President Signs VA Bill into Law

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On Thursday, President Barack Obama signed a VA reform bill into law that will allow tens of thousands of military veterans to receive long awaited care from private doctors almost immediately, according to Matthew Daly and Darlene Superville, Boost for vets’ health: Obama signs new law. Other changes will take awhile under the $16.3 billion law marking the government’s most comprehensive response to the Veterans Affairs scandals that led to the ousting of Eric Shinseki as VA Secretary. Veterans who waited at least a month for a medical appointment or live 40 miles from a Veterans Affairs hospital or clinic will now be able to see a private doctor at a cost to the government. VA officials said the law will also allow the expansion of VA staff by hiring thousands of doctors, nurses and mental health counselors to alleviate the long wait periods, however, this will take months to years to complete as the VA will also open 27 new clinics across the country taking two years. Obama signed the bill at Fort Belvoir, an army base in Virgina just outside Washington where service members, veterans groups and military leaders attended the ceremony with lawmakers from both parties. Obama, during the ceremony, said: “This will not and cannot be the end of our effort. And even as we focus on the urgent reforms we need at the VA right now, particularly around wait lists and the health care system, we can’t lose sight of our long-term goals for our service members and our veterans.” Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said, “Anybody who thinks this is going to fix the problem is not being honest about this” citing a host of issues the bill leaves unaddressed, from veterans’ suicides and homelessness to a stubborn backlog in disability claims. Daniel Dellinger, national commander for the America Legion, the nation’s largest veterans group, said: “But it is only one step and only a beginning.” Under the new law, employment rules will be revised to make it easier to fire senior VA executives judged to be negligent or performing poorly, according to the article. The former Proctor and Gamble CEO turned VA Secretary on July 30, McDonald, travels to Phoenix Friday to visit the VA hospital where the scandal began amid reports of secret waiting lists and patients dying before they could receive care. The VA reported in mid-July that 35,000 vets had a waiting period of 90 days for initial appoints, down from 57,000 mid-May, and last week announced its plan to fire two supervisors and discipline four other employees in Colorado and Wyoming accused of falsifying health care data. According to AOL’s report, Major provisions of veterans health care bill, congressional budget analyst put the cost of the bill at $16.3 billion over three years and estimates it will add $10 billion to federal deficits over the next 10 years. Here’s a summary of the legislation provided by AOL:

-Devotes $10 billion to pay private doctors to treat qualifying veterans who can’t get prompt appointments at the VA’s nearly 1,000 hospitals and outpatient clinics, or those who live far from them. Only veterans who enrolled in VA care as of Aug. 1 or live at least 40 miles away are eligible for outside care.

-Devotes $5 billion to hire more doctors, nurses and other medical and mental health professionals.

-Authorizes $1.3 billion to open 27 new VA outpatient clinics and other medical facilities in 18 states and Puerto Rico.

-Grants the VA secretary authority to fire immediately poor-performing senior executives. They would have seven days to appeal, with a final resolution 21 days later.

-Expands a scholarship program for children of veterans killed in the line of duty to include surviving spouses.

-Allows all returning veterans and eligible dependents to qualify for in-state tuition at public colleges and universities under the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

-Cuts funding for annual bonuses for VA employees to $360 million, $40 million less than last year.

Ground Zero Workers Get Cancer, Soldier’s Home Demolished, VA Health Care Deal Reached and Democrats Cashing in on Impeachment

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Even though the events of 9/11 happened over a decade ago, the scars still remain for the families who lost loves ones and continues to threaten the lives of those who risked theirs to save others. An AOL article reports, Scary statistic about Ground Zero workers, more than 2,500 rescuers and responders have been diagnosed with cancer which is a significant increase from last year’s 1,140 cases, according to Mount Sinai Hospital’s World Trade Center Heath Program. In addition, scientist say workers also have increased rates of post traumatic stress disorder, asthma and other respiratory diseases compared to the rest of the population. The cancer is believed to be the result of exposure to toxic debris from the collapse of the Twin Towers that sent a smoke plume into the air causing air pollution experts to say the dust that floated around for months after the attack was toxic and carried more than 2,500 contaminants. The Victim Compensation Fund expects to receive more claims by the Oct. 14 deadline, meanwhile as of June 30, 1,150 are on the list and 800 eligible for compensation.

