who remains in Guatemala.

Asked about the public furor over the surge of young immigrants crossing the border, Margot said: “Consider what life is like in their shoes. … They can’t survive where they are.”

Yasmine, who cleans houses for a living, started saving from the day she arrived to raise money to pay a coyote to bring her daughter Marbeli, 15, and son Manuel, 12, to the U.S. from El Salvador. But she still needed help from her father-in-law to cover the $16,000 bill.

She had entered the country illegally two years ago, joining her husband, who had already found work here.

Marbeli said that while the journey was difficult — sometimes she and her brother went days without eating — she said she trusted in God. When she began her journey she carried only a backpack and a Bible.

Marbeli and Manuel got separated at the U.S.-Mexico border. Marbeli was apprehended by the Border Patrol shortly after she crossed the Rio Grande on an inner tube. She has already been granted special juvenile immigrant status.

Manuel was never caught but made it to Los Angeles and then, like many others, to Virginia.

Photo: Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times/MCT

Quake-Warning System Receives A Boost In Congress

By Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — Efforts to put in place an earthquake warning system for the West Coast gained ground Tuesday as a congressional committee recommended the first federal funds — $5 million — specifically for the project.

Its prospects remain shaky, however.

Election-year fights over other issues could keep Congress from completing work on its spending bills.

Still, the warning system enjoys bipartisan support.

“It’s critical that the West Coast implement an earthquake early-warning system that will give us a heads up before the ‘big one’ hits, so we can save lives and protect infrastructure,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), who led a group of West Coast lawmakers in seeking the funding.

The money was included in a spending bill sent to the House by its appropriations committee. The Senate has yet to act on its version of the bill to fund the U.S. Geological Survey and other agencies for the fiscal year beginning Sept. 1.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), did include language in a Senate Appropriations Committee report that would direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency to give priority to early-warning systems when it considers grant-funding requests.

It will cost a projected $38.3 million to build the system on the West Coast and $16.1 million a year to operate and maintain it. Schiff said the $5 million would allow for purchase and installation of additional sensors and hiring of staff.

“This is great news for the West Coast,” said Richard M. Allen. director of the University of California, Berkeley’s Seismological Laboratory. “Our demonstration system currently alerts a few test users of earthquakes. This funding will start us on the path to a public system that will benefit everyone.”

The project received a boost by the ascent last fall of Rep. Ken Calvert, a Republican from earthquake country — the Inland Empire –to the chairmanship of the Interior appropriations subcommittee, which oversees funding for the U.S. Geological Survey’s earthquake programs.

The Geological Survey and its university partners are testing a prototype system in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas; the system delivers warnings to about 75 people, including researchers and personnel in emergency management and at a few private companies.

Deploying a full system of sensors along the West Coast is expected to take about five years, according to scientists. It would detect waves radiating from the epicenter of a quake and notify people through phones, radio, and TV.

Photo: martinluff via Flickr

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Obama Turning To Ex-Procter & Gamble Boss For Veterans Affairs Job

By Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — In nominating Bob McDonald as the next secretary of Veterans Affairs, President Barack Obama is recruiting a West Point graduate with experience in running a big corporation — Procter & Gamble — to turn around a department whose failure to provide timely care to veterans has caused a political furor.

If confirmed by the Senate, McDonald would succeed Eric K. Shinseki, a retired four-star general who stepped down last month amid a scandal in which VA employees falsified records to cover up long waits for medical appointments.

McDonald would face a daunting task in trying to fix the numerous problems within one of the largest federal departments, which a White House report described as having a “corrosive culture.” The VA also is struggling to respond to increasing demand for services from veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A White House official signaled that Obama would nominate McDonald, 61, on Monday, saying the former corporate executive’s 33-year tenure at Procter & Gamble “prepares him well for a huge agency with management challenges in servicing more than 8 million veterans a year.”

At P&G, McDonald oversaw more than 120,000 employees, the official noted, adding that business associates have described him as a “master at complex operations.”

McDonald served in the Army for five years, achieving the rank of captain in the 82nd Airborne Division, according to the White House. He retired from P&G in June 2013 and lives in Cincinnati.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, planned to meet with McDonald next week.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said McDonald faced the challenge of turning around a VA “under a specter of corruption that may very well surpass anything in the history of American government.”

Investigators are examining whether VA managers pressed subordinates to manipulate waiting lists for appointments so that the managers could qualify for bonuses. The investigation could lead to criminal charges.

Miller said the next secretary would need to “root out the culture of dishonesty and fraud that has taken hold within the department and is contributing to all of its most pressing challenges. Quite simply, those who created the VA scandal will need to be purged from the system.”

Miller, who has complained about the VA’s failure to respond to his committee’s requests for information, said the next secretary also would need to focus on “solving problems instead of downplaying or hiding them, holding employees accountable for mismanagement and negligence that harms veterans, and understanding that taxpayer-funded organizations such as VA have a responsibility to provide information to Congress and the public rather than stonewalling them.”

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), said in a statement that although McDonald is “capable of implementing the kind of dramatic systemic change that is badly needed and long overdue at the VA,” he would only succeed if the president “commits to doing whatever it takes to give our veterans the world-class health care system they deserve by articulating a vision for sweeping reform.”

