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WASHINGTON — Officials from the largest
federal workers union slammed Veterans Affairs officials’ new health
care reform plan as “a total dismantling of the department” that would
jeopardize veterans services.
“It’s taking resources out of VA and
shifting them into the private sector,” said J. David Cox Sr., national
president of the American Federation of Government Employees. “It’s
voucherizing veterans health care.”
The comments came less than a day after
the formal unveiling of the new Coordinated Access & Rewarding
Experiences (Vets CARE) Act, proposed by VA leaders as a way to increase
patient access to physicians through expanded appointments outside the
In a statement, VA Secretary David
Shulkin said the new plan puts veterans at the center of all health care
plans, instead of bureaucrats.
“We want veterans to work with their VA
physicians to make informed decisions that are best for their clinical
needs, whether in the VA or in the community,” he said “This bill does
just that, while strengthening VA services at the same time.”
The Vets CARE program would replace the
three-year-old Veterans Choice program, which allows veterans to seek
private sector care at government expense if they face a 30-day wait for
a department appointment or a 40-mile trek to the nearest department
Under the new plan — which still needs
congressional approval — those options would open to any veteran who
faces a wait longer than “a clinically acceptable period.” VA officials
could would also be able to authorize outside care for a variety of
other reasons, and make it easier for private-sector doctors to get
reimbursed for veterans walk-in care.
On Tuesday, officials from the American
Legion offered general support for the reforms, saying they are in
favor of making VA health care options “more efficient, transparent, and
But AFGE leaders attacked the proposal, labeling it another effort to slowly undermine and destroy the VA system.
“We’re seeing a constant push to expand
‘choice’ at VA against veterans wishes,” Cox said. “This is another
attempt to dismantle VA from the inside out. It’s appalling, and it has
to stop now.”
AFGE has been a frequent critic of
President Donald Trump’s veterans policies, including legislation he
signed into law this summer which made it easier to fire VA workers. In
recent weeks, those arguments have centered around the idea that Trump
appointees are working to privatize VA health care, an accusation
Shulkin has repeatedly refuted.
Cox — whose group represents about
250,000 VA employees — said instead of opting for an expensive expansion
of outside care programs, lawmakers should back plans to reinvest in
existing VA facilities and more carefully rely on private-sector doctors
for specialties the federal workforce lacks.
Shulkin’s vision has instead been
focused on offering an expanded network of VA and community physicians.
Conservatives on Capitol Hill have backed that idea, with similar
promises that they aren’t looking to pull away resources from the
Will Fischer, director of government
relations for VoteVets, called that approach “death by a thousand cuts.”
Their group, which has close ties to the Democratic Party, is working
with AFGE to campaign against the new plan.
“They’re promising not to privatize VA,
but their actions and words don’t match up,” he said. “Each time one of
these vouchers is issued, it’s money that is leaving the VA system.”
House lawmakers are expected to review
the plan and their own health care reform proposals at a Capitol Hill
hearing next Tuesday.
Meanwhile, officials from Concerned
Veterans for America — which AFGE attacked in a press call Tuesday as
pro-privatization, Republican activists — called the Vets CARE proposal a
good start to the debate over VA’s future.
“There is room for improvement,” said
Dan Caldwell, policy director for the group. “One important modification
that we believe should be made is that a veteran should be able to
choose a primary care physician inside or outside of the Veterans Health
Administration within the integrated care network.
“This reform would be an important step
towards fulfilling President Trump’s promise to increase health care
choice for our veterans.”
A $24 million “bait and switch” college education scam -- targeting U.S. military veterans -- could send two women to prison.
Court documents released Tuesday in Newark,
N.J., described a scheme in which thousands of veterans using their
Post-9/11 G.I. Bill tuition benefits thought they had signed up for
courses at Caldwell University, a small Catholic college in New Jersey.
But instead, the veterans were enrolled in
low-cost correspondence courses marketed by a Pennsylvania company –
courses that were not covered by the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill.