In Florida, the Miami-Dade county’s decision to demolish an active duty soldier’s home while he was training for deployment did not sit well with the district judge, AOL reports, Judge blasts Fla. county for demolishing soldier’s home. According to Fox News, “Jesus Jimenez was warned about code violations including exposed wires and a broken roof … he requested an extension to get those things fixed … the city claimed that active duty was not an excuse.” The Daily Mail reported that in 2011 the city knocked down Jimenez’s home where he, his five month pregnant wife, diabetic daughter, hearing-impaired brother and mother-in-law all lived leaving them homeless. Military.com explains that Jimenez requested a stay to postpone the demolition four years earlier citing the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, a federal law “intended to postpone or suspend certain civil obligations to enable service members to devote full attention to duty and relieve stress on the family members.” However, Miami-Dade county said the act did not apply to him because he was a reservist at the time of the request and the original request was for 90 days only. During the four years, he was training, deployed or sometimes home. Unfortunately, now that the case has reached U.S. District Judge Robert N, Scola Jr., the county’s excuse for the demolition doesn’t fly, the Ledger reports. The Miami Herald reports that in Scola’s order he wrote the county had missed the point saying: “Plaintiffs’ behavior was by no means perfect … but by enforcing the [Servicemembers Act], this Court has vindicated a national policy of high priority.” If a settlement is not reached, a trial is set for September to decide what Miami-Dade country owes Jimenez.

While this injustice is being corrected, in Washington D.C., Senate Veterans Affairs Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and House Veterans Affairs Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., speaks during a news conference Monday to outline their agreement on a compromise plan to fix the veteran health care system. According to Matthew Daly, House-Senate negotiators approve $17B VA bill, a bipartisan deal to improve the broken veterans’ health system would authorize $17 billion to fix the scandalized health program. The House and Senate negotiators approved the bill to overhaul the Department of Veterans Affairs and reform the program scandalized by long waits for health care and VA workers falsifying records to cover up delays. The 28 member conference committee vote on late Monday sends the bill for a full House and Senate vote where approval is expected later this week. The bill is suppose to help veterans avoid long wait times, hire more doctors and nurses to treat them and make it easier to fire executives at the VA. The funding includes $10 billion in emergency spending to help veterans who can’t get prompt appointments with VA doctors to obtain care outside, $5 billion to hire doctors, nurses and other medial staff and $1.5 billion to lease 27 new clinics across the country. The Senate, meanwhile, is et to vote Tuesday to confirm Robert McDonald as the new VA secretary replacing Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson. Lawmakers hope to send the VA reform bill to the prsident later this week. Miller and Sanders say the bill will require $12 billion in new spending after accounting for $5 billion in unspecified cuts from the VA’s budget. On Monday, Miller said: “Taking care of our veterans is not an inexpensive proposition, and our members understand that. The VA has caused this problem and one of the ways that we can help solve it is to give veterans a choice, a choice to stay in the system or a choice to go out of the system” to get government-paid health care from a private doctor. Before a House vote later this week, Miller said: “Obviously some of our members will need a little more educating than others.” Sanders added: “Planes and tanks and guns are a cost of war. So is taking care of the men and women who fight our battles.” Miller and Sanders expect the bill to pass at the end of the week before Congress leaves for a five week recess. If passed by Congress and signed by President Obama, the veterans’ bill would be one of the few significant bills signed into law this year, Daly reports. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama welcomes the bipartisan deal as “much-needed reforms that need to be implemented.” According to Daly: “The compromise measure would require the VA to pay private doctors to treat qualifying veterans who can’t get prompt appointments at the VA’s nearly 1,000 hospitals and outpatient clinics, or those who live at least 40 miles from one of them. Only veterans who are enrolled in VA care as of Aug. 1 or live at least 40 miles away would be eligible to get outside care.”

