Thursday, October 20, 2011. Chaos and violence continue, Turkey continues to attack northern Iraq, US veterans get some good news, and we drop back to last week to examine a hearing that was nothing but bad news for veterans and for tax payers.
We'll start with the good news for US veterans. Senator Patty Murray is the Chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee. Her office notes:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Murray Press Office Thursday, October 20, 2011 (202) 224-2834
Chairman Murray Passes Veterans Cost-of-Living Increase to Allow Veterans to Share in Critical Benefit Boost for the First Time in Two Years Murray's bill, which passed the Senate yesterday, would result in more money in the pockets of millions of veterans across the country
(Washington, D.C.) -- Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray, Chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, announced that a bill that she sponsored to provide a Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA) for America's veterans has passed the U.S. Senate. The COLA for veterans will match the 3.6 percent annual increase provided to Social Security recipients, which on Wednesday was announced will happen this year for the first time since 2009. The Veterans COLA would affect several important benefits, including veterans' disability compensation and dependency and indemnity compensation for surviving spouses and children. It is projected that over 3.9 million veterans and survivors will receive compensation benefits in Fiscal Year 2012.
"A cost-of-living increase for our veterans is long overdue and well deserved," said Senator Murray. "Particularly in this difficult economy, our veterans deserve a boost in their benefits to help make ends meet. This is an important step for our veterans, especially on the heels of news that a COLA will be provided for the first time since 2009."
The COLA is designed to offset inflation and other factors that lead to the rising cost of living over time. The COLA rate is based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index.
That's good news. Now we're enterting the bad news for veterans and tax payers stage.
Reportedly coming off tired and bored yesterday, US President Barack Obama wrapped up his three day bus tour at the Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia. Jennifer Epstein (POLITICO) reports he declaed, "Standing up for our veterans is not a Democratic responsibility or a Republican responsibility. It is an American responsibility." Would that the panderer in chief believed in standing up for veterans. Forget new things Barack wants to create, how about just doing what was promised? The VA has been a joke under Barack Obama and it continues to be. It's the sick joke that left veterans scrambling to pay for college and board when the VA program wasn't up and running -- as VA Secretary Eric Shinseki admitted, in an October 14, 2009 House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing, he knew there would be problems as far back as January 2009 when it came to the tuition payments.
Erick Shinseki: A plan was written, very quickly put together, uh, very short timelines, I'm looking at the certifcates of elegibility uh being processed on 1 May and enrollments 6 July, checks having to flow through August. A very compressed timeframe. And in order to do that, we essentially began as I arrived in January, uh, putting together the plan -- reviewing the plan that was there and trying to validate it. I'll be frank, when I arrived, uh, there were a number of people telling me this was simply not executable. It wasn't going to happen. Three August was going to be here before we could have everything in place. Uh, to the credit of the folks in uh VA, I, uh, I consulted an outside consulatant, brought in an independent view, same kind of assessment. 'Unless you do some big things here, this is not possible.' To the credit of the folks, the good folks in VBA, they took it on and they went at it hard. We hired 530 people to do this and had to train them. We had a manual system that was computer assisted. Not very helpful but that's what they inherited. And we realized in about May that the 530 were probably a little short so we went and hired 230 more people. So in excess of 700 people were trained to use the tools that were coming together even as certificates were being executed. Uhm, we were short on the assumption of how many people it would take. We based our numbers on the Montgomery GI Bill which is about a 15 minute procedure. The uh chapter thirty-three procedures about an hour on average, maybe an hour and 15 minutes. So right off the bat, we had some issues with assumptions. Uh, we are still receiving certificates of enrollment. This week alone, we received 36,000 certificates of enrollment coming from schools who are working through the process and we put them into the execute of providing those checks -- three checks.
He may have realized "in about May that the 530 were probably a little short" but "so we went and hired 250 more people" is incorrect in the way he presented. If you realize "in about May" that you need 250 more people, then you hire them and do so quickly because they need to be trained -- they especially need to be trained and on the job by August 3, 2009 when the US Treasury Department would be releasing the first payments. But as we learned in the June 25, 2009 House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity hearing from VA's Keith Wilson, the 230 would be "on board by August 31, 2009." If you knew there was a problem "in about May" and 230 more employees were needed (in fact, many more than that would be needed) and you gave orders to fill those positions and train the people, you should have it all done by August 3rd when Treasury began sending out checks.
That did not happen.