Born in Gary, Ind., and raised in the Chicago area, McDonald led P&G from 2009 to 2013. During that time, P&G’s annual sales exceeded $84 billion, according to the company, and its stock price rose from $51.10 on the day he became chief executive to close at $81.64 on the day his last quarterly results were announced — a 60 percent increase.

Dan Dellinger, national commander of the 2.4-million-member American Legion, said he was encouraged to hear that Obama planned to nominate a new VA leader.

“The VA needs a permanent secretary as soon as possible to oversee the restructuring necessary to guarantee that our veterans receive the care they have earned in a timely manner,” he said.
The VA, which operates 1,700 hospitals and clinics and handled 85 million outpatient visits last year, has been rocked by a spate of critical reports.

Last month the VA inspector general found systemic problems throughout the VA health care system in scheduling veterans for medical appointments in a timely manner, including instances of manipulation to mask long waits. At the Phoenix VA, investigators found an average wait of 115 days for a sample of veterans, when the VA’s goal was 14 days.

Last week, the Office of Special Counsel, which investigates whistle-blower complaints, assailed the VA for failing to acknowledge the “severity of systemic problems” that have put patients at risk.

And on Friday, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors, who has been visiting VA facilities, issued his own report, finding a “corrosive culture” inside the department that has been exacerbated by poor management and a history of retaliation toward employees who report problems.

The department’s inspector general is investigating 77 facilities and is due to issue a final report in August.

In the meantime, House-Senate negotiators are working to reconcile differences on legislation that would allow more veterans facing long waits at VA facilities to see private doctors and expand the VA secretary’s authority to fire senior managers for poor performance. A potentially contentious proposal would increase VA funding so that it could hire more doctors and nurses.

Kathleen Hennessey in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

AFP Photo / Stephen Chernin

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House Approves Bill To Allow New Drilling Off California

By Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — The Republican-controlled House on Thursday approved a long-shot bill to expand domestic energy exploration, including opening up areas off the West Coast to drilling.

The measure would require lease sales by the end of next year for energy production off Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, with production coming from existing offshore rigs or onshore-based extended-reach drilling operations.

It would also allow drilling off the Virginia and South Carolina coasts and expand energy production on federal land, including the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska. It was approved on a largely party-line vote of 229-185.

In addition, the legislation would direct the Interior Department to develop a five-year plan that provides for exploration in coastal areas “considered to have the largest undiscovered technically recoverable oil and gas resources,” including areas off California.

Offshore drilling enjoys support in Virginia and South Carolina, but it has long been controversial in California, where a 1969 spill off Santa Barbara devastated the coast.

Similar House-approved measures have died in the Senate, but House Republicans hope this bill, called the Lowering Gasoline Prices to Fuel an America That Works Act, will gain greater support amid a rise in gas prices. At the very least, they hope to use the issue to highlight differences between the parties on energy policy before the fall election.

As the House debated the measure, 14 Democratic senators and one independent introduced legislation directing the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulates oil markets, to take emergency action to eliminate excessive oil speculation.

Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), assailed House GOP leaders for trying to “override the will of my constituents and California voters who overwhelmingly oppose new offshore drilling.” Capps’ district is based in Santa Barbara.

The California delegation broke along party lines, with Republicans supporting the measure and Democrats opposing it, except for Rep. Jim Costa (D), who backed the bill. Democratic Reps. George Miller and Grace F. Napolitano did not vote.

AFP Photo / Karen Bleier

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VA Fails To Acknowledge ‘Severity Of Problems,’ New Report Says

By Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — In another damning report on the Department of Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel on Monday assailed the VA for what investigators said was its unwillingness to acknowledge the “severity of systemic problems” that have put patients at risk.

The special counsel, Carolyn N. Lerner, reported in a letter to President Barack Obama that investigators found a “troubling pattern of deficient patient care,” and expressed concern about what she termed the department’s unwillingness to acknowledge the impact of its problems on patient safety. Her office is now investigating more than 50 cases brought by whistle-blowers.

“The VA, and particularly the VA’s Office of the Medical Inspector, has consistently used a ‘harmless error’ defense, where the department acknowledges problems but claims patient care is unaffected,” she wrote. “This approach has prevented the VA from acknowledging the severity of systemic problems and from taking the necessary steps to provide quality care to veterans.

“As a result, veterans’ health and safety has been unnecessarily put at risk,” she said.

The Jackson, Mississippi, VA medical center operated “ghost clinics” where veterans were scheduled for appointments with no assigned provider, resulting in veterans leaving without treatment, she said, and nurse practitioners at the same facility improperly prescribed narcotics to veterans in violation of federal law, among other problems.

In Buffalo, New York, health care professionals do not always comply with VA sterilization standards, the report said, and in Little Rock, Arkansas, suction equipment was unavailable when it was needed to treat a veteran who later died. In Grand Junction, Colorado, the drinking water had elevated levels of Legionella bacteria and standard maintenance procedures to prevent bacterial growth were not performed, Lerner wrote.

