American Legion Daily News Clips 5.17.18

From: Proffet, William A. [mailto:WProffet@legion.org]
Sent: Thursday, May 17, 2018 4:28 AM
Subject: American Legion Daily News Clips 5.17.18

Good morning, Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Thursday, May 17, 2018, which is Brown Bag It Thursday, Hummus Day, National Notebook Day, National Cherry Cobbler Day, National Mushroom Hunting Day and International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia.

Today in History:

Ø 1954: In a major civil rights victory, the U.S. Supreme Court hands down an unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, ruling that racial segregation in public educational facilities is unconstitutional.

Ø On this day in 1769, George Washington launches a legislative salvo at Great Britain’s fiscal and judicial attempts to maintain its control over the American colonies. With his sights set on protesting the British policy of “taxation without representation,” Washington brought a package of non-importation resolutions before the Virginia House of Burgesses.

Ø 1973: In Washington, D.C., the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, headed by Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina, begins televised hearings on the escalating Watergate scandal. One week later, Harvard law professor Archibald Cox was sworn in as special Watergate prosecutor.

Ø On this day in 1943, the crew of the Memphis Belle, one of a group of American bombers based in Britain, becomes the first B-17 crew to complete 25 missions over Europe.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

Ø Military Times: Sweeping veterans policy bill passed overwhelmingly in the House

Ø Military Times: New veterans ID cards finally being delivered, but feature Office Depot’s logo on back

Ø Defense News: Broad new war authorization roils US lawmakers

Ø Military Times: Democrats call for firing of VA’s top technology official

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Military Times:Sweeping veterans policy bill passed overwhelmingly in the House

By: Leo Shane III | 12 hours ago

WASHINGTON — House lawmakers advanced a $52 billion veterans legislative package on Wednesday that would overhaul outside medical care options for Department of Veterans Affairs patients, expand stipends for veteran caregivers and launch a review of the bureaucracy’s national footprint.

Despite the cost of the plan, the measure easily passed the chamber by a vote of 347-70 and has the blessing of the White House, which said the legislation “will help to ensure that veterans choose the VA by getting them the right care at the right time with the right provider.”

It’s expected to move quickly through the Senate, with that chamber’s top Democrat on veterans issues — Montana’s Jon Tester — saying earlier in the day he supports the package, and Republicans in the chamber already offering support.

Lawmakers have until the end of the month to finalize legislation, including new funding for the department’s controversial Choice program or risk disrupting health care for tens of thousands of veterans using the account.

House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Phil Roe, R-Tenn., dismissed concerns from critics about the scope and cost of the measure, particularly charges that the package is part of a slow erosion of VA responsibilities and services.

“Opponents of this bill will tell you, falsely, that it is aimed at eventual privatization of the VA health care system,” he said just before the vote. “That misconception is based on nothing but fear and rhetoric.

“A yes vote is a vote for access, for quality, for choice, for the long-term success and sustainability of the VA health care system, for caregivers and for veterans.”

Among the legislation’s opponents (all Democrats) was the committee’s ranking member, Minnesota Democratic Rep. Tim Walz, who voiced concerns that Republicans rejected proposals to exempt the costs from mandatory budget caps scheduled to take effect in coming years.

He also said that implementation of the massive veterans bill will fall to President Donald Trump’s administration, which “has been 40 days without a VA secretary” since the firing of VA Secretary Shulkin two months ago.

VA Choice and community care

The legislation, dubbed the VA Mission Act, is the culmination of nearly a year of work on the contentious issue of VA community care.

More than one-third of all VA-funded medical appointments last year took place in offices outside the Veterans Health Administration, but administration officials have pushed for more access to private-sector doctors to increase options for veterans facing long waits or travel for federal care.

In 2014, lawmakers passed the VA Choice program with that same idea. The program handles around 30,000 outside medical appointments a day, but has come under fire from conservatives for being too restrictive and bureaucratic for veterans looking for options outside VA.

Last month, acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said the Choice program will run out of money by the end of this month. The VA Mission Act include $5.2 billion in bridge funding to keep that program running for another year, until it is consolidated with other department care programs.

That consolidation is expected to simplify and expand the rules for accessing outside care, but still keeping VA officials involved in veterans’ over health care plans.

It requires veterans become eligible for private-sector care options if VA does not provide adequate medical options for patients, including long travel times, long wait times or poor service ratings. It revises payment rates for community care to Medicare rates, to ease concerns about reimbursement for those visits.

It would also authorize two walk-in visits at local private-sector offices for any veterans who have used department health care services in the last two years. Those appointments may require a co-pay.