The Subcomittee hearing? That day US House Rep Harry Teague filled in for Subcommittee Chair Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. Both of them as well as Ranking Member John Boozman repeatedly asked the VA, in one hearing after another, if the program would be ready and that they be kept informed of any potential problems. In that hearing, for example, Teague noted at the start, "It is important that we continue to provide the VA the opportunities to update the Subcommittee on their implementation effort for the short-term and long-term solutions. This hearing will also give the VA the opportunity to ask for Congressional assistiance if it is required." The VA did a sorry job, to put it mildly, and they also didn't keep Congress informed. Congress learned of the problems, after the program started, from the media. Heads should have roled over that including the head of the VA, Shinseki.
Panderer-in-Chief Barack needs to start firing some people immediately. How is Shinseki still over the VA after the scandal at the Miami VA Medical Center in 2009? Or the continued problems at the Miami VA Medical Center? As was noted at the start of a hearing last week, the Miami facility was in "the spotlight" two years ago when "endoscopes were not reprocessed correctly, placing over two thousand veterans at risk of exposure to disease." The instruments were used and reused and not steralized from one patient to another. In other words, a needle exchange for intravaneous drug users treated people better and more safely than the Miami VA Medical Center did. Back in July, Fred Tasker (Miami Herald) reported that 5 veterans using the Miami, the Murfreesboro or the Augusta facilities had "tested positive for HIV, 25 for hepatitis C and eight for hepatitis B."
That was the public safety scandal two years ago. You might think they'd get their house in order. But when you don't have a functioning head of the VA and you don't have a president who holds Cabinet heads accountable, you get one problem after another.
Last Wednesday, October 12th, the House Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing on the facility and its myriad of problems. The hearing was scheduled to begin at 10:00 a.m. If it started on time, I missed the first 90 minutes (I was at the Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations hearing). Any reference to opening remarks in the hearing will be the prepared remarks. I walked in as a tooth-pulling exchange between the Chair and the director of the facility was taking place. One that was apparently characteristic of the hearing as evidenced by US House Rep Bill Johnson's comment immediately following the exchange that "Are -- I'm just curious are you -- are you astutely hearing the responses to the questions that this Committee is asking and some of the answers we're getting?"
For those wondering here's part of the exchange immediately before Johnson spoke. Committee Chair Jeff Miller is speaking to Mary Berrocal who is the director of the Miami facility.
Chair Jeff Miller: So would you know if a veteran had come to your facility with a particular disease return home and then expire the next day? Would you have anyway of knowing that?
Mary Berrocal: Usually what happens is we -- Any deaths, we do review and there is -- Where indicated we do peer reviews, where the death is not expected, peer reviews are done and we --
Chair Jeff Miller: So there is a way that you would know if a veteran presented 24 hours prior to their death at your facility but was sent home? You would have a way of tracking that?
Mary Berrocal: Every -- every morning, we get a report on, uh, on anything that is unusual that might have happened, uhm, on the evening before or the day before. We get a report every single morning. I meet with my leadership. Uh, the staff in the ER presents their information following that, you know, we stay with the leadership and discuss anything we might need to follow up on.
Chair Jeff Miller: Is it unusual that a veteran would come to your facility, be dischaged -- not just discharged, but just be sent home, not admitted, and would pass away the next day? Would you consider that unusual? And if you do consider that unusual, is that something that you would report then to the VISN that this has occurred?
Mary Berrocal: Uh, we would normally report deaths, uh, unexpected deaths to the network, yes.
Chair Jeff Miller: So this particular, if an incident like this did occur, it would have been reported to the VISN?
Mary Berrocal: It would be my expectation that it would be reported. If it's an unexpected death, there are reports that, uh, that go forward.
Chair Jeff Miller: Regardless --
Mary Berrocal: Now we don't independently, like in an issue, report every single death if it's an expected death.
Chair Jeff Miller: Regardless of what the peer review may have found, you would still report it?
Mary Berrocal: Uh, the peer review's focus, uh, specifically on the provider to determine whether it was a, uh, uhm, something that didn't go the way it should go in that direction.
Chair Jeff Miller: If a --
Mary Berrocal: So yes.
Chair Jeff Miller: If a vet -- Okay, let's go inside the facility. Now we have somebody who has been admitted to the facility and is having surgery. If there is a death on the operating table, what would prevent that death from being reported to VISN?
Mary Berrocal: Uh, those, uh, would be reported to the network.
Chair Jeff Miller: All deaths on an operating table are reported --
Mary Berrocal: Are reported, should be reported. There's a system that we put through to report unexpected deaths.