In Brockton, Massachusetts, a veteran who was in a mental health facility from 2005 through 2013 had only one note written in his medical chart; the note, written in 2012, addressed treatment recommendations, according to Lerner. Another veteran who was admitted to the facility in 2003 did not receive his first comprehensive psychiatric evaluation until 2011, she said.

The VA Office of the Medical Inspector “failed to acknowledge that that the confirmed neglect of residents at the facility had any impact on patient care,” she said.

U.S. Representative Jeff Miller (R-FL), chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said the letter highlights the VA’s attempts to “downplay the impact serious deficiencies in VA health care have had on patients.”

“In the fantasy land inhabited by VA’s Office of the Medical Inspector, serious patient safety issues apparently have no impact on patient safety,” he said in a statement. “It’s impossible to solve problems by whitewashing them or denying they exist.”

Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson said in a statement Monday that he was disappointed in the “failures within VA to take whistle-blower complaints seriously” and that he has directed a review of the operation of the Office of the Medical Inspector, to be completed within 14 days.

The special counsel’s letter comes after the VA’s own reports have found systemic problems in scheduling of patients in a timely manner, including instances of staff falsifying records to cover up long waits.

Lerner said her office also had found the use of a “bad boy” list at the VA facility in Fort Collins, Colorado, for staff who scheduled appointments for greater than 14 days than the veteran’s desired date for an appointment. Staff members were instructed to alter wait times to make the waiting periods look shorter, the special counsel said.

The office also is investigating allegations that two schedulers were reassigned from Fort Collins to Cheyenne, Wyoming, for not complying with instructions to “zero out” wait times. After the employees were transferred, officially recorded wait times for appointments drastically improved, according to the special counsel, “even though the wait times were actually much longer.”

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Senate Reaches Bipartisan Deal To Fix VA ‘Crisis’

By Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — Senators on Thursday announced a bipartisan deal on legislation aimed at improving veterans’ health care in response to reports of Veterans Affairs employees falsifying records to conceal long waits for medical appointments.

Senators Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent and chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and John McCain (R-AZ) announced the agreement from the Senate floor as a group of senators headed to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

The agreement would allow veterans facing long waits at VA facilities to seek care from private doctors,expand the VA secretary’s authority to fire or demote staff for poor performance, establish 26 new VA health facilities in 18 states and provide $500 million for hiring of new VA doctors and nurses.

“Right now, we have a crisis on our hands,” Sanders said.

Added McCain: “We are talking about a system that must be fixed. It’s urgent that it be fixed.”

The proposed legislation also would extend college education benefits to the spouses of service members killed in the line of duty and guarantee in-state tuition for veterans at public colleges and universities. It also would establish a commission of experts to examine the VA health care system and recommend improvements.

The legislation could clear the Senate by the end of next week. But this being an election year, nothing is certain, even on veterans’ care, an issue that traditionally enjoys bipartisan support.

McCain asked colleagues to set aside their usual partisan bickering and act on the VA reform legislation swiftly.

“We have, for all intents and purposes, in some ways betrayed the brave men and women who are willing to go out and sacrifice for the well-being and freedom of the rest of us,” he said.

McCain is a decorated Vietnam veteran and former POW whose support for the legislation should help it win votes. Indeed, Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, the top Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, threw his support behind it.

McCain said the legislation would give veterans a choice of seeking private care if they face a “wait time that is unacceptable” at VA facilities or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility.

The rare agreement in a hyper-partisan Congress, reached after negotiations between Sanders and McCain, came as the U.S. Office of Special Counsel announced that it is investigating allegations of reprisals against 37 VA whistleblowers, including some who have alleged improper scheduling of veterans for health care.

As Congress ratcheted up its response to the VA scandal, the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday provided funding for the Justice Department to play a bigger role in the investigation of VA employees falsifying records to cover up long waits for medical care.

And the House Veterans Affairs Committee called a Monday night hearing that could shed new light on the scope of the VA mess. The panel asked for an update from the VA inspector general, who has been investigating 42 sites and issued an interim report last week that found a systemic problem nationwide in scheduling veterans for health care in a timely manner.

Whistleblowers who have complained about reprisals work at VA facilities involving 19 states, but the Official of Special Counsel, an independent federal investigative agency, declined to name the facilities.

“Receiving candid information about harmful practices from employees will be critical to the VA’s efforts to identify problems and find solutions,” said Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner. “However, employees will not come forward if they fear retaliation.”

In the meantime, members of Congress stepped up efforts to find out about problems at VA facilities in their own states. Republican senators on Thursday sent a letter to acting VA secretary Sloan Gibson seeking answers about reports of unauthorized wait lists at VA facilities in the Midwest.

Gibson was visiting the Phoenix VA on Thursday, and White House deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors, whom President Barack Obama tasked to conduct a broad review of veterans health care, was to visit VA facilities in Ohio on Thursday.

AFP Photo/Noorullah Shirzada

Veterans Group Pushes For ‘Marshall Plan’ To Address VA Member Issues

By Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — As the Senate prepares to take up reform legislation growing out of the VA health care scandal, a group representing Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans called Monday for a “Marshall Plan” for veterans and for the president to appoint a post-9/11 veteran or someone who understands the younger generations of veterans as the next secretary of Veterans Affairs.

