Tuesday, May 22, 2012. Chaos and violence continue, rumors abound that relatives of Nouri al-Maliki savagely attacked the nephew of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Senate Subcommittee says no more money for training Iraqi police, there are said to be over 160 MPs willing to vote no-confidence in Nouri, in response Nouri targets Iraqiya, and more.
We'll start with US Senate and then move to violence in Iraq. In the US, Senator Patty Murray is the Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committe. Her office notes:
TOMORROW: Chairman Murray to Examine 400 Day Wait Times Plaguing VA and DoD's New Joint Disability Ratings System
Initial findings on wait times and inconsistencies in diagnoses from GAO audit and Veterans' Affairs Committee staff report to be unveiled at hearing, Murray to question top DoD and VA officials on continued problems
(Washington, D.C.) -- On Wednesday, May 23rd, U.S. Senator Patty Murray will hold a hearing to examine the continued rise in wait times for our servicemembers to receive their medical disability rating and compensation decisions. The hearing will examine challenges facing the Integrated Disability Evaluation System (IDES) established by the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs, which was developed to improve the disability evaluation process for wounded, ill or injured servicemembers.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that, far from meeting established goals for wait times, servicemembers and their families are having to wait well over a year for answers. Many servicemembers have described the waiting period as extremely stressful and the hearing will touch on that period's uncertainty, which can contribute to self-medication, drug abuse, and even suicide. The hearing will also allow Murray to question the Department of Defense on the Army's upcoming system-wide look at discrepancies in mental health diagnoses that arose from an investigation Senator Murray spurred at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.
WHO: U.S. Senator Patty Murray, Chairman, Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee
Jon Ann Rooney, Acting Under Secretary of Defense, Personnel and Readiness,
Department of Defense
John Gingrich, Chief of Staff, Department of Veterans Affairs
Daniel Bertoni, Director of Education, Workforce, and Income Security Issues,
Government Accountability Office
WHAT: Hearing to Discuss Medical Benefit Wait Times and Inconsistencies in Mental
WHEN: TOMORROW: Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012
10:00 AM ET
WHERE: Dirksen Senate Office Building
U.S. Senator Patty Murray
202-224-2834 - press office
202--224-0228 - direct
That's tomorrow. Today?
Senator Patrick Leahy: The bill before you totals 52.1 billion dollars. That's 2.6 billion below the President's budget request. That's 1.2 billion dollars below the Fiscal Year 2012 level. Let me repeat that, you're not going to hear this often in committees these days. The bill is 2.6 billion below the President's budget request, 1.2 billion below the Fiscal Year 2012 level. Not only that, Senator [Lindsey] Graham and I have not used 881 million dollars that the full Committee recommended and allocated for this Subcommittee. So that's another 881 million dollars we're saving the taxpayers.
Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense Chair Leahy was speaking at a markup session this afternoon. Chair Leahy noted that the bill was bi-partisan and that both he and Graham compromised to reach a budget all could agree on.
Ranking Member Lindsey Graham: I just want to repeat what you said about the funding. That's 881 million below the initial Committee recommendation. 2.6 billion -- or 5% -- below the president's request. 2% below FY2012 enacted levels. And I would argue the world hasn't gotten that much safer. But we are in debt so everything's got to be on the table. So in a very volatile, changing world we've been able to spend less than we did last year and decreased the budget. But having said that, I think the money is pretty wisely spent.
How did they reduce it? A number of ways.
Ranking Member Lindsey Graham: [. . .] and 77% below what we had last year for Iraq. Why? Well the security situation in Iraq has deteriorated, we don't have any military force there to speak of and the Chairman and I both believe very strongly that it's hard to train police when you can't get outside and do the work without being attacked so we have dramatically reduced the amount of funds available in Iraq because it's just throwing good money out for bad.