Authorities in New Jersey said two women have
pleaded guilty to one count each of wired fraud in connection with the
scam: Lisa DiBisceglie, 56, of Lavallette, N.J., a former associate dean
at Caldwell University; and Helen Sechrist, 61, of Sandy Level, Va., a
former employee of Ed4Mill, the Pennsylvania company.
The pair defrauded the government of $24
million between 2009 and 2013, federal prosecutors said. They could face
up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine when they are sentenced
Jan. 24, 2018.
The women have also been ordered to repay the
$24 million, although authorities were uncertain how much money would
ultimately be recovered. It was unclear Tuesday whether the women had
benefitted personally from the scam.
“DiBisceglie and Sechrist were part of an
elaborate bait-and-switch scheme that stole millions of dollars in
Post-9/11 GI Bill tuition assistance," acting U.S. Attorney William E.
Fitzpatrick said in a statement.
"Instead of receiving a quality education under the Caldwell brand, the
veterans that were recruited by Ed4Mil were enrolled in unapproved
online courses without their knowledge, all while members of the
conspiracy profited from their hard-earned benefits.”
“Scams like this steal money from hardworking
taxpayers and legitimate students -- and in this case, our veterans --
and that is completely unacceptable," said Debbi Mayer, assistant
special agent in charge of the U.S. Department of Education Office of
Inspector General's Northeastern Regional Office, which helped
investigate the case.
Also indicted was David Alvey, 50, of
Harrisburg, Pa., the founder and president of Ed4Mil. He is charged with
one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. His case is still
Caldwell University officials said in a
statement that they ended their relationship with Ed4Mil in 2013 and
only learned of the "bait-and-switch" scheme after DiBisceglie quit her
assistant dean position to work for Ed4Mil.
“Neither Caldwell University nor its current
administration or staff is accused of wrongdoing, and only learned of
the conduct after the former employee left the school to work for
Ed4Mil,” the university said in a statement. “Caldwell University has
and will continue to cooperate with the government until this
investigation is concluded.”
The government was charged between $4,500 and
$26,000 per course, instead of the $600 to $1,000 per course the
correspondence company charged for the same classes, prosecutors said.
The $24 million in tuition benefits collected
through the GI Bill was allegedly paid to Caldwell University, which
then turned over between 85 percent and 90 percent of the money to
Ed4Mil, according to court documents.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill was created after the
Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to give military veterans money for
tuition, housing and other education costs. The money is paid directly
to colleges for eligible courses.
David Shulkin, Opinion contributorPublished 6:00 a.m. ET July 24, 2017
We are ramping up internal VA capacity along with private
referrals. Critics don't want to lose all that VA has to offer. I don't
either, and we won't.
As a physician, my professional assessment is that the Department
of Veterans Affairs has made significant progress over the past six
months — but it still requires intensive care. In order to restore the
VA’s health, we must strengthen its ability to provide timely and high
quality medical care while improving experiences and outcomes for
I believe the best way to achieve this goal is to build an
integrated system that allows veterans to get the best health care
possible, whether it comes from the VA or the private sector.
This is not a novel idea. No health care provider delivers every
treatment under the sun. Referral programs for patients to get care
through outside providers (known as Choice or Community Care
the VA) are as essential to the medical profession as stethoscopes and
tongue depressors. But VA attempts to offer veterans these options have
frequently stirred controversy.
Some critics complain that letting veterans choose where they get certain health care services will lead to the privatization of VA
. Nothing could be further from the truth.
VA has had a community care program for years. Congress significantly expanded
these efforts in 2014 in response to the wait time crisis. As a result,
since the beginning of this year, VA has authorized over 18 million
community care appointments — 3.8 million more than last year, or a 26%
increase, according to the VA claims system.
But as VA’s community care efforts have grown, so has our capacity to deliver care in-house. The VA budget is nearly four times
what it was in 2001. Since then, the department’s workforce has grown
some 224,000 employees in 2001 to more than 370,000 today, according to
the Office of Personnel Management. And we’re delivering 3 million more appointments
at VA facilities per year than we were in 2014.
