National Guard Leaders Accused of Ignoring Sexual Assault Incidents.

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After a meeting  with the commander of the National Guard Bureau regarding last week’s scathing report of misconduct in the Alaska Army National Guard, U.S. Senator Mark Begich said he will introduce a bill to strengthen the Guard’s response to accusations of sexual assault and misconduct.

“Like many Alaskans, I was disgusted to learn that accusations of sexual assault and reports of retaliation, among other complaints, languished unanswered for years in the Alaska National Guard chain of command.  It appears the safeguards in place were nothing more than letting the fox guard the henhouse,” said Begich. “The National Guard Bureau should have done a deep dive on these issues right away rather than waiting years.  I am working on federal legislation to put some more teeth and transparency into the investigation process, and to ensure complaints are investigated promptly and effectively.  I also believe the Guard should provide more transparency and information to Congress and the American people about the status of sexual assault investigations and the response efforts at the state level.  There’s no silver bullet, but it’s clear we need to improve how this is handled in the future.”

Begich decided to craft the legislation in the aftermath of an alarming report from the National Guard Bureau Office of Complex Investigations that cited more than 200 cases of discrimination and sexual harassment over the last year alone.  In addition the report found a culture of tolerance for wrong-doing spanning many years. 

Begich expressed frustration that it took three investigations to confirm allegations of misconduct. The first investigation, requested by Begich in 2012 based on complaints received in 2011, as well as a second investigation, did not produce significant findings.   Begich maintains the earlier efforts were inadequate in their investigation of these grave accusations.

Begich met with General Frank Grass, Chief of the National Guard Bureau, today to receive an overview of the OCI process, to discuss why it took so long to resolve these matters, and potential steps to prevent future instances.  Begich received assurance from Grass that recommendations in the report will be implemented.

“It took a lot of persistence, and several years, to get to the bottom of the accusations.  During that time, victims were subjected to discrimination and a hostile work environment that sometimes made them fear for their careers and even their safety,” said Begich. “I’m doing all I can to make sure we protect National Guard members from being put in this position again.”

Background

Included in the OCI report findings:

  • Respondents to the OCI Survey revealed 200 incidents of perceived discrimination and sexual harassment during the past 12 months;
  • 35 percent of survey responded stated they would not report discrimination based on fear of reprisal;
  • Substantiated complaints made against one officer resulted in no administrative action;
  • The current AKNG’s Sexual Assault Prevention Response Program is well organized but lacks the trust of victims due to their lack of confidence in command.

The team found a clear lapse in appropriate military victim services prior to 2012. There were several instances where victim complaints were not properly documented, victims did not receive accurate information regarding their reporting options, victims were not referred to victim advocates, confidentiality was not provided, and in some cases the victims were ostracized by their leaders, peers and units.

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Government Whistle Blowers Still Being Punished, not Praised.

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Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa today made the following comment on the announcement that theU.S. Office of Special Counsel is investigating allegations of whistleblower reprisal from 37 Department of Veterans Affairs employees over disclosing improper scheduling practices and other threats to patient care.   Grassley is a long-time advocate for whistleblowers who expose government waste, fraud and abuse.

 

“It’s important that the Office of Special Counsel is fulfilling its role here.  Whistleblowers are usually at the heart of exposing a major scandal.  They ought to be celebrated, not punished, for acting in the public interest.”

 

The announcement from the Office of Special Counsel is available here.

Veterans to Receive Better Benefits Faster.

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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Grassley Joins Legislation to Give Veterans More Health Care Options

WASHINGTON – Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa is an original co-sponsor of legislation introduced today to give veterans more choice and flexibility in health care and increase accountability and transparency at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

“No veteran should have to wait for weeks and months for care,” Grassley said. “This legislation would give veterans more options for seeing a doctor if the local VA facility is unable to help them.   Giving them more choices is a good remedy.  It’s a principle that works with any kind of health care, whether it’s the VA, Medicare or private health insurance.”

The legislation also includes provisions Grassley supports to make it easier to fire senior VA employees over poor performance.

