TOPIC: Dept. of Veterans Affairs

Chicago to have most patriotic hospital ever

A federal health center that will open in North Chicago Oct. 1 will be the first of its kind to combine services for both the Dept. of Defense and the Dept. of Veterans Affairs. The Chicago Tribune’s Peter Cameron reports that the DOD/VA project has taken eight years to complete and required the transfer of 530 civilian employees from DOD to VA, the assimilation of medical records, and the construction of a 290,000 foot ambulatory care center. (more…)

Obama Continues The Age of Reagan

This comes from a good article by the Wall Street Journal’s Johnathan Weisman and Deborah Solomon on the Obama administration’s efforts to manage the national debt:

The White House is in the early stages of considering what bigger moves it might make for next year’s budget. The Office of Management and Budget has asked all cabinet agencies, except defense and veterans affairs, to prepare two budget proposals for fiscal 2011, which begins Oct 1, 2010. One would freeze spending at current levels. The other would cut spending by 5%.

It was in Ronald Reagan campaign’s for president that the Republican Party made pendants that read “End All Non-Defense Spending Now.” The Obama White House doesn’t want to do that (nor did Reagan), but the Democratic Obama seems to share the same view here as the Republican Reagan: money for military and wars is essential, everything else isn’t. (That everything else, by the way, doesn’t include entitlement spending — medicare, social security — which is not subject to annual budget deliberations).

It would make sense that money for the Labor Dept. would also be protected given that the labor market crisis is more dire than any national security crisis. Also, what about protecting funding for agencies like the Food and Drug Administration that are just now back on their feet after being gutted by the George W. Bush administration? The Obama administration’s budget blueprint is a testament to the influence of Reagan, and the whole small government/big military movement of the past 30 years.

Mental Health and the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars

Apropos of the mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas military base yesterday (allegedly done by a former Afghanistan soldier and Army psychiatrist), The Washington Post’s Ann Scott Tyson has a valuable piece on the wrenching mental health conditions of soldiers who make repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. A couple of statistics that jump out — 30 percent of soldiers who go to Iraq and Afghanistan come back with some type of mental health condition like depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. These unhealthy soldiers are then asked to repeatedly return to battle. Also: while the mass shooting that left 13 dead is, understandably, a huge news story, what’s below the radar is that 10 soldiers this years at Fort Hood have committed suicide.

Shinseki Walks the Walk at Veterans Affairs

General Eric Shinseki gained a reputation as a straight shooter way back in 2003, when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that controlling Iraq after an invasion would require hundreds of thousands of troops.  Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had a different view on the subject, and before long, Shinseki was gone from the upper reaches of the U.S. military.

Barack Obama brought Shinseki back to official Washington as secretary of veterans affairs.  According to this overview by Ed O’Keefe and Garance Frank-Ruta of the Washington Post, Shinseki is taking a no-nonsense approach to a major problem for post-combat veterans: homelessness.   It’s estimated that more than 130,000 veterans are homeless, and with higher rates of foreclosures around military bases than the rest of the country, the problem may be accelerating.  The VA is planning to

expand partnerships with the Small Business Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and other federal, state, and community veterans programs.

Shinseki’s words to veterans and vet organizations at a meeting in Washington this week were encouraging.  He told “thousands of government, nonprofit, and faith-based homelessness experts and advocates” that “this is not a summit on homeless veterans, it’s a summit to end homelessness among veterans.”

No Military Medals For Corporate Warriors

ProPublica’s T. Christian Miller has a very good piece on an issue that has fallen out of the headlines: the deep reliance on private contractors to fight the Iraq and Afghanistan War. The wars have not just lead to the deaths of 5,200 U.S. troops but also 1,600 contract workers. But what Miller’s piece highlights, through the tale of wounded KBR truck driver Reggie Lane, is the disturbing disconnect between care for veterans and care for contractors:

Many of the civilians have come home as military veterans in all but name, sometimes with lifelong disabilities but without the support network available to returning troops.

There are no veterans’ halls for civilian workers, no Gold Star Wives, no military hospitals. Politicians pay little attention to their problems, and the military has not publicized their contributions.