In other words, community care or private capacity and VA’s
internal capacity are not mutually exclusive. We are ramping up both
simultaneously in order to meet the health care needs of the veterans we
are charged with serving. Our fiscal 2018 budget continues this trend.
It will spend $2.7 billion more for in-house VA care, compared to a $965
million increase for community care. This means that the total dollar
increase for medical care within VA is three times that of the increase
for community care. Overall, when all funding sources are taken into
account, we expect to spend $50 billion on health care services within
VA and $12.6 billion on VA community care in fiscal 2018.
Even though these numbers make it abundantly clear VA is not at all
headed toward privatization, I understand the underlying concerns of
some critics. They don’t want to lose all that VA has to offer. I don’t
either — and we won’t.
Many of VA’s services cannot be replicated in the private sector.
In addition to providing some of the best quality overall health care in
the country, VA delivers world class services
polytrauma, spinal cord injury and rehabilitation, prosthetics and
orthotics, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress treatments and
other behavioral health programs. The department plays a critical role
in preparing our nation’s doctors and nurses — 70% of whom train
at VA facilities. And we lead the nation in innovation, with VA research having contributed
the first liver transplant, development of the cardiac pacemaker,
advancements in treatments for PTSD, cutting-edge prosthetics, and many
other medical breakthroughs.
All of these factors underscore that fears of privatization are simply unfounded. President Trump is dedicated
maintaining a strong VA, and we will not allow VA to be privatized on
our watch. What we do want is a VA system that is even stronger and
better than it is today. To achieve that goal, VA needs a strong and
robust community care program.
Veterans deserve the best. If a VA facility isn’t meeting the
community standard for care, doesn’t offer a specific service, or
doesn't have an appointment available when it's needed, veterans should
have access to care in their community.
This is precisely what they have earned and deserve. It's what the
VA is working with Congress and Veterans Service Organizations to
deliver. And it's what the system needs to remain a valuable resource
for our country’s great veterans, now and in the future.
David J. Shulkin, M.D. is the ninth Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
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WASHINGTON — Senate Armed Services
Committee Chairman John McCain on Tuesday painted a dire picture of his
relationship with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and National Security
Advisor H.R. McMaster, saying it’s worse than it was with Obama-era
Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
“I had a better working relationship,
back and forth, with Ash Carter than I do with an old friend of 20
years,” McCain said, referring to Mattis. He added that he has
considered both Mattis and McMaster “friends of mine for many years.”
As McCain has waged a public battle
with cancer, his penchant for asserting the Senate’s powers to check and
balance the executive branch has only grown. On Tuesday, McCain implied
national security officials have seen his committee as a rubber stamp,
and he is using his seat’s powerful levers to conduct oversight.
“I think they had this idea, once that
Trump won, that we are a unicameral government,” said McCain, R-Arizona,
“and we have to do what we have to do.”
The Carter comparison says something,
as Obama was McCain’s frequent foil. In Obama’s final year in office,
McCain jousted with Carter and the administration over the defense
budget, his reform efforts and his slow-rolling of DoD nominees. At one
point, McCain vented over a frayed relationship between Congress and the
Pentagon’s civilian leadership when Carter denied McCain a courtesy
preview of the 2017 Pentagon budget.
It has appeared there might be a thaw
in the senator’s relationship with the Pentagon. McCain said he was
receiving information from Mattis about his strategy for Afghanistan and
the Islamic State fight—and that he would not block a handful of
Pentagon nominees from Senate floor votes.
On the other hand, McCain was in a war
of words with the commander in chief. While accepting the Liberty Medal
in Philadelphia Monday night, McCain warned the United States against
turning toward “half-baked, spurious nationalism” — widely read as a
repudiation of Trump.
Trump responded in a radio interview
Tuesday, “I’m being very, very nice. But at some point I fight back, and
it won’t be pretty.”