After the markup hearing, Senator Patrick Leahy's office released this statement from the Senator:
This bill totals $52.1 billion, which is $2.6 billion below the President's budget request, and $1.2 billion below the Fiscal Year 2012 level. Because the Iraqi police training program has not progressed as hoped, and our relations with Pakistan have been stalled for months, Senator Graham and I have not used $881 million that the full Committee initially recommended for the Subcomittee. That is money we are saving the taxpayers.
At the same time, we address many national security threats that are ongoing, from countering extremism in the Sahel region of Africa to building democratic institutions in Central America. We include a new Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund requested by the President, to respond to rapidly changing events in that volatile region. We continue support for critical humanitarian relief and global health programs, including for the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.
This is a bipartisan bill that address the priorities of Senators of both parties. To get there, Ranking Member Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and I have each made compromises. There are some things in the bill that he does not like, and the same goes for me. But they are the exception. Senator Graham is a well informed and passionate advocate for U.S. global leadership, and I greatly appreciate his input and support, as I know Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton does.
If the bill stands -- and it's going to be a battle on some issues when its time to reconcile with the House (but not on the Iraq issue) -- the Iraqi police program is over. As it should be. Tim Arango (New York Times) reported last week that, since last October, the Iraqi police training program had already cost US taxpayers $500 million. Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. Earlier this month at Huffington Post, Van Buren noted "the U.S. government has spent $7.3 billion for Iraqi police training since 2003." Let's go back to the February 8, 2012 snapshot:
We covered the November 30th House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the MiddleEast and South Asia in the December 1st snapshot and noted that Ranking Member Gary Ackerman had several questions. He declared, "Number one, does the government of Iraq -- whose personnel we intend to train -- support the [police training] program? Interviews with senior Iaqi officials by the Special Inspector General show utter didain for the program. When the Iraqis sugest that we take our money and do things instead that are good for the United States. I think that might be a clue." The State Dept's Brooke Darby faced that Subcommittee. Ranking Member Gary Ackerman noted that the US had already spent 8 years training the Iraq police force and wanted Darby to answer as to whether it would take another 8 years before that training was complete? Her reply was, "I'm not prepared to put a time limit on it." She could and did talk up Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Interior Adnan al-Asadi as a great friend to the US government. But Ackerman and Subcommittee Chair Steve Chabot had already noted Adnan al-Asadi, but not by name. That's the Iraqi official, for example, Ackerman was referring to who made the suggestion "that we take our money and do things instead that are good for the United States." He made that remark to SIGIR Stuart Bowen.
Brooke Darby noted that he didn't deny that comment or retract it; however, she had spoken with him and he felt US trainers and training from the US was needed. The big question was never asked in the hearing: If the US government wants to know about this $500 million it is about to spend covering the 2012 training of the Ministry of the Interior's police, why are they talking to the Deputy Minister?
Why? Because Nouri never nominated anyone to be the Minister of the Interior -- all this time later. The US was funneling millions into training a group of employees in a ministry that for two years has been without any leadership. That's bad. Really bad. And the fact that this Deputy Minister had publicly stated he didn't want the US training the Iraqi police, had stated that last year, had repeated it when asked by Brooke Darby, why was more money wasted? Hopefully, this is the end of the US taxpayer footing the bill for the training of Iraqi police. (It should be noted that the US pushed itself into this position. Iraqis were training at other places, including Jordan, but the US insisted -- during Bush's second term -- that the Iraqi forces shouldn't be going to other countries for training.) While that program currently appears dead, the Subcommittee did not propose cutting all monies to Iraq. Donna Cassata (AP) points out, "The bill would provide $1.1 billion for Iraq, including $582 million in foreign assistance but no money for the police development program."
