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Congressional Updates

Both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate were in session this week. The biggest issues in front of Congress now is the development of a budget resolution within the House – the Senate has said they won’t create one – and passage of several authorization bills.


House Veterans Affairs Committee Reviews Major Construction Management

On Tuesday, March 27 the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee held a hearing highlighting problems in project management, construction delays, and increased costs that dramatically impact the veterans in the regions and the overall Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) construction budget.

Between 2003 and 2005, Congress allocated major construction funding for new medical centers in four locations: Las Vegas, Denver, Orlando, and New Orleans. Even though Glenn Haggestrom, the VA Executive Director of the Office of Acquisitions, Logistics, and Construction, stated “veterans are not affected” by delays in these construction projects, a bipartisan series of questions from committee members highlighted just how these delays have impacted these facilities that have been delayed for years from initial opening dates.

“As the VA health care system has grown, it appears that we have come to a point in the department’s major construction and lease program where the administrative structure in VA is an obstacle that is not effectively supporting the mission,” stated Chairman Jeff Miller (FL). “As a result, our veterans are the ones who are left without services, and our taxpayers are the ones left holding the check.”

Delays in construction of these facilities have caused VA Medical Center directors to not only use fee basis care to meet the needs of veterans, but also force veterans in these regions to travel hundreds of miles to nearby VA medical centers in the region. That travel or care outside of the close coordination of the VA medical center has definitely affected veterans in these communities. Every day these facilities are not open is another day a veteran must receive care outside the VA system, in facilities less that optimal for their needs, and at costs exceeding those within the system.

These four centers with costs exceeding $3 billion are estimated to be between 4 months and two years behind schedule. Only Las Vegas is scheduled to open in 2012, despite several delays and extensions that prolonged that project. Similarly, of the $442 million allocated in the recent funding to 55 major medical lease sites, only five are open, 38 are behind schedule, and 14 are delayed three or more years. 

While the hearing highlighted the significant delays that have occurred in the construction of the Orlando VAMC, the poignant observation became the dichotomy of results within the system. VA officials admitted the ultimate responsibility of problems at these facilities lay with the VA, however they were quick to share that blame with architects, engineers, and even construction companies. Yet the experience regarding changes in project scope and needs in Las Vegas were dramatically different than those in Orlando. Changes in Las Vegas caused a 4 month delay compared to modifications in Orlando that have caused a delay beyond two years. Like the other facilities, these delays and changes in Orlando have doubled the original cost estimates.

The VA testimony identified lessons learned and actions taken towards addressing these problems. VA Secretary Shinseki designated the Office of Acquisition, Logistics and Construction as the single point of project accountability within the department. Yet, in response to questions from members of the committee, leaders in this department admitted they had been to Orlando only a few times before the committee made their visit in January. Since that visit and increased scrutiny, they have returned more than a dozen times. On-site management was also identified as a problem, and the VA has begun hiring over 30 additional engineers to oversee major construction projects. Finally, the VA also points to the Strategic Capital Improvement Process (SCIP) as a solution that will benefit the overall prioritization of the major, minor and non-recurring maintenance projects. 

Ultimately, like the committee, The American Legion remains concerned with the overall management of the major construction accounts. While the SCIP plan has identified $53 to $65 billion in major and minor construction costs, both accounts were underfunded by over $4 billion in FY12 and again in the FY13 budget proposal. Without adequate funding, the SCIP process will not singlehandedly meet the needs of our veterans. 

Moreover, additional staff, while necessary, added to an already burgeoning bureaucracy are a doubtful solution. The Las Vegas project, while delayed, did not suffer the delays and cost overruns to the same level as Orlando. More project managers will not decrease costs and improve on timeliness.

A significant number of projects within other federal agencies, including the military, have been managed and completed under a design-build process where the user (in this case the VA) closely works with the architect, engineers, and contractors to produce a results that are routinely on time and under budget. This methodology has not been embraced by leadership.

Finally, although not addressed in this hearing, the overall funding of activation of these facilities must be considered. The American Legion remains convinced that funding for activation of projects, whether community clinics or VA medical centers, must be included in the overall project funding. It should not be left for future funding considerations in other accounts. This will not only allow for a true understanding of the costs of these facilities, but will also eliminate delays in opening due to funding shortages or prioritization of allocation. It’s clear that those costs and delays not only impact the taxpayer, but dramatically impact the care of veterans nationwide.


Senate VA Panel Hearing on Nominations to the Court of Appeals for Veteran Claims

American Legion Oratorical contestants will tell you Article II Section 2 of the Constitution states the President shall seek “advice” and obtain the “consent” of the Senate before his nominations to the federal bench (and other “officers of the United States”) assume their posts. Many of these appointments to the federal bench have been held up by the Senate, but a recent agreement between the two parties allowed for a group of appointees to receive their appointment hearings. On Wednesday, March 27, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee held a hearing pertaining to the appointment of two nominees to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC).

President Obama has nominated Margaret Bartley and Coral Wong Pietsch to fill two of the three empty positions on the CAVC. The appointment during late October had been delayed several times by the Senate in ongoing debates relating to the Presidential appointment process within the Senate. The CAVC has been under scrutiny recently for increased caseloads and production times. The American Legion has pointed to the shortage of judges on CAVC as a contributing factor to this backlog.

Pietsch, a retired Brigadier General of the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps, was the former chair of the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission after she served as Deputy Attorney General for Hawaii. She served for two years on the Department of State’s Provincial Reconstruction Team in Baghdad. While serving in the Army she was the first female general officer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps as well as the first female Asian-American general officer in the U.S. Army.