Chair Jeff Miller: All deaths on the operating table are reported to the VISN?
Mary Berrocal: Yes, sir.
Chair Jeff Miller: All deaths?
Mary Berrocal: Unexpected deaths are reported.
Chair Jeff Miller: There's a difference now: Unexpected deaths or deaths? If a patient dies on the operating table, is that reported regardless? Is that reported to the VISN? And if not, why not?
Mary Berrocal: It would be my expectation that it would be reported.
Chair Jeff Miller: Is there a root cause analysis on every death on the operating table?
Mary Berrocal: There, uh, there would be, uh, a root cause analysis, again, if it's an unexpected death, there would be a root cause analysis --
Chair Jeff Miller: What would be an expected death on an operating table?
Mary Berrocal: [Sighs.]
Chair Jeff Miller: I would expect if I went in for surgery, you wouldn't expect me to die. You'd expect me to recover. Now what is an expected or an unexpected death? What is that?
Mary Berrocal: Again, it's, you know, I'm not a clinician.
Chair Jeff Miller: You're the director of the medical center.
Mary Berrocal: Correct.
Chair Jeff Miller: For now.
Mary Berrocal: Not a clinician. I, uh -- I, uh, I am not a clinician, uh, but, uhm, I, uhm, I would expect that -- I-I would -- Any unexpected death would be something where, you know, if they, uhm, found something that they were not expecting to find. Uh, I, uh-uh, you know, I believe that, uh, any death would --
Chair Jeff Miller: Who makes the determination as to whether it's expected or unexpected?
Mary Berrocal: [Long pause while she shakes her head repeatedly] There are systems in place to, uhm, to report, and we -- [a man hands her a note] and we've had, we've had a variety of -- of, uhm, of groups come and look and determine that we have done things appropriately. [Reading from card passed to her] All deaths are reported and they are investigated but not necesserarily through, uh, the RCA process. We do investigate, again, we do peer reviews to determine --
Chair Jeff Miller: Is a peer review punative?
Mary Berrocal: Uh, it could lead to be. But, uh, not necessarily a peer review. There's a group of peers that review to see whether or not the care that was provided was adequate care.
Chair Jeff Miller: So if everybody just decides that the care was adequate and that it was an expected death, you may not even report that to the VISN, right?
Mary Berrocal: Then there's a committee that, uh, reviews after, there's a, uh, peer review, it goes to a committee and then a deterimination is made. There is -- There are rankings or scores that are provided determining whether or not it's a --
Chair Jeff Miller: Who makes the final determination as to whether or not it is sent to VISN?
Mary Berrocal: They are sent to the VISN. The deaths are reported to the VISN.
Chair Jeff Miller: All deaths? All of them? Is there ever a death that's not reported to the VISN.
Mary Berrocal: Uhm, uh, we have, for example, deaths in the hospice, these would be expected, you know.
Chair Jeff Miller: I'm talking about on the operating table.
Mary Berrocal: I would expect --
Chair Jeff Miller: I'll let you think on that. Mr. Johnson?
There are a number of developments that are questionable and speak to a lack of oversight from the VA. But let's note the scandal from two years ago. When you give someone AIDS because you are not cleaning your equipment, the head of the facility needs to go down with everyone else. That's Mary Berrocal. Hepatitis is nothing nice to have either but what took place under Berrocal's watch, grasp this, is going to result in big money pay outs (there's already one lawsuit seeking approximately 30 million dollars). And most jurors would vote (I certainly would) to award the victim the maximum amount of money. Grasp that Mary Berrocal is paying a penny in any settlements or law suits or anything. The screw ups at her facility cost the US tax payer.
People have diseases they caught from Berrocal's facility because Berrocal didn't know how to supervise a facility. She shouldn't be running it. And grasp that she was removed from her position. Temporarily. Fred Tasker (Miami Herald) was reporting a year ago, "Mary Berrocal, director of the Miami Veterans Administration Healthcare System who was temporarily reassigned in July during a scandal in which thousands of South Florida veterans were given colonoscopies with improperly cleaned equipment, was back on the job Friday. It happened quietly. The announcement was made internally, without public notice. VA officials at the local, regional and national levels failed to return phone calls and e-mails seeking comment." They brought her back. And brought her back to leadership. After people were infected with diseases under her watch, she was put back in charge.