The Veterans Choice Act addresses problems identified at the VA, including systemic scheduling problems and chronically long average wait times for veterans seeking both primary care and specialty treatment.

The Veterans Choice Act:

Provides veterans’ flexibility and choice in medical providers:

–All veterans enrolled for care at VA will receive a Choice Card to allow them to receive care from a non-VA provider in cases where VA care is not readily available.

–If the VA cannot schedule an appointment for a veteran within its wait time performance metrics or the veteran resides more than 40 miles from any VA medical center (VAMC) or Community Based Outpatient Clinic (CBOC), then the veteran can exercise his or her choice to receive care from the doctor or provider of their choice.

–Requires VA to abide by the Department of Treasury’s Prompt Pay rule; to contract using Medicare prices; and any co-pay a veteran would pay goes to the VA.

–Authorized for two years following VA’s implementation of the program.

Increases transparency in VA operations:

–Directs VA to publish on each VA medical center (VAMC) website the current wait time for an appointment, current wait-time goals, and to improve their “Our Providers” link to include where a provider completed their residency and whether the provider is in residency.

–Directs VA to establish a publicly-available database of patient safety, quality of care, and outcome measures.

–Directs VA to report to the Department of Health and Human Services the same patient quality and outcome information as other non-VA hospitals.

–Directs Veterans Health Administration to provide veterans with the credentials of a provider prior to surgery.

Tightens accountability from VA operations:

–Provides the VA Secretary the authority to demote or fire Senior Executive Service employees based on performance. (Includes the VA Management Accountability Act H.R. 4031/S. 2013, passed by 390-33 in the House of Representatives)

–Removes scheduling and wait time metrics/goals as factors to determine performance monetary awards or bonuses.

–Directs VA to establish policy outlining penalties and procedures for employees who knowingly falsify data on wait times and quality measures, including civil penalties, unpaid suspensions, or termination.

–Directs VA to modify performance plans of the directors of VA medical centers (VAMC) and Veterans Integrated Service Networks (VISN) to ensure they are based on overall quality of care that veterans receive.

–Directs VA to consider reviews from the Joint Commission; the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities; IG Combined Assessment Program reviews, CBOC reviews, and Healthcare Inspections; and the number and outcomes of administrative investigation boards, root cause analysis, and peer reviews in assessing the performance of VAMC and VISN directors.

Iowa Senator Says of VA Officials in Hospital Scandal: “Throw the Bums Out!”

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Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa made the following comment on the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki over medical care wait times at veterans facilities.  Grassley has co-sponsored legislation that would make it easier to fire senior employees at the department for poor performance.  He also urged the Veterans Affairs secretary not to allow employees to be assigned to long periods of paid leave as a result of the scandal that, in effect, result in extended paid vacations.  When the allegations were first reported about the Veterans Affairs hospital in Phoenix, he called upon the inspector general to conduct a thorough nationwide review of the Veterans Affairs health care network.

“When problems in a department are widespread, the top leadership bears ultimate responsibility for the management shortcomings that let it happen.   But this can’t be the end of the story.  The problems will still be there after this resignation, and they need to be fixed.  Everyone in the department who was responsible should go.   The Senate should take up the Department of Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act that the House passed last week to help make that possible.   That legislation makes it easier to fire senior Veterans Affairs employees over poor performance.  I’m co-sponsoring the Senate companion bill.  Too often, a resignation at the top becomes an excuse for a president to abandon reforms and escape accountability.  This resignation doesn’t change anything.  It doesn’t give President Obama a free pass to move on.”

Veterans Are Dying to Get Into VA Hospitals — Literally!

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Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa today made the following comment on the interim report from the Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general on medical care wait times at veterans facilities.  Grassley has co-sponsored legislation that would make it easier to fire senior employees at the department for poor performance.  He also urged the Veterans Affairs secretary not to allow employees to be assigned to long periods of paid leave as a result of the scandal that, in effect, result in extended paid vacations.  When the allegations were first reported about the Veterans Affairs hospital in Phoenix, he called upon the inspector general to conduct a thorough nationwide review of the Veterans Affairs health care network.

