Scottsbluff Star-Herald. June 12, 2014.
Veterans: The men and women who serve our country deserve better
You should be able to judge a country by how well or how poorly it treats the men and women who risk their lives to defend it. Last Tuesday, the House of Representatives took steps to correct a major systemic problem, voting to allow patients enduring long waits for care at Veterans Affairs facilities to get VA-paid treatment from local doctors.
The 426-0 final vote sent a strong message that the House was unwilling to tolerate the book cooking at the VA. And there is also another bill addressing the same issue.
The separate Senate bill introduced this week includes several provisions not offered in the House measure to help the VHA keep up with demand. It would allow the agency to lease 26 new facilities for health care and dedicate $500 million toward hiring new VA medical staff.
The VA, the country's largest health care provider, serves almost 9 million veterans. The House bill would let veterans facing delayed appointments or living more than 40 miles from a VA facility to choose to get care from non-agency providers for the next two years.
More than 3,000 veterans live in Scotts Bluff County alone. They typically use one of three VA hospitals in the region — Cheyenne, Hot Springs or Fort Meade. It takes 100 miles to drive to Cheyenne and 150 to Hot Springs. For our older vets, this can be a major obstacle. For example, the hospital in Hot Springs no longer offers colonoscopies so veterans have to go to Fort Meade, which is 227 miles from here. That's a long drive home for an aging vet, three hours or more in the car, after having that procedure.
On top of that, the already beleaguered hospital in Cheyenne might soon be the only nearby option. A proposal to close the Hot Springs facility is pending approval following a public comment period.
The Senate bill is a response to an outcry over veterans' health care following allegations that surfaced in April that as many as 40 veterans may have died while waiting an average 115 days for appointments at the Phoenix VA hospital or its walk-in clinics. This is an outrage.
The Associated Press reported that the average wait time for new patients seeking a primary care doctor at the VA Center in Cheyenne is more than 32 days — more than twice the limit the Department of Veterans Affairs had set as a goal, according to a report released Monday by the agency. There's no reason our vets should have to wait that long to get care. They should be able to get it close to home and get it immediately.
On Monday, the VA released an internal audit showing more than 57,000 new patients had to wait at least three months for initial appointments. It also found that over the past decade, nearly 64,000 newly enrolled veterans requesting appointments never got them, though it was unclear how many still wanted VA care.
By many accounts, this has been going on for years. Our government leaders should be deeply ashamed of how they have treated our servicemen and women. They deserve better.
Lincoln Journal Star. June 15, 2014.
Sloppy way to run government
It's general knowledge that standards for policymaking in Congress have sunk to abysmal lows.
The executive branch of government isn't doing much to set a better example.
The most recent case in point was President Barack Obama's plan for helping college students struggling to repay their debt.
Obama used his presumed executive authority to expand an existing program that eases the repayment burden for college student loans.
That's not such a shocking idea — the program Obama expanded was signed into law by President George W. Bush. And students definitely could use some help in repaying loans in an economy that has yet to raise wage levels.
What is disconcerting is the sloppy way the administration implemented the change. "We don't actually know the costs yet," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. "We'll figure that out on the back end."
Is that any way to run the government?
The amount of outstanding student loans soared past the trillion-dollar mark several years ago, an amount greater than either credit card debt or auto loan debt.
In Nebraska, the average student owes $26,473 at graduation, according to the Project on Student Debt.
The default rate for college loans is higher than for credit cards or other types of debt, despite the fact that not even declaring bankruptcy will erase a student loan. Currently, almost 15 percent of college students default on their loans within three years of entering repayment.
The Pay as You Earn program expanded by Obama could help an additional 5 million students by requiring them to pay no more than 10 percent of their monthly income to student loans. After 20 years, the remainder of the loan would be forgiven.
The program could help a student with $55,000 in debt reduce the payment from $541 a month under a traditional 10-year schedule to $146, assuming an income of $35,000 a year, under the Pay as You Earn plan, according to "The Student Loan Ranger" blog.
It's no secret that salary levels in some fields are so low that it would take half a lifetime or more to repay a college loan.
Good advice for any college student taking out a loan is thinking ahead to how they can repay it.
That's the adult, responsible way to make these decisions.
Now we just need to get federal officials to take that advice, as the national debt climbs past $17.5 trillion.
Omaha World-Herald. June 14, 2014.