Critics of the plan — including federal unions — have said the changes are a major step towards privatizing VA health services by shifting billions of dollars from VA accounts to private companies. They’ve also accused the White House of working towards that goal, in an effort to hollow out VA.

But VA officials have defended the idea as modernizing VA operations, and acknowledging that the medical needs of millions of veterans cannot be shouldered by the department alone.

Numerous House Democrats, who in the past have warned about the privatization push, backed the new legislation, saying it strikes the balance between medical access and preserving the department.

Caregivers and asset review

In order to attract that Democratic support, Republican House leaders added a dramatic expansion of the current VA caregivers stipend to the measure.

The issue has been a top priority of veterans organizations in recent years, since currently only caregivers of veterans from the post-9/11 era are eligible for monthly stipends through the department. The new proposal would expand that to veterans of all eras, first starting with pre-1975 veterans and later phasing in the remaining group over two years.

The obstacle in getting that expansion has been the cost. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that more than 41,000 caregivers could be added to the program over the next five years, at a cost of nearly $7 billion. But that bill is expected to rise even more in following years.

But the community care overhaul is expected to total more than three times that total by 2023, making it a more palatable concession in the context of the larger legislative package.

The asset review portions of the package resembles the framework of the Defense Department’s base closure and review commissions, although supporters have bristled at the comparison.

Under the plan, the president would establish a nine-member Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission, with representatives from veterans service organizations, the health care industry, and federal facility management.

The panel would meet in 2022 and 2023 to issue recommendations on “the modernization or realignment of Veterans Health Administration facilities.” That could include closing, reducing or expanding a host of VA health facilities across the country.

The cost of that work is unknown. Lawmakers have been reluctant to back new military base closing commissions because of controversies surrounding the 2005 round, which produced disputed savings totals.

But VA officials have repeatedly warned that their current footprint includes hundreds of outdated or obsolete facilities, and department administrators have severe restrictions on managing those locations. Roe said a “politically insulated process” is needed to fix that “massive and misaligned physical footprint” of VA.

Veterans support

In advance of the House vote, 38 veterans groups issued a letter of support for the legislation, calling it “a major step towards … making improvements to and investments in the VA health care system, creating integrated networks so that veterans have access to care when and where they need it, and providing the further recognition and assistance to family caregivers of severely disabled veterans deserve.”

The list included the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America — all organizations that have repeatedly warned members about the threat of privatization to VA operations.

Denise Rohan, national commander of The American Legion, praised Wednesday’s vote as a critical step forward to “streamline and fund the Department of Veterans Affairs’ many community care programs, expand caregiver benefits to pre-9/11 veterans and their families, and review VA infrastructure holdings.”

The measure also received support from Concerned Veterans for America, which has close ties to the current White House and has argued against the privatization label in recent years.

“The Mission Act would go a long way towards resolving problems with the VA’s existing community care programs and stabilizing the VA’s health care system,” CVA Executive Director Dan Caldwell said in a statement. “We’re also encouraged that the MISSION Act mandates a long-overdue review of the VA’s infrastructure across the country.”

No timetable has been set for when the Senate may vote on the measure, but Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said he hopes to take up the issue “without delay.”

In a gesture to colleagues, lawmakers changed the official name of the legislation to include Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, and former Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii. McCain and Johnson are both former prisoners of war, while Akaka (who died in April) was a longtime veterans advocate in his chamber.

Military Times: New veterans ID cards finally being delivered, but feature Office Depot’s logo on back

By: Leo Shane III | 20 hours ago

WASHINGTON — Thousands of veterans received their free veterans ID cards this week featuring their names, their branch of service and a bright red advertisement on the back.

The cards, approved by Congress almost three years ago, are available at no charge to veterans with good conduct discharges. But to pay for printing and delivery, the Department of Veterans Affairs partnered with Office Depot, whose logo is displayed on the back of each card.

The arrangement was first reported by Military.com earlier this week. VA officials dismissed concerns about the unusual decision to display a corporate logo on a federal ID, noting that Congress approved no funding for the program when it passed the requirement in summer 2015.

“As such, VA approached Office Depot regarding a partnership to print and mail ID cards to veterans after applications are reviewed and approved by VA staff,” said VA spokesman Curt Cashour. “Under the arrangement, Veterans are not required to pay a fee for the card.

“This is precisely the type of outside-the-box thinking that has been missing from the federal government for far too long and that we are bringing to the table under the leadership of President (Donald) Trump.”

Neither VA nor Office Depot officials would release the cost of the partnership to the office supply firm.