Where is the leadership at the VA? And maybe Barack needs to get off his candy ass and demand Shinseki's resignation. Maybe then, the VA will realize that these actions are not acceptable, do not show leadership and are not what the veteran expects from a medical center or what the US tax payer considers work worth paying for.
US House Rep Johnson noted a Fred Tasker Miami Herald article from last month: "Miami Veterans Administration hospital director Mary Berrocal and her former chief of staff, Dr. John Vara, should be disciplined for 'lack of oversight' that led to long delays in notifying 79 local veterans that they might have been infected with HIV or hepatitis through improperly performed colonoscopies at the hospital, a VA board has concluded." Johnson noted this information while questioning William Schoenhard (Deputy Under Secretary for Health for Operations and Management, Veterans Health Administration, VA). Johnson pointed out that the information in the article was only obtained via a Freedom of Information request and . . .
US House Rep Bill Johnson: In documents submitted to us just last night, by the VA, only a draft unsigned and undated recommendation for action war provided and then 30 minutes before today's hearing a notice of admonishment was provided that was dated December of 2010 with no specific day. Can you clarify and explain this discrephancy and how that fits into your 'we're going to hold leadership accountable'? Yeah.
William Schoenhard: Yes, sir. The AIB recommended administrative action. The one that I conveyned, the national AIB, after the second disclosure of the veteran who had not been contacted and found that there was reason to take administrative action against the medical director and the chief of staff. The way that works in VA then is that I shared that report with Mr. Weaver and he took the administrative action. He may want to speak to the process we use in VA and in government to
US House Rep Bill Johnson: What administrative action was taken?
William Schoenhard: An admonishment was issued against both these individuals.
US House Rep Bill Johnson: A-a veteran escapes the facility and dies --
William Schoenhard: No, sir. This was taken predating this incident.
US House Rep Bill Johnson: Okay. So this admonishment that came through the Miami Herald incident from a previous AIB, correct? Have I got this right?
William Schoenhard: That's correct, sir.
US House Rep Bill Johnson: Then the patient that escaped the center and subsequently committed suicide happened after that, correct?
William Schoenhard: That's correct, sir.
US House Rep Bill Johnson: Right. So, do you think the admonishment worked?
William Schoenhard: I think --
US House Rep Bill Johnson: Next question. Can you provide to this Committee, Mr. Schoenhard or Mr. Weaver, a record of disciplinary actions from the Miami VAMC over the last 24 months? I would specifically like to see -- and with the Chairman's approval -- I would like to see the incident -- you don't have to give us names for privacy -- I would like to see the incident and the action and what level of leadership and management that action was taken against. Miss Berrocal, last week, one of your employees was arrested for selling names of veterans. In the past six years, it's estimated that more than 3,000 veterans' information has been sold. Have you alerted any veterans that their information may have been compromised and if so how have you done that?
Mary Berrocal: Actually, this was an investigation that was done by the IG and it was a covert operation. I learned about it at the time shortly before they were going to be arresting the individual and at the time what we knew was there was more than one, there was information on 18 individuals that was compromised and then, uh, uh, on --
US House Rep Bill Johnson: Have those veterans been notified?
Mary Berrocal: The, uh, the, uh, --
US House Rep Bill Johnson: Yes or no, have those veterans been notified? You talked earlier about a process for making sure that veterans are notified. I've heard that from various pieces of testimony this morning --
Mary Berrocal: We-we are in the process now of finding
US House Rep Bill Johnson: So they have not been notified? When was the guy arrested?
Mary Berrocal: Uh, this just happened in the last --
US House Rep Bill Johnson: And you didn't know anything about the investigation prior to his arrest?
Mary Berrrocal: I knew that they were doing an investigation and that they had some concerns The individual --
US House Rep Bill Johnson: So prudent leadership would be poised and ready to act if the investigation proved out, right? That you would immediately begin to notify those veterans whose information had been compromised. And you're saying that as of today, there have still been no veterans notified? You're only in the process of? 18 veterans. How long does that take? I can make 18 phone calls in 30 minutes.
Mary Berrocal: We have, uh, worked with our privacy officer to make sure that the, uh, information is done and, uhm, that we communicate to those veterans as we need to.
US House Rep Bill Johnson: Okay and have they been communicated with?
Mary Berrocal: I believe so. I --
US House Rep Bill Johnson: You believe so?
Mary Berrocal: Yes, sir.
US House Rep Bill Johnson: But you're not certain?
Mary Berrocal: The 18 have been communicated. The individual in the case --
US House Rep Bill Johnson: A few minutes ago, you told me you were in the process of notifying them. Now you're saying that they have been notified?
