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Archive for the ‘Veterans’ Category

Congress’s Drug Problem

Saturday, May 7th, 2016

opioidsCongress is on drugs. Which is to say, Congress has been focusing on drug abuse lately. Opioids specifically.

These are just some of the recently introduced bills in Congress dealing with opioids:

  • H.R. 5127, which would extend the exclusivity period for certain drug products designed to reduce drug abuse;
  • H.R. 5095, which would award grants to states for training and education relating to patient pain, substance misuse, and substance abuse disorders;
  • S. 2866, or “Jessie’s Law,” which would provide for the sharing of health information about people’s substance abuse treatment;
  • H.R. 5052, which would to evaluate the effectiveness of grant programs for providing assistance in addressing problems pertaining to opioid abuse;
  • and the list goes on.

One bill that caught our eye is H.R. 4063, the Jason Simcakoski PROMISE Act. The bill costs about $1.14 per U.S. family, and among other things it would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to update safety measures for opioid therapy.

Jason Simcakoski is a former Marine who died at the Tomah, Wisconsin, VA Medical Center in 2014 from “mixed drug toxicity.” He had taken thirteen prescribed medications, including several that cause respiratory depression, in a 24-hour period. According to an investigation, VA staff blundered the medical response when the veteran was found unresponsive in his bed.

But a comment on H.R. 4063 suggests caution. “This bill is another attempt at government takeover of basic American daily decision making over their own healthcare,” wrote “Sean F” about a month after the bill’s introduction late last year. “[I]f you have a chronic pain condition that is NOT curable other than cancer, and requires the use of opioid-based medication, they intend to eliminate access to these medications without any substitute.”

The right answer on this bill is hard to know. But Congress is on this drug problem. Working to tackle the opioid problem, that is.

Here’s the current vote on H.R. 4063, the Jason Simcakoski PROMISE Act. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki article on the bill.

Congressionally Mandated Bad Budget Information

Sunday, January 24th, 2016

rising baselineIt’s hard enough to gather what’s going on in Congress without Congress standing in your way. But they do. And one way they do that is by warping the budget information that gets shared with the public.

A case in point is “baseline budgeting.” That’s when Congress requires agencies like the Congressional Budget Office to assume that spending on a given program will rise. Changes in spending are then compared to the rising baseline.

Under baseline budgeting, an increase in spending above the baseline looks smaller. And if Congress reduces the rate of growth in a program that’s still growing, it will by reported as a cut.

Here’s an example: H.R. 677 is the American Heroes COLA Act of 2015. The bill would modify several Veterans Administration programs, and it also includes a cost cost-of-living adjustment, or “COLA,” to amounts paid to veterans and their survivors.

A law called the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act requires baseline budgeting in this area, so the Congressional Budget Office officially reports that the bill would produce about $6 billion in new spending, or about $42 per U.S. family. But CBO doesn’t report another $573 in spending per family.

H.R. 677 costs about $615 per U.S. family, not $42. (The bill includes no revenue measures, so its passage would raise the national debt by that same amount.) We don’t think rising baseline budgeting gives you an honest account of spending, so we add back in the money that Congress requires the CBO to leave out (when we know about it).

Now that you have a better idea of what the bill costs, you are a little better positioned to decide what you think of it. Many of our veterans and their families have sacrificed nobly for our country. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have an open tap on your wallet. Should they get another $600 of your family’s money? Something less? More? Or maybe there’s another way to think about how we take care of the nation’s veterans.

Here’s the current vote on H.R. 677, the American Heroes COLA Act of 2015. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki article on the bill.

A Pricey Tweak to the GI Bill

Sunday, August 30th, 2015

GI BillCongress doesn’t return from its summer break for another week, and when it does it will have a very brief time to finish appropriating for fiscal year 2016, which begins October 1st.

But let’s take a look at a bill recently getting a cost score from the Congressional Budget Office. As regular WashingtonWatchers know, bills get CBO scores because they are likely to be considered in the full House and Senate, and they might become law.