In Iraq, a disturbing video -- disturbing for content, disturbing for the story and details that supposedly surround it -- has emerged in Iraq. This gruesome YouTube video shows a young man bruisded and battered on his knees, his legs, his back, his shoulders, his buttocks, his arms his lips, his stomach . . . The young man is said to be Ammar Hassan Acikr who is the nephew of Ibrahim al-Jaafari who was prime minister of Iraq and now leads the National Alliance. Also making the video news worthy is the claim that his attackers were either relatives of or employees of current prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, the current prime minister. Al Mada reports the attack took place in Karbala and states the attackers were relatives of Nouri. When bystanders attempted to intervene to help Ammar who was being attacked by several men, the men fired guns into the air warning no one to interfere.
Still on violence, AFP reports that two Baquba bombings have claimed 6 lives (four were children) today as the home of a Sahwa was bombed first and then the home of a displaced Shi'ite family. Alsumaria reports that 1 teacher was shot dead in the classroom, allegedly by a student whom sources state had been expelled from the classroom for cheating. The alleged shooter supposedly used a machine gun. Begging the question of how he walked up to and into the school with a machine gun without raising any alarms. In other violence today, Alsumaria notes that a Falluja roadside bombing has left two people injured after it exploded near a food market, a Baghdad roadside bombing injured on person, an attack on a Kirkuk checkpoint resulted in the death of 1 Iraqi soldier with two more left injured, a Mosul sticky bombing injured two people and 1 security guard for a Mosul judge was killed. Among the violence noted in yesterday's snapshot was the bombing outside Mosul that claimed the life of Sheikh Rashid Zeidan (reported by AFP). Alsumaria notes he was a leader with the National Dialogue Front and that he rushed to a Mosul hospital but died while receiving treatment. The National Dialogue Front is part of Iraqiya -- the political slate that came in first in the 2010 elections. Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq is the head of the NDF. Sunnis, Kurds, Yezidis, Shabaks and Assyrians are all part of the NDF. Iraq Body Counts reports there were at least 11 killed in violence yesterday and notes at least 147 violent deaths for the month of May thus far.
Nouri thought he had a winning idea: Every home would be allowed one firearm (a pistol or rifle). But the reaction wasn't what Nouri had hoped. People saw it as the government urging the citizens to arm themselves for self-protection, as if the government were admitting that they could not provide protection. Al Mada reports the proposal's still being pitched but has been amended. Nouri's spokesperson Ali al-Dabbagh insists the policy will now only apply to those living in "hot spots" -- areas of violence. So, in other words, the policy was about the government confessing they can't -- or have no interest in -- protecting the Iraqi people. If that weren't the point, the policy wouldn't have now changed to just be the "hot spots." This is even more clear in Dar Addustour's coverage where they note that households will still -- as with the earlier proposal -- have to register with the local police department but, most importantly, when (if) violence tapers off in their areas, they will no longer be allowed to keep a firearm in the house.
No doubt Nouri hopes his other brainstorm will work better. That would be the news broke late today. Alsumaria reports that elements of the National Alliance are pinning the blame for the political crisis on Speaker of Parliament Osama al-Nujaifi and have stage-whispered to the press that they will move towards a no-confidence vote on al-Nujaifi.
This move is unlikely to succeed. So what's the point? There are three points actually. First, this is meant to throw Iraqiya off balance. Second, there is the propaganda element.
The western press has ignored what's been taking place in Iraq. This morning there was big political news. As evening turned to night, not even AP bothered to cover it. But chances are they'll cover this.
"The leader in Parliament is accused of creating a political crisis and there is a move to remove him" is most likely how it will play. If the move against Nouri is noted, it most likely will be treated as a minor thread and possibly even passed off as a response to the move against al-Nujaifi. More than likely the White House was 'helpful' on this move. They've been so very helpful to Nouri. They've suggested what Reuters called last week Nouri's "charm offensive." This involves inviting three western intellectuals into Iraq for a brief visit so that they can see for themselves that Nouri has no horns. Alister Bull (Reuters) reported Friday, "The rare invitation was extended to Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institution and Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group, Reuters has learned."
