Posted: Jun 10, 2014 11:01 AM
Updated: Jun 10, 2014 11:01 AM
Killeen Daily Herald. June 1, 2014.
More than rhetoric needed to solve VA's problems
From all the indignant rhetoric and finger-pointing in Washington these days, you would think the current Department of Veterans Affairs scandal erupted overnight.
Understandably, recent allegations that delayed medical care led to as many as 40 patient deaths at the Phoenix VA hospital are extremely troubling.
Equally unsettling are new reports that patient appointment schedules at several facilities nationwide were manipulated to meet VA guidelines and earn employees bonuses for on-time performance.
But the bureaucratic mess that has rocked the overburdened veterans' health care system and led to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki's resignation isn't new. Some of the issues that led to the current uproar the VA's massive backlog of claims and long waits for patient appointments have been the subject of several congressional hearings in the past decade.
Against the backdrop of the latest shocking revelations, two of our area's Washington lawmakers acknowledged they were informed of significant problems at Temple's VA hospital more than two years ago.
Both U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, confirmed they received a January 2012 report from the inspector general of the Department of Veterans Affairs that outlined several problems with the Olin E. Teague Veterans Medical Center in Temple.
The two-year-old report cited issues with inappropriate scheduling procedures for patients, as well as prolonged wait times leading to delays in cancer diagnostic tests and unclean medical equipment. A Temple VA spokeswoman claims the problems there were addressed quickly.
For his part, Carter claims it was his inquiry to the VA that led to the generation of the 2012 report, noting constituents brought several issues to his attention. However, his office never produced a news release on the matter, ostensibly because the constituents didn't authorize sharing of their information. Since the inspector general's report is a public document, available on the VA website, the privacy argument seems to be a bit of a stretch.
Cornyn's office claims to have contacted the Department of Veterans Affairs repeatedly after the report was released in an attempt to get more information on the backlogs but didn't elaborate.
Even more puzzling than the lawmakers' silence on the 2012 report is the fact that the Temple facility received recognition from the VA both before and after the report was issued. The 2012 award packet noted the issue of incorrectly reported desired appointments was corrected through training of "front line employees" in October 2011.
The fact that the inspector general found serious flaws in the Temple VA's operations while at the same time the department cited the hospital for excellence may illustrate the magnitude of the massive bureaucracy's oversight issues.
Also, the question remains as to whether the scheduling issue was resolved.
A representative from a Fort Hood federal employees union said Friday a delegation that included several Temple VA workers traveled to Washington in February of 2012, 2013 and again this year to complain that the manipulation of patient scheduling was still going on at the hospital. Each time they visited, they met with Carter's deputy chief of staff, he said.
These claims must be investigated thoroughly. If Carter was shown documented evidence that the scheduling problem in Temple persists, it is disingenuous for him to allege a cover-up by the administration on the current VA scandal.
Obviously, lawmakers of both parties have every reason to be outraged at the latest revelations. But they should be driven by concern for our nation's veterans, not by the desire to score political points.
Moving forward, the administration, Congress and interim VA secretary must resolve to do what it takes to streamline the VA's bureaucracy, remove ineffective administrators and provide the necessary resources to bring timely, high-quality care to our nation's deserving veterans.
It's time to move past the rhetoric and get something done.
Longview News-Journal. June 8, 2014.
Slow down, look at facts in EPA's pollution rules
Much of the official Texas response to new regulations that aim to reduce carbon pollution from power plants falls firmly into the category of "knee jerk."
As might be expected, the issue has become election-year fodder and the shrill sounds of politicians can be heard across the state. It isn't a pleasant noise.
In fact, so little were they concerned with what the regulations actually say that 29 members of the Texas congressional delegation fired off a letter to the White House in protest before the final plan was even issued.
We would like to encourage a more reasonable and thoughtful approach, though that has somewhat gone out of style these days. An objective look at how Texas and the nation will be affected by the guidelines issued this past week will get us a lot further than the predictable histrionics.