H.R. 475 is the GI Bill Processing Improvement Act of 2015. The bill’s title modestly says it would “make certain improvements in the laws administered by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs relating to educational assistance.” But the cost of these improvements adds up to about $30 for every family in the United States. What are they?

The bulk of the spending—about $3.3 billion over the 2016-2020 period—would relate to requirements that the VA improve the security of its network infrastructure, computers and servers, operating systems, web applications, and medical-records system.

The bill would also require VA to report to Congress on its compliance and implementation of new security practices. About $1.25 billion of that spending would be for phasing out information technology systems that are “unsupported or outdated.”

The bill would spend about $30 million to maximize the use of automation and algorithms in systems used to process claims for educational assistance under the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

The bill would require VA to allow institutions of higher learning to obtain information on the amount of educational assistance to which a veteran is entitled via a secure IT system. The cost of that would be about $30 million.

There are some tweaks to the education benefits offered by the VA. They would increase spending by $27 million in 2016 and $191 million over the 2016-2025 period. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the spending to fix VA’s IT systems.

In summary, the bill offers an interesting decision for Congress—and for you. If you’re a supporter of VA benefits, then you want the IT systems fixed (and you’ll hope the spending actually produces those results). If you don’t want the government to grow, you might not want this bill to pass, but then the VA won’t have updated technical systems. So, what’ll it be, America?

Below is the current vote on H.R. 475. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki article on the bill.

Fixing the Veterans Administration

Sunday, June 1st, 2014

With the ouster of General Eric Shinseki from the Department of Veterans Affairs, a symbolic change has been made, but what will cause real improvement in a bureaucracy now famous for covering up long wait times in its provision of care to veterans?

On Sunday, the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Bernie Sanders (I-VT), announced legislation to reform the VA. His bill hasn’t been introduced yet. Some of its provisions come from omnibus legislation that was reported out of the Veterans Affairs Committee earlier this year: S. 1982, the Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014. But let’s run down what it does, based on a release from the senator’s office.

The bill has two major sections. The first is dedicated to supporting VA health care and increasing accountability in that department. Provisions in this area include:

Removal of Incompetent Senior Executives:
The bill would provide the VA Secretary authority to immediately remove incompetent senior executives based on poor job performance while maintaining due process for those employees. It would also provide authority for VA’s Acting Secretary to remove senior executives notwithstanding the 120-day moratorium in current law.

Shortening Wait Times for Veterans:
The bill would require the Secretary to prioritize contracts with Federally Qualified Health Centers, Community Health Centers, medical facilities receiving funding from the Indian Health Service, and the Department of Defense to provide hospital care, medical services, and other health care to veterans in order to shorten wait time veterans may be experiencing. This legislation would also standardize the process VA uses to send patients into private medical care when VA is unable to provide them the care they need in a timely manner.

Direct Hire Authority:
The bill would provide VA with authority to hire new doctors, nurses, and other providers in an expedited manner to address system-wide health care provider shortages.

Authorization of Major Medical Facility Leases:
The bill would authorize the VA to enter into 27 major medical facility leases in 18 states and Puerto Rico.

National Health Service Corps Partnership:
The bill would deem VA facilities as eligible to receive designations under the Public Health Service Act. This would allow National Health Service Corps participants to receive scholarships and loan repayment for employment at VA facilities, making it easier for VA to attract needed personnel.

Expansion of Health Professionals Educational Assistance Program:
The bill would extend access to VA’s health care scholarship program for those individuals pursuing a medical degree with the intent of specializing in primary care.

Upgrading VA’s Scheduling Software Package:
The bill would require VA to commence agile development of an upgrade to its scheduling software package and complete full deployment of the upgrade by March 31, 2016. It also contains minimum requirements for the package related to usability, functionality, and a dashboard in order for better administrative monitoring of wait times and resourcing.

Presidential Commission on Access to VA Health Care:
The bill would require the President to create a commission of experts to look at VA health care access issues and recommend actions to bolster capacity. A report to the President would be required within 90 days of the commission’s first meeting.