The 200,000-member Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said a program modeled on the Marshall Plan, which got Europe back on its feet after World War II, would help veterans by involving every resource, including the federal government, the private sector and philanthropy.

The group also called for the Senate to swiftly pass legislation that would expand the VA secretary’s authority to fire or demote senior staff for poor performance and for Congress to increase funding for VA health care and approve a bill designed to combat suicides among veterans.

Paul Rieckhoff, the IAVA’s chief executive officer, said he hopes Friday’s resignation of VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki doesn’t diminish the urgency for Congress and the White House to address problems. The group has urged President Barack Obama to meet with veterans’ groups to hear their ideas on how to fix the VA mess.

“This is far from over,” Rieckhoff said at a Capitol Hill news conference.

The group’s recommendations come as battles shape up in Congress over VA funding and reform. They also come as Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) on Monday called on Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson to release site-specific details of a department audit of 216 VA facilities presented to the White House on Friday.

“The American public, most especially our nation’s veterans, deserves and needs to see these site audit reports immediately,” Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, wrote Gibson. “They have a right to know where problems have been found, who is responsible, and what will be done to hold them accountable and fix the problems.”

The audit found that appointments at more than 60 percent of the divisions had been changed at least once and that 13 percent of the scheduling staffers indicated that they had received instructions to enter a date different from the one requested by the patient. “Information indicates that in some cases, pressures were placed on schedulers to utilize inappropriate practices in order to make waiting times appear more favorable,” the audit said.

The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Thursday is due to take up the Restoring Veterans’ Trust Act, a measure sponsored by its chairman, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), that would, among other things, authorize emergency funding for hiring more VA doctors and nurses, provide veterans who can’t get timely appointments with VA doctors the option of going to community health centers, military hospitals or private doctors, and expand the VA secretary’s authority to fire or demote senior executives for poor performance.

The House last month overwhelmingly approved the VA Management Accountability Act to make it easier for the VA secretary to fire or demote senior employees, but Sanders is preparing his own version of the measure to address concerns by federal employee groups that the House measure could “transform career senior executives at the VA into another layer of political appointees.”

Photo: Cosmic Smudge via Flickr

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki Resigns

By Richard Simon, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — President Obama announced Friday that Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki has resigned amid a health-care scandal that had engulfed the agency.

Shinseki has been under fire over allegations that VA facilities manipulated records to hide long waits for medical care.

The retired four-star general, whom President Obama appointed to lead the VA in 2009, had asked for patience while the charges were investigated. But a scathing interim report by the VA inspector general found a “systemic” problem at VA facilities nationwide, leading to bipartisan congressional calls for his resignation.

Obama made the announcement in a statement from the White House after meeting with Shinseki. He said he had accepted Shinseki’s resignation “with regret” but agreed with him that it was time for new leadership at the VA.

“We don’t have time for distractions,” Obama said.

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

Shinseki Apologizes For VA Mess

By Richard Simon, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki offered an apology and accepted responsibility for the VA mess Friday morning.

“I can’t explain the lack of integrity among some of the leaders in our healthcare facilities,” he said, speaking to a conference on homeless veterans.

“This is something I rarely encountered during 38 years in uniform.”

Shinseki announced steps he was taking to address the instances where VA staff covered up long waiting times for care, including removing senior leaders at the Phoenix VA, suspending any bonuses for this year, contacting each of the 1,700 veterans who were kept off a waiting list in Phoenix “to bring them the care they need and deserve,” and calling for congressional passage of legislation that would expand the VA secretary’s authority to fire or demote senior staff for poor performance.

“This situation can be fixed,” he said.

Shinseki is due to meet Friday with President Barack Obama amid growing bipartisan calls for his resignation.

Shinseki acknowledged that the problems are systemic at VA. “Given the facts I now know, I apologize as the senior leader of the Department of Veterans Affairs.”

Shinseki said that when he first heard reports of the problems, he thought they were isolated. “I no longer believe it. It is systemic.”

Photo: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs via Flickr

VA Investigation Turns Up Widespread Problems With Wait Times

By Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — An investigation of wait times for medical care at Veterans Affairs facilities has found “inappropriate scheduling practices are systemic” through the VA and “instances of manipulation of VA data that distort the legitimacy of reported waiting times,” prompting new calls for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign.

The VA inspector general’s interim report, released Wednesday, shows the investigation has expanded to 42 facilities, more than a dozen beyond the previously reported 26.

At the Phoenix VA, the main subject of the interim report, investigators “substantiated that significant delays in access to care negatively impacted the quality of care,” finding about 1,700 veterans who were waiting for an appointment but were not on a waiting list.

“These veterans were and continue to be at risk of being forgotten or lost,” the report says, adding they may never obtain an appointment. “A direct consequence of not appropriately placing veterans on EWLs (electronic waiting lists) is that the Phoenix HCS leadership significantly understated the time new patients waited for their primary care appointment in their FY 2013 performance appraisal accomplishments, which is one of the factors considered for awards and salary increases.”

The report prompted U.S. Representative Jeff Miller (R-FL), the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, to immediately call for Shinseki’s resignation.