Positive news for the Ponca
The Ponca people, Chief Standing Bear famously told the U.S. District Court in Omaha in 1879, are the same as any people, sharing mankind's potential and frailties.
"That hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain," Standing Bear told Judge Elmer Dundy. "If you pierce your hand, you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be the same color as yours. I am a man. God made us both."
The principle is as relevant in the 21st century as it was in the 19th. Today, one of the common needs in Nebraska is having professionally run programs to help those suffering from depression or an addiction to alcohol. To paraphrase Standing Bear's words, mental illness can weigh on a Ponca woman, or alcohol dependency can afflict a Ponca man, as heavily as it does a white person.
There is encouraging news: Jay Eason, who oversees behavioral health services for the Ponca Tribe, has received one of the top honors from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services for his dedicated, visionary service.
Recipient of this year's Director Award for outstanding individual service, Eason won praise for his professionalism, hard work and the strong working relationships he has developed with state agencies and nonprofits.
Eason's enthusiasm for his work shines through, as does his emphasis that the progress his organization has made stems from a team effort and colleagues with a heartfelt dedication "to help the lost refind themselves."
The Ponca and other Native American peoples "are very courageous," Eason said. "They have a beautiful culture. They've shown fortitude and resilience in all that they've gone through."
The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska operates offices in five locations — Omaha, Lincoln, Norfolk, Niobrara and Sioux City, Iowa — to address medical needs, behavioral health, social services, dental needs and transportation.
"By the time a person seeks treatment," Eason says of the behavioral health needs, "the disease or illness is often very progressed — jobs have been lost, families are in disarray if not broken altogether, housing has been lost, and all hope of having a future has all but vanished."
That is the point when Eason and his team most often are approached to provide support and counseling. Challenging work, indeed.
Behavioral health services throughout the country tend to struggle for adequate budgetary support from state and federal sources, and the same is true of the Ponca's efforts. "It's like trying to build a 10-story building with enough material for only five stories," Eason says.
Most of the clients his organization helps are indigent, he notes, and when state and federal funds run out, the tribe itself steps up to help.
The use of culturally relevant programs and materials has proved crucial, Eason explains. One example is the "talking circle" sessions used for group counseling sessions in Omaha and Lincoln. The sessions are well attended and constructive.
The Ponca are fortunate to have professionals with the dedication of Eason and his colleagues to address problems of health and mental well-being that are common to all peoples. He sums up the mission with a fitting image: "Plants and trees produce their best when they're nurtured and watered. It's much the same for people."
That message clearly inspires Eason and his colleagues as they pursue their important work.
Kearney Hub. June 14, 2014.
Cantor can blame only himself for big upset
For a political newcomer like David Brat to knock off an established Washington politician like Eric Cantor is remarkable. Even more remarkable than a neophyte winning a primary election is how a veteran of politics would allow that to happen. In his concession speech, Cantor couldn't bring himself to congratulate Brat, but the GOP establishment politician has nobody but himself to blame for the loss.
Although Brat, an economics professor, hardly had devised a campaign strategy other than to hammer Cantor for his willingness to pursue immigration reform, the newcomer out-hustled Cantor by going door-to-door and appearing before small groups. This so-called retail campaigning is challenging because politicians can meet only a few voters at a time, compared to TV ads that splash their name and face onto thousands of television screens.
So, while Brat was out beating the bushes for votes, Cantor sat smugly on his prior success and status as a big name in Republican politics. He didn't work as hard as his opponent, and in an election in which the rainy day turnout was exceedingly weak, Cantor came up short.
The first lesson that politicians can derive from the Cantor upset, is that every voter is important. Brat worked hard, made personal impressions with voters, and they turned out on election day. Cantor's more casual approach could only fail.
The other lesson is that although Brat out-hustled Cantor, the underdog hardly fought a polished campaign. He still has not devised his positions on a wide array of issues, but he shrewdly selected immigration reform as a topic that would command voters' attention and take advantage of the prevailing conservative attitudes in Virginia's 7th Congressional District.
Polls show the majority of Americans — about 60 percent — favor immigration reform, but in Virginia's conservative 7th Congressional District, Brat's hard line tea party stance was his ticket to victory and a pink slip for Cantor, who has been denied a fifth term in the House.
Interestingly, Brat's Democratic general election opponent, Jack Trammell, also is a professor. He teaches sociology, and he and Brat once played on the same faculty basketball team. Now they are rivals in what will be one of the nation's closely watched elections this fall.