Presidential Commission on Capital Planning for VA Medical Facilities:
This bill would require the establishment of a Commission on Capital Planning for VA medical facilities to improve VA’s cradle to grave capital asset processes, from
facility planning and project management to finding ways to break through the backlog of identified construction and renovation projects.

Authorization for Emergency Funding:
The bill would authorize emergency funding to hire new doctors, nurses, and other providers in order to address system-wide health care provider shortages and to take other steps necessary to ensure timely access to care.

A second set of provisions is meant to support veterans and their families:

Caregivers Benefits:
The bill would extend comprehensive services and benefits to the most severely injured pre-9/11 veterans and offer wrap-around services to all other caregivers.

VA Dental Care and Complementary and Alternative Medicine Expansion:
The bill includes provisions that would expand access to VA health care–including complementary and alternative medicine–and dental care, in a cost-effective and equitable way.

Advance Appropriations for VA:
The bill would ensure veterans receive consistent access to the benefits they have earned by establishing advance appropriations for the mandatory accounts at VA.

Restoration of Full COLA for Military Retirees:
The bill would restore full cost-of-living adjustments for all military retirees.

Reproductive Health:
The bill would help veterans who have suffered significant spinal cord, reproductive, and urinary tract injuries start a family.

Ending the benefits backlog:
The bill would support VA’s ongoing efforts and would make needed improvements to the claims system.

In-State Tuition Assistance for Post-9/11 Veterans:
The bill would “our transitioning servicemembers a fair shot at attaining their educational goals without incurring an additional financial burden.”

Extension of Health Care Access for Recently Separated Veterans:
The bill would extend from five to ten years unfettered access to VA health care for recently separated veterans to address their health care needs early.

Sexual Assault:
This legislation contains important provisions that would improve the delivery of care and benefits to veterans who experienced sexual trauma while serving in the military.

There’s no cost estimate for the bill yet, of course. Keep watching this space for information on the bill’s introduction and it’s cost to the American people.

There’s Good Advocacy, and then There’s…

Monday, October 31st, 2011

… the opposition to S. 894, the Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2011.

It’ll be the featured bill in the WashingtonWatch.com email newsletter this week, so a lot of people will be clicking through to read the comments.

What will they see?

One person—a logged-in user—who supports the bill says, “I hope this bill passes.” That’s nice.

Another person has taken a real interest in opposing the bill. He calls himself “Yep!” and he pretends like he’s a greedy veteran who is going to make more money if this bill passes. “Yep!” says things like “Yessir, now I’m going down to the boat dealer and start looking for that new boat.” And he repeats similar comments over and over again.

How do you suppose this will affect the thinking of people who are looking at the page for the bill?

People generally look to other people for opinions and advice. When someone is informative, polite, and fair, they’ll tend to credit that person’s views. When someone is rude and unhelpful, they’ll tend to dismiss that person’s views. The likely results of Yep!’s comments is to drive people in the opposite direction from what Yep! wants—to support of the bill. Needless to say, that’s not good advocacy.

The average person probably wants to see our veterans cared for, and probably also worries about the size of our national debt. (The bill spends about $150 per U.S. family, increasing the national debt by that much.) So people have to make a decision about this bill.

When they go to investigate, they’ll find that the person supporting the bill has politely shared his or her opinion. The person opposing the bill has a sarcastic tone and has posted the same (or a similar) comment several times.

If you have an opinion on this bill, you can put it in the comments, of course. Be polite and fair, and you’ll do better than “Yep!”

And if you don’t like to see the sort of sarcastic comments Yep! has to share, you can create an account and log in, then click the “hide this commenter” link that appears for logged-in users.

Here’s hoping that you contribute positively to the content of the site, and in so doing bring other people closer to your point of view.


Thursday, March 31st, 2011

Another petition has gone up on our Petitions page. It’s titled “WE WANT WHAT YOU HAVE NOW! (THANK YOU?) H.R. 812, The Agent Orange Equity Act of 2011.”

