11 January, 2019 07:06

Good morning, Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Friday, January 11, 2019, which is Cigarettes Are Hazardous to Your Health Day, Learn Your Name in Morse Code Day, National Human Trafficking Awareness Day, National Milk Day, and Secret Pal Day.

Today in History:

  • On January 11, 1908, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt declares the massive Grand Canyon in northwestern Arizona a national monument.
  • 1935: In the first flight of its kind, American aviatrix Amelia Earhart departs Wheeler Field in Honolulu, Hawaii, on a solo flight to North America. Hawaiian commercial interests offered a $10,000 award to whoever accomplished the flight first. The next day, after traveling 2,400 miles in 18 hours, she safely landed at Oakland Airport in Oakland, California.
  • On January 11, 1973, the owners of America’s 24 major league baseball teams vote to allow teams in the American League (AL) to use a “designated pinch-hitter” that could bat for the pitcher, while still allowing the pitcher to stay in the game.
  • 1989: After eight years as president of the United States, Ronald Reagan gives his farewell address to the American people. In his speech, President Reagan spoke with particular enthusiasm about the foreign policy achievements of his administration.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

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    Military.com: VA Awards Contracts Worth Up to $55 Billion for Private-Sector Care
    9 Jan 2019 | Military.com | By Patricia Kime
    The Department of Veterans Affairs has awarded the first of several regional contracts for its new Community Care Network that will replace various private-sector health care programs for veterans with VA health benefits.
    The VA announced Dec. 28 that it awarded management contracts for three regions covering 36 states, plus Washington, D.C.; Puerto Rico; and the U.S. Virgin Islands, to Optum Public Sector Solutions Inc., a government-services arm of Optum, the health services arm of UnitedHealthcare.
    The contracts, for Regions 1, 2 and 3, are for a base period of one year, starting Jan. 18, and seven renewable one-year options through 2026, worth a total of $55.2 billion, if all options are exercised.
    The VA Mission Act, signed into law last June, stipulated that the VA consolidate its multiple private-sector care programs, including the VA Choice and Patient Centered Community Care programs, into a single, comprehensive community care system that will supplement the VA’s own system of medical centers and clinics.
    By law, the VA must have the framework for the new Community Care Network in place by June. The VA currently is ironing out rules regarding how and when veterans can get medical care in the private sector, paid for by the VA, rather than receive medical care at VA facilities.
    According to the VA, the new private care management companies will be responsible for project management, establishing medical networks and overseeing them, handling referrals from the VA and managing claims, providing quality control and administering pharmacy benefits networks, as well as dental networks and other services.
    VA spokesman Terrence Hayes said that, while current contracts provide primary care, inpatient and outpatient specialty care, third-party administration and other services, the new contractors will cover these areas and more, providing expanded health care services as well as medical management services, claims processing and audits, data analytics and exchange of health care information.
    About 30 percent of VA medical appointments occur in the private sector. At a hearing on implementation of the VA Mission Act on Dec. 19, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie told lawmakers that the department is in the process of crafting eligibility and access standards to determine who can receive care in the private sector under the new program.
    Lawmakers at that hearing, a joint meeting of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committees, expressed concern that the VA would go too far in allowing access to private care — a move Democrats say would undermine VA health care and be a step toward privatizing the VA.
    Republicans also said the VA’s lack of transparency regarding rules and costs is a cause for concern.
    VA officials said a contract award for Region 4, which covers most of the western states, is expected in April. Awards for Regions 5 and 6, which include Alaska and the Pacific territories, will be given by the end of the year.
    Contractors are expected to have their networks up and running at two sites within 180 days of a contract award and be fully operational within a year of the award.
    "These contract awards reflect our ongoing commitment to increasing veterans’ access to care," Wilkie said in the release on Optum on Dec. 28. "As part of VA’s modernization efforts, we designed the new network based on feedback from veterans and other stakeholders, along with lessons learned from the Veterans Choice Program. We are confident this new network will greatly improve customer service for veterans and timeliness of payments to community providers."