In a statement, Office Depot Vice President for Print Services Andrew Tomlin said the company will supply veterans with ID cards at no cost through the end of 2020 because “Office Depot recognizes the sacrifices that veterans have made and this partnership is one small way that we can give back and thank them for their service.”

The backs of the cards also feature contact information for the Veterans Crisis Line and a line specifying that the corporate logo “does not represent an endorsement of Office Depot’s general policies, activities, products or services” by the VA.

As of Monday, 10,735 veterans had received the ID cards, about one-tenth of the applications received through the VA website.

Administration officials touted the new card process in November, as part of their extended Veterans Day celebration. But shortly after the department began accepting online applications, the system was overwhelmed and taken offline.

Cashour said officials are confident those technical issues have now been resolved. Nearly 16,000 more veterans have been approved for the cards and are expected to receive them in the mail in coming weeks.

The new cards do not replace VA medical cards or official defense retiree cards, and will not carry any force of law behind them.

They are designed to be an easy way for veterans to prove their military service for private sector recognition or discounts, replacing the need for individuals to carry around copies of their discharge paperwork. Numerous states have adopted procedures to display veteran status on driver’s licenses to work around that problem.

Under rules developed by VA, individuals who served in the armed forces, including the reserve components, and have a character of discharge of honorable or general under honorable conditions are eligible for the new IDs. Veterans with other than honorable status are not eligible, a move that has upset some outside advocates.

Veterans can apply for the cards through the VA web site. Applicants must register through the site to begin the application process.

Defense News: Broad new war authorization roils US lawmakers

By: Joe Gould | 14 hours ago

WASHINGTON — Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said he wants to reach consensus on his expansive new war authorization before putting it to a vote, but that consensus seemed far away Wednesday.

The panel’s hearing on the measure, a bill co-sponsored by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., saw marked ideological splits among the panel’s Democrats and Republicans, highlighting the challenge of replacing the post-9/11 authorization for use of military force (AUMF). Those authorizations are widely considered stretched beyond their original intent.

Some lawmakers are objecting because the bill would not expire or limit the military’s expansion of counter-terrorism operations into new countries or against new groups.

While the AUMF would not authorize attacks against nation-states, it would explicitly permit continued operations against al-Qaida, the Taliban, the Islamic State and “associate forces” — offshoots like al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Shabab, the Haqqani Network and other groups the president designates.

The bill’s supporters say they sought to find the sweet spot between congressional oversight and micromanaging the president, acknowledging that balance had to be tilted to favor the Republican majorities in Congress.

While imperfect, the bill would “claw back some of the authority that rightly belongs to this institution,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.

“We’re trying to give Congress more of a role, recognizing that we need 60 votes to pass something,” Flake said. “It’s fine and nice to talk about what’s optimal and what we should have. We deal here in what we can pass.”

Still, stiff headwinds for the measure were on full display Wednesday, as Democratic Sens. Bob Menendez, of New Jersey; Ben Cardin, of Maryland, and Jeff Merkley, of Oregon, said the bill’s lack of a sunset was a no-go. (Democratic panelists Chris Coons and Bill Nelson support the bill.)

Cardin said he was reluctant to codify successive presidents’ over-broad interpretations of the post-9/11 authorization or legal language a president could find ways to skirt.

“I don’t know of any way other than a sunset in order to preserve the rights of our constitutional protections,” Cardin said.

From the left, Merkley on Wednesday announced his work on an alternative measure that would more tightly constrain the White House. It would include a three-year sunset provision and require explicit congressional approval to use ground troops.

From the right, libertarian Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., opposed the proposed AUMF as a blank check for unlimited war.

“We have completely flipped the Constitution on its head,” Paul said. “The Constitution says the role is ours by a simple majority vote. Now we’re saying … we can disapprove of it by a two-thirds vote. I cannot more strongly object to doing this.”

Corker, earlier in the hearing, defended the requirement for a supermajority.

“If the president decides he wants to go into Yemen and some other place, it takes a supermajority to stop him today. If you took up a bill to stop [the president from engaging in military action], the president would veto it, and it would take a supermajority to override it,” Corker said.

He suggested Republicans in control of Congress will not favor a bill with a sunset provision.

“It’s clear today that an AUMF will not become law if it contains a sunset provision. [That’s] just the balance of power here within Congress,” Corker said. “That is not going to happen, that is not a reality.”

The proposed authorization would not expire on a specific date, but it includes a process every four years for lawmakers to review the previous authorization and vote to repeal or modify it. Congressional inaction would allow the previous authorization to remain.