“These guys are like the Vietnam vets of this generation,” said Lee Frederiksen, a psychologist who worked for Mission Critical Psychological Services, a Chicago-based firm that provides counseling for war zone workers. “The normal support that you would get if you were injured in the line of duty as a police officer or if you were injured in the military . . . just doesn’t exist.”

Warttime contractors like KBR and Blackwater faced scrutiny and even vilification in the Bush administration for their ties to the Republican Party and ability to make a quick buck off the Iraq War. Now, however, their continued presence in Iraq and Afghanistan has faded into the background. It is these contractors that enable the Obama administration to consider an escalation of the Afghanistan War — there would otherwise not be the military manpower necessary. Yet in talks of troop build-ups, war casualties, and veterans health care, contract workers are invisible people.


It’s, unfortunately, not surprising, but the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have had a huge mental health toll on U.S. troops.The New York Times’ James Dao looks at a study that 37 percent of all Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers that entered the Dept. of Veterans Affairs health system suffer from a mental health condition. According to the Dept. of Veterans Affairs medical center in San Francisco and the University of California San Francisco, the most commonly diagnosed conditions are post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

The study’s authors say that key reasons so many of the 290,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have mental health problems are repeat deployments and the non-traditional nature of both wars. These causes for mental health problems may exacerbate as the U.S. brings in at least 21,000 more troops to fight insurgents in the hilly terrain of Afghanistan. If and when these troops return, they will be treated by a VA system that’s already under-staffed and over capacity.-MB


James Dao of the New York Times investigates the rapidly growing number of benefit claims unprocessed by the Dept. of Veterans Affairs — 400,000 in the past year compared with 253,000 six years ago. And the number could swell to one million if minor claims and denied benefits (like money for education) are included.

The problem is actually not the number of new veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, it’s a combination of Vietnam veterans with new or worsening ailments and the fact that 13,000 claims processors left the VA last year. In other words, not even including the care they’ll eventually have to provide Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, the VA is overburdened.-MB


Analysis of Defense Sec. Robert Gates’ proposed Pentagon budget has tended to focus on what Cold War-era weapons will and won’t live on. But as Kimberly Hefling of the Associated Press reminds us, another budget change is money for veteran’s health care: Gates wants $47 billion more to care for the 33,000 soldiers wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq. In remarks yesterday, Gates and Barack Obama stressed how the new money would be used to keep patient records on a computer network. This is designed to ease bureaucratic obstacles between the Pentagon and Veterans Affairs.

It’s hard to argue against more money toward veteran’s health care. But I don’t understand why this isn’t strictly a Dept. of Veterans Affairs issue. Part of the Pentagon’s problem might just be that it’s too big. Why should Gates lead the effort to reform the military-industry complex and salvage health care for veterans, when there is an entire federal agency that deals with veterans issues? -MB



Catching up on weekend transition news, Barack Obama is expected to name Eric Shinseki, the former Army chief of staff, secretary of Veteran Affairs. As the New York Times’ Jackie Calmes reminds us, Shinseki is most famous for telling Congress before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, that "several hundred thousand soldiers" were needed for the war to succeed. For this, Shinseki was marginalized by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and quietly left the Pentagon.

Today, of course, Shinseki has been largely vindicated and the VA job appears to be almost an award for his unheeded prediction. As VA secretary, though, Shinseki faces a mess: a broken veterans health care system and wounded soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Hopefully his sound judgment on Iraq can be translated into managing a tattered bureaucracy.-MB


The Washington Post’s Carol D. Leonnig reports that federal agencies have combined to give about $5 billion in government contracts set aside for small businesses to actually very, very big businesses. Corporate giants like Lockheed Martin and SAIC are getting million in contracts from agencies like the Dept. of Homeland Security (the worst offender) and the Dept. of Veterans’ Affairs. The meaning of "small business" is not clear, but the Small Business Administration defines it as either below a certain number of employees (like 500) or annual revenue ($17 million).

The Small Business Administration, the agency in charge of deciding whether a business is small, disputes the Post’s figures and promises to release their own report today. According to the Post, companies like Lockheed are successfully listing subsidaries as stand-alone companies.-MB