|March 5, 2007|
||The Walter Reed Pattern|
||Go Beyond The Headlines|
||Coffee and Donuts Not Included|
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In today’s Washington Post, we learn the story of Army Spec. Roberto Reyes Jr., who “lies nearly immobile and unable to talk” in his hospital bed. “Once a strapping member of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry, Reyes got too close to an improvised explosive device in Iraq.” His mother and his aunt are “constant bedside companions; Reyes, 25, likes for them to get two inches from his face, so he can pull on their noses with the few fingers he can still control.” But his family complains about his medical care. “They fight over who’s going to have to give him a bath — in front of him!” his aunt said. “Reyes suffered third-degree burns on his leg when a nurse left him in a shower unattended. He was unable to move himself away from the scalding water.” Perhaps surprisingly, these horror stories are not from Walter Reed hospital, but the VA Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y. They are evidence not of a few tragic isolated problems, but of systemic neglect that has nearly crippled the U.S. veterans’ health system. “I’ve…written the same story from Fort Stewart, Georgia. I’ve written the same story at Fort Knox,” says journalist Mark Benjamin, who first reported on the neglect and deplorable conditions at Walter Reed two years ago. Likewise, the problems that led to this crisis are also systemic. “For all its cries of ‘support the troops,'” columnist Paul Krugman writes today, “the Bush administration has treated veterans’ medical care the same way it treats everything else: nickel-and-diming the needy, protecting the incompetent and privatizing everything it can.”
THE FUNDING: Asked on Friday to name one question she would like to ask senior Pentagon officials, Washington Post reporter Dana Priest (whose four-month investigation helped expose this story) said, “The root of so much that we cover is money. And the question is, why isn’t this funded to the extent that it needs to be funded?” Indeed, money is at the root of the problems exposed at Walter Reed. Though the administration “uses carefully cooked numbers to pretend that it has been generous to veterans,” Bush’s budget tells the real story. Despite a dramatic increase in demand on the Veterans Administration (VA) from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, federal spending on veterans’ medical care since 2001 has “actually lagged behind overall national health spending.” Veterans are now charged for formerly free services, including hundreds of dollars each month for food, so the VA can save money. The VA has a backlog of 400,000 benefit claims, including many concerning mental health. More important, two months before the invasion of Iraq, the Veterans Health Administration, “which previously offered care to all veterans, introduced severe new restrictions on who is entitled to enroll in its health care system.” Even as the wars rage on, Bush’s budget this year assumes consecutive cutbacks to veterans’ health care in 2009 and 2010 and a freeze thereafter. Nevertheless, in 2005, David Chu, the Pentagon’s undersecretary for personnel and readiness, told the Wall Street Journal that veterans’ health costs had “gotten to the point where they are hurtful [to] the nation’s ability to defend itself.”
THE INCOMPETENCE: The scandal of Walter Reed is also one of failed leadership, and the resignations last week of Army Secretary Francis Harvey and hospital chief Maj. Gen. George Weightman have not ended “concerns that the military leadership had forgotten the basic mission of taking care of the troops.” Other senior officials must be held accountable. Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, who oversaw Walter Reed until 2004, remains surgeon general of the Army, the top medical official, despite reports that Kiley has known for years about the neglect and deplorable conditions at Walter Reed. Kiley was personally told about injured veterans who were “languishing and lost on the grounds,” sharing drugs and “drinking themselves to death,” and reportedly did nothing to address the problems. (He was quoted yesterday calling the Washington Post’s Walter Reed investigation “yellow journalism at its worst“). In one stunning case, Kiley took no action when personally informed by the wife of Rep. Bill Young (R-FL) that a soldier was sleeping in his own urine. Another official that must come under the microscope is VA Secretary Jim Nicholson, who is “accused by some veterans and the organizations that represent them of being primarily a mouthpiece for the Bush administration and of being slow to respond to increasing strains on his agency.” Nicholson entered the position with far more experience in politics than in veterans policy. He served as chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1997 to 2000, “raising close to $380 million for the 2000 cycle.” In Bush’s first term, Nicholson was rewarded with the plush ambassadorship to the Vatican; after being selected to run the VA, he promptly ranked #4 in The New Republic’s list of “the 15 biggest Bush administration hacks.”