Today's move is more deceit from the White House and people might want to start asking what is it that makes a James Jeffrey (US Ambassador to Iraq) or Ryan Crocker (US Ambassador to Afghanistan) decide to bail on their assignments? Both have long histories of service. Neither backs away from a challenge. But they also have a personal sense of integrity. Crocker's announcement today that he's stepping down should cause some to reflect on what's taking place.
Most likely we'll so no indication of reflectin or thought amongst the press. Instead get ready for another piece of the White House propaganda -- which, if ever called before Congress, they will argue was not meant to decieve the American people so therefor legal. It was just that they were trying to deceive Iraqis and with the porous borders that information now travels across, the propaganda spilled over into the American press. But they've created a phony poll to make Nouri look better. It'll come out of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and it went there after White House efforts to enlist the International Republican Institute into the effort failed. (The White House felt it would look better coming from the IRI. A US Senator -- a Republican -- blocked that from happening.) Nouri's popularity isn't rising. How could it be?
Iraqis still don't have basic services. He's just been revealed to still be running a secret prison where torture takes place. Though most Americans have little knowledge thanks to a superficial media system, Iraqis damn well know their own lives. No, there was no reason for an increase in popularity on Nouri's part. But it's not a real poll. It's propaganda.
All the lies in the world can't hide what was the big news out of Iraq this morning, Al Mada reports the political blocs are stating that they have the needed quorum to call for a no-confidence vote in Nouri al-Maliki. Ayad al-Tamimi (Al Mada) reports that the political blocs are stating that they already have 163 votes against Nouri.
Regardless of political party, Nouri's always been the pet of the US government.
In 2006, the choice for prime minister was Ibrahim al-Jaafari. The White House refused. No puppets were going to have free will on Bully Boy Bush's watch. So Bush's choice of Nouri al-Maliki was installed. Nouri did an awful job. al-Jaafari and Ayad Allawi had both held the post of prime minister since the 2003 US-invasion. Nouri's incompetence and criminality ensured that any criticism against them would become muted.
Nouri's first term was notable for its attacks on the press, its attacks on humanr rights, it's inability to get get anything done, etc. As the refugee crisis reached its height and millions fled Iraq while millions within the country moved out of previously mixed neighborhoods into segregated ones and as the US government implemented the 'surge' while also paying off tribal sheiks to create the Sahwa (Sons of Iraq, Awakenings, etc.), the security situation got 'stable' enough to allow what always happens after ground zero, people are no longer satisified with safety claims (also true, in Iraq, the violence became -- and continues to be -- the norm, leading to further adaptation of the human spirit) and they began to press governments on freedoms and rights. This is a historical pattern. In the 2009 provincial elections, you see this take hold. It took the 2010 elections to demonstrate this wasn't an anomoly but a pattern.
Iraqis were rejecting the sectarianism that the US had imposed and encouraged. They were moving towards a national identiy. A national identity would not cure all of Iraq's problems nor would it solve historic grievances but it would go a long way towards allowing officials to work together. Iraq had a national identity (as well as a tribal one) prior to the start of the Iraq War.
In March 2010, the Iraqi people did something truly historic. While Nouri was attempting to scare the population with talk of how only he could steer Iraq through the violence and while he smeared Sunnis as Ba'athists and prevented many from running for election, the Iraqi people saw this and refused to give him the huge sweeping victory he was predicting (and some in the press were treating as 'factual polling'). Instead, they voted for the newly created Iraqiya -- a part of Shi'ites, Sunnis and others. A mixture not unlike Iraq. It was the Iraqi people asking for a national identity again.
"But, if there's one law of the west, it's that bastards have brothers." (Joan Wilder in Romancing The Stone, screenplay written by Diane Thomas. )
And Bush had one in Barack. Which is how a supposed change in the Oval Office found hopey-changey Barack Obama supporting Nouri al-Maliki.
The Iraqi people risked violence and hassles to vote (many showed up and were informed they need to be, for example, on the other side of Baghdad -- not an easy task when road blocs and checkpoints are set up). And they didn't vote Nouri the winner. His State of Law came in second to Iraqiya.