    Military Times: Veterans welcome? Less than 2 percent of Capitol Hill staffers have military experience
    By: Leo Shane III | 21 hours ago
    WASHINGTON — Fewer than 2 percent of congressional staffers have served in the military, despite years of warning from advocates about the need to include veterans’ perspective in policy work and pledges from lawmakers to help separating service members find work.
    According to figures released this week by HillVets — a bipartisan networking group of Capitol Hill staffers with military experience — only about 200 of the 13,000-plus congressional staff have military backgrounds. That equates to about 1.6 percent of the Capitol Hill workforce, not including elected officials.
    “There’s a fundamental lack of knowledge in Congress in regards to what these benefits mean and what it’s like to serve in the military,” said Justin Brown, founder of the group. “We don’t have that brain trust available.”
    The number of veterans elected to Congress this session dropped to under 100, the lowest level since before World War II. But that still equates to about 18 percent of legislators being veterans, far above the staffer levels.
    In the executive branch, about 31 percent of federal employees are veterans. The Defense Department (48 percent) and Department of Veterans Affairs (33 percent) have among the highest veteran employment rates of any agency, while Health and Human Services (8 percent) and the Environmental Protection Agency (9 percent) are among the lowest.
    Even those rates far outpace the congressional representation. House and Senate Republicans did slightly better than their Democratic counterparts in hiring staffers with military experience, but still did not break the 2 percent employment mark.
    The latest HillVets figure is actually lower than past estimates of veterans employed on Capitol Hill, but Brown said the total number of veterans staffers has basically stayed flat for the last five years.
    “As it is now, we have staff writing policy for veterans who have never set foot in a VA hospital,” said Brown, a Navy veteran who previously worked on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “We’re not suggesting that Capitol Hill should have upwards of 50 percent like the Defense Department. But the numbers should be higher than this.”
    While many Hill offices don’t employ even one veteran, Brown said his group has seen success stories with individual offices.
    For example, Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., has five working on his staff. He said their perspective is invaluable.
    “As a member of both the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, being able to consult with them about their experiences and seek their advice helps me to make well-informed decisions,” he said in a statement.
    “The veterans in my office have served the country in our armed forces, and working in a Senate office is an extension of that service.”
    HillVets has been pushing for more veterans hiring for the past five years, especially in congressional policy posts. The group has been sharing a list of more than 40 prospective staffers from its network of veterans along with the latest research findings, in an effort to help fix the problem.
    “There are veterans out there and they want to serve,” Brown said. “But we’ve never seen a collective effort to really take on the issue. It’s going to take work to fix it.”