Still, McCain told reporters, “I’m not
interested in confronting the president, I’m interested in working with
the president.” When a reporter asked whether the relationship was so
bad that McCain would not support anything Trump approaches him with,
McCain took it as a suggestion he would shirk his responsibilities and
“Why would you ask something that dumb,
eh?” McCain said. “My job as a United States senator from Arizona —
which I was just re-elected to — you mean that I would somehow behave in
a way that I would block everything because of some personal
disagreement? That’s a dumb question.”
Earlier this month, McCain said he
would refuse to advance Trump’s nominees to the Pentagon until he is
satisfied the administration is communicating its plans for the wars in
Afghanistan and Iraq. As SASC chairman, he sets the schedule for DoD
nomination hearings and as a senator, he may request a hold on any
It’s been nearly two months since Trump
announced a new strategy, criticized for its vagueness, that involves
sending more U.S. troops to advise the Afghan military. The Defense
Department has acknowledged that it has 11,000 forces on the ground,
more than the 8,500 previously reported, and that it plans to send an
On Tuesday, McCain told reporters he
expects to receive soon some answers to questions on strategy and
tactics that he has been waiting months to get. But he would not commit
to advancing Trump’s picks through his committee until he has the
information he’s been seeking in hand.
The Senate’s 79-19 confirmation Tuesday
of David Trachtenberg, Trump’s choice for a deputy Pentagon post
focused on defense policy, came about seven months after the nomination
was announced. McCain said he did not block it because he was “partially
satisfied with their commitment to provide us with answers to the
Of Trachtenberg, who has experience in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, McCain said, “I think he’s qualified.”
The SASC’s top Democrat, Rhode Island
Sen. Jack Reed, said the way looks clear for other DoD nominees awaiting
Senate votes, since the Senate is done with health care reform. John Gibson,
the deputy chief management officer pick, Navy general counsel nominee
Charles Stimson, and Owen West, Trump’s choice for assistant defense
secretary, have ― like Trachtenberg ― been waiting since July.
Reed was supportive of McCain’s
delaying actions as “the prerogative of the chairman” to pursue details
about Afghanistan, Iraq and North Korea, saying, “I would suggest not
only for Sen. McCain’s benefit, but the public’s benefit, that it be
McCain’s frustration is, in part,
rooted in fears the administration is unprepared to deal with the
aftermath, should the Islamic State be defeated, highlighted by news
Tuesday that U.S.-backed Syrian rebels have claimed to have taken Raqqa,
the de facto capital of ISIS’ so-called caliphate..
“Again, we will not sit by without
having a complete understanding of what is going on,” McCain said.
“Raqqa just fell. Who’s going to take over? The Iranians are there, the
Shiites. The whole situation is in chaos, as we predicted.”
Still, McCain said the committee is
working with the administration on “a whole lot of other issues,”
including the massive 2018 defense authorization bill. The House and
Senate, as of Tuesday, are due to go to conference to reconcile their
versions of the bill.
As US-backed forces take victory laps
in the Islamic State’s (IS) self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa, the
Pentagon is considering extending its presence deeper into Syria, a move
that could bring US troops into contact with pro-regime forces.
Col. Ryan Dillon, a
spokesman for the US-led mission fighting the terror group, told
reporters that the international coalition is in talks with Syrian Democratic Forces
(SDF) commanders about continuing the campaign into IS-held areas along
the Euphrates River following today’s victory in Raqqa. He said the
more than 600 US troops currently training and assisting the SDF won’t
be staying in Syria “indefinitely,” but acknowledged that “there still
is fighting that is left to be done.”
For now that fighting is
taking SDF units straight to Deir ez-Zor, where an alliance of soldiers
loyal to Bashar al-Assad, Russian troops and Iran-backed Shiite troops
are trying to grapple territory back from IS and anti-regime rebels. And
while the Pentagon is considering extending
de-confliction agreements with Russia to cover a wider swath of Syria,
former US officials say it will be difficult for the US military to
avoid getting enmeshed in the politics of the wider war.