So he shouldn't have had a second term as prime minister.
But he wanted it and the US backed him (as did Tehran). So he dug his heels in and refused to allow the process to move forward creating eight months of gridlock -- Political Stalemate I. It only ended whent he US-brokered the Erbil Agreement. If Nouri would concede this to the Kurds, that to other Shi'ite blocs, something to Iraqiya . . . Then they would allow him to be prime minister for a second term. All political blocs signed off on that agreement and Nouri used it to become prime minsiter. However, Nouri tossed it aside once he got what he wanted.
He has refused to honor it and offered one excuse after another as to why a November 2010 agreement has still not been implemented. Over the summer of 2011 -- in the midst of Political Stalemate II -- the Kurds began publicly demanding the Erbil Agreement be implemented. Iraqiya and Moqtada al-Sadr took up that call as well. Nouri's refused to do so.
December 21st, President Jalal Talabani and Speaker of Parliament Osama al-Nujaifi began calling for a national conference to address the ongoing crisis. Nouri stalled and stalled. Finally, Talabani announced it would be held April 5th. Nouri quickly began echoning that public while working to kill the conference. The conference died less than 24 hours before it was to be held.
April 28th, another Erbil meet-up was held. Nouri wasn't invited. KRG President Massoud Barzani, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Iraqiya head Ayad Allawi, Moqtada al-Sadr and others met and agreed that the Erbil Agreement had to be implemented and that Moqtada's 18-point plan had to as well.
Nouri was given a time limit (it's bascially this coming Sunday) to implement the agreements. If not, he could face a no-confidence vote. Nouri's made a lot of speeches about wanting to talk and, gosh, that Erbil Agreement is good, but he's just wasting time the way he always does. He's always been able to wait out his opponents -- due to being the puppet of the White House -- and maybe he will this time as well.
But that Saturday meet-up at Moqtada al-Sadr's Najaf home? The National Alliance was given one week to get behind one person to replace Nouri al-Maliki.
In other news, Iraq's economy is raising concerns. Longterm observers may remember that Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi has long spoken of the need for Iraq to diversify its economy so that it would not be at the mercy of the world's market with regards to oil income. Prashant Rao (AFP) reports that the Central Bank of Iraq's head, Sinan al-Shabibi, is stating that the government must diversify the labor sector; however, al-Shabibi argues that the government has responded by creating more government jobs and this is not developing the market. Rao notes that the unofficial unemployment rate in Iraq is around 30%. Echoing this call is the World Bank. Dar Addustour reports a delegation from the World Bank has advised Iraq that they need to generate non-oil revenues and is encouraging development in the fiels of agricultury, tourism, manufacturing and more. However, Hussein al-Shahristani, Minister of Energy is insisting that Iraq is planning for the future and, in fact, intends to spend a huge amount of money developing the petrochemical and fertilizer industry -- the two are entertwined and don't move Iraq away from an oil dependent economy.
Basra is an oil rich province of Iraq. Al Mada reports that today the provincial government voted to continue to forbid not only casinos, but also concerts. In addition, Basra's becoming infamous for doctors living in fear of their lives due to threats and Al Mada reports that the doctors in Basra are now demanding the enactment of laws that will protect them. Saturday some residents of Basra felt the need to take part in a futile protest that was never going to accomplish their aim of getting Iraq to break off all business with Turkey because Turkey has no interest in handing Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi over to Baghdad. They really just made themselves look ridiculous and uninformed as they chanted, marched and burned Turkey's national flag. Among other things, Turkey can't turn over anyone to a country if they're facing charges of execution. al-Hashemi, if found guilty, could be executed and, of course, State of Law MPs have spent the last weeks gloating that this is what would happen. So the futile protest was not going to effect Turkey's decision and it also wasn't going to result in Baghdad severing business ties. They protested for Nouri, that was what it was, a pro-Nouri protest. And to show stupid it was and to show how foolish they now look, The Turkish Press reports that Iraq's Foreign Ministry, issued a statement decrying the action: "We back freedom of expression under law and order, however we condemn the move of some demonstrators to set Turkish flag on fire." And the Journal of Turkish Weekly notes, "Iraq and Turkey agreed to resume the exchange process in oil sector, which was interrupted five years ago, within the First International Energy Conference held in Erbil yesterday, Turkish Energy and Natural Resources Minister Taner Yildiz said on Monday, the Zaman newspaper reported." As we noted Saturday, hopefully the participants burned off a few calories so that the Basra action wasn't a complete waste. The protest was never going to accomplish its aim of getting the Baghdad government to 'punish' Turkey.