The report is available here.

“Today’s report shows false wait times aren’t isolated.  The false wait times are systemic.  By any measure of common sense and human decency, putting the health and welfare of those injured while serving their country at risk by manipulating appointment records is unconscionable and unpatriotic.  The inspector general’s continued work is critical to learning whether the delays for treatment led to preventable deaths. When the inspector general completes his work, all responsible employees have to be held accountable for their actions at all levels of the VA.  The stakes are too high for anyone to duck accountability.”

Federal Employees Collect Full Salaries While On Furlough — Sometimes for Years!

"There's a taxpayer born every minute."  P.T. Barnum.
“There’s a taxpayer born every minute.” P.T. Barnum.

WASHINGTON – Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa asked the Veterans Affairs secretary for details of the number of employees on administrative leave over the veterans treatment scandal and policies on the length of paid administrative leave.

“The government is notoriously slow in resolving investigative matters,” Grassley said.  “That means a number of Veterans Affairs employees could end up on paid leave for an extended period of time.  It would add insult to injury for any wronged veterans to give employees who might have cooked the books at the VA extended paid vacations while the government sorts out the mess.  Leave policies should make sense and not be abused during prolonged internal investigations.”

The Government Accountability Office already is looking at the government’s use of administrative leave, including paid leave, at Grassley’s request.  Grassley asked for the inquiry after prior examples of extended paid leave.  The inspector general of the National Archives and Records Administration has been on paid administrative leave since Sept. 14, 2012, pending an investigation into allegations of professional misconduct.  Grassley once revealed an IRS employee who remained on the IRS payroll for three years without performing any work after a conviction for several felonies.   The IRS appeared to fire the employee only after notification from Grassley.

In the current Veterans Affairs scandal, several employees have been placed on leave following accusations of hiding the length of patient waiting lists.  One employee says she was put on unpaid leave in retaliation for refusing to go along with instructions to falsify waiting lists.  The number of employees on leave might increase if the scandal grows.

Hmong Veterans Honored for Aiding United States During Vietnam War.

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Begich Co-Sponsors Bill to Recognize Hmong War Heroes

Bipartisan Bill Would Allow Hmong Vets to be Buried in National Cemeteries

As a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and a steadfast advocate for veterans issues, U.S. Senator Mark Begich  welcomed the introduction of the Hmong Veterans’ Service Recognition Act, a bill he co-sponsored to give Hmong veterans the right to be buried in America’s national cemeteries.

“I work to make sure all veterans get the services and recognition they deserve,” said Begich.  “I co-sponsored an earlier version of this bill last year and am pleased that Senator Lisa Murkowski and I could work with a bipartisan group of our colleagues in the Senate and the House to make sure these brave war heroes get the respect and benefits they deserve.”

Sen. Begich welcomed members of the Hmong community today to his Senate offices in Washington D.C. to mark the historic occasion of the introduction of the Hmong Veterans’ Service Recognition Act.  Begich is pictured here with Alaskan Hmong veterans, Pastert Lee, President of Hmong Alaska Community, Inc., and Hmong veterans from around the country.

The bill will authorize internment in national cemeteries to Hmong veterans and includes burial rights for Hmong veterans who are naturalized citizens and who reside in the U.S. at the time of their death.  The Hmong Veterans’ Naturalization Act of 2000 already recognizes, in public law, the importance of the contributions of Hmong veterans during the Vietnam War. It also established a formal, documented pathway for Hmong veterans to become U.S. citizens as a result of their service.

Thousands of Hmong-Americans were killed or wounded in Laos during the Vietnam War. Hmong forces helped Americans forces in combat and flight operations, intelligence gathering, and the in the rescue of downed American pilots.

“With no fanfare, these Hmong troops had many unheralded accomplishments fighting for the United States in the most difficult conditions,” said Begich.  “Many a downed U.S. pilot returned to his family only through their efforts.  But for their interdiction on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, many more U.S. service members would have made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of this great nation.”