Miller said the report confirmed “beyond a shadow of a doubt what was becoming more obvious by the day: Wait time schemes and data manipulation are systemic throughout VA and are putting veterans at risk in Phoenix and across the country.”

“VA needs a leader who will take swift and decisive action to discipline employees responsible for mismanagement, negligence and corruption that harms veterans while taking bold steps to replace the department’s culture of complacency with a climate of accountability,” Miller said in a statement. “Shinseki has proved time and again he is not that leader. That’s why it’s time for him to go.”

Photo: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs via Flickr
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Lawmakers Call For Criminal Probe Of Veterans Affairs Facilities

By Richard Simon, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department should enter the investigation of whether Veterans Affairs employees have falsified records to cover up long waits at VA medical facilities, Democratic and Republican lawmakers said Sunday.

“Only the Department of Justice and the FBI have the resources, the expertise and the authority to do a prompt and effective criminal investigation of the secret waiting lists, potential destruction of documents, falsification of records, in effect, the cooking of books and covering up that may have occurred,” Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said on CBS’s Face the Nation.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, agreed. “Department of Justice needs to get involved,” he said on the same program.

The VA inspector general is investigating 26 sites to determine whether employees covered up long waits for medical appointments.

But Blumenthal said the inspector general cannot do the job alone, and only the Justice Department can convene a grand jury, if necessary. The inspector general has said that the investigation could lead to criminal charges.

The chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, meanwhile, signaled that as lawmakers step up oversight of the VA, his committee would look into whether Congress is providing enough funding to the department.

“I suspect we are going to need more funding if we’re going to do justice and provide the high-quality care that veterans deserve,” Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), said on CNN’s State of the Union. Sanders has questioned whether the VA’s goal of scheduling patients within 14 days of desired appointment dates was too ambitious, given its current budget.

But Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, contended that the current controversy is an “issue of manipulation and mismanagement.”

“If money was the issue, this problem would have been solved a long time ago,” he said on CNN.

The VA budget has been increased, but veterans groups have contended that it hasn’t been increased enough, given new demands for services from aging Vietnam veterans and new veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

“When you have 2 million new veterans coming into the system, some with very difficult and complicated problems, I do think we have to take a hard look and see if we have the resources,” Sanders said.

Kinzinger repeated his calls for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign.

“It is really time for a shakeup,” he said. “I haven’t even seen the level of outrage out of him that I think we ought to be hearing.”

But Miller said, “This is much larger than the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.” Still, Miller has grown frustrated with the VA. His committee is due to hold a hearing Wednesday.

“You’ve got an entrenched bureaucracy that exists out there that is not held accountable, that is shooting for goals — goals that are not helping the veteran,” Miller said.

The lawmakers’ appearances on the Sunday talk shows came a day after the VA announced it would allow more veterans to use private medical services to meet growing demands for health care.

Kinzinger welcomed the move but asked, “What took so long?”

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

Senate Panel Votes To Fund Nationwide Investigation Of Veterans’ Health Care

By Richard Simon, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — As Congress stepped up efforts Thursday to get to the bottom of the allegations of substandard health-care services at Veterans Affairs facilities, a Senate committee approved funds for a nationwide investigation and a House panel authorized a subpoena to compel VA officials to appear at a hearing next week.

With a growing number of Republican and some Democratic lawmakers calling for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki’s resignation, the retired four-star general was on Capitol Hill on Thursday to meet with the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Richard J. Durbin, over allegations of manipulated waiting lists at VA facilities, including one in suburban Chicago in Durbin’s home state of Illinois.

At the same time, Senate Republicans pressed Democrats to conduct more aggressive oversight of the VA, while Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, complained about veterans becoming “pawns in election-year gamesmanship.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee, meanwhile, approved a $158.6-billion VA spending bill for the next fiscal year that would provide an additional $5 million for the VA inspector general’s investigation of reports that VA staff attempted to cover up long waits for treatment.

The measure also would expand the secretary of Veterans Affairs’ authority to fire or demote employees and freeze bonuses to senior VA staff until the review is complete and reforms have been implemented.

“We really have come to a point where we need to have more than just good intentions,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “What we need from the VA right now is decisive action.”

Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the Appropriations Committee’s top Republican, said: “This kind of reported misconduct at the VA is unforgivable. It is unacceptable. And it is just plain wrong.”

The House Veterans Affairs Committee, in response to what its chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL) called the VA’s “pattern of stonewalling,” authorized a subpoena to compel department officials to appear at a hearing.

“Almost each passing day, there’s a new location, a new allegation, a new whistle-blower,” a Miller aide said.

A spokesman for the VA said the department was working with the committee, having provided more than 3,000 pages of documents. But a committee staffer noted that the documents arrived at 2:30 a.m. Thursday, and the VA did not send anyone to Thursday’s committee meeting. The VA said it didn’t receive the request to appear until 6:30 p.m. Wednesday for a staffer to attend the 9 a.m. meeting, which was not enough notice.

VA officials summoned to appear before the committee are Joan Mooney, assistant secretary for congressional and legislative affairs; Dr. Thomas Lynch, assistant deputy undersecretary for health for clinical operations and management; and Michael Huff, congressional relations officer. If they do not show up for a hearing Wednesday, the subpoena will compel their appearance May 30.