Bartley is a familiar face to many service officers within The American Legion. She served the previous 17 years with the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP) and for the Veterans Pro Bono Consortium Program where she represented veterans in appeals before the CAVC and the Board of Veterans Appeals. She has a long and respectable background as a veteran advocate.

The hearing was sparsely attended by members of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, but both sides seemed to agree on the overwhelming qualifications of the nominees. As Chairman Patty Murray (WA) noted, “The nominees sitting before us have impressive resumes, strong credentials and a long history of service.” Both sides expressed an urgency to expedite the nominations so the nominees could begin work to draw down on the claims backlog within the system.

Although not endorsing either candidate for the positions, The American Legion applauds the efforts of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and President Obama for moving these nominations forward. We urged quick action by the committee and Senate in confirming these appointments. Furthermore, we urge the President and Senate to expeditiously fill the remaining seat so that a full contingent of CAVC judges can work towards processing the claims sitting within the jurisdiction of the Court.


Senate Foreign Relations Panel Examines U.S. Policy on Iran

On Thursday, March 28 the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing to examine the nature of the situation with Iran, and to understand the options available to the United States in terms of policy action.  Testifying witnesses were

·         The Honorable Thomas R. Pickering, former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations;

·         General James E. Cartwright, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and

·         Mr. Karim Sadjadpour, Senior Associate, Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

After opening remarks, Mr. Pickering testified on three major points regarding Iran and the United States: (1) What do we know about Iran’s nuclear program and its evolution? (2) What is the current diplomatic situation, and what might we expect? And (3) What options are available to us? He gave a brief history of Iranian nuclear aspirations beginning with the Shah, the cessation of attempts to obtain a nuclear weapon following the 1979 Islamic revolution, and the subsequent intelligence indicating that the Iranians may have reconsidered their position during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. 

Mr. Pickering stated recent intelligence indicates that while the bulk of the 6,000-9,000 centrifuges possessed by Iran are being enriched to the civil nuclear reactor scale, they are maintaining stores of low enriched uranium, which could constitute a basis for a weapons program if they decided to move it into higher levels of enrichment. He testified that recent developments in diplomacy have been positive, showing signs of openness to cooperation with the international community. Mr. Pickering then addressed the options available to the United States, of which he enumerated four.  They include: (1) Do nothing and allow them to proliferate (he went on to quickly add that this is essentially a non-option, given the gravity of the situation), (2) Military intervention, (3) Sanctions, and (4) Diplomacy. He stated that, while all options remain on the table, diplomacy, though an uncertain solution, offers the most possibilities with the least amount of risk in a cost-benefit analysis.

General Cartwright began his testimony concurring with Mr. Pickering’s assessment, but also reiterating that, while diplomacy may be the best overall option, all options remain on the table, to include military force. He then went on to discuss the steps which would go into creating a nuclear weapon for Iran, including weaponizing uranium, and creating a delivery system. General Cartwright emphasized the point that it is not necessary for a delivery system to be as exquisite as those which, for instance, the United States possesses.  Much cruder systems could be equally as damaging, and would be more difficult to detect in production, and could be produced much more quickly.

Mr. Sadjadpour quoted former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, “Iran has to decide whether it is a nation or a cause.” If, he said, Iran views itself as a nation, the United States and Iran have many overlapping interests. If, however, Iran views itself as a cause, or a counterbalance to the United States and Israel, the conflict will continue. Mr. Sadjadpour noted that the policy conundrum faced by the United States, as well as the rest of the international community with regard to Iran, is that politically, no nuclear deal can be made without Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. However, given his view that the conflict between Washington and Tehran is natural and unavoidable, it is highly unlikely that a deal can be made with him either. He stated that a peaceful, diplomatic resolution is preferable, but the nature of the challenges posed by the situation with Iran demands a sober and realistic consideration of the options at hand, with a view not toward a total resolution of all differences with Tehran, but rather to prevent a cold conflict from turning hot.


Reevaluating the Transition from Service Member to Veteran

The House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Disability and Memorial Affairs (DAMA) held a hearing Wednesday, March 28th to discuss the ongoing problems faced by transitioning veterans. The primary focus of the hearing was on the implementation by the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) of the new Integrated Disability Evaluation System (IDES)

While improvement has been made, problems remain with the implementation of the new system and it has yet to be fully implemented, failing to meet deadlines this year for full implementation despite being in active use at 139 VA and DOD locations. According to testimony from Kenneth Fisher of the Fisher House Foundation, the pilot programs were able to drop the process time from 500 days on average to just under 300 days; however, the average number of days has been creeping back up towards the 500 day figure as it has been rolled out into a fuller implementation. 


Further problems exist with confusion between VA and DOD examiners performing compensation and pension exams, as well as concerns that service members navigating the evaluation process are not able to be adequately served by outside counsel, such as service organizations, to ensure they receive a fair shake at the process.

Other members of Congress vented frustration at DOD officials over the evaluation of mental health conditions. Specifically, they raised concerns noted at Madigan Army Medical Center in Washington state as well as other locations where service members are being denied diagnoses with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and instead being diagnosed with personality disorders. Rep. Tim Walz (MN) was particularly fiery in his grilling, asking “[H]ow can we have soldiers serving for eight years, through multiple deployments with honor suddenly find out they had a pre-existing ‘personality disorder’ that disqualifies them from service? How can you explain to me that that soldier was good enough for all those deployments but isn’t good enough now that it’s not convenient?”

The tenor of the hearing suggested that improvements had been made, but that there was still a long road to travel to ensure our transitioning veterans were getting the justice and treatment their dedicated service entitled them to.