    Washington Post: Trump administration lays groundwork to declare national emergency to build wall
    By Erica Werner, Josh Dawsey, Mike DeBonis and Seung Min Kim | January 10 at 9:31 PM
    The White House has begun laying the groundwork for a declaration of national emergency to build President Trump’s border wall, a move certain to set off a firestorm of opposition in Congress and the courts but one that could pave the way for an end to the three-week government shutdown.
    The administration is eyeing unused money in the Army Corps of Engineers budget, specifically a disaster spending bill passed by Congress last year that includes $13.9 billion allocated but not spent for civil works projects, two people with knowledge of the developments said Thursday.
    Trump has urged the Army Corps to determine how fast contracts could be signed and whether construction could begin within 45 days, according to one of the people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the preparations.
    The list includes dozens of flood control projects in areas affected by recent natural disasters, including the Texas coastline inundated by Hurricane Harvey and parts of Puerto Rico battered by Hurricane Maria. The military construction budget is also being looked at as a potential source for unspent funds, with billions more potentially available there.
    The preparations are taking place with talks at an impasse over Trump’s demands for $5.7 billion to construct more than 200 miles of wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Democrats are staunchly opposed, leading to a partial government shutdown that on Saturday will become the longest in U.S. history.
    Some 800,000 federal workers are about to miss their first paychecks since the shutdown began Dec. 22, and problems plaguing shuttered national parks, food inspection processes and other federal services are multiplying.
    The Senate unanimously passed legislation Thursday that would guarantee back pay to furloughed federal workers once the shutdown ends, although thousands of government contractors who have been furloughed may never recoup their losses.
    Trump, who walked out of a White House negotiating session Wednesday after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) refused to agree to pay for his wall, reiterated Thursday that he may declare a national emergency if Democrats don’t give him what he wants.
    “Now if we don’t make a deal with Congress, most likely I will do that,” Trump said to Fox News host Sean Hannity about an emergency declaration in an interview that aired Thursday night. “I would actually say I would. I can’t imagine any reason why not because I’m allowed to do it. The law is 100 percent on my side.”
    The president and members of his administration have been depicting a humanitarian and public safety crisis at the border, focusing on drugs flowing into the United States and violence by unauthorized immigrants. There was a significant uptick in border apprehensions in 2018, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, especially of immigrant families, but border apprehensions remain much lower than the high levels seen in the 1980s through the 2000s.
    Asked about a timetable for a national emergency declaration, the president said he would see how it goes with Congress.
    But on Capitol Hill there were no signs of progress, and instead lawmakers of both parties were bracing for Trump to declare a national emergency. Democrats were exploring their options on how to respond.
    Democratic staffers from leadership offices and relevant committees met Thursday afternoon to discuss a potential response. According to an attendee, the meeting focused on undercutting any case that the border situation constituted a national emergency under the legal definition, and highlighting projects that might be put at risk if Trump were to raid other accounts to fund the wall.
    House Democratic leadership staff has explored the possibility of a lawsuit against the administration. Although no final determinations have been made, the current thinking is that Congress probably would not have standing to sue, according to a leadership aide.
    State attorneys general or people directly affected by a border wall — such as landowners who have property along the U.S.-Mexico boundary — would probably have to file the lawsuit, and the House could file a friend-of-the-court brief.
    Pelosi declined to say how the House would respond to a national emergency declaration when questioned at a news conference Thursday.
    “If and when the president does that, you’ll find out how we will react,” Pelosi said. “But I think the president will have problems on his own side of the aisle for exploiting the situation in a way that enhances his power.”
    Indeed, a number of Republicans have expressed qualms or outright opposition about Trump declaring a national emergency, including members of the House Armed Services Committee who object to the prospect of the administration targeting funds within the Pentagon’s military construction budget.
    Others cautioned against the administration taking executive action on an issue that should be Congress’s purview.
    “It’s not the way to do it. I can understand why they’re looking at it,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho). “I don’t like the idea of pulling money out of defense and military construction and the Army Corps of Engineers. That’s not a good option.”
    Asked Thursday whether she would support Trump invoking national security powers to start wall construction, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), an Appropriations Committee member, replied: “No.”
    Dan Eberhart, a GOP donor who is often supportive of Trump, said, “Weaponizing a national emergency to achieve a policy objective is usually something that happens in banana republics, not George Washington’s republic.”
    But other Republicans were ready for Trump to take the step.
    In a statement Thursday, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) accused Pelosi of intransigence that has brought talks to an end, and said that “it is time for President Trump to use emergency powers to fund the construction of a border wall/barrier.”
    “I hope it works,” Graham added.
    “There’s no question, it’s perfectly legal,” said Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.). “I wish we didn’t have to.”
    While most Democrats said Trump would be acting recklessly and illegally if he declared a national emergency, some were open to the approach.
    “Honestly I would be glad, because then it would get shut down in court and we could move on,” said Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.), a freshman who unseated a Republican in a swing suburban district. “Hopefully he figures that out pretty quick.”
    One Democratic aide called an emergency declaration an “elegant way out of this mess” — one that would allow Trump and Republicans to declare to their most fervent supporters that they had taken Democrats to the brink, while Democrats would quickly move to tie up any construction in the courts.
    The House and Senate could move quickly to pass a bill to reopen the government, predicated on assurances from Trump that he would sign the legislation.
    However, conservative Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who talks frequently with Trump, cautioned that a declaration of a national emergency would not necessarily lead to reopening the government.
    Many Democrats also say that an emergency declaration would benefit them politically by unifying their party while splitting Republicans, creating unease among some conservatives who have expressed discomfort with a president sidestepping Congress in a way they might see as similar to how President Barack Obama circumvented Congress on immigration.
    The president has various powers to act unilaterally, some claimed as inherent in the Constitution, others specifically delegated by Congress. On Capitol Hill, most lawmakers and aides are anticipating a declaration under the 1976 National Emergencies Act, which set out a formal process for declaring an emergency — and for Congress revoking it.
    To override an emergency declaration, both houses of Congress would have to pass a resolution doing so and present it to Trump for his signature — one he would presumably veto.
    The administration can expect a flood of court challenges if it proposes to build a wall without explicit congressional authorization. Indeed, a number of organizations are preparing for litigation, just waiting to see exactly what the president does.
    “The use of emergency powers to build a wall is unlawful, and we are prepared to sue as needed,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union Immigrants’ Rights Project, which has helped obtain dozens of court orders blocking Trump administration immigration policies.
    “There’s going to be a lot of lawsuits,” said Brian Segee, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “We are preparing” for possible litigation now, he said.
    Even as the discussions over a national emergency declaration were taking place, a final glimmer of hope for a way out of the impasse was extinguished when Graham declared talks over among a small group of Republican senators who had been meeting to discuss some kind of broader deal to end the shutdown.
    These deal-minded Senate Republicans had shuttled Thursday morning between meetings with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Vice President Pence, batting around a proposal that would include Trump’s desired $5.7 billion in wall funding, and a renewable, three-year status for certain immigrants brought illegally to the country as children, along with other provisions.
    But by midafternoon Thursday, Pence poured cold water on the idea, telling reporters at the Capitol that Trump wanted to wait on trying to make a deal for “dreamers” until the Supreme Court had ruled on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the Obama-era program that granted protections to these immigrants.
    Graham was glum afterward about where things stood, saying he has “never been more depressed about moving forward than right now.” Not long after that he issued his statement backing a national emergency declaration.
    At the same time, House Democrats pressed forward with their strategy of passing individual spending bills to reopen portions of the federal government that have been closed in the shutdown.
    The House on Thursday passed two more spending bills that would open parts of the government that have nothing to do with border security, largely with Democratic votes. A handful of Republicans joined Democrats in supporting those bills — 12 for a bill funding the departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, and 10 for a bill funding the Agriculture Department, the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies.
    But Trump has made clear he would veto these bills, and McConnell has said repeatedly that he will not bring up any legislation that doesn’t have Trump’s support.
    “There’s no wall, there’s no deal,” Pence told reporters on Capitol Hill.