Mary Berrocal: We have communicated with the -- with the privacy officer whose --
US House Rep Bill Johnson: No, no, no. I'm not asking if you communicated with the privacy officer. Have the veterans whose information has been compromised been notified that there information has been compromised and sold by an employee under your direction?
Mary Berrocal: I will have to get that information for you.
US House Rep Bill Johnson: Okay. So now you don't know. First it was you've got a process. Then 'they have been notified.' And now you don't know. Mr. Schoenhard, if I'm the wing commander, I'm paying real close attention to these answers. Mr. Chairman, I yield back.
Chair Jeff Miller: I can answer the question for you. According to AIG last night, they have not been contacted.
Miller would go on to ask Berrocal about her decision to cancel the golf carts that took veterans to the facilities from the parking lot while at the same time she okayed renovations for her offices at a cost of two-and-a-half million dollars. She denied that was the case repeatedly. We'll make this the last excerpt but there's so much more (including US House Rep Phil Roe's questions -- Roe is also a doctor, he had spot on questions about Berrocal's behaviors and supervision).
Chair Jeff Miller: Did you suspend golf cart service for the veterans in the parking lot?
Mary Berrocal: Uh, we did, uh, in the parking lot, we did suspend the, uh, that, uh, service. We, uhm, what we did, uh, was when --
Chair Jeff Miller: That's all. I just wanted to know if you did. You did. Now how did you deterimine that the current office renovations of approximately a million dollars to your executive suite wasn't sufficient and that two-and-a-half million dollars was more important than golf cart escorts for the veterans trying to come into your facility?
Mary Berrocal: S-s-sir, I would have to get back to you on that, uh --
Chair Jeff Miller: Well what's more important? Your office or golf carts for the veterans to get to the hospital?
Mary Berrocal: I would always put the veteran first, sir.
Chair Jeff Miller: But you cancelled the golf cart.
Mary Berrocal: Uh, the golf cart, uh, issue was, uh, cancelled during this year. I-I would have to look at the information that, uh, that, uh, you are giving me about the, uh, renovations. But --
Chair Jeff Miller: Have you renovated your offices?
Mary Berrocal: My office is not renovated.
Chair Jeff Miller: Are you going to be renovating your offices?
Mary Berrocal: The-the -- What we've done with the office is we've painted the -- painted -- I would have to look at the information that you -- that you have on hand.
Chair Jeff Miller: Are you going to be renovating your offices?
Mary Berrocal: No, sir.
Chair Jeff Miller: Okay. So if I produced a contract, executed, that said you were, would you change your answer?
Mary Berrocal: I really would need to see what, uh, I really would need to see what --
Chair Jeff Miller: We'll produce it for you. We'll show it to you. You are. You've contracted for that to be done. I just think it's egregious that you would stop golf carts from escorting veterans to the front door but you would sign a contract -- or somebody would sign a contract -- to expand the executive offices. Doesn't that sound odd?
Mary Berrocal: Yes, sir.
There is no excuse for this nonsense. It reflect poorly on the VA, it reflects poorly on the White House. But has Barack done a thing? No. It's a failure of leadership and the failure goes to the top of the VA all the way to the White House. And Mary Berrocal's excuse for the additional $24,000 spent (tax payer money) on replacing locks because she's "currently raising a 9-year-old grandson" has to be one of the great howlers of Congressional testimony.
Yesterday, Turkey entered Iraq with the intent of assaulting PKK or suspected PKK. Patrick J. McDonnell (Los Angeles Times) reports "The Turkish offensive across the Iraqi border included helicopter gunships, ground commandos and fighter jets, authorities said." Kelly McEvers (NPR's All Things Considered, link has text and audio) notes, "The conflict that began in 1984 has left tens of thousands dead. The Turkish government and Kurdish separatists have been going back and forth between attempts at reconciliation and violence in the past few years. The most recent spate of attacks escalated over the summer. One roadside bomb this week killed policemen, civilians and a four-year-old girl." Today's Zaman notes, "Nechirvan Barzani, the number two of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and a former prime minister of the Kurdish regional administration in northern Iraq, arrived in Ankara on Thursday to express solidarity and cooperation with Turkey in its fight against the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)." Aswat al-Iraq reports:
The Kurdish Analyst, Ribin Rassoul, had stated to Aswat al-Iraq news agency that "the Iraqi government won't have a firm response towards the Turkish invasion." "The reason for such position is that the Iraqi government had failed to interact with the Turkish dossier and its position towards the PKK and the loss of trust among Iraqi political forces and weakness of the government to take a military attitude to protect the Iraqi soil," he stressed. On the other hand, Rassoul said that the "Central government and the Kurdistan Region's government have failed to expel the PKK forces, even if they wanted to do that." "The Iranians had reached a decision to settle their problem with the Kurds and reached an agreement with the anti-Tehran PJAK party, adding that the problem of PKK is a Turkish problem and not an Iraqi problem, that must settled by Turkey," he said.