Baghdad can't afford to. Turkey and the KRG are closer and closer and their historic differences are part of what allowed Nouri to take Turkey for granted all these years. It was his mistake. Now he tries to have his way while and control relations between the KRG and Turkey (lots of luck there) while trying not to alienate Turkey further.
Jane Arraf (Al Jazeera) reports on the KRG and Turkey's plan that would find the KRG "export[ing] oil and gas directly to Turkey" and that a KRG pipeling ("expected to be completed by the end of next year") would pump "one million barrel per day" to Turkey. Arraf explains, "Kurdish officials maintain that as long as revenue goes to the central bank and the Kurdish region receives its agreed share of revenue, it can sell the oil directly." Sinan Salaheddin (AP) notes that the Baghdad-based government is insisting the KRG must first get approval from Baghdad before such a plan could go forward. Tamsin Carlisle (Platts) explains, "Turkey currently imports gas by pipeline from Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran, for which it pays prices up to five times higher than those prevailing in Europe, gas experts on a panel at the conference told delegates. The eastern Mediterranean country also imports LNG from Algeria and Nigeria at international prices. The situation has led Ankara to search for ways to reduce the country's bill for about 30 billion cubic meters of annual gas imports by negotiating contracts with new suppliers. " And Reuters reminds, "The Kurdistan region, which has its own government and armed forces, has already clashed with Iraq's central government and halted its oil exports in April after accusing Baghdad of not remitting payments due." Alsumaria reports that Baghdad has decided to stop supplying the KRG with processed gasoline.
Today Alsumaria reports dust storms swept parts of Iraq. AFP notes that at least one dust storm has resulted in the closing of Iraq's airport and that this might impact "the nuclear talks" Iraq and Iran are supposed to hold with England, China, Russia, France, Germany and the US tomorrow. Alsumaria notes that an Iranian delegation has already arrived in Baghdad for tomorrow's meetings. Iran is already geared up for the talks as Carol J. Williams (Los Angeles Times) noted: "The head of the U.N. nuclear agency said Monday after meeting with Iran's chief negotiator on nuclear issues that the atmosphere among Iranian officials was 'positive' ahead of Wednesday's scheduled meeting in Baghdad with six world powers." AP notes today that the two countries have exchanged the remains of "98 Iranians and 13 Iraqis" from the 8 year war between the two countries that kicked off in 1980.
Turning to the US where Senator Patty Murray is the Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committe. Her office notes:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
CONTACT: Murray Press Office
VETERANS: Murray Calls on VA to Expedite Implementation of Patient Scheduling Systems, Asks for Quarterly Reports on Mental Health Provider Hiring Progress
Murray: Scheduling remains a barrier to timely and quality mental health care at VA
(Washington, D.C.) -- Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee sent two letters regarding the Department of Veterans Affairs mental health care wait times. The first letter, also signed by Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-NC), was sent to the Assistant Secretary for Information and Technology at VA, Roger Baker, regarding implementation of a new patient scheduling system. In a recent report, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) characterized the Department's twenty-five year old patient scheduling system as a major limitation on VA's ability to reduce wait times and as not user friendly. Senator Murray urged VA to take steps to ensure its current system is no longer a barrier to veterans seeking timely access to mental health care and to expedite the planned replacement of this system.