The proposed Environmental Protection Agency regulations aim to cut emissions from coal-fired installations that help fuel climate change. The goal is a 30 percent reduction nationally from 2005 carbon-discharge levels by 2030.
Because Texas is by far the nation's leading bulk producer of carbon pollution, we have more cleaning up to do. Here, the target would be a 39 percent cut by 2030. But the plan leaves plenty of time to accomplish that, and Texas power producers already have been moving to clean up their acts.
The plan also leaves plenty of room to accomplish the goals through free-market approaches. Among the ways states and power generators might comply are improving energy efficiency, increasing use of natural gas, using more renewable energy and plant improvements.
As we look at the costs and benefits of President Obama's plan, several questions come to us as important in determining its viability.
How much is this going to cost us? It's the question everyone will ask first and we understand that. If it requires upgrading plants and building new ones, the costs will be directly passed to power users. Residential users will pay the biggest percentage increase and not just from rates alone. The costs of goods could also go up as companies pass along increased expenses to consumers.
How much is this going to save us? It's a question some may overlook but it certainly is valid. As we reduce pollution, the rates of several medical conditions will also fall, especially COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which is common in East Texas, particularly among older adults. It will be more difficult to accurately compute the savings but they do exist.
What will be the impact on employment? If coal-fired plants have to close, jobs will be lost. But they would probably be offset by the number of construction jobs created by building other plants, most likely fired by natural gas, which is much cleaner. Gas plants do employ somewhat fewer employees than coal plants.
What will be the impact on the oil and gas industry? Coal is important in Texas, but not nearly as important as oil and natural gas. A switch to natural gas would obviously be beneficial not only in jobs created but also on demand for and the price of natural gas, which is low enough now to depress exploration. That extra wealth would certainly be spread throughout the East Texas economy.
We don't have definitive answers for these questions or many others regarding the regulations, but an objective look suggests positive possibilities exist.
It should tell us something that while politicians were screaming bloody murder this past week, officials of state agencies impacted by the rules were saying they'd need time to study them.
That's the right approach.
Houston Chronicle. June 5, 2014.
No deadly secrets: We should know where our state is spending tax dollars used to buy death-row drugs
Attorney General Greg Abbott may be a partisan figure, but he boasts two habits that earn him respect across the board: sticking to his word and supporting transparency in government. So Texans of all stripes should be particularly distressed by his office's recent rejection of an open records request concerning the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
With an increasing number of pharmacies unwilling to provide the drugs necessary for lethal injections, states have had to look elsewhere for the darkly ironic combination of something that is both deadly and safe. Executions cannot be cruel nor unusual a difficult standard to meet.
Yet recent open records requests for information on the deadly cocktails that Texas plans to use on death row have hit a brick wall at Abbott's office. With this decision to shut the doors to open government, Abbott flip-flops on his proud record of rejecting government secrecy.
Only four years ago, the Attorney General's office held that the TDCJ was not immune from public records requests about the source of lethal injection drugs.
A year later, his office found again that the TDCJ would have a difficult time proving that disclosure of key execution information would result in a substantial threat of physical harm to anyone a potential justification for secrecy. In a decision last October, his office reiterated that point.
This time around, something has changed. Ignoring its own track record, the Attorney General's office held last week that the TDCJ could keep information secret to protect pharmacies from possible threats. This decision was in spite of a report by the Associated Press, which found "scant evidence" of threats to execution drugmakers.
So why did Abbott flip-flop?
Perhaps politics sullied his ideals. The government watchdog group Texans for Public Justice has pointed out that the Abbott campaign recently received more than $350,000 in donations from J. Richard Ray, the owner of a Conroe-area compounding pharmacy. This correlation between campaign donations and changing attitudes should raise some eyebrows. But no matter your position on the death penalty, Texans should know where our government is spending taxpayer dollars especially those used to buy deadly drugs.
Executions in Texas seem to teeter on the edge of constitutionality. Our state has seen innocent men like Anthony Graves sit on death row, coming too close to execution before being exonerated. Likely innocent men like Cameron Todd Willingham have actually been killed in the misapplied name of justice.
