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.

Relief for the VA, Paul Ryan Rants, Saving Chicago, DC Gun Laws and Fast Food Worker’s Rights

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After six weeks of negotiations, House and Senate negotiators have agreed to a compromise to fix a veterans health program scandalized by long patient wait times and falsified records covering up delays and deaths. Matthew Daly reports, After 6 weeks, finally a deal on VA health care, the chairman of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees will hold a news conference on Monday afternoon to unveil a plan to authorize billions in emergency spending to lease 27 new clinics, hire more doctors and nurses and make it easier for veterans who can’t get prompt appointments with VA doctors to get outside care. An agreement Sunday by Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House panel, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the Senate veterans panel chair, was reached after many private meetings, no shows and public spats with only days left until Congress goes on a five week recess. A partisan impasse loomed which both sides hoped to avoid what Miller called the “sort of bickering and name-calling for which Washington has become infamous.” Three days later, via telephone from Florida and Vermont, Miller and Sanders were on the same page. The tentative deal requires a vote by a conference committee of House and Senate negotiators and a full vote in the House and Senate. The plan announced Monday, according to Miller and Sanders, is intended to “make VA more accountable and to help the department recruit more doctors, nurses and other health care professionals.” Luis Celli, legislative director for the American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans group, said on Sunday: “There is an emergency need to get veterans off the waiting lists. That’s what this is all about.” Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said: “It’s about time they’re doing their jobs. You don’t get a medal for doing your job.” An updated audit by the VA this month shows 10 percent of veterans seeking medical care at VA hospitals and clinics still wait 30 days for an appointment with 46,000 veterans waiting at least three months for an initial appointment and an additional 7,00 veterans who asked for appointments over the past decade that never got them. The Senate and House are set to adjourn at the end of the week until September and lawmakers from both parties see the VA bill as a top priority. Meanwhile, the Senate is also expected to vote this week to confirm former Procter Gamble CEO Robert McDonald as the new VA secretary, replacing Gibson.

While one problem may potentially be resolved this week, on Sunday, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) condemned the federal government’s approach to poverty reduction claiming the Obama administration is responsible for the system that “perpetuates poverty” in America, according to Ashley Alman’s article Paul Ryan Accuses Obama Administration Of System That ‘Perpetuates Poverty.’ On NBC’s “Meet the Press” Ryan came to discuss his new poverty proposal involving consolidating 11 federal anti-poverty programs including food stamps and housing vouchers into one program coordinated by each state. Host David Gregory commented that Ryan sounded like he had little “sympathy” for impoverished Americans. Ryan responded by saying: “We don’t want to have a poverty management system that simply perpetuates poverty. The federal government’s approach has ended up maintaining poverty, managing poverty, in many ways it has disincentivized people from going to work. Able-bodied people should go to work, and we should have a system that helps them do that so that they can realize their potential.” Ryan announced his poverty proposal Thursday saying it is an opportunity for reform that would be “budget neutral.” However, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) disagrees: “The core idea of the Ryan proposal is not a new idea at all: it’s nothing more than a block grant gussied up with some bells and whistles. If you look at the block grant proposal in the context of the Ryan-Republican budget, it would dramatically slash the resources available to help struggling families.”