In a second letter, sent to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, Senator Murray requested quarterly reports on VA's progress as they implement staffing increases for mental health services. As VA begins work to hire 1,600 new mental health staff, in addition to another 1,500 existing vacancies, these quarterly reports will provide the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee with insight into the Department's progress as it fills these critical positions.
"A new patient scheduling system must be a top priority for VA. With the current system, VA schedulers have trouble telling a provider's availabilty and they can't track demand for services. This is why I hear time and again from veterans trying to get appointments for mental health care only to be told they'll have to wait a month or more. That isn't right and we've got to do better," said Senator Murray. "VA has also promised to hire 1,600 new mental health providers, yet there are already 1,500 existing vacancies. If we're going to provide high quality and timely mental health care, we must see real results from VA and not allow this promise of more providers to become 3,100 empty offices. As we continue to address other problems with mental health care for our veterans, I will be watching closely to make sure VA is doing everything in its power to bring these providers on board."
These letters come on the heels of a report Senator Murray had requested from the Department of Veterans Affairs Inspector General on the time it takes VA to complete mental health care appointments for our nation's veterans. The report concludes, as Senator Murray has repeatedly warned, that the wait times for mental health care faced by veterans, many of whom are in crisis and need urgent care, far exceed acceptable wait times and are significantly greater than VA has previously reported.
The full text of both letters follow:
May 22, 2012
The Honorable Roger W. Baker
Assistant Secretary for Information and Technology
Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20420
Dear Secretary Baker:
For the past two years, the Committee has conducted oversight of veterans' access to mental health care at VA and the quality of that care. We have heard repeatedly from veterans in crisis who looked to VA for help only to find their appointments postponed and care delayed. During the Committee's most recent hearing on mental health care, we examined the serious issues affecting the Department's ability to schedule appointments in a timely way and to accurately calculate veterans' wait times.
The hearing highlighted what we have long known -- scheduling and the Deparmtnet's twenty-five year old scheduling system remain at the heart of VA's inability to provide timely access to medical care. In its report, Veterans Health Administration: Review of Veterans' Access to Mental Health Care, and at the hearing, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) characterized the Department's twenty-five year old patient scheduling system as a major limitation on VA's ability to reduce wait times and as not user friendly.
We know that this outdated system prevents the Department from accurately tracking the key performance metrics that are necessary to correctly evaluate wait times and access. VA cannot readily track demand or capacity, and assessing provider availability through the system is challenging. Inconsistent practices by schedulers to capture appointment information have also affected VA's ability to provide timely access to care. Indeed, the Department has known about these issues as early as 2005. That year, and again in 2007, the OIG released reports identifying these issues, yet nearly seven years later, scheduling remains a barrier to timely and quality mental health care at VA.
It is clear to us that much more must be done by VA to reduce wait times and improve access to mental health care. Replacing the patient scheduling system must be a top priority for the Department. While we know that VA is working on a replacement scheduling system, we understand it will not be implemented until 2014 at the earliest. As our servicemembers continue to return home from Afghanistan and the need for a reliable scheduling system grows, this timeline may simply be too little too late. If the Department cannot expedite implementation of its scheduling replacement system, what steps will VA take in the meantime to ensure its current system is no longer a barrier to veterans seeking timely access to mental health care?
In order to expedite implementation, funding of a the new system must also be a priority. Yet we understand that the Fiscal Year 2013 funding for this project through your office's prioritized operating plan is not yet confirmed. This is a critical project. Full funding must be a priority.
While these are complicated issues, and indentifying a viable commercial scheduling system capable of successfully integrating with VA legacy systems requires careful and thoughtful planning, those who depend on VA for timely and quality mental health care look to us for answers and solutions. We look forward to hearing from you about your plan to expedite implementation of VA's new scheduling system and the steps you will take in the interim to ensure the current scheduling system is part of the solution and not part of the problem. Thank you for all of your work on behalf of our nation's veterans.