THE PRIVATIZATION: On Friday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee headed by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) released an internal memo from Sept. 2006 describing how the Army’s decision to privatize support services at Walter Reed was causing an exodus of “highly skilled and experienced personnel,” placing the entire hospital and its patient care services “at risk of mission failure.” In Jan. 2006, against the wishes of numerous progressive members of Congress, Walter Reed finalized a five-year, $120-million “cost-plus” contract to IAP Worldwide Services for hospital support services, including facilities management. IAP is led by Al Neffgen, a former senior Halliburton official who testified in 2004 “in defense of Halliburton’s exorbitant charges for fuel delivery and troop support in Iraq,” and former Vice President Dan Quayle serves on the board. IAP has “grown exponentially in recent years in part because of contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq“; in 2005, it received a contract to deliver desperately-needed ice to victims of Hurricane Katrina, but “millions of pounds of ice were sent to storage, some as far away as Maine.” As Waxman writes, “It would be reprehensible if the deplorable conditions were caused or aggravated by an ideological commitment to privatize government services regardless of the costs to taxpayers and the consequences for wounded soldiers.”
JUDICIARY — DOMENICI ADMITS TO CONTACTING OUSTED NEW MEXICO PROSECUTOR ABOUT CORRUPTION PROBE: In Dec. 2006, the Bush administration asked David Iglesias, the U.S. attorney in New Mexico, to resign. Iglesias lost his position despite having “received a positive evaluation last year” and the Justice Department saying his strategic plan had “complied with the department’s priorities.” Iglesias has not taken his firing lying down; he told the media “that two members of Congress attempted to pressure him to speed up a probe of Democrats just before the November elections.” “I believe that because I didn’t play ball, so to speak, I was asked to resign,” Iglesias said. Everyone in New Mexico’s congressional delegation denied contacting Inglesias, except for Rep. Heather Wilson (R-NM) and Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM). But over the weekend, Domenici admitted he had called Iglesias about the ongoing corruption probe, but said, “I have never pressured him nor threatened him in any way.” Iglesias has said the lawmakers who contacted him “appeared eager…for an indictment to be issued before the elections in order to benefit the Republicans.” Despite the glowing performance reviews Iglesias had received, Domenici contacted the Justice Department to express “general concerns about the performance” of Iglesias and question “whether he was up to the job.” Legal experts say Domenci’s actions may violate congressional ethics rules that prohibit lawmakers from communicating “with a federal prosecutor regarding an ongoing criminal investigation.” “It’s going to precipitate a huge problem.” said ethics lawyer Stanley Brand. Tomorrow, both the House and Senate will hold hearings about the U.S. attorney firings.
NATIONAL SECURITY — U.S. DESIGNS NEW NUCLEAR WARHEAD: Last week, the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the U.S. Navy announced they have settled on a design for a “new generation of atomic warheads.” Should the new design — dubbed the “Reliable Replacement Warhead” — go into production, it would be the first new nuclear weapon built by the United States since the end of the Cold War. The new weapon design, touted as “critical to sustaining long-term confidence in our nuclear deterrent,” is the result of the Bush administration’s 2001 Nuclear Posture Review and is a departure from the policies of previous administrations, which put stockpiles through a “life-extension process every 20 to 30 years.” The NNSA is expected to “define a cost schedule and a production plan” over the next 10 months, though the Bush administration has already included $88 million for the new weapon in the FY08 budget request and the program would require significant upgrades to the nation’s nuclear weapons production facilities. Rep. Peter J. Visclosky (D-IN), who chairs the subcommittee in charge of funds for upgrading the weapons production facilities, has criticized the Bush administration for failing to present a “clear, coherent national policy to justify the new warhead.” In addition, the previous chair of the same committee, Rep. David L. Hobson (R-OH), denied the administration’s request for funding for the development of a nuclear “bunker buster” weapon. Instead, he encouraged the creation of a program to upgrade the reliability of the nation’s current nuclear arsenal. As the Washington Post reports, “the Bush administration turned this into a program to develop a new nuclear warhead.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) is “100 percent opposed” to the production of the Reliable Replacement Weapon. She added, “you are essentially creating a new nuclear weapon. And it’s just a matter of time before other nations do the same thing.”