The VA inspector general’s investigation was expanded this week to include 26 sites. The inspector general’s office, which previously identified VA facilities in Phoenix, San Antonio and Fort Collins, Colorado, as the subjects of its review, declined to identify the new locations. Richard J. Griffin, the VA’s acting inspector general, has said he expects to have the findings of his investigation ready in August.

President Barack Obama said Wednesday that Shinseki would complete a preliminary report next week, and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors is conducting a broader review of veterans’ health care to be delivered next month. Nabors met this week with veterans groups and was at the Phoenix facility Wednesday. That facility has been accused of maintaining secret waiting lists to hide delays in treating veterans.

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

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Congress Boosts Funding As Investigation Of VA Widens

By Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — Stepping up Congress’ efforts to root out misconduct at the Department of Veterans Affairs, lawmakers Thursday moved to boost funding for a nationwide investigation into whether VA employees covered up long waits for medical care and authorize subpoenas of VA officials to produce records and appear at a Capitol Hill hearing next week.

Even as a growing number of Republicans and some Democrats have called for his resignation, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki was on Capitol Hill on Thursday meeting with the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois.

A resolution also has been introduced seeking a House vote calling for Shinseki’s resignation.

The Senate Appropriations Committee, meanwhile, approved a VA spending bill that would provide an additional $5 million for a VA inspector general’s investigation, give the VA secretary give new authority to fire or demote employees, and freezes bonuses to senior VA employees until the review is complete and reforms have been implemented.

“We really have come to a point where we need to have more than just good intentions,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “What we need from the VA right now is decisive action.”

“This kind of reported misconduct at the VA is unforgivable. It is unacceptable. And, it is just plain wrong,” added Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the appropriations committee’s top Republican.

The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee scheduled a hearing for Wednesday on the reports of excessive wait times and falsification of records at VA health facilities and voted to authorize subpoenas to VA officials, “given the VA’s continued pattern of stonewalling,” as chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., put it.

A VA spokesman said the department is “committed” to working with the committee, noting that it had provided more than 3,000 pages of documents.

The VA did not send anyone to Thursday’s House Veterans Committee’s 9 a.m. meeting because it only received the request at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.

VA officials summoned to appear before the committee are Joan Mooney, assistant secretary for congressional and legislative affairs; Dr. Thomas Lynch, assistant deputy undersecretary for health for clinical operations and management; and Michael Huff, congressional relations officer.

If they fail to voluntarily appear, the subpoena will require them to show up May 30.

Photo: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs via Flickr

Armenian Rug, Steeped In Controversy, May Go On Display In White House

By Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — A rug woven by orphans of the Armenian genocide—and the subject of modern-day political controversy—may be put on display after years in White House storage.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-CA) said the White House has committed to exhibit the rug at a yet-to-be-determined event.

“They finally have made the commitment,” he said in an interview. “And we’re looking forward to its display.”

But Aram S. Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, said he will believe it when he sees the rug.

“The White House has been sending out false signals about a future showing ever since the controversy surrounding its cancellation of last December’s Smithsonian exhibit, so we remain, quite naturally, reserved in welcoming progress until we have actually seen this artwork allowed on public display,” he said.

A White House decision last year to cancel a Smithsonian display of the rug caused a furor, with Hamparian at the time accusing the administration of “catering to the Turkish government’s sensitivities about the Armenian genocide.” A number of lawmakers, including some from California with large Armenian American constituencies, also were upset.

An estimated 1.2 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks as the empire was dissolving during World War I, an episode historians have concluded was genocide. But Turkey has contended that Turks and Armenians were casualties of war, famine and disease.

The roughly 12-by-18-foot Armenian Orphan Rug was to be featured in an exhibit to call attention to a new book about the rug.

But the White House said the rug’s display “in connection with a private book launch event, as proposed, would have been an inappropriate use of U.S. government property, would have required the White House to undertake the risk of transporting the rug for limited public exposure and was not viewed as commensurate with the rug’s historical significance.”

Woven by orphans of the mass killings nearly a century ago, the rug was presented to President Calvin Coolidge in 1925 in appreciation for American aid.

It was brought out of storage in 1995 for viewing by one of its aging weavers, according to the Armenian National Committee of America, but it has not been on put on broader public display for decades.

At the White House, National Security Council spokeswoman Laura Lucas Magnuson said in an email Tuesday: “We’ve been working with Congressman Schiff on this issue for several months and appreciate his working with us to showcase this important artifact in a way that appropriately highlights the spirit in which it was given to the White House for U.S. involvement in assisting Armenian refugees.”

Schiff said he hopes to see the rug on public display as early as this fall.

Earlier this year, Schiff sought the rug for an “educational” event on Capitol Hill, but the congressman’s office said it never received a response from the White House, and the event ultimately was canceled because of a snowstorm.

Resolutions have been introduced in Congress over the years to recognize the mass killings between 1915 and 1918 as genocide. But the measures have run into resistance amid fears they would damage U.S. relations with Turkey, an important ally.

AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski

They Want More Women Set In Stone In U.S. Capitol

By Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Capitol, home to inspiring statues of Andrew Jackson, Sam Houston, Ronald Reagan.