As families to continue to struggle to keep their heads above water, cities are not only struggling to keep people working, but keep gun violence to a minimum. Glenn Minnis reports, Can Noah’s Arc save streets of Chicago?, Joakim Noah, an NBA All Star Center, on Friday spoke to a room full of teens and adolescents at a Major Adams Community Center room about gun and gang violence culture so out of control it has brought his hometown of Chicago to its knees. Noah spoke of his motivation to start his “Stand up Chicago” campaign: “It’s very important that we understand that this is not just a problem that’s going on on the South Side, the violence is not a problem that’s going on on the West Side. This is a Chicago problem.” Noah also enlisted the help of teammate and Chi-town native Derrick Rose who appeared on a 60 second PSA for his initiative. Join by rapper and Chicago native Common, he states in the PSA: “I stand for my city.” In a statement on his Noah’s Arc Foundation site, Noah and his mom, Cecilia Rodhe, called on all Chicagoans to “take a stand against violence and become ambassadors for peace and positivity.” Over the first seven months of the year, 207 homicides have taken place in Chicago with the most recent incident on July 4 weekend where the L.A. Times reported at least 16 people killed and 82 injured over three and half days. In response, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms has added seven more ATF agents to its former roster of 45 in hopes of somehow of corralling all the madness, according to Minnis. Noah summed up the goal of his organization by saying: “As somebody who plays for the Bulls, I feel like I’m somebody who represents the city, and I think that helping our youth is important. The summer months bring a lot of violence, and we felt it was urgent to get a public service announcement out now in order to bring some hope, change and support to the community. We have to find a way together, whether you’re rich, poor, black, white, whatever you are, to come together and solve this together. To me personally, this is just as important as winning a championship.”

Meanwhile, gun advocates in Washington, D.C. this weekend celebrate following a federal judge ruling that struck down the city’s ban on handguns in public, the AOL article, D.C.’s gun laws take another hit in handgun carry ruling, explains. District Judge Frederick Scullin reached the conclusion many other district courts reached in similar cases: “The Second Amendment secures an individual right … to carry a common weapon outside the home for self-defense.” The ruling prevents D.C. officials from enforcing public gun bans until licensing regulations are put in place. In 2008 a Supreme Court decision, District of Columbia v. Heller, overturned the city’s total ban on handguns ruling the Second Amendment guarantees the right to own weapons for self-defense, AOL reports. The latest decision comes from an Aug. 2009 lawsuit that, according to SCOTUSblog notes, got tangled up in the D.C. district’s legal red tape for five years frustrating the plaintiffs. “The challengers to the D.C. law tried repeatedly to get a ruling, even asking a federal appeals court to step in to command that the case be decided.” In addition, Congress is challenging gun control in D.C. House Republicans approved an amendment to the district’s funding bill that would prevent D.C. from enforcing their gun laws. However, it will still be illegal to bring to a gun into a federal building. D.C. officials have yet to announce plans to appeal the ruling, but a spokesman told reporters the city is looking into options.

As the gun fight rages on, on Saturday, fast food workers across the nation voted to escalate efforts for $15 an hour pay and union membership using nonviolent civil disobedience. More than 1,300 workers came together at a convention center in Chicago to discuss the future of a campaign to spread to dozens of cities in less than two years, Tammy Webber reports, Fast Food Workers Vow Civil Disobedience. The Service Employee International Union provides financial and organizational support to fast food protests. They began in 2012 in New York City including daylong strikes and peaceful demonstrations outside this year’s McDonald’s Corp. shareholder meeting where 130 protestors were arrested for stepping onto company property. Saturday’s convention in Villa Park, Illinois, included session on civil disobedience and leadership training. Rev.William Barber II, head of the North Carolina NAACP, said: “People should not work and be willing to work and then be denied living wages and be denied health care because of greed. This movement is saying that America is less than she promises to be, morally and constitutionally, by denying living wages. If you raise wages for workers, you buoy the whole economy.” The movement comes as President Barack Obama and many other Democrats try to make a campaign issue out of their call to increase the federal and state minimum wage which stands at $7.25 an hour for federal wages or about $15,000 per year for40 hours a week. Obama and others want to increase it to $10.10. The restaurant industry argues that a $15 hourly wage would lead to business closing and job cuts. According to Webber: “The National Restaurant Association said last week that increasing wages to $15 will not solve income inequality and that the campaign was an attempt by unions to boost dwindling membership.” Scott DeFife, the association;s executive vice president of policy and government affairs, said protesters are “demonizing” an industry that employs all ages, backgrounds and skill levels instead of focusing on policies to increase education and job training. Unfortunately, many workers say that people stay in these jobs for years because they are the only ones available. Barber believes that “this movement is intensifying and it is going to shake the moral consciousness of this country.”