While Congress’ bipartisan spirit for now seems to be alive and well, House Democrats are profiting in a big way due to House Speaker John Boehner’s announcement of a lawsuit. According to their campaign chief on Tuesday, House Democrats have raised $1 million on Monday alone due to the chatter about impeaching President Barack Obama and the announcement of a lawsuit against Obama that opened the door to the fundraising drive, Philip Elliott reports, Democrats have million-dollar day on impeachment. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Steve Israel told reports that ,since Boehner announced in June his plan to sue the president, Democrats’ House campaign arm raised $7.6 million. At a breakfast organized by Christian Science Monitor, Israel said: “I understand the strategy is intended to gin up its base. Every time they talk about suing the president, that just ignites our base.” However, Boehner called the talk a “scam” and his party has “no plans” to open impeachment proceedings concluding that Democrats are the ones fueling the talk. Since January 2013, House Democrats have raised almost $125 million this election cycle. The average donation, according to Israel, was just $19. On Sunday, Democrats in an email solicitation said: “The fate of Obama’s presidency is at stake.” On the other hand, Boehner says: “This whole talk about impeachment is coming from the president’s own staff and coming from Democrats on Capitol Hill. Why? Because they’re trying to rally their people to give money and to show up in this year’s elections. It’s all a scam started by Democrats at the White House.” Republicans will likely keep their House majority after November’s elections due to redrawn congressional district that favor the GOP and the fact both parties are contesting only a few seats. Even so, the parties’ House campaign committees have already raised $226 million as of July 1. Republicans hold 234 seats in the House and Democrats have 199 seats with two vacancies available.

Repubs Fight Obamacare, Botched Executions, Firing Squads, Obama Limits Business Mergers, Failed VA Reform and the End of a Dream

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According to federal data released Wednesday to ProPublica, nearly one million transactions on the federal exchange have occurred following more than 5 million people who signed up using Healthcare.gov before April 19, the end of the open enrollment period, according to Charles Ornstein, Obamacare Website Getting So Much Traffic It’s Surprising Experts. All told, between federal exchange and 14 state exchanges, more than 8 million signed up fro coverage. The data covers the 36 states using the exchange including Texas, Florida, Illinois, Georgia and Michigan. Charles Gaba, who runs the site acasignups.net tracks enrollment numbers estimating that between 6,000 and 7,000 people sign up for coverage reach day on the exchange after the official enrollment period ended. About 86 percent of those sign ups are eligible for government subsidies to help lower their monthly payments, whole those subsidies are being challenge by lawsuits in federal court contenting that they aren’t allowed by the Affordable Care Act. Two federal appeals courts came to conflicting decisions Tuesday on the permissibility of subsidies with one saying no and one saying yes. The Obama administration said they will remain in effect as the cases proceed in court. The next time that the general public can sign up fro coverage through the exchanges is November 15 to February 15, 2015. On Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters: “You know, the discussions about Obamacare and what the replacement bill would look like continue. We’re trying to build consensus around one plan. Not there yet.” According to Igor Bobic, Don’t Worry, Republicans Are Still Working On A Plan To Replace Obamacare, the remarks were made following an April decision by the party to delay a promised alternative to the exchange. However, Boehner is intent on keeping his focus on Obamacare by trying to sue the Obama administration for failing to implement a portion of the law in a timely manner.

While healthcare seems to continue to be a hot button issue, another issue has taken the spotlight recently due to botched executions. An influential federal appeal court judge on Thursday said that the nation’s third botched lethal injection in six months reinforces his call to bring back firing squads, according to the Associated Press, Judge argues for return of firing squad executions. Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the 9th U.S. circuit Court of Appeals, said lethal injection was a dishonest way to disguise the brutal nature of capital punishment, the AP reported. Kozinski wrote unfavorably about lethal injection in his decision Monday and while arguing against delaying the execution of Joseph Rudolph Wood III in Phoenix, who gasped for more than 90 minutes for breath taking nearly two hours to die Wednesday. According to Kozinski, a properly trained firing squad would be foolproof and quick in executing an inmate and avoid complications surrounding lethal injection. He told the AP: “I’ve always thought executions should be executions not medical procedures.” Kozinski said he supports capital punishment but states and federal government should stop lethal injections for a foolproof plan such as firing squads or the guillotine, however, he doubted that the public would accept the latter form.

From botched executions to bad business practices, President Obama is addressing misgivings about tax driven overseas mergers of U.S. corporations by issuing a new call to end the practice now and questions the patriotism and citizenship of those companies, the Associated Press explains, Obama wants limits on US company mergers abroad. The push comes as many companies try to reorganize with foreign entities partly to reduce their tax payments to the U.S. Though Obama did include a proposal to rein in such mergers and acquisitions in his 2015 budget, his administration brought more attention to these transactions last week with a letter from Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew to House and Senate leaders saying such deals known as inversion “hollow out the U.S. corporate income tax base.” Obama is urging Congress to enact legislation retroactive to May in order to stop companies from rushing into deals to avoid the law. However, Republicans and some Democrats prefer to make these changes as part of a comprehensive overhaul of corporate tax code that would also lower corporate tax rates and reduce incentives for companies to seek out countries with lower taxes. Administration officials estimate the deals if continued will cost the U.S. Treasury $17 billion in lost revenue over the next decade. Lew in the letter said: “We should not be providing support for corporations that seek to shift their profits overseas to avoid paying their fair share of taxes.”