And Lucille Ball?

A group seeking to increase the number of women represented in the Capitol’s collection of statues includes the red-headed comedian on a list of California women who should be considered for Washington’s version of a national hall of fame.

Since 1864, each state has been authorized to place statues of two of its distinguished deceased citizens in the Capitol. Some are well-known figures such as humorist Will Rogers, who represents Oklahoma. But many are obscure. Take Julius Sterling Morton (the founder of Arbor Day), who represents Nebraska.

In recent years, states have moved to bring in better-known figures. Iowa last month substituted a statue of Norman Borlaug, known as the father of the Green Revolution, for a likeness of James Harlan, a 19th-century senator and Interior secretary.

California was among the first states to swap statues, bringing in Reagan in 2009 in place of Thomas Starr King, who had stood in the Capitol since 1931 but often drew puzzled looks. King, whose statue now resides in Sacramento, was a Unitarian minister who helped keep California in the Union.

The group, Equal Visibility Everywhere, which aims to promote gender parity in the symbols and icons of the United States, has been working to increase the number of women represented in the Capitol’s collection, a popular tourist attraction.

Of the 100 statues in the National Statuary Hall Collection, nine are women — though Kansas plans to add a 10th, aviator Amelia Earhart.

Alabama in 2009 brought in Helen Keller, depicted as a 7-year-old holding her hand under a water pump in a scene made famous by the movie “The Miracle Worker.” (A statue of Rosa Parks was installed in the Capitol last year, but that is separate from the Statuary Hall collection.)

The group’s president, Lynette Long, has put together a list of possible women who could replace Father Junipero Serra, California’s other representative in the collection.

Her list includes famed Hollywood costume designer Edith Head, Pasadena-born chef Julia Child, naturalist Dian Fossey and Clara Shortridge Foltz, the first female lawyer in California, after whom the Los Angeles criminal courts building was named in 2002. Long also mentioned Shirley Temple Black, who died in February, as another possibility. And she welcomed suggestions from the public.

Replacement statues must be approved by a state’s legislature and governor, and the state must pay for the statue — usually by raising private funds.

Long, a psychologist who lives in Florida, began her campaign after taking a tour in the Capitol in 2010 and noticing so few women honored in the Statuary Hall collection, dispersed throughout the Capitol and its visitor center. Her efforts come as legislation to establish a commission to study the creation of a National Women’s History Museum in Washington has advanced in Congress.

Lucille Ball, who died in 1989, would be far more recognizable than a lot of other figures in the Capitol.

When she received Kennedy Center Honors in 1986, President Reagan joked that “on the occasion of little Ricky’s birth more people turned on ‘I Love Lucy’ than watched the inauguration of Dwight Eisenhower.”

And when President George H.W. Bush awarded her the Medal of Freedom posthumously in 1989, he said, “According to TV Guide, her face was seen by more people more often than the face of any human being who ever lived.”

If Ball ever does make it to Statuary Hall, the queen of TV would have some appropriate company. One of Utah’s statues honors inventor Philo T. Farnsworth, known as the “father of television.”

Crazy George via Flickr

Georgia Bill Would Go Far In Expanding Gun Rights

By Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times

Its official name is the Safe Carry Protection Act.

Critics call it the “guns everywhere bill.”

Legislation awaiting the governor’s signature in Georgia would allow guns in bars, churches, airports, and schools. It has drawn national attention because of its sweep.

The National Rifle Association called the bill’s passage a “historic victory for the 2nd Amendment.” Americans for Responsible Solutions, founded by Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who was wounded in a 2011 shooting, called it the most extreme gun bill in the nation.

The legislation comes as a number of states have responded to high-profile shootings by moving to ease gun rules.

Perhaps none has moved as far as Georgia, at least in a single bill.

The legislation would allow licensed gun owners to take weapons into houses of worship if the church allows it, into bars unless the owner objects, into airports up to screening areas, and into government buildings, except past security checkpoints.

It would permit schools to arm staff members and lower the age from 21 to 18 for active members of the military to obtain gun licenses. It would forbid the confiscation of firearms during an emergency, a response to authorities taking guns in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The measure also would offer defendants an “absolute defense” in court if a gun is used in the face of a violent attack.

“You’re not going to stop crime by disarming good people,” said Jerry Henry, executive director of GeorgiaCarry.org, a group that pushed for the bill’s passage.

The legislation has drawn national attention, Henry said, because gun control groups believe that “if they can beat us down here, they can stop other states” from expanding gun rights.

Gov. Nathan Deal hasn’t indicated his intentions on the bill. But many think the Republican governor, who has an A rating from the NRA and is up for re-election, will sign it. The legislation would go into effect July 1.

And the bill was supported by his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Jason Carter, former President Jimmy Carter’s grandson.

Law enforcement is bracing for a big change.

“We’re going to go to Hooters now expecting that everybody in there has a gun,” Police Chief David Lyons of Garden City said. “Our safety antenna is going to be up.”

Opponents say they shudder at the thought of armed citizens attending city council meetings, at which emotions can run high.