KATRINA — SCIENTISTS ESTIMATE LOUISIANA COASTLINE WILL DISAPPEAR IN 10 YEARS: In the wake of the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, many coastal scientists in Louisiana are warning that the Gulf of Mexico could creep up to New Orleans’s doorstep in as few as ten years. Wetlands and marshes that provided a natural barrier between the city of New Orleans and the nearby ocean have been devoured due to development of coastal areas primarily in the form of levees and canals for oil, gas, and shipping lines. This massive “land loss” in Louisiana has resulted in “the arrival of a tipping point in the coast’s demise,” where hundreds of square miles of wetland have been washed out to sea in recent decades and the entire coastal region could be swallowed in a decade unless action is taken. Scientists note that federal and state efforts to reverse this land loss have been largely ineffective. “The most disturbing concern may be this: coastal restoration efforts have been under way for two decades, but not a single project capable of reversing the trend currently awaits approval.” Last week, Bush toured the Gulf Coast region for the first time in six months. Even with the threat of the swelling coast line, Bush continues to underfund the levee system, crucial in preventing floods in New Orleans. With his new budget, Bush shifted $1.3 billion away from raising and armoring levees, installing flood gates, and building permanent water pumps. Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) told President Bush that “this vital emergency post-Katrina work is now being treated like typical [Army Corps of Engineers] projects that takes decades to complete.” But with a quickly receding coastline, New Orleans does not have decades to wait.
Middle-class Americans are increasingly unable to afford health insurance. “Today, more than one-third of the uninsured — 17 million of the nearly 47 million — have family incomes of $40,000 or more, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, a nonpartisan organization. More than two-thirds of the uninsured are in households with at least one full-time worker.”
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s national security panel and the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee will today hold hearings on the scandal at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
The Washington Post writes of conditions at military and VA hospitals: ‘It Is Just Not Walter Reed.’ The Department of Veterans Affairs, headed by former Republican National Committee director Jim Nicholson, is “likely to come under scrutiny at the hearings.” He has been accused by some veterans and the organizations that represent them of being primarily a mouthpiece for the Bush administration.
According to the U.S. Climate Action Report, the Bush administration “estimates that emissions by the United States of gases that contribute to global warming will grow nearly as fast through the next decade as they did the previous decade.” Climate change experts “described the projected emissions as unacceptable given the rising evidence of risks from unabated global warming.”
Afghan President Hamid Karzai “condemned U.S. troops for shooting dead 10 civilians at the weekend as officials said nine more — five women, four children and an old man — had been killed in an air strike.”
There is no Plan B in Iraq, according to a group of governors who last week met with Joint Chiefs chairman Peter Pace to discuss the options if Bush’s escalation plan doesn’t work. “I’m a Marine,” Pace reportedly said, “and Marines don’t talk about failure.” “Plan B was to make Plan A work,” Gov. Phil Bredesen (D-TN) recalled Pace telling the group.
“Iraq’s Interior Ministry has fired or reassigned more than 10,000 employees, including high-ranking police, who were found to have tortured prisoners, accepted bribes or had ties to militias. … A soon-to-be-released internal inquiry also details 41 incidents of human rights abuse at the ministry.”
Jurors in the Libby trial will resume deliberations this week. The jury will start by receiving a response from Judge Reggie Walton to a question they submitted on Friday. “Is it necessary for the government to present evidence that it is not humanly possible for someone not to recall an event in order to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt?” the jurors asked.
And finally: He may not be Oprah, but FBI Director Robert Mueller “has started a new bureau reading list to help his G-men broaden their horizons.” Some “gems” include: Public Enemies, by Bryan Burrough, about the birth of the FBI and Louis Gerstner’s Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? about IBM’s historic turnaround.