An added oversight measure would require the president to notify Congress within 48 hours if and when military operations are expanded into countries beyond Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen and Libya, or against “new designated associated forces.”

From there, Congress could launch a two-month review period and fast-track legislation to block military action.

Both Kaine and Corker argued that if such provisions had been part of the post-9/11 authorizations, it would have forced multiple votes in Congress.

“A process in this bill would make every [White House] report [on expanded military action] a decision point,” Kaine said. “I think this is an improvement.”

The committee heard from legal experts Wednesday for and against the proposed war authorization, respectively: John Bellinger, a former legal adviser for the State Department under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and Rita Siemion, of Human Rights First.

Outside of the hearing, 24 groups announced their opposition Wednesday, in a letter to Congress. Its signatories include groups as diverse as the conservative advocate FreedomWorks and the left-leaning Indivisible, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union — which tweeted, “The new Corker-Kaine AUMF is a dumpster fire of bad ideas.”

Military Times: Democrats call for firing of VA’s top technology official

By: Leo Shane III | 19 hours ago

WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats are demanding Veterans Affairs leaders fire the department’s acting chief information officer, saying his past involvement with questionable data collection during the 2016 presidential campaign raises concerns about his access to veterans’ personal information.

In a letter to VA Deputy Secretary Thomas Bowman sent Tues., May 15, 11 House and Senate Democrats also decried the “malign neglect” of the department’s electronic health record modernization efforts since VA Secretary David Shulkin was fired in March.

“This is evident through the failure to obtain qualified leadership for the Office of Information Technology, reports of political interference hindering EHR implementation, as well as the rampant vacancies for positions that ensure proper oversight of a new EHR system,” the letter stated.

“We ask that you act to swiftly resolve our concerns and ensure an interoperable VA EHR system with the Department of Defense expeditiously comes to fruition.”

In a statement Wednesday, acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie pushed back on the lawmakers’ request, calling Camilo Sandoval, the acting VA chief information officer, “an important member” of the VA leadership team.

”(He) has extensive experience in financial technology and digital mobile payments,” Wilkie said. “Along with his close working relationship with the White House, this makes him well suited to oversee VA’s IT infrastructure while the White House vets a permanent candidate for the position.”

Wilkie also said finalizing a decision on electronic health record modernization remains a top priority for department leaders. A plan to overhaul Veterans Affairs records was one of President Donald Trump’s most touted achievements last year, but the work has been stalled for weeks since Shulkin’s dismissal.

Multiple sources close to work on the issue say White House officials are wavering on whether to move ahead on contract plans with the Missouri-based Cerner Corp. to bring VA’s electronic medical records systems in line with the Defense Department.

The plan was designed to provide seamless lifelong medical files for service members, and was touted by Shulkin as potentially revolutionary to American medicine because of the interoperability between the massive Defense Department and VA health systems.

But concerns over Cerner’s work with military health officials in recent weeks have led to a halt in negotiations with the VA contract. The official mostly closely associated with that work — Scott Blackburn, VA’s acting executive for the Office of Information and Technology — left his post last month.

He was replaced by Sandoval, the former data operations director for Trump’s presidential campaign. Democrats in their letter Tuesday called his appointment unacceptable.

“This appointment raises serious data security concerns stemming from Mr. Sandoval’s previous position as the director of data operations in 2016 while the Trump campaign was contracting with Cambridge Analytica,” the letter stated.

“Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of personal information from tens of millions of Americans, including veterans, was an incredible breach of trust. As such, Mr. Sandoval’s role in these activities must be thoroughly examined and he should be put nowhere near veterans’ health and benefits data.”

The letter also references a Politico report that Sandoval is the subject of a $25 million lawsuit for harassment and discrimination against other campaign staffers. The letter signers asked for “a first-class leader who is capable of implementing the VA’s EHR modernization and fulfilling the VA’s obligation to our nation’s heroes” instead of Sandoval.

The letter notes that in the last four months, nearly 40 senior staffers have resigned from the department, “effectively stalling operations in essential areas such as information technology.”

Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have voiced concerns about extensive vacancies at the bureaucracy.

“In order to provide world-class service to our veterans, the VA must be fully staffed with driven, capable leaders,” the letter stated. “Current VA employees, who are dedicated to serving and honoring our veterans, are forced to shoulder the work of former-colleagues, contributing the low morale among the VA workforce.”

Signers of the letter included Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn. and ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee; Mark Takano, D-Calif. and the second-ranking Democrat on that panel; and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. and the second-ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

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