Monday, May 28, 2012

Congress and Veterans (TESR)

This is a repost from Third Estate Sunday Review.

Congress and Veterans


Dona:  Last week the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing on  the Disability Evaluation System.  Senator Patty Murray is the Committe Chair, Senator Richard Burr is the Ranking Member.  C.I., Ava, Kat and Wally attended and C.I. reported on it in Wednesday's "Iraq snapshot" and again in Friday's "Iraq snapshot," while Ava offered  "How to keep the witness focused (Ava),"  Wally offered  "It's your money (Wally)" and Kat reported in "Senator Burr: I've had too many of these hearings."  We're going to discuss that hearing; however, the week before that, C.I. reported on the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Health's hearing in  "Iraq snapshot," "Iraq snapshot" and "Iraq snapshot" and we may work that in as well.   But the last time we roundtabled on veterans issues before Congressional committees in "Congress and Veterans," and Kat reported on the House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing we were addressing in her  "Congress Member Gone Wild" and C.I. reported on it with "Iraq snapshot," "Iraq snapshot," "Congress is supposed to provide oversight"  and "Iraq snapshot." Why might we be dropping back to the hearing?  Today The New York Times posted a column by Iraq War veteran and Afghanistan War veteran Mike Scotti wrote entitled "The V.A.'s Shameful Betrayal" and Scotti notes, "The V.A. says it tries to complete full mental health evaluations within 14 days of an initial screening. But a review by the department’s inspector general found that schedulers were entering misleading information into their computer system. They were recording the next available appointment date as the patient’s desired appointment date. As a result, a veteran who might have had to wait weeks for an appointment would appear in the computer system as having been seen 'without a wait.' That allowed the agency to claim that the two-week target was being reached in 95 percent of cases, when the real rate was 49 percent. The rest waited an average of 50 days. "  I'm going to toss that out to Ava.

Ava: I agree with him completely and I'll note that the House Veterans Affairs Committee that we roundtabled on here previously, that was where Congress woman Corrine Brown was minimizing what Scotti's complaining about.  He's right to complain.  But don't just blame the VA.  Blame people like Corrine Brown who see their role as to be the excuse offerer for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.  That's the hearing where Brown attacked a doctor, verbally attacked the woman.  Insulted her profession, insulted her.  And she had to jump into the middle of Chair Jeff Miller's questions, cut the woman off in the midst of speaking to act like a rabid dog that someone on the Committee should have taken down.

Dona: I figured that would be the response.  And, again, Mike Scotti is right to be outraged.  But part of the problem is the fact that some members of Congress -- some members serving on Veterans Affairs Committee -- are less interested in helping veterans and more interested in offering excuses for the administration.  Senator Burr wasn't in the mood for excuses last Wednesday, was he, Kat?

Kat: No.  As he noted, he's been at too many of these hearings where the VA gives itself high praise and admits to a few problems but swears that next year everything will be fixed and yet they fail, the following year, to meet the target goal they gave themselves and this happens over and over.

Dona: And, Wally, you had a point on that?

Wally: Right.  For five years now, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee has been holding hearing on the Disability Evaluation System.  And there's been no improvement despite all the promises from the VA.  So think about how much time the Senate's had to put into this, time that's wasted.  The Veterans Affairs Committee could have been focusing on other needs.  Then think about all the money wasted as the Senate has researched this issue, tracked this issue, prepared for hearings on this issue.  That's really too bad.

Dona: One of the problems that all of you repeatedly note when you show up for these roundtables on what you saw at the hearings is that government witnesses repeatedly try to run out the clock.  Now Wednesday, one Senator refused to let that happen.  Ava, tell us about that.

Ava: Senator Jon Tester from Montana didn't allow the witnesses to run out the clock.  Not only did he ask specific questions, he let them know when they'd answered the question.  When the question was answered, they were cut off.  I'm not sure if people realize there is a time limit for each Senator.  You have more time on the Senate than on the House Committees.  And with the exception of Senator Kent Conrad, I've never seen a Senator cut anyone off since 2008 --

Dona: Who did Conrad cut off?

Ava: C.I. reported on this.  It was an Appropriations Committee hearing.  Senator Bernie Sanders was in the middle of questioning and asked for a minute more and Conrad rudely told him there wasn't time.  I also remember him being rude to Senator Kelly Ayotte in that hearing.

Dona: Correct, C.I.?

C.I.: Senate Budget Committee. He was rude to Bernie Sanders and to Kelly Ayotte.  It was Feburary 28th.

Dona:  Thank you.  So, Ava,  there's a limited amount of time each Senator gets for questioning the witnesses.

Ava: Correct.  And Tester controlled his very well.  I really think that's an issue Congress needs to address.  The government witnesses don't even pretend to be answering the questions in some cases.  Say a senator asks a question.  It's no longer uncommon for a government official to respond, "That's a good question and I'll be happy to address it but first --" And then they'll go on for five to six minutes.  And every witness is allowed to make an opening statement before questioning begins.  So there's no excuse for this.  When you're asked a question, answer.

Dona: How would you have the Congress address this?