“You don’t want to deploy
US forces willy-nilly and find them in the middle of conflict,” Robert
Ford, a former US ambassador to Syria, told Al-Monitor. “It’s kind of a
mission creep beyond going to get [IS]. They’re going to have to be
dealing — as much as they don’t want to — with the politics of the
Syrian civil war. It’s just unavoidable now.”
Dillon said the US-led
coalition hasn’t heard anything from Russian forces about President
Bashar al-Assad ending his tacit consent of the US troop presence in his
country. After weakly protesting the US military operation as
illegitimate and illegal since the beginning of Operation Inherent
Resolve in 2014, however, the Syrian leader can be expected to make an
increasingly forceful case as IS is eradicated. The US-led mission in
Iraq and Syria ordered by then-President Barack Obama began three years
"They’re going to have to
be dealing — as much as they don’t want to — with the politics of the
Syrian civil war. It’s just unavoidable now."
Pro-regime troops and US
forces have already been coming into closer contact over the past few
months; indeed, the United States shot down
a Syrian drone and a Syrian Su-22 fighter jet
toward US-backed rebels in June. Still, US and Russian officials have
maintained communication through a de-confliction line that extends from
Al-Udeid air base in Qatar to Moscow’s command posts in Syria.
The potential for
conflict grows as the United States shifts its focus from IS to other
foes, notably Iran and its proxies. During a gaggle with reporters on
the way to US Central Command on Friday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis
said the Pentagon is “not changing” US military posture in Iraq and
Syria from a counter-IS to a counter-Iran mission, but added that
American officials “watch for Iran's destabilizing movements and
Yet the complexity of
southern Syria, which some analysts worry could fall under Iranian
control as a way for the Islamic Republic to solidify gains in the
region, may incentivize the US to look toward rejiggering the anti-IS
“Iran is looking to
solidify logistical supply lines across Syria and Iraq,” said Melissa
Dalton, a former Pentagon official and now a senior fellow at the Center
for Strategic and International Studies. “It certainly benefits Iran to
try and build some connectivity between the Shia militias it supported
in Iraq and Syria. There’s that added incentive for Assad to solidify
those gains even if there’s some intersection with US forces countering
With the United States
looking down the contested Euphrates River Valley as a possible battle
space, there’s a question of whether the American troops in the country
or US-trained forces "can be transformed into a presence against Iran,”
The Kurdish elements of
the SDF may also increase the risk of conflict with the regime as they
close in on the eastern side of the Euphrates River Valley, the site of
Syria’s most important oil field. Meanwhile, Assad’s government retains
formal claim to the Syrian Kurdish city of Qamishli, the site of another
important oil field.
“It’s very difficult for
Assad’s government to live comfortably alongside regions that aspire to
an autonomous status and can thumb their noses at Damascus,” Ford said.
“I see no sign that the government is more willing to employ reforms
than they were before. As [IS] recedes, the likelihood of conflict
between the Syrian government and other Syrian entities increases.”
And it remains unclear if
the United States and Russia will agree to an extended dividing line in
the region, especially if US troops pursue a broader mission, such as
stalling Iranian gains. Experts also worry that it could exhaust
extended special forces operators that have been committed more broadly
around the world in recent years as train-and-equip missions expand.
“How much risk is the
United States willing to expose its forces to on the ground?” Dalton
said. “Iranian forces haven’t hesitated to kill and maim US forces
The Pentagon has also
faced heat from Congress. Earlier this month, Senate Armed Services
Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., refused to move ahead with
confirmation hearings for Pentagon nominees until Mattis provided more
details on the Donald Trump administration’s strategy in Iraq and
Afghanistan. While McCain has backed off of that threat, it’s not clear
Congress is happy with US strategy in Syria after the Raqqa campaign.
"For far too long, the
United States has approached the Middle East through the narrow vantage
point of counterterrorism,” McCain said in a statement today. “What we
need instead is a comprehensive strategy that takes all regional factors
into account — a clear articulation of our interests and the ways and
means we intend to secure them. The absence of such a strategy is
acutely felt even as we celebrate this important success."