Now, Texas' planned execution of Robert Campbell is being brought into question after the Supreme Court recently reaffirmed that the Constitution does not tolerate applying the death penalty to the mentally disabled.
After last month's botched lethal injection in Oklahoma, all Texans should be skeptical of a state government that won't answer questions about the death penalty process. Instead of erecting a wall, Abbott has the opportunity to build a bridge between the bluer shades of Texas and small government advocates by allowing total transparency.
To do this, Abbott wouldn't have to change his mind he would just have to stick to his word.
El Paso Times. June 9, 2014.
More answers needed in Bergdahl case
The release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl by the Taliban, in exchange for five Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo Bay, raises a number of issues that should be addressed separately.
First, it is a good thing that an American soldier who has been held by enemy forces for nearly five years is free. Regardless of the circumstances of his capture, our nation must always work diligently and faithfully to secure the return of an imprisoned soldier.
But while being happy for his safe return, two other major questions need answering. Did the Obama administration act prudently and wisely in striking the deal for Bergdahl's release? And how should Bergdahl be treated upon his return to the United States?
On the first question, the administration certainly has yet to make the case that the release of five Taliban prisoners among the most hardened of the Guantanamo inmates in exchange for Bergdahl was in the nation's best interests.
News reports indicate that the Taliban provided a video of Bergdahl earlier this year that showed him in poor health. It is understandable that the nation's commander in chief and his national security team would be concerned about a captured American soldier possibly dying in Taliban custody.
But it's difficult to understand how releasing the five Taliban detainees enhances our national security, which is the commander in chief's ultimate responsibility.
Various media have reported that the Obama administration in prior years has discussed such a trade with congressional leaders, and both Democrats and Republicans expressed deep reservations.
Many of those congressional leaders, from both parties, expressed anger that the Obama administration executed the deal without complying with a law that required that Congress be given 30 days' notice of the transfer of any Guantanamo detainees.
Under the Constitution, the president's broad powers as commander-in-chief likely allow him wide latitude to free prisoners of war (even if they lack such official status) and strike deals to free captured American soldiers. Still, the president and his national security team could have laid a better groundwork with congressional leadership.
As for Bergdahl's fate, there has been a rush to condemn him as a deserter. But he deserves the same presumption of innocence due all Americans.
If it is shown that Bergdahl was guilty of being absent without leave or, more seriously, desertion, then he should face appropriate military punishment.
Five years of Taliban captivity has already been harsh punishment. It's hard to imagine any benefit from further imprisonment.
But if he was guilty of being AWOL or deserting, he should at a minimum face discharge under less than honorable circumstances. The American people deserve a full accounting of the circumstances of Bergdahl's capture. And the Obama administration owes us a complete explanation of the deal for his release.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram. June 2, 2014.
Open-carry backers must follow the law
The Texas state Republican convention could generate conflict between property rights and gun rights if those seeking more expansive open-carry legislation cross the threshold of the downtown Fort Worth Convention Center with their long guns.
City and state officials are reminding open-carry proponents that the public display of such guns is allowed by law, but not at businesses licensed to serve alcohol.
And because a local catering company is permitted to serve alcohol at the city-owned facility, the convention center qualifies as one of those businesses. Anyone caught possessing an unlicensed weapon on the premises could be cited for trespassing.
But the business could also face sanctions, like loss of its Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission permit.
The dueling priorities set up an interesting tension between two values equally dear to many Republicans: individual property rights and Second Amendment rights.
Fortunately, Chairman of the Texas GOP Steve Munisteri told Star-Telegram reporter Anna Tinsley that the party will abide by the state law on open-carry in the convention center. According to Facebook posts, he urged those in attendance not to take long guns into the convention hall.
Given the escalating debate over Open Carry's tactics, we can't be sure his words will resonate.
But even Kori Watkins of Open Carry Texas' local chapter said he and other open-carry supporters will respect private-property rights and abide by the law.