Ava: I think there needs to be agreement that when a question isn't being answered, the witness is cut off and re-directed.  If he or she again starts trying to avoid the question, you point that out and you publicly explain what it means to be in contempt of Congress.  Then you ask the question again.  If they did that for a solid month, I think VA officials and officials from other departments would realize that this can happen at any time and would make real efforts to answer the question.  I could be wrong.  But that's my suggestion.

Dona:   Okay, C.I., explain me to me -- in easy to understand language -- what the Disability Evaluation System is about.

C.I.: Okay, you're a service member and you are wounded.  You're now evaluated by DoD.  If you can continue to serve, you're a service member.  If you're not able to then you become a veteran.  That transition from DoD to VA should take about as long as I just did to explain it.  But it was taking much too long, a year in many cases.  More than a year in some cases.  And if you're a wounded veteran, you've been injured in service to the country so your disability check shouldn't be taking forever and a day.  DoD and VA are now supposed to be working jointly on this issue, that's the DES program.  It's been around for nearly five years now and it's yet to meet the goals it gave itself in a Senate hearing.

Dona: Right.  Reading over Kat's report, I see that Senator Burr said, "In May 2011, the Secretary of the Defense and the Secretary of Veterans Affairs committed to revising the IDES so that it could be completed in 150 days and went further and agreed to explore options for it to be 75 days."  Yet in May 2012, it's approximately 394 days.  So clearly those target dates weren't met.  C.I., what would you say about that.

C.I.: I think you said it.  The one thing I would note is that those goals came from VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.  Leon Panetta is currently Secretary of the Defense Dept. but he was not Secretary in May 2011.   I know and like Leon, I'm not trying to offer him excuses.  I hope he will be judged at the end of his term by what he accomplished.  I don't believe Robert Gates was.

Dona: I'm going to go off topic because I think Gates did a lousy job.  You were at the Pentagon press conference with a friend, Gates' last press conference.  Talk about that.

 C.I.: It was disgusting.  And it was off the record. I couldn't believe that.  At first, I thought the spokesperson was joking but the press turned off their recorders and stopped taking notes and the bulk of them were like giddy school children as they stood in line to have their photo taken with Robert Gates -- and gush to him during their photo.  If you thought the nonsense and never-ending Gates departure coverage was fawning, there was your reason, they were in love with him.  It was disgusting.

Dona: I agree with that.  On Panetta, when he leaves what should he be graded on?

C.I.:  Gates wasn't graded on anything.  That wasn't fair.  When Panetta leaves, he needs to be graded on what issues he raised publicly, on rates such as suicide and assault and whether they went down or not, that sort of thing.  And if The Common Ills is still around then, I will grade him on those things.  I won't fawn over him.  And unlike the press with Gates, I personally know Leon and have for many years and he is an honest and good person.  But my role at The Common Ills is not to evaluate Leon Panetta the person, it's to evaluate what he did or did not do as Secretary of Defense.

Dona: Thank you.  And that's going to have to be it.  This is a rush transcript.  We're going to close with an exchange from the hearing.  There's been a problem at Madigan with service members with PTSD being re-diagnosed and suddenly they don't have PTSD.  But they do.  So why were they re-diagnosed.  This is an ongoing problem and Senator Murray's been a leader on it so we're closing with this exchange.

Chair Patty Murray:  Okay.  Dr. Rooney, there is no doubt that the events at Madigan have shaken the trust and confidence of service members who are in the Disability Evaluation System. I believe that transparency and sharing information about the ongoing re-evaluations that are happening today and actions the Army and DoD are taking to remedy this situation will go along ways towards restoring some trust in this system. I wanted to ask you today what we have learned from the investigations that the army is conducting into the forensic science unit at Madigan?

Dr. Jo Ann Rooney:  Well as you pointed out earlier, there have been 196 re-evaluations completed to date.  Of which, 108 of those have been diagnosed as having PTSD where before they had not.  We also --

Chair Patty Murray: Let me just say that they had been diagnosed with PTSD.  When they went through the evaluation system they were told they did not.  Now going back and re-evaluating them once they've gone out, we're saying, "Yes, you did --

Dr. Jo Ann Rooney: Yes. 

Chair Patty Murray:  --  indeed have PTSD."

Dr. Jo Ann Rooney:  Correct.  108 of those 196.

Chair Patty Murray: More than half.

Dr. Jo Ann Rooney:  Correct. There are 419 that have been determined to be eligible for re-evaluation.  287 from the original  group that was looked at and as you know the Army actually opened the aperture up to see anybody else who would have gone through the process while forensic psychiatrists were being used.  So that was 419 totally eligible for re-evaluation. And at this point, there are three in progress and twelve being scheduled.  So what we have learned from that is clearly that the process that was put into place at that time did not function as originally designed.  Evidence did not show that there was a mean spirited attempt but really to create similar diagnoses.  Obviously, that was not something that occurred.  So the Army has taken the lessons from here and it's actually going back to 2001 to re-evaluate all of the cases where we might have a similar situation.  What we're doing from that point is not only learning from what Army is doing and looking at these re-evaluations where we're using the new standards in many ways advances in the medical and behavioral health areas to better diagnose PTSD but also then we'll be taking those lessons learned across the other services as well. So since Army has the greatest majority of people going through -- currently about 68% of the people in the Disability Evaluation Process are from Army -- we will take the lessons learned from there and apply those across to all the services.