Hurriyet reports that "10,000 elite Turkish soldiers" have entered Iraq "backed by fighter jets, helicopters, gunships and suveillance aircraft." Justin Vela (Independent) adds, "It was Turkey's largest such offensive since February 2008, when thousands of ground forces staged a weeklong offensive into Iraq on snow-covered mountains."
Al Sabaah reports MP Mahmoud Othman (Head of the Kurdistan Alliance) states that the solution to the issue is not in Baghdad or Erbil but in Ankara (Turkish capitol) and he also states that the US has been providing negative encouragement to Turkey which I will say (he's not saying this) is basically egging them on when they should be providing a calm voice and addressing the issues. Otherwise, we'll be reading about Turkey and the PKK for decades. The issue is the disenfranchisement of Kurds within Turkey. Until that's addressed, nothing's going to change.Al Mada notes the Turkish military's months of bombing the villages in northern Iraq's mountains and the fact that the people there denied the PKK were present but the bombings continued and women and children were harmed, farms went up in flames and people were displaced as a result. (The PKK has base camps in the mountains -- not villages, the Turkish military should have known -- even without the US intelligence provided -- what was a village and what was a base camp. The Times of London reported on these camps, with photographs -- and visited them -- repeatedly.)
Turning to the topic of the US military remaining in Iraq beyond 2011, Aswat al-Iraq reports Moqtada al-Sadr is stating that they should not remain even as trainers. Yes, this is a reversal from his reported remarks yesterday. Dar Addustour notes that US Vice President Joe Biden is supposed to be visiting Iraq shortly for discussions regarding US troops. Iraqi government spokesperson Naseer al-Ani is cited stating that the request for trainers will not come with any immunity and that is the only offer in play. al-Ani denies rumors of a secret pact. Dar Addustour also notes that US Ambassador to Iraq held discussions in Kirkuk on post-2011 issues.
In reported violence, Aswat al-Iraq notes, "A US Army patrol has come under an explosive charge blast west of Kut, the center of southern Iraq Province of Wassit on Wednesday night, but losses were not known, a Wassit Police source reported on Thursday."
We'll close with this from the office of US Senator Jon Tester:
Senator requests information and better accountability to protect U.S. taxpayers
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
(U.S. SENATE) -- Senator Jon Tester is raising a red flag about costly and unsustainable reconstruction projects in Iraq and Afghanistan and demanding more scrutiny over taxpayer-funded contracting projects in war zones.
The Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan recently found that waste, fraud and abuse cost taxpayers one-third of the $206 billion spent on contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Tester today requested more examination, information and "appropriate action" on efforts to protect taxpayer dollars and to better address the sustainability of reconstruction projects.
"It is clear that U.S. officials are not closely scrutinizing projects for sustainability," Tester wrote. "Not only are these projects wasteful, but they complicate our military and diplomatic efforts and undermine our ability to build trust and goodwill with locals on the ground."
Tester pointed to several examples of potentially wasted spending -- and how those funds could make a difference in Montana.
For instance, the United States spent $35 billion to train the Afghan Security Forces. Yet "the VA continues to lack the resources to reach all of our veterans."
Tester also noted that American taxpayers paid $277 million for a water-treatment plant that remains unused in Iraq while two vital water infrastructure projects in Montana sit unfinished due to a lack of funding.
"For constituents struggling to make ends meet, this is a bitter pill to swallow," Tester wrote. "I request that you examine both completed and current projects for risk of sustainment failure and take appropriate action on those projects with no credible prospect of being sustained. It is long past time that we bring real change to the way our government does business with contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan."
Tester cosponsored legislation to establish the Wartime Contracting Commission in 2007. At a recent hearing on the Commission's findings, he pushed for serious changes in how the United States uses wartime contractors like Xe, formerly known as Blackwater.
Tester also recently called for the removal of U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, noting that the war's price tag is approaching $1 trillion.
Tester's letter to Clinton and Panetta appears online HERE.