It’s hard to be sure exactly what it’s all about, but it appears to be a petition supporting H.R. 812, the Agent Orange Equity Act of 2011. That bill would clarify presumptions relating to the exposure of certain veterans who served in the vicinity of the Republic of Vietnam. It’s the subject of much discussion on its bill page—not all of it cordial and friendly.

Only supporters of the petition can comment there, so more useful conversation may happen among signers on the petition page.

You can create your own petition, if you’re logged in, by going here.

Happy Memorial Day

Sunday, May 30th, 2010

eagle_and_american_flag_by_bubbelsTomorrow is a day for remembering America’s veterans.

As we noted last year, Memorial Day hasn’t always fallen on a Monday. In the National Holiday Act of 1971 (P.L. 90-363), Congress changed it from May 30 each year – the anniversary of the original Decoration Day in 1868 – to the last Monday in May. Some argue that this change has detracted from the solemnity of the holiday.

Memorial Day commemorates U.S. men and women who died while in military service. It was first enacted to honor Union soldiers of the American Civil War and was expanded after World War I to include American casualties of any war or military action.

These days we enjoy Memorial Day as much as anything for having a three-day weekend in the late spring. It’s a legitimate question whether all the barbecues take our attention away from paying homage to fallen soldiers. You can see the many bills and laws dealing with veterans issues on our subject pages, issues like:

S. 70 would restore the traditional day of observance of Memorial Day. The bill has been introduced for the last ten Congresses, though, and hasn’t seen much action. Is this the Congress to pass it? Or do we want to keep our three-day weekend?

Here’s the current vote on S. 70. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki article on the bill.

On Rude Comments

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

A visitor to WashingtonWatch.com writes in about the tenor of discussion on H.R. 3491, the Thomas G. Schubert Agent Orange Fairness Act:

With all due respect WashingtonWatch.com why is it that people are allowed to leave vicious & mean spirited comments about recipients of a bill. Why do you allow these people to continually leave these comments without blocking them. I agree everyone is entitled to vote & state their position but insults are not necessary. Esp. when the recipients are widows of veterans who have already suffered enough. I would appreciate it if you could actually respond to my concern. I also don\’t understand how people can be allowed to make these comments without even having to identify themselves. It is just wrong.

It’s a genuine problem, but not one we can solve. Here’s my response:

Thanks for your note. I’m sorry about the harsh tone some people adopt on the site, but many bills in Congress are about controversial issues.

There are thousands and thousands of bills in every Congress, and intense discussions ongoing about many of them all the time. It would be prohibitively time-consuming to try moderating all the conversations – especially when so much of our time is consumed with our earmarks project. Instead, we treat discussions on the site as discussions among adults.

It is the responsibility of the participants to manage their own conversations. There are a few highly successful “trolls” on the site – people who gratify themselves by offending others. I recommend ignoring them. Join together with the other normal, well-adjusted participants to shun any troll. Set a policy among yourselves of never responding to trolls and never speaking about trolls. Eventually – after even more aggressive attempts to draw attention – they will go away.

WashingtonWatch.com is a free speech zone. We don’t require people to identify themselves before speaking. In order to encourage good behavior, we post the names of logged in users in light blue. It shows that the speaker is a stable identity, who will take credit or responsibility for the things they say. Others can be ignored if they are not willing to be identified even by a handle they’ve created on our site.

Thanks again. Sorry that we can’t moderate all the discussions all the time. I hope you can join together with others to improve the situation. I will make a note of this issue on this bill to help encourage thoughtful debaters to organize joint action (i.e. silence) against rude behavior and trolls.

We’ve discussed rude comments here on the blog before. More posts about comments and our comment system can be found here. It’s up to you, users, to manage your discussions on bills.

Happy Veterans Day!

Tuesday, November 11th, 2008

Today is the official anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I, and a day that we remember and honor all veterans.

According to the Wikipedia history of Veterans Day, President Woodrow Wilson first proclaimed an Armistice Day for November 12, 1919. The United States Congress passed a concurrent resolution seven years later requesting the president to issue another proclamation to observe November 11 with appropriate ceremonies. A later act made the 11th of November in each year a legal holiday “to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated and known as ‘Armistice Day’.”