Meanwhile, while the tax code has failed to regulate the way it should, the VA continues to suffer from fallout of scandals and Congress failing to do its part. In an interview Wednesday night with Larry King, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) criticized President Obama for underestimating the Republican opposition causing them to spin their wheels waiting for a legislative compromise. Sam Stein reports,
How VA Reform Fell Apart In Less Than 4 Days, on Thursday Sanders told reporters he may have also been victimized by the oppositions, announcing that after weeks of negotiations with House Affairs Committee Chair Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) over reform legislation aimed at the Department of Veterans Affairs and his Senate Veterans Affairs Committee that negotiations have ground to a halt. The two men spoke on Monday for an hour via phone conference with acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson on the costs of the VA reform bill that the Congressional Budget Office valued at $50 billion for the Senate bill and $54 billion for the House bill. The money was meant to allow vets without a VA facility the option of going outside the system for medical treatment, however, the discussion moved to funding needed to repair facilities, build new ones, hire personnel and update records systems totaling $17.6 billion according to Gibson. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he was worried on Tuesday that VA reform would not get done before the recess in August. Sanders said that Gibsons request can be reduced and the cost for veterans to find care outside the VA could be lowered as well in an effort to find middle ground. However, Sanders and miller have not talked again since their Monday phone call. On Wednesday, Sanders upped the public pressure by going to the Senate floor to warn about the possibility of Congress leaving for recess without solving the issue that lawmakers deem a must fix crisis followed by a press conference to brief reporters. On Wednesday, Jessica Eggimann, Chief clerk of Miller’s committee, sent an email to a top staffer on Sanders’ committee, asking her to forward the notice that Miller was hosting an open conference committee meeting the next day to discuss the legislation. However, Sanders’ office took the move as inconsiderate and a political stunt. The worst offense for Democrats was a line asking Sanders to join Miller in convening a conference on July 28 “for a formal vote on this proposal.” Sanders organized a press conference with fellow Senate Democrats criticizing Miller for demanding a vote on a proposal that did not adhere to the outlines of earlier discussion, according to an aide. A Senate Democratic aide said that by ratcheting up the politics of VA reform, the party increased the possibility of passage. By the end of the day Thursday, both Sanders and Miller paved the way to restart talks saying that they would work through the weekend to finalize a deal.

Meanwhile, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on Thursday demanded in a statement that the Obama administration needed to “wind down” a policy helping more than 550,000 undocumented workers who came to the U.S. as children which could restart deportation of young people who lived here for years. Elise Foley reports, Marco Rubio: End Relief For Dreamers, Rubio’s statement outlined suggestions to deal with the crisis of more than 57,000 unaccompanied minors who cross the U.S. border illegally since October. According to the statement, Rubio believes: “Because the recent wave from Central America spiked after DACA was announced, it is in our interest to wind down this program. If you are not currently in it, you should not be eligible for it.” New immigrants aren’t eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, the Obama administration policy that allows undocumented immigrants called Dreamers who enter the country as children before June 15, 2007 to apply for temporary authorization to stay and work legally. Most Republicans have opposed the policy since its introduction in 2012, but the GOP’s calls to end the policy have gotten louder. All 24 Republican House members and both senators in the Texas congressional delegation sent a letter to Obama on Thursday calling for suspension of efforts to expand deportation relief. The letter reads: “Your Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Executive Order has shielded over half a million illegal immigrants from current law. And it has sent the regrettable message that illegal immigration will not be punished in the United States.” Last month, according to Foley, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) was joined by 32 House Republicans calling for Obama to end DACA and in a letter Issa accused Obama of selectively enforcing the law. The letter reads: “DACA rewards families and individuals who have broken our laws, further encouraging others to seek similar benefits.” Lawmakers have been vague about what to do with these undocumented young people who are eligible for DACA. Cruz’s bill would apply to future relief, while Rubio said relief should not be given out in the future meaning current DACA recipients could keep their temporary status. However, ending the policy could mean that undocumented young people could risk deportation and those current under the policy would eventually have to reapply. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) explained earlier this month that if the administration ends DACA and similar policies protecting Dreamers from deportation: “They should not be under a process created that the president doesn’t have the authority to do, and they would be in the status that they were in prior to this program being established.”