    Defense News: Pentagon briefs senators on Syria plans, leaving unanswered questions
    By: Joe Gould | 15 hours ago
    WASHINGTON — Pentagon officials visited Capitol Hill on Thursday to reassure lawmakers amid confusion over plans to implement President Donald Trump’s order for U.S. troops to withdraw from Syria — but some Democrats and Republicans were left unsatisfied.
    The Defense Department’s undersecretary for policy, John Rood, and Army Lt. Gen. Richard Clarke, director for strategy, plans, and policy for the Joint Staff, gave the Senate Armed Services Committee a classified briefing that emphasized the withdrawal’s deliberate pace and the ongoing U.S. support for the Kurdish and Arab militias working alongside American troops since 2015.
    The briefing came as Trump is widely seen as backtracking on his surprise Dec. 19 decision to pronounce the Islamic State group defeated and start a “rapid withdrawal” of 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria. The move sparked criticism from GOP lawmakers and was followed by the resignation of both Jim Mattis as defense secretary and Brett McGurk as the U.S. envoy to forces fighting ISIS.
    The plan fell into further disarray after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan refused to meet with national security adviser John Bolton during the U.S. official’s visit to Ankara. Erdogan dismissed Bolton’s demand that Turkey assure the safety of U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters. Erdogan said Bolton had made a “grave mistake” in setting that condition for the pullout of troops.
    Exiting the meeting between Pentagon officials and lawmakers Thursday, SASC chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said he has requested the administration ensure Israel and U.S.-backed Kurds “are well taken care of on this — and I believe they will be.”
    Inhofe otherwise praised Trump’s withdrawal plans as conditions-based and, “in spite of some rhetoric to the contrary,” not a reversal.
    “You guys always jump on his style,” Inhofe told reporters, “but [Trump] also realizes he’s not going to do something that we’re not ready to do, that we’re not equipped to do. I believe that will happen, and I got that assurance, including in this meeting.”
    Some Republicans were still skeptical. Asked if he was satisfied there wouldn’t be a hasty pullout, SASC member Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said: “Not yet.”
    “I think there [has] got to be some sort of conditions placed on this withdrawal, and if it’s just purely time-based, I don’t think it’s a good idea,” he said.
    Sen. Kevin Cramer, a new senator and SASC member, revealed mixed feelings, saying he was encouraged with some aspects of the withdrawal plans, including what officials said about the pace of the withdrawal — but he still had questions.
    “My greatest concern probably is the Kurds and whether or not — just how defenseless we’re going to leave them,” Cramer said, adding later that U.S. support going forward would be “not insignificant.”
    Still, Cramer, a North Dakota Republican who was elected after aligning himself with Trump, suggested it’s unclear whether Trump will change his mind again.
    “It seems to me the questions I would have, and a lot of us would have, can only be answered by the president, and I say that because his orders were rather specific,” Cramer said. “My question for him would be: ‘Can you foresee conditions changing that would cause you to change your mind.’ ”
    SASC Democrats offered criticism of the Trump administration, arguing it had not significantly backtracked since Dec. 19.
    “I think the president’s call to withdraw from Syria [is] a mistake,” said New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees. “I think it’s a major foreign policy blunder because not only does it abandon the Kurds and the Syrian Democratic Forces, but it leaves Russia and Iran to expand their influence in Syria.”
    SASC ranking member Jack Reed, D-R.I., has predicted that a “withdrawal of forces without any political, diplomatic or military support” would have dire consequences.
    The U.S. presence in Syria has been a bulwark against ISIS in Iraq, and its withdrawal will likely revitalize the group’s underground elements throughout the Middle East, Reed said. Plans for the U.S. to leave have spurred its allies to seek support from other powers in the region, including Russia, Iran and the Syrian government.
    “I don’t think you can reverse the damage,” Reed said.
    Though the Obama administration was criticized as an unreliable partner in the Mideast, its foreign policy decisions were at least based on analysis and vetted through the government and allies, Reed said. Trump, by contrast, announced his Syria decision on Twitter.
    “This tweet was completely disruptive, unstaffed by anyone I can identify, without any consultation with significant allies,” Reed said. “Frankly, [Middle Eastern allies] are looking at everything we do in that same context: This could evaporate tomorrow, this could be amended — and by the way, they never considered our problems.”

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