May 22, 2012
The Honorable Eric K. Shinseki
Secretary of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20420
Dear Secretary Shinseki:
Thank you for your plan to increase the Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) mental health services by adding 1,900 new staffing positions. The announcement of additional positions is a well-intended step toward meeting the increased demand in mental health services at VA.
I write to request quarterly updates, beginning at the end of the third quarter of this fiscal year, on the Department's progress as VA implements the staffing increase for mental health services. As VA begins hiring nearly 3,400 mental health staff, these quarterly updates will provide the Committee with insight into the Department's progress in filling critical vacancies.
I also request that the Department provide information on the use of additional pay authorities to recruit mental health professionals over the last four years, as well as any advertising or recruitment efforts to address the staffing shortage. I expect the first report to the Committee no later than three months since the announcement of new mental health positions.
As you know, VA's mental health services have the unique ability to firmly place veterans on the successful path toward achieving their full potential, which not only saves lives but also enrich the lives of our veterans, their families, and their communities. I thank you for your commitment to our nation's veterans and look forward to continuing to work with you on this important mission.
Still on veterans issues, at the start of last month, Home Depot was in trouble with the Justice Dept for failure to comply with US Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Acts of 1994 by firing Brian Bailey for his deploying with the National Guard. Late yesterday, the Justice Dept released the following:
Department of Justice
Office of Public Affairs
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Monday, May 21, 2012
Justice Department Settles with Home Depot to Enforce the Employment Rights of an Army National Guard Soldier
The Justice Department announced today that it has reached a settlement with Home Depot U.S.A. Inc., to resolve allegations that the company violated the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA) when it terminated the employment of Army National Guard soldier Brian Bailey.
The department's complaint alleged that Home Depot willfully violated USERRA by terminating Mr. Bailey's employment because of his military service obligations. Mr. Bailey, an Iraq War veteran, worked at a Home Depot store in Flagstaff, Ariz., as a department supervisor while at the same time serving in the California Army National Guard. Throughout his employment with Home Depot, Mr. Bailey took periodic leave from work to fulfill his military obligations with the National Guard. According to the Justice Department's complaint, Mr. Bailey was removed from his position as a department supervisor after Home Depot management officials at the Flagstaff store openly expressed their displeasure with his periodic absences from work due to his military obligations and further indicated their desire to remove him from his position because of those absences.
Under the terms of the settlement, embodied in a consent decree that has been submitted for approval to the federal district court, Home Depot will provide Mr. Bailey with $45,000 in monetary relief and make changes to its Military Leaves of Absence policy. The settlement further mandates that Home Depot review its Military Leaves of Absence policy with managers from the district where Mr. Bailey worked.
"This settlement demonstrates our vigilant protection of the employment opportunities of our service members, and our commitment to vigorous enforcement of the laws that protect them," said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. " The department is pleased that we were able to work cooperatively with Home Depot to resolve this matter without the need for contested litigation."
"This settlement not only compensates Mr. Bailey for employment opportunities he lost because of his military service, but it will also protect other members of our nation's armed services employed by Home Depot through the required changes to the company's Military Leaves of Absence policy and review of that policy with managers from the district where Mr. Bailey worked," said Ann Birmingham Scheel, Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona.
This case was handled by the Employment Litigation Section of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Arizona.
Civil rights enforcement is a priority of the Department of Justice. The rights of our service members are protected under USERRA, which prohibits civilian employers from discriminating against members of the military, including National Guard soldiers, with respect to employment opportunities based on their past, current, or future uniformed service obligations. Additional information about USERRA can be found on the Justice Department's websites, www.usdoj.gov/crt/emp and www.servicemembers.gov , as well as the Labor Department's website at www.dol.gov/vets/programs/userra/main.htm .