Francis J. Mulcahy, executive director of the Georgia Catholic Conference, expressed concern about the increased potential for gun violence when more guns are available throughout society. Don Plummer, a spokesman for the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, said that allowing guns in churches is “dangerous, and it’s bad theology.”

Georgia’s Episcopal bishops, Rob Wright and Scott Benhase, disputed the argument that if only the “bad guys” have guns, then the “good guys” cannot stop them.

“People who had no criminal record and had a legal right to their weapons have perpetrated almost all of the recent tragic shootings in houses of worship and schools,” the bishops said in a statement. “They were ‘good guys’ until they weren’t.”

But Mike Griffin, public affairs representative of the Georgia Baptist Convention, said in support of the legislation that it was a matter of letting churches set the rules for themselves.

“Georgia Baptists are not saying that they’re for or against weapons being in churches,” he said. “What they’re saying is churches should have the right to determine if they choose to have weapons.”

Gun rights groups point out that a number of the provisions of the Georgia legislation are already in effect in other states.

Chris W. Cox, executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, said the bill would make Georgia the 27th state to allow licensed gun owners to bring weapons into bars.

The legislation comes as a Gallup poll in January found an increase in support for easing gun rules, at 16 percent, up from five percent a year earlier in a survey conducted shortly after the Newtown, Conn., school shooting. Support for stricter gun laws dropped to 31 percent from 38 percent a year earlier.

Adam Winkler, a University of California, Los Angeles law professor who has written extensively about the politics surrounding guns, said the Georgia legislation “shows how strong the NRA is in some parts of the country. They’ve defeated so many gun laws that ending bans on guns in bars and churches is all that’s left.”

Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz noted that promoting gun rights is a way for conservatives to satisfy their base.

“In Georgia, we’ve got these big Republican majorities in the state House and Senate and a Republican governor,” Abramowitz said. “That puts pressure on the legislators and the governor to reward the base. … You don’t have the excuse that ‘We can’t get everything we want because the Democrats control the White House or the Senate’ like you have in Washington.”

From Governor Perry’s YouTube

 

GOP Blocks Democrats’ Bid To Declare Darrell Issa ‘Disrespectful’

By Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON—The House Republican majority shot down a Democratic effort Thursday to condemn Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House oversight committee, for the “disrespectful manner” in which he adjourned a hearing as the panel’s top Democrat was speaking.

Wednesday’s hearing heightened partisan tensions in the Capitol and revived a debate on whether Issa, the Obama administration’s chief antagonist in Congress, has been working to root out government wrongdoing or pushing a partisan agenda.

Democrats criticized Issa (R-CA) for turning off the microphone of Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-MD) during a hearing in which a former Internal Revenue Service official invoked her Fifth Amendment right not to testify about the agency’s alleged targeting of conservative groups.

Issa tried to question Lois Lerner anyway, without success. After Issa banged the gavel to adjourn the hearing, Cummings asked to speak.

“Mr. Chairman. Mr. Chairman, I have a statement. I have a procedural question, Mr. Chairman,” Cummings said. “Mr. Chairman, you cannot run a committee like this. … We’re better than that as a country. We’re better than that as a committee.”

Issa said Cummings could ask his question.

But after Cummings began to speak, Issa said: “We’re adjourned. Close it down,” and signaled the GOP staff, with his hand across his neck, to turn off the microphone.

On Thursday, Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-OH) introduced a resolution assailing Issa for his “abusive behavior,” accusing him of violating House rules that require members to “behave at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House.”

The Republican majority tabled the resolution on a party-line vote.

Fudge, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, also sent a letter to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH) calling on him to remove Issa as chairman of the oversight panel.

Boehner said Issa was “within his rights to adjourn the hearing when he did.”

“He’s done an effective job as chairman, and I support him,” Boehner said at his weekly news conference.

Issa spokesman Frederick Hill said Democrats’ criticism “only underscores their vehement opposition to getting to the bottom of wrongdoing at the IRS. Chairman Issa is committed to continuing the investigation.”

Every Democrat on the oversight committee has signed a letter calling on Issa to apologize. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said Cummings was seeking to “elicit information that Mr. Issa supposedly wanted, except it might not have been what he wanted to hear, so he shut it down. It wasn’t just about being rude. It’s about not hearing what you don’t want to hear.”

Issa began his investigation after an audit found that IRS staff in Cincinnati had inappropriately flagged conservative organizations, pulling aside applications with keywords such as “tea party” and policy objectives such as “educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights.” The organizations were seeking recognition as tax-exempt social welfare groups, which are permitted to do a limited amount of political activity, as long as it is not their primary purpose.

Democrats say progressive groups were flagged as well as tea party organizations. They say the investigation has turned up no evidence that any extra scrutiny was given to applications from conservative groups for tax-exempt status.

Issa told reporters Wednesday that the hearing was a continuation of an earlier meeting where lawmakers had already made opening statements.

After the hearing, Issa told Fox’s Greta van Susteren that Cummings “didn’t have a question. He was endlessly slandering the efforts of the committee.”

Issa has headed the House’s top investigative committee since his party took control of the House in 2010. He must give up the gavel at the end of this session because of GOP-imposed term limits on chairmen.

Photo: StanfordCIS via Flickr