In 1953, an Emporia, Kansas, shoe store owner named Al King had the idea to expand Armistice Day to celebrate all veterans, not just those who served in World War I. He began a campaign to turn Armistice Day into “All” Veterans Day. The Emporia Chamber of Commerce took up the cause after determining that 90% of Emporia merchants as well as the Board of Education supported closing their doors on November 11, 1953, to honor veterans. With the help of then-U.S. Rep. Ed Rees, also from Emporia, a bill for the holiday was pushed through Congress. President Dwight Eisenhower signed it into law on May 26, 1954.

It’s a nice illustration of how people who care about the right issue can affect their nation’s public policy. There are many bills in Congress right now affecting veterans. Take a look at all the veterans issues here. Click on a subject link to see all the bills in that area.

And spend a moment today thinking of the sacrifices our veterans have made for our nation and freedom.

WashingtonWatch.com Digest – October 27, 2008

Monday, October 27th, 2008

Here’s the WashingtonWatch.com email newsletter for the week. Subscribe here.

On the WashingtonWatch.com Blog

Just two weeks after the passage of the bailout bill, and one day after a Treasury Department official declared, “we are committed to transparency and oversight in all aspects of the program,” the Treasury Department began covering up the amount it would pay to New York Mellon Bank for acting as a financial agent in the bailout. Read about it on the WashingtonWatch.com blog.

Featured Items

Congress has adjourned until January, but leaders may call the membership back to take care of unfinished business later this year. While the lawmaking takes a break, a couple of bills relating to veterans are worth taking a look at.

In late September, the Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act became law. It increases veterans’ disability compensation and their survivors’ dependency and indemnity compensation by the same cost-of-living adjustment payable to Social Security recipients. This new veterans benefits law costs just under $375 per U.S. family.

Another veterans bill, subject of a new cost estimate last week, is H.R. 1222, the Keep Our Promise to America’s Military Retirees Act.

The bill would would allow military retirees, their dependents, and survivors to enroll in the Federal Employees Health Benefits program, giving up their eligibility to use their military health insurance (TRICARE). Total cost to the average U.S. family would be a bit over $70. It’s unclear if H.R. 1222 will pass, but it’s interesting to watch how veterans’ benefits are on the march.

P.L. 110-324
The Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2008
Costs $373.90 per family

H.R. 1222
The Keep Our Promise to America’s Military Retirees Act
Costs $72.47 per family

What People Think

Click here to vote on The Veterans' Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2008. Click here to vote on The Veterans' Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2008.

The Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2008
52% For, 48% Against

Vote on this Bill

Click here to vote on The Keep Our Promise to America's Military Retirees Act. Click here to vote on The Keep Our Promise to America's Military Retirees Act.

The Keep Our Promise to America’s Military Retirees Act
84% For, 16% Against

Vote on this Bill

Displayed below are new, updated, and passed items with their cost or savings per family.

New Items

H.R. 6707
The Taking Responsible Action for Community Safety Act
Costs $0.32 per family

H.R. 1222
The Keep Our Promise to America’s Military Retirees Act
Costs $72.47 per family

H.R. 6853
The Nationwide Mortgage Fraud Task Force Act of 2008
Costs $0.00 per family

S. 1756
The Republic of the Marshall Islands Supplemental Nuclear Compensation Act of 2007
Costs $0.45 per family

S. 2052
The Equal Justice for United States Military Personnel Act of 2007
Costs $0.16 per family

S. 3189
The Endangered Fish Recovery Programs Improvement Act of 2008
Costs $0.33 per family

S. 1080
The Crow Tribe Land Restoration Act
Costs $0.29 per family

Updated Items

P.L. 110-324
The Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2008
Costs $373.90 per family

Passed Items

P.L. 110-437
The Capitol Visitor Center Act of 2008
Costs $1.49 per family

P.L. 110-438
The National Guard and Reservists Debt Relief Act of 2008